Today at VGJunk: crime! Prohibition-era gangster crime, with tommyguns and men in hats and everything. Most of the crime is perpetrated by the hero, who murders an absolute ton of people. He's not so much an Untouchable as an Unhinged Lunatic, and he's determined to clean up the streets of New York in Taito's 1986 you-dirty-rat-em-up Empire City 1931. That's cleaning up the streets in a metaphorical sense, because the expended shell casings and rivers of blood are going to take a long time for some poor mug to actually clean up.
Yes, it's New York in the age of speakeasies and bootleg rum, when gangster hid their guns in violin cases and violins across the country were irreparably damaged with nothing to protect them! A time of wise-guys and dames and vicious men who end all their sentences with the word "See?"!
A time of men in comically oversized trenchcoats! Now I know why they're called trenchcoats, it's because you could fit an entire army regiment in one of them as they await their almost inevitable deaths on some god-forsaken Belgian field.
Some of these men can pull off the "coat that looks like the cardboard box your refrigerator came in" look quite well, mind you. These two, for example, look just about mean and moody enough to get away with it.
Empire City does have a two-player mode, so presumably these two palookas are the playable characters. That's a bit odd, because the game's story - as provided by the arcade flyer but not at any point in the game itself - concerns a lone vigilante's efforts to rub out the Mafia. Two Mafia gangs killed his family when they were caught in the crossfire of a turf war, you see, and now the hero is going to avenge his loved ones and punish the Mafia like some kind of punish-er.
The game begins, and it wastes no time in throwing you right into the action. There' sno explanation as to what's going on, but luckily it's all very straightforward. You're controlling a cross hair, there's a mobster holding a dame or possibly a broad hostage, I'm sure you can figure it out. A quick swipe of the reticule, a tap of the fire button and the lady is free, free to go about her day and to probably be abducted again immediately because she's a) in a videogame b) female and c) wearing red clothes. Red clothes on a female videogame character are like a red rag to a bull, if bulls were predisposed towards kidnapping: Jessica from Final Fight, Marian from Double Dragon, even Donkey Kong's Pauline. Maybe gangsters, be they the Mafia variety or just common street punks, have different colour receptors on their retinas or something, like criminal bees or something.
Of course, taking out one gangster isn't enough to satisfy our hero's roaring lust for revenge, and immediately after whacking his first target another villain pops up to take his place. This man's crime? He stole Dick Tracy's hat. What a bastard.
And so Empire City 1931 continues, the player wiping out crime one gangster at a time. Literally one at a time, the next target not appearing until you've plugged the previous one. They can appear anywhere on the stage, so most of the game is spent sweeping your crosshair around trying to find them. Arrows at the left or right of the screen give you an indication of which direction the bad guys are located in and moving your crosshair to the edge of the screen scrolls the view across, although it wasn't until someone leaning out of an office window shot and killed me that I realised you can also pan the screen up and down. That's a handy thing to know when the Mafia are using the classic clock tower sniper's perch, although the slow-ish speed of the screen panning does raise some questions about exactly how our hero is moving about. I can understand that his side-to-side movements might be him walking left or right and therefore represent a careful, measured tread but looking up and down? That should be a more... responsive movement, rather than feeling like our hero is winching his neck up with a hand crank every time he raises his eyes above street level.
After shooting few more goon, Empire City abruptly lurches into stage two. It's night-time in the Big Apple, or there's at least a blue filter over the lens and honestly I rather like the "day for night" look - it gives proceedings a cinematic flair, which is presumably what the developers were going for, and it's a nice shake-up of the already-familiar alleys and warehouses that make up most of the game's backgrounds.
The darkness offers no respite from the constant danger of a sudden lead enema - this is the City That Never Sleeps, after all - but the darkness doesn't really affect the gameplay much as the gangsters are still clearly visible against the scenery. Plus, you have a helpful tool for knowing when you're about to be perforated: it's the speech bubble in the corner of the screen. It counts down from five to zero as an enemy draws a bead on you, and if you haven't dealt with them when it reaches zero then a shot rings out and our hero is killed.
