I've not seen it myself, but everyone seemed to enjoy Mad Max: Fury Road, huh? Actually, that's a huge understatement. If the reception I saw for it all over the internet is to be believed, it's the Australian Citizen Kane, the Godfather of sand and explosions. I'm looking forward to watching it eventually but for now - and completely by coincidence - is a game that owes a heavy inspirational debt to the Mad Max series. It's System Sacom's 1993 Super Famicom title Gekitotsu Dangan Jidousha Kessen: Battle Mobile!
In the interests of preventing the tendons in my hands from bursting into flame, I'm just going to refer to it as Battle Mobile from here on out. I threw the full title into Google Translate to see what the non "battle mobile" parts of the name meant, and as far as I can piece together the full title means something like Bullet Clash Car Decisive Battle: Battle Mobile. So not a realistic driving simulation, then?
I think Battle Mobile is set in the spring of 2029. Don't ask me why, it's just a hunch.
A newlywed couple express their deep love for each other in the most romantic way imaginable: by driving an open-topped sports car across the desert. No wonder neither of the them appear to have eyes, they've been sandblasted right out of their faces. Nevertheless, the young lovers are happy, with a bucket full of old coins on the back seat and the groom's toupee flapping in the breeze. I'm sure she'd still love you if you gave up the charade and embraced your baldness, pal, but if that rug makes you feel more confident then I'm in no position to judge. Receding hairlines aside, it seems that nothing can spoil the happiness of this loving couple.
Except maybe a vicious gang of post-apocalyptic thugs who will slaughter anyone who stands between them and their goal of collecting all the world's feather boas so they can keep producing their trademark shoulderpads. As Mad Max begat Fist of the North Star, so too did it inspire Battle Mobile.
Perhaps I'm being too judgemental, assuming that these men are remorseless killers just because they have "interesting" haircuts and they're dedicated to keeping their shoulders warm but their arms cool? What if they just want to ask for directions, hmm?
If they were asking for directions, something went horribly wrong. Our hero's new bride is killed, his car doesn't look to clever either, and the thugs ride off into the desert, presumably licking knives and drinking gasoline like any self-respecting bunch of wasteland bandits.
One year later, and our hero's transformation into an off-brand Mad Max is complete, leather jacket and all. Let's call him Sad Max, because he looks like he's about to start crying. That would be fair enough, given the circumstances, but instead he channels his rage into a furious rollercoaster ride of deadly vehicular revenge. He's strapped into his souped-up death car - his Battle Mobile, if you're the kind of person who likes it when they say the name of the thing in the thing - and the game can begin.
It's a top-down tiny vehicle bump-n-crash adventure that will put most who see it firmly in mind of Spy Hunter, although my mind immediately turned to Konami's similar arcade game City Bomber. The goal of Battle Mobile is to drive towards the end of the stage without exploding, or running out of fuel... which makes you explode. Yes, this is one of those games in which your energy bar is also a constantly-ticking timer, a design decision that was almost enough for me to give up on the game before I'd even started. Being a naturally slothful type I'm not a big fan of strict time limits in games, and after playing Battle Mobile for thirty seconds I can see that the energy bar drains away so fast that I suspect my car's fuel tank has sprung a leak.
Then I did a totally sweet jump over a river and I thought to myself "eh, I'll stick with it. How difficult can it really be?" One day I might look back on that naivete and laugh, but not for a bloody long time.
Things start out fairly simple. Our hero is attacked from all sides by pick-up trucks and the world's most evil motorcycle display riding team, all of whom are trying to jostle the player to death, nudging your car into energy-draining roadside collisions. If that wasn't villainous enough, some of them can fire projectiles at you which also drain your energy. So, how can a man on a mission of revenge defend himself? Well, you can avoid the projectiles by driving around the screen, which I'm sure was already obvious to you although it's a lot more difficult that it sounds: you car is nippy and manoeuvrable but the enemies' shots travel very quickly and often in spread patterns. Your main form for defence is attack, which revolves around destroying the bad guys before they can fire too many bullets. To this end you can press the B button, which makes your car "dash" in whatever direction your're pressing. If you've ever played Sleeping Dogs it's sort of like a more extreme version of that game's car-nudging ability.
