Today I’ll be looking at a title that combines two of my favourite things: side-scrolling beat-em-ups and weirdo videogames that make me go “hmm” a lot while I’m playing them. Prepare yourself for a riotous rampage of wonky controls and outstandingly ugly characters with DGRM’s not-quite-finished arcade brawler Black Touch 96!

I assume it’s called Black Touch 96 because it was released in 1996 and it leaves you feeling kinda grubby after you’ve played it. Whatever the reasons for its name, here it is, with a big logo that obscures the game’s characters and a credit that lets us know this game was made in Korea. I’ve already said it’s a beat-em-up, so I’m sure you’ve already guessed that the plot involves our heroes setting out to rescue a kidnapped woman by cracking more skulls than an international headbutting tournament.

A bored-looking fifties greaser with upsettingly bendy arms abducts a young woman. The woman is so startled her eyes expand to “anime character accidentally sits on lit firework” levels, but of course the new eye mass has to come from somewhere so her hand shrinks in response. It’s just simple physics, people.

Our hero receives what is presumably a ransom note, although his facial expression is eerily similar to my facial expression whenever I have to do some maths, so maybe he’s actually reading about linear algebra or something. He does look like the type who would struggle with any concepts more complicated than cutting the sleeves off t-shirts, and speaking of his clothes please note that in this intro he’s wearing a black top and jeans.
So, batter everyone in sight and rescue the abductee. I’m sure I can manage that. Let’s get to it.

I knew I was onto a winner when Black Touch 96’s first enemy was a man-baby with dungarees and a bulbous head trying to clobber me with a wrench. On the other hand, I will have to look at the main character for the entire game and that’s going to be difficult if he insists on wearing a bright orange shirt with cyan trousers and suspenders, as though his girlfriend was kidnapped when he was halfway through getting dressed for his first day at clown school.
At first glance, the combat system is slightly more advanced than I thought it’d be, because you’ve got two attack buttons: one to punch and one to kick, plus a jump button. The punches allow you to hit enemies and keep them close by for (in theory) combo attacks, while the kick is a single hit that knocks enemies down and helps give you a bit of breathing space. You can also press jump and kick for the usual spinning attack that costs you some health to activate.

A couple of screens in, and more enemies have joined the fray, including husky chaps with viking helmets who ride around on skateboards. Here’s a hint, chaps; if your clothing is tight enough to show your bellybutton, maybe go up a couple of sizes. There’s also a racing driver hanging around at the back, plus a jumping woman trying to give our hero a high-heel lobotomy. Good luck hitting any grey matter with a weapon that small, ma’am.
But wait, I recognise that lady’s jumping kick: it’s exactly the same pose as Poison and Roxy’s jumping kicks in Final Fight.

The main character is also a trace job of Guy from Final Fight. Or maybe he is Guy, they both seem to have a fondness for unnecessarily orange outfits. By this point I’m completely unsurprised by a Korean videogame ripping off assets from other games – I just wished they’d managed to copy Final Fight’s gameplay, too.

Yes, it doesn’t take long for the flaws in Black Touch 96’s core gameplay to become painfully apparent. Take jumping, for example. It doesn’t work properly. You can jump straight upwards easily enough by pressing the button, but jumping forwards? Forget it. I know it is possible to jump forwards because I managed to do it once or twice, but the game is extremely reluctant to allow forward jumping no matter what positions you wrangle the joystick into, and a beat-em-up where you can’t readily launch yourself forwards with a jumping kick has let itself - and the genre as a whole - down badly.

Then there are your “combo” attacks, such as they are. Most beat-em-ups have you chaining a string of attacks together by hitting the attack button repeatedly, but in Black Touch 96 if you keep hitting punch you do the same punch over and over again… except sometimes you’ll perform a big axe kick as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I never figured out how to get this special attack to come out consistently. I’ve got the vague impression it’s something to do with holding the stick towards the enemy you’re hitting, but there’s definitely more to it than that. Using the kick button also occasionally produces a dashing attack, and I couldn’t figure that one out either. This leaves BT96 in the very frustrating position of clearly containing a variety of different attacks that could help keep the gameplay fresh and flowing, but there’s no way to use any of them when you want to. It’s the videogame equivalent of driving past a party you weren’t invited to before going home and trying to convince yourself you didn’t want to go to the stupid party anyway by eating five bags of Haribo.

