Friday, February 21, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 2/15/14: Growl

at 5:00 PM
Everyone needs to let off a little steam sometimes. We here at GNG find that it helps to beat up as many people as possible at a regular interval. Luckily the video game medium has provided us with a safe, harmless environment in which to release our overflowing rage. That's why Golem and I are taking on one classic arcade-style beat-'em-up a week and bringing you this... questionnaire. 

Game: Growl

Year: 1990
Developer: Taito 
Publisher: Taito
Platform: Arcade, Genesis

Growl tells the story of two rockin' dudes (Golem and Yourself) who get a phone call from the president of Africa who says "listen up, guys - all our animals keep gettin' stolen! Can you fix this?" Naturally the guys say "sure thing", grab their twin brothers, and jump on the first bus to Africa. Murder ensues.

It's notable that Growl was developed in the weird intermediate period after Final Fight hit stardom and was THE game to beat, but before beat-em-up developers were totally sold on the "if you can't beat 'em (up), join 'em" mentality of churning out games that played with identical dynamics. Same period as Golden Axe. So, while Growl clearly fits the beat-me-up mold, it seems to be trying harder to distinguish itself as unique than to perfect a formula. How well did Taito succeed in making a fun and memorable game? Well, let's have a closer look.

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: I thought the game had a great look. The dusty brown visuals and 1940s period costumes/technology called back to Raiders of the Lost Ark which itself was a callback to classic serial stories. There were even visual sound effects (what the fuck do you call those) like "SHTOOOOOM" and "BLAAAAM" when stuff exploded, adding to the pulp fiction feel. There wasn't much variety in the environments, but they were injected with some memorable visuals - the rickety wooden boxcar train, the gigantic WWII era tank with battle damage and all, the rope bridge over a waterfall canyon. What it really came down to personality-wise is the animals - the game really came to life on those few occasions when it brought out the swarms of NPC wildlife like lions, gazelles, and elephants. The music was way too soothing for a game about fighting an army of poachers.

Golem: The blending of Indiana Jones' style and arcade graphics is really catchy.

How was the control and move variety?
Golem: Your default moveset is painfully limited, with just a punch and an aerial kick available. If you're caught without a weapon, your only option is to mash away at the punch button. Actually, if you're caught with a weapon, that's still your only option. I just read that there is also a headbutt move.

Yourself: What was particularly frustrating about the punch wasn't just that there was only the one attack button, it was that it didn't even sequence into a combo. For instance, in Double Dragon, when the player presses the punch button four times in a row, the fourth punch is a more powerful uppercut that knocks the enemy back and "finishes" the combo. This gives the combat rhythm. In Growl, no matter how many times the player presses the punch button, they get the same punch with the same effect. This makes the combat feel very flat and monotone.

How was the player character variety?
Yourself: Yeah, how was it? There were four characters, Indiana Jones and Bandana Bohannson (the other two characters were palette swaps of those two). They had three stats for Attack, Jump (which may have also affected speed?) and Life, but otherwise played identically. Because the stats varied so minimally from character to character and the combat was more about quantity than one-on-one fights, it was nearly impossible to distinguish the four. I noticed one of them was very slow, so I stayed away from him. As far as I'm concerned there may as well not have been a character select.

How was the pick-up variety?
Golem: The game boasts a slightly above average weapon selection for its time, featuring cool stuff like whips and even bazookas. Unfortunately, these weapons just increase the range of your attacks without offering any unique strategies. Focusing on weapons is a fun idea, but the execution here is half-baked.

It's worth noting that if you run out of bazooka ammunition, you can club enemies with it. It makes the weapon more tactile, since you can count the shots you have left, and your bazooka can be handled even when it can't shoot. Plus, it lends a sense of dynamism, since the bazooka's function changes after use.

Yourself: The weapons with their wide swaths of effect feed into the crowd-control sensibility of the game and provide just about the only moments when you'll feel you can handle the mindless hordes. In fact, the game is really fun when you're switching between machine guns and rocket launchers and pipes and whips. There's a decent variety to their effects, even if the enemies don't defend against them intelligently. The weapons may have had an "on-rails" feel in that you pretty much went from one to the next and were not swapping strategically, but I don't agree with Golem that the execution is half-baked - see below in the "learning curve" section.

How was the stage variety?
Yourself: Growl worked in its animal gimmick through the use of scripted events, lending the individual stages some memorable moments. Freeing a flock of hawks so they could peck out your enemies' eyes or partnering with an elephant who saves the day by ramming a tank were fun and satisfying moments. They were few and far between considering the game didn't offer much else to remember.

The one big change-up to the level design came toward the end when there was, dun dun, a platforming stage. Not only is this a trick straight out of Double Dragon, the platforming elements were straight out of Double Dragon as well - falling stalactites, boulders gushing randomly out of lava pits, and horizontally moving platforms. The platforming was pretty bad; both Golem and I remorselessly quarter-fed our way through this. 

