Friday, May 3, 2019

COIN-OP REVIEW: Captain America and the Avengers (1991)

A.K.A., that other Marvel-licensed beat-em-up that was a staple in arcades across America throughout the early ‘90s …


By: JimboX

In the grand pantheon of early 1990s, licensed arcade beat-em-ups, there are four games universally recognized as the sub-subgenres’ veritable holy quartet: Turtles in Time, The Simpsons, X-Men, and the one that — rather perplexingly — seems to get exponentially less retro reverence than its kindred, Captain America and the Avengers.

Of course, those first three games I mentioned were all produced by Konami, while the game we’ll be probing in-depth today was made by Data East. And to be fair, around 1991 The Avengers was FAR from being the multi-trillion a year super industry it is now, so I suppose in hindsight it’s not exactly that unusual why it’s seemingly so underrated and unacknowledged, almost 30 years later. Still, you’d think ANYTHING that had Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in it would get gobbled up by curious Gen Z’ers and millennials nowadays, which makes this game’s relative obscurity all the more befuddling, bamboozling and bewildering. Hell, at this point, that one Spider-Man beat-em-up produced by Sega probably has more of a gravitas around retro video game and comic book ephemera junkies, which just goes to show you that when it comes to pop cultural nostalgia, nothing nowhere seems to make any damn sense no more.

As I was saying, though, this game was pretty damn ubiquitous in American arcades in the early 1990s. Caught in-between the proliferation of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, however, it kinda’ got lost in the shuffle a little bit, especially when it had to do coin-op battle against much more popular and appealing brands (at the time, anyway) like the Ninja Turtles and Bart Simpson. So while it may not have had the intrinsic impact of, say, an NBA Jam or a Samurai Shodown, it nonetheless stood out as a better-than-average brawler, especially compared to genre contemporaries like Arabian Fight and D.D. Crew.

At the heart of the game’s appeal, I’d say, is it’s art style. The guys at Data East definitely don’t have the best track record with pure beat-em-ups or licensed games, but somehow, they managed to put in a B+ performance here. The backdrops have a very nice, matte painting look to them, and whereas other superhero-based properties tried to tone done the association with the printed medium, this game just ran with the comic book motif like a motherfucker, complete with kooky onamonapia sound effects bubbles and rectangular cut scenes meant to mimic the aesthetics of all those Marvel monthlies. Even better, the game does stay quite faithful to the source material, with plenty of neat little nudges and nods towards the greater Marvel mythology — even if there does appear to be the occasional artistic liberty taken with the character designs, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, readers.

From the outset, Captain America, et. al is your standard beat-em-up, albeit one with some light platforming elements and a couple of side-scrolling shoot-em-up stages thrown in the mix for good measure. You’ve got a standard attack button, a jump button and if you press ‘em both at the same time it allows you to do a special ranged attack, which differs depending on which character you’re using. Hey, speaking of characters, in the original arcade version you can have up to FOUR players taking helm of the Avengers at one time, which I suppose gives us a good excuse to briefly run down the playable cast in this one, don’t it?

CAPTAIN AMERICA — The title-bearer and star-spangled superhero who really needs no introduction. Armed with a red, white and blue shield that does Jack Shit to deflect enemy projectiles, Cap nonetheless has the ability to toss his iconic weapon at foes, although since it takes about two seconds due to button-press delay for him to actually do so, you’re probably better off just punching the shit out of people instead. (NOTE: This actually holds true for ALL of the characters in the game, the more I think about.)

IRON MAN — Similar in size and structure to Captain America, old Shell Head plays virtually the same, albeit with a slightly more powerful projectile laser attack and a jumping laser beam blast attack that’s one of the more effective (read: spammable) attacks that can be used in said game.

HAWKEYE — Rocking his classic purple duds, he seems to move slightly slower than the other characters. But he makes up for it with his projectile arrow attack, which seems to have slightly longer range than all the other projectile attacks in the game. Also: why this non-superpowered jabroni was selected over Thor, Hulk, and U.S.Agent, etc. DESPITE already making an appearance in Sega’s arcade beat-em-up that came out the very same year, I really can’t tell you. Was Marvel really that hard-up to make Hawkeye that much of a thing back in the day?

THE VISION - Thankfully, instead of those goofy red and green dressings, he’s basically just a mono-colored cookie dough blob with a hilarious gait who folds his arms and shoots these mamby pamby little piss lasers out of his skull. Basically, he’s the lamest character in the game, and probably the second lamest beat-em-up character of all-time … behind The Dazzler, of course.

If you think that's egregious, I hear the developers originally wanted to call him "Not a Sentinel."

