Sunday 14 October 2012

Smash TV for the Nintendo Entertainment System

Just as a broken clock is right twice a day, so it is that games companies renowned for manufacturing turgid crap occasionally put out the odd gem. And it came to pass in September 1991 that Acclaim released a fine title amidst their usual tranche of commercially high-profile but utterly abysmal games. That game was a conversion of the successful arcade hit Smash TV for the then-ageing (and now 30-year old) Nintendo Entertainment System.

As you can see from this short video, Smash TV is a kill-or-be-killed shooter in the mould of the classic 1982 Robotron 2084 coin-op. This is no accident - Smash TV first appeared in arcades as a re-boot designed and published by Williams, the creators of Robotron.

Smash TV slotted very nicely into the late 80s/early 90s action schlock that framed the cultural horizon of many a teenaged boy. Taking more than a leaf out of the silly Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Running Man, you are a contestant in an ultra-violent game show. The basic aim is to move from room to room, blast away the waves of enemies the game throws at you and make your way to the obligatory end-of-level boss. Along the way you can pick up a variety of time-limited weapons and power-ups. You rack up the points by collecting cash and prizes - among which include holidays, VCR's, sit-on lawn mowers, and roadsters. All very Bullseye.

The NES version could never hope to hold a candle to the arcade original in terms of graphics and sound, but the gameplay is almost perfectly replicated. The developers really pushed the creaking hardware to ensure mobs of enemies appear on screen at once. At times it can be almost too much as club-wielding thugs, robots, and drones crowd in on you. But there is satisfaction to be had by running over a three-way shot or a rocket launcher and despatching the cloying hordes to silicon hell.

The only real gameplay gripe is the control system. If you have two pads (like me), you can use both - one to control the direction of travel and the other to aim your gun (replicating the dual joystick controls of the arcade). That is the best way to enjoy the game. If you have to rely on one, matters are slightly trickier - one button fires while the other shoots in the opposite direction. It does take some getting used to and works okayish, the results are still playable. However, for some reason a similar method did not work so well for Acclaim's abysmal ports to Sega's Mega Drive, Master System and Game Gear.

Smash TV is a game that relentlessly tests your reflexes. It requires very little in the way of thought, so it's not the easiest to get chin-strokey about (unlike more modern games). But perhaps a deep, subversive comment can be dug out from the NES game's bits 'n' bleeps.

Returning to The Running Man, the film has Arnie fighting the corrupt propaganda machine of corporate capitalism through a series of violently entertaining set-pieces. It's a theme well trodden in American culture - shit happens, and a hero resorts to guns and bullets to restore justice and get the girl back.

Smash TV is a peculiar departure from this tried and tested path. Unlike Arnold, who was a victim in the Running Man's universe, your anonymous character is a contestant. He is not fighting for his and others' freedom. You're guiding him waist-deep through gallons of guts for "BIG MONEY, BIG PRIZES" (as the garbled in-game speech puts it). In other words, the violence is just a means to acquisitive ends. Piling up the bodies = piling up the toasters. What Smash TV lays bare is commodity fetishism, in the non-Marxist sense; of the desire to own more and more stuff simply because owning more and more stuff is good. Given the mindless nature of the gameplay, you unthinkingly accept the parameters of the game to amass that all-important high score, up to and including running from one end of the room to the other to pick up the prize before it disappears - almost regardless of the enemies mobbing you. Your lives (you can acquire up to nine) are entirely subordinate to a process of accumulation that measures success in cash and property collected.

Who knew a little-remembered shoot 'em up on the NES could offer an apposite diagnosis of the psychology of consumer capitalism in the early 90s?

NES Smash TV is available on various emulators. Or, if you're sad (like me), you can trying hunting the original down on cartridge at a car boot sale near you.

A contemporary review can be read here.


Simon W said...

I was a little young for the NES, however the SNES version (which I think was imaginatively titled Super Smash TV) was a superb game, with the added bonus that the SNES control pad had 4 fire buttons in a '+' configuration for directional shooting. Nice to see a little nostalgia mixed in with the lefty politics (although a lot of lefty politics seems to be nostalgia for a pre-Thatcherite consensus...).

Phil said...

We need to go beyond the post-war consensus, but that's for another time ;)

I didn't have a NES back in the day, nor a SNES - though I've acquired both during the last 18 months. I am on the look out for Super Smash TV for the SNES - I can remember the rave reviews it got in the mags back in the day.