The night grows dark. A chill mist sweeps across the land. My MP3 player is suddenly filled with rock songs from the credits of Eighties slasher movies. It can mean only one thing - it's October, and Halloween time is here! Okay, it means two things, because it also signals the start of VGJunk's Fourth Annual Spooktacular Halloween Season! That's right, for the next month I'll be writing about horror-themed games full of ghosts, ghouls and gore, and boy am I looking forward to it. To begin, here's a look at SNK's 1989 arcade zombies-vs-Uzis-em-up Beast Busters!
Just the other week I wrote about Operation Wolf 3, a fixed-gun arcade shooter that plays very similarly to Beast Busters, with the same trigger-for-bullets, special-button-for-grenades set up, and I complained about its uninteresting setting and dismal digitized graphics. Beast Busters is what I wanted Operation Wolf 3 to be - the same relentless shooting action, but wrapped up in a bizarre world of undead monsters and terrifying living jeeps. Please don't judge me on the fickle nature of my lightgun-game affections, I just really love this horror stuff.
There is a town. It is doomed. I think they mean it's doomed because it's packed to the rafters with undead freaks, but given my level of competence at shooting games it's also doomed to become the most bullet-hole-riddled town in America. Well, maybe it'll take second place, I hear Detroit is pretty rough these days.
These are the three brave young men sent in to bust some beasts. Their names are Johnny Justice, Paul Patriot and Sammy Stately. Government-issued codenames or cruel parenting? I'm not sure, but Paul Patriot looks the most likely to get the job done, dressed as he is in some kind of military get-up. The other two look like a house painter and an out-of-work Chuck Norris impersonator.
We're off, and a gun-toting zombie draws a bead on me while a rabid dog leaps forwards in an attempt to insert itself into my thoracic cavity. Oh October, how I have missed you.
As I've mentioned, the gameplay works exactly as you'd expect it to: point your gun at the enemies and pull the trigger to kill them, and if there are too many enemies you can use the button on the side of the gun to launch a grenade from your limited supply of portable explosive devices. Is the gun you're using an Uzi?
What a silly question, of course it is. Here's a picture from the arcade flyer to confirm, but it's not like you needed telling. This is an arcade shooter from the late Eighties, after all.
Beast Busters wastes no time in throwing vast swarms of mutant freaks in front of your crosshairs, and only a few screens into the first stage I've already seen more dead, unfeeling eyes and pallid grey flesh than at a thousand Linux conventions. This is as it should be, the arcade experience being one that's larger than life or at least larger than what the home consoles of the time could produce, and I'm more than happy to clamp my finger down over the trigger and turn zombies into twitching piles of their constituent parts with wild abandon and no regard for my ammo counter. Oh yeah, you have "limited" ammo in Beast Busters, and you collect more by shooting the bullet icons that appear on-screen, but it's not really a concern. I had to purposefully avoid shooting any ammo pick ups before I could run out, and all that happens is that your firing rate slows way, way down until you pick up more rounds.
Here's stage one's miniboss, and it's a rain of dogs, a dizzying dervish of dobermans, a terrifying tornado of slavering, foam-mouthed canines.
It is in situations such as these that your special weapons come in handy. I managed to collect some incendiary grenades just before this battle, and they could only have been more effective if they shouted "bad dog! sit!" when you threw them.
A little further on is the real boss of the stage, a leather-clad punk who is really embracing his transformation into an unhallowed creature of the night by throwing knives at anyone who passes by. I tell you, you give this guy lemons and he makes lemonade. He makes the lemonade by stabbing the lemons with a switchblade, but it's the thought that counts.
As with most boss battle in the genre, this fight consists of you trying to shoot the boss while also using your uzi to shoot any projectile he throws at you out of the air. This guy's projectiles are knives, but later on you'll be shooting all manner of fireballs and gelatinous blobs out of the sky. It's not a tactic that works well for the knife-slinging punk, and after a while he decides to try a different strategy.