So yes, while there are SOME discrepancies, the characters are all fairly interchangeable, taking up the same pixel space and moving at more or less the same pace and tempo. And since there are no Mutant Power attacks like in X-Men there’s really no reason to get into any fist fights over who’s going to play as who, unless one of you REALLY has a hard-on for Iron Man or Captain America. And with all of that entry-level basic stuff outta’ the way, how about we start talkin’ about the damn game itself?

As soon as you start feedin’ the machine your hard-earned tokens, you get some quick exposition on just how evil a sumbitch The Red Skull is, since he’s using some kind of mind control ray to brainwash a whole buncha’ C-tier supervillains to do his bidding. Then you pick your character and we’re quickly thrust into stage one, were you get to beat up a whole buncha robots and toss park benches and soda machines at cyborgs that try to dry hump you to death.

So one of the things that makes this game stand out from some of the other licensed beat-em-ups from the epoch is the staggering amount of ambience you can use as weaponry. You can pick up rocks and peg bad dudes in the head, clobber them with wrenches, toss space-age printers at a motherfucker and, my favorite, grab a soda can and pop a foe right in the skull, just like you were that one evil Coke machine in Maximum Overdrive. In fact, every time I play this game I go out of my way to try to killshot each boss with a pick-up-projectile blow. I mean, polishing off Whiplash with a shield toss is one thing, but putting him out of commission with a 90-mile-per-hour Pepsi pitch is 250 percent more amusing.

So you walk around town, jumping over stuff and beating up robots some more and you encounter KLAW AND THE LIVING LASER robbing a bank. So, naturally, you kick the shit out of them until you make it down to a pier, and that’s when you get to grab a bunch of tires and barrels and pummel Whirlwind’s goofy-looking ass with ‘em just like it was a WWF match for the Hardcore Championship, circa 1999.

Stage two starts off with a nighttime, rooftop brawl-a-thon before changing genres on us all of a sudden and making you get on this speeder-bike thing to shoot down suicidal kamikaze robots and blow up generic-ass spaceships. Eventually, this leads to a mini boss-battle against a freakin’ SENTINEL, only they don’t call it a “Sentinel,” they just call it “GIANT ROBOT,” even though it’s quite clearly supposed to be a Sentinel. So you blow that one up (for bonus cool points, just keep shooting it in its light pink nads over and over again ‘til it goes kablooey) and then you do some more beat-em-uppin’ before going toe-to-toe with The Grim Reaper, who likes to use his built-in hand scythe like a helicopter propellor. So yeah, while the music in this game is a little underwhelming, you can’t say shit about the quality of the sound effects — indeed, Reaper’s whirring attack sounds just like they stuck a microphone up against a mechanical pencil sharpener, and it is grating as fuck.

Well, if they're looking for a new big bad in the MCU,I think "Mech. Taco" is the only logical successor to Thanos.

OK, before I forget, I guess I should let you fine people know that several other Marvel stalwarts show up as assist characters throughout the game. For example, Quicksilver will periodically run by to drop you off a health pick-up, while The Wasp serves as something of a mini-protective shield. Hell, even Wonder Man shows up for no discernible reason whatsoever, as does Namor the Sub-Mariner, who simply puts towards the ocean after you beat up The Wizard in stage three to begin yet another side-scrolling shooting section.

So you do your best imitation of In The Hunt for a bit, and then you do battle with a sub-boss that’s just a dude in a giant mechanical octopus, which is noteworthy for one thing, and one thing only: the absolutely ungraspable decision by the game developers to call the enemy “Mech Taco.”

Then it’s time to beat ‘em some more random robots, before you run headlong into THE MANDARIN, who comes complete with the most hilarious, stereotypical ching-chong Chinaman voice acting of all time, right down to his opening taunt of “FEEL MY POWAHH!” To their credit, though, the game developers went above and beyond to pay tribute to the source material, since just about ALL of his ring powers are manifest in some kind of attack he launches at you, including freezing attacks AND this annoying doppelganger attack that tricks you into beating up an imposter for a couple of seconds. Hey, it’s a better representation of the character than why get in Iron Man 3, that’s for DAMNED SURE.

Before we move along to Stage 4, I should probably say at least a thing or two about the game’s health system. Like Double Dragon 3 or WWF WrestleFest, this ‘un allows you to purchase more health by pumping in a continuous stream of coinage. Indeed, if you have enough change you can max out your character’s health at 999 hit points, which is easily enough to power you through the game even IF you suck out loud at beat-em-ups.

Oh, so that's what Juggernaut looks like when he's cycling OFF the 'roids.