Performing your car-dash produces neat-looking after-images of your car, as seen above, but more importantly it allows you to ram into opposition vehicles, destroying the smaller ones on contact and letting you push larger trucks into the roadside obstacles for a satisfyingly explosive death. Unfortunately it doesn't allow you to dash through projectiles. That will become a problem later in the game, but for now I can relax and smash my way through this motley assortment of motorcycles, jeeps and dune buggies that survived the apocalypse. There was an apocalypse at some point prior to the start of the game, right? I mean, I just assumed because the whole thing is such a rip-off of Mad Max - and why else would you spend your honeymoon driving through a vast, sun-baked desert - but I might be wrong. Maybe there was no apocalypse, fossil fuels are still plentiful and everyone involved in this game just happens to be a complete psychopath. Whatever the background behind it, the first stage of Battle Mobile is an enjoyable dose of hectic if occasionally twitchy gameplay, with a pleasing sense of carnage as you bash your opponents sideways and they become a thin red paste smeared across a passing boulder and the subtle feeling that the game is going to get really, really difficult before the end.
At some point I realised I could fire missiles straight ahead by pressing the Y button. Unfortunately, these missile completely ignored all the vehicles in the first stage, passing over them as if they weren't there. I hope you kept your receipt for that rocket launcher, friend. I'd be straight down Post-Apocalyptic Halfords to get my money back if I were you.
And then, a boss. Two bosses, in fact, as a pair of lorries try to destroy our hero. The cargo that they're hauling? Death. Oh, all right, they're actually hauling motorcycles. I was trying to be poetic, you uncultured swine.
Once you've got rid of all the bikes they drop, the lorries ditch their trailers and take on our hero mano-a-trucko, trying to get on either side of the player so they can squash you between their bulk. To win you have to stay on the outside and bump into them using your dash attack. They can take quite a lot of damage, and coupled with the fact that your car can repeatedly use its dash very quickly, the fight resembles nothing so much as a very determined bee trying to fly through a closed window. Determined I most certainly was, and after crashing my sports car into these huge articulated lorries enough times they were destroyed and I was free to drive away. His rocket launcher may not work as you'd expect, but whatever our hero did to his car's bodywork was some exceptional craftsmanship.
The second stage takes place on a poorly-maintained highway. Well, mostly - it actually starts off in an extremely boring grey tunnel, but I skipped that bit because I wouldn't want to send you into a tedium-induced coma, dear reader. The highway does little to confirm whether or not there was an apocalypse. There's a city down there that looks relatively un-destroyed, and while the highways itself is in fairly bad shape that could just mean that Sheffield City Council's roadworks department is still going in the year 2029.
In other news, I figured out what the rocket launcher is for: blowing up these helicopters. However, this is less useful than it sounds because the helicopters are by far the least threatening thing on the screen at any given time. Sure, some of them take the occasional pot-shot at our hero but it's as if the ones that do attack are only making a token effort while their Evil Biker Gang Manager happens to be watching: most of the time they fly onto the screen, hover around for a bit and then piss off. You might as well throw a few rockets at them when you get a chance but really, you should concentrate staying in the middle of the road because otherwise you might miss a jump and that's an instant lost life.
Okay, this helicopter you should shoot, because it's the end-of-stage boss. It's a helicopter that shoots spread-shots and drops the occasional bomb in your path. I don't know how System Sacom managed to make a sports car chasing an attack helicopter down a motorway while trying to blow it up with surface-to-air missiles boring, but here we are.
Stage three begins in a city, which I'm going to claim as conclusive proof that Battle Mobile is, in fact, pre-apocalyptic. There are police cars, for starters. They're trying to murder rather than apprehend you, but still, they're part of an organised law enforcement agency. Even more telling is the shop on the right with the "ADULT" sign: if this was a devastated hellscape where each day is a struggle for survival I don't think people would be so concerned with picking up grot mags that a porno store would be a viable business model.
