Today's game is Home Data's 1991 arcade beat-em-up Battlecry. I tried to come up with my own personal battlecry that would be suitable for the game, something to strike, if not outright terror, then at least the idea that I might be dangerously unhinged into the hearts of my enemies. However, in the end I settled on "choo choo!" We'll get to that.
Here's the very ugly title screen with its very ugly logo, and fair play to Home Data for not trying to hide the fact that Battlecry is a very ugly game behind a fancy title screen. You can just about make out the figure of a man standing behind the logo, his arm raised to the heavens as a gesture of martial prowess and his head an indecipherable lump of pixels. He's the hero of the game. The star of the game, I should say, because there's really nothing heroic about beating dozens of people into a coma for the sake of televisual entertainment, and, as I say, he's on the telly so "star" seems more apt. I'm going to call him Mac, purely because MAC are the default initials on the game's high score table.
The time? The future. The place? Futurmerica, America of the future, the states having grouped together into six distinct zones for the purpose of saving a lot of time otherwise spent sewing all those stars onto the flag. At the bottom right of the screen is Mac himself, a man with a physique more abstract than a Picasso absinthe dream. His strict mental and physical training regime has granted him the power to ignore the mutant cabbage currently trying to eat his head. Also on the screen are his sixth-ranked opponent and a picture of the championship trophy. The trophy has a fried egg on top. Sure, why not.
I've played all the way through Battlecry twice, and only now have I noticed that Mac's name is plainly stated right there. I must have been distracted by the presence of Hulk Hogan all the other times. The guy on the right has a look of an irate John Goodman about him, don't you think? Anyway, these gentlemen are the announcers, although all they announce is your rank and the name of your next opponent, in this case the rank six fight against a woman named Yoko. Yes, I'm aware that it says "Devil Ninja" up there, but the voice sample definitely says Yoko. Devil Ninja must be her family name.
Finally, the time has come for brutal gladiatorial combat between a man in his pants and an endless horde of masked and oddly-proportioned thugs. I'm aware that description could fit a great many videogames, so more specifically Battlecry is a single-plane beat-em-up in which Mac must reach the end of the stage using the three buttons at his disposal: kick, punch and guard. You can probably figure out what each button does. As I tentatively embarked on a career in televised bloodsports, two things caught my attention: the first was that you can't jump in the traditional beat-em-up manner, so no abusing the power of jumping kicks to see me through. Secondly, every time you hit someone, the sound of a gunshot plays. An aural representation of the power behind each of Mac's mighty blows, or a cock-up by the sound designer? What man can say?
Okay, a third option: Mac's extremities are made from sculpted plastic explosive. It would explain why he's so misshapen, he's actually a nine-stone weakling hidden beneath a thick layer of semtex, crudely carved into a physique based on an old He-Man toy. Mac's mighty explosive kicks would be more impressive if they defeated his foes in a single blow, of course.
So, on you go, moving from left to right and dealing with the thugs until you reach the end of the stage, which is roughly five screens away. Then things take an unexpected turn.
Rather than using the time-honoured beat-em-up system of reaching the end of the stage, fighting the boss and then moving on to the next stage, Battlecry's stages end with you reaching a dead end. Enemies appear ad infinitum, new punks fresh from their failed Mad Max auditions leaping into the fray as you defeat their compatriots, but there is a way out in the form of a dangling rope ladder that dips and swoops around the screen as you fight. To escape, you have to grab the ladder and then hope that the goons don't kick you off said ladder while you wait for the helicopter it's attached to to whisk you away. You're opponents don't seem like they want to get on the ladder or anything, they're just strongly opposed to the idea of Mac doing so.
Should you manage to grab the ladder, you're taken to the boss fight. Now we meet Yoko herself and she is, well, she looks, erm, vaguely humanoid, I suppose? It's as though she looked at Chun-Li's things and thought to herself, "pfft, that's amateur hour stuff." She's the midway evolutionary point between centaur and man with the waist of a Victorian aristocrat. A bizarre creature formed when the miscellaneous discarded toy parts at an action figure factory somehow gained sentience. She's weird, is what I'm getting at.
The fight itself is fairly normal, though. Yoko likes kicks, surprise surprise, be they of the flying or crouching variety. The crouching ones were the real problem, and the first time I tried this fight I actually lost because I ran out of time. That's because Yoko's crouching kick trips Mac up, and Mac gently sails backwards, slowly drifting through the air on his way to the ground for what feels like an eternity. Then it takes him another eternity to get up again, and the clock is strict enough that "two eternities" is long enough to get you disqualified. I managed in the end by remembering that Mac can block and letting Yoko use her flying kicks against his iron defence until she was in prime punching range.
And the crowd go wild! The man with a lemon for a head, the two dudes throttling each other, Underboob Lass, even the goddamn Honey Monster has come to watch the show - he's over on the left hand side, wearing a blue t-shirt. Tell 'em about the bare-knuckle fighting, mummy!
