Friday, October 21, 2016

An Ode to SNK's 'Beast Busters!'

Long before The House of the Dead, the fine folks who brought us Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown gave us the original gore-soaked, arcade light gun zombie blast-a-thon. But does the 1989 coin-op still hold up all these years later?

By: Jimbo X

don't know if you folks have figured this out yet, but I'm really, really fond of SNK. While just about everybody worth a damn remembers them most for their Neo Geo offerings, the company actually had a pretty extensive background making both arcade and console games before their iconic coin-op/home console hybrid went online - in fact, they were making them as early as the late 1970s

The absolute last arcade game SNK produced before migrating to the Neo Geo platform is an especially interesting little oddity called Beast Busters (not to be confused with the totally unrelated pinball game Bone Busters, Inc., although it's probable that both games were named such to cash in on the success of a totally different kind of "Busters" license.) Although essentially nothing more than Operation: Wolf with monsters, Beast Busters nonetheless has a very idiosyncratic feel to it, with some very detailed (and extremely colorful) sprites for its time. And on top of that? Good lord, is this thing violent, even by late 1980s standards. We're talking showers of arterial explosions in this one, complete with meaty chunks of sinewy zombie guts splattering the screen.

All hail the patriarchy!
My recollections of the game are especially vivid. For one thing, I only played the game once when I was a kid, and it was during vacation in Florida. The cabinet was downright huge - not quite X-Men sized, but definitely bulkier than just about everything else - and I could barely see over the barrel of my gun, even when standing on my tiptoes (indeed, I actually had to hop up and down to target some enemies.) 

Considering the wanton carnage of the game, it always had a special place in my heart - especially because, try as I may to locate the coin-op in my geographical vicinity, no arcade anywhere seemed to have their own machine. Of course, by then I had totally forgotten the name of the game, and since Wikipedia or YouTube wasn't around back then, you couldn't just type a few random descriptors in a query box and find exactly what you're looking for in five seconds. So, for years, Beast Busters remained a super-mysterious relic of my early elementary years - a game I knew existed, although whose existence I could demonstrate no tangible proof.

I don't know ... to me, it looks like the kind of
people who actually use NYC's subway.
It wasn't until recently - as in, the last two years - that I "rediscovered" the game. Of course, it was totally on accident; I was watching some playthrough on YT, clicked a random thumnbail next to the video and holy shit, my brains were almost blown out upon realizing this obscure-ass SNK game was indeed THAT zombie-slaying kill-a-thon from my youth that I have long sought to re-experience. Even better? Thanks to the magic of the Internet Archive, I could play Beast Busters on my home setup any damn time I wanted

Recently, I decided to take an afternoon off and play through Beast Busters all the way through. Does the gooey, gory shooter from the George H.W. years still have that same kick I recalled from my ankle-biter days, or is it just another overvalued oddity from that sentimental miasma we sometimes call childhood nostalgia? Well, how about we dump some virtual quarters in this sumbitch and find out, why don't we? We begin by selecting one of three different avatars (not that it matters, since you never see any of them onscreen again until the very end of the game and they all play effectively the same.) Our choices are some blonde dude wearing a baseball cap, a black dude wearing an army helicopter helmet and a bearded fellow who sort of looks like the main character in Big Trouble in Little China. After that, we get a very, very brief (as in, just two scrolling dialogue boxes) synopsis of the plot: there's a boarded up town infected by some kind of zombie-mania, and you're there to solve the mystery of what went awry. And also, since this is a video game, you are also taking with you enough firepower to last the next five World Wars, because really, who wants to play supernatural sleuth when you can just shoot the shit out of stuff?

Oh, so that's why the team is called "the Eagles."

As soon as the game begins, you are just inundated with action. We've got blue-tinged zombies firing handguns at you from point-blank range, rabid undead dogs jumping at your jugular and holy shit, there are even some reanimated corpses in the background lobbing knives at you! Thankfully, it keeps raining more ammunition from the heavens, so you never really have to worry about running low on bullets. And if you are wondering if this game prides itself on pre-ESRB sadism? Well, the overweight ghouls exploding in a shower of meaty, undead blood and guts and the undead pooches whimpering like scalded pups whenever you pop a cap in 'em pretty much tells you everything you need to no, don't it?

Even in a zombie Armageddon, you just
can't keep women from shopping.
All right, so we find ourselves in a subway system, complete with graffiti-stained trains. Here, our zombies become a little more diverse, complete with a few female zombies shambling towards you in hoop skirts and huge-assed earrings. This segues nicely into our first boss battle - which, basically, is just you versus a million billion zombie dogs, unarmed (but definitely still deadly) zombies and a new foe, some vampire bats, before going toe-to-toe with a brazen clone of Iron Maiden mascot Eddie, who in addition to having some limited pyrokenetic abilities, also has the power to morph into a white werewolf and jump all over the place like a lone rolled up sock in an industrial dryer.

