While selecting what game I'm going to write about for the next VGJunk article isn't a considered and meticulous process at the best of times, occasionally a game floats across my radar that demands instant attention. Maybe it's the box art, maybe it's a sudden desire to play as that particular character, and sometimes it's simpy the game's title that grabs my game-flaps. That's the cse today, as I realised that I had little choice but to fully investigate Sega's 1986 Master System title Comical Machine Gun Joe.
Already points have been lost, because that title screen makes no mention of the comical nature of the game. Joe has grown up, he's matured, he has no time for comicality any more. That's assuming Joe was the comical element mentioned in the long title, at least. Maybe he's got a really funny machine gun. I intend to find out.
Comical Machine Gun Joe isn't a game that's big on pointless fripperies, or setting the scene, or options, or anything really. Simply press start and the action begins with no preamble. This machine gun is comical, after all, and it knows that brevity is the soul of wit. So, hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand?
Oh, I see, the harbour. I appreciate your clear and concise response.
That's Joe at the bottom of the screen, clad in the famously-hilarious purple trenchcoat and wide-brimmed hat ensemble. The title makes it pretty clear that this is a game about shooting things, and so it proves to be.
Comical Machine Gun Joe is a singlescreen shoting gallery not massively dissimilar from games like Wild Guns and the NES Punisher. You move Joe across the bottom of the screen, firing at the enemies who pop up around the playing field. Shoot the required number of enemies and the boss appears, kill the boss and you can move on to the next stage. Joe can also jump, which turns out to be the best way to avoid incoming enemy fire, so remember that next time you're in a live-fire combat situation.
I know what you're thinking - aside from the fact that Joe sort of looks like a nattily-dressed Koopa Trooper in profile, there's little of a comical nature to be found. Well, Sega did incorporate some features that, while it would be a stretch to describe them as funny, do go some way to giving the game a more child-like atmosphere. Literally childlike when you get shot, because if you lose a life Joe either shrinks or is turned into a kid. It's difficult to tell which it is, because his miniaturised frame is obscured by his now oversized clothes and he waddles off screen.
This also happens to the enemies. When you shoot them, they turn into tiny homunculi that drift down the screen. If Joe touches them, these miniaturised hoodlums cling on for dear life, slowing your movements until you shake them loose by jumping around like an electrocuted kangaroo for a while. See! That's comical, right? In this way, Sega have managed to create a shoot-em-up that does away with the darkness and death of a gunfight by giving everyone magic guns that turn people into children. Another chance at my teenage years? I think I'd rather take the usual gut-shot-and-slowly-bleed-to-death option, thanks.
Eventually I killed / regressed enough mooks to draw out the boss, and here he is. No, not the giant spider. I'll get to him later. The boss is the red-suited chap at the top of the screen with the deformed legs. At first I took him to be just another gangster, but a closer look at his face has caused me to reconsider.
Yep, I think he's actually a Cylon. The red dot I orginally took to be his nose is actually his eye-light. He almost had me fooled, too. They're tricky, these Cylons.
The boss fires more bullets than his subordinates, but he's barely any tougher so as long as you keep moving and hit him in between his volleys of fire, you shouldn't have too much trouble dispatching him and you can head down town.
I'm only at the second stage, and already I've seen almost everything that Hilarious Assault Weapon Steve has to offer. I hope you like those goons in the yellow coats, because they're the only enemies in the game besides the boss. There's no variation in the gameplay, either, although there are a couple of power-ups I should mention. Once per stage an enemy will drop a red hat when killed, and if you can grab the hat before it floats off the screen you'll be rewarded with rapid-fire capabilities. Simply hold down the fire button of a continuous stream of thug-shrinking bullets. Fantastic! Except Sega seems to have included it purely as a way to get you killed through overconfidence. Once you have rapid fire, you'll be tempted to stand still and hose everything and everyone down with a hail of bullets. Do not do this. You will get shot and have to repeat junior school.
The boss showed up. She's a singing schoolgirl. This bring the total number of unique enemies in Cheerful Semi-Automatic Kevin to three, and that's all of them. At least the sudden appearance of this boss, a schoolgirl committed to murdering Joe by singing bullets at him, raised a smile. Yes, Joe was smiling as he gunned down the teenage girl in the middle of the street. Oh, and the bosses don't shrink when you kill them. They turn into charred, blackened skeletons. Comical!