Victory means moving up in the rankings and an opportunity for Mac to stand in a black void and closely examine his own biceps, as though he is beginning to deeply question his choice of career. "Why did I even take that business management course," he wonders, but there are no answers to be found in Battlecry - only the promise of more violence.
Opponent number two is Atlas. I was confused about the pose he has adopted in his portrait until I realised he is clearly making a wing motion to imply that Mac is a chicken. A big, lumpy chicken. Well, that will not stand, sir. I will deal with you as soon as I find a ladder!
In a disused subway tunnel - I bloody hope it's disused, anyway, or this fight could suddenly be over very quickly - Mac does battle with some bald men so poor that they couldn't even afford boxing gloves and had to resort to dipping their hands in red paint. I'd ask them if they had anything to do with the TRAITOR! graffiti and what looks like an upside-down crucified person in the background, but I suspect it's one of those things you're just better off not knowing about. So, rather than having a chat, we fought. Ah yes, the fighting. I suppose at some point I knew I'd have to talk about Battlecry's gameplay, as much as I'd like to avoid the subject. It's bad. Really bad, but in its own unique way. The major problem is that everything is horrendously jerky and awkward-looking, the fighter twitching all over the place like electrified crack addicts and contorting their bodies into bizarre, grotesque shapes.
See? It's a mess, and the action feels like it's lagging so far behind your commands that you'll sometimes wonder if the game hasn't switched to a demo mode or something while you weren't looking. Then there's the extra moves. Yes, Mac has the usual punch, kick, crouching punch, crouching kick moveset - jumping kicks are not included and sorely missed - but there are also other, more powerful moves that happen... sometimes.
Here's a screen from the attract mode, and notice the icons at the bottom of the screen. I think they're supposed to be joystick inputs, and wiggling the joystick does seem to make Mac occasionally flash and then do a special move - I eventually learned to perform a flying headbutt with, let's say, fifty percent consistency. I suspect the headbutt is performed by the second command from the right, the one that's closest to a 360 motion. Because, as I say, wiggling. The thing is, I tried most of these commands many, many times, and there seemed to be no correlation between what I was inputting and what Mac decided to do. Maybe I'm missing something - a power-bar that fills up somewhere, only allowing you to do moves when it's full, maybe - but not being able to summon a move using even the simple fireball motion quickly became frustrating. You're not allowed any time to practise these moves, either: like your mum on a night out, Mac is constantly getting physically acquainted with ugly, shirtless men. All in all, it's a horrible system that doesn't even give you a chance to find out what the horrible system does.
It doesn't make up for the gameplay, but Mac's pose as he rides the ladder to the boss fight is pretty great. It's got sort of a Seinfeldian, "what's the deal with rope ladders, are they ropes or are they ladders?" feel to it.
Atlas and Mac get down to it, with Mac about to test his theory that he can stop Atlas' punches by staring at them really hard. He cannot, of course, but getting hit will at least keep him awake in what is a very dull boss fight. Atlas is essentially the same as the boxers that filled the previous area, except he's wearing sunglasses. When the crowd is more interesting that your boss character, you know you've made some design missteps.
Next up is Leon. Or possibly Freon. The digitised speech ain't great. He fights for the Straydogs and his arm is horribly mangled. This is all the information we have on Leon.
With a backdrop of shimmering city lights, Mac does battle with evil versions of Billy and Jimmy Lee. And their cousin Timmy Lee, who is lurking just out of frame. I wonder what ancient and powerful martial arts techniques they will bring to bear in order to stop Mac grabbing that ladder?
"Could someone please call an ambulance? Something's gone wrong with my body. All of my body. Please hurry, I am in unimaginable agony."
See, Mac is doing a "flying" headbutt! A hopping headbutt, at the very least. Anyway, Leon is a either a breakdancer or someone has poured a sack of tarantulas into his shellsuit, his rubbery writhings only interrupted when he pauses to throw a knife at Mac. I tried to deal with this projectile attack the way you usually do in videogames: by ducking underneath it. That only meant that the knife was flying at Mac's face rather than his torso, though. If I'm getting hit either way, I'd rather lose a nipple than my nose, right? So I needed to find a better way to deal with Leon, and while I was trying to figure out the best way to close the distance between Mac and Leon I discovered something - Mac's horizontal movement speed is increased roughly threefold if you tap punch while you're moving. Mac's normal walking speed lies somewhere between "sedate" and "unhurried," but if you keep popping out jabs he fair flies across the screen, his arm pumping like the rods of a steam train. Thus Mac's battlecry became "choo choo," and I managed to stop Leon throwing any more knives. He was probably so confused by Mac's newfound method of, ah ha, locomotion that he forgot he even had knives.
Waiting at the top of the next ladder is Titan. Does he have a giant bird's beak? It looks like he does. I hope he does, these bosses have been a fairly tedious lot so far and a man who thinks he's a bird might liven things up a little.