So the next stage has you brawling your way through a generic spaceship, up until you run smackdab into the JUGGERNAUT, who — for whatever reason — has one giant, crystal eye instead of the usual Juggy costume we’re used to. Which, in a way, actually makes the character even creepier, although it would’ve made for a much better visual (and more memorable overall experience) had they made the villain several sprites larger than your own avatar. So you waste him, then you fight Ultron, which REALLY looks like a silver version of The Creature From The Black Lagoon in this game. Just an observation I wanted to share with you people.

And that leads us to the fifth and final stage of the game, which begins with your avatar flying around in outer space, killin’ all kinds of shit. One of the things I really like is the attention to detail; if you’re playing as Cap or Hawkeye, they animate this glass fish bowl over your head, which I guess is supposed to be some sort of oxygen-delivering apparatus.

Then you enter ANOTHER mostly-gray spaceship and beat up random robots, than CROSSBONES shows up and taunts you and makes you fight these two guys named “CONTROL” in a room with a bunch of buzzsaws criss-crossing around everywhere. The ensuing boss fight against Crossbones is easily the best one in the game, since not only can you pick up his knives and homing mines and throw ‘em back at em, you can even grab some nearby office furniture and pummel him mercilessly with it, just like it was an episode of WCW Nitro or something.

Naturally, this dovetails into the game’s concluding boss fight against the Red Skull, who — with his business suit, smoldering cigarette and effete pose — comes off as one of the fruiter big bads in video game history. Thankfully, before you go toe-to-toe with him, he drops a FANTASTIC one-liner about “you stupid men” trying to foil him, which results in your avatar threatening to make him eat justice.

So The Red Skull — who bears an uncanny resemblance to the version of Toxie from Toxic Crusaders, only painted a bright crimson hue — is a real pushover of a boss fight. In fact, he’s a little too easy for a final boss fight, which, of course, means it’s time for him to rip open into his final form, which is a 1o-foot tall, light pink robo-skeleton he controls from the safety of a glass dome on the left-hand edge of the screen. Oh, and it can shoot tornadoes out of its armpits, because why wouldn’t that be one of the weaponized features? So you pummel on it for a while, it topples over and appears to crush the Red Skull alive, which begins our long (as in, nearly five-minute-long credit sequence), which culminates with a whole bunch of random, nameless civilians who look like they were dressed by the cartoonists from Scooby Doo lifting up all the heroes … albeit, with a sly sequel hook indicating The Red Skull did indeed escape from that “fatal” fight to the finish, after all. Oh, and I think the last stage was supposed to be a moon base or something, which begs the question: who built that shit in the first place? So the character profiles scroll one more time, you enter in your high score, you get a nice LGBTQ-flavored rainbow Avengers logo unfurl across the screen and yep, that’s the game, folks.

Avengers, assemble ... fabulously.

Unsurprisingly, Captain America was ported to pretty much every system known to man, although Data East only handled the direct portin’ duties themselves for the Genny version. Meanwhile, Mindscape got the porting rights for the SNES, GB and Game Gear translations, which, by all accounts, sucked. There was also a game with the same name released by Data East on the NES, but that game was TOTALLY different — instead of a beat-em-up, it was more of a standard side-scrolling action-platformer. And believe it or not, Data East did indeed produce a full-fledged arcade sequel in 1995 called Avengers in Galactic Storm, which was a pseudo-3D fighting game starring such illustrious characters as Korath-Thak, Supremor and The Black Knight. Long story short … it sucked.

Of course, Captain America and The Avengers isn’t a terribly complex game, and even compared to the other “big three” licensed beat-em-ups from the epoch, it doesn’t quite have the staying power or replay value to qualify it as a legit coin-op classic. Still, it’s a fun game with smooth controls, a great art style and plenty of nostalgic charm, and it’s definitely a hoot in four-player mode, if you never experienced such before. It’s just an all-around solid game that, without doing anything truly great, manages to do just about everything good, which is something you really can’t say about too many genre offerings from the era. Naturally, it would’ve been nice to have a larger playable roster, but I really can’t complain about too much contained herein. In fact, I’m kinda’ saddened by the fact we never got a spiritual sequel on the 3DS or Xbox Live, with like 40 playable characters in the same 2D art style, ESPECIALLY after the first Avengers movie came out. But by all means, if you’ve never played this one before, hit it up on The Internet Archive sometime and give it a quick 30-minute playthrough; if absolutely nothing else, it’s certainly more enjoyable than watching Captain Marvel’s ham-fisted third wave feminism propaganda and desperate pandering of insincere ‘90s nostalgia, that’s for DARN sure.


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