From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, in sleepy London Town there's just no place for a street fighting man, no. Luckily, Detroit, New York and some other places have an opening...
Vigilante justice. It's a bit rough, isn't it? Tough guys stripping down to muscled chests to have their Final Fight on some Streets of Rage in the middle of some Urban Chaos and all that. Wouldn't it be nice if gang violence was a little more... civil? Warriors, go back inside and tidy your bedrooms! Droogs, drink your milk. A Man is coming. A Street Fighting Man. He Fights Streets. And he'll be 'Aven-you.
Street Fighting Man (which has nothing to do with Street Fighter other than coming out a couple of years after it, in what I Am Sure Is A Complete Coincidence) is the mildest beat-em-up I've ever played. If it was a curry, it would be a bowl of water with a single grain of rice floating in it. As a superhero, its mutant power would be filling in income tax self-assessment forms at a slightly faster than normal rate.
It's the beat-em-up written not merely by people who were quietly helping out in the school library while other kids fought in the playground, but who seemed to have their eyes shut while coding the... naughtiness. If the UK government in the '80s had done an educational film about inner-city gang violence called "Be Cool, Not A Fool, Stay In Skool", this would have made it look like The Sopranos.
In short, it's unintentionally hilarious in every way.
You play a guy called Nick, and this being a game from 1989 you'll be stunned to learn that he's on a quest to rescue his girlfriend from assorted nasty types. Street gangs, in this case. Being polite, this crime apparently starts with them getting in touch and asking if they'd like them to kidnap her in the increasingly mean streets of Denver, Atlanta, Detroit, LA or New York, meaning that Nick could probably have saved himself a lot of time and cock-punching by simply answering, "No."
Apparently also wishing that he'd thought of this, the gangs—not wanting to do anything too evil, because what kind of person would do something like that—somewhat unenthusiastically abduct said girlfriend, the beautiful (it says here) Xianna. With her in their grasp, they immediately... uh... realise they have no idea what to do next, so when you finally find her, she's simply sitting on a random street with her hands and feet tied, shouting "Help!" in a way that suggests it might be for their benefit rather than hers. After all, they must have gone to a lot of trouble. It would be rude not to play along.
Before you get to rescue her though, you have to fight through between 2-5 of the deadliest gangs ever to blight the urban wasteland. Their names? They will chill you to your soul. The Sharks, the Home Boys, the Fat Boys, the Lip Stiks ("Gang warfare. It's a girl thing!") and the Scum Doggs. Shiver.
Starting out in safe, oddly neutral turf, the first thing you discover is that Nick—even with that moustache—is Cool. I mean it. Check the status bar. We can trust it. Why would it ever lie to us?
This actually turns out to be a health bar of sorts, switching to things like "Nick Is A Whimp" when it's low. Losing health works much as you'd expect. Get punched in the face? You lose health. Regaining it though is kinda odd, even for a genre where nobody bats an eyelid at smashing an oil-drum in the middle of the street to find a whole roast chicken, then shoving it down their craw mid-fight.
Essentially, you recover by beating people up. Makes sense. Except Street Fighting Man doesn't distinguish between gang members and non-combatants, like the blonde women occasionally wandering around. Since they don't put up any fight at all, unless you're in the girl-gang part of town at least, your best tactic at the start of the game is to dash over and beat your fists into their faces and kick them in the stomachs until they fall to the ground unconscious, at which point the bonus health you gain completely non-ironically updates your status to "Nick is a Tough Guy".
Yeah. Real tough guy... Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
Luckily, most of the people wandering the streets are out for your blood... or to be more accurate, out to knock you to the ground "wounded" until you decide to show yourself out of their territory. Nick's attacks are all hilariously terrible, from his punch to his flying kick, to the way he handles what's obviously meant to be a deadly length of chain like he's holding a dainty little necklace.
How ineffective is this guy at dispensing street justice? He's a vigilante who drops what he's doing at the sight of a cop with a baton. Not a full SWAT team. The American equivalent of a bobby on the beat is enough to beat him down, and will quite often head over and try and do exactly that.
But Nick is still a Tough Guy. His mommy told him so.
