Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 2/22/14: Undercover Cops

at 7:26 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: Undercover Cops
Year: 1992
Developer: Irem
Publisher: Irem
Platform: Arcade, SNES (ported by Varie in 1995, Japan only)

Undercover Cops entered my queue a long time ago thanks to that name in the Developer slot: Irem. Irem are the unsung heroes of action gaming from the '80s and early '90s. Typically associated with just R-Type, they made countless (who's counting?) genre-spanning arcade and NES gems to rival the better remembered Konami and Treasure, from Metal Storm to Hammerin' Harry to Ninja Spirit. In fact, the particular team of designers and artists responsible for Undercover Cops left Irem around 1995 to develop Metal Slug for SNK (seriously, check out the credits for the two games - they're nearly identical). Cops tells the story of ??? post-apocalypse ??? just a cop! Golem and I played the Japanese arcade edition of the game, as the worldwide release has an oddly trimmed moveset and the Super Famicom version pretty much just blows. So is Undercover Cops the Metal Slug of the beat-em-up world? A true diamond in the rough? Read ahead and find out. 

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Golem: Right off the bat, it has the gritty style you'd expect from Metal Slug's developers, sans the comic edge. Wherever you go, buildings are ruined and colors are desaturated. One level seems to take place in your stereotypical brawler street until you notice the collapsed skyscrapers in the background. There's also some pretty freaky stuff, like the mole monsters that blow up in a splurt of blood after one hit. It's all rendered in large, Final Fight-sized graphics, too.
Musically, I feel irresponsible for not knowing what to call the genre (does this count as hip-hop???), but it's up-tempo and heavy on both orchestra hits and voice samples.

Yourself: Yah pretty sure it was hip-hop. The sprites had great detail and a lot of character, no two enemies looked alike and they all even had different ways of moving around. The environments were pretty bleh, I wasn't too impressed by the choice of setting (more construction sites, beaches, high-tech hallways), but the characters were so unique and weird that they really felt inhabited.

How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: This was just a smidgen above your Final Fight standard. A button each for attack and jump, a jump-attack, a dash, dash-attack, and dash-jump-attack, and a health-costing double-button crowd-clearing special. The basic attack strung into a four- or five-hit combo with a knock-down finisher as you'd expect. The controls were pretty smooth, but a bit laggier than Final Fight or Streets of Rage - that took away from the visceral feedback of the combat but did lend it a touch more strategy. Of course the standard bump-into-an-enemy grapple was also on hand, not to mention some pretty extreme throws that sent foes screaming across the entire screen - those came in handy a couple times when there were insta-kill pits into which to toss the baddies.

I got good usage out of all of the moves, though the dash-jump-attack was hard to pull off (the dash was very short range). There was one oddity that I don't think either of us figured out - the standard attack combo for each character seemed to have two variations (for instance, Zan had one that ended with a jumping karate chop and one that ended with a backflip kick), but the input and payoff distinction was pretty subtle. It may have been a timing thing.

How was the player character variety?
Golem: Although Undercover Cops relies on the standard quick character-heavy character-normal character setup, there were some nuances that made exploring them satisfying. Specials were unique, as were throws, with one character even being able to hurl an enemy straight down from far above the grounds. And, to aid the slow character's speed, he was granted an unlimited run; the other two just had half-screen dashes.

Yourself: I enjoyed playing as all of the characters, which is rare in a beat-em-up. I usually only go for the medium guy. The quick girl made it noticeably easier to land combos and the heavy brought enemies down really quickly.

How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: There were two basic kinds of weapon pick-up in Cops - giant pillar-clubs and single-toss projectiles. The clubs were half the length of the screen and used to bat away enemies in huge swarms, but they crumbled under use and quickly fell apart, consigning them to scripted areas where they spawned. Even with their huge area of effect, their slow swing-time made them satisfying to use. The projectiles (fish, cinder-blocks, torches) were out of the ordinary in that they penetrated through enemies - the best way to use them was to try to draw a group of foes into a line and knock 'em out with a single throw. That provided a bit more depth than your standard throwaway knife.

The tuna defense.
Golem: I just wish the swinging clubs had more range along the depth axis (that is, towards the background and foreground)--you can hit enemies straight in front of you, but it really looks like you should also hit some enemies to your sides, given the size of the club.

How was the stage variety?
Golem: Stages range in memorability. For instance, the underground stage is crawling with mole monsters, almost to the exclusion of other enemies, and the street stage has tons of bikers. Other stages were more moderately stocked, using a good variety of enemies and the occasional stage-unique feature, like a platform that crumbles behind you. I find the mix satisfying. The combat works well enough that plain old enemy swarms are enjoyable, but the occasional highlight--whether by a particularly distinct enemy or a unique stage element--gave a nice contrast.

Yourself: The first four (of five) stages basically served to introduce enemy types, so they were accordingly unique - see below. And the final level was a regular Metal Slug 3 - it was half of the entire game.

