Strangers are friends you have yet to maim

By 1997 new Amiga game releases were understandably thin on the ground so it didn’t take much to make a splash, or for the remaining dedicated magazines to assign four pages worth of coverage to any crazy developers who dared to keep the embers burning. Maybe that’s why they did – it’s far easier to carve out a niche for yourself when there’s so little competition. Minuscule financial rewards too.

Slovakian developers, Ablaze Entertainment, were one such outfit who weren’t giving up without a fight, or rather a nostalgic brawling throwback to simpler times. Incidentally Ablaze were possibly-maybe the entirety of the Slovakian Amiga gaming industry. ‘Napalm: The Crimson Crisis’ is the only other Slovakian-made Amiga game I’m aware of …and that was also forged in Ablaze’s furnaces. Slovakians, please set the record straight.

‘The Strangers’ was the first CD-based title to be published by Vulcan Software to kick off their AGA ‘MegaSeries’. Previously they’d focused on more compact, floppy disk oriented games such as HillSea Lido, Bograts and Tiny Troops, appropriately-ish calling the collection a ‘MiniSeries’. The Strangers was later included on the coverdisk of German magazine Amiga Future (no. 26, Aug – Oct 2000).

Vulcan boss Paul Carrington didn’t just publish the game, he’s actually in it, alongside girlfriend and Vulcan co-founder, Lisa Tunnah. They’re the digitised stars of the title screen masquerading as gangland punks. Well, you wouldn’t argue, would you? Who else would be daft enough to publish an Amiga game three years after the platform had gone trapdoor up?

For a game released so late into the Amiga’s death-span following ten years worth of groundbreaking technological advances Strangers is a disappointingly unambitious offering. Its goal was unashamedly to remake Renegade, originally unleashed eleven years previously by Technos/Taito for coin-op audiences. On that basis, it succeeds admirably, which would be perfectly acceptable for a PD homage aimed at fans of the classic Spectrum port hailed as the leading 8-bit scrolling beat ’em up.

Charging £29.99 in the same year Mortal Kombat 4, Bushido Blade, Darkstalkers 3, King of Fighters ’97, Dynasty Warriors, Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter and Tekken 3 were released was taking the proverbial. A single CD was actually cheaper to produce than several floppies so the price hike was even less justifiable.

Whilst a few enhancements were implemented, the core ‘walk right and have a fight’ gameplay of its forefather remain identical. Even the sparring manoeuvres are carbon-copy reproductions. A pumping techno soundtrack lifts the action above the doldrums of mundanity if you can ignore the jarring juxtaposition.

In an effort to make use of the CD technology human speech, as well as a pre-rendered intro, was annexed onto the button-mashing affair, expounding the primitive plot. Naturally, the setting is a bleak dystopian future in which everyone has become a selfish scumbag in order to survive the adverse conditions cultivated by a vague something or other. A Mafia crime boss has been exploiting the vulnerable populace and unstable climate because that’s just what they do… it’s in their blood. As vigilante heroes, we must prevent him from being cretinous and evil because that’s just what we do.

Depicting this visually largely amounts to a cat and mouse car chase culminating in the Mafia boss escaping, and our maverick crew vowing to sort him out.

Switching entirely at this point to traditional pixel art graphics might have seemed incongruous, so Ablaze opted for the halfway house of layering old school pixel art on top of more in-vogue rendered backgrounds. What resulted isn’t what you’d call pretty. Ugly is a good word, let’s go with that.

‘Kilroy was here’ is a real-world US meme dating back to World War II. Robert Kilroy-Silk denies any involvement in such criminal damage.

 

Something you wouldn’t have seen in Renegade is the duel health bar system, one for stamina and the other for short-term energy, or vitality if you like. Once the latter wears down the former takes a hit, until both are equally depleted and you kick the bucket.

To prevent that from happening we can pick up energy-stoking soft drinks, whilst bottles award strength boosts, shoes allow us to jump higher, and first aid kits provide extra credits.

Moves and weapons you will be all too familiar with as they appear to be a mish-mash of those employed in both Renegade and Double Dragon.

Basic offensive manoeuvres include stomach-winding knees, head punches, elbows, flying kicks, the roundhouse, repeatedly punching opponents in the head while out for the count lying on the ground, and shoulder grabs followed by a knee to the groin.

If all that seems like too much trouble you can alternatively shunt baddies over a precipice resulting in a one-hit kill. Kicking bikers off their rides is another fun pastime you might like to explore in deference to Renegade and RoboCop sessions of yore.

On that note, adversaries will attempt to restrain you from behind as their cronies pummel you mercilessly while defenceless. Ah, that old wrestling chestnut.

Weapons aren’t in plentiful supply, though there’s a good variety on offer whenever they do crop up. Our arsenal includes the ever-versatile hammer, axe, mace, hockey stick, chair, and sword. And what Double Dragon ’em up worth its salt wouldn’t allow you to pick up and hurl barrels at the baddies? Tick! Except here they explode, clearing the arena like Danny Baker at a royalist convention.

In honour of Mortal Kombat, fatalities serve to celebrate the terminal defeat of assailants. Once we’ve dislodged their intestines we can be pretty certain they won’t be bothering us again for the foreseeable future. Although if you’re particularly squeamish you can disable the grisliest embellishments via the parental lock feature… completely defeating the purpose of beat ’em up games. They’re so cartoonish anyway it makes you wonder who would be offended by them.

