Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja - Not Bad, Dude
But was I a bad-enough dude to stifle my penchant for purchasing shoddy console ports?

Arcades represented a pillar of gaming known for its dominion over genres like space shooters, simulation-style racing games, and top-of-the-line action titles. For me, they were mostly about the latter--I tended to gravitate toward twitch-action games, beat-'em-ups, fighters, and those between-spaces that featured a hybrid of such genres (titles like Street Smart and Technos' outstanding WWF wrestling games).

For years I'd tossed around hockey-mask-wearing baddies and stomped Abobos using the stylish fighting moves as practiced by Ryu Hyabusa and the Lee brothers, but I wasn't aware that there was allegedly a whole other level of cool until I'd encountered Data East's latest arcade exploit during the middle months of 1988.

Its name was Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja, a game to which I'd always refer in the future as just "Bad Dudes" (I didn't know for a long time that it had an extended title, since I never noticed the logo's small print, which is always a good thing in life to ignore). The artwork on its cabinet's marquee advertised that it was your typical brawler and rather approachable, but my memories suggest that I was a bit hesitant to insert a coin into a machine that bore the title "Bad Dudes," which even back then sounded lame--like a sad attempt by a bunch of suit-wearing freaks to try to pander to kids to whom they thought the title would sound dope and gnarly.

All right--so most arcade games of the day were titled via this thought-process and positioned to prey upon groups of alleged idiots, but this one just sounded baaaaaad, dude.

Despite my initial reticence, I actually found myself enjoying it. It moved quickly, it featured a ton of onscreen activity (enemy mobs ambushing me, fighting sequences atop in-transit trucks, and ninjas diving off speeding cars to join in the action), the enemies weren't damage-absorbent and would die in one hit, and it even had Rolling Thunder's level-hopping mechanic! It was like an ode to both past action games and the summer blockbusters that had been rocking movie theaters the entire decade. I mean, you were playing as facsimiles of the era's burly action stars, beating up ninjas and saving the president of the United States. What could be more fun than that? And you could throw flaming punches! Billy, Jimmy, Bimmy and Flimmy couldn't do that.

It may have been derivative and pandering, but I know I liked it. Thus, Bad Dudes became one of those games I would give a go any time I spotted it, be it a solo run or a cooperative effort (me as joined by whichever friend I dragged along to the local arcade or any of those in Atlantic City). I was always having too good a time to wonder about things like what the White House's top brass was thinking when they sent in these two fellas to deal with the massive enemy force rather than what you'd think was an agency created to deal with such a crisis. Its whacky backdrop was another instance of "only in video games" and something that genuinely made Bad Dudes stand out in a crowded beat-'em-up scene. At the least, it made for good parody material, since it was always fun to raise our arms into the air and shout "I'm bad!", whether we were playing along to Blade and Striker's victory boasts or greeting the pizza-delivery boy.

Since it was still a common thing for semi-recent arcade titles to make their way to aging consoles, I wasn't at all surprised when I saw the name "Bad Dudes" (sans that whole "vs Dragon Ninja" part) on the "Game List" page in my first non-dedicated issue of Nintendo Power (Volume 14); it had apparently been in stores for about a month, though I had yet to see it on display. By then I was highly aware of the reality that the NES couldn't convincingly replicate technically superior arcade titles, so I didn't have didn't have any interest in what future previews revealed to be a straight port rather than a Double Dragon II-style conversion. Even then, I was long over the whole arcade-to-NES-port concept anyway.

Well, you know how the story goes when you're a kid and you enter into one those droughts where you've since exhausted the replaying of your current library and need to fill the void with something new. It's then you become prone to the dreaded "impulse buy," whence your radar widens to track even titles for which you previously had little enthusiasm. For me, it was one of those dead periods of 1990 (which seemed to last for months when it was probably two or three weeks at a time) when the thought of owning Bad Dudes became a tempting prospect.

The opportunity arose one random day when I was out with my father. We were riding along when he suddenly asked me if I had interest in any hot new releases for my "new Atari" (which is what adults would call any game system back then). I played it coy, pretending as though I was more interested in just browsing the newest releases than actually asking for the game I already knew I wanted. So he drove me to that majestic Toys R Us in Caesar's Bay Bazaar, where I made my march down the well-traveled path through the leftmost aisles and past all the plastic rubbish that stood between me and the games section; after taking a cursory glance at all of the other titles lining the wall--an act done purely for effect--I grabbed one of the tags for Bad Dudes, which was of course the only reason I was there. I met with my father, who was waiting near the store's oddly fortified cashier's booth, and soon made off with yet another undeserved NES game.

I'm so sorry.

