Monday 27 September 2010

Crack Down (Mega Drive)

I've put Nintendo on the firing range a few times for their obsession with re-releasing the same old tat (Urban Champion) time and time again, but since the Virtual Console's birth in 2006, news of first-generation NES re-releases are now few and far between. Sega, on the other hand, have made great strides in trying to take Nintendo's place in the "re-release wars", flushing out yearly Sega Mega Drive compilations comprising of their early 16-bit releases. Logic states you should release the older games before the newer ones, but Sega often seem to get a bit bored by about 1992 and move onto a new system to fill with Eccos and Golden Axes. And they don't like touching their other consoles.

Crack Down is one of the many first party Mega Drive games that Sega seem to love. Originally a 1989 Sega System 24 game (I'd be reviewing that version if it were emulated properly), it was brought to the Mega Drive in 1991. But does anyone really care?

Truthfully? No. Nobody really cares what Crack Down has to offer these days. It has the same feeling of "meh" as Gain Ground or Fatal Labyrinth - the names pop up a lot, but nobody is ever going to sit down and say "I want to buy these games". Even with the compilations you don't tend to invest solely for games like Crack Down - people pick those up for games such as Sonic, Streets of Rage or Ecco the Dolphin, a.k.a. The games people talk about. Also, if you remember Crack Down you've also got a good chance of remembering a better version exists out there in arcade form.

But I am always fascinated by the early days of the Mega Drive. In its attempt to combat the NES Sega exploited weaknesses in Nintendo's strategy, and dishing out Sega-based arcade ports was one thing Nintendo could never do. That's why there's so many System 16, System 24, X Board and Y Board games on the MD.

Sega's business practice at this period in history was virtually unchallenged. It saw a competitor in Nintendo (and NEC... sort of), analysed them significantly and exploited as many weaknesses as physically possible. When the SNES rolled around this became more of a challenge, and I'll be honest - Sega lost their way by the time the 32X and Saturn came about and never recovered. They're now seeking advice from fans because they've forgotten how to build Sonic games. It's saddening to watch... especially when they don't even listen to the fans.

Crack Down is one of many arcade-to-Mega Drive ports that Sega could attach the "can't get this on Nintendo" phrase too. Having been built for System 24 arcade hardware in mind (the System 24 had 55% higher resolution graphics than the Mega Drive which can present problems), Crack Down often puzzles users due to the enormous heads up display that occurs when there's only one man on the field. By removing all this information, you risk a product that does not look "arcade perfect", but by keeping it, the game looks cluttered and ugly.

So there's mixed views on Crack Down right from the start, especially in this day and age when we're used to millons of on-screen pixels. But looking past that there's a neat little arcade game here... sort of.

The Japanese astound us again with their imaginative choice of naming schemes in Crack Down. You're put in control of manly heroes, Ben and Andy, tasked with blowing up structures for some reason. To achieve their goal, they need to plant bombs at all the designated red "X" marks, dotted around the map. With a variety of weapons they also have the opportunity to take down enemies, while of course making sure they're not taken down themselves. Essentially it's a very simple top-down action-shooter-thing.

I suppose the easiest way to describe this game is to give it the title of "Metal Gear... but faster". You need to apply a strategy to make sure you don't keep being killed, and that often requires quick reactions as you lean up against a wall to dodge bullets. There's also a button which allows you to kill all enemies on screen, assuming you have a superbomb to trigger it. The game is otherwise very simple - you've just got to make sure you don't get killed. Oh and it's time based.

If you've not been treated to the arcade original, the Mega Drive port should play fine, but if you indulged yourself on Sega research like I did, you'll realise that it's a very gimped experience on home consoles and computers. Gameplay is mostly identical but you will struggle to see the detail the arcade version once boasted. The map has been simplified, the animations are more choppy and it's generally harder to make things out as everything on screen is literally about half the size.

On the plus side, the Mega Drive does introduce a "Quack Down" voice sample when the title screen comes into view. I assume that's a good thing. There's no doubt that the Mega Drive version has aged worse than its arcade counterpart mind you, though we can at least sleep easily at night knowing there were worse ports on home computers. That being said however, the Amiga and Atari ST versions manage to output bigger sprites at the expense of less colours, so it's not a clear victory for Sega's console.

Which I suppose begs the question why Sega have such an attachment to this version of the game when the arcade version is so much better. A "System 24" collection could be both entertaining and educational. But either way, as suspected, Crack Down isn't likely to appeal to the modern gamer and is only really worth playing if its paired with other old titles.

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