Oof, look at that, they got him right in the corner of the mouth. He's going to need some chapstick for that.
Empire City has instant deaths, then. The bar at the bottom of the play screen isn't a health meter but an ammo gauge, and with a single gunshot wound proving fatal and the ability to lose a life just because you didn't pack enough bullets it feels like Taito had some vague notion about making this game "realistic." It definitely adds a note of tension to the game, this kill-or-be-killed atmosphere, but I'm not convinced it wouldn't have been more fun with a health bar and more than one enemy on screen at once. At least our hero can carry quite a lot of bullets, which solves the mystery of why everyone's coat is big enough to double as a five-man tent. He must sound like a sack of nails falling down a staircase when he runs anywhere.
I promised tommyguns, and I am a man of my word. This guy is a man of his tommygun, though, and tommyguns beat words so he killed me a few times. Enemies can kill you from off-screen, and by this point I was dying frequently without even managing to see the goon who shot me. "This can't be right," I thought to myself, and as my character bled to death in the street for the fiftieth time I realised that maybe I should try pressing some of the other buttons. I don't think I should be judged too harshly for this not occurring to me sooner. I'm kinda surprised there were any buttons besides "fire" in this, a game purely about shooting people.
There's a dodge button! Well, that'll come in handy. Pressing the dodge button make a giant picture of your character appear on screen, obscuring your vision and dragging your cursor in a random direction. These are minor prices to pay for not being dead. Dodging does stop you from being dead as long as it's active while the gunshot countdown clock reaches zero, despite the picture making it look like our hero isn't dodging but has simply raised his arm to protect himself from any incoming projectiles. It's surprisingly effective. Why not dodge all the time then? Because you can't control the crosshair while you're doing it, for starters, and you also lose some ammo every time you dodge. Your evasive manoeuvres presumably cause ammo depletion because your character's spare bullets fall out of his pockets while he's rolling around on the floor.
With mastery of the dodge button firmly under my control, Empire City 1931 falls into a rigid pattern of dodging around each area until you spot your next target, and then trying to eliminate said target using as few bullets as possible because with all this dodging nibbling away at your ammunition there's a real chance you could fail the stage by running out of bullets, the most embarrassing possible end to your vigilante justice crusade short of your trousers falling down as your mother's church group drives past. At least immediate and unseen death isn't as much of an issue now, and after playing for a while you'll stop looking at the shot timer and instead rely on listening to the beeps it makes as it counts down to let you know when you need to dodge.
And thus proceeds Empire City 1931, the basic gameplay never deviating from this very simple formula, the only changes being a gradual increase in difficulty and the occasional new background. I do mean "occasional," too, because I don't count "the same background with with a blue filter on it" as a new background. This indoor area is definitely new, although it doesn't change the gameplay any. Popping out of a doorway is functionally identical to popping up from behind a crate in an alleyway, although the reduced verticality of the stage means I'm not going to be aiming up much.
Apart from to shoot this guy, I mean. No, I have no idea how he got up there, but mentally listing the possible explanations is more entertaining that the game itself, which is rapidly becoming stagnant. My favourite explanations are stilts, that he has terrifying Lovecraftian tentacles from the waist down, or best of all that he's the pinnacle of a totem pole made of Mafia thugs sitting on each others' shoulders, all of whom are complaining about who gets to be at the top in caricatured Noo Joisey accents.
By now you've seen almost everything Empire City has to offer, so I'll just mention a few little bits before we get to the end. There are items to collect, after a fashion: small wooden crates appear on the floor sometimes, and you can shoot them for either extra ammo or the chance to earn some points by shooting a sack of money. You can juggle the sack of money by repeatedly shooting it to get more and more points, although this process is bogged down by the complications of your crosshair not being very accurate, the random and jerky flight of the bag and the fact that in the later stages you have to dodge every two seconds or be killed. Two seconds isn't much of an exaggeration, either, because the later gangsters' shooting countdown starts at at three or two instead of the rather more generous five.
