"Riot," sang the Dead Kennedys, "the unbeatable high." They probably weren't talking about today's game - the hardcore politicised punk bands of the eighties rarely wrote songs about arcade games, although I think TSOL might have had one about Galaga in their repertoire - but the game is called Riot, and while its highs may not be unbeatable they are consistently strange enough to keep a big, stupid grin on my face.
Or maybe it's not called Riot: there's definitely more going on in the Japanese title than just that one word. I couldn't find a proper translation anywhere, but I think the first symbol is "thunder," the second means "creak" and the last one refers to the Big Dipper. Why yes, I did recognise it from Fist of the North Star. Not that this leaves me any the wiser as to Riot's full title. Something like Big Dipper Thundercrack Riot? I think I'll stick with Riot, and maybe leave the translating to those more qualified.
Riot is a 1992 arcade game by an obscure company called NMK. I've never heard of them before, but it seems like they might be connected to Tecmo as Riot apparently runs on Tecmo arcade hardware. I was looking for NMK, as an unknown quantity, to shock and surprise me with their attempt to stand out from the pack, to make their mark on the crowded arcade scene with something new and innovative, and by god they nearly lost me in the first thirty seconds by having this guy as the hero.
Fresh from his appearance in every run-n-gun game ever, it's Military Man with a Vest and a Gun! As far as I know that's his actual name - the game certainly never tells you what this guy's mother calls him. He doesn't even get a cool code-name like "Snake" or "Super Joe," so we'll have to settle for calling him "hero," or possibly "Action Man." He does look like he's got the appropriate fuzzy-felt hair.
Action Man first appears in the intro, standing perfectly still as a helicopter shoots at him. Sounds foolish, but it works because the helicopter pilot forgets to take into account the gap between his guns. Action Man stands unscathed between the two lines of fire, and then shoots the helicopter until it blows up.
Yes, it's the standard One Man Army set-up, one of the great pillars that hold aloft the whole of videogaming along with "The Princess has Been Kidnapped" and "The World's Strongest Fighters Gather for a Dust-Up." Riot takes the simplicity of this familiar plotline one step further by not bothering to tell you who you are, who you work for or what qualifications you have for world saviourhood beyond "owning a vest and a gun." Well, I suppose if it's good enough for John McClane, it's good enough for me. One thing you are told is who you'll be fighting, and this knowledge offers the first hint that maybe Riot won't be quite as generic as the attract mode suggests.
You'll be facing off against the Magic Tigers. What are their goals? Who knows. Why am I attacking them? It's never explained, but all signs point to them wanting to take over the world. Also this guy's outfit looks to be cause for some punishment in itself, particularly the shoulder-claws that make it look like his head's constantly performing a perplexed shrug.
You do learn about their weapons, though, and they have two - special weapons, and sorcery. Wizards 'n' shit. All that Hogwarts stuff. You don't get that in Contra. Now I'm definitely excited to see what's waiting for me in Riot, so let's get going!
There's no rush, though - Johnny Generic here has to have a cigarette break before he can get going. Hang on, "We can't let them get away?" Who's he talking to? His gun? It's probably his gun. I bet he talks to his gun a lot, but I won't be too worried until it starts talking back.
Okay, here we go, we're off and Riot-ing our way through a ruined city, shooting at bad guys and keeping our eyes peeled for sorcerers / warlocks / anyone with a top hat or a balloon animal. Riot is a crosshair shoot-em-up, similar to titles like the NES Punisher game or cyber-Western funtime bullet extravaganza Wild Guns. You move both your character and a crosshair - you move with the joystick but you stand still while you're firing, allowing you to move the crosshair around the screen. You can also press a button to roll, just like in Wild Guns, but unlike that game rolling doesn't make you invincible. I suppose that makes sense. Somersaulting into a bullet will only take the edge off, at most.
Then Riot throws a curveball at you - while you're plinking away at the enemies in the background, suddenly you're attacked from the foreground! It might sound like I'm being sarcastic, but I really was not expecting this. You see, in Riot you have two fire buttons - one for shooting into the background, and one for shooting into the foreground. This dual field of attack is the game's big gimmick, although to call it a gimmick is perhaps a little unfair; it really is a good, solid gameplay mechanic that I'm surprised more games in this genre didn't use. It definitely leaves you feeling surrounded and claustrophobic, pinned down on all sides, and it turns the game into almost a precursor of today's cover-based shooters. As you can see in the screenshot, there are things like the sandbags that you can hide behind, but they only protect you from one side so you have to move between cover often, clearing out the foreground enemies while you're protected from the guys in the distance, or vice versa.
You might also have noticed something else in the above screenshot that seems a little out of place.
I have no idea why Robocop's corpse is propped up in the background of the first stage, but there it is. Perhaps the implication is that not even Robocop was tough enough to take on the Magic Tigers, but why would he be? He's designed to combat urban crime, not take on an association of heavily-armed guerillas and wannabe Gandalfs in a jungle environment.
Oh, did I mention I'm in the jungle now? Because I am. I rolled down a ramp and then fell approximately 150 feet head-first into an ankle-deep river, but I'm okay. The Nameless Soldier didn't get where he is today (in a river, in the jungle) by obeying the laws of physics.
Honestly, once I've explained the basic elements there's little else I can say about Riot's gameplay. The background /foreground situation lifts it above many similar games, the action is as frantic as you would expect the tale of one man fighting an army to be, and the only problem I have with the game's mechanics is that there's no auto-fire and pressing the button each time you want to shoot can get very tiring.
I'm especially happy that NMK gave Mr. Riot a health bar, because if one-hit-deaths were in effect this game would quickly become overly frustrating to play - not because of the difficulty (although it's not easy) but because there's so much going on that it's very easy to be hit by a bullet you couldn't see to avoid.
Those skulls in the background, though - they see everything, or at least they will if you shoot that urn that's blocking their line of sight. The skulls don't attack you, incidentally. They just like to watch.
Not content with the abandoned town and the jungle, Riot throws yet another location into the first stage with this rather Indiana Jones-feeling temple, complete with spike traps and scimitar-wielding soldiers from mystic Arabia. I should point out that our hero was captured in mid-roll when the above screenshot was taken, thus explaining his rather inelegant pose. There is definitely no connection between his spread-eagled position, the turban-wearing gentlemen and the rapidly advancing spiked wall, and any connection that you're thinking of now is entirely your own twisted delusion.
After all that, here's the first boss. I'm guessing he's on the "magic" end of things rather than the "special weapons," unless his special weapon is to make me laugh by maintaining that facial expression for the entire fight. He's so shocked that a mere man and his vest could get past his countless troops that his face has become locked in a permanent state of slack-jawed bogglement. It's not making me feel particularly threatened, I can tell you that much, and neither does the fact that he looks like a gremlin wearing one of my nan's dressing gowns. This boss battle should be over in a flash!
At this point, Riot goes a bit mental. The military theme of stage one, sometimes stretched thin but always fairly grounded in some approximation of reality, is complete done away with as the boss transports you to his own personal dimension filled with clouds, flying castles and stone golems. It was... a surprise. When they said that the Magic Tigers were going to fight with, you know, magic, I expected lighting bolts or fire breath, not entire pocket universes where the laws of physics do not apply. And it's great! Much better than something as dreary as a battle with a tank or a war-mech or a slightly larger man, as is usually the case with the boss battles in games like this. The Magic Tigers obviously saw our hero fuck up that helicopter in the intro; they know that mere military hardware won't stop him, so instead they tried this, whatever this is.
The fight itself is fairly straightforward: the boss hovers around, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes in the background. All you need to do is shoot him, although this is somewhat complicated by the legion of mud-men the boss can summon from the ground. Just keep firing and rolling, you'll get there in the end and stage one will be finished!
"They use strange magic... not the usual kind magic that my vague military training has prepared me for..."
Shoot Toughman sees a light at the end of the tunnel, and we all have a merry time joking that it's an oncoming train. Turns out it might be, because stage two starts out in some kind of trainyard.
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, and here I am stuck in the middle with nothing but a machinegun for company. Oh, and a flamethrower. There was a flamethrower hidden in an oil drum. I had no idea that oil drums could contain power-ups, but I have been so thoroughly conditioned by all the other barrel-filled shooters I've played that I prioritised the oil drum over the enemies, assuming it would explode and kill everyone nearby. It did, and the flamethrower was just an added bonus.
Soon our hero falls from a platform in the trainyards and onto a train itself, fighting his way past the helicopters, jeeps and scimitar men until he reaches the mid-boss. Care to hazard a guess what you'll be tangling with?
That's right, it's time for Riot Man versus Gorillas in the Fist. Because he tries to punch you, you see. In fact that's all he can do, and the fight turns out to be the easiest bit of the game so far. At first I was surprised at the lack of challenge posed by the angry yet nattily-dressed ape, but after some deeper thought I came to a realisation: why in the hell would the gorilla be a challenge? So far I've destroyed helicopters and hoverbikes, I've killed dozens of men armed with weapons ranging from blow-darts to assault rifles, and I've even beaten a wizard. This is just a monkey, and I'm a man with a gun. Gorillas are endangered, thanks in large part to men with guns. The odds are rather tipped in my favour. Sorry, Kong. Your waistcoat can't save you now.
Beyond the ape lies more train, more gunfighting and these extremely rude bald men who attack by jumping onto the screen and flipping you the bird. I mean, they can also attack with guns, but by the time they've got halfway through their obscene hand gesture I've mown them down so it's rare to see them attacking with anything more potent than bad manners.
I feel like I've wandered into something I shouldn't be witnessing, here. Specifically, I feel like I've stumbled upon a meeting where the mighty Thor is relaying orders to his Mafia subordinates beneath a baleful idol carved from solidified demon's blood. It's an odd little tableaux, made all the stranger by fakey-Thor's nonchalant pose and the way that the enemies don't get up to attack you right away. They sit and observe you for a moment and then yes, you guessed it, Riot goes a bit mental.
Once more our hero is whisked into a separate lump of space-time. The creepy statue bobs around in the background while the boss, still seated as though he's doing nothing more stressful than watching Countdown, flies around in a bulletproof bubble.
This fight is actually very similar to the first boss fight (and, it must be said, to most of the other boss fights in the game); the mafia henchmen, now transformed into muscular bird-men, attack you while the boss moves around the screen. The big difference is that you can only shoot the boss when he drops his bubble-shield to attack you. Between the chunky harpies, the boss' attacks and your attempts to keep an eye on whether he's vulnerable to a bullet in the face or not, this fight represents a big hike in the difficulty level. In two-player mode - always the preferred way to enjoy a game like this - things are much simpler because one of you can concentrate on the foreground while the other watches the background, but with a single player you just can't fire fast enough to cover all the angles of attack. In the end, I resigned myself to taking a lot of damage and all but ignored the birds, concentrating on the boss when his defenses are lowered. I died a few times, but I had extra credits. Not-Thor didn't. Stage two complete!
I guess my work here is done. I managed to resist the temptation to pose the corpses in a variety of embarrassing ways for the cleaning lady to find, somehow, although that screenshot does make it look like I'm stealing the boss' wallet.
Our hero declares that the Magic Tigers "must be heading back to their hideout," so that's where stage three takes place. The hideout has a wrecking ball, which you fight as a miniboss and is slightly more deadly than the gorilla, if you're into ranking these things.
The second half of the stage mostly takes place in a series of small rooms, including a well-stocked bar, and while the gameplay hasn't changed any it does make it easier to appreciate some of the aesthetic flourishes that Riot contains. This mostly takes the form of that personal favourite of mine - destructible scenery. I don't know why it impresses me so much, but it always does and it always proves to be a liability because I spend more time executing the light fittings than I do dealing with the armed thugs. Is that really all I want? A destructible scenery simulator with no enemies or time limit, just Ming vases on rickety stools and an M16 with unlimited ammo? No, I'm sure there has to be more to it than that, and destructible scenery is just a neat way of making me feel more connected with the areas in which a game takes place.
Also, never mind blowing things up, my favourite little touch in this area is that when the enemies are moving behind the glass you can only see them as vague shadows. You can still shoot them, mind.
A Nazi, standing on a desk. I like his rug, but his furniture-climbing ways are terribly uncivilised and I'm ready to take him down a peg or two, or three, or however many pegs down you have to go before someone's in a coffin. I'm ready for you, magic Nazi, and whatever you can throw at me.
I take it back. I wasn't ready for him to turn into a giant cat with an elongating neck that stalks its prey beneath a full moon. I don't see how I could have been ready for that. Hell, I don't see how the boss could have been ready for that. I know he's some kind of wizard, but how in the hell do you practise a spell that warps someone to a windswept field while you turn into albino panther? That's a bloody specific trick, and I have to imagine that it's the only one he knows. It's just so needlessly complicated - if you have the power of cat-transmogrification all figured out, then why not just turn your enemy into a kitten? Why the stretchy neck? What's wrong with good old-fashioned dark lightning? Why, in my day wizards killed people just by waving a stick at them and saying some magic words!
At least the giant cat makes for a giant target, and soon enough Generic Soldier 01 stands victorious once more over the forces of cat-fancying wizardry.
You might have noticed something... about our hero... He really likes... ellipses...
And once again, he's saying "we." He's either still talking to his gun or he's gone right up himself and started using the Royal we.
Stage four, and I'm in a helicopter. Somehow. I think gravity has followed the lead of subtlety and coherent storytelling and has abandoned ship, leaving our hero free to stand at a ninety-degree angle to the ground without falling to his death
There's not much else to say about this stage - it all takes place inside the helicopter, so the difficulty is increased by the lack of things to hide behind, but otherwise it's the same foreground-background blastathon that I've gotten used to. The backgrounds are nice, so there's that. There's also a boss, of course, and this one doesn't even transform into a gargantuan cat or anything!
Nope, just a million grenade-tossing matador skydivers. Is this weirder than the giant cat or reclining Thor? I have no idea any more, I've lost all sense of perspective on the matter. I think the most shocking opponent I could face now would be a regular soldier with a regular gun, a simple man who doesn't turn into a bronze wallaby or has a hidden legion of sentient broccoli do his bidding. He just shoots you, with his gun, and I'd never see it coming. Let's hope Magic Tiger never get wind of this.
By the way, this fight is much harder than the one against the giant cat. I told you that was a rubbish spell. Once the skydivers have been killed, a difficult task made even harder because that it's around this point that trigger-button fatigue was starting to kick in, Magic Tiger step up their evil plans by attacking a target so innocent, so pure, so holy that our hero is disgusted by the very thought of such a disgraceful act. But what could their target be? An animal shelter? An orphanage? An orphanage where the orphans spend all their time raising money for the animal shelter?
No-one, and I mean no-one, gets between this guy and his off-the-rail clothing bargains and well-stocked cologne counter. That said, the final question mark betrays a certain hesitance to fully commit to the idea that a terrorist attack on Debenhams is the thing that took their bloody conflict "too far".
Dear god no, not the children's mural! You monsters!
The rooftop play area is a nice change of pace, made even better because I'm fairly sure that background art is based on the works on American children's illustrator Richard Scarry. I'm sure I've seen that dog in the suit in one of Scarry's books, and compare the cat-heads in the screenshot to some of Scarry's work.
It's not one hundred percent conclusive, but it's similar enough that my first thought upon seeing this background was "hey, it sure looks like Richard Scarry drew that" so I reckon there's something in it. On the list of things I expected in an arcade shooter called Riot, Richard Scarry-style artwork was pretty far towards the bottom. Then again, so was a crack squad of elaborately-costumed parachutists - Riot is nothing if not full of surprises. My only disappointment is that there's no appearance from Lowly Worm.
Why did Magic Tiger attack a department store? Who the hell knows, but I like to think that they saw how much I like destroying the scenery so they took the fight somewhere that I could freely indulge my glass-smashing compulsions. Don't worry, I'm shooting the bad guys too - the shop fittings just take priority, that's all.
After the madness of previous stages, the boss of the mall is surprisingly sedate, relaxed even, too lazy to even stand up and fight. Instead, he clones himself and flits about the screen, firing lightning and generally being a pain in the arse. He's another one that only vulnerable at certain times, and just as I always do when faced with that kind of boss, I put my own safety on the back-burner and concentrated on his openings. I mean, I struck when he revealed himself. Oh man, this fight has become such a minefield of entendre that I'd better finish this guy off quickly!
After he's defeated, our hero interrogates him about the whereabouts of Magic Tiger's leader. Magic Tiger's snipers can expect some very disappointing performance evaluations soon, because while they do manage to blow out their comrade's brains, they do it after he's told me where their boss is. Oh well, it saves me a bullet.
The final boss is waiting in the mansion on the hill, except in this case "mansion" means "ancient Japanese castle".