This new strategy is to turn into a dog and run around the screen at ridiculous speeds in the hope that I'll waste all my bullets while trying to shoot him. It's not a good strategy. Stage two, here I come!
It's all too much for our heroes, and after only one area they realise they're in way over their heads and decide to make their escape.
Make their escape, run away, however you want to phrase it, it all amounts to the same thing - being trapped in an elevator while monsters attack from every angle.
In my grey and dusty dotage, when I look back on the time I spent writing these articles, the memory of seeing of a zombified eagle carrying an undead American football player up a lift shaft will surely still seem as bright and wonderful as it feels right now. There's a whole 'nother world written in this unexpected symbiosis of jock and bird, the story of how the mascot of the Buster City Eagles football team was first infected with the zombie virus that also claimed the humanity of his friend and star quarterback Stan "The Slab" Slabowski, the chilling tale of their subsequent infernal pact to spread destruction and mayhem through the city. I'm going to stop in a moment, because otherwise this is going to turn into full-on Beast Busters fanfiction, but before I do I should just mention that if you shoot the eagles first, the football players fall to their un-deaths, panicking and flailing their arms. It's pretty great.
Waiting for you at the end of the stage are the two bosses, a pair of speedo-wearing masked hunks that alternate between shooting at you and lunging crotch-first towards your head. They look like a bizarre amalgam of the Blue Man Group, an underwear model and Jason Voorhees, with some added Cho Aniki feelings stirred up by their muscular and revealing jumping pose. They're so wonderfully odd that I felt kind of bad about shooting them, especially once I saw that they were wielding Uzis. We could have been Uzi Buddies! The Mysterious Order of Cool Uzi Dudes (No Girls Allowed)! Sadly, it was not to be and the only way to progress was to gun them down. C'est la vie.
Oh, so we've decided to forget about escaping, have we? Because it seems like we're walking further into the city. Hey, I'm not complaining: after the eagle-football / player and hockey-masked Dr. Manhattan tag teams I'm eager to see what lies further ahead. In stage three's case, what lies ahead is cars full of rowdy zombies, collapsing buildings packed with zombies, shopping centres with a zombie in every window and doorway, zombies, zombies, zombies! What's that? You don't think that's enough putrifying flesh and soul-chilling groaning to keep you satisfied? Well then why then hell didn't you say so, we'll ship in a fresh truckload of zombies just for you!
The very finest reanimated corpses of the dead delivered right to your door! If you're not absolutely satisfied with this product, then feel free to mow them down with your submachine gun, there are plenty more where they came from!
Ahem. Sorry about that, I've been suffering from insomnia recently and you know there's nothing on TV at 3am except infomercials.
There are a few parts of the game that use this sprite-scaling, into-the-screen viewpoint, and stage three's has a few issues with scale. That zombie woman on the right is taller than a two-storey building, but in a game as over-the-top as Beast Busters I suppose that could easily be intentional. Makes you wonder where she got a pistol that size, though.
The boss is a motorcycle display team who have turned their hog-handling talents to murder. Their motorcycles only serve to make them bigger targets, but it's okay because they have a back-up plan: Molotov cocktails. Once you've destroyed their bikes, the three of them switch to launching a stream of firebombs at you. It's challenging, but I wonder if that was because part of me had given up a little. If I'm going to die, I'd rather it be because a motorcycle fired a missile at me, not an agonising death by immolation. Still, I could always douse the flames by jumping into this nearby river.
Safer sounds good. I'm up for a cruise along the river, maybe I'll get in a spot of fishing
Oh yes, this is much safer. I feel very safe.
I've been calling the humanoid enemies zombies (and I don't intend to stop) but I think that's doing them a disservice: no simple brainless cannibals these, and so far I've seen them riding motorcycles, operating firearms, driving cars and trucks and now piloting small watercraft. Not pictured: the mutant piranhas that leap from the water. I'm not sure how I didn't managed to get a decent shot of one, because there are bloody hundreds of them. If someone had told me that this river was actually the Amazon, I might have thought twice about coming down here.
