My education in the side-scrolling beat ’em up began, as most children of the ’90s, with the spritely “Final Fight” for Super Nintendo.
There’s something incredibly satisfying about playing as an elected official – Mike Haggar, the suspendered mayor of Metro City – beating the unholy snot out of street punks. Metro City is apparently a jurisdiction where due process and reactive policing got lost somewhere in the municipal codes.
The fun of “Final Fight” led to other classics of the genre. Two stick out in my mind: the brilliant “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time” and 1989’s “River City Ransom.”
If this doesn’t give you the warm fuzzies, we have nothing more to talk about.
Ska Games’ “Charlie Murder” is a love song more to the second title, with this generation’s obligatory inclusion of role-playing progression and in-game economy. (As an aside, is there any title we shouldn’t expect to have some RPG elements in the future? We’re two titles away from Mario earning extra “jump” stats for every Goomba he squashes.) But it’s as much fun, and tells as compelling a story, as Konami’s most-celebrated ode to the heroes in a half-shell.
You begin dead. To learn the mechanics of the game, you’re in the “Netherworld” fighting back an unending horde of zombies. The game’s visceral aesthetic and tight controls are on display immediately, immersing you in a rich overworld that draws obvious influences from Tim Burton, Don Hertzfeldt and Ska Studios’ previous brilliant button-masher, “The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai.”
Stand up and be counted, for what you are about to receive.
As it turns out, you (no matter which character you play as, each with their own distinctive style – I chose frontman Charlie, because chicks dig the lead singer) were killed by the bandmates of your nemesis, Paul, who was kicked out of Charlie Murder just before they hit it big. Now, he’s exacting revenge as “Lord Mortimer.”
The story is told through a series of Tarantino-like flashbacks, indicating just how things went so wrong between Charlie and Paul. They’re light-hearted, though darkly demented, affairs, which give “Charlie Murder” the game a little more substance than the “Final Fight/Double Dragon” trope of a kidnapped girlfriend.
Even in video games, the craft beer craze is unavoidable.
Level design in “Charlie Murder” is top notch, switching you on the fly from regular brawling to puzzle-solving to rhythm-based challenges and back again. The in-game economy is fun, and combat is satisfying, offering you the perfect amount of variety that necessitates strategy, rather than simple mashing. The same is true of boss fights, which are mostly old-school encounters requiring you to memorize a pattern in order to survive. And, like most brawlers, “Charlie Murder” is most fun with friends playing by your side.
Yes, there’s a reason this game is rated Mature.
As an Xbox Live/Playstation Network title, it’s tough not to recommend “Charlie Murder.” It’s cheap, it’s lengthy compared to other titles in the genre (you’ll spend about eight hours completing Charlie’s story), and the soundtrack is unique. My complaints have to do with the game’s polish, which is not unexpected given this is a title from an indie developer.
Sprinting (you’ll have to build momentum before you can get your character to run) makes traversing large gameplay areas a slog. It also makes the platforming portions of “Charlie Murder” downright unplayable in some instances. Surely in a game where you’re mashing X, a sprint button could have been easily mapped to the d-pad or triggers.
You have to respect a game with atmosphere that bleeds into the loading screen.
A wonky save system will spit you out only at random waypoints in the game world after death. At best, it’s an annoyance. At worst, you’re stuck watching the same cut-scene over and over again. The ability to use some sort of old-school continue system, replicating plunking quarters into a machine, would make for a much smoother beat ’em up experience.
This is all nitpicking, though. Go pick up “Charlie Murder,” a sixer and some friends. You won’t be disappointed.
Don Kardong approaches the finish in Riverfront Park during Bloomsday 1978.
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