And then Donkey Kong took me out from off-screen.
At least the enemies are a fun bunch, from the wrench mutants to the ladies that attack by taking their hair off and whacking you with it and the belly-bouncing viking skateboarders. It’s a good job these enemies are interesting, because, erm, they’re about all you’re going to be seeing during the course of the game, with very few new enemy types being added as the game goes on.

There are bosses, of course. Guarding the first stage is this massive boxer. He shouldn’t be too difficult to beat – he’s wearing a vest and a headguard so he’s clearly an amateur boxer and my ninja techniques should be more than up to the task. I say “my” ninja techniques, I mean Guy from Final Fight’s ninja techniques. The boss attacks with the giant punches you’d expect and a rather more surprising jumping kick, but I was right, he wasn’t difficult to beat. You see, your character’s basic punch is far faster than any of the boss’ attacks, so once you’ve landed a punch you can just keep tapping the button to stunlock the boss without every actually knocking him down, giving him no chance to retaliate. Make sure you remember this strategy, because it works on every boss in the game. Yes, really.

Your “reward” for clearing each stage is a cheesecakey picture of an anime girl. Fine if you like that sort of thing, but this picture’s sexiness is rather undermined by the ladies looking like they’ve had hot tar dripped into their eyes.

Onward to stage two, which apart from taking place in some sort of temple is very similar to the first stage, complete with recoloured versions of all the bad guys we’ve already maimed. Also more barrels. The barrels have a nice little animation where wine sloshes out of the bung hole as they roll past. Why yes, I did just want to use the phrase “bung hole” in its proper context, thanks for reading.

I also discovered another special attack during this stage, in the form of a single-use “bomb” power that’s activated by pressing punch and kick together. A screen-clearing bomb attack sounds very useful and indeed it is, although I must admit I was expecting something like the police back-up from Streets of Rage, or an explosion at the very least. What actually happens when you activate the bomb is that the enemies turn around and walk off the screen as though their mums had just called them in for dinner. Absolutely fantastic.

I wonder who this mobster-type person whose portrait hangs in the background of this stage is? The head of the criminal kidnapping enterprise responsible for the plot of this game? Perhaps, although it could equally be just some bloke who bought a hat that’s too small for his head. He looks familiar, though. I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve seen him in another game or if the knowledge that BT96 has “recycled” other games’ assets is causing me to make connections that aren’t really there. Not that I had much time to stop and ponder it, what with the barrage of flaming tyres. Do the tyres count as a new enemy type? I’m feeling generous, so I’ll accept it.

I think the second boss is trying to exploit my generosity by getting me to describe him as a ninja. I’m not sure I’ll willing to go that far. There are ninja-like aspects to his design, granted, and he’s following the ninja tradition of stabbing people, but he’s a ninja in the same way that the ninjas in Godfrey Ho ninja films are ninjas, i.e. not at all. He’s wearing chrome chest armour for a start, which “real” ninjas won’t wear because it’s difficult to sneak up on someone when you’re clattering around like a colander in a washing machine. Plus he can be beaten by standing next to him and tapping punch for a minute or so and he won’t even try to teleport away or throw a smoke bomb. Pathetic.

Back on the streets for stage three, where very little has changed. The enemies are slightly different colours now, and the previous two bosses have reappeared as regular enemies, albeit with graciously reduced health bars. So on you go, taking out the enemy hordes a group at a time and it’s so close to being a decent game that it’s really starting to grate. Having the two different attack buttons works out really well, using the kick button to knock enemies down and keep them busy as you try to avoid getting surrounded is a solid base to build from… but that’s where the good stuff ends. Fighting the same few enemies over and over is already pretty dull and I’ve only cleared the first two stages, and your character’s awkward, slow and often flat-out broken movements coat the game in an extra greasy layer of unpleasantness.

The streets eventually give way to caves, which is where you meet this stage’s boss. It’s Edi E. from Final Fight! Except he’s wearing a brown uniform with no hat, so maybe it’s Edi E.’s brother who became a corrupt park ranger rather than a corrupt cop. He’s got a gun but he’s very reluctant to use it, rely instead on his truncheon. You know what’s faster than a truncheon swing? That’s right, about five-hundred of the main character’s punches.

I’ll give Black Touch 96 some credit – it does a good job of pushing a decent number of big sprites around at once. It can handle having five enemies on screen at once – which you can use to your advantage in some places by simply refusing to engage with the villains and walking to the right. Unlike most brawlers which won’t let you continue until you’ve defeated all on-screen foes, in BT96 that’s often not the case, and because the game won’t load more than five enemies you can walk past many potential encounters by having a villainous conga-line behind you.

