27/11/2018

KNUCKLE HEADS (ARCADE)

As we all know, when Street Fighter II landed in arcades and revolutionised the fighting game genre, every developer under the sun rushed to put out their own take on the one-on-one brawler. What’s less clear is why Namco decided to name their effort after a Three Stooges insult. It’s the 1992 global-weirdo-convention-em-up Knuckle Heads!

That’s a surprisingly severe logo for a game that, as mentioned, is all about a bunch of weirdos getting together for a punch-up. Tekken this ain’t, folks - but it is a fighting game, so despite the quirks and foibles of the gameplay which we’ll get to in due time, at its core Knuckle Heads is all about hitting the other person until they stop moving. But why are they fighting?


The bright lights and the sharp-suited host reveal that Knuckle Heads is framed as a televised fighting tournament, with the combatants battling it out for a ten billion dollar prize. Given that the prize is ten billion dollars, it’s a real surprise that only six people entered the tournament. For that amount of cash I’d enter the goddamn tournament even after seeing the kind of violent lunatics I’d be up against. There’s always the tiniest chance I might win the tournament and claim enough cash to solve all my problems, or I’d be bludgeoned to death by a viking and in a way that’d also solve all my problems. It’s a win-win situation.
Yes, I did say that one of the characters is a viking. Let’s meet him, and all the other characters, right now!


First up is Rob Vincent, an American fighter with two tonfas, a supremely smug expression and a chin that Bruce Campbell is probably going to want back at some point. Rob’s the most generic character in the game, but even so he’s still fairly interesting. You certainly don’t see many ginger, tonfa-wielding America fighters in videogames, do you? He’s also dressed kinda like M. Bison. He is certainly not as cool as M. Bison, though.


The obligatory Japanese representative is Fujioka. He is, of course, a ninja. He attacks with a sickle and chain, also known as a kusarigama. I remember that from playing Nioh. See, videogames are educational, presuming you want to learn all the many ways humans have tried to murder each other over the centuries. A less common part of the ninja get-up is Fujioka’s headgurad, which makes him look like a contestant on the Japanese version of Gladiators. Ninjas, you will go on my first whistle! I should go and pre-emptively apologise to my neighbours, because now I’m going be blasting the Gladiators theme while I write this article. Oh, and on the subject of ninjas, this image made me finally get around to looking up why ninjas are so often depicted as wearing fishnets, as you can see on Fujioka’s arms. Disappointingly it’s not because ninjas make their uniforms out of discarded Babybel packaging. It’s supposed to be a stylised representation of chainmail, apparently.


Hailing from China is Christine, the staff-swinging acrobatic fighter who presumably chose this outfit so she could enjoy her hobby of hiding in grape vats. She’s ninety percent of the way to wearing California Raisin cosplay. Yeah, there’s not much to say about Christine. She’s a good character for a beginner to pick. Oh, and her voice lines were provided by Megumi Hayashibara, who’s probably best known as the voice of Rei in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Or Ranma in Ranma ½. Or Jessie (well, Musashi) in the Pokemon anime. She’s voice acting royalty, is what I’m getting at, and Namco spared no expense in getting big-name anime voice actors in for Knuckle Heads.


The characters get a bit more unusual from here, starting with the aforementioned viking Gregory. He’s not a real viking, of course. He’s only thirty-nine years old. A historical re-enactor who has taken things way too far, one assumes. Gregory is the powerhouse character of the roster, ready to cause carnage with his twin axes but always with a smile on his face. Of course he’s smiling, this is one of the rare occasions where owning two massive axes is going to pay off for him. And hey, it’s nice to see a character from Norway rather than the usual fighting game locales.


The Brazilian representative is Claudia, who combines the usual Brazilian fighting game clich├ęs into a scantily-clad, jungle-dwelling, carnival-themed character. She’s also a lot like Street Fighter’s Vega, what with the claws and all. She likes to jump around a lot, so you’ve got to give her bikini top a lot of credit. That thing is solid. She’s also got a big-name voice actor, with her lines being provided by Sailor Moon herself, Kotono Mitsuishi.


