Everybody likes ninjas. Conversely, no-one likes clowns. So, if you combine the two you should get something that is the very essence of averageness, right? Well, let's find out by playing Incredible Technologies' 1991 circus of horrors, Ninja Clowns.

Yep, this game is called Ninja Clowns. No, I have no idea why they chose to combine ninjas and clowns. Ninjas are stern, silent, invisible warriors who have been trained to kill without mercy. Clowns are jolly, noisy, gaudy fools who have been trained to kill without mercy. There's not much overlap between the two, is there? Well, it doesn't matter, because Ninja Clowns has nothing to do with ninjas at all. Just clowns. Clowns only. Clowns, clowns, clowns. Ugh. The only reason they called it Ninja Clowns is because Clowns is a very dull title.
Ninja Clowns is a side-scrolling beat-em-up, so the first thing to find out is why, as a simple jester, you have been thrust into this world of violent madness. Kidnapped daughter? Animals in danger? Well, not quite:

Nope, today's reason for punching everything in sight is Killer Zombie Clones, produced in a lab by Twisto the Evil Clown. I don't know why I specified that he's an evil clown; he's a clown, it should be taken as read that he's also evil.
The terrified populace's response to this threat? They summon another clown. You know, like the one that's kidnapped them. Maybe they know that, like ninjas, only a clown can defeat a clown. Although on closer inspection of the villain's silhouette, it appears he's not a clown and he's actually Bowser. I have my fingers crossed that this is the case and his evil plan is actually some complex plot to kidnap Princess Peach.

You're plonked in a dismal street area, with various scumbags for company. As this is a beat-'em-up, you're probably going to want to, you know, beat 'em up, and that's where things get a little tricky. Ninja Clowns has a strange control system in that, unlike almost every other side-scrolling beat-'em-up, there's no jump button. You've got punch, kick and what I think is supposed to be a block but which can't block atacks. Pressing punch and kick together lets you spin around, which is simple enough, but other combinations lead to ever-more unpredicatble results. P+K and left or right makes you do a flying kick, diagonal-down and K makes you roll around, there's a strange jumping move where our hero tries to climb an invisible rope... There's a lot going on, and while it sounds like a good thing to have so many moves, they all feel very counter-intuitive to use, and you keep performing them by accident, not helped by the jerky animation and general feeling of distance between your input and the actions of the white-faced freak you're "controlling".
As you can see, the enemies are a motley bunch, and the first stage is mostly filled with angry cops who throw doughnuts at you and 80's business men who you can pretend are Patrick Bateman. Quite why Twisto wants to take over this town is beyond me, because it's a bit of a shithole. The first stage flies by quickly, with two interesting things to note: One, you can collect a boxing glove on a spring to use against your foes. Anyone who has ever watched a Looney Tunes cartoon knows that a boxing glove on a spring is the deadliest weapon in the universe. The power of a thousand gods courses through your veins as soon as you collect it, and no man can stand against its awesome power. Secondly, Ninja Clowns appears to have pre-empted the pop-culture shitecloud that is the Twilight series by a good fourteen years: there's a sign in the background for a movie called "Dead Teens In Love". There is no possible way it could be worse than Twilight.

Soon you're fighting the boss, who is pictured above. He's a bowler, and he likes to bowl things at you and... that's about it. He's significantly more difficult than the rest of the stage, but once he's defeated, you do get the pleasure of seeing him explode in strangely grotesque manner:

Look at that goddamn clown, watching a man explode with a calm smile on his face. The sick fuck.
After that, there's a brief interlude where you have smash up a lab in an impossibly short time limit, although it's only for points so it doesn't matter. Twisto appears again to curse you. His silhouette looks more like Bowser than ever.

The next stage takes you to the funfair... of TERROR. That's to be expected though, because funfairs exude terror in the same way that girls who wear berets exude insanity.

New enemies abound, including bearded ladies who projectile vomit at you. At least I think they're bearded women, but then again there's nothing to say that they aren't just very nauseous transvestites. There're also Elvis impersonators. They've got accordions, you know, just like Elvis was famous for playing! Most importantly, there are mimes. Mimes that can be punched. Indeed, you are encouraged to punch them because they drop health when you do. As I may have mentioned before, attacking a mime is a rare pleasure that should be savoured like a fine wine, and by including this feature Ninja Clowns has earned itself a gold star.
There are a few more weapons to collect, including (of course) throwing pies and (of course) seltzer sprayers, which is nice. Something that isn't nice is the music, which mostly consists of "circus music" set to grating, painful beats that sound like a calliope being forced to breed with a trash compactor. It's a shame I didn't know about it in time for the Hallowe'en playlists, really.
So, what will the boss of the carnival stage be, do you think? Samson the Strong-man? Siamese twins? Jojo the Dog-Faced Boy? No, no and no.

