Bloody Wolf (TurboGrafx-16) review
"When I was younger, I loved war games. You name it, and it was sure to have a special place in my cold, iron, war-lovin’ heart. From the classic Contra, to the underrated Cabal, to the mostly silly Guerilla War, to the two-faced Bloody Wolf… what was so irresistible about waging a one man campaign against armies of gun and grenade toting insurgents? Reflecting, I have come to realize that the shoot-em-up fan in me was gradually making the transition from platformer cuteness to cosmic dogfights. War games, what with their platformer-esque heroes, and their shooter themes of inexorable projectile slipping, provided a seamless segue. "
When I was younger, I loved war games. You name it, and it was sure to have a special place in my cold, iron, war-lovin’ heart. From the classic Contra, to the underrated Cabal, to the mostly silly Guerilla War, to the two-faced Bloody Wolf… what was so irresistible about waging a one man campaign against armies of gun and grenade toting insurgents? Reflecting, I have come to realize that the shoot-em-up fan in me was gradually making the transition from platformer cuteness to cosmic dogfights. War games, what with their platformer-esque heroes, and their shooter themes of inexorable projectile slipping, provided a seamless segue.
Bloody Wolf is two-faced because of the ambivalent feelings it draws from players. On the one hand, it appeals to us that it is in deadly earnest. Enemy soldiers will approach you with murder on their minds. The smoking action is seen from a mostly isometric viewpoint, a la Double Dragon. Occasionally, you’ll be moving the massacre along vertically on the screen, and then the game smoothly assumes a Legend of Zelda-like overhead aspect.
From the onset, green grunts will stand their ground, firing single bullets from their rifles; palette-swapped blue enemies are more troublesome, firing spreads of bullets; yellow soldiers, who are really androids in disguise, explode on contact; grey grunts will chase you, absorbing a copious bullet count; and finally, red soldiers will simply charge at you, bayonet point leading the way. Shoot any of the human variations with a bullet weapon, and watch them clutch their bloodied chests, before dramatically reaching up to the sky, seemingly seeking absolution from God. Heavy stuff. Really.
But say you aren’t leveling your regular semi-automatic at them. And you're not equipped or in the mood to bring to bear the spread gun, flamethrower, or knife upon them either. If you’re otherwise equipped—perhaps with a grenade or bazooka, letting lose on the enemy will send them spinning and airborne, their expressionless, unchanging sprites dragged into the air. You don’t know how goofy this looks, sans any real animation. But I’m telling you. It’s goofy. Luckily for us, Bloody Wolf’s goofy side isn’t emphasized beyond these silly deaths, and the bad dialogue. It’s mostly serious.
Further dichotomy is explored when we examine our heroes' quests. You see, where the arcade original was a two-player simultaneous contest, NEC and Data East sell us console owners the very tired “naturally 16-bit ports must be dumbed down” argument. Only one Wolf at a time, please, we are told, as we think of wondrous two-player 8-bit Contra missions and bite our collective lips.
The programmers managed to incorporate both operatives by giving the first Wolf missions one through four to complete, and once he gets captured by the enemy, our second Wolf enters the fray to take on missions five through eight. It's not a perfect system, but what can you do? We receive our instructions to rescue the president, and select our first lone Wolf somewhat resignedly.
Before we look at the two halves of Bloody Wolf separately, it might be useful to examine the basics of the overall package. Thankfully, the impact of the saddening switch to playing solo is lessened because Bloody Wolf isn't all twitch action. Going it alone isn't as much of a step down from two-player action as it would be in, say, Contra. The exploration elements compliment the mindless violence so well that a perfectly enjoyable, viable single player contest is possible.
The roleplaying bits are limited to finding rooms to enter throughout the game. Your motivation behind entering such rooms, or caves, or outposts, is threefold. You’ll need to kill the enemies hiding out therein, rescue (and chat with) the bound hostages, and collect the critical contents of the crates. Often the hostages will give you clues, and sometimes they'll even part with their surprisingly useful belongings. You’re no fool, so you'll take their fins for swimming, and whatever else they might offer. Occasionally, a hostage will impart nothing helpful at all, opting to say something silly instead: WATCH OUT FOR BRIDGES. YOU’LL DIE IF YOU FALL. Thanks, pal. You’re a real lifesaver. Gems like this will elicit either laughter or cussing from you, depending on how rough things are going.
When you storm a room with hostages and crates in it, you’ll have to be careful not to use grenades or rockets. Bullet weapons won’t harm the prisoners or box contents, but explosive weapons will. On the topic of weapons—the variety is decent, and the firearms are all a joy to use. The spread gun will cut a wide swath through swarming enemies, and the fun-to-use bazooka will launch clusters of soldiers into the stratosphere. Button I and II will control these weapons and your leaping. Although you can't fire while jumping, hitting the fire button will cause you to fall to earth faster once in midair, which is pretty helpful.
