Today I'm going to look at Opera House and Sega's 1991 Master System the-long-legs-of-the-law-em-up Running Battle. It's a play on words, you see, because this game is all about running and battling. Am I going to regret playing a game based solely on the fact that its title is sort of a pun? I suppose we'll find out, but I'm not holding out much hope for this being an undiscovered masterpiece.
Well, this guy certainly seems to be running, so he's probably our hero. I think he's wearing a onesie with the sleeves rolled up, like a baby appearing in Miami Vice. I just hope those three ninjas don't catch up with him before I can start the game.
Yes folks, our hero can run. The "running" part of this game's title? Ten out of ten for accuracy. If you're looking for a game where a man in half a Halloween devil costume sprints alongside a cyberpunk canal, you're weird as hell. Also Running Battle has you covered, I guess. But what is the reason for this man's nocturnal jog?
The answers can be found in this rich, creamy slab of text, which I will attempt to summarise for you. In the near future, America his home to the Dark Zone, which must be situated between the Twilight Zone and the Out Zone. Nothing can instil fear like the Dark Zone, but that's only because bulletproof clowns don't exist. Sergeant Brody gets fed up of all the crime in the Dark Zone, and so heads in alone to put a stop to it. He is immediately killed. Brody's partner and player character Detective Sergeant Gray then swears to avenge his fallen co-worker by following the exact same plan that got Brody killed in the first place. The most interesting part of all this - the part that got cut off the bottom of this screenshot, naturally - is that Brody's dying words were "Hypnotist... M..." so it looks like I'm heading into this futuristic dystopia to do battle with the evil hypnotist who gives James Bond his orders. And they say videogames don't tell compelling stories.
Right, okay, so in Running Battle we have the standard single-plane action game set-up - one button for jump and one for attack. You want to leap into the air and kick something? Go crazy, that's why the police force issued Gray with these robotic legs. I assume that's why Gray can jump twenty feet into the air, anyway. Crouching down so you can punch the villain right in the ballsack? Hey, buddy, you can do that if you want. No judgement here.
I sort of don't want to punch this guy, just in case he's the person who did that bit of Sega graffiti. Nothing brightens up an urban death-zone like a nice, bright blue bit of Sega graffiti. The artist should be commended, not smacked in the chops.
I decided not to fight him. Instead I jumped over him and ran away. This worked surprisingly well, because after a few moments of half-heartedly giving chase the villain turned around and walked off the screen. It's helpful to know that I have this tactic at my disposal, and I suspect Running Battle is going to feature much more running than battling.
One of the big problems with taking the "battling" route is that the enemies will simply stand in place and punch over and over again, meaning that you can't hit them without taking a punch first because their arms are just as long as yours. Even the basic grunts take two hits to dispatch, too, so it's not like you can just batter them before they get a chance to start jabbing away with their feet firmly bolted in place. Your only recourse is to try jumping over them and kicking them on the way down, and when combined with the vague collision detection hand-to-hand fighting can be a bit of a nightmare.
Then I found a gun. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this rather changed the flow of the combat. It has limited ammo, sure, but when that limit is thirty bullets and there are about twenty enemies in this first stage it's hard to feel too constrained. You could even get away with firing a few rounds into the air in celebration of your new-found killing power and still be more than capable of clearing out the level. It just seems odd that, as an American police officer, Gray didn't have a gun in the first place. He was much more efficient when he had a gun. I'm not saying having a gun automatically makes you a better police officer, of course. Just that it makes you more of a man.
Hang on, so the previous few screens of bloody carnage occurred before the battle even began? That is some bold storytelling from Running Battle, giving the player the opportunity to experience a playable prologue in which Gray kills a bunch of people who may or may not be related to his revenge mission. Just because someone's from the Dead Zone, you automatically assume they're a criminal so vile and depraved they deserve nothing but a summary execution? I'd ask you to turn in your badge and gun, but I fear that would do little to deter you, Gray. Plus you lose your gun in the boss fights anyway.