The weirdness reaches its apex with the final character: it’s Blat, the tiny Greek man who fights with an enormous hammer. Of course, there are very few Greek fighting game characters to crib from and little in the way of non-historical Greek stereotypes that’d work as the basis for a videogame fighting style unless Blat threw bottles of ouzo at people or something, so Namco had free reign to create their own take on a “Greek” fighter. They went with “peculiar gremlin man who stole the weapon and armour of a fantasy barbarian who was three times their size.” It’s a bold look, but I’m not complaining.


Okay, so the time has come to actually pick a character and play the game. As is traditional by this point, I’ll be playing as Rob Vincent, because he was the first character highlighted on the select screen and he’s also the least interesting, which means he’s the closest Knuckle Heads has to a main character. Having seen the attract mode I already know that Rob has his own versions of the fireball and the dragon punch, so he’s basically American Ryu. No, hang on, that’d be Ken. Oh, you know what I mean, let’s get on with the fighting.


The first bout takes place on the bustling streets of Hong Kong, where the locals have come out in numbers to see Christine crack Rob’s head open with her stick. A bit rude, considering I hadn’t had a chance to figure out what the buttons are yet, but that shouldn’t take long because there are only three of them. You’ve got high attack, low attack and… jump? Well look at that, you have to press a button to jump in this game. That’s a significant difference from Street Fighter et al, and I’ll tell you what – it was a nightmare trying to get used to pressing a button to jump. Decades of fighting game experience have conditioned me to press up to jump, so that’s what I kept doing the whole time I was playing Knuckle Heads. I tried to mentally condition myself to accept this control quirk by murmuring “just like Smash Bros., just like Smash Bros.,” over and over again, but that did not work. It just made me think about the weird “Gaaanondooorf” chant from the Smash Bros. games.


Another interesting feature of Knuckle Heads’ gameplay is that only having two attack buttons means that you have to charge up to perform stronger blows. Keeping the button pressed for a second or so gives your character a coloured aura – it’s up to you whether you belt out a Dragonball Z-style scream as you do so, but it certainly adds to the ambience – and then letting go of the button makes your character perform a different attack. In Rob’s case, he hops forwards and attacks twice with his tonfas. I don’t think I ever landed this attack on a CPU character, possibly because a glowing red aura is a bit of a giveaway re: what attack’s coming next.


Knuckle Heads is still a 2D fighter at heart, though, so much of what you know about other examples of the genre will serve you well here. Special moves are executed using the usual joystick-and-button combos, (like Rob’s dragon punch here,) although fireballs seem to be more away-toward-attack than traditional fireball motions, and I’m very happy to report that Knuckle Heads has smooth, responsive special move inputs. I’ve played many a fighting game where trying to perform a task as basic as launching concentrated spiritual energy from your hands was a real struggle, but for the most part Knuckle Heads let me use my special moves when I wanted to, not at some point thirty seconds and multiple attempts down the line. It’s a good job, too, because the dragon punch quickly became a crutch that I relied on to defeat Christine. The only time she wasn’t blocking was when she was using her jumping attacks, you see.


Next into the fray is Fujioka, and he’s just as much of a videogame ninja as you’d expect. Lots of fast attacks and agile movements, plus a costume that would in no way help him to be stealthy unless he was trying to sneak in as an extra in a He-Man cartoon. Nice y-fronts, dork. Fujioka is also very fond of fireballs. Normally this would be a good thing because I could jump over his projectiles and kick him in the face, but of course I kept forgetting that I had to press a button to jump.
It was also at this point that I realised I’d made a grave mistake in choosing to play as Rob. The issue is that Rob uses a very short-range weapon in a tournament where his opponents are wielding long sticks and extending chains, and a lot of the time range is king in Knuckle Heads. It’s not an insurmountable problem, although it might feel like it when Fujioka chooses to fight from a different postcode and keeps whipping you in the face. If you are going to play as Rob, my advice is to practise using his fireballs.


I must admit, it feels a bit strange to be fighting beneath the (presumably) disappointed gaze of Jesus Christ. Maybe I can convince him that Claudia is a moneylender or something. Namco really went all out to make sure you knew this stage was set in Brazil, huh? The statue of Christ the Redeemer, the carnival dancers, the big neon sign that says “Brasil.” Then there’s Claudia herself who, as previously mentioned, combines most of the usual tropes of videogame Brazilians into a character who ends up fighting mostly like a cat. Lots of leaping and clawing attacks from Claudia. She’s especially fond of the one where she jumps off the top of the screen and then tries to land on your head – unfortunately for her, it’s very obvious when she’s doing this, so you can be ready with a block or a dragon punch.


