09/05/2014

SPINAL BREAKERS (ARCADE)

The subject of today's article is a game called Spinal Breakers. Man, that is one hell of a title. It sounds like the name you'd give to a set of ancient and extremely dangerous fairground rides, or a really bad wrestling tag-team. Traction and Paralysis, fighting for the intercontinental tag-team belt. Amazing. So, here it is: Video System's 1990 fixing-history-with-bullets-em-up Spinal Breakers!


Or Spinal Breakers starring Michael Biehn, if you like. That's our hero, just in case the military vest and massive gun didn't tip you off. His name is Captain Waffle. And I bet you thought "Spinal Breakers" was going to be the daftest name in this game.


Even the antagonists don't fare well on the naming front, because they're called Hildroids. This means my brain can't process them as anything other than a race of androids who are all called Hilda. Nothing wrong with Hilda as a name, mind. Anyway, the Hildroids are "living organisms developed by humans" that we use as slaves, because as a species we're good like that. Then nuclear war breaks out. The radiation causes the Hildroids to gain sentience and a sense of  (justified) anger at humanity, as well as allowing them to infect human and animal hosts. Are you still with me? Good, because things only get more nonsensical for there. For some reason - be it the nuclear war or Hildroid shenanigans - the Earth's axis changes, which somehow leads to time travel. The Hildroids travel into the past to wreak havoc, and only Captain Waffle, yes, Captain Waffle, can save the day by shooting every single Hildroid.


This Hildroid has fallen over and he can't get up, so he should be an easy target.


According to the game, the first stage takes place in Europe, and by Europe it quite clearly means somewhere in the Third Reich during World War II. Ah, the guilt-free pleasure of gunning down Nazis. Nazis infected with futuristic parasites, no less, a scenario which I'm sure has graced a great many videogames, comics and sci-fi novels.
Spinal Breakers is a simple game with simple gameplay, and that gameplay is of the crosshair shooter variety, or what is often described as a "Cabal clone" after Taito's 1988 game of that name. The player controls both Captain Waffle himself and the crosshair of his gun, with the goal being to shoot all the enemies while avoiding incoming fire - easier said than done when Waffle's sprite takes up such a substantial amount of the screen.


You can move left and right along the bottom of the screen to avoid bullets, but usually this isn't quick enough and you'll need to press the second button to roll across the floor. That's what Captain Waffle is about to do in the screenshot above. He hasn't been felled by the ankle-spraining menace of a Nazi agent camouflaged as a pebble or anything. Button number three launches the traditional screen-clearing bomb attack, assuming you have any left. The first button is, of course, fire. Hold the fire button to shoot and move the cursor while standing in place, let go of fire to move around. It's all very straightforward,so let's enjoy shooting all these Nazis.


Oh. I'm enjoying it less now that I've seen that "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign in the background. Shooting videogame Nazis is one thing, but doing it right outside Auschwitz? That's a bit much. I don't know if it's through a lack of education or real understanding of the history involved or what, but Japan seems to have less of a problem using Nazi iconography than us in the West would deem acceptable, and this looks to be a prime example. Let's move on to the boss, shall we?


That's more like it, a battle against a tank commanded a Hildroid who looks evil even for a Nazi. You shoot at the tank, the tank returns fire, you roll out of the way. It almost feels turn-based, this shoot-dodge-shoot-dodge battle, and there's nothing else to really mix it up. You can use your grenades on the tank, I suppose, but they don't do much extra damage and because it's such a big target you shouldn't have any trouble plinking away at it until it explodes.
Blowing the tank up leads to a whole mess of possible time paradoxes. Do the Hildroids disappear, allowing the Nazis to revert back to their original human form, or have I just killed every guard at Auschwitz, possibly changing the course of the Second World War? Hopefully standard paradox-ignoring time-travel rules apply, and as Captain Waffle isn't fading away into nothingness I think we're safe.


We've all felt it. It's nothing to be ashamed of, the primal and undeniable need for grenade launcher. Give in to that desire. Pull out several grenades. Go ahead, no-one's looking. There, do you feel better with those smooth, round canisters nestled between your fingers? I bet you do. Now get out there and shoot some ancient Chinese warriors.


I do hope that's not supposed to be the Great Wall in the background. That wall is serviceable at best.
Ancient China proves a more fearsome destination than Nazi-occupied Poland, despite the Chinese hurling wooden spears rather than a hail of fire from an MG42 machine gun. In the parlance of sports pundits everywhere, I guess the Chinese Hildroids just want it more. For Waffle to be dead, I mean. That's what they want.