Up next, we've got that tried and true late 1980s\early 1990s rail-gun shooter staple, the elevator stage. Here, we're introduced to a new enemy - what appears to be a possessed golden owl, which periodically, likes to drop ZOMBIE FOOTBALL PLAYERS on you. Oh, and a couple of new zombie types make their debut, too, including some pistol packing brain-eaters with afros and these zombiefied guys wearing motorcycle helmets. Our bosses for this section are not one but TWO musclebound blue dude wearing Jason Voorhees masks and lugging AK-47s, In that, it's probably more a ripoff of The Road Warrior than Friday the 13th, but come on, is there any idea for a video game villain circa 1989 more awesome than fuckin' Jason with Rambo weaponry?

I wonder if skeleton bikers have patches
depicting screaming humans on their
Before we begin section three, we get a very brief cutscene with our characters wondering aloud if all of the zombified corpses running around the place could be the city's living inhabitants who disappeared long ago? So yeah, in other words, our protagonists are dumber than special need rocks. This sequence puts us out on the rundown city streets of - uh, wherever this game is supposed to take place - and now we've got zombies driving around on motorcycles and what appears to be diseased garbage men cruising around in red convertibles. Following a mid-boss battle against a transfer truck full of zombie women (perhaps serving the same reproductive purposes as the truck load of women in Fury Road?), you haul ass through the torn-up roads of a ghost town, playing some automatic weaponry-infused chicken with oncoming vehicles commandeered by the living dead. Naturally, this culminates in a boss battle with three Molotov cocktail tossin' zombie bikers, who appear to be riding the missile-equipped choppers from the cult classic piece of shit Megaforce.

Stage four takes us down to the river ... not to pray, but to slay more undead cretins on speed boats, as well as some new enemy types, including - yes, you knew it was coming - ZOMBIE PIRANHAS, as well as a mid-boss I can only describe as a sentient piece of shit with a humanoid face. Eventually, you make your way down an aqueduct, where after a game of handgun-toting zombie whack-a-mole, you do battle with a flying eyeball that throws NAKED BLUE CORPSES at you as a projectile attack.

Told you I wasn't lying about their being a sentient turd-beast boss...

All right, now we're inside a factory, which seems to produce nothing but scrap heap. Oh, and also, there are now sentient, humanoid, orange cyborg beings shooting electricity bolts at you. Eventually, you will make it to a yellow corridor where you tango with five of the above-mentioned mechanical beings who manage to assemble, Voltron style into one huge assed robotic steampunk cybernetic clusterfuck of a mid-boss.

...or the naked blue gang-bang clusterfuck boss...
Following that, we've got another long walk down a zombie-littered hallway, this time with a whole bunch of cryogenic canisters everywhere ( if you accidentally shoot them, more cannibalistic corpses creep out of them, naturally.) This is a prelude to our first human enemy sighting, what at first glance appears to be a boss battle with a hostage-holding scientist. Of course, after you pop a few caps in his ass he reveals his true form, a giant one-eyed penis with teeth, arms and legs who gyrates back and forth and shoots really, really hard (read: next to impossible) to avoid fireballs at you. Following this epic battle, we are treated to a cutscene in which the penis monster scientist's hostage is revealed to be CIA agent, who cryptically urges you to "destroy the fifth one" with her dying breathe. Huh ... I wonder what that could mean?
...or the living tank meatloaf monster. 

Stage six (subtitled "Friend or Foe?") takes place in an underground parking garage. Honestly, it's just more of the same old, mindless zombie-shootin' shenanigans ... that is, up until the point you have to fight a LIVING tank, which is easily one of the greatest body horror abominations to never seep out of the nightmares of David Cronenberg. Say what you will about the formulaic nature of the core gameplay, when you have character design this fucking out there you can't help but appreciate the experience for all it's worth.

From there, we get to take yet another elevator ride, except this time around it's on one of them fancy-schmancy glass ones. Regardless, it's more or less a carbon copy of the sequence from earlier, only with way more enemies on screen and much, much more frantic firefights. Oh, and the boss battle in this one is against a giant meatball, which looks so much like the monster from Terrorvision that I am SHOCKED a lawsuit never came out of it.

"Were the missing scared to death then brought back to life?" the next cutscene poses. In a section titled "Last Battle," we find ourselves in a weird, very Lifeforce like chamber (meaning, the whole damn lair could be exposed bran tissue or something) and right out the gate we find ourselves rewatching with the Eddie wannabe from earlier. Uh-oh, we don't have the beginning of that old lazy game developer stand-by the boss rush on our hands, do we? Aye, sure enough, we get to fight our old friends Mr. Living Turdpile and Senor I'm-Actually-Made-Out-Of-A-Good-Two-Dozen-Indigo-Hued-Dead-Bodies one more time, thankfully.

