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Up from (Super) Obscurity

Today we return, once again, to the fertile world of Super Nintendo Beat-em-Ups!
There's lots of 'em out there, and many of them are not so great. Some are bad because they have little or no enemy variety, one player choice who outshines all the others, or the genre of "wandering the streets and punching anyone who shows up right in the mouth" is totally out-of-character for their protagonist.
Alternately the game can be brought down by some combination of poor hit detection, unresponsive controls, lanky nibbs*, unbalanced attacks, etc...combining to create thoroughly unengaging game play.
*: ok, so Lanky Nibbs is the name of a character in the lousy '80s science fiction/comedy movie, Ice Pirates. But once you start typing phrases like "hit detection" and "game play", you realize, "jeez, I could just make up any two words and say they're part of game design, right?"
But the games I'm going to talk about this week belong to a special circle of video game hell: the Beat-em-Ups which are entirely derailed by level 2's really hard mini-game, which is totally unrelated to their beat-em-up system but prevents you from getting any farther.
And hey, both games are cheap movie cash-in licensed games, with a few A-list(ish) movie stars each!
And what movies are they based on?
Why, they're based on the Geena Davis/Matthew Modine lady-pirate-em-up CutThroat Island; and Cliffhanger, the Sylvester "Sly" Stallone climb-mountains-and-kill-an-evil-John-Lithgow-em-up!
Well, I guess we should cook these turkeys start discussing these fine cinematic promotional games! I'll be describing them in a sort of theme-by-theme/parallel way, if that's okay with you!*
*: if that's not okay with you, I suggest you take it up with Lanky Nibbs.
A Broadside of Exposition!
Well, we better bring the gamer up to speed with the movie's plot, bettern't we? YOU'RE DAMN RIGHT WE BETTER'D...better'ld? Better?
Anyway, both games start with a lengthy text crawl and/or neato cut-scene pictures.
CutThroat Island takes the "really long text crawl over a darkened still picture" route, then later inserts some generic "sentence of dialog about the next level" between levels.
So, the take-away is basically, "there's a map. It leads to treasure. Get the treasure. Supplemental Information: you're a notorious lady pirate!"

Meanwhile, Cliffhanger has several itty-bitty pictures show up on the page, one after another in a mosaic-style, while a ticker-read of names and dialog flies across the bottom of the screen. After all the tiles show up, we get a glorious full-screen spread of the slab of beef that is Sylvester Stallone's Gabe: Action Mountain Rescue Hero Who Wears Short Sleeves In Freezing Temperatures!
Actually, the ticker-read of dialog makes it a real pain to screenprint it all, but fortunately you get basically all the key bits from these two pictures! There's some money the bad guy lost, there's some mountaineers he wants to get it, he's got one mountaineer held hostage (that'd be Hal), and he also wants his goons to kill the other mountaineer (that'd be Gabe).
And hey, because I never got very far in either of these games, why not pad this thing out with a bit of a competition! So, which game does the introductory exposition overload better?
I'd say the advantage goes to Cliffhanger, because it has more drawings...including the love interest (who played the pilot woman with the pixie-haircut from Northern Exposure and I totally thought she was hot).
CutThroat Island: 0; Cliffhanger: 1

And introducing...Our Heroes or Heroines (aka, "Notorious Lady Pirates!")
CutThroat Island's Morgan is, indeed, a sassy pirate! She's got a big sword, double-jumping ability, and several different attacks: lunges, stabs, diving attacks, even a other-handed punch, which becomes other-handed-dagger-stab when you pick up a knife!
For those of you who'd rather peek down Matthew Modine's open-necked pirate frock, you can choose to play as Shaw. I guess he's probably stronger, slower, and most likely can't double-jump (because, being bulkier, Mr. Modine can't plant his feet as firmly on thin air and leap in another direction). Also because CutThroat Island is two-player simultaneous, you COULD have both guys fighting at the same time!
On the other side of things, Cliffhanger puts you in the stinky muscle-shirt of Gabe...a mountain rescue worker who doesn't wear a parka, hat, gloves, coat, or even friggin' long sleeves to work. Clearly this guy's mountain rescue teacher was less thorough than my man Mark Davis!
Not only are Gabe's stumpy arms not quite up to the mountainous pugilistic task he's got before him, but the way you replenish health is by crouching around a tiny stick-fire, rubbing your raw, frozen fingers together in an attempt to return circulation to them. Screw the "bullet proof vest" power-up in The Adventures of Bayoo Billy, I bet if you could slap an anorak on Sly, he would be unstoppable!
This round isn't hard to call: two player simultaneous plus wearing light and airy clothing in gol'darn Jamaica rather than on a frozen mountain top nets CutThroat Island this round!
CutThroat Island: 1; Cliffhanger: 1

Now let's keel-haul/punch out some generic goons!
CutThroat Island hedges their bets by populating their enemy pool with the always-unpopular FENCING DANDIES!
These fellows stroll about in their curly wigs, hoping to poke their prisoner to death with their darling rapiers. I'm not sure they fully understand how "prisons" work, but whatever makes them happy!
Then, to mix things up a bit, you get to fight the boss of the prison: a vile man simply known as 'The Warden.' And I didn't -- I couldn't -- make that up. Just read the end of the game's introductory crawl!
Actually, I don't know why this is so remarkable; he's the warden of the prison. I don't imagine there's anyone else working there who should be called "The Warden." Is he supposed to encourage his guards or his prisoners to call him by his full name, rather than his professional title? Is his lack of familiarity with his co-workers (and those serving out their punishment at his establishment) the reason he's considered so vile?
NO! He's vile because he has an executioner's axe which doubles as A RIFLE:
When it's time to battle "The Warden", you're locked into a single plane of combat in true "we didn't want to code a beat-em-up style boss battle, sorry" fashion (Batman Returns, I'm giving you the stink-eye on this score, too)! Every now and then, between his jumping-around-and-axing-you-right-in-the-Geena-Davis, he holds his giant axe like the world's most head-choppin'-est violin, and waves it at you as if he's going to vibrato the hell out of you!
And no matter where you are on the screen (walking, ducking, jumping), unless you're blocking you'll be shot by his MAGIC AXE VIOLIN BULLETS of DOOM. But if you're blocking (with your whisper-thin epee) you're totally invulnerable; in fact, the impact of his bullets just push you slightly backwards. You're like some super puffy-shirted JEDI, blocking those magic bullets with a fru-fru sword no thicker than a pencil!