This is definitely the hideout of some sort of criminal organisation. You can tell because there are oil drums everywhere. In videogames, oil drums are the Geiger counters of unlawful activity - the more barrels you can see, the higher the concentration of street punks who have formed themselves into a gang in order to kidnap someone's daughter or hold the city to ransom or what have you.
This gang is a bit more militaristic than usual, dressed in full combat fatigues rather than the usual mohawks-and-shoulderpads look, but they're no great shakes in the fisticuffs department and they certainly can't stand up to a man with a gun. If you don't have a gun and are becoming frustrated by the bad guys' insistence on staying rooted to the spot and wildly swinging their arms like a toddler having a tantrum, I found the best way to deal with them was to jump straight up and on your way back down press towards them and attack to do a flying kick. It's important to press towards them, otherwise you'll kick upwards and miss, and about half the time you'll take damage with the flying kick method anyway, but half the time is better than all the time and it's the best tactic you have until you find a firearm.
New to this stage are some jolly platforming japes. In the screenshot above I am demonstrating how not to have jolly platforming japes, but I actually did it on purpose just so I could confirm what happens when you fall down a hole.
Oh, so you do turn into a heart and float back down onto the stage, only with a chunk of health subtracted from your lifebar. That's what I thought happened, but it's nice to have confirmation. The hearts are your lives, too, and when you die you continue from the spot where you fell, which is a sweet relief after struggling through the checkpoints of Out Zone and Jumpin' Kid's one-life-only policy.
Jumping from platform to platform works well enough, I suppose. As I've mentioned, Gray has the superlative jumping abilities of a flea with a taser up it's backside, so you really only need to make sure you've cleared out all the enemies on-screen before you jump because colliding with them in mid-air means you don't jump as far and thus will fall down the hole.
So far Running Battle's been a surprisingly playable little game, although I think that's more down to personal opinion than any real quality. I could definitely see how the limited (to one, so far) enemy types, slightly ropey combat and lack of ambition might turn you off this one... which leaves me wondering why I'm enjoying it. I can't really answer that, if I'm honest. I will say that Gray's jump-kicking abilities are very satisfying, thanks in part to the crunchy sound effect each one makes, and I like that the appearance of a gun power-up instantly switches the player from a tentative melee fighter cautiously poking at his foes into a fearless Norse berserker, if Vikings had access to firearms.
Then I walked through some double doors and this screen appeared. It seems that I am going to be fighting a pirate. Or, given that this gang is run by an evil hypnotist, I'm going to be a fighting a man who has been hypnotised into thinking he's a pirate. If one of the later bosses isn't a man who think's he's a chicken, I shall be very disappointed.
Captain Brass: less a pirate, more a peg-legged leprechaun. Not that his peg-leg hampers his ability to jump around the place, and that's really all he does in battle, flying towards Gray with his cutlass held out every couple of seconds. That might sound like it's setting the scene from some dramatic mid-air clashes between jumping kicks and cold steel, but that will just lead to you losing all your health, so try to punch Captain Brass when he lands instead. Make sure it's a crouching punch, though, because as a leprechaun Captain Brass is too short to hit with your regular standing punches. Looking at his sprite, I think the reason for his shortness is that he doesn't have a head. His hat, jaunty though it may be, is just resting on his shoulders. So he's a pirate leprechaun tortoise, then?
Whatever he was, Captain Brass has been sent to Davy Jones' locker. Gray informs the player that even stronger enemies await. Stronger than a headless, one-legged midget? I shudder to think what could possibly put up a sterner test than that.
The next stage is the previous stage, but painted in soothing blue hues, and also some of the enemies have guns now. I wouldn't necessarily say they're stronger than Captain Brass, but they're more annoying to fight because they can shoot you. It also puts paid to my previous strategy of jumping over everyone and waiting for them to get bored and leave, because the gun-toting soldiers can simply shoot you in the back as you land.
I found a new power-up: the Super Run. It's essentially a Starman from Super Mario, only as well as making you invincible it makes you automatically kung-fu kick your way over any chasms in your path. This is not massively different from the way I played the game in a non-Super Running state. I'm 99% sure there was not a hole in this game that I didn't jump kick my way over, whether there were enemies around or not. I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you can pull of jumping kicks like that it is your obligation, your duty, to perform them as frequently as possible.