Other than that, the most notable thing about Claudia is that she stands like a T. Rex in her neutral stance. Or maybe it’s more like a praying mantis. A praying mantis wearing a gold bikini and shoulderpads.


Now we’re off to the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the fact that Rob’s attacks have no range really does blow. It’s viking impersonator Gregory! You know, Greg the viking? Yeah, that guy. His fellow historical re-enactors have all piled into the longboat to watch their friend fight beneath the northern lights. The Norse aesthetic is somewhat undermined by Gregory’s musical theme, which is not the kind of rousing Scandinavian drinking song you might expect – instead it’s a strange techno / rave tune. It’s certainly a, erm, unique combination.


Being Knuckle Head’s biggest, strongest character, you won’t be surprised to lean that Gregory likes to get in close, using his charging headbutt to close the distance so he can get you with his backbreaker or his “Tidal Wave” axe attack. In a way this does play to Rob’s strengths, because it mitigates the differences in range. I found that the dragon punch has enough invincibility frames that you can often sneak one through before Gregory’s attacks land, but one very useful tactic that applies to all battles in Knuckle Heads is to simply block whatever’s coming your way and then go for a throw once the enemy’s attack is over. This is an especially effective tactic because you can block everything (except throws) simply by holding back on the joystick because – get this – there is no crouching in this game. That’s right, no ducking, no crouching attacks and no need to block low. Even more that jump being on a button, the complete lack of crouching took a lot of getting used to because it’s such a fundamental part of most fighting games. I was still trying to land low attacks by the time I reached the fifth fight…


...which is against over-armoured, hammer-swinging Greek diddyman Blat. I feel like that hammer is too much. Like, I understand that this is a weapon-based fighting tournament, but that thing’s just taking the piss. I’m surprised Blat didn’t turn up with a gun. But a hammer he has, and he likes to spin around a lot and clip you with its massive hitbox when you’re convinced you should have avoided the attack. Knuckle Heads is mostly a solidly put-together game, but it definitely lacks the precision of Street Fighter II or SNK’s fighting games, with sometimes fuzzy hit detection that’s not bad enough to ruin the game but will make you utter a slightly annoyed “hmm” every now and then.


Perhaps it’s unfair to keep comparing Knuckle Heads to Street Fighter II, because Namco were clearly trying to do something a bit different, especially when compared to more formulaic clones like Fighter’s History or World Heroes. The lack of low attacks gives the fights a very different feel to most fighting games – I’m so used to high-low mixups being a fundamental aspect of fighting game strategy, and the lack of that option means it can be difficult to break through your opponent’s defence. This means Knuckle Heads becomes much more of a test of patience and timing rather than finding openings through aggressive play, and the best strategy almost always seem to be to wait for your opponent to make a mistake and then punish it because you simply don’t have the offensive tools to pressurise effectively.
Anyway, I managed to beat Blat by repeatedly chucking him across the screen, and with all the other playable character defeated it’s time to move on to the final boss, right? Well, you’d think so, but Knuckle Heads has yet another twist up its sleeve.


It’s a two-on-one fight now! I’m the one, naturally. Blat and Gregory have teamed up to take Rob down, and I’ve made the terrible mistake of getting caught between them, where their long-reaching attacks can keep me trapped. This explains why you can’t crouch and why jump is on a button – it’s because in the two-on-one fights you need up and down on the joystick to walk up and down between background planes, like you would in a side-scrolling beat-em-up. Not only are there two-on-one fights, you can have up to four fighters on screen at once in versus mode.


The multi-man melees had the potential to be a frustrating, overwhelming mess, but fortunately Namco managed to keep them just on the right side of chaotic. Your opponents can hit each other, for starters, and you can throw them into each other, too. Your special moves come to the fore here, because they’re more likely to hit both opponents at once, and if you’re playing as a character who had the foresight to bring a weapon that doesn’t boil down to “punching, but with a stick strapped to your arm” then keeping your enemies as far away as possible is a good strategy, too.
On the whole the tag battles work much better than I expected them to. They’re quite difficult, of course, but it’s easy to get your character facing the right way and blocking being so effective prevents one enemy hitting you high while the other hits you low, for example. My biggest gripe is that each of these battles is still a two-round fight, which is downright rude. I just beat two fighters at once, I shouldn’t have to beat them again.


After three tag battles, you do have to face Knuckle Heads’ equivalent of a final boss – but disappointingly it’s just a golden doppelganger of whatever character you’re playing as. That said, I’ve played a lot of arcade fighting games where you struggle to the end only to be presented with a final boss who is, to use the technical term, absolute bullshit – I’m looking at you, every SNK fighting game ever. Still, it’s hard to drum up much enthusiasm for Rob Redux, even if it does give you a taste of what’d happen if the Oscars statuette came to life and got rowdy. The same tactics apply here, especially the block-throw-repeat loop, and soon the ten billion dollar prize will be in your hands.


Rob’s ending was not what I was expecting. I though he was going to live the life of a playboy millionaire, or maybe eschew the money to devote his life to martial arts training, but no – instead he used the money to bail out his father’s failing business. Then he asks for a job. Rob, you have ten billion dollars, the only job you need is building your own Scrooge McDuck-style money vault.


I like that Rob literally hangs up his tonfas, that’s a nice touch.
Each character has their own ending, and unsurprisingly Rob’s is the least interesting of the bunch. Christine uses the money to fund her own kung-fu action movie. Fujioka turns out to be an undercover cop who’s investigating the show’s host for drug smuggling, and it must have been a fun day down at the precinct when he was picking ninja gear as his undercover outfit. Claudia uses her billions to buy the Amazon rainforest in order to protect it, sorely underestimating the cash value of the Amazon rainforest. Gregory gives the money to his estranged wife and kids – the wedge between them no doubt being Greg’s insistence that he’s a viking – and his generosity helps them reconcile. My favourite ending is Blat’s, because he manages to spend ten billion dollars on women and booze in just three years. Eat your heart out, George Best.


And that’s Knuckle Heads, Namco's bold and sometimes experimental take on the fighting game formula. Whether this was the inspiration for the weapon-based combat of Soul Edge, who can say?  I definitely had a fun time playing it, though. Not as polished as the cream of the fighting game crop, a little more one-note in its gameplay and the small roster of characters is a drawback, granted, but Knuckle Heads' gameplay is smooth, intense and colourful enough to be ideal for a bit of pick-up-and-play action. The characters are mostly interesting, (not you, Rob,) the graphics are bright and cheery and the soundtrack has some excellent tunes, especially Christine’s theme. I believe it’s what the kids refer to as a “banger.”




If you listen to it long enough, it starts to sound like it’s being sung by meowing cats. Actually, the first time I heard this I thought “this really reminds me of “Iron Eyes” from Street Fighter EX3, a track I bloody love.” I looked up Knuckle Heads’ soundtrack after I finished the game to see it was composed by Takayuki Aihara… who also composed “Iron Eyes.” Good ear, me.


Anyway, give Knuckle Heads a try. If you manage to get three other friends together to try the four-player mode, let me know what it’s like. The four-player battle, I mean, not having three friends. Obviously I’m not not interested in that.

24/11/2018

JALECO RALLY: BIG RUN (ARCADE)

A couple of months ago I wrote about Tuff E Nuff, a SNES fighting game that (awful title aside) helped creators Jaleco strengthen their claim as the most consistent developer of average videogames. Sometimes Jaleco’s games are slightly above average, sometimes they’re slightly below average, but they’re never titles that make you jump for joy or jump around in pain because you hurt your foot when booting the game out of an open window. For this reason I have developed a tremendous amount of affection for Jaleco over the years, and it’s time I put that affection to the test by playing their 1989 off-road-race-em-up Jaleco Rally: Big Run!


“The Supreme 4WD Challenge,” claims the title screen. I’m pretty sure that refers to the concept of the race in question and not the game itself. Jaleco would never have the confidence to describe one of their products as “supreme.”


The Big Run in question is the Paris-Dakar Rally, a real-life off-road rally that sees competitors race from Paris, through southern Europe, across the Mediterranean Sea and down through Africa until they arrive at the finish line in the Senegalese capital Dakar. Or at least it used to, because concerns about terrorism saw the event move to South America in recent years. Supposedly the rally was started when its founder got lost in the Sahara during a different rally and though “hey, this would be a great place to hold a rally of my own!” I think that’s what they mean by making the best of a bad situation.
I feel that I should also mention that the screenshot above means I’ll be humming a-ha’s “Take On Me” throughout this entirety of Big Run. Not to be worry, I’ll be finished writing this article in a day or twooooo…


The attract mode also reveals our racer’s entry form. Apparently our team is called “Big bois.” The Akihabara Big Bois, that’s us.


With coins inserted and start button pressed, the race gets underway. Immediately the Paris part of the Paris-Dakar thing goes right out the window, because you actually start in Tunis. No European section at all, then, and I suspect this is because if there was a Parisian component then Jaleco would have had to create lot of very different backgrounds instead of being able to reuse the same sand dunes and palm trees for the majority of the game.


Big Run is a racing game, of course. A very arcade-y racing game at that, with a sense of depth generated by sprite-scaling techniques a la Sega’s OutRun and some very tight time-limits to beat. The game also measures what position you’re in amongst the other racers, but you can ignore that. The only thing you need to worry about is beating the checkpoint time. In fact, you can be in first place and still be disqualified for running out of time. Presumably this means all the other racers are disqualified too, and this year’s Paris-Dakar Rally comes to an abrupt stop somewhere near the Tunisia-Libya border.
The controls are exactly what you’d expect for this kind of arcade racer. A steering wheel for turning, accelerate and brake buttons, and a gear shift for switching between low and high gear - again, much like OutRun. Man, I wish I was playing OutRun. Oh, and Big Run also has a button for honking your horn. It does nothing besides making a noise but it makes you feel a bit better to honk at the other racers, just like a real car horn.


I was making decent progress in the early going, until there was a sudden ninety-degree turn on the course and I slammed right into this huge billboard of a bikini-clad Marilyn Monroe type. I say billboard, but Monroe’s expression changes from serenity to surprise when you crash into her so maybe she’s actually the 50 Foot Woman on a relaxing desert holiday. Jaleco seem to be very proud of this particular billboard, because it crops up throughout the rest of the game – and I’m convinced they placed the first one on the outside of this tight corner because they knew most first-time players would hit it and thus see it in action.


Aside from the huge sentient advertisements, the rest of the first stage plays out just as you’d expect from an arcade racer of this vintage. You barrel through the sandy locales, trying your best not to get caught in the pack of CPU cars while also avoiding the more interesting hazards. Here, for example, you have to race along a raised section of the track and it’s fully possible to fall off the side, costing you vital seconds. In fact, if you fall off the side you might as well give up there and then because Big Run’s time limits are very strict. Any time I play an arcade racing game of this type I always turn the difficulty down because I have enough confidence on my own self-worth that I don’t need to seek validation by beating a coin-guzzling arcade game on its default settings, but even on easy one major crash can spell the end of a Big Run, erm, run.


After a couple of attempts I made it over the finish line, mostly thanks to a potentially disastrous spin-out being averted when a CPU car rammed me from behind and immediately accelerated me to top speed. Big Run has discrete stages rather than one long course dotted with checkpoints, and here you can see the finish line of stage one. The Colossal Marilyn returns to survey the scene, but I’m more interested in the woman on the right. That’s the girlfriend from OutRun! She’s wearing the same outfit and everything. I guess she just really loves racing. C’mon Sega, give her a spin-of game of her own! Or at least get her in Smash Brothers.


That’s the general flow of Big Run, then. Racing through the desert, crashing into things, admiring the scenery. Look, there’s some camels! And sand! Lots of sand in this one, folks. I dare say there won’t be another videogame with this level of sand content until I get around to creating Professional Sandcastle Builder 2019 and releasing it on Steam. Hey, if all these farming sims can sell thousands of copies I think I can make it work.
In the screenshot above you can just about see that there’s a choice of routes to take through the stage. It’s not like OutRun where each path leads to a completely different stage and most of the time which route you take is determined solely by which direction the computer-controlled cars are shoving you towards, but it’s nice to have a bit of choice.


Ah yes, the CPU cars. Here we come to one of Big Run’s deepest flaws, and that’s too much traffic. There are almost always cars nearby and frequently, as in the screenshot above, they’re positioned in such a way that they cover the entire road ahead of you despite having the whole goddamn desert to drive in. It makes it very difficult to build up any sense of speed – and consequently fun – when you’re constantly having to nose your way through a congealed blob of your fellow racers. In other racing games of this type, the issue of traffic is alleviated by having wider roads and a nimble, precisely-controlled vehicle, but neither of those things apply to Big Run. As a result, the other cars aren’t a challenging obstacle to avoid, they’re just a pain in the arse.


Honestly, just look at this bullshit. Guys, the Sahara Desert is over three and a half million square miles in size, so why are you all right up my arsehole?!


Sadly, even when the traffic is flowing a bit more freely Big Run still isn’t all that much fun to play. It never feels fast, for one thing, and I’m sad to report it doesn’t handle very well, either. A lot of the time it’s merely okay, but your car does feel sluggish and tight corners can be a proper nightmare because your car has a tendency to turn slowly for a while and then suddenly “snap” to a point past the angle you’re aiming for, making it difficult to perform anything but the shallowest turns smoothly. It reminds me a lot of Jaleco’s other arcade racer Cisco Heat; I assume both games run on the same engine. Sadly Big Run lacks Cisco Heat’s engaging visual madness. As we’ve established, it’s mostly sand.


It’s nicely drawn sand, at least, and the visuals are a strong point in Big Run’s favour. It looks better in motion than it does in still pictures – especially now that recent versions of MAME can run the game more accurately than ever – and I particularly like the way the sand dunes are drawn and shaded. They look really solid. Or perhaps I get that feeling of solidity because I couldn’t stop crashing into the bloody things.


As Big Run moves into its latter stages and you race through Niger and past Timbuktu, the scenery gains a bit more greenery and even the occasional water hazard - and the hint of a good game glitters below the dusty surface. That might just be down to me wanting Big Run to be fun, though. I really like this style of arcade racer, and I can usually trust Jaleco to come up with something that’s a solid six-out-of-ten at least… but Big Run doesn’t quite make the cut. I’ve certainly played worse racing games from the time, and Big Run does offer something different from the usual street or circuit races of its competitors, but the punishing time limits, the twitchy, unsatisfying controls and the vast swarms of roaming cars completely unconcerned by the safety of themselves and others make Big Run something of a chore to play. By the time I’d reached Mali, every minor collision or contact with the undergrowth was making my grind my teeth in a way that would horrifying my dentist.


I did find myself negotiating some of the most convoluted sections of track while leaving my car in low gear, something that’d you’d never really do in any of Big Run’s peers – but it worked well enough that I wonder whether it was the intended way to traverse the trickier roadways. There’s almost an interesting idea in there, the concept of selecting the right gear for the situation, and because it’s an interesting idea that means it almost certainly wasn’t intentional.


Eventually I reached the final stage. The game calls it the “victory run” in the bottom corner, which strikes me as rather presumptuous. They must not have seen me barely scraping through all the other stages in fourth place. The only victory here is the victory over common sense that playing all the way through a game I'm not enjoying represents.


In the end I did achieve victory, and the ending sequence begins with your car driving slowly past all the people who have made this trans-African rally possible: your pit crew, the girlfriend from OutRun and her many identical sisters, the living billboards of iconic actresses, the scores of locals who have every right to be pissed off that I showed up in their countries, drove like a like an absolute lunatic through their cities and repeatedly crashed my car into their houses before receiving a prize and pissing off home. Frankly, I should be in prison.


Then our driver ascends the podium, accompanied by a woman who is at least eighty percent leg. No wonder she’s wearing a leotard. Imagine how hard it’d be to find trousers with a twenty-inch waist and thirty-four inch legs.


Jaleco Rally: Big Run is a mediocre game and therefore fits nicely into Jaleco’s catalogue, but sadly there are degrees of mediocrity and this one falls on the low end of that scale. It’s not totally awful or anything; the graphics are nice, the soundtrack’s okay and on the simpler, less busy sections of the course it’s a perfectly acceptable racing game. However, it commits the sin of being a racing game that never lets you really get going. There’s very little sense of speed or flow when you’re constantly being boxed in by other drivers and struggling to take corners without suddenly lurching off in a new and unexpected direction, and with that in mind it’s not a game I can recommend. Perhaps the SNES port is better, but I haven't played that one and the arcade original isn't exactly encouraging me to check it out. I’ll be sticking to OutRun, but then of course I will. Hell, I might even mix it up a bit by playing some Super Hang-On. I’m a man of simple tastes, after all.