The boss is a chicken in thigh-high kinky boots and with a rack that makes Kelly Brook look like a twelve-year-old boy. It is, I fear, supposed to be a Sexy Chicken. Welcome to Nightmare Town! It gets worse, though. This Sex-Chicken has to attack you somehow. What's that you say? It could use eggs to attack? Why, of course it could!

Yes, the slutty hen bends over and fires eggs out out it's... area at you. Even worse, the best time to attack the chicken is after it has bent over but before it fires the egg, so you essentially defeat it by repeatedly jamming your fist/foot up its exposed cloaca.
I don't think I'll ever feel clean again. If you manage to interact your fist with the chicken's arse enough times, then you move onto stage three.
Stage three is back on the mean streets, by which I mean the exact same mean streets as stage one, because they just reused the backgrounds. I guess after Sexy Chicken they were too traumatised to come up with anything else. Nothing much is new apart from some different enemies, mostly skinheads and (surprisingly powerful) Girl Scouts. The boss is...

I have no idea what the boss is, or rather I do, but I'm not sure I understand why. He's a roller-skating helium canister with a severed head placed on top as a grisly trophy, and he attacks with balloon poodles. After the last boss, he's almost comforting.

The next stage is set in the Big Top, and the punishing circus music is back with a vengeance. It's mostly filled with earlier enemies, although there are some midget clowns for those of you with coulrophobia and achondroplasiaphobia to enjoy. The boss is a rather mundane-looking magician:

I do like the expression on that rabbit's face.
The next stage is on the streets, again, and they've used the same background, again.

It really does count against Ninja Clowns that're you're just replaying the same stage. I think I'm going to have to rescind my gold star. New enemies are in the form of hippies this time, and they shout such well-known hippy catchphrases as "Wow, man" and "Woodstock, man"; you will tire of this very quickly. The first time I saw their placards I thought it was a picture of a chicken, and they were protesting against the Sexy Chicken. Just as I was about to embrace their cause, I realised it was a mushroom cloud and I started punching them instead. They're pretty violent for pacifists, and quite hard to beat. They killed me a lot, which means this is a good time to mention our hero's death pose:

He may be dead, but his enormous erection will live on! Maybe he's thinking about Sexy Chicken.
The boss approaches, and he's a more old-fashioned kind of nightmare fuel.

Cabbage/bagpipe/clown interbreeding has reached a terrifying new level! Our hero actually looks genuinely pleased to see it, though, and that's possibly because he already knows that once defeated, the boss will turn out to be full of popcorn. Of course.

"Darn! No butter." Wait... were you going to eat the popcorn out of the dead spider-monster's skull? Clowns, everybody. Look upon them and know true fear.
Ninja Clowns is heating up now, and it's onto the final full stage: the Funhouse.

The name "Funhouse" is as misleading as you might expect. It's a constant, groin-crushingly tedious stream of unicycle-riding killer clowns, and the best way to defeat them is to keep doing the spin move repeatedly as they slowly haul themselves out of the floor. The blue-and-orange checks on our hero's trousers, much like the midday sun, should not be looked at directly. Serious eye damage will occur.
There was a boss here, a burly Sinbad type with a scimitar, but I defeated him so quickly that I forgot to get a screenshot. Oops. Anyway, he was just the warm up! It's time for the final showdown with Twisto!

His lack of resemblance to Bowser is bitterly disappointing. That said, I actually really like his sprite, and if you're looking for a fearsome end-of-game boss, a three-headed demon clown is a good choice. He really isn't that tough, with the spin move once again proving the most effective method of killing clowns. That's information that may well come in handy one day. Once he's defeated, Twisto is revealed to be a tiny little clown who was using some kind of super-suit or something, and our hero defeats him by using the famous "hold them at arm's length so they can't reach you" technique that is so beloved of older brothers the world over.
So, Twisto goes to jail, and you can settle down for the long and satisfying ending sequence.

Oh wait, that's it. One still frame. Thanks, Incredible Technologies. The name of your company is a holow mockery, if not a downright lie. Twisto's spell is broken, and everyone is happy and friendly once more. Except the hippies, who will no doubt be continuing with their campaign of harassment against poor, defenceless nuclear power. And what the hell is going on with the sky in that last panel? I think the sun saw the clown driving toward it and turned off all the lights so he could hide.
Welp, that's Ninja Clowns. An odd game, to be sure. Not a good game: the controls are to imprecise, there's too much repetition and the music is too dreadful for it to be considered good. But there are some nice ideas in it, and a few nice graphical touches. I think it's main problem is that is didn't go far enough in embracing the horror element of the game. If the whole think had been some kind of Lovecraftian, Sexy Chicken-filled constant nightmare, it'd have been... better. It's pretty short too, so if you're interested, give it a quick go: you'll probably be able to complete it in half an hour. Just don't expect anything even vaguely ninja-related.