The ''Run'' button activates your auxiliary weaponry, which include grenades and the flamethrower. (That somewhat awkwardly leaves the “Select” button for the Pause function.) Grenades of the regular, super, and flash (for freezing foes) varieties are ideal for tossing over barricades, bunkers, and onto higher ground. The flamethrower is the game's best weapon. Its amazingly versatile flame can torch even armoured foes that otherwise have to be bombed from a ways off, or stabbed from in close. It's also incredibly powerful, as most enemies will succumb to its relentless heat fairly quickly.
Besides building your arsenal, cracking open crates will earn you medicine (''The pain is gone''), Muscle Emphasis Tablets (the government has no problem with our guys getting juiced), and various other items, like keys for opening locked crates, and infrared goggles. (The latter allows you to see the laser sensors in the last level--this is very cool, but more on that later.) The only problem with crate power up system is that you can't see what's inside before you knife open and take the contents. You might be happy parading around with the bazooka, only to take on the much less destructive spread weapon all because you were hoping for medicine and you took a chance with a crate. Because you can't stockpile the weapons, your bazooka will simply be replaced. Fortunately, weapons come along often enough that this won't upset you too much.
As mentioned earlier, the first four levels of Bloody Wolf aren’t up to par with the rest of the mission. The opening recon mission is decent, as it introduces some nice touches right away. For instance, you’ll be able to shoot out windows of the crumbling tenements, and the toughs cruising by on the old school motorcycles can be removed bodily with bullets, allowing you to commandeer a pretty sweet ride. The bikes can only take a certain amount of damage, naturally, so you'll either use them to extend your own life as long as possible by driving and dodging, or you'll use them to plow through sticky bits by mowing down soldiers, eating up terrain like red lights in rush hour traffic. This all depends on your driving style, really.
The game's first half also treats us to the jungle level, which sports the best music in the game by a long stretch. The midi guitar doesn’t offend here as it does with some of the other tracks. Aside from these highlights, you'll feel like you're just going through the motions. The face off with Big Sniper on level three's bridge seems especially silly. Sure, taking on the submarine and the helicopter seems neat at first, but your blood won't really get racing until after your first Wolf is captured at the end of level four's enemy camp, and the second Wolf is called upon to take over fighting the good fight.
The new Wolf's mission starts with a cool Easter egg hunt of sorts. The fifth stage requires that you locate and rescue a predetermined number of hostages, climbing trees and investigating buildings to do so. In one such building, the Knife Killer challenges you to a duel that you won't soon forget--this ain't West Side Story.
A river rafting level continues to get your pulse pounding, concluding with an insane tank confrontation. It's man against machine, Wolf versus Rolling Thunder, and when you succeed, it's incredibly satisfying because the odds are against you. The marshes test your wading abilities, as you must hold your breath and duck underwater to evade bullets now, since jumping won't be an option. A gunboat teeming with guerillas greets you at the end. Finally, the last level is exactly what it should be, featuring excellent music; motorcycle and fence climbing bits; the amazing, aforementioned sequences where laser sensors, if tripped, cause floors to disappear; return visits from Rolling Thunder and the Knife Killer; and a very special appearance from your lost comrade. All of this prefaces an intensely difficult clash between your now battle hardened Bloody Wolf, and the decidedly M.Bison-like General behind all this chaos.
Let’s make one thing clear: Bloody Wolf is no Contra. The same shortcomings that prevent it from being on par with the big “C” and games of that quality, are the same shortcomings that relegate this game to the realm of ‘very good’ action, when outstanding action was well within its reach. It’s not relentless. Regrettably, things don't pick up until halfway through, and that's a shame because many gamers may pass up the Bloody Wolf experience, writing it off as competent, yet pedestrian, their decisions arrived at while barely getting their feet (and perhaps their shirts) wet. They won't know that it gets better!
And of course there is that two-player mode concern. Not being able to bring a pal along, when there's no good reason why you shouldn't be able to do so, ensures that Bloody Wolf loses a full mark. For the mathematicians out there, this means that yes, it coulda been a contender. It’s still a great way to expend some bitter, negative, after-work/school energies while honing your bullet dealing and dodging dexterity. But when you taste the tail end of the mission, you can’t help but feel disappointed knowing these two things:
1/ The earlier stages could have been as good as the later stages.
2/ Even if they left the levels as they are, the fun of having a friend along would have made the slow start more acceptable.
How much you let these disappointments affect you depends on how cynical you are. Personally, I feel that the cup is half full, not half empty (of blood naturally). So, all you rugged, guerilla-minded, hard-as-nails Bloody Wolf hopefuls, quit polishing your guns, and drink up.
Staff review by Marc Golding (October 27, 2003)
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