Things get mixed up a little in the middle of the stage with a slippery snow section. I am convinced this area was only included as an excuse to include snowmobiles in the game, although they hardly add a huge amount of character to the proceedings. I'd say that one of Battle Mobile's big failings is that it doesn't look as interesting as the premise allows. The graphics are nice, but the design is fairly low-key and frankly knocking over tiny motorbikes loses its appeal fairly quickly. The enemies are disappointingly sober for the most part, and it definitely would have held my interest more if I was doing battle with insane rolling death-machines and not Which Car's Best Utility Vehicles of 2029.
These tanks are a bit more interesting, firing missiles up the screen that then turn around and fly back towards you. You have to avoid them, and that's a big reason that Battle Mobile feels more difficult than perhaps it should - you almost always feel defenceless. You can activate a temporary bubble-shield to protect you from projectiles, but these shields are few and far between. I feel like a nice solution would have been to let you shoot down projectiles - the larger ones like these rockets, at least - with your own missiles, giving you a bit more of a say in your own survival. Avoiding attacks still wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the fact that your energy is constantly ticking down even if you don't get hit, eventually reaching a point where missing any of the energy pick-ups that occasionally drift across the screen almost certainly means the loss of a life.
The boss of the city is the same tank you fought moments earlier. I'm beginning to go right off you, Battle Mobile.
Stage four, and vehicular manslaughter hits the dunes as our hero takes a pleasant seafront drive that would be more pleasant if touching the sea didn't immediately cost you a life.
Oh man, I wish I hadn't told you that this was supposed to be the sea, I could have pretended that my car was jumping over the back of an enormous woodlouse. See, again, that would have been a much more engaging setting for this type of game, a kind of micro-Micro Machines that sees you driving through a world of giant insects. Of course this is jut a personal preference, in that I like my videogames to be as mental as possible. I mean, I like Gran Tursimo but even then I enjoy it a lot more when I'm driving the bonkers concept cars.
At least the boss is more interesting, in terms of mechanics if not design, than the others: it's a freight train, thundering across the sands. Its cargo? Death. Shit, I already said that about the first boss. Anyway, once you've removed the minor irritation of the few dune buggies it drops, the fight is all about switching between the left and right sides of the train and getting your hits in when you can before it starts firing at you, smashing carriages as you go until you reach the locomotive. Then things really kick off.
Having spent a not-inconsiderable amount of the past two years looking after my young nephew, I have seen enough Thomas the Tank Engine to know that this is not how trains work. They generally require tracks, they can't laterally move left and right whenever they feel like it and they need the carrot-on-a-stick that is being called a "really useful engine" to do their jobs properly. Actually, that last one might be specific to Thomas the Tank Engine.
Dashing around the train, slamming into it between its bouts of gunfire as you both hurtle through the desert is almost a challenging and enjoyable boss fight, but sadly it doesn't quite reach those heights because of the train's "steam" move. Without warning, it can shoot a cloud of steam around itself that damages you and pushes you sideways, and even that would be manageable if it didn't have the frustrating tendency to trap you right at the side of the screen, pinning you against the edge so that you repeatedly slam into all the passing trees and lose your entire energy bar in seconds. Other than that it's fine.
This is the final stage and also the longest, starting out in a generic warehouse district packed with helicopters. Here you can see what I mean about the helicopters' threat level being mostly negligible: there are six on the screen and only one pilot has managed to summon the herculean effort required to press the "fire slow-moving yellow orb" button on his control panel. For a game where you're constantly driving forwards, Battle Mobile requires a surprisingly patient approach to combat: much of the time you have to wait for a while to see what the enemies are going to do, because sometimes the answer is "nothing," and if cars appear near the top of the screen you might be tempted to try to eliminate them as quickly as possible but dashing ahead recklessly will almost always lead to you getting hit by their bullets before you reach them.