How was the enemy variety?
Yourself: Well-developed and very distinguished. The first four stages all came with their own unique enemy type with its own behaviors - the first level had grunts who hustled about taking occasional swings (some wielding torches to immediately light the player); the second introduced what I like to call flamingo-girls, who hopped around at a slower rate but had much stronger defenses, with the ability to dodge attacks and strike at a longer range; the third came with "moguralians", weird green-skinned mole-men (mogura is the Japanese word for mole!) with extreme speed, an invincible spinning counter, and a fondness for walking in patterns  - the tradeoff to their speed and numbers being that each could be dispatched with a single strike; and the fourth was populated with good ole-fashioned motorcycles speeding back and forth across the screen. There were a number of color enemies to keep things from getting monotonous - powerful baseball batmen with wide area attacks who countered immediate approaches, jetpack fliers who were just as annoying as fliers ever are in beat-em-ups, and even land mines. Needless to say, the last level saw the return of some former bosses as standard enemies.

How were enemy groups formed?
Golem: Enemies typically swarmed together with similar sorts, like the grunts in the first stage and the biker gang in stage four. This made it easier to handle crowd control, since members of a group typically followed the same line of thinking. It was important, then, when a big guy with a bat would enter the room already flooded with standard goons.

Yourself: The final stage mixed things up a bit by throwing in a lot of jetters and the first boss. There was also this weird gimmick where an enemy group would take stage, then a couple dudes carrying boxes would stumble on and spill grenades across the entire screen, killing everyone. 

How did combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: The one-on-one combat here was all about timing. Enemies were quick and aggressive and throwing any attack came with a decent recovery time, so a miss was almost always punished. Most of the enemies were pretty capable of countering an ill-timed attack and immediately knocking down the player, so you had to attack quickly while you had an opening and then get out. 

How did combat work against crowds?
Golem: The more gratifying parts of Undercover Cops, such as the throws and giant club items, were built to dispatch crowds of enemies. Enemies stuck together nicely so as to collectively receive a hurled comrade or a club swing all at once. Aside from that, enemies usually gave me enough leeway to pull off a standard combo, but I never wanted to stick around one enemy longer than that.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Yourself: These bosses may have looked like your Fighting Game+1 fare, but they actually showed a heavy influence from the strict, patterned big bads of shooters like Gradius and R-Type. Winning wasn't so much about being aggressive as it was about pacing yourself, knowing when to play offense and when to play defense, and learning those gaps and vulnerabilities.

Boss 2, Fransowors (or something), is a pretty good illustration of the balance between the shooter and the brawler mentality. She's got a standard walk-about pattern where you'll have to try to deal as much damage as possible, but you'll quickly find she can dish out heavy counters if you're not careful. Turns out she only strikes with these counters if she's standing still, so you have to avoid her advances while being quick to strike while she's still moving. This part plays kinda like your standard beat-em-up boss, but with a stricter rhythm to it. Her second pattern is when she slams her jackhammer into the ground and sends random junk careening from the ceiling across the entire arena while also slowing down your movement. This puts you into defense/survival mode regardless of your position, just concentrating on the projectiles coming at you - like a shooter.

The following boss, Moguralian Beta, uses similar alternation with small vulnerability periods. One particularly neat set-piece I have to mention is the first boss, whose mechanics I didn't learn at all. I didn't need to - there's a trap in the arena you can use to one-hit kill him!

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: The first two stages build up a predictable set of enemies, which eased me into combat. From there, the game goes a little more oddball in stages 3 and 4, leaving its particularly distinct segments to when I had a good grasp of things. The concluding stage is your standard huge gauntlet with tons of enemies.
It's worth noting how sudden the bad ending came. On one screen near the end of the final mission, you've got a limited time to stop the villain from dropping a bomb on hapless citizens below. With little experience in the game, Yourself and I didn't clear this challenge, and the result was an ending screen showing a city in ruins. It's a reason to get better at Undercover Cops beyond just beating the final boss.

Yourself: The first run wasn't so hard as not to be fun, but I felt like we were missing a lot of nuance and getting punished for it. Which is the kind of balance I want in a game like this (as long as I'm not spending real quarters on it, of course) - there's stuff to learn, but not so much that I'm confused as to how to play. That is to say, the rules of the game are well established, the basic mechanics are clear, and the challenges are all based on learning how to adapt those mechanics to discrete, independent situations; just because I don't know how to fight one boss doesn't mean I can't rock at the rest of the game. Versus something like Bangai-O or Street Fighter IV where I lost non-stop for twenty hours and at no point felt like I was actually even using the correct skills.

Wow, it's like getting to play as that boss from Growl!
Play again or recommend?
Yourself: I will absolutely play this again and I highly recommend it to any action gamer. Smart enemy design, levels completely unique from each other, perfectly balanced playable characters, and awesome artwork make this a must-play for a beat-em-up OR shooter fan. It's no wonder this team went on to create Metal Slug just three years later.

Golem: Definite recommendation. The mechanics are solid, the enemy variety ranges from typical to unusual, and it's the right length to explore each enemy without dawdling too long on anything. I kinda just like seeing this game's insane throws.

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