From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. This week, WE GET SERIOUS! (But not with Sam)
Nitro Family, or to give it its true name, NITRO FAMILY!, is one of Those games. You know the ones. They're the games you play on demo discs or similar, just the once, from some budget label or obscure shareware company, instantly quit out of because they're crap, and uninstall, never to think of again.
Except! Years later, you're in the bath or walking through town when suddenly you think "Wait, did that actually exist, or did I just dream it?" Surely, no game that bizarre, that strange, that stupid could ever really have existed, right? I'm almost sure that NITRO FAMILY! did though, even if after several hours of playing it, I still feel the need to go back and check.
I just checked. Yep, NITRO FAMILY! exists, and in a nutshell, it's Serious Sam, only METAL. Too bad that metal is shititanium.
Many years ago, subliminal advertising was a huge deal. It never actually worked, but the idea of it mentally reprogramming people to obey like sheep was enough to get the world into a tizzy. A couple of games were caught up in this too, notably a puzzler called Endorfun, which angered the tabloids by slipping messages like "You Are A Good Person" onto their screen in the name of subliminally raising their spirits. Those bastards. NITRO FAMILY! doesn't feature any such mental-nudging, but I think it probably should. Nothing major. Just quick messages. "YOU ARE NOT INSANE" would be a good one. Or "YOU ARE NOT DREAMING", perhaps.
The plot is best summed up by the fact that the manual's explanation starts with "Um... maybe the near future" before going on to explain every major plot point in the whole game. (Two. It explains two plot points.) An evil company called Golden Bell has made a drug called Healthy Family, which accidentally turned into the Rage virus and took over the whole world. Its CEO, Louis, following instructions in that classic evil executive tome '7 Habits of Highly Successful Douchebags' (authors A. Wesker, C. Goldman), promptly decided that if life gives you lemons, you make ZOMBIES, and set about working on a brand new, improved version. For some reason—direct quote from the story there—this requires experimenting on children. Which brings us to our heroes, the NITRO FAMILY! itself, whose son has just been declared Most Unwise Kidnapping Victim Of The Year, Whichever The Hell One It Is.
See if you can guess how they react. Go on, guess. (Hint: It involves the kicking of so many asses that the toes on their feet all turn into calloused hell-stumps, then more ass-kicking with the stumps.)
Here's where it gets strange. You play as Victor Chopski... yes, really... a hulked out man-mountain capable of dual-wielding rocket launchers, shotguns and machine-guns, with a backpack of even more powerful guns. This bit is as normal as NITRO FAMILY! ever gets, with the cool twist that you can cycle through both hands individually. Shotgun in left, rocket launcher in right? No problem. Two of the same? Rock on. But wait! Dual-wielding is for sissies. Chopski is a MAN. He triple -wields.
And his third active weapon? His wife. His equally badass, whip-wielding, scantily clad, Las Vegas animal trainer slash showgirl huntress wife, Maria. Who rides on his back in a specially constructed chair for the entire game, whipping the heads off anyone who gets too close. And whenever she takes a head, you get a 'Turtleneck' bonus. Whose heads does she whip off? Please. Fat women in tight black latex, evil Mexicans riding death pigs, machine-gun toting men in black... whose heads doesn't she whip off? By the end of the game, when you're fighting topless Vegas showgirls who throw knives from trapezes and do the Chicken Dance for an empty auditorium, it just doesn't matter any more.
Did I mention you can also launch her off your back, at which point she carpet-bombs the entire area before flying back and resuming death and discipline alike? I didn't? Well, she does that too.
But don't take my word for it. Here's the NITRO FAMILY! in action...
(Quick disclosure - God Mode is on here, mostly for annoying technical reasons involving frame rates and wanting to show the whole first level without any quickloading or similar interrupting things. In the real game, you die incredibly quickly, often through absolutely no fault of your own. Unless you count willingly playing this game, which is crime and punishment wrapped up into one neat bundle.)
Well, wasn't that something? It's often said that the devil is in the details, but NITRO FAMILY! takes it to such lengths, you half expect to see Satan listed as Executive Producer. Sadistic doesn't begin to describe it, from the strength of the enemies to the map designers' apparent phobia of health kits.
Take damage here, and it's going to be with you for a long time. You take damage from your own rockets, hits come from behind, enemies bounce you around like a pinball, and that's before you get to the stuff that's actively unfair, like being killed by nothing, not being able to progress without finding a hidden trigger, or in some later levels, not having the faintest clue where the hell you're meant to be going.
The final level, set in a casino hotel, is simply a joke. You're trying to find a single elevator in a huge sprawling mess of psychotics, and bear in mind that this is a game where even angry chickens want a piece of you. You know what this is? Not Fun. Nor is the headache afterwards.