It was one of those times where I knew I'd made a mistake but had to trick myself into believing that there would be enjoyment to be had. As I'd feared, though, this NES port wasn't much like the arcade version outside of emulating its general stage layout; in fact, it looked kind of rough with its gaudy color schemes and jerky animation, its whole vibe loudly advertising the designers' lack of passion and creativity. Sadly, there could only be four enemies onscreen at one time, missing the point of the original's frantic nature, and yet it'd still flicker like crazy when even less than that were present. Do I even need to mention that they didn't bother with a co-op mode for that reason? If there was ever a game that needed the Double Dragon home-conversion treatment, Bad Dudes was it.

And yet its biggest transgression might be its ill-advised use of voice samples, which wasn't one of the NES' strengths. Given the extremely tight limitations on cart-space and the resource-hogging nature of digital (or digital-sounding) voice samples, Data East could only squeeze out a scratchy, highly compressed victory exclamation that sounded less like the Dude's trademarked catch-phrase and more like an "I'RM BRAR!" Perhaps more restraint should have been shown--maybe a text bubble or a specially made victory screen in lieu of an audible celebration by two guys with apparently damaged larynxes. Sure--it wouldn't have been a true Bad Dudes experience without their expected expression of triumph, but there were already so many sacrifices in quality that one more wouldn't have made much a difference for what was already a lost cause. Let's just say that Bad Dudes had nothing on Blades of Steel in regard to voice samples (to be fair, it's a much-larger game whose assets undoubtedly use up more space, but still). 

But the NES version of Bad Dudes wasn't without some value to me. For one, I thought its soundtrack was terrific--certainly the most inspired part of the game. Since, as I've previously stressed, it was difficult to gauge an arcade game's music due to how loud those establishments tended to be, this was my first time hearing the game's music, which I would say was unexpectedly top-tier. I liked in particular the tune that played on the second stage during the prolonged truck-roof battle; it evoked a sense of sadness and struggle not typical of music heard in beat-'em-ups, whose soundtracks were usually populated by nothing but rock-based tunes. I've since been able to listen to the arcade version's soundtrack, and I say, once again, that the NES port has the superior arrangements, which I find is often the case with NES interpretations of arcade music (as discussed in previous blog entries).

Another piece that caught my attention was the boss theme on the first stage. "That interspersed jingle," I thought. "Isn't that from Karnov?" I was indeed familiar with Karnov--that weird game I had played a few times at friends' and cousins' houses--but I didn't know that its hero was in Bad Dudes, nor did I even recognize him as such until I heard his exclusive jingle weaved into the boss theme; I was excited to learn of his inclusion, and I thought it was a cool touch how they gave him special musical treatment. But I wondered what he was doing there: "Was it the actual Karnov, or was this an unrelated cameo? If it's the former, how and when did he become a bad guy?" Hell--I didn't even realize until years later that the two games shared the same developer, much less the same universe. His appearance was another of my objects of fascination, the feeling similar to when I learned that Commando wasn't a standalone title and shockingly the predecessor to Bionic Commando.

Though, Bad Dudes just didn't work as an NES game, and I'd play it mostly to justify the purchase. Mainly, it was created with too much malice: To cover for its memory limitations and general dearth of content, that is, the difficulty was ratcheted up to a near-unfair level, putting it in line with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of the world. Even with great effort, I could only occasionally make it past the boss gauntlet in the final stage, which would weaken me up so sufficiently that I'd fall to the final boss before I could muster any meaningful offense. Three continues were never enough, and I had to slog my way through the entire game countless times just to earn a handful of pokes at him. I might have beaten it once, actually, but the whole experience was probably too mind-numbing for me to remember. Oh, and hi--I'RM BRAR!

If it harbored such ambition, Data East should have taken a cue from Capcom and re-purposed its property in the vein of Trojan, Strider and Bionic Commando. Bad Dudes was a big-enough name that such a promotion of change, alone, might have garnered it more attention and a more-enthusiastic reception. Taken as is, it's heavily inferior to its arcade counterpart, which will instead continue to be my go-to outlet whenever I'm up for some Bad Dudes action.

Though in these modern times Bad Dudes is regarded as a joke and only referenced mockingly--its "Let's go for a burger.... Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!" closing line less celebrated and more used as ammunition against it--it was a decent, fun game that almost had to exist, as if it wouldn't have been the 80s without it. It somehow managed to capture the spirit of the era despite the cynical, out-of-touch marketing behind it, and it objectively made an imprint on the gaming world in general, for better or worse. 

That it's still a topic of conversation on the Internet 25 years after its release is a testament to Bad Dudes' staying power and ironic charm. I reckon it won't soon be forgotten, nor should it. After all--I wouldn't want to live in a world where it didn't exist. Think of it: No effusive tank-top-wearing ruffians. No presidents being kidnapped by ninjas. Not even a cheapskate burger as the reward for your Herculean efforts. That would be more than a terrible fate.

No--that would be bad, dude.

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