Friday 16 July 2021

Final Fight for the Super Nintendo

Games don't come much more manly than this. Launched by Capcom to arcades gagging for new beat 'em up action, Final Fight was a qualitative leap up the evolutionary ladder from other brawlers. Consider Double Dragon II, which was released in Japan in November 1988. And contrast with what came 13 months later. It's the difference between a King Charles Spaniel and a dire wolf. Everything was ramped up to ludicrous proportions. The sprites enlarged, the levels lengthened, proper bosses with unique attack patterns, and unlike its Double Dragon forebears the player characters had their own move set. The simple smack-everyone-into-next-week gameplay was much more kinetic and satisfying than anything before it, thanks to the great sound effects, and Capcom's tills rang to the pitter patter of tiny coins.

Everyone wanted a piece of the Final Fight action, and in the end practically every home machine got their version. Including the humble 8-bit micros. As Capcom were long-time publishers for Nintendo and had made a few bob from the relationship, the game's first home outing was scheduled for the Super Famicom - then the hottest piece of gaming kit. And ... things did not go according to plan. Eager for killer apps, Final Fight has subsequently been considered something of a let down. Capcom tried cramming as much into an eight megabit cartridge, but it meant some significant omissions were made. The two player option was out. Of the three characters, speedy and nimble Guy was left on the cutting room floor - only Cody and Mike were available. An entire level was excised, and the Japanese version saw the game suffer debilitating slowdown in places. This didn't matter, it looked damn close to the arcade in magazine screen shots. That and the generally positive reviews it got helped Nintendo shift product.

To be sure, as in home as at the arcade SNES Final Fight is hyper macho nonsense of the most ridiculous and gratuitous order. It's the 1990s so, naturally, the inner city is a no-go zone stalked by hoodlums and exploited by organised crime. This is true of "Metro City", which is controlled by the Mad Gear gang. Elected mayor on an anti-corruption ticket, the former street brawler Mike Haggard is approached with a proposition - continue turning a blind eye and his daughter, who they've kidnapped, will be safe. In the American and European version Jessica appears on his TV screen in a red dress. In Japan, to make a rape threat implication clear, she's in just a bra. Outraged Mike meets with her boyfriend Cody and off they go to do battle with all manner of street scum.

Final Fight introduced lots of basic enemy types, as well as mini bosses, requiring different tactics to deal with. The Andore types, not at all based on the image of beloved WWF wrestler Andre the Giant, would charge at your player character. But stand there jabbing away and he'll run into your fists. The same cannot be said for the Big Bull types. Fat, bald baddies, they can charge under the jabs and so require slightly different handling. Unfortunately, due to the limitations the SNES can only handle three enemies on screen, but this doesn't stop the enemies from crowding you. Here the J types, thugs with puffy jackets and mohawk hair, prove especially frustrating with a tendency to evade punches and sneak up behind while you're mixing it with their confederates. Interestingly, this is where a bit of Nintendo censorship creeps in. In the Japanese version, Poison and Roxy, scantily-clad babes in short shorts and crop tops with handcuffs dangling from their waists because reasons find themselves removed from the Western versions and replaced by Billy and Sid, a couple of punky looking chaps ... also with the handcuffs. Riddle me this. Were they taken out because Nintendo were queasy about their inclusion? Or was having our muscle-bound heroes slapped around by high-kicking women too much for an exercise if digital manliness?

Despite the limitations, SNES Final Fight isn't an easy game. Enemies are frequently cheap, and their attacks often overpowered. Ground breaking as the arcade was, the move set is too limited and frustration frequently sets in. A couple of bosses are a bit too much as well. Take Abigail, the Kiss face paint-wearing respray of the Andore sprite has a long reach preventing the kinds of tactics that saw his forebears off. He also has a penchant for throwing you in the air and knocking about three quarters of the energy bar away. Unless you're well practised and have done the hard yards to learn his patterns, the loss of lives is inevitable. Likewise the end boss, Belger, you expect him to be a bit tricksy and indeed he is. Appearing on a motorised chair holding Jessica against her will, the crossbow comes out and you're getting skewered each time you try and get up from the last shot. Getting close and quickly throwing, or spamming the piledrivers is the way to sort him out - but this can't be pulled off with impunity and getting there will also deplete the life count.

Get through all that, and with father/daughter, boyfriend/girlfriend reunited Cody gives Jessica the brush off(!) Having rescued his damsel in distress, the ending says he can't be with her for as long as evil persists in the world. A lame excuse for his desire to grapple with muscley men if you ask me. Or, if you prefer the more conventional reading, putting his duty to a version of robust city clean-up than fripperies like relationships and caring for someone else. A harsh if fitting analogy for the relationship between games, particularly at this point in time, and their end sequences - the journey, at least in good games, is much better than the prize.

Despite being toned down for the SNES, Final Fight is a good game and well worth playing, even if only for a digital retread of popular manly tropes that cycled through Hollywood in the 1980s. It's one of those games the years have treated kindly: it doesn't look objectionable by contemporary standards, and has the all-important pick-up-and-play quality. But two things I realised, not having indulged the Final Fight phenomenon first time round. The Mega/Sega CD version is much better on all counts with no missing features or levels, options, fluid animation, and more on-screen enemies. With a CD and coming out two years after the SNES version this was the minimum expectation. And second? It's proper shocking how much the Streets of Rage series on the Mega Drive was "inspired" by this game's example. The first game on the Mega Drive had puny sprites owing more to Double Dragon than the Final Fight it was supposed to be Sega's answer to. But there were better moves, an amazing sound track versus Capcom's terrible ditties, and enemies who were directly ripped off from their source material. The Signal types behaved exactly like the J types. Third level boss Abadede combined elements from Abigail, and the level two boss Katana (Sodom in Japan). And, entirely coincidently, the end of game boss Mr X shoots off his machine gun just as Belger was handy with his crossbow. Moving on to Streets of Rage II, the best 16-bit thumper ever with the banging tunes to match, the "inspiration" is blatant. It introduces themes and gameplay elements of its own that leaves Final Fight in the dust, but the substrate is there. Sprite size, sprite types, sprite moves, even the bloody character types owe something to Cody and Mike. Which sort of makes the efforts Sega putting in to publishing Final Fight CD a touch curious - as good a conversion it is, Streets of Rage II improved on it in every single way. It was, to all intents and purposes, obsolete by the time of its release.

Returning to the SNES, Final Fight is worth a blast today, especially if you've spent quality time with Streets of Rage IV on the Switch or whatever and fancy investigating the glory days of the scroll-a-long fighter. Enjoy the absurdity, the button mashing, the inevitable frustration and occasional cheap shot, and the condensation of 1980s action-men tropes, gestures, logics, and absurdities. They don't make 'em like they used to.

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1 comment:

Blissex said...

On Netflix there is a sweet and funny cartoon about a boy and a girl who are great players of these fight games: "Hi score girl"