And then there's the music. If listening to that loop for 11 minutes was painful, imagine playing through the game again and again and again, forcing your way through the monsters in even this first level. Every death, the music restarts. Every few seconds, the music restarts. And when you finally finish, when you think you're finally free, you get to the second map... and the ****ing thing starts playing again! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH! KILL ME! KILL ME! KILL ME! PLEASE!
(Thankfully, yes, it does change after that. Small mercy, but I'll take it.)
It's similar with the level list. One of the first things you see in the game is a map showing the areas you're about to hit up—the town in two forms, a boat, and a laboratory. "Okay," you think, "Short game, but the quicker the better." Hahaha. No. Finish the lab and a whole new series of maps appears. And then another. And another. The NITRO FAMILY! travels all over the globe, from the port of Bloodivostok (yes, really) to Las Vegas, and the only possible reason to enjoy the trip is because you've come down with Stockholm Syndrome or really long to sample the delights of a spiked enema.
Or maybe it's the allure of finally witnessing the mighty Chicken Dance.
Even when NITRO FAMILY! tries to cut you a break, it feels spiteful. One of the weirdest features is that epic fights sometimes snap into slow-mo, with the ghastly pop music fading away to be replaced by—for no good reason—something light and classical.
You can take aim at enemies while they mulch around in treacle, but more often than not it's just annoying. You can't trigger it yourself, so your rhythm is instantly thrown off, and more often than not it happens at the worst of times, like when all the enemies are dead, or you're trying to run away instead of standing to fight. Hypothetically.
Easily one of the weirdest bits though is Lisa, the hoochie-coochie arms merchant who shows up throughout the game to sell and upgrade weapons, but mostly to wiggle her hips at Victor.
It's not simply that she bounces around coquettishly and leads him on with talk of special services if he finds 20 cards scattered throughout the levels, but that she does so while his whip-wielding, blood-soaked, equally murderous wife is actually sitting on his back. I'm no expert, but this doesn't strike me as the greatest evolutionary survival strategy. Honestly though, is this random fan-service really necessary? It's not like anyone, at all, is likely to care about this stupid throwaway character who—
Actually finding 20 cards is a hell of an achievement, or would be if you couldn't just type in a cheat code. I stress, this was purely for academic purposes—genuine curiosity about what the big reward actually was. "I will offer a very special service just for you," she promises, right from the start. Finish tracking down the cards, and this bit of teasing changes to a scrap of paper with a hotel room number on it, which again, Victor here takes while his wife is still sitting on his back, flexing her whip. He may be the most deadly force in the universe, but a subtle adultery maestro, he is not.
What happens when you get to the hotel? Conveniently, the NITRO FAMILY! run into a keypad just by the exit, and Maria hops off Victor's back to hack it. This gives him the time to amble down the corridor to Lisa's room, where all that work, all that searching, and all that fully erect exploration literally explodes into the sexiest bit of sexy-time in the whole sordid history of sneaky sex! With sex!
Truly, this is the treasure all heroes ultimately fight for.
Wow, that would totally have been worth waiting the whole game for. Right? Right.
Two funny things about this scene. First. Despite all the traditional stock-footage coitus, Maria barely notices her husband's absence, putting The Flash's claim of being the Fastest Man Alive into serious jeopardy. Second, this happening right at the end of the game really puts a new spin on the ending, barely a few minutes later, which is an interactive thing about Victor walking through a village to deliver Maria a bouquet of flowers. Feeling guilty about something, Mr. Chopski? Hmm? Hmm?
As cack-handed shooters go, NITRO FAMILY! does at least have some laughs on its side, intentional and otherwise. It wants to be funny with its fat giants gurning as they throw rocks. Really though, the funniest parts are round the side, where things just went wrong, like finding the bathrooms in the casino, where the urinals are on the women's side, and neither actually have toilets, or the deeply inappropriate music choices. As the voice in the opening level screeches "WHAT HAVE I BECOME, WHAT HAVE I BECOOOOOOME!", it's hard not to hear a cry for help from some poor designer trapped creating budget shovelware. It only gets worse in the ending, as credits scroll over the odd lyric "Take something new and make it mine, I'm wasting money all the time, couldn't stop if I wanted to..."
Besides, everyone knows that's Team Bondi's corporate anthem now.
There are definitely worse shooters than NITRO FAMILY!, though that's not much for it to brag about. If you're interested in trying it out, check your local bargain bin. Then slap yourself around the face with something heavy, sit back down, and wait for the next Serious Sam to come out. Obviously.