Yeah ... admittedly, "generic old Japanese dude sitting in IKEA furniture in a space ship made out of Big League bubble gum" is kind of an underwhelming way to end the game.  
After all of that is said and done, we finally confront the big bad of Beast Busters, a bespectacled Japanese scientist sitting in robotic throne with five eyeballs atop it and these Doctor Octopus arms that keep launching rockets at you. By now, you should know how the video game logic works: you cna shoot at his little mechanical tendrils a million billion times, but he won't truly keel over until you blast out all of his eyeballs. You do that and he reveals his super-duper-true form, a giant metal brain with a cerulean blue eye that has the metaphysical ability to make heat-seeking missiles materialize out of nowhere and chase after your ass. Making it even worse, it also can temporarily make itself invisible, which - as I am sure you can imagine - makes targeting the sumbitch a real hassle and a half. After approximately five billion hits, the brain explodes and the eyeball scampers away, leaving you to do battle with yet another pair of sentient Dock Ock tentacles - and then, because the programmers had apparently run out of things to animate, a couple of boring-old spaceship rocket launchers, just 'cause. And after you anticlimactically shot a laser cannon a couple of times, the little Tribble looking eyeball monster tells you this ain't even close to being finished, then promptly dies. And then, because what good B-horror movie ever has the audacity to close on a note of resolution, all three of the titular Beast Busters tremble in fear as a humongous spaceship begins to lower from the heavens ... and scene.

John Cena's scared, black military man is terrified but bearded white tanktop
guy? Either he's ready to fight or he's straining out one hellacious dump.
Well, it's pretty easy to write off Beast Busters as a product of the times - and I mean that as both a positive and a negative. The no-frills, nonstop blasting action is definitely a nice throwback to the bleeding thumb arcade days, and the horror aesthetics are just awesome (really, it made me wonder what SNK could've done with other light-gun friendly properties, like that old trading card line Dinosaurs Attack!

The only thing gnarlier than a giant penis
By that same (arcade) token, however, the designers clearly took a lot of short cuts with the overall gameplay, with only slight mechanical changes from stage to stage. That, and a lot of the boss fights - in addition to being terribly repetitive - are also terribly overlong, which leads not only to a bad case of the much dreaded Lethal Enforcers finger, but unfortunately, quite a bit of player ennui, as well. 

Thankfully, it's a much brisker - and funner - game with another buddy or two playing with you, so not only is multiplayer encouraged, it's pretty much the only way to truly experience Beast Busters as intended. Granted, this is no all-time classic we're talking about here, but as a quick, throwaway seasonally thematic gaming experience, you could do a whole lot worse, to be sure (especially compared to some other horror-themed multiplayer coin-op offerings from the era, including a certain Smash T.V. precursor starring shitty facsimiles of Peter Venkman and Ray Stantz fighting spectral Klan members.) 
...naturally, it would have to be an
unauthorized cameo from the Terrorvision 
Strangely enough, the Beast Busters property had a pretty long shelf-life. An honest to goodness sequel - subtitled, fittingly enough, Second Nightmare - was released in 1999 on the ill-fated Hyper Neo Geo 64 arcade board (which was used for a grand total of just seven games.) As you'd imagine, it was a fairly bland title, which looked (and played) like a really, really ghetto version of The House Of The Dead. That year also saw the release of another Beast Busters game - titled Dark Arms - on the criminally unsung Neo Geo Pocket Color handheld. Believe it or not, that game was actually something of a top-down action/RPG hybrid in the vain of the Game Boy iteration of Daikatana, and surprisingly, it was a really well-done little offering (speaking of, why the fuck haven't I done an article about the awesomeness that is the NGPC by now?) And just when you thought this ultra-obscure franchise had gone away for good, SNK decided to remake the original game as an iPhone shooter in 2014 - and starring the cast of The King of Fighters, no less!

I really can't call Beast Busters a great game by any stretch. It's repetitive, the level design is stubbornly staid and the boss battles, by and large, leave a lot to be desired. That said, as throwaway Halloween entertainment, you really can't complain about the holistic experience too much. The visuals are great, the music, while a little low key, is effective at establishing a nice, spooky atmosphere and the character design is just superb. At the end of the day Beast Busters may hardly be anything more than a slightly above average light gun shooter, but considering its oh-so-awesome aesthetics, it definitely has enough eyeball appeal to keep you blasting your way to the very end. I mean, can you really hate on a game that was enjoyable enough that Michael freakin' Jackson himself took it on tour with them via cargo plane? I think you already know the answer there, mi amigos.


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