Also new to this stage: gun turrets, both of hanging-down-from-the-ceiling variety and the wall mounted, sad-robot-boob type. They don't add much to the game, but I figured I should mention them so that you don't go away thinking that the only non-boss enemies in this game are soldiers. The round turrets fire so slowly and predictably that they're essentially wall-mounted power-up dispensers, anyway, and with that in mind I'd like to commend Running Battle for not being too stingy with the power-ups. Even extra lives appear with some regularity, and because you have (as far as I can tell) infinite continues it's a perfectly valid plan to dash past most enemies, kick the turrets for goodies and fight the boss without paying much attention to strategy and then purposefully use up any remaining lives at the start of the next stage so you can continue with a full complement of hearts.
Killer the Kid: clearly not a kid. Also, there's no evidence that he's a killer besides his name, and that could be an ironic nickname, like calling a short guy Lofty or when British politicians refer to each other as "the honourable." I think he might be a cowboy, or possibly an Indiana Jones impersonator.
Oh, so he is a cowboy. It seems obvious now that we're fighting in an old-timey wild west saloon. A
wild west saloon that was just built into the enemy's otherwise ruggedly industrial headquarters like it's a goddamn fantasy hotel room. Maybe this whole base is really some sort of zoo for psychotic fantasists, and like all good zoos great pains have been taken to recreate the inhabitant's natural habitat.
Right, Killer the Kid. For a cowboy he's reluctant to use his shootin' irons, instead preferring to throw molotov cocktails at you and roll across the floor, presumably as a safety measure should he set himself alight with his own petrol bombs Once you've gotten used to avoiding his projectiles, Killer the Kid isn't too tough to take down, especially since you don't have to crouch down to punch him. You might want to crouch and punch him in order to teach Killer a valuable lesson about not throwing incendiary materials around in a wooden building, but that's up to you.
Now Gray has sunk to grabbing anyone who happens to be nearby, kicking the shit out of them and then accusing them of Brody's murder. Perhaps not the most efficient method of detective work, but Gray seems like he's committed to keeping it up so I'm sure he'll batter the real killer eventually.
Again, the next stage is the previous stage only with a fresh coat of paint. This time it's a sickly grey-green-yellow palette, giving the impression that the fighting is taking place in a bowl of leek and potato soup. There's not much new to discuss, although I will say that the increased number of enemies and projectiles on screen means that there's quite a lot of slowdown at times. Running Battle is already fairly slow-paced, because despite being developed by a Japanese developer it was only released in Europe (and possibly Brazil, boy do they love the Master System in Brazil) and thus runs more slowly than originally intended thanks to the 50Hz / 60Hz differences between PAL and NTSC. If you were to play Running Battle in a way that allowed you change the region of the Master System being used - some kind of computer program that emulates a Master System, if such a thing exists - then I would highly recommend changing the region to USA or Japan. The game runs faster, there's less slowdown and sprite flickering and the music sounds better. That last bit might not sound so important, but I really like the main theme from this game. Here's how it sounds at 50Hz:
Not bad, but when it's restored to the speed it's supposed to played at it sounds like this.
I prefer this one, but I can understand a case being made for the superiority of the 50Hz version. It is strangely haunting, especially for a game about punching cowboys in the balls.
It's time to face Sam Raimi! Sorry, Samrai Man. He's a noble samrai who fights according to the strict code of bshdo. I'm still not sure whether his colour palette is messed up or if he's supposed be all purple and green.
Samrai Man has two moves at his disposal: he either jumps into the air and tries to land on your head, which you can avoid by walking sideways, or he calls down a bolt of lighting where you're standing, which can be avoided by walking sideways. Samrai Man is not the most threatening boss you'll encounter in this game. I have a suspicion that Samrai Man is not an actual samurai. For one thing, he can't spell "samurai." Also, the Japanese flag is not a red disc with stripes on a bright orange background. Another victim of M's evil hypnosis? It sure looks that way.
