After I posted my initial impressions of Growl (known as Runark to people who respect the Japanese designers’ artistic integrity) in the latest edition of Ten Minute Trials, ECM told me that I made the game sound too good. I hate to be deceptive, so I figured maybe I ought to play the game for more than ten minutes and see how the rest holds up.
In case you haven’t heard of Growl before, it’s a sidescrolling beat-em-up that explores animal cruelty, eventually coming to the conclusion that poaching is caused by circus clowns and alien parasites. The first level still felt pretty awesome — after my Indiana Jones clone was attacked by wicked poachers, I grabbed a rocket launcher and started blasting everyone in sight. That’s how wildlife rangers roll, yo. The rockets were soon depleted, but hoodlums dropped plenty of other weapons: AK-47s, grenades, pistols, whips, lead pipes, and even a sword. This is in addition to environmental objects like boulders and explosive barrels that I could grab and hurl across the screen. I had never seen a beat-em-up dole out weapons so generously.
With great honor, I picked up the sword and started hacking into throngs of opponents like Indiana Jubei. A dozen enemies descended on me simultaneously; sure, most of them were palette-swapped clones, but the sheer number of poachers (and lingering corpses) was pretty frickin’ impressive. At times, it was tough to fend them off, which brought back a buried arcade memory — back when Growl was new, the local arcade had two cabinets linked together for four-player simultaneous action. I never played it back then, but I remember seeing it in action. The game was clearly designed with the expectation that multiple players would poach some poachers together.
The local arcade also had the game connected to their video wall. In retrospect, Growl was a pretty odd choice for such deluxe treatment. Nevertheless, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a 48 square foot virtual deer stampede.
I have lived.
For a while, Growl kept me amused. It wasn’t fair and balanced by any means — after all, the thing was designed with four players in mind . . . and even then, most of the bosses are exercises in attrition — but I couldn’t stop myself from credit-feeding to see what came next, such as “the tank scene”.
I was on a boat with a caged elephant. After beating a bunch of random thugs, I fought a guy wearing a burlap sack over his head (a.k.a. the international sign for toughness). We traded blows for a good three or four minutes, and the knave finally fell to his knees, begging for mercy.
Goon: “I’LL GIVE YOU ANYTHING YOU WANT!”
The burlap brute held true to his word and tossed a lead pipe to the ground. So I clubbed him over the head.
Upon reaching land, the elephant burst from its prison and stormed ashore, splattering goons into bloody gibs. Unfortunately, after a few seconds of pachydermal destruction, a Thuggee cultist arrived in a tank and scared the elephant away with explosive shells.
Virtual Me: “OH NO! HE GOT ME!”
My sword-wielding Indiana Jones clone had met his match . . . or so I thought! The elephant stormed back onscreen with a vengeance, stopping the tank dead in its tracks. Taito’s clever fake-out brought a manly tear to my eye. Realizing his plan had been foiled, the Thuggee cultist leapt from the tank to fight me one-on-one.
But then a sailor leapt out of the tank. And then a lady leapt out. And then another Thuggee. And another lady. And another sailor. All in all, about a dozen people must have been crammed inside that tank.
This awesome scene is then followed by a hideous lava platforming scene that makes Sword of Sodan’s sadistic festival of fire look competent. While falling into rivers of flame due to poor controls, getting knocked across the screen by fireballs, and killing a bunch of bats (which made no sense, seeing as I’m supposed to protect the animals), I came to a grim realization: Growl is a pretty shitty game.
Sure, parts of the game were funny, but it wasn’t actually good. Even things that initially impressed me — like the variety of attacks — were just a ruse. Hand-to-hand combat is context-sensitive based on where you stand in relation to your opponents, so all those different punches and kicks are driven by simply tapping one button. Also, every type of weapon is showcased in the first level. Good game designers don’t blow their load in the first five minutes; they hold back surprises to be discovered later. As for the ending, the final boss is a stupid-looking creature intended to eat through credits. Growl explicitly tells you “THIS IS THE FINAL BOSS” when you meet it, which I guess is a good thing, or else I’d have given up in disgust after five minutes of credit-feeding to slowly, slowly, slowly whittle away its health. I can only imagine the height of the token tower that people had to tear through to beat this in an actual arcade.
So if you want a laugh or two, Growl has some value — just don’t play through the game three times like I did. This isn’t a finely-tuned masterpiece like Final Fight, where impressive enemies are carefully assembled to challenge your skills. This is Growl, where ugly gimps are carelessly poured onto the playfield to challenge your patience.