A quick one today, as I look at some of Capcom's more regrettable Street Fighter cover art.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Here's the box art that was used on home computer versions of the original Street Fighter:

Okay, maybe I should cut Capcom some slack on this one, as they probably didn't have much to do with it, which is appropriate as this cover has nothing what-so-ever to do with Street Fighter. I assume the fellow in the middle who has proudly emblazoned the game's title on his back is supposed to be Ryu. It must be in days before he started his quest to become the greatest fighter, back before he gave up his original dream: to star in a production of West Side Story.
I like the punk on the far right, who in some alternate universe might be Birdie. He's one nonchalant son of a gun. I also like the fact that Capcom have described themselves as GIANTS OF THE VIDEOGAMES INDUSTRY. No false modesty here. Or modesty of any sort, really.

Next up, Street Fighter 2 Dash for the X68000.

Not too bad at first glance, but take a closer look and things start to fall apart. What's going on with Bison's chin/neck area? Everytime I see it, the first thing I think is that he has an inflatable throat pouch that he uses to attract frogs. Frog which he then mates with. I think it's supposed to be a giant chin, but it definitely looks more flabby than anything else. The less said about his hands the better, other than the fact that they're not attached to his body in any way.
Then there's Ryu. Here's a close-up of Ryu's face.

Ryu is stoned out of his fucking gourd.

SF2 Turbo now, and it doesn't look too bad:

Apart from Sagat's face.

He's not angry with you, just very disappointed. There, there, Sagat, don't cry.

Here's the cover for SF2: Championship Edition for the Megadrive/Genesis. Take a good look at it:

Now imagine there's a man just out of shot yanking a rug out from underneath Guile and Bison. I think you'll agree that the composition makes a lot more sense now, especially if you imagine that they're both shouting "Oh shit!"

Street Fighter Alpha, and yet again it is Bison that's the focus of our attention:

Spectral and marshmallow-y, that's how I always remember the leader of Shadaloo. Ryu's hadoken pose isn't much better, looking like he should be making a straining "hhhhnnngg!" noise as he attacks. What are all the other fighter doing there, anyway? Haven't they got anything better to do?

I've save the bworst 'til last. That's right, bworst. You see, this picture is both so awful and so glorious I had to invent a new word to describe it. Behold, the cover for Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo on the Amiga CD32!

Jesus, I don't even know where to start with this one. Oh wait, yes I do: Akuma's giant deformed head. He has two tomatoes for eyes. His neck is a veiny, David Cronenberg-esque bio-horror. He has no hairline: his hair seamlessly appears as a gradient on his head. Just look at the anatomy between his ear and the back of his neck: it's comprised of the kind of non-Euclidean angles that would make even Lovecraft shudder.
Of course, Akuma isn't the only thing wrong here. Due to the lights shining out of their feet, Chun-Li and Blanka appear to be flying away from the center of the screen. I'm pretty sure that was not the intended effect. Chun-Li appears to have been replaced with a man in drag. Deejay looks like he's not even supposed to be in the picture, and he's grinning uncomfortably as he realises someone's taking a photograph of him. Then there's Cammy, poor, poor Cammy, her body mangled and twisted and badly retouched until her neck has disappeared and her head barely balances on her shoulders. Finally, EXPLOSIONS. Kids love explosions! My brain hurts. This picture is quite possibly the Grand Key, the instrument that finally unlocks the gates between all dimensions, reducing the universe to unceasing chaos. Don't stare at it for too long.

Thankfully, Capcom (and games companies in general) are at lot better at this sort of thing now.



War, as Ron Perlman may have informed you, never changes. Fortunately, videogames about war do change, otherwise we'd still be playing games as bad as Taito's 1985 shooter Front Line.

Originally released in arcades in 1982, Front Line was ported to the NES in 1985, and that's the version I'll be looking at today. The title screen is a stern affair, and, unusually, it displays the year in Roman numerals. I assume this was intended to give Front Line that much-needed touch of class, perhaps to make people think they were about to experience something powerfully cinematic and deeply moving. Of course, Front Line is neither cinematic or moving, unless you count being moved to tears through sheer, unrelenting boredom.

