It’s refreshing to see a genre mainstay from the 80′s and 90′s making a return to the extent that the beat-’em-up genre has. Following its golden age of sorts, it had become mostly non-existent during the period where games were transitioning to 3D, save for a few like Fighting Force. Downloadable services like PSN and Xbox Live Arcade have given new life to these games, introducing titles like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game, while also resurrecting ones that were previously only available in the arcade, like The Simpsons.
Gang Wars was one that I missed along the way, most likely as a result of not getting a console release, as I’ve never actually seen an arcade machine of it. My first impressions were that it struck me as a Double Dragon clone, since it released around that same time and had a very similar concept. Now that it’s available on PSN, I have the opportunity to see if it deserves that comparison or if it is, in fact, a forgettable knock-off.
The setting is 1989 New York, where a young woman named Cynthia is kidnapped by a gang led by a man known as Jaguar. In the original version, you could play as either Mike or Jackie (who bears a strong resemblance to Jackie Chan in some of the original game’s artwork), but the re-release restricts you to Mike. It’s not made clear what the relationship is between Cynthia and the main characters, only that she needs rescuing and since you know martial arts, you’re clearly the man for the job.
Obviously the best way to go about a rescue mission in 1989 is to beat the snot out of anybody who passes you on the street, so that’s what you end up doing. You’ll journey across various parts of New York, including Chinatown and Manhattan, as you are greeted by Jaguar’s men every step of the way. You have two primary attacks, a punch and a kick, as well as the ability to jump. If you punch while close enough to your enemies, you can grab them and slam them down to the ground. Using jump in association with the kick button will execute a jump kick as you might expect, though surprisingly, nothing happens if you try to jump and punch. And aside from the various weapons you pick up off of the ground, that’s about the extent of the combat.
Speaking of weapons, besides having bottles and spears and such to hack down the crowd with, you can also pick up firearms. They do an insane amount of damage too if you manage to get one, as most enemies will fall after one bullet from the machine gun. There’s even a flamethrower that you can tinker around with. After each stage, you’ll be awarded points which can be distributed to three different statistics, including Power, Speed, and Guard. They’re all pretty self explanatory save for Guard, which I’m going to assume just limits your damage in general, since there isn’t a block button.
The visuals fit in very nicely with other games of its era; which is to say, if you didn’t grow up in that time period, it will be a bit jarring for you. Despite coming out two years after Double Dragon, I feel like the graphics in Gang Wars are a bit lower quality. Fortunately, things are at least distinguishable for the most part, aside from a few objects that I couldn’t discern what they were. There was a red object that I used frequently to bash foes, though as of this writing, I still have no idea what it is. A red golf club, maybe? A chicken leg? A boxing glove at the end of a stick? Your guess is as good as mine.
One thing I will say about Gang Wars that was a step up over Double Dragon is that the enemies at least seem to be more varied. There are multiple types that you run across in each stage and every single stage introduces more, even if they don’t necessarily behave differently. One level even had tigers. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of punching a tiger in the face since Yakuza 2, so bonus points for that. It did strike me as odd that the in-game artwork didn’t seem consistent with each other. When the two main characters are introduced, they have portraits that are very anime-looking in style, yet everything else tried for a more “realistic” look. I put realistic in quotations, because when you catch glimpses of Jaguar making threats to you, his appearance strikes me as being more like Freddie Krueger than an actual human being. At least it succeeds in making him appear more intimidating, so there is that, I suppose.
The soundtrack walks that middle ground of not being a nuisance while still being entirely forgettable. It’s appropriate for the style of gamplay, but it doesn’t matter much in the end. You see, it’s hard to focus on the music when your foes are constantly laughing at you. Now, it’s very common to see instances in games where when an enemy knocks you down, they might let out a hearty chuckle (such as the fire breathing fat men from the Streets of Rage games). However, the characters in Gang Wars continuously laugh at you and don’t seem to stop. Ever. If they knock you down, they laugh at you. If you aren’t actively punching them in the face, they laugh at you. Granted, it gives you incentive to sock them in the head, but it’s very aggravating.
There is a small sampling of digitized voice-overs during the few cutscenes you witness between stages. As you might expect from an 80′s video game title, they are very poorly acted and incredibly muffled, but such things were still very impressive during that era. I found it amusing that some of them didn’t match the dialogue on screen, which is probably for the best on account of the poor grammar.
Despite how much I poke fun at Gang Wars for merely being a product of its time period, as a genre fan, I did still enjoy the game. There were some segments that were incredibly tedious on account of bosses that had an unreasonably large amount of health. I don’t know how anyone would’ve finished it in the arcade for less than $100, so thankfully there are unlimited credits. A number of the grunt type enemies will barely scratch you, not even causing a bar of health to disappear, but others can outright kill you in two or three hits. There were a few occasions where I was able to glitch enemies into getting stuck on bridges and other forms of scenery and was able to punch them into oblivion, but this was less than reliable and still would have struggled if not for the infinite credits. There also seemed to be a buffer area on the sides of each screen too, because my character never could quite travel completely to one side of the other, though the enemies could.
Once you do finally beat it, there’s not much else to do with it besides trying to top your own score. There are five stages in total and the entire game can be completed in less than an hour. It’s only $3, but anyone who didn’t grow up in this era may think it too much on account of how archaic it is compared to new games in the genre. I was perplexed at how the two player co-op mode had gotten the axe in this version. It makes sense if you are playing on the PSP I suppose, but why take the feature out for the PS3 folks? It even prompts for player 2 to “insert coin” before you officially begin, but a second controller does nothing to allow another person to join in.
There isn’t much else in the way of special features. There is a border that goes around the outside of the screen if you choose to play in its native resolution, though you do have the option of removing the border entirely and stretching the image out. Even in this mode, you’ll still have black bars going down the left and right sides of the screen. There’s also an option to play with only three lives and make adjustments to the controls if need be.
Appeal Factor: Decent
Final Score: Decent Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
Gang Wars can best be described as a relic from an era where arcade beat-’em-up titles were king and each one sought to be the next Double Dragon in popularity. While it did have stat gains and firearms that the player could use, which wasn’t common in that period, everything else about it is a pretty standard genre affair. It’s great if you grew up in that period and like these kinds of games, and $3 is a steal for an arcade title. However, if you don’t have an appreciation for retro titles or are looking for one with the co-op capability intact, then you’d best move on.