"And they said building a steamroller that's fast enough to keep pace with a futuristic sports car couldn't be done, but who's laughing now, all my old construction site foremen who mocked me?!"
There's a section with some twisty-turny roads, one of the few parts of the game where you have to actually pay attention to where you're driving, although "stay right in the middle of the screen" is as good a rule of thumb as always. The shadow of a plane passes overhead, which means it's about to drop bombs all over the road. You can see where the bombs are going to land thanks to their shadows, and in a game that has become punishingly difficult by this point the easily-avoided bombing raid goes down as a relaxing oasis of calm.
Finally, Battle Mobile rolls into a junkyard, where no doubt the ecstatic owners will want to shake my hand for supplying them with so much goddamn work. These big yellow combine harvester / construction vehicles are the kind of thing I meant when I said I wanted more interesting things to crash into, so it's a shame they only turn up right at the end of the game and are surprisingly easy to take down because being so big they're always in range of a ramming attack.
Here's the boss. It's a thing. You know, a box... thing. With the rocket booster from a space shuttle sticking out of the bottom. Did someone run a space shuttle through a car crusher? I'm going to assume that's what's happening. I also thought the protuberance on the front was a skull, but on closer inspection that appears not to be the case and Battle Mobile's staunch commitment to dull enemy design continues right to the very end.
The boss' main gimmick is that it fire a huge plume of fire from its exhaust that will annihilate your energy if it touches ,you before trying to crush you as it swings around to the other side of the screen. Staying at the top of the screen as much as possible is the key to victory, and luck seems to play a huge part, too - the first time I fought this thing it seemed utterly relentless, but afterwards I managed to get the hang of it and after a few minutes of hit-and-run attacks I managed to get it to explode. Something cobbled together like that, you'd think it'd be really easy to get it to explode, but then again I am only in a sports car.
If you're playing on Easy difficulty, this is where the game ends, but on harder modes Battle Mobile has an extra treat for you, in the same way that having root canal work done after filing your tax return is a treat.
It's another, even harder boss! Just what I always wanted. It's difficult to find anything interesting to say about it, because for the most part all it does is launch various projectiles from differing parts of its chassis. Its tentacle arms are noteworthy because they're something a bit different than everything else you faced so far and the boss has a move where it gives itself a hug, meaning that you can only damage it by ramming it in the places where its arms aren't. Again, that kind of more interesting mechanic is something that Battle Mobile could have done with a lot more of.
The fight is also difficult enough to stop being fun, especially because the boss's attacks take up so much space, either with his swinging arms, his flamethrower or the giant hunks of scrap metal he throws at you, that it's extremely difficult to avoid taking damage. My advice would be to save up as many shields as you can and hope for the best. That's what I did, and eventually I sent him to the scrapheap. It's not a long journey.
Your reward for smashing up the extra boss is that you get to see Battle Mobile's credits. How exciting! Okay, so the car driving past the night-time cityscape looks quite nice but it's hardly an incentive to make a very hard game even harder by playing it on a difficulty setting besides "easy."
Oh, and completing the game also unlocks an extra difficulty setting called "?????" I tried it out. It's the same as Hard, except all projectiles and collisions cause you to die in one hit. Now I get it, "?????" is shorthand for "Why?? Why would anyone play this???"
Our hero's wig looks less convincing than ever.
Gekitotsu Dangan Jigousha Kessen: Battle Mobile is a game I sort of enjoyed at first, but the more I think about it the more I realise it's not particularly good. I kept thinking of minor changes that would make it better - more agency when it comes to defending yourself, less brutal difficulty, more interesting enemies and stages both in looks and actions - but in the end I had so many minor changes in mind that I realised that if you put them all together they'd be major changes. It's not a bad game, by any means: fans of super-tough retro games (and I know you're out there) will probably get a kick out of it, it controls well enough and the graphics and music are both good, but in the end it feels like squandered potential. I guess I should have spent my time going to see Fury Road after all.