But what of his enemies? Well, to truly appreciate them, I think we need to pause for a moment to consider the type of enemies you fight in other vigilante-type games. Most of them are on console, so I apologise for offending your eyes, but they serve as a point of comparison. Here are a few from games like Final Fight and Streets of Rage and similar, picked at random.
Quite a rogues gallery, I think you'll agree. Who does Nick fight? Nick fights... Marty.
Yep. There are other enemies as well, most (I'm sure you'll be shocked) assorted ethnic types, but the fact that a standard foe is a fat, balding, middle-aged man called Marty really does sum up the... the scale of Nick's war on crime. And he's not a joke enemy either. No, Marty can totally take you out, especially if he's picked up some kind of weapon or attacks with a few of his clones.
At this point, it's hard not to feel bad for everyone involved here. Nick is a joke, his enemies are jokes, and when he finally finds his girlfriend on a map, all that happens is that one of the other gang members ambles up, knocks him out in one hit, and carefully carries her a couple of streets away for him to save again. Rinse and repeat until all the gangs have been defeated, sometimes going into buildings instead of treating Nick's title as a limiting factor, and he gets a kiss on the cheek. And after that... well, I suspect the two of them pretty much just stand around quietly for a bit, not sure what to do next.
"I know some guys in New York," Nick probably says after a while. "I'm sure if I called them, they could be over here to kidnap you again by the evening. We'd have to get in more pizza, but..."
"Yeah, why not?" Xianna would reply. "I didn't have any plans for the rest of the day. Could you ask them to tie me up a bit tighter this time? The ropes came off back there and I felt a bit silly screaming HELP! like Penelope Pitstop when I could have just walked off and got my nails done."
But you know... something's been bugging me about Nick. I can't help but feel I've seen this man... somewhere before, in another life. Tan jacket... white shirt... blue jeans... bad moustache...
Oh no. Nononononono, it can't be! The gods would never allow this!
HE'S MIKE DAWSON FROM DARKSEED 2!
I appreciate this won't mean much to non-adventure fans, though I'd point you to this Retsupurae (opens in new tab) to witness the horror in all its head-exploding glory. At one point you will hear the line "Oh no! Not the Hall of Death again! The only way out of here is death!"
Essentially, Mike Dawson was the main character of a horror game called Darkseed, which used copy/pastes of HR Giger's spooky, organic-porn artwork to reasonable effect. What made it weird was that Mike Dawson was played by... wait for it... Mike Dawson, the game's writer and producer, who apparently decided that if his game was going to have a star, it might as well be him. Still, it worked reasonably well. Darkseed has many problems, but it's a fondly remembered horror adventure.
And then came Darkseed 2. By this point, Mike Dawson the writer had left the company, but they still had ownership of Mike Dawson the character. The result was hilarious—not just an awful game, but two character assassinations for the price of one. With a new guy dressed up in his tan jacket, this new Mike Dawson became a bumbling, nerdy-voiced incompetent who lives with his mother, is suspected of murdering a woman called Rita, who he likes to think of as his girlfriend despite the unfortunate fact that he is pretty much literally the only man in his entire town she hasn't slept with, and somehow manages throughout to be less manly than Les bloody Manley. ONLY THE END OF THIS IS EDITED!
It gets worse. Mike Dawson is so pathetic that despite being able to try this game as many times as he wants to for free, he physically cannot beat it without finding a portal to an evil alien dimension and using its technology to cheat. Not only are there dead molluscs at the bottom of the sea who'd be better at saving the world, they'd probably have more chance at getting into Rita's pants afterwards.
And now he's the star of a beat-em-up? He must have had some hellish training...
Dan Hibiki (opens in new tab), you now officially have someone to feel superior to. Anyway, if you want to see Mike with his more badass persona, here's a quick video of someone playing Street Fighting Man the way it was meant to be played - for about 15 minutes, until it unceremoniously crashes as a result of staggeringly poor programming/QA. Many games of this era were bugged, but simply forgetting a file whose absence would be seen by playing the final level just one single time? Impressive!
But still better than Pit-Fighter (opens in new tab), which would have been improved by crashing at the title.