Friday, February 14, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 2/8/14: Burning Fight

at 6:00 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: Burning Fight
Year: 1991
Developer: SNK
Publisher: SNK
Platform: Arcade, NeoGeo

SNK was no Capcom, and Capcom was no SNK, but these guys fought pretty hard for arcade dominance and made a lot of similarly styled games in the early '90s. Obviously SNK lost because they were complete idiots and made preposterous business decisions like the NeoGeo home system (priced at $600 with games only $200 a piece!), but they developed and published a lot of great, unique games like Metal SlugNAM-1975, and Shock Troopers. They also published a lot of suspiciously Capcom-derivative runoff like World "Street Fighter II" Heroes

So that leaves one burning question: is Burning Fight, SNK's first foray into the beat-'em-up world made so popular by Capcom's Final Fight, an original contribution to the genre that does what Capcan't, or is it yet another uninspired knockoff?

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Golem: Burning Fight has a predictable, Final Fight-esque style to its spritework. Some guys were impressive, like the swordsman who balanced atop a railing, but most of what I remember was goofy. Patiently riding an escalator down into one part of a stage, a wrestler toppling over a mall fountain, enemies whose invincible charge is reflected by an awkward shoving animation--these images are what I associate with Burning Fight, made all the more comical when rendered in ultra-serious style. As for the music, the melodies are forgettable, but the instrumentation is well considered. Stage 3 part 2 uses a creepy hollow metal banging to reflect its construction site setting, the stage 3 boss theme should remind you of, uh, Goemon music, and the stage 5 theme captures an 80s crime drama vibe.

Yourself: Frankly I thought Burning Fight was kinda ugly. The game is full of weird animations like characters who puff out their chests when they walk or flail their arms more so than punch. And the settings were right out of page one of the beat-'em-up handbook - back alley, mall, train, construction site, boat. I only listened to two tracks of the music because my computer was having sound issues, and those two tracks made it not worth fighting with the machine to hear the rest.

How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: Two attack buttons, one for a quick punch and one for a longer range crowd-controlling kick. The standout was that each button seemingly randomly selected from one of two attacks, and with certain characters the two possible attacks could be significantly different. So when you pressed C you never knew if you were going to get a snap short-range kick or a powerful reaching one. It was your standard selection of moves otherwise - a jump kick, a grab (with range too short), a crowd-clearing, health-costing special. Nothing particularly fun to play with - mostly button-mashing fare. 
Golem: Nothing to add there.

How was the player character variety?
Golem: Characters seemed to play on the typical brawler balance between speed and power, with one fast character, one powerful character, and one balanced character. However, in experimenting with all three, I couldn't make out a clear distinction between the three of them. The powerful character (a tall, Muppet-jawed gentleman in silk pajamas) had longer range, and the speedy red character had more distinct kicks, but no one character stood out from the other two. This might be a result of poor feedback, though. I had a hard time gauging what was effective against enemies.

Yourself: Yeah, except for one or two attacks I found the characters largely indistinguishable. The medium guy had the longest-range kick so I liked him. That was about it. I couldn't gauge power in the slightest.

How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: Very weak, the handful of items were total one-offs that were actually kinda downgrades. There was a lot of dynamite, but between its lengthy fuse and enemies' aggression, it was almost unusable.

Golem: I thought both the large amount and low usefulness of the dynamite was funny. Yourself made sure to compare it to Battletoads & Double Dragon: The Ultimate Team.

How was the stage variety?
Yourself: Hardly noticed any. There was one section on a conveyor belt where enemies dropped in dynamite - that was neat - but the rest were your flat, generic arenas. There's an elevator! That's new, right?

Golem: Stage presentation was generic, too, but I'll never forget Hulk Hogan knocking over a mall fountain.

How was the enemy variety?
Golem: Enemies built up a healthy variety over the course of the game, gradually requiring greater skill. They were sometimes predictable, like with your standard starter goons that sit around waiting to get pummeled. When it wasn't predictable, it was laughable, as with the enemies that leapt around more than they attacked. Still, I had a good time working around the giant guys; when one charged in, I'd have to get out of the way and hit him from the back. Unfortunately, the enemy variety petered out after the third stage, and I got tired of using the same tactics over and over.

Yourself: One really can't help but mention that a certain foe called "Duffy" became essentially the entire game around stage 3. He was really the only rounded enemy who had multiple types of attack... clearly the developers noticed this and felt that rather than building more strong enemies like this one, they would simply reuse him over and over.

How were enemy groups formed?
Yourself: The game liked really large groups of upwards of five enemies. Occasionally there were large groups of the same enemy or a repurposed boss surrounded by goons, but most of the time all of the enemy types were just mashed together indiscriminately. I didn't notice much careful type-pairing. The most memorable fight was against four Duffys. Probably just because it was the only fight not padded with eight hundred of the bottom-rank grunts.

Golem: It probably didn't help that enemy variety was weak in the latter stages, so in order to advance in difficulty, they didn't have many other options than to throw everyone together.

How did combat work one-on-one?
Golem: You're never left alone with one enemy in Burning Fight, unless he's the last one of his group. That said, if I imagine a vacuum where I could fight one enemy at a time, there are clearly some enemies that wouldn't pose a challenge and some that would. For instance, the infamous jumping guys only serve to  ambush you if you don't keep your eye on them, which would only happen if you focus on another enemy. On the other hand, rushing enemies will break free from your attacks if you pummel them carelessly. Most enemies fall in the former bunch, though, and Burning Fight definitely relies on crowds for its difficulty.

Yourself: One of the only remarkable aspects of Burning Fight's combat is that it largely lacks hit-stun - meaning that after punching an enemy, even if you continue punching, the enemy has a moment to inch away. This requires the player to aggressively pursue each foe or use long-range attacks. I found myself heavily relying on the longer kick attacks to counteract this leniency, meaning that I found a way to make the game play almost like it had hit-stun, even though it didn't. It's hard to say whether that was just my subconscious trying to drag the combat toward ingrained beat-'em-up standards or whether it's genuinely just frustrating to deal with enemies who don't stay still to take punches. Considering Burning Fight doesn't offer a lot of great means to the player for mobile aggression, I tend to lean toward the latter. I didn't feel like I had the right tools to deal with what the enemies were doing.

How did combat work against crowds?
Yourself: The crowds worked like oil and water. Jumping enemies tended to stay in place and allow themselves to be picked off while rushers presented the only pressing threat to the player, the rest tending to mill about. It seemed like I didn't have much choice but to fight whoever was closest to me.

Golem: I had a hard time making sense of crowds. Oftentimes, several enemies would spawn in at once, and I'd be overwhelmed. If a jumping guy and a rushing guy spawned together, it would be with a whole mess of other enemies, and I wouldn't know who to go for first. This was because, as Yourself mentioned, enemy groups were formed indiscriminately.

How was the boss variety?
Golem: From the bosses, I most strongly remember Not Hulk Hogan and the final boss, a vaudeville villain who took over a boat. I never got used to the hitbox on Hulk Hogan's knee drop, but otherwise I don't recall him being a problem. Actually, speaking of hitboxes I couldn't learn, the samurai boss had huge, swift sword strikes that made the timing on hits pretty strict. The final boss made things interesting by blocking hits with his cane, though, and I liked having to weave my hits between his blocks. Like the enemy selection, boss selection ranged from mediocre to okay. It's also worth noting that enemies continuously spawned during boss fights.

Yourself: Well don't forget Black Hulk Hogan either. The first level sets up its boss quite nicely with a big truck that rolls onto screen and splatters the ground with firebombs until you smash it to death and the real boss enters, but the other stages didn't have anything so dramatic.

How did boss fights generally work?
Golem: These were your typical games of wait-and-attack. Bosses generally had some super effective attacks, like the wrestler's knee drop or the samurai's sword swipes. Some of them didn't have much grasp of crowd control, like the wrestler, who I could attack when he was focusing on Yourself. The samurai boss, however, wielded two swords and could hold both of us off.

Yourself: Well, they were wait-and-attack except for those endlessly spawning grunts. So there was no way to take on the bosses one-on-one, which feels awfully rough against enemies who can interrupt you at any point for major damage. This is personal preference I guess, but I've never much been able to stomach beat-'em-up boss fights where the peons can't be eliminated. There are simply too many random factors in play and the boss ultimately trumps the flow of the battle.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: The learning curve seemed reasonable except for the bosses - again, those respawning minions make the battles a real hassle to follow. I wasn't quarter-feeding until stage three or four, and that's to be expected on an unpracticed run of an arcade game. I was able to pick up enemy patterns if I concentrated, but the game was such a mishmash that I hardly wanted to.

Golem: Without new enemies, I felt like the last two stages had no new learning to do, as if the learning curve leveled out.

Play again or recommend?
Golem: There are so many things I take for granted in beat-em-ups. Just to name two, there's distinct character variety and generous stun time when I hit enemies. It's neat to see a game where these elements don't work like I expect them to - I'd call it a bad game, yeah, but I'd also call it weird, and it made me think. I'd recommend this, but only if you've played your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and your Double Dragons, and you only need to play through it once.

Yourself: Wouldn't play it again. It's far too generic to remember - you can get all of this and more from just the first few stages of Final Fight (and even FF is low-tier IMO). I would only recommend it to someone who is very beat-'em-up-curious and has played every other game I could recommend. Most of what you could learn from the failures of this game you could similarly learn by taking a closer look at a game that does things well - and is fun to play.

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