Stage three is the saloon. I'd love to tell you more, but that's it, this game is now completely devoid of new ideas. The only thing that changes from here on in is the backgrounds, and I can at least say that I like the saloon. It's charming in its own low-res way, although I'm not sure why there are two viking shields mounted on the walls. Either go the whole hog and turn your bar into a Norse drinking hall complete with axe-throwing competitions and flagons of mead the size of portable toilets or don't bother.
The boss was the red gangster again. I had the rapid-fire power-up, so I killed him almost instantly and thus didn't get a screenshot of him in time. I did, however, get one of the aftermath.
Joe takes the "winner-stays-on" rules of the pool table very seriously.
Now we're in a graveyard. Joe has no goal, no end game, he's just wandering around various parts of the city, de-ageing anyone he comes across.
The graveyard is such a goddamn disappointment, too. I know not everyone shares my appreciation of the macabre, but would it have been too much effort for Sega to include an enemy here that wasn't a man in a yellow coat? A ghost, maybe? The occasional skeleton? They already drew a skeleton sprite, they could have at least given it some firepower. All I want is a dancing, gun-toting skeleton to appear. Is that too much to ask?
The graveyard does have one semi-interesting feature - if you manage to stay alive for ninety seconds without killing an enemy, night falls and you get 100,000 points. At least it makes the spiders feel more appropriate. Ah yes, the giant spiders. Right, pay close attention to this because it doesn't get even in the same postcode as anything approaching logic. Every now and then, a pig will wander across the screen. Shoot the pig, and it drops a blue orb. You can pick the orb up and throw it, whereupon it explodes and kills every enemy on the screen. It's weird enough that the pig is carrying a grenade, but once you throw the bomb it gets even weirder, because it summons a giant spider that hangs around the middle of the screen. The spider can't be harmed and it deflects your bullets, meaning it can be a right pain in the arse to shoot any of the enemies behind it. So there you go, that's why there are giant spiders. The pigs have weaponised their eggs into improvised explosive devices. I'd say that's not so much comical as it is barking mad.
Stage five is the laziest of the lot, as it's just Down Town with a different palette. I guess Joe had to wait for the heat to cool off before he could return to the scene of his earlier rampage to finish the job
It's not like the gameplay is working overtime to hold the player's interest, either. While the basics all work fairly well, and the red hat power-up and the tiny clinging gangsters make it slightly more than bleached desert utterly devoid of the water of fun, the lack of... well, anything interesting quickly leaves Jovial Autocannon Hank feeling like a bit of a chore to play. That feeling isn't helped by Joe's limited range of fire. Enemies can appear anywhere on the screen, but Joe can only fire in five directions: straight up, left, right and at forty-five degree angles, meaning you seem to spend a lot of time not quite being able to get the correct angle to shoot the bad guys, who (surprise surprise) aren't hampered by the same limitations.
Then Joe's fragile mental state completely collapses and he heads off to Fairyland. What in the hell is going on with those trees? The one at the back has the standard "wise old man of the forest" face, but married to an expression of idiot rage (probably because Joe keeps shooting him) while the one on the left is just straight-up bizarre. Are those apples? Does that tree grow clown noses? Yeah, it's probably that. Further evidence that anything related to clowns comes from a nightmarish otherworld where the trees have faces and bulletproof arachnids roam the forests.
Once again the boss was the red-clad gunman, and after a bit of investigation I found out that if you manage to kill that boss before he can fire ten shots - not a difficult task if you've picked up the auto-fire - then the next boss will be the schoolgirl. Apparently, the schoolgirl is tougher than the gangster, which I can believe: if I've learned anything from playing all these videogames it's that any schoolgirl you encounter is likely to have some ridiculous superpower, from martial arts mastery to whatever the hell fuels Sailor Moon's combat abilities. Tiny skirts, I reckon.
Fairyland is the final stage, except it's not because Comical Machine Gun Joe continues on an endless loop, an unending high-score chase of skeletonised schoolgirls and grenade-carrying pigs. I wasn't expecting a forty-minute Metal Gear Solid-style cutscene but c'mon, a "Congratulations!" might have been nice. Comical Machine Gun Joe isn't an easy game, after all, and I didn't find out that there's an invincibility cheat until I'd been most of the way through the second loop and given up out of boredom. Maybe once you've completed ten loops you get one screen like this:
But I very much doubt it.
Whether Sega were trying to keep Comical Machine Gun Joe simple and breezy or they just didn't try very hard I don't know, but in the end this is a game that doesn't aim high and yet still somehow seems disappointing. It's main crime is blandness - not enough enemies, only one music track and a lack of power-ups all come together to push the game down from "simplistic" to "boring." The name might be fantastic in it's wonderful weirdness, but in the end that's really be best thing about it.