Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja is a curious beast, forged in the hellfires of early ’90s popular culture, where words like tubular and bodacious were being used in adverts as a way of peddling Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures to the bright-eyed children of the Saturday morning cartoon generation.
I was one of those kids, sitting there watching Phillip Scofield and Gordon the Gopher compere some of the finest cartoons known to humanity like Transformers, The Raccoons and Dungeons and Dragons. Even Super Mario had his own super show, and it seemed that all over the globe marketing executives were sitting around their mahogany boardroom tables, brainstorming what killer toy line or product they could work into a cartoon series next while guzzling Tab Clear. It was a great time to be a kid, I’m sure, at least it felt that way looking back.
But it was also a time of dulled imagination. Sure, videogames had entered the 16-bit generation, and we those lucky enough to own a SNES were spoiled by the likes of Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Super Castlevania 4 and the glorious Contra 3, but there was also a lot of also-rans out there too. The bad outweighed the good, but certainly didn’t taint it.
I begged and pleaded with my parents for a Nintendo system – either one, for years but I was always told that my Mega Drive was enough. Regardless of what format you had back then, there was certainly a boom of creativity that hit the right notes in the minority, where the future big players like Konami, Capcom and Squaresoft were planting the seeds of their juggernaut IP for years to come.
Beneath the upper crust of stellar IP that dared to push boundaries, there was the murky cesspool of marketing decisions that rubber-stamped familiar spins on to every trope and sliver of sub-culture they could think of. Samurai Pizza Cats was a blatant rