Monday, March 24, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 3/16/14: Combatribes

at 6:44 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: The Combatribes
Year: 1990
Developer: Technos Japan
Publisher: American Technos
Platform: Arcade, SNES (we played both)

When flamboyant gangs have plunged the city into a panic, the Double Dragon are down and out, and Kunio-kun is nowhere to be found, who you gonna call?

Streets of Rage!

The Combatribes!

The Combatribes is something of a successor to the Double Dragon throne, picking up where Double Dragon II left off (III wasn't developed by Technos) and upgrading in the most obvious way possible: a third simultaneously playable character. Three-player co-op was certainly not unheard-of in arcade games at the time, but this was very early for a three-player beat-em-up (I won't say it was the first because I honestly don't know and the internet won't tell me, but I know of no other earlier ones). So, while we're not going to talk much about that in our review, and who cares about stuff like that nowadays, it's at least some kind of footnote in the grand question of "why does this game exist?" So, why does this game exist? Does it earn the legacy of Double Dragon, or has it largely been forgotten for good reason?

Pro-run: SNES version (7 credits) - died on fourth boss (come on guys, really?)

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself:  BUTT FUCKING UGLY. While that's sorta what they were going for, it is almost impressive how ugly everything from the artwork to the sprites to the palette is. Everyone looks like freaky dwarves! Not that dwarves are ugly (racist), just that it's bizarre when that's clearly not the intention of the art.

I enjoyed most of the thumping metal soundtrack - the tracks were short but each rotated through three of four fast parts, from organ solos to chugging riffs to whomever.

Golem: The aesthetics really pulled me out of this one. I'm always a little embarrassed to acknowledge when aesthetics so heavily influence me, but I have to own up to it--I came into this game with low expectations.

The graphics are goofy in an unappealing way, especially on the Super Nintendo. In the arcade version, the art style came across as a bizarre evolution from Renegade and Double Dragon, but that slight lack of detail in the SNES version pushed it over the edge from bizarre into questionable.

As for the music, I kind of get what it was going for, too, but I thought it fell flat. Not bad, but I wasn't feeling it.

How was the control and move variety?
Golem: Speaking of aesthetics, all three playable characters look pretty big compared to the non-boss enemies--about a head or so taller, with wider shoulders to match. The move variety focused itself on this, putting me in the boots of just such a gentleman.

If an enemy catches you in a grapple, your character just looks down at the offending goon. From there, you can lodge your character's elbow in the enemy's back. Or, if an enemy is knocked down, you can either A) leap into the air and come crashing down on the enemy or B) take hold of the enemy's heels and whip them around in circles, usually clobbering swaths of foes all at once.

The moveset remains focused on flinging grunts around without getting bogged down in chains or fancy attacks. It'll usually only take a few punches or kicks to get enemies into a vulnerable state, letting you reach that state quickly and experiment from there.

How was the player character variety?
Yourself: Subtle but distinguished. Veterans of the Double Dragon games will know that William and James were perfect twins in all senses, but we've got some slight differentiation between the three Combatribes (yes - the three dudes are the Combatribes). Each Combatribe is rated in speed and power and reflects these characteristics both in raw statistics and special attack variation. Speed-demon Blitz throws the fastest punches and runs through combos quickly, so he won't stay locked up with enemies and vulnerable for as long as his bros. He also has a flying jump kick that can cross a lot of real estate - however, his crowd clearing moves are far briefer than Bullova or Berzerker's. Bullova, the resident strongman, gets the lengthiest spin-an-enemy-by-his-legs throw, giving him serious crowd-clearing power to go with his steamrolling dash-punch. 

How was the pick-up variety?
Golem: I think the only things you pick up in this game are enemies (nyuck). That worked fine, though, given how stages were formed--I never found myself wanting of weapons or health. Well, okay, I'm not good enough to clear the game without dying (...and I'm not good enough to clear the game at all on Super Nintendo), but stages are short enough that I don't think they need pickups for balancing. Plus, the enemy variety was consistent enough that I don't think stages needed pickups for variety of combat, either.

How was the stage variety?
Yourself: The stages in this game aren't quite your normal beat-em-up fare - in that they're simpler. They're really just two-screen-wide arenas, only slightly larger than those in precursor Renegade. The arcade version has some cinematic touches like a carnival tower at the end of Stage 2 which condenses the playing field to a single X-Y plane and puts enemies on stairs above and below the players. There's also possibly the most realistic length elevator stage of all time and a rarity for beat-em-ups: a boss rush. 
Golem: Some beat-em-ups really let their stages drag on [editor's note: Streets of Rage 3], and I appreciated the small, focused strips here. Stage variety was defined by that stage's unique enemy, whether it be a flood of skaters or demon clowns or what have you. Speaking of,

How was the enemy variety?
Golem: Just as the moveset was focused, the enemy set played off of it well. The demon clowns of stage 2 rebounded out of certain throws, meaning that I had to take care which moves I chose to use on them. And the skaters in stage 3 mindlessly race back and forth, blindly running into your waiting fists or throws. In short, enemies would either counter or play into my moves, letting me appreciate them. These rules were usually easy to figure out.
Yourself: The oddity about the enemy variety is that Combatribes is sorta a game about what you do with enemies once they're knocked down - as you mentioned, turning bodies into weapons. So the fact that enemies are all the same once you've got a hold of them sorta detracts from the variety - it's like there's a phase one and phase two of the battles, phase one being the knock-down portion, and phase two being the crowd-cleanup. And phase two always felt the same, regardless of who you were fighting.

How were enemy groups formed?
Yourself: Each stage had a defined enemy army formed of one or two unique unit types. In the arcade game these gangs were supplemented by reams of the bottom rung no-name goons who just took up screen space and acted like bowling pins. I actually preferred the SNES version's smaller crowds - they contained ONLY the stage-specific enemies, forcing the player to figure out the gimmick to get a foothold on the battle. This game pulled a kinda odd version of the boss w/ underlings shenanigan in that - since the entire level was set in a single arena - the boss would simply spawn before you had finished clearing the enemy gang. So it was like the levels faded into the boss fights.
Golem: The groups were usually big enough that all the enemies ran together; even if a particular foe had an interesting feature, there would be enemies at all different states of that feature.

How did combat work one-on-one?
Golem: Each type of enemy had one defining feature, and fighting that enemy meant keeping one rule in mind--for instance, not throwing the clowns in a certain way.
Yourself: The players punch range was equal to the enemies (the Technos rule) so going in for head to head combat was a guaranteed way to take damage. It's also the quickest and easiest way to kill a single opponent and grapple. If the player can't stand to take damage in return, there are the slower knock-down moves available (kicks, jump attacks) which take more setup and don't do much damage, but can quickly turn an enemy into a weapon (by way of the ankle-grab throw). 

How did combat work against crowds?
Yourself: Interestingly, Renegade, Double Dragon, Shadow Force, and every other Technos game based around this same core fighting system only ever pits the player against one to three enemies at a time. The Combatribes is clearly Technos' attempt to take things to the big leagues and mold that system to the scale of Final Fight where the player can be surrounded and attacked from multiple dimensions. To that end, many of the moves are made specifically with crowd-clearing in mind. 
Golem: In beat-em-ups, it's typical for groups to back off for a few seconds when you're laying into an enemy. I got the sense that enemies in Combatribes didn't extend you that same polite gesture, which was fine with me--all the easier to wrap them up in a crowd-clearing enemy-hurling move.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Golem: Bosses would enter extended attacks, and to the best that I could figure, you had to walk around while they were busy and hit them from behind. As you can imagine, this was much easier with two players, and Yourself and I spent a lot of time surrounding a boss and kicking him or her to death. Yeah, a pretty typical tactic for a beat-em-up, but it was much more effective on most of the bosses here than any other beat-em-up I've played before.

Bosses also sometimes had counters to the typical man-handling moves I'd use on smaller enemies. I recall one boss kicking me aside while I was in a body slam animation.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: There were new enemies introduced with each stage and the unique bosses made up a substantial amount of the play-time, so there was definitely always new stuff to learn. Whether or not you needed to learn it is a different story - Golem and I found that the basic attack techniques worked pretty much the same regardless of what kind of enemies we were facing. The bosses were pretty resilient and really didn't let themselves take damage unless you knew what you were doing. Co-op play definitely cut down on the difficulty - tag-teaming worked a little TOO well on some of the bosses. One neat little trick to that end is that the final boss spawns as many clones as there are players.

I struggle to imagine how this box art could be any worse.
Play again or recommend?
Golem: I enjoy discussing the mechanics, and Combatribes makes a fun game to study. I don't have fun playing the game itself, though; it's weird how much the flow of combat is controlled by throwing enemies through mobs. It's a game I respect but don't enjoy. If you're down for some oddly paced combat or tossing enemies aside like yesterday's trash, I could see getting into this.
Yourself: I mean to play this more. The combat just has such a great chunky feel (full disclosure: I also love Double Dragon) that even techniques that feel overpowered are a blast to execute. I think the fact that we pointed out so many options in the combat yet sucked at it illustrates that there's more strategy to learn, and I'll stick with this one til I can beat the SNES game. I recommend it if you like Technos beat-em-ups, but try the better-paced Double Dragon games first if you're unsure.

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