Then there are these guys, who backflip towards you and... well, they don't do much of anything else, really. Backflipping isn't a good way to avoid bullets, that's what slowly rolling sideways is for. They did get through on a couple of occasions, but that was when I was using one of the "special" weapons. "Special" is in quotation marks because in this instance "special" means "a bit shit". Mostly indistinguishable from your basic rifle, the collectable weapons are a dull bunch aside from the shotgun-type gun, and that's only interesting because it's slow rate of fire means enemies can sneak through what would otherwise be a solid wall of hot lead. It's a poor showing for a game all about shooting things to have such a pointless and uninspiring selection of weaponry, and Waffle's arsenal is one several things that drag Spinal Breakers down.
Actually, while I'm talking about power-ups, you might notice that some of the background items are outlined in red. This means you can destroy them. Sometimes they have power-ups in them. Why are there grenades and health kits stuffed inside ancient Chinese stone lanterns? I have no idea, but it makes about as much sense as anything else in this game.


Firmly on the nonsensical side of things is the second stage's boss, a floating mystical man who has surrounded himself with fireballs. This is a power born from the Hildroid parasite, right? I'm sure humans can't actually do this. I think. That fact that actual humans made a videogame where a man called Captain Waffle travels back in time to shoot infected Nazis at the very gates of Auschwitz has left me questioning exactly what mankind can do as a species. It doesn't matter for this boss, though. Flying right up to me just makes him a bigger target, and fire isn't bullet-proof.


I cannot read the phrase "Waffle grabbed his Magnum Missile" without hearing Beavis and Butt-Head sniggering. A phrase rich in both innuendo and macho posturing, "grabbing your Magnum Missile" will surely become the go-to phrase for any man wanting to unsubtly announce that he will soon be touching his genitalia once this article reaches the masses.


Now I'm in prehistoric Russia, shooting cavemen and triceratopses. At least I assume it's prehistoric Russia. Russia's a big place, who knows what's going on in the unexplored tundra. The Triceratopses attack not by stabbing you with their horns, as you might expect, but by opening fleshy gill-like structures in their flanks from which plasma bolts are then launched. Video System was apparently staffed by nine-year-old boys with overactive imaginations.


These cavemen are literally chucking rocks at me, so how is this stage more difficult than those that preceded it? I have no idea. Maybe I've been distracted by all these Hildroided dinosaurs. Maybe the Russian cold is getting to me. All I know is that I have to regain some health. To do this, you can either add some more credits - Spinal Breakers doesn't have lives, just one health meter that increases every time you put a coin in the slot - or I could pick up some food.


Those are honest-to-god waffles. Part of me was still thinking that "Captain Waffle" was a name that sprang from some creative translation work, but no, those are definitely waffles and his name was intentional the whole time.


This is a short stage even by Spinal Breaker's meagre standards, and soon enough the boss waddles into view. You can't argue with a skeletal Tyrannosaurus Rex, now can you? I mean, you can try but he'll just eat you. You're much better off just filling it with bullets.


Well, endless figthing can get pretty tiring. Captain Waffle is taking a break to admire this sword. Where did the sword comes from? Was it crafted by a race of dinosaur blacksmiths? Does it have magical powers? Will I ever get to use it? I do not know the answers to any of these questions. Well, I know the answer to that last one and the answer is no, it's all guns all the time. Thanks, Pointless Sword. Your brief appearance has been an inspiration to us all.


Waffle's rampage continues in ancient Greece, and how does that saying go? "Beware of Greeks bearing spears, and also keep an eye on the ones riding elephants"?
While playing Spinal Breakers, I couldn't help but be reminded of two other crosshair shooters I've written about over the years - Riot and Shien's Revenge. Spinal Breakers shares the general air of insanity with Riot, as well as having an almost identical protagonist, while Shien's Revenge features a similar time-travel plot that includes several of the same historical periods such as ancient Greece and Nazi-occupied Europe. I reckon it's unlikely that either game took much inspiration from Spinal Breakers, because as far as I can tell this was fairly obscure title, but having played those games might go some way towards explaining why Spinal Breakers feels somewhat underwhelming: I've done all this before. Not that Spinal Breakers is making great leaps of originality, however; the most interesting thing about this particular stage is that there are a couple of pillars in the background that can sometimes protect enemies from your shots. When that's the level of innovation a game offers, it's perhaps understandable that its gameplay is struggling to hold my interest.


In an effort to slip in an obscure comic book reference, I'm going to say that the boss of this stage looks like Spiral. Six arms, knives, metal hat, I'd say that's a good match. The boss can block your bullets with her blades, but instead of blocking forever and letting her minions take Waffle out she repeatedly drops her guard for no real reason.
The more interesting part of the above screenshot is Captain Waffle's clone, a blue-skinned doppelgänger who serves as the P2 character. He's a blueberry waffle, if you will, and because I'm playing the game alone and I brought him in just to see what he looked like, he's also a stationary damage-sponge for the duration of this fight. Good work, soldier.