Can you believe that shooting the red oil drum pictured above doesn't cause an explosion that takes out any nearby enemies? I know, what a disgrace. I have been playing videogames for decades now, and I have come to expect certain standard practises, like anything red and shootable packing the explosive force of a nuclear bomb, especially if enemies are stupid enough to use it as cover.
There aren't really anything you'd call "boss battles" in Empire City 1931, but at the end of some stages you might encounter a slightly bigger coat than usual who, unlike every other enemy in the game, takes more than one bullet to kill. After the first time I fought one of these grande cappotti, where I hit him and assumed he was dead only for him to immediately gun me down, they stopped being any kind of threat because you can hold them in place by just blasting away at them until they die. It's not like our hero needs to reload or anything.
By the end of the game, the difficulty stems from simply not being able to find the person you're supposed to killing, especially when the need for near-constant dodging means your cursor is being dragged this way and that. One more than one occasion I simply let the mobster shoot me, because once they do the camera moves to show you where they are. It doesn't help you any, because when you lose a life you start the stage from scratch, but at least it gives you some idea of where they might be hiding for next time. Of course, if you keep doing that you'll run out of lives.
Praise be, it's Tunicael, Angel of Coats, come to take me away to heaven where I will be reunited with my loving family. They will be very pleased by all the murder and death I wrought in their memory, I'm sure. Envelop me in your waterproof embrace, my saviour!
Never mind, it's just a Mafia hitman who executes our hero in a gutter if you don't hit continue. As Game Over screens go, that's pretty grim. To make it less depressing, I'm going to pretend that I was assassinated by myself... from the future. Look, this game needs spicing up somehow, alright?
Then, when you reach the last stage, Empire City finally tries to do something a bit different. The Boss of all the Mafia ever is nearby, and you must kill him at a shot. Also with a shot, one assumes.
It's a sniping mini-game! I wasn't expecting that, but I will gratefully take it because the last few stages had congealed into a dull, samey mess. It's a simple set-up: the screen is fuzzy aside from the bit highlighted by your sniper scope. The Boss paces around the building opposite like a man awaiting the birth of his child or (a more likely scenario) the verdict of a court case, and you have fifteen seconds and one bullet to get him in your sights and take him out.
Naturally, I missed the first time I tried it. "You fell down on the job," it says, which must be 1930's gangster slang for "you were spotted and then shot fifty time by the Boss' bodyguards." Such a rich and vibrant lexicon. Anyway, missing the shot sends you back to the start of the previous stage, and once you've fought your way through that again you get another chance.
I made no mistake this time. Well, I did, but I also save-stated here because I really didn't want to have to go through the previous stage again, but the third time was the charm and the Boss got whacked, taken out, bumped, clipped, etcetera etcetera. Dead by shooting, it says. I prefer to think of it as dead by justice. Jazz music plays, a spinning newspaper headline reads MOB BOSS SLAIN, DEAD BY SHOOTING, there's a scene of our hero throwing barrels of illegal hooch into a river. That last bit is in my imagination, because Empire City doesn't have an ending sequence and instead sends you straight into a second loop of the game which I think I'll skip. I've already seen enough of this one.
Empire City 1931 is one of those games that I went into with a degree of optimism, but in the end I wanted to like it much more than I actually did like it. I like the prohibition-era setting, I like crosshair shooters and I like the big sprites and even bigger coats of the game's presentation, but any flair in the gameplay is almost immediately crushed beneath the repetition of the both the action and your surroundings. Shooting the same couple of villains in the same couple of locations quickly becomes tired, and matters aren't helped by your gun's and the game's hit detection not being particularly cooperative. Hunting for off-screen enemies makes the game feel like less a test of skill and more a test of how lucky you are at guessing where the bad guys are hiding. The dodging mechanic is interesting, or at least it is until you reach the point in the game where you're dodging all the time, and in the end I'd have to put this on my "not recommended" pile. If you're still interested, I suggest only playing the first few stages, or better yet playing Taito's own (and much superior) Dead Connection instead. Someone must have like Empire City 1931, enough that it was ported to several home formats and later received a sequel, and maybe I'm judging it a little harshly considering it was released in 1986, but that someone is not me. Nice coats, mind you.