Oh, and while I’ve got you, here’s my roughly annual reminder that if for some reason you enjoy VGJunk you can always donate a couple of quid to the cause, if you like. I’ve got a new job coming up but it doesn’t start for a while, so hopefully this’ll be the last time I ever bring it up. Thanks for reading, as always.

22/11/2018

GREAT GUNS (ARCADE)

Today I’m looking at something I don’t consider a game so much as a training manual for the inevitable clownocalypse. Calm your nerves, steady your aim and prepare to become the real reason dinosaurs went extinct in Stern’s 1983 arcade shooter Great Guns!

Great Guns, not-so-great title screen. It’s nice that the game’s creators get credit right there on the title screen, but it’s hardly a sumptuous visual feast that’ll draw in passing gamers, is it? You’d think there’d at least be a picture of a gun on there somewhere, but no. Just white sparkles that make it look as though the logo is being served with a pinch of salt.


Yep, Great Guns is a target shooting game that uses positional controls rather than lightguns. The guns in question are two honkin’ great full-sized rifles attached to the cabinet, for that authentic shooting experience. It makes reading Great Guns’ service manual fun, because the diagrams resemble a Fallout raider’s blueprints for shotgun traps.
As always when covering lightgun games, it’s important to remember that they’re a case where playing them via emulation doesn’t give a true indication of how good the game is. So much of the fun is tied up in the visceral enjoyment of actually holding the physical gun, plus I’ve got no way of knowing whether Great Guns’ controllers were reliable or accurate. With that in mind, here’s a tour of the shooting opportunities that Great Guns has to offer.


The carnival is in town, with all the thrilling rides and attractions that you’d expect – the rollercoaster, the haunted house, the strange and seemingly pointless pulley system that sits on top of the haunted house. All the favourites of kids young and old, I’m sure you’ll agree, and it’s up to you to ruin everyone’s day by shooting as many things marked with a white cross as possible. You’ve got a limited amount of ammo to score as many points as you can. Great Guns really is as simple as that.


Of course, all the elements of the stage are moving, so it’s not as straightforward as a still screenshot might suggest. The unicycling juggler moves across the bottom of the screen, for example, with each of his spinning balls being a viable target. Shoot them all to receive a golden medal and the undying gratitude of the populace for your part in reducing the number of unicycling jugglers in the world. No, not really, you just get points. All you ever get is points, and occasionally a few extra bullets.
As for the rest of the carnival, the carousel spins, people ride the rollercoaster and the planet’s most incompetent balloon salesman is constantly letting flocks of his product drift into the sky. Just look at the balloon man’s moustache, he’s clearly related to Dr. Robotnik. Incompetence just runs in the family, huh?. The obvious star of this scene is the ghost that pops up in the window of the haunted house, because they’re clearly having more fun than anyone else. Okay, so what’s in the next stage?


Sorry, not “stage,” I mean “gun channel.” I’ll stick around, I guess. I’ve been told it’s going to be exciting.


I suppose terror is a kind of excitement.
Yep, this screen all about shooting a floating clown head right in its hideous grinning face. Rather than the multiple targets of the carnival stage, the clown presents one or two targets at a time to test your precision shooting skills. There’s a target under his hat, targets pop out of his ears on springs and rather disturbingly the clown offers it’s own facial features as targets – urging the player to shoot it in the teeth or right in the eyes, all with a goofy smile on its face. It’s smiling because it knows that, as a clown, it cannot be harmed by something so mundane as a gun.


Something much less upsetting next, with a jolly little scene of a castle under siege by viking raiders. It feels a bit more interactive than the previous scenes, which helps; for example, shooting the gate open releases knights that you can hit, and knocking all the vikings out of their longboat causes it to sink. It’s definitely the “gun channel” that I enjoyed the most, thanks in no small part to the adorable sight of the king and queen cowering behind the parapets. That said, the real reason I enjoyed it is because after playing the first two stages I went into the dip switch settings and increased the size of the targets' hitboxes from “infant microsurgery level of precision” to “merely challenging.” Seriously, the default settings require absolutely pin-point shooting to score a hit, so the guns on the actual arcade cabinet better have been pretty bloody good. It doesn’t help that most of the targets are placed on round, coloured targets, because it tricks you into thinking that any hit on the round coloured target will be good enough. It isn’t. You have to hit the cross itself.


Less interesting than the castle scene is this screen of two poor fools locked in an endless catapult war. You can try to show them the futility of their struggle by shooting the catapulted boulders out of the air but they’ll never give up their endless war. Mind you, they look pretty cheerful. Maybe I’ve misread the situation and they’re actually boulder tradesmen who can’t afford a boat.
Also present are a sea monster with a particularly tricky target in its mouth, and a chap who had the misfortune to fly across a gun range in a hot-air balloon. Surprisingly you can’t pop the balloon. However, you can destroy its sandbags, and the lack of ballast causes it to drift up into the stratosphere. That’s definitely worse.


The time-travel continues, and now we’re back in a prehistoric scene seemingly designed specifically to annoy paleontologists. Cavemen, dinosaurs and elephants all in the same place? Preposterous! I suppose you could argue that it’s supposed to be a woolly mammoth, but there are two drawbacks to that interpretation; one, it’s not woolly and two, it’s an elephant. However, the most important aspect of this scene is that the caveman has been drawn with a very well-defined arsecrack. Go on, take a good look at that caveman’s backside. Delightful.


There are also some smaller, less involved scenes that I think are triggered by doing well on the previous scene. Don’t quote me on that, though. I certainly didn’t feel like I was doing well, especially on the rather difficult dinosaur scene. I tried taking it more slowly and going after precise shots, but if you go a couple of seconds without firing Great Guns penalises you by taking some of your bullets away.
Anyway, here some panthers run back and forth across the screen. Every time you shoot them, they run faster. If you do manage to hit them, and that’s hardly guaranteed, they flail around in a very Tom and Jerry pose for a seconds. That’s about all the excitement that this stage has to offer, if I’m honest.


Ah yes, the field where they grow the clowns. When a clown dies, usually in a battle for territory with a larger, more aggressive clown, their shiny red nose detaches from the corpse and releases a cloud of spores that, in turn, generate yet more red noses that will eventually develop into fully-grown clowns unless some brave person eliminates them during infancy. Make sure you shoot them all! If even one clown nose escapes, the process will begin all over again. You should really be using a flamethrower rather than a rifle for this scene, but needs must.


Here’s a wizard. According to Great Guns’ flyer, the wizard “emanates puffs of smoke from his fingertips,” which as far as wizard magic goes is a very poor showing. I suppose it’s a magic missile in the very loosest sense, but it’s hardly a fireball or something, is it? Also they look more like meatballs than smoke. I’m being unfair, of course. Considering this is a game from 1983, that’s a very impressive wizard. I know it’s easier to implement such a sprite when the only movement the wizard makes would be best described as “jazz hands,” but it’s still a nice sprite.


Finally, there’s this cro-magnon recreation of a Scooby Doo bit where the cavemen scuttle back and forth carrying targets, and when you shoot them they change directions. Again, not the most engaging shooting gallery I’ve ever played. I spent most of my time wondering why they’ve all got blue hair. Fashion, I suppose. Oh, no, I get it - they're all wearing hats made from the pelts of those blue panthers I shot earlier. They have yet to develop either the sartorial skill or the levels of shame needed to cover their cavemen nudity, mind you.


That’s it for Great Guns. The game’ll keep going until you either run out of bullets or get bored and stop playing, and while I was playing it it felt like a fifty-fifty shout between those two outcomes. I’ve already said that it’s kinda pointless to try to decide whether Great Guns is “good” without playing it on original hardware, but given the scenes that are presented to you I don’t think it’d suddenly become an excellent game with a fake rifle in your hands. It’s certainly not bad, at least once you’ve turned the difficulty level down, and the bigger scenes are quite charming in their way. I think it’s just that Great Guns is old enough that it’s right on the cusp of being too simple for me to really enjoy all that much. It really is just point and shoot, with no power-ups or special challenges to liven things up. On the plus side, it does realise that all clowns should be eliminated and therefore serves a valuable purpose as an educational tool.

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