Next up is Egypt, although whether it's ancient or not I couldn't tell you because I'm inside a pyramid. It's very blue, for a pyramid, and also full of these squishy pink blobs. No resurrected mummies, no jackal-headed gods, just a vast swarm of angry, pre-chewed bubblegum. The true curse of the Pharaohs is a subtle sense of boredom, it seems.


All the goop gathers together to form a big goopy boss. There was a lack of coordination between the blobs as to who was responsible for creating which body part, and as a result too many blobs went into the shoulders and knees. If the fate of the Earth was to be decided by who has the largest shoulders then the Hildroids would have won here and now, but thanks to Captain Waffle and his Magnum Missile it's military hardware that wins the day and the boss isn't very good at not getting shot.


Between stages, Waffle gets in touch with his wife, Camille. So her name is Camille Waffle, then? I just wanted to see it written down. Camille asks if she can help, but instead of giving her a gun and asking her how good she is at rolling past the primitive weaponry of the Earth's ancient peoples, Waffle asks his wife to dig up any information she can find on Hildroid disasters while he travels to samurai-era Japan. As far as I'm aware there has only been one Hildroid disaster and Waffle is currently shooting his way through it, so Camille shouldn't have much to do.


Feudal Japan, then. Samurai. Ninjas. Flat, featureless brown backgrounds so uninteresting I regret ever mocking that wall in the China stage. What I wouldn't give for a wall now, anything to break up the tedium. The samurai have bows and arrows, so their pointy wooden sticks show slightly more technological advancement than all the other pointy wooden sticks I've been avoiding in the earlier stages. The ninjas look cool, and so do the samurai to be fair, but not cool enough to make up for what amounts to a ninety-second sideways crab-walk through a gravel pit, shooting at enemies who seem as disinterested in the whole affair as I am.


There are still some nuggets of entertainment to be mined from Spinal Breakers. It's not often you get to fight a mechanical samurai flasher with a banana glued to his head, for starters. This guy's the boss. You can tell, because the man with the biggest, yellowest banana attached to his helmet is always the leader. They say Alexander the Great's helmet banana was twelve feet long and as yellow as the sun.


Once Japan has been purged of the Hildroid menace, Camille reveals the shocking truth to Waffle: the Hildroids were behind the nuclear attacks that started this menace. Hang on, how is that possible? The intro definitely says that the Hildroids became sentient and hostile due to the radiation from the nuclear bombs, and that the bombs also changed the Earth's axis in such a way to make time-travel possible because that's how time works, apparently. So they couldn't have gone back in time and started the nuclear attacks, because before that they were docile and time-travel wasn't possible. This is why you should avoid stories predicated on time-travel: unless the Hildroids spontaneously became evil and nuked the Earth - something that the game doesn't imply, as far as I can tell - Spinal Breakers' story is in danger of disappearing up it's own paradox.
However this all got started, by helpful coincidence the Earth's axis has at this very moment aligned in such a way that allows Captain Waffle to travel back to just before the Hildroids launch the nuke, allowing him to stop this madness before it even happens and render the bloodshed of the previous stages completely unnecessary.


It's the final stage, and deep in an American missile silo, Waffle fights to save the world as the Hildroid-infected US army tried to stop him. As you'd expect from the final stage the enemies come thick and fast, but mostly thick - standing out in the open, hoping their sheer numbers will outweigh Waffle's resolve to plod sideways and shoot things.
Spinal Breakers has become something of a chore by this point, the extremely brief duration of the stages and the occasional screen-clearing grenade being the only reason that carrying on is an option. To go back to Riot and Shien's Revenge for a moment, they're both basically the same game as Spinal Breakers but they also have something extra - the overwhelmingly bizarre atmosphere and two-plane shooting of Riot, melee attacks and the ability to block in Shien's Revenge - that Spinal Breakers simply doesn't bother with. Every stage is the same: only the paintwork and the amount of Hildroid goons changes, and sadly it's not quite enough to keep the game engaging.


Whether the final boss is the true form of the Hildroids or something that was being hidden in this military base after the Umbrella Corporation deemed it "too ugly" is unknown. What I do know is that it just sort of sits there and shoots at you, like a fleshy machine-gun nest and what the hell is that?


Hiding amongst the boss' tentacles is this weird little doll-thing. It seems happy enough to be encased in the biomechanical terror of the Hildroid leader, unless... that is the true Hildroid leader. Yeah, that's got to be it. Their leader looks like a rag doll that's been dug up after a couple of months in a landfill site. I'd say something about this being a similar situation to Britain and David Cameron, but he's far too pink and fleshy to look like a rag doll.