Yep, definitely regretting my river cruise now. How do you make your tentacled, faecal lump of a mid-boss more nauseating? By giving it a human face with the relaxed expression of someone who has just enjoyed a refreshing meditation session or, appropriately, a satisfying bowel movement. The horror of this beast is slightly diminished by the cabbages it uses as projectiles, but only slightly.
The river stage's main boss is somehow even more grotesque - a clump of zombies rolled up together and controlled by a sinister eyeball, a foul katamari of blind idiot rage and surprisingly well-toned muscles. Living death is no reason to let your workout schedule slip. It's no different from any other boss battle - shoot the projectiles, score the occasional hit on the boss - but it's nice to see the boss' literal body armour gradually fall away as you damage it until all that's left is the tentacled eyeball at the centre of it all. Eww. All in all, I regret my decision to take a trip down the river.
The Beast Busters find themselves in a factory, where there are robots to shoot. I mean, there are still dogs and zombies and what have you, but with the addition of self-assembling scrap robots. I am willing to accept their appearance in this game much more readily in this game than the junkbots in Alien 3: The Gun, even if they're stretching the "beast" element of Beast Busters to its limit.
Here's another "into the screen" section, and it's probably my favourite bit of the game that doesn't include football players being airlifted in by birds of prey. While the normal Beast Busters rule is "fire bullets, all the bullets, all the time," in this area it pays to be a little more cautious as any stray shots might destroy the containment tubes in the background and release the zombie menace within. It hardly turns the game into a sniper challenge or anything, but it's a nice change of pace for a while.
Also, look how many enemies in that screenshot are pointing guns at me. If you're thinking "only two, that's hardly any" then you are wrong, because that bat in the topright corner is also packing heat. Let's hope Dracula doesn't find out, or the next Castlevania game might be substantially more difficult.
The boss is a scientist. The scientist has an Uzi, and also a hostage. Once again, precision shooting is required here because you don't want to accidentally hit the woman. I didn't really want to shoot the scientist, because for a moment my heart flickered once more with hopes of forming the Uzi Buddies Club, but I knew what I had to do and soon the scientist was twitching under a barrage of hot lead. It's hardly what I've come to expect from a Beast Busters boss fight, especially after that river stage. Can't you transform into something more mood-appropriate, Mr. Scientist Man?
Yeah, that's more like it. Not quite as disturbing as some of the earlier bosses, but not bad. I like the face: I can't quite tell whether it's in profile and that's a nose on the right, or if it's looking straight on and it's just extra deformed. It's still just as susceptible to gunfire as the scientist it hatched out of, though, and it's easier to defeat than most bosses in this game simply because it's so big you can't miss it.
The woman we rescued furnishes the Beast Busters with a cryptic message about "destroying the fifth one." That's not very helpful, so it's a good job we saved her life, allowing her to elaborate further on this unusual command now that the heat of battle has subsided.
Oh. Well, that's unfortunate. I tell you what, we'll continue with our plan of shooting anything that moves and also shooting everything that doesn't move, and we'll see how that works out, shall we?
There's not much more I can tell you about Beast Busters, really. As you make your way through this car park huge numbers of enemies appear, all ready to be turned into a rich undead sauce by the blender that is your Uzi, a hint of extra flavour added by the oregano of your grenades. Man, I'm kinda hungry. Anyway, speaking of grenades, some of the zombies have their own grenades to throw at you, and between that and all the Uzis on display I'm wondering if our arrival in town didn't spark some kind of guerilla-chic fashion trend.
Here's the midboss. It's a jeep loaded with more missiles than whatever the G.I. Joe version of a jeep is called. Hold on, does that jeep have an... eye? And exposed brain matter peeking out from behind the shattered windscreen?