In keeping with BT96’s habit of plundering Final Fight for inspiration, the stage four boss seems to be a female Rolento, although to be fair she’s not traced from a specific Rolento sprite that I’m aware of. It’s just that when I think of arcade brawler bosses who fight with a stick who else am I going to think of but Rolento? When I first saw her I wondered if she was also inspired by Capcom’s Cadillacs and Dinosaurs – there’s just something about her outfit that puts me in mind of that particular slugfest – and before anyone in the comments mentions it, I will get around to covering Cadillacs and Dinosaurs one day.
You can easily defeat this boss by using the same old strategy, although in this boss’ defence her combat abilities are hampered by having one leg that’s twice as thick as the other. That’s definitely going to have an effect on your balance.

Yet more Final Fight in stage five, with background elements taken from that game’s Bay Area stage – particularly the indecipherable “leaskey” graffiti on the benches. Hey, you might as well copy from the best.

Most of the stage takes place across a series of interconnected boats, and here you can see me putting the “walk away so fewer enemies spawn” tactic into use. This has had the unexpected side-effect of allowing that racing driver to walk across the surface of the sea, leaving us with only two explanations: either he’s having a Looney Tunes moment and he won’t fall into the water until he realises what’s happening a la Wile E. Coyote, or he’s Jesus. I’m going with Jesus. That’s why he’s wearing the crash helmet, it’s so we’re not blinded by the Lamb of God’s radiant presence. It makes sense to me, there have been several moments where this game has made me mutter “Jesus Christ” under my breath.

Another easily-defeated boss, this time a nonchalant chap carrying a baseball bat. The bat does a lot of damage if it hits you. But it won’t hit you. I’m running out of things to say about this game’s boss battles without resorting to making a GIF of myself shrugging.

Here’s the final stage, and I guess that racing driver wasn’t Jesus after all. He looks more like an Andorian from Star Trek, so I’m going to assume that it’s horror legend Jeffrey Combs playing the role of a hyper-violent racecar driver.

By this point, BT96 is starting to get fairly difficult. Taking on one enemy in this game is an absolute breeze and groups aren’t that much of a problem at first, not when you can easily knock them down with your kicks. However, by the final stage the game’s bosses are frequently appearing and they can do a lot of damage if they hit you – and you will get hit when you’re fighting five freaks at a time, especially when the game decides on a whim to activate one of your special attacks, throwing off your rhythm and depositing you in the middle of a group of bad guys.

The final boss is a middle-aged man in a tracksuit. He also has a gun. What is this, Grand Theft Auto IV? The boss’s gunshots will kill you dead, but I deftly avoided them by walking upwards slightly and then getting into the usual punching pattern. If any of the bosses in BT96 learned how to block I’d be in real trouble, but they didn’t and so I could batter this villain into a wet smear for the crime of wearing that tracksuit, ye gods. Oh, and the kidnapping. That too, but the green-and-brown tracksuit seemingly made from moss gathered at a muddy riverside is definitely the more grave offence.

The game ends with more anime art and some very difficult to read developer credits, which is pretty much exactly what I expected the ending to be. We must assume that the kidnapped girl was rescued – although the main character doesn’t look much like the chap from the intro so an equally valid interpretation is that all this fighting was completely unrelated to the kidnapping. BT96 is thus a game that keeps a sense of mystery and allows the player to come to their own conclusions. That’s good storytelling, that is.

Before I wrap up I should mention that this is a two-player game, and the second player gets to control this much cooler shadowy monk with metal claws. I can’t believe this game had a scene of a kidnapping but not one about how the mystery monk and the lumbering beefcake became friends. I’m imagining an extreme remake of The Odd Couple.

Obviously Black Touch 96 isn’t a good game. Hell, it’s a pretty bad game. It has inaccurate and frequently mystifying controls, there are glitches and exploits everywhere, there’s hardly any enemy variety, looking at the main character for too long can cause serious retinal damage. Oh, and all the copyright infringement. However, I still enjoyed playing it. As I’ve said, there the skeleton of a decent brawler in here somewhere, but the real draw is the weirdness of it all, from the wig-wielding women to the bomb power that makes the enemies scurry away and the random anime “babes.” I certainly won’t forget it in a hurry – no matter how much I might want to suppress the memory of the final boss’ tracksuit.

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