Friday, March 7, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 3/1/14: Cadillacs & Dinosaurs

at 6:30 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: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs
Year: 1992
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Arcade

It was about time we hit a Capcom game. Though Capcom is probably the most famous beat-em-up developer thanks to Final Fight, no other among their games has ever reached the status of standout classic. Perhaps it's because they're all nearly identical, or perhaps it's because so many were based on comic-only (at the time) properties like The Punisher, Aliens vs. Predator, and Xenozoic Tales: the futuristic prehistoric comic that provided source material for Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Regardless, these games remain well-liked to this day thanks to the solid core mechanics that made Final Fight such a hit. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs caught our eye because of the sweet thematic material, the wide range of weaponry on offer, and its overall strong web reputation. Jack and his gang of environmental sweethearts are out to stop future dinosaurs from being exploited from future poachers who are basically up to the same shenanigans as modern poachers with modern animals - you know, the plot of Growl. Also, technology hasn't changed in 500 years except people now attach guns to their cars. So in this time of beat-em-ups-aplenty, how does the Capcom Standard fare? Will Cadillacs and Dinosaurs put the imitators to shame or will it quickly fade back into prehistory?

Special accolade: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs has perhaps the most unenticing title splash screen I've ever seen. This image virtually defines "a dearth of imagination".

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is very colorful with a generally pastel palette. The dinosaurs themselves are gigantic and who doesn't like dinosaurs, though their jerky animations left a bit to be desired. I felt a bit more like I was on a Jurassic Park theme-ride than in the year 2514 when dinosaurs have been reborn to rule the earth again, or whatever. The Cadillacs... well let's get this out of the way right now: there is only one Cadillac in this game! False advertising anyone? I had to hold Golem back from smashing his controller when we learned of this shortcoming. The player characters had that lanky, muscley Final Fight look that I guess is iconic or something. Again, the animation is pretty jerky. It's just not my favorite aesthetic, though I realize I'm probably in the minority here. The music however is stellar. Fast-drummed riff-laden rockin' synth-tunes that'll remind you of Mega Man X or Street Fighter II. The soundtrack alone allllllmost makes this game worth it.

How was the control and move variety?
Golem: There's a full set of grappling/throwing and dashing moves, along with your standard mash-the-punch-button combo. I found that the standard combo was often the most effective; there was rarely space to make good use of dashing, and throwing enemies just prolonged the fights without offering any tactical advantage. Sure, throws would clear enemies away from me--but I never found a need for it.

There was also a special performed by a quick up-down-punch input that could land serious hits on an enemy or boss, but I never got the hang of the input well enough to make good use of it. I could get a few off on earlier bosses, but later bosses got away or knocked me over before I could pull it out.

Yourself: It's the rare beat-em-up that manages to get its worth out of dashing, and C&D is not that game. You need a lot of screen space and reason to want to cross the screen to have a use for a dash attack. We're talking about a genre where enemies pretty much always come to you. Capcom games, with their big sprites and fast-pacing, don't seem to justify the function.

How was the player character variety?
Yourself: Honestly I thought it was a bit worse than Final Fight. Four characters is a number which always makes me uneasy - four is that area where either there's some mystical stat beyond power/speed that I'm not going to be able to care about, one of the characters is going to be pointless, or the characters are all going to be far too balanced. Like, instead of being Good/Average/Bad in each stat, characters will waver into Moderately Good and Moderately Bad, mild distinctions that don't make for distinguishable gameplay. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs' four-man lineup amazingly hits all three of those balance flaws. There is a hidden "items" stat that meant absolutely nothing to me. There is a character whose specialty is "Item-Skilled" who was absolutely useless. And the characters were far too balanced and played very, very similarly. Despite some miniscule move distinctions, like that the speed character had an extra jump-kick and the heavy had a wider range down-up special, there was no way to form your play-style around character choice. 

How was the pick-up variety?
Golem: The weapon set was engaging because it offered a variety of tactics. Sometimes I'd pick a handgun off the ground, sometimes I'd steal a giant knife from a butcher, and other times I'd hurl an item-laden barrel at an enemy. For instance, the knife would do great damage but was hard to time, since its swing came with a delay. Or the barrel would surrender goods when it broke on an enemy, and I'd have to go pick those up before they blinked out. A good bit of care was put into the weapon set here.

Also, after using a credit, you'll respawn with a bazooka. Need a hand?

Yourself: There was variety in the guns too - the shotgun had a slow, powerful knockdown spread and the Uzi's rat-a-tat chipped away at enemies while only stunning them for a second. The guns and grenades were plentiful early on but died down as the game went on - perhaps this was a misguided attempt to increase the difficulty? Permanently taking away a(n already optional) mechanic is never going to be a satisfying method of making a game harder though. Since the guns were one of the more unique parts of Cadillacs, I'd have most enjoyed seeing challenge built up around them.

How was the stage variety?
Yourself: There was a variety stage... so there's that. For about sixty seconds you get to drive that eponymous souped-up Cadillac with guns that don't fire in a side-scrolling bulldozing segment that I can barely even remember. The best element of stage variety here was the dinosaurs. Like Growl - and this game has a lot in common with Growl - occasionally dinosaurs would stomp onto the arena and theoretically threaten players and enemies alike. The most interesting part about the dinosaurs is that players weren't supposed to attack them, so they encouraged you to reign in your attacks, play defensively, and pay attention to your surroundings. It's not that beat-em-ups don't typically require careful aim for skillful play - Cadillacs and Dinosaurs just does a good job of using dinos to translate it into an overt mechanic.

Golem: [i think it's supposed to be "rein in" [editor's note: thanks]] One neat stage had flamethrowers mounted in the walls that you could lure enemies into. That's the only environmental hazard in the game that I can name.

Yourself: Oh right, the sewer stage. There wouldn't happen to be any other beat-em-up set in and around sewers, would there?

"Cadillac and Dinosaurs" just wasn't as catchy
How was the enemy variety?
Golem: In theory, the classics are here: the standard grunt, the big, charging guy, the sneaky guy with a knife. Others occasionally hopped in to round out the set, too, including Lizard Blanka, who would shoot out a long tongue.  In practice, enemies were so tame that they didn't feel very different.

Yourself: A great testament to how little the enemy behavior surfaced is that one of the most common grunts wielded a rifle. We didn't discover until, oh, about Stage 6 that this enemy could actually fire his rifle. Whether or not they had unique actions built in, the enemies just weren't active and dominant enough to affect the flow of gameplay. 

How were enemy groups formed?
Yourself: I don't know. There were so few distinguishable enemy types that Caddies and Dinos had little choice but to go through every single mixup imaginable about a million times. It was very common after the halfway mark to see bosses (even multiple bosses at once) mixed into the milieu. Of course, since the boss battles themselves were littered with grunts, this kinda made the game feel like boss battles on repeat. There was just no discernible pattern or intelligence to the combinations, so there was no need to vary strategy from battle to battle.

That's not Blanka back there, is it?
How did combat work one-on-one?
Golem: Standard enemies didn't put up much of a fight in a one-on-one situation. For instance, the guys carrying guns? They only fire if you leave them alone long enough. The usual big charging enemies would hit you if you were locked in a combo against another enemy, but on their own, they're slow enough that you can just walk out of the way. One-on-one combat was just about wailing away on enemies.

Yourself: These enemies really did not have built in counters. As long as you acted faster than they did, you could always stay on top of things. 

How did combat work against crowds?
Yourself: Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is a speedy game - much faster than Streets of Rage 2 or Double Dragon - so combat against crowds is mostly about keeping aware of where everyone and everything is spawning and being able to immediately react. The challenge is mostly derived from the lack of screen space, the large volume of enemies, and the enemies' ability to dish out attacks without warning. Act fast or die young.

Golem: I never found any particular strategy for dealing with crowds. Nothing about the player mechanics or enemy AI enticed me to consider how to deal with a group. As Yourself said, they mainly functioned as a way to keep you from focusing on one enemy.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Golem: Boss variety was a little strange. Some were total throwaways, like the generic grunt of a first boss. Others were obnoxious, like the one half-man half-dinosaur boss about halfway through. With three forms, he had tons of health, but he only offered small changes in his attacks. Other bosses combined these two attributes; for example, one boss in particular just zoomed around the room and swung with a knife after he stopped. The second to last stage also featured three of these guys as a boss fight.

Yourself: Yeah Jesus that Final Fight against the Slisors (that was the mutant dinosaur form of earlier boss Slice) was a real mind-fuck. It was certainly a rare unique moment for the game, but I didn't have the slightest grasp of what was happening. They just zipped around at a thousand miles an hour while we tried futilely to land even a single hit. 

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: Flat. Very flat. Not even really a plateau. I knew how to play before I even started. Hit the enemies. Jump when an enemy runs at you. There were just no complex enemies to fight here, so there was really nothing to learn. If you've never played a combat game there will be a bit of a learning step maybe.

Golem: Some of the bosses took some learning, just as in observing when to approach and when not. Aside from that, the poor enemy variety left little to adapt to.

Play again or recommend?
Golem: There are some interesting concepts here, like the dinosaurs and weapon variety, that are unfortunately underutilized. While excellently produced and aesthetically gratifying, the gameplay is ultimately boring.

Yourself: The mechanics are instantly gratifying enough that I'd imagine three beat-em-up newbs might have a fun time co-op running this, not noticing the absence of strategy. But if you've ever touched the genre before, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs will be an absolute waste of time. Plenty of beat-em-ups deliver great mechanics AND great design (for instance, last week's Undercover Cops) - there's no excusing one for the other. 

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