Golem: The tall stages left room for plenty of enemies to flood in without quarters getting too cramped. Sometimes Yourself and I would be in our own corners of the room, each of us fending off our own little space of enemies.

How was the enemy variety?
Golem: Some standards returned, like Upskirt Girl, but there are plenty of distinct ones, like the guy in the newsboy cap. Only a few enemies had distinct AI, like the big guys in suits that would jump around; otherwise, enemies would often swarm and act pretty similarly. Between my sparse moveset and the sparse moveset of my enemies, I wasn't sure what part of the combat should have been interesting.

Yourself: Yeah. This was not a game about having interesting enemies. 

How were enemy groups formed?
Yourself: They were GIGANTIC. This was definitely the most remarkable aspect of Growl's combat - it was goddamn Dynasty Warriors-level crowd-fighting. I would say there could be up to twenty enemies on screen at a time? That's absurd for a beat-em-up. It was pretty impressive to see in such an old game. As for the composition of the groups, well, as the enemies were totally monotone, there wasn't much composition to speak of. There would usually be a few baddies with weapons thrown in to up the ante a little. 

How did combat work one-on-one?
Golem: There are some neat aspects, like getting to knee a guy up close, but there wasn't enough on the player's side or the enemy's side to make one-on-one combat interesting.

Yourself: There was really no sense of one-on-one combat at all.

How did combat work against crowds?
Yourself: Well, if I was lucky enough to have a weapon, I could just mash away until the crowd was cleared. If not, I'd target the enemies who did have weapons, both because they were the most dangerous and so that I could borrow their firepower. If there were grenade gals in the mix (and there usually were), I'd dance around and try not to stand on an explosive for too long. Really this was just incredibly shallow stuff. The challenge was entirely in making sure not to get surrounded.

GolemI got a kick out of the large crowds, and it seemed like some of the weapons were catered to handling them (the whip and even the bazooka's large club radius). Perhaps the standard non-weapon moveset could've capitalized on the big groups as well.

How was the boss variety?
Golem: Although there weren't many bosses, they distinguished themselves well. The first guy hurls a truck, a trick that's only reproduced by the second-to-final boss throwing around a tank--a memorable reprise. Aside from that, you've got a team of large enemies, which can be handled like normal enemies, and a weirdo snake thing, which follows a tight script and demands patience. I wouldn't say any of the bosses were good, but they did employ distinct tactics.

How did the boss fights generally work?
Yourself: Oh boy. Let me describe a few. The first boss lifts up a truck presumably to throw at the players, but you can punch him while he holds it over his head and he gets stuck there just holding it and absorbing punches until he runs out of health. The second boss is six fat shriners, they're just slower normal enemies with extra health. The grand finale is a two-parter that I won't spoil, but let me say that, while I appreciate beat-em-up bosses that abdicate the style of super-powered regular enemies, it's possible to go too far with scripted, patterned big bosses. "Too far" happens around the time when the boss has only one attack and one vulnerability window and takes approximately ten minutes and one thousand hits to kill.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: Bosses gave the game a sense of progression using a small but effective variety of encounters. As Yourself said, the first boss looks impressive but can be dispatched easily, while the final boss drones on and on. The platforming stage towards the end of the game was a nice gesture in terms of progression, slowing down the action just before the home stretch. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to the combat to be learned.

Yourself:  I got the distinct feeling that Growl was meant to be played entirely with the weapons, and that that lends to how stupid and inadequate the standard moveset felt. Managing ammo and playing defensively was a challenge (as we can clearly attest, having spent most of the game bare-knuckled), though I don't know that that challenge evolved in any way. I feel a skilled playthrough of Growl (check one out below) is really supposed to be about hanging onto the weapons, and all of the complaining we do here is unfairly comparing it to punch-em-ups that it's not aspiring to be. It's almost akin to complaining that DOOM isn't fun with just the chainsaw (although DOOM IS fun with just the chainsaw!). A player constricted to a fixed number of lives would've felt a distinct spike in difficulty and tension after losing a weapon - something we missed out on by quarter-feeding our way through. Then again, my attitude about learning curve is that a game needs to be fun even when you don't know how to play it, otherwise, why would you ever learn how? So that's the test Growl fails - maybe an all-weapons playthrough would be fun, but an all-punching (i.e. novice) playthrough is not. There's not a diversity of strategy on offer, no depth, just a right and wrong way to play.

Play again or recommend?
Yourself: There are goofy elements to Growl that make it a memorable game and the more I think about it, the more I'd like to go back and try to make it through hanging onto the weapons. It's short enough that I don't think it'd hurt to give it a shot, and I could just be proven wrong - it may end up as bland and monotonous as it was the first time. I wouldn't recommend it to a serious beat-em-up fan, but for someone looking for a way to kill time with friends... well, it at least ranks above Burning Fight

Golem: I'm having a hard time thinking of anything redeeming or worthwhile about Growl.

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