With the Hildroid beast defeated, Captain Waffle puts and end to the evil machinations of his enemies by executing a lone Hildroid operating the nuclear missile's control panel. Nuclear destruction is averted, and Waffle can return home to his wife. Unless he can't, because the nuclear explosions are what enabled time-travel in the first place, and without the bombs being dropped he's going to have a lot of explaining to do when the rest of the US army turn up at this base to find what the he'll been going on.


Oh good, Waffle can make it back to the space station, but the lack of a reply from his wife or daughter - oh, Waffle has a daughter, by the way, who knew? - is ominous.


They've been infected by the Hildroids! Hildroid infection may turn you into a mindless killing machine willing to slaughter those you once loved without remorse, but look at that vascularity! Bodybuilders take note, becoming a Hildroid will get you ripped.
Waffle is understandably shocked by this. The screen fades to black. Two gunshots ring out. There's a pause. Another gunshot. Bloody hell, that's not the ending I was expecting. It was a bad ending, you could say. Let's try a more cheerful one, shall we?


That's more like it - in the good ending, the world is saved, Captain Waffle is reunited with his loving family and, judging by their outfits, they've managed to find a really good stain-removing laundry detergent out here in the depths of spaces.
There's also a third ending in which Waffle is the one who succumbs to the Hildroidization process, but I'm not clear on how to trigger it so you'll just have to imagine what it looks like.


Probably a bit like this, but with red eyes and more bulging veins. Many, many more veins. I'm going to declare the good ending "canon," because Captain Waffle later appeared in Video System's shoot-em-up series Sonic Wings / Aero Fighters. That's the one with a dolphin in a flying cap as one of the pilots. I think Waffle will fit right in.


For all its faults - the lack of variation, the simplicity of the gameplay, the pointless power-ups - I'd still recommend you give Spinal Breakers a go. I'm certainly glad I played it. What gameplay there is works well, the graphics are nice and the bonkers plot is something I'm happy to have experienced. Also, his name is Captain Waffle. That's worth fifteen minutes of anyone's time.

11 comments:

  1. For some reason, I thought this was Video System's lame beat 'em up. Apparently that was Karate Blazers!

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    1. An understandable bit of confusion - "Spinal Breakers" sounds much more like the name of a beat-em-up than a shooter.

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    2. That was one of the great, weird things about arcade games - titles that were complete gibberish, or at least had nothing to do with the game itself. I was always partial to top-down space shooter 'Slap Fight' (even if, in retrospect, the music is like a dentist's drill to the brainstem).

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  2. Oh wow, I didn't know there was a good ending - I played through this some years ago on a boring summer evening and thought it had a random scary/bad ending, like Cyber Lip.

    Those hildroids man. They get around.

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  3. How do you trigger the good/bad endings? It didn't look like there was anything that would trigger.... anything! lol :-)

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    1. Without resorting to Gamefaqs, I'm going to take a wild guess and say shooting or failing to shoot certain insignificant-seeming background objects during the few critical seconds they're onscreen.

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    2. Well, I was going to find out but someone has kindly furnished a thorough answer in a comment below!

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  4. I can tell you what triggers all three endings, actually!

    Worst ending (Waffle's family turns into Hildroids, Waffle quite clearly commits suicide, why yes, this IS indeed one of the more startling and disturbing endings I've seen in an arcade game): At any point in the game, allow the timer to reach zero. Nothing will happen in terms of gameplay, but you're locked into getting this ending.

    Bad ending (Waffle turns into a Hildroid): Allow Waffle to reach zero HP and die at any point (note that you don't have to one-credit clear the game, you just can't let Waffle reach zero HP, so pump in as many fake quarters as you damn well please). I actually kinda like how this subtly implies that Waffle actually stays dead after your first continue, and you might be controlling Hildroid copies of the guy from then on (no, don't ask me to explain why he still has to kill hundreds of other Hildroids and stop the missile launch, just assume it's one of those 'long game' things on the Hildroids' part).

    Good ending (duh): Don't meet the conditions for either of the other endings.

    What can I say, I agree that the game's got its faults, but hell, I liked it.

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    1. Aha, that's good info - I don't think had a run where I died and also ran out of time, which would explain why I didn't see the "bad" ending.

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  5. Captain Waffle and the Endless Fig Thing is the name of my String Cheese Incident cover band

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  6. I adore this game, but then I'm a Video System geek. (I'm TheShekinah on The Sonic Wings Wiki when I'm not being a lofty balloon.) Plus Waffle's super-hot on the American flyer for the game.

    Spinal Breakers' plot really has the makings of a great dystopia movie, sort of like Westworld, as long as they change Waffle's name.

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