But what of Cliffhanger's cliff-dwelling no-goodniks? I'm glad you asked! There's "beefy too-old-for-this" criminal dude, equipped with a jacket (smart man!) and camouflaged pants:
There is also Ginsu Guy, who subscribes to the El Gado school of armaments: "better safe than sorry" is his watchword, so his body is a walking advertisement for combat knives!
Stallone-as-Gabe starts off with some pretty weak offense: his stubby arms try to crank out a standard fighting game combo ending up with an uppercut, but both Ponytail Potbelly Man and Ginsu Guy have better reach.
Of course, if you ever get a knife, it's their ass -- the "punch" button is now the "PWN" button, as you knife away! Not only do you hit everything in a pretty decent range in front of you, your slash arc also hits slightly above and slightly below you:
Fortunately you basically get a knife every time you defeat Ginsu Man...and you only lose it when you lose a life, or activate some "throw knife because I'm an idiot" button I couldn't find reliably. Thus your default method of attack becomes Stabby McStabStab!
And what does Cliffhanger throw at you to mix it up a little bit? Well, aside from palette-swapped ponytail/knife guys (their green shirts become RED, in true higher-powered Moblin style), there's the standard JUMPING OVER BOTTOMLESS PITS that everyone loves in beat-em-up games! But there's also the more movie-appropriate "climb a cliff, with no gear, while more clones of ponytail man snipe at you with a high-powered rifle from a few feet away:"
So...which game gives you a better 'level 1' goon-battling experience?
It's hard to say; at first I thought CutThroat Island deserved this, because it has an actual boss. Then I thought it should be Cliffhanger, because it has TWO different normal enemies (or FOUR, if you count the palette swaps!).
But in the end I have to go with Cliffhanger, because its Level 1 beat-em-up-ing is actually about 12 screens long. You get to pummel probably 20+ clones of knife-man and beer-gut-feller, while the Notorious Lady Pirate only gets to stab a half-dozen curly-wigged red coats before facing the one known (simply) as "The Warden!"
CutThroat Island: 1; Cliffhanger: 2

Now that you've got a taste for the game...it goes entirely off the rails!
Well, this was the whole point of the article, and I might as well have it end as anticlimactically as my experience with both of these games:
CutThroat Island then throws you in a mining cart, where you roll along at great (uncontrollable) speed and have to fade to the top half or bottom half of the screen for about 20 obstacles, with failure resulting in the loss of one of your three lives AND returning to the beginning of the mining cart run:

Not to be outdone, Cliffhanger has you attempting to outrun an avalanche, using the game's clunky "run" mechanic, combined with your brawler-standard floaty jumps, and three or four poorly-defined columns of potential obstacles. Trip too much, and Gabe takes a dirt snow nap: you're back to the start of the avalanche run with -1 life!
It's hard to choose a winner in this category, because these race-against-death levels presented a challenge -- let's call that challenge X -- and the somewhat brief introduction to these games' core value (the level 1 brawling) promised a slightly enjoyable beat-em-up diversion; let's call that enjoyment Y.
The whole point is that X > Y; so I haven't forced myself to get further in either of these games.
But if I HAVE to choose a winner...I guess I'd go with Cliffhanger. Since I just dropped $1 on Cliffhanger last weekend, I'm less certain that it's wayyy too hard to get by the avalanche level...each time you stumble on some debris, you lose a little health and lose ground against the advancing snow, but its not an instant death.
But with CutThroat Island, I tried and tried, and gave up. I tried writing down the order that each roadblock shows up in (stuff like "first there's three rocks on the bottom half of the path, then a tree on the top half of the path, then a huge pirate with a hammer at the bottom [who kills you if you run into HIM with your mining cart!?], etc"). Even with the order, there were too many to get by/it was coming too fast/you only get a few tries...then Game Over, start again at the beginning of level 1 (and its dandy-stabbing).
At least Cliffhanger lets you grant yourself up to SEVEN lives, and you get one continue when you lose 'em all (though you start back at the beginning of Level 1...but presumably if you're some kind of superhuman video game player with too much time on your hands and you got past the avalanche, your continue WOULD start you off somewhere later in the game).
Anyway, I guess that makes it:
CutThroat Island: 1; Cliffhanger: 3
Which is rather unfortunate, because CutThroat Island clearly has a more thought-through and involved fight mechanics (including the inscrutable choice between "BRAWLING" and "FENCING"-style of game play at the front menu?!), as well as the option for two-player simultaneous play.
But again, you can only use this superior fightin' engine to fight 6 dudes and "The Warden" before you are mining-cart-ed to death, so maybe these scores aren't so far off...
Well, THAT was kind of a downer...
...don't be sad, though: there's an AFTER-PARTY DANCE-A-THON AT WHIZZ'S PLACE!
C'mon everyone -- do the Lanky Nibbs!
— carlmarksguy, 2012-06-15
1
Swing your hips from side to side / Backhand your leaning butt / DO THE LANKY NIBBS!
2
This made me laugh my socks off. But perhaps that's par for the course when you're DOIN' THE LANKY NIBBS!
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