Bosses exist and in accordance with Renegade aren’t the formidable, gargantuan monsters we came to expect in later years as developers continued to push the genre beyond its obvious boundaries. Barely distinguishable from the ordinary foes, an avatar appears in the HUD whenever they enter the fray to herald their uniqueness and indicate current state of health. A bloody, messed up face = I’ve felt better, and so on. It couldn’t get any more intuitive.

One thing Technos could only have dreamed of back in 1986 when working on Renegade is the facility to allow up to six players to get involved simultaneously. In death-match mode each can select their fighter from a roster of 24, easily distinguishing them from the crowd. Nevertheless, they don’t fight with any sort of idiosyncrasies, so you’re essentially choosing a shell for your hero. Not a half shell, that’s a different thing altogether.

“The addition of the Deathmatch and Gang Wars modes help lift the game a little but not sufficiently to warrant you rushing out to buy this archaic and flat game.”

“The fact that it’s old-style doesn’t make it poor. The unimaginative gameplay does that.”

Amiga Format (55%, October 1997)

Strangers can’t pull off six-way scrapping ‘out of the box’, though with the aid of Vulcan’s parallel port joystick adapter (available separately from their store at the time) it’s possible to disperse control of multiplayer games across the keyboard and various joysticks to make your Friday night gaming parties really rumble.

This is where the three distinct gameplay modes come into effect. ‘Action’ represents the standard eight-level story mode which can be played on your lonesome or in co-op mode, pitted against thirty unique enemy types, culminating in a standoff with the Mafia boss. This makes the game slightly more interesting if only because you can beat each other up should you get bored with the officially designated enemies.

Just in case the action gets a little too congested each human fighter has a springy number permanently levitating over their head. Weird and unnatural as it is, it’s actually helpful at times so why not.

It’s by no means a long game so a password system wasn’t strictly necessary, although it’s a nice frustration-busting addition. When ‘teleporting’ into a later level we begin it with a full remit of lives, which is another helpful bonus. Almost a cheat really.

You can make the game even easier by playing it in easy mode, would you believe. Keep in mind though that it’s only possible to complete seven of the eight levels should you opt to coast your way through the saga.

As in the intro, the main game is peppered with speech samples. A novelty the first time you hear them, though I expect you’ll soon be reaching for that volume dial having been nagged with “Let’s get on, it’s embarrassing” for the seventeenth time in five minutes. You’ll want to experience them all before you do, however, otherwise, you’d miss gems like “What punk destroyed my wife?” I can’t hear that without thinking of Apidya. If you remember the fate of Ikuro’s wife, Yuri, you’ll know that she was “spoiled by the poison of Hexaae’s creatures”. Don’t you just love the pidgins? The blighters get everywhere!

You’ll notice that some of the sprites are recycled between levels, occasionally to comic effect. Sports bras work fine when it’s all you’re wearing up top, but why would you put one over your leathers just because you’re going biking?

Maybe it’s an allusion to Superman parading his underpants over Spandex leggings. Wonder Woman had more fashion sense. Sort of.

Let’s not delve any deeper into Wonder Woman’s bra. This is a family show.

Then there’s the ‘last man standing’ humans vs humans (up to six players) death-match option, which needs little explanation. And finally, the gang warfare twist in which groups of human players team up to duke it out against one another (three vs three, or two vs two vs another two). These bouts are all about point-scoring against the clock. We can’t actually die so the fights remain even in terms of team numbers.

If you feel you’re not quite battle-ready you have the opportunity to hone your skills against a couple of brainless holographic punchbags to avoid running the risk of humiliating yourself in the ‘square circle’. ‘Training mode’ I believe it’s called and it’s very useful indeed. Otherwise, typically you’d have to start a two-player game and bash the living daylights out of an imaginary human player, and that’s not always so practical.

“Strip away the fancy rendered intro screens and sequences, and you’re left with a game that’s desperately trying to improve on its simplistic origins. The huge variety of characters, gameplay variations and options do make a difference. In fact, they will be enough to save the game in the eyes of some. But let’s be frank. The gameplay really is like something from a mid-80s time capsule. That could be acceptable in some genres but beat ’em ups have come a long way since then.”

CU Amiga (60%, October 1997)

Not a fan of happy endings where everything is neatly wrapped up and tied with a pretty, curly bow? You’ll love this. Here we beat the chief villain antagonist chap only for him to escape in a heli-chopper as we try in vain to blast him out of the sky with a bazooka… decimating a tower-block instead. Well, that certainly didn’t happen in Renegade! You might imagine this would leave the game wide open for a sequel. It does, except it didn’t happen. Nobody would be that crazy. The Strangers remain strangers to swathes of Amiga gamers today because it was far too little, too late.

Clunky and unresponsive, gameplay chugs along at a pace commensurate with the beat ’em ups Strangers attempts to parody, with no variation to the techniques engaged or style throughout.

Ten years earlier it would have been pretty impressive. By 1997 – the same year the N64 was unveiled in Europe – Strangers was all a bit John McEnroe… you can not be serious! Despite the tweaks, scrape just below the surface and it’s still a Renegade remake, and that was never going to cut it with the unquenchable PlayStation juggernaut mowing down the competition without stopping to clean the blood splatter off its tracks.

2 thoughts on “Strangers are friends you have yet to maim

  • July 26, 2019 at 4:26 am
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    Cheers. I did my best to look for the positives, but it wasn’t easy. I should have found a picture of a chimp looking confused scratching its head. That would have spoken a thousand words. 😉

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