Ah yes, the Sewer Museum. Not a museum of sewers, you understand, but a museum in the sewers. Where else would you put that bizarre T. Rex model? On the surface, where someone might see it? Don't be daft. The triceratops looks okay - a little too cheerful, perhaps, but mostly fine - but that tyrannosaurus is just weird. Of all the expressions to give your T. Rex, why would you choose one that resembles someone seeing 2 Girls 1 Cup for the first time?
Titan's big gimmick is that he's wearing armour on his forearms. I didn't say it was a good gimmick. As before, the best way to deal with him is to scuttle rapidly to his position using your jab and then pin him in the corner, because if he manages to get loose then the fight becomes very difficult. The whole game is difficult. Too difficult, I'd say, because the challenge comes from struggling with the controls and the miserly time limits, and it's only getting worse now that the bosses have access to projectile attacks.
To make up for the boring boss battle, let's play a different game instead, with Battlecry's version of Where's Wally. So, see if you can spot Mutant Bart Simpson in the background. If it help, it looks like he's having one hell of a cow.
Mac's penultimate opponent is Jumbo. I think he's wearing a slap bracelet. Well, Battlecry is from the early nineties, everyone was wearing slap bracelets. Jumbo also doesn't seem to be any larger than the other fighters in the game, which makes me wonder why he's called Jumbo. Perhaps he just really likes elephants.
Watch out, sleeveless karate man! In your attempt to impress me with your high kicks, you have failed to notice that you're standing on a lit stick of dynamite! Yes, I am very impressed by both the flexibility of your legs and the stretchiness of your trousers, but you should probably move.
Too late. Oh well, that's one less enemy for me to rocket-jab into oblivion... except of course it isn't. The dynamite has no effect on the enemies, and the explosions only hurt Mac. I should have known. The thugs are extremely dedicated to making sure Mac doesn't progress any further in this TV show, but on further inspection I don't think these sections of the game are part of the show. The boss battles have visible cameras and an audience, but there's none of that here. You might think that this is the selection process for the show, with whoever grabs the ladder first winning the chance to take on the boss, but none of the other punks are trying to do that - they just want to give Mac a kicking. Therefore, I have reached the conclusion that these sections represent Mac's daily commute to the television studio, in a post-apocalyptic world where only the strong survive and helicopters with ladders have replaced the bus service.
Another boring boss fight, although Jumbo does have slightly more personality than the other bosses, in the same way that a plank of wood with a face drawn on it has more personality than a plank of wood. He's got some interesting poses, sort of. He seems to be having fun, anyway, which is more than I can say for myself.
And now, the championship bout between Mac and Devil Ninja. Yes, this one's actually called Devil Ninja. He doesn't look much like a devil or a ninja, but then again you'd be a pretty crappy ninja if people saw you and said "oh hey, look, there goes a ninja. A devil ninja, you don't see many of those about."
Oh, hello again, Yoko. Boss rush, is it? Great. Wonderful. I tell you what, I'm just going to turn away while you jump-kick me in the back of the head. Unconsciousness seems like a good alternative to fighting all Battlecry's bosses again.
I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn that the final battle with Devil Ninja isn't particularly impressive. I mean, it's impressive that Devil Ninja can still move around when his body is so grotesquely mangled and his head is trying to retreat into his chest cavity, but the actual fight consists of Devil Ninja swinging his big swishy sword and then Mac trapping him with his turbo-jab. I managed to get Devil Ninja right in the corner, and because I was jabbing so fast he had no chance to escape. If it wasn't for the fact that you can't land the finishing blow with a jab - you have to use a "proper" move, like a big kick - I'd have finished the fight in about twenty seconds without taking any damage. Instead it took twenty-five seconds and I got hit once. While it's unusual for the final boss battle to be easier than the rest of the game, in the case I am most definitely not complaining.
Hey, someone stole the fried egg off my trophy! I demand to speak to the tournament organisers. I was made promises about eggs that were not kept. I didn't let some guy throw knives at me for an egg-less trophy. What am I supposed to do with all this bacon I've been keeping warm inside my tiny blue pants now?
"Stuff," it says, and I suppose that yes, there was stuff in this game. No one can argue that this game didn't include stuff.
As Mac walks into the sunset, hungry for eggs, I'm left to reflect on Battlecry. It is a frankly terrible game. The combat is awkward and jerky. All the characters look like hastily-assembled voodoo dolls constructed by someone who only had wet spaghetti available to use as a skeletal structure, and the backgrounds aren't any better. It doesn't work either as a brawler or a one-on-one fighter, and worst of all it's boring... and yet I can't seem to truly hate it.I have no idea why. By all rights I should be telling you to never play or even look at Battlecry, but still there's something about it that prevents me from doing so. Maybe it's a sneaking admiration for the developer's attempts to give Mac a wide range of moves. Maybe I've just played so many awful games that things like Battlecry don't even register any more. Or maybe, just maybe, I can't hate anything where the bad guy calls himself "Devil Ninja" with a straight face.