So, there's a war on, and you play as the standard One Man Army that must destroy the enemy all by his lonesome. That's you in the picture above, the one in the blue suit. Not particularly menacing, I must say. So, what firepower do you have at you disposal, ready to blow away the other troops that you are trying to kill for some undisclosed reason? Well, you have a piddly peashooter of a gun and grenades that you seem to throw in a very unconvincing sideways arc. Not particularly fearsome, but at least they have unlimited ammo.
The controls are simple enough: the D-pad walks you around, one button fires your peashooter and the other throws grenades. You have to make your way up the screen, walking alone into enemy territory, along an unobscured road, completely in the open, shooting the occasional little bloke in green who pops up. It's like an induction video they'd show you on your first day in the Army called something like War Fighting: The Wrong Way or Private Johnny Won't Be Home For Christmas.
I do worry about our hero. Let's call him Johnny, shall we? You see, Private Johnny has a problem: he's terribly deformed. Here is his honest-to-god walking animation:

Poor Johnny. He's got some real problems. His most obvious flaw is the fact that his legs contain no bones, only wet noodles and pain. They even bend the wrong way. This must be one hard-fought war if conscripts of Johnny's calibre are being drafted in. His walk is almost hypnotic to watch, really, an elegant ballet of crippled legs flapping across a war-torn nation. It's not just his legs though; he's missing his right arm entirely, probably having had it shot off after waving at an enemy sniper or getting it blown up while juggling grenades or something equally stupid. Johnny's luck gets even worse, because whatever nation he fights for decided that camoflague was old hat, a cynical trick to hinder your opponent in a most unsporting manner, so they gave Johnny a nice, vibrant blue uniform and a bright red helmet. Poor, poor Johnny. At least, I think that's a helmet: it could equally be bright red hair with pigtails or a Devo Energy Dome. Whatever it is, it offers zero protection because you die in one hit, or even after brushing against an enemy. Johnny truly is the runt of the litter.

You'll soon realise that, as you move forwards, it's usually far easier to run past the enemies than it is to kill them. I strongly suggest you ignore them as much as possible. In fact, try and ignore Front Line altogether, if you can. Once you've covered enough ground, the game takes a sudden and dramatic turn! Okay, so it doesn't really. What happens is that you get to ride around in a tank. There are two kinds, a little tank that is slightly faster and a big tank that isn't. The gameplay doesn't change at all, except that you lose the ability to throw grenades. All the tanks do is change your sprite, and the gameplay remains the same. Move forward, rotate, kill, move forward. You don't even get any sensation of being more powerful in the tank, because the moment you climb aboard, all the regular troops are replaced with tanks, and they can still kill you with one shot.

For some reason, all the tanks look like cut gemstones. Perhaps Front Line is actually the story of the bitter war between the Emerald and Sapphire races, but I fear that truth is simply that the graphics are crap.
You spend the majority of the tank section avoiding enemies on a flat, grey plane. Occasionally, a rock is placed in your path in an attempt to cause such overpowering excitement that your eyes explode like a frog in a microwave. There's no music at all, just an irritating sound effect meant to simulate the tank's engine noises. Just that blipping sound and endless grey floors. I'm beginning to think that maybe I judged Front Line on the wrong criteria, and rather than a rubbish game that was meant to be played for amusement, it is in fact a serious work of digital art highlighting the horrifyingly mundane way in which wars destroy everything they touch. It's haunting stuff, with Private Johnny's mangled body serving as a grim testament to the human race's bloodthirsty nature. I'd enter it for the Turner Prize if I didn't think the Daily Mail would hunt me down for crimes against art.

Finally, you cross a bridge and reach the end of the stage, which consists of a tank sitting behind a wall. You have to get out of your tank and lob a grenade over the wall, destroying the tank and forcing a little soldier to appear with a white flag. Insert your own joke about the French here! And that's the end of the stage; on to the next stage! Except, and here's where Front Line really falls down, there is no next stage. You are simply taken back to the start of the stage and told to do it again, with the only difference being that the enemies are slightly more intelligent. The whole game is a loop of this one stage, which only further complements my idea that it is an artistic statement on the futility of war.
Does Front Line have an ending? How the hell would I know? I managed to suffer through about five loops and then stopped playing because I could feel my brain rusting. I presume it just goes on forever. perhaps I'm being a little harsh on Front Line: it was, after all, originally released in 1982, when videogames were still very much in their infancy. The NES version also doesn't have the arcade version's control system, which featured a dial that you turned to aim your gun and then pushed in to fire it, which I imagine is a lot better that the NES' eight-way aiming. But then I look at Johnny's splay-footed "walking" animation and I think no, Front Line is just shit. Don't play it, and if you see it in the street, glare at it disapprovingly. It'll soon get the message.

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