Another suspect detained and pummelled, another case of mistaken identity, another potential lawsuit waiting for Gray if he ever escapes from the Dark Zone. When policemen complain that their hands are tied by red tape and bureaucracy, this is what they mean. If they didn't have so many forms to fill in they could be out there on the streets, kicking samurais about and preventing Sega graffiti.
The next stage isn't really a stage at all, just a couple of empty rooms before a boss fight. Empty apart from a young woman in suspended animation, that is.
This is Mary. She's Brody's sister. Say hello, everyone. Why has the villainous M kidnapped Brody's sister? It's never explained. Perhaps it was part of an attempt to get Brody to stop his one-man vendetta against the Dark Zone by holding his loved ones hostage, and word just hasn't filtered down to this part of the base yet that Brody has been killed. Maybe it's because this is an 8-bit action game and developers were contractually obligated to include at least one damsel rescue in each videogame. I say damsel, with that bright purple lipstick and eyeshadow, plus the straw-like thatch of her hair, Mary looks like one of those toy busts that little girls practise applying make-up on. Not that Gray looks much better, his red jacket giving him the appearance of a low-rent knock-off of Kaneda from Akira. Portraiture is not this game's strong suit.
Case in point - Milacle Man, the TV-psychic-cum-luchador with no ears and what I originally took to be two mouths.
Thanks to his ESP abilities, Milacle Man attacks with the power of his mind. However, the power of his mind must be channeled through a suitable medium, like a housebrick. That's why there are so many holes in the background, Milacle Man likes to tear some bricks free with his thoughts and then throw them at Gray. There's a wonderful dissonance between the mysterious power of telekinesis and chucking a brick at someone that I personally find very pleasing, but I didn't get much chance to enjoy it while I was desperately trying to avoid said bricks as well as the energy bolts Milacle Man can fire at you. With his cape, magic powers and round, featureless head, it's like I'm fighting Mysterio again, except this time he's a threat.
Finally, Gray's police brutality pays off and he comes face-to-face with M himself. M rules all, apart from coming up with cool names for himself. M is hypnotist and we've seen that his lieutenants have access to an array of fantastical power, so I'm sure this battle will be crackling with raw magical energy and unfathomable mental abilities.
Huh. Not feeling very confident in your hypnotic powers, M? Having to fight a giant robotic gunship seems a trifle unfair, what with Gray not having access to guns in any boss battles, and to make matters worse if you die you're sent back to the start of the last base level and you have to fight your way through that, Samrai Man and Milacle Man again before you can have another go at M.
Fortunately, I quickly discovered an optimum battle plan: standing on this big gun. Not only does positioning yourself here mean you can't be shot by the big gun, you can also hold up and press attack to perform a high kick that hits the boss' weak point. "Weak point" is a relative term, because you still have to kick it sixty times to win, but it works better than having that minigun pointed at your face and with a little perseverance I managed to put an end to M's evil schemes.
"Now Brody can rest in peace, hopefully without being harassed by the spirits of all those I punched to death in order to achieve justice for him."
As this is all the ending you get, nothing is known about what happens to Gray after his mission to the Dark Zone was completed. If I had to guess, I'd say it involved an awful lot of paperwork and hopefully some intensive psychological rehabilitation.
I sort of enjoyed Running Battle, but I'm still at a loss as to explain why. I'm sure most people who played it would say it's a bad game, and they wouldn't be wrong: it's jerky, finicky, about as original as doing a twee indie cover of rap track and the gameworld and story are hardly likely to inspire any great feelings of admiration... and yet I'm still glad I played it to the end. Part of that might be down to the fact that it's a Master System game that I got along with, something that doesn't happen very often, and there is a certain satisfying chunkiness to the kickin' and punchin', but this one will have to go down as a game I like thanks solely to my own unique brain chemistry rather than any actual worthwhile content. Well, the chance to fight a pirate leprechaun could conceivably fall under the banner of "worthwhile content" but beyond that? I'm not sure there's much going on.