Based on the success of Double Dragon several companies were becoming interested in the brawler. For the most part the other studios decided to pursue different themes, artistic styles and combat systems for their games. One of the earliest publishers to try to try to capitalize on the arcade scene would take on every genre by following the trends very closely.
P.O.W. Prisoners of War was released by SNK and was possibly one of the most difficult arcade games ever released. The game was decidedly un-Double Dragon but featured similar brawling mechanics. Instead of a couple of tough guys chasing after a kidnapped girl the game revolved around an escape attempt by a couple of POW soldiers from a military base in a jungle.
The game was not about Vietnam per-say but the connection could easily be made. The game gave players a health bar made up in four parts that seemed to drop with every touch from a rival. Characters would lose lives quickly and quarters just as fast, even with 2-players engaged in the fighting. The innovative use of knife attacks and M-16 machine guns in a brawler was overshadowed by the difficult battles and relentlessly quick rivals. The game lacked balance, nuance and the controls that a difficult game demanded. Perhaps for this reason the game never saw much of a following or even a sequel.
Another difficult game released that same year did make up for the learning curve by providing much better controls and enemy balance. Techmo released the original Ninja Gaiden in arcades to unsuspecting players. The popularity of the ninja was just beginning to manifest in pop culture. Rather than release a title on the mysterious assassins set in feudal Japan the game placed them in a modern city. The character sprites featured in the game were smaller than those in Double Dragon but they were more detailed and better animated. The two ninjas, one red and one blue (Ryu Hayabusa), were on the trail of a cult leader set on raising an evil king to rule the Earth. As they crossed the USA searching for him they had to fight his minions, starting with gang members and then steadily building up into more esoteric characters, including gigantic sumo wrestlers, hockey-masked thugs and barbarians.
The characters were folded into a world that was far more interactive than Double Dragon. Animations were created for a number of actions. Players could climb ladders, swing across gantries, and backflip off of obstacles simply by running up to them. A player that had a keen sense of the level layout could never be cornered by any rival. Ninja Gaiden was a game that required far more finesse to play than any other brawler. Players that rushed into battle would lose lives and quarters quickly. Those that employed more techniques and used the environments to their advantage could get a long way into the title and possibly even beat it on one life. Ninja Gaiden was a great brawler that oozed style, something not really attempted by a studio before developers “Strong Team.” The other brawlers mentioned did have a certain artistic style but they didn’t have the elements of look combined with control, animation and direction that Ninja Gaiden made appear effortless. By comparison the early brawlers coming from the West were crude and relied on more shock value than anything. Such was the case for the Williams game NARC.
Williams went into the genre guns-a-blazing. Pardon the pun but NARC really was as over-the-top and outlandish as any Williams game to-date. The thing that made the game a standout was the visuals. The developers were trying out digitized actors in place of hand-drawn sprites. Environments could be mocked up quickly from photographs and turned into a level. Even vehicles could be digitized and animated in a relative short amount of time. The hard part would be coming up with the programming required to keep all of the frenetic action the game moving forward.
NARC was a spectacle of an arcade game. It was more overblown and outlandish than any brawler at that point. The game was loaded with drug references, violence and gunplay. The red and blue NARC agents could arrest or kill rivals with machine guns and then collect bullets or contraband. The title relied more on shock value and dark humor more than actual gameplay to bring in the players. A prime example of both would be finding out that Mr. Big the drug kingpin / head of the evil organization K.R.A.K turned out to be a giant head that had a burning gaze and shot tongues at players. Seriously folks, I’m not making this up!
NARC would develop a cult-following for its outlandish take on the brawler. Its true contribution to the industry was in showing Williams and later Midway that rotoscoped actors would make good sprites for games. NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat would benefit from this new technology. They would take off thanks to the “photo-realistic” graphics that looked unlike any other arcade game. The brawler was gaining momentum but the year following Ninja Gaiden, P.O.W. and NARC would see entirely new directions taken with the genre. We shall explore these in the next blog.