December 9, 2006 4:02 PM |
[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Strata's BloodStorm, released for the arcade in 1994 .]
If games are judged by the company they keep, Mortal Kombat might well be the worst in history. Midway’s gruesome, hokey 1992 homage to Enter the Dragon was merely an average fighting game, but the waves of imitators fueled by its success include some of the most fascinatingly awful titles of their decade: Kasumi Ninja, Survival Arts, Way of the Warrior, Primal Rage, Shadow: War of Succession, and the mercifully unreleased Tattoo Assassins. Here you’ll find Strata’s BloodStorm.
While BloodStorm owes its very existence to Mortal Kombat, its direct sire was Strata’s first attempt at an arcade fighter, Time Killers. Perhaps the most detested Mortal knock-off, Time Killers built terrible hand-drawn art and barely-there gameplay around the novelty of cutting off an opponent’s limbs during a fight and, if the game was in a good mood, decapitating your enemy as well.
Defying all standards of taste, Time Killers was a modest success. So Strata moved on to BloodStorm, reasoning that if a shamelessly brutal game turned profits, their next arcade game should be even more violent.
'Violence Fight' was taken
And violent it was. Very violent. Ridiculously violent. Before BloodStorm’s title screen can even show up, we’re made to watch an assassin sneak up on an emperor and eviscerate him in graphic detail, providing that “old man dies horribly” hook so lacking in other arcade games of the day. We’re given the game’s backstory moments later: a harsh, post-apocalyptic world is hovering on the brink of war after the demise of the grand high emperor, and the only way to preserve any semblance of peace is to hold a tournament to decide the next ruler.
While it’s a slightly better idea than Time Killers’ insane setup of warriors from across time fighting death itself, BloodStorm’s cast isn’t much of an improvement. Resembling superheroes from a mediocre early-‘90s comic, the would-be rulers include an ice-powered nobleman named Freon, his fire-themed nemesis Hellhound, the emperor’s own wind-wielding daughter Tempest (so much for absolute primogeniture), the murderously environmentalist earth spirit Tremor, a radioactive masked mutant called Fallout, two cyborgs known as Talon and Razor, and Mirage, an amazon desert queen who uses men like cattle in more ways than one. And she lives in the "Obsel" desert. Obsel. Very funny.
No matter their origins, all of the fighters can cut off opponents’ arms and heads throughout any match, littering stages with still-twitching limbs and copious amounts of blood. Mortal Kombat creators Ed Boon and John Tobias refrained from showing disembowelment in their game’s celebrated fatalities, but BloodStorm drew no such lines. Each character has a “sunder” move, which rips foes in half and leaves them wallowing in their own entrails. That doesn’t stop them from fighting, though, as it’s possible to win a match even without arms or legs.
BloodStorm’s carnage overshadowed its gameplay, and for a good reason. Strata improved greatly on Time Killers by giving Blood Storm a five-button array straight out of Mortal Kombat and a wide variety of moves performed with the simple motions of Street Fighter II, but the fighting itself is basic and sloppy. Uppercuts are emphasized over everything else, and the combo system is rudimentary at best.
Nor is the game much to look at. The character sprite art is slapdash in both scope and detail, while primitive computer rendering is mixed into the backgrounds. Even if the rest of it looked passable in 1994, there’s no explanation or excuse for the final boss, Nekron, who seems to have been thrown together from several different ugly character models.
Yet beneath the mediocre game mechanics and the pulsating mounds of viscera, BloodStorm has a handful of promising ideas. Foremost among them is the ability to gain powers from defeated warriors. Most of the transferable moves are unique in their effects, and there’s some appeal in decking out a fighter with a laser eye, grenades, and a fiery mid-air flip attack. Built-up skills can be saved through another unique touch for fighting games: BloodStorm's password system, which let players store high-powered characters on an arcade machine from day to day, so long as arcade managers didn't unplug the units at night.
Another sliver of credit should go to BloodStorm’s attempt at interactive fighting stages. Most of the levels have some amusing gimmick to them, whether it’s a wall of lethal spikes in a dungeon or a background catwalk to which players can jump. Most often, the scenery merely provides new ways to kill a foe, but a few levels lead to the game’s numerous hidden characters. Taking yet another cue from Mortal Kombat, BloodStorm stocked itself with secret fighters, all of whom were obvious palette-swaps and slight redesigns of the main characters. The best (or worst) is an overpowered foe with a cloud of ever-flowing blood where his head should be. He's probably the game’s mascot.
If the game’s secrets weren’t very interesting, Strata tried to make up for it through pure quantity. BloodStorm’s stocked with more codes than any of its contemporaries (with the possible exception of Tattoo Assassins), and, true to form, most of them are crude jokes calculated to upset watchful parents. After each fight, players can input any number of button-and-joystick combinations to trigger some special effect.
A few of the results jump to new stages or change characters, but most of them figure into the game’s “taunt” system, which displays all sorts of middle-school putdowns or in-jokes. Included are jabs at Mortal Kombat (“Who cares where Goro is?”), plugs for Electronic Gaming Monthly (“You don’t know shit about this game…Go buy EGM.”) and a message for U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, who’d only recently begun his campaign against violent games at the time of BloodStorm’s release. Lieberman even shows up, along with the game’s staff, as a hidden “bighead” fighter.
This led to the most shocking thing about BloodStorm: no one cared. For all of the game’s spurts of gore and desperate grabs for controversy, it failed to stir up any real fuss. Politicians and parents had little chance to notice the game, as it didn’t catch the attention of impressionable young arcade-goers in the first place. Mortal Kombat II was still at its peak, and few were interested in playing a more cartoonish version of what was, at a glance, the exact same game. Six months after its summer 1994 debut, BloodStorm was hard to find in the standard arcade.
In fact, the only controversy BloodStorm caused had nothing to do with the game itself. An early ad for the arcade release featured Daniel Pesina, the motion-capture actor for Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat I and II, gleefully abandoning his own game in favor of the totally in-your-face style of BloodStorm. Midway promptly cut ties with Pesina, and Johnny Cage was nowhere to be seen when Mortal Kombat III arrived.
With its minor damage done, BloodStorm was never heard from again, aside from supposed Saturn and PlayStation ports that were later quietly killed. Strata, meanwhile, went on to make the Street Fighter: The Movie arcade game. And then they went out of business.
Would BloodStorm have been a decent fighter without the excess violence? Probably not. A version of the game with the graphic elements removed (known as “The Storm”) still doesn’t impress, and its few decent ideas have found new life in better places. Yet even if BloodStorm fully deserves to be remembered as a trashy, unintentionally hilarious Mortal Kombat rip-off, its moments of inspiration and myriad secrets make it one of the best trashy, unintentionally hilarious Mortal Kombat rip-offs. An empty victory, but a game like BloodStorm has to take what it can get.
[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]
Categories: Column: Might Have Been