How wonderfully grotesque, a jeep-shaped monster that wears car parts as armour. Really, this thing is great, a fantastic design to see in the first article of the Halloween season, and it gives me great pleasure to hose it with machine-gun fire while I shoot down all the missiles it launches at me. Hey, for this thing that probably counts as gentle frolicsome fun.
More elevators, more eagle / quarterback hit squads, lots of helmets on display. Helmets? Really? Look, those helmets aren't going to protect you from a gun - and I'm talking especially to you, monster who decided to wear a motorcycle helmet but no shirt. I don't care how proud you are of your pectoral muscles, you're never going to lead the mouldering hordes of the living dead to victory over humanity if you won't at least put on a jacket.
Flesh-Jeep, or at least what's left of him, returns at the end end of the stage to set my heart a-flutter once again. He's a real trouper, still fighting bravely even while looking like a sock-puppet that an escaped mental patient built out of mince and scrap metal. If he wasn't such an abomination against God and nature, I'd have liked to buy him a drink after all this is over.
Probably not? Because I don't think that's, you know, a thing.
We've reached the final stage, and disappointingly it's a boss rush. It could be worse, because at least this way I get to see the killer jeep-beast one more time, but I've been enjoying Beast Busters an awful lot and this just seems like an uncharacteristically dull way for the game to end. At least the fleshy background is pleasantly revolting.
The final boss is a mad scientist with a chair that I'm sure we can all agree would look fantastic in any modern living room or institution dedicated to the unholy practise of reforming the flesh of men into remorseless killing machines. It's the tentacles that do most of the attacking, as tentacles are wont to do, but to progress you have to destroy the eyeballs crowning the chair. I know, I'm surprised I didn't immediately aim for the eyes too.
I'll spare you a "brains of the operation" pun and just tell you that after taking enough damage the scientist explodes to reveal this hovering cerebellum. The brain spends most of the fight hiding off-screen and firing rockets at you, hence this screenshot that only captures him peeking in from the corner of the screen. It's a solid tactic, and I died a few times thanks to its barrage of firepower, but in the end the Uzi always triumphs and this evil flying brain is sent to wherever giant flying brains go when they die. I'm guessing "not hell," because even Satan himself probably doesn't have any plans for dealing with this kind of thing. Some kind of brain purgatory, then, a grey void filled with endless re-runs of Loose Women and the music of Simply Red.
Things still aren't quite over, and before you can declare all the beasts thoroughly busted you have to blow up this bio-mechanical machine thing. What is it? What does it do? I have no idea, but it's in front of me so it's getting shot. The end!
I don't think you're in a position to be making threats, sunbeam.
Well, that was fun, and a great way to start off this year's Halloween festivities. Beast Busters isn't an innovative game but it is a fun game, especially if you're a fan of the horror-movie, guts-n-gore theme. If muscular dudes shooting robots is more your thing then I suggest you play SNK's Mechanized Attack, another positional-gun shooter that's almost identical to Beast Busters in every way bar the setting. I'm a horror guy through-and-through, though, so I can't recommend Beast Busters highly enough as one of the true highlights of the frantic, all-action arcade shooting genre.
P.S. Aliens did it (dramatic chord)!
But wait! Because this is the Spooktacular Halloween Season, that means it's time for the return of the VGJunk Halloween-O-Meter! This is a rating, not of how good a game is, but of how much Halloween-y essence it contains - last year Zombies Ate My Neighbours scored the full ten out of ten, so that should give you an indication of what it takes to score top marks. So, how did Beast Busters fare on this personally-judged and entirely unscientific measure of spookosity?
An eight-out-of-ten start to the 2013 proceedings, a good score kept from going higher by really only featuring a few Halloween staples and no pumpkins at all. Demon Jeep definitely bumped the score up a notch, mind you. Will any game top this terror total? You'll just have to check back later to find out. As for me, until next time I'm off to organize my DVD collection in order of how many teens are killed by a masked slasher in each movie.