A very heavily guarded ancient Japanese castle, at that. I would like to think that the irony of starting your final, most dangerous mission in a Zen garden was intentional, and if so then well played NMK. I laughed, but my laughter was tempered by the nagging thought that someone was going to have a hell of a time raking all that gravel back into place once I was through. Maybe that should have been a post-credits minigame - your rampage of bloody murder is over, now calm your soul with some meditative sand-arranging. Shit, there's a 3DS title just waiting to be made there. Expect to see VGJunk's Zen Garden Creation Kit at your nearest games retailer soon.
Fighting against gorillas: much more difficult when a) there are two of them and b) men keep shooting you in the back. Actually, it's b) that causes all the problems, fighting two gorillas doesn't take much more skill than fighting one of them.
Then you reach this guy. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say he's probably the final boss. Non-final bosses rarely get to sit in grand lava-filled throne rooms, waiting for the protagonist to make it past the twin gorillas that guard their chambers. Plus, he's the guy from the intro. I hope he's not upset that I ragged on his outfit earlier, and I'm sure he'll fight with the fairness and honour that exists between all true rivals.
Or he'll ride around on a giant dragon's head, firing lasers from his eyes. Extremely difficult to dodge lasers, a definite problem with having a roll move that doesn't make you invincible. Better shoot his eyes out, then. In fact, that's the only way to hurt the boss, and given the weirdness of some of Riot's previous boss battles a wizard riding a dragon seems a little... pedestrian, a touch obvious. Wizards and dragons just naturally go together, so there's no surprise to see them teaming up. Sure, they're not usually fighting a gun-toting, battle-hardened merc, but still, something a little less Tolkien-y would have been nice.
After a sustained period of hot lead/eyeball interaction, the leader of the Magic Tigers is destroyed, his ill-defined plans crumbling along with his mortal body. Next time, he might like to consider attacking a target with more strategic importance than the local shopping centre, but for now he is defeated and the world is once again safe. Well, safe from the Magic Tigers, at any rate.
The boss left behind a medallion, a medallion so violently garish that our hero can't even bring himself keep it. He was going to take it for a valuation at the nearest pawn shop, but that was in the department store and, well, you know. A demonic face appears in the pendant's crystal, its dark power not yet entirely destroyed, it shall rise again, blah blah blah. Our hero doesn't notice, because he's already walking away. I hope some innocent child doesn't find this eldritch amulet and release diabolical forces beyond the ken of man, because then I might feel bad about having left this evil artifact just lying out in the open. Oh well, time for the credits roll.
Or so you might think, but it looks like NMK forgot to include one. There's a montage showing the grave as the seasons pass, and it seems like the perfect place to, oh, I don't know, maybe give some credit to the people who worked on the game... but nope, there's just the pictures.
Oh great, now the grave is starting to writhe. Really, NMK? Are you really going to end this game with the standard Carrie shock ending? After the insanity of the preceding game, you're going to cop out right at the end by having Magic Tiger's hand shoot from the grave?
It's a mole! An adorable and almost certainly not-evil mole. Oh Riot, I should never have doubted you.
Well, that's it from Riot, and I'm gonna reach deep into my bag of ways to rate videogames and pull out a big thumbs up. Riot isn't a complex game - you shoot things until they die and avoid getting shot yourself. It's been done before and since, but rarely with this level of polish and almost never with this amount of sheer head-scratching what-the-hell's-going-on-ness. The gameplay is good; it's solid, difficult without being unfair thanks to the lifebar and a generous amount of power-ups, and the way you're made to fight on two planes gives Riot something to set it apart from its peers on the gameplay front.
The presentation is great too - excellent music that I'm still trying to find a copy of because I want to hear it without the endless rattle of gunfire over the top, married with strong visuals that are detailed but very rarely clutter the screen.
Then there's the setting - guns versus magic, wizards against men that make Rambo look like Gandhi, shotguns blasting away at Nazi werecats. It's just... fun. There's nothing more I can add to get the point across, really. The world of Riot is a baffling, over-the-top, unfathomable and perfectly suited to the excesses of the arcade shoot-em-up genre. If you like Contra, or Wild Guns, or barminess given digital life, then you should probably give Riot a go.
P.S. During the writing of this article, every time I tried to write "Magic Tigers" I actually wrote "Mad Tigers." For this, I can only blame Knights of the Round.