You know, when I first started writing VGJunk it wasn't my intention to cover as many side-scrolling beat-em-ups as I could. It just sort of... happened, this tendency of mine to gravitate towards games about walking to the right and punching people. What does this say about me as a person? That my relatively sheltered life has resulted in an internal desire for street combat as a way to prove my masculinity? That I'm a sociopath that would willingly pretend to have a passion for justice if it meant I had license to clobber punks with my fists or, better still, a metal pole I found on the ground? No, I think it just means I'm happiest with the uncomplicated nature of the genre. Walk right, punch someone. Simple. I can grasp that, much like I can grasp a metal pole I found on the ground, and there's plenty of opportunity for pole-grasping in today's game - Sega and Sunsoft's 1989 arcade brawler Tough Turf!
That's Tough Turf, one groundsman's quest to keep his local football pitch free of crabgrass and dog muck. Well, no, obviously not, but I've got free reign to make up whatever story I like for this one. It won't conflict with any plot the game itself gives you, because it gives you none. No shot of a sneering villain, no description of a city held hostage by a malevolent gang with a name like Wild Tyrant or Buster Skull, you just press start and the game begins.
It begins with a delivery. A delivery of justice, as this lorry rolls up and drops off Tough Turf's hero, as though the populace of Punchfight City clubbed together and ordered a vigilante avenger off Amazon. His name and reasons for fighting shall forever remain a mystery, but he puts me in mind of a more blonde version of Youtube tat reviewer Stuart Ashen. I think it's the red tie.
Combat is firmly based on the Double Dragon template, with separate buttons for punch, kick and jump, the ability to pick up weapons but no health-sapping emergency special move. Having the mechanics set up this way isn't all that appealing. I have to be honest, I've never been that big a fan of Double Dragon and the stiff, clunky controls are most of the reason why, so it's a shame that Tough Turf plays almost identically. This biggest annoyance is that you have to press jump and kick at the same time to perform a jumping kick, which sounds totally logical but which feels cumbersome next to the system found in most beat-em-ups that lets you press kick at any point while you're in the air. It's a minor irritation, though, and one that's probably personal to me, and on the flip-side Tough Turf has the welcome addition of a crouch command. Press punch and kick together and not-Ashens ducks, which is useful for avoiding the many, many lead pipes that will be swung his way during the course of his adventure.
Tough Turf's setting is the usual urban dystopia populated by violent thugs with not a single full-length sleeve between them. That's how you can tell our hero is a good guy - he still has sleeves, he's just rolled them up. The game's commitment to this sleeveless motif is such that I don't think there is a single enemy that isn't exercising their right to bare arms, although that's partly thanks to the game recycling the same five or six sprites for every opponent.
There's also an advert for a modem on the wall, which makes me feel old as I remember the concept of buying a dial-up modem. They were very rarely advertising using posters of disinterested-looking women pasted on the walls of back alleys, mind you. Maybe I'm reading it wrong and it's actually an advert for a hyper-specific phone sex line.
And so you go on, clobbering punks until the stage runs out of punks and ends. There are no end-of-stage bosses here, and the lack of effective management is readily apparent in the way the troops have little battle strategy beyond trying to surround you. They really need to recruit some better leadership, someone who can take charge of this ragtag organisation and whip them into shape. Possibly with an actual whip, given the prevalence of the dominatrix cliché in beat-em-ups. It makes things easier for our hero, though, and anything that makes this game easier is to be welcomed because without changing the dipswitch settings you can't continue your game when you die, and there are no health-restoring items along the way.
Stage two now, which takes place in the factory that makes all the oil drums in all the belt-scrolling brawlers I've ever played. They're all open, the lids being manufactured in a different factory several miles down the road. In the freshly-minted state the barrels can neither be smashed apart to reveal cooked chickens or thrown at your enemies, serving as nothing more than a raised stage on which our hero must fight the already over-familiar set of goons. I recommend standing near the edge of Fort Barrel and repeatedly kicking the bad guys off the side as they climb up. It doesn't make beating them any faster, but the repeated embarrassment must be doing their self-esteem some serious damage.
Fort Barrel is the only interesting thing about stage two, honestly. The level ends with a fight against some larger-than-average punks in front of a door with "factory" written on it, just in case you weren't clear that this stage was set in a factory and not the garage of someone with an all-consuming desire to possess the world's largest oil drum collection. You don't even get to go through the door: when the stage ends, our hero drops through that grate in the floor. What a tease. Hang on, dropping through a floor grate... the next stage is going to be a sewer level, isn't it?
Yes, the spacious and brightly-lit sewers that are an integral part of any videogame city, providing much-needed refuge for vicious gangs, misunderstood mutant crimefighters and the designers of tedious valve-based waterflow puzzles! These particular sewers are made of brick. Lots and lots of grey-brown brick, a landscape that reminds me of nothing so much as a greasy polystyrene tray found on the floor after last night's regrettable takeaway kebab experience. The thug with the broken bottle is walking though this landscape with no shoes on. While joining a violent street gang requires a certain level of sociopathy, entering the sewers barefoot speaks to much deeper psychological problems. That man needs help. Luckily, this is a videogame, and as such having a metal bar smashed into your head counts as "help".
The developers tried to jazz up the sewer stage with the inclusion of these spiked rollers that have to be jumped over. Unfortunately our hero's jumping abilities are... how can I put this politely? Shit. He is shit at jumping, and so getting past these rollers without taking any damage was beyond me. Granted, I didn't try that hard to get the timing right, because I'd managed to give myself unlimited continues and even I have better things to do with my life than figuring out the strange parabola of this guy's awkward leaps.
We must be in the factory district, because the sewers lead right into another factory, where our hero is getting beaten up by a WWF reject with a steel pipe while Duke Nukem's less successful brother looks on. He has a pipe, too. Nearly everyone has a pipe. Look through the screenshots in the article and you will see that almost all of them feature a pipe in some way, either being wielded by a character or laying on the floor, waiting to be picked up. The other weapon in Tough Turf is a spiked club, which is functionally identical to the pipe but, you know, spiked. The vast majority of Tough Turf's combat revolves around the acquisition and implementation of these weapons, resulting in a game that has more club hits than David Guetta but not much in the way of flexibility or novelty. It's strictly "get a pipe, use the pipe" with the odd kick thrown in when you think the enemy will be able to swing their pipe before you can swing yours.
Despite the game's lack of ambition, uninspired setting and rigid adherence to the same gameplay formula, I still found myself having some fun playing Tough Turf. This is strange, because it was for those very reasons that I complained about Ren and Stimpy: Space Cadet Adventures last time out, so what's the difference? Am I just a hypocrite? Possibly, but I think it's more down to Tough Turf being earlier in its genre's history, with less refinements to its family tree - Ren and Stimpy had many more platformers to learn from, but it mostly ignored them. Then there's the fact that I just love beat-em-ups, and some deep part of me enjoys the process of methodically eliminating thugs more than it does jumping between floating platforms. Tough Turf is certainly one of the less engaging examples of the genre - even the main character looks like an accountant who accidentally wandered into the wrong, factory-heavy part of town - but there's something soothing about its solid, familiar gameplay.
More factories in stage five, or whatever the opposite of a factory is because they un-make things here, scrap being moved by conveyor belts into pools of molten metal. Around half of these items of scrap are the metal poles so common throughout this game, so I can only assume that the reclaimed metal from the pipes is what all those oil drums are made of.
The conveyor belts do add something different to the combat experience, and if you're feeling particularly saucy you can try to lure enemies to their agonising deaths in a roiling crucible of liquid steel by standing at the end of the conveyor belt and knocking them over. It is a more efficient way to murder large numbers of steroid-laden villains than stoving their heads in one-by-one, a sentence that I feel is destined to end up on a court transcript or psychiatric report at some point in the future.
Over the years spent running this site I have put a stop to all manner of felonious schemes and world conquest attempts, but today I've found the biggest crime ever in a videogame and it's this fucking carpet. "And have you thought about floor coverings for your palatial penthouse apartment, sir? Ah yes, the Dumpster Spaghetti carpeting, a fine choice." It's like all the shadowy, twisted fabricomancers who create the upholstery for the world's public transport got together to spawn the foulest, most rancid pinnacle of their art. You might be thinking "this game must be getting pretty boring if you're talking about the décor," and you'd be right, but c'mon, just look at it. On second thoughts, don't look at it. I don't want any lawsuits from people who popped their own eyeballs out with the nearest piece of cutlery
I'm much more amenable towards the chandelier, possibly because it looks like a child made it from ball-bearings and old tin cans, a primary-school art project that hangs near the balcony in a misguided display of parental pride. None of the game's characters are interested in the either the chandelier or the carpet, because they can't hit them with a metal pipe. That's Tough Turf, brought to you in association with the World Metal Pipe Council. Plastic plumbing? What are you, some kind of loser?
You know what? I'm going to put this one down as a boss fight. It's right at the end of the stage, all the enemies are the same but coloured differently and they even have half-sleeves, a sartorial choice that makes them stand out from the crowd, or at least it would if they weren't identical quintuplets. Five against one sounds like challenging odds, but that spiked club never breaks and I have a small raised platform to stand on as I wait for the bad guys to jump up to me, so I'm confident of victory.
Carpet situation: improved, but still aggressively unpleasant on the eyes. At least there's a bit of art and a nice plant to cheer things up a little, and the overall swankiness means we're probably getting close to meeting the mastermind of this criminal enterprise. What are we thinking, some kind of drug baron, a kingpin of organised crime whose wealth affords him an air of legitimacy?
Huh, I guess not. It's just the usual post-apocalyptic-anime thug, all mohawk and studded bracelets. I like that the villain chose relaxation over style by going with the comfortable armchair rather than the ostentatious golden throne. Ruling the streets with an iron fist is exhausting work, so it's important to be able to come home after a hard day's tyranny and just unwind, your toes sinking into the fur of your bearskin rug while the Stars and Stripes, erm, reminds you what country you're in? The only thing that's missing is a roaring fire. Instead, he has a giant portrait of Walter Matthau to keep him warm. The painting's eyes follow our hero around the room, in classic Scooby-Doo fashion.
Oh look, the boss' huge glass plinth-thing can fire spiky rollers out. I did wonder why he was sitting up there. This proves that the plinth is not, as I first thought, a huge version of those inflatable chairs that were popular in the late Nineties, although I think the villain would have been better severed by the traditional trapdoor. The rollers make a nice change, but they're too easy to avoid for any vigilante with a modicum of skill (so not me then) and then there's the clean-up if they are successful in grinding your foes to paste. Actually, these rollers might explain the state of the carpets around here.
We're fighting now. There's a fight happening. Well, we were never going to talk it out and come to an amicable agreement, were we? The man tried to kill me with garden rollers, the time for diplomacy is over. The painting in the background slides aside to reveal a woman held captive in the wall space. She's a blonde in a red dress, because videogame street gangs are nothing if not predictable in their targets. Anyway, the fight: the head villain has an axe, which is really the only thing that makes him any different from the rest of Tough Turf's enemies and even that doesn't change much. You just have to duck under his attacks and kick him a few times until he drops the axe, and then you can fight back properly. Oh, if only there was a steel pipe nearby, then I might stand a chance!
No such luck. I suppose I'll have to let my fists do the talking. They're feelin' pretty chatty, what with a kidnapped woman to rescue and a final boss who is raising his meaty arm-clubs high above his head and providing me unrestricted punching access to his midriff.
All right, mission complete! I beat a man to death with my bare hands, but before I celebrate this wonderful achievement I'd better escort this young lady to safety. Except... something doesn't seem right. She's in a fighting stance, purposefully striding towards some unknown destination without so much as a "thank you for rescuing me" for our hero.
I bloody knew it! The woman suddenly and without warning turns on our hero, punching him in the head and running away while he gawps at her, understandably stunned. Super Mario never had to put up with this kind of treatment.
Thus, Tough Turf reaches it's dramatic conclusion, as the player must do battle against an opponent whose goals and motivations are never mentioned in a fight for which the stakes are apparently not worth discussing. What the hell is going on? Why are these people hitting each other on a rooftop? Was this lady planning on living in that cage for twelve years until her squatter's rights kicked in or something? The caging must have been consensual and I messed up the kinky sex games between her and her mohawked husband, although I'm not sure that constitutes grounds for a gladiatorial death-match.
In the end, none of these mysteries were solved and the game ended when I kicked this woman off the roof.
The end. No, really, that's it. This lady is dead, and you're never told why you were forced to kill her or indeed why any of this game took place. That's the cruel indifference of human existence, folks! I don't know what to say about this. I know looking for engaging storylines and deep characterization in late Eighties arcade games is as fruitless as looking for those same things in a Hollyoaks omnibus, but Tough Turf is almost unnerving in it's complete refusal to explain anything about anything, and it has the odd effect of making me feel like a cold-blooded murderer rather than a heroic avenger. If that was the point and Tough Turf was meant to illustrate that violence, even violence conducted in a noble cause, is ultimately dehumanising, then congratulations to Sunsoft and Sega for getting their point across. I think that might be giving too much credit to their intellectual goals, though.
Unusual (lack of a) storyline aside, Tough Turf is a very simple game that I think most people would get bored of very quickly. Bland backgrounds, reused enemies and one-note combat means there's little to recommend it to even beat-em-up fans, and the heavy focus on whacking things with metal poles means it doesn't even feel like much of a beat-em-up at all. A piñata simulator, maybe. That said, I still had some fun with it, though I'm not entirely sure why: maybe my standards are slipping, or my advancing age is making me more prone to nostalgia. No, wait, I've got it - that hideous carpet has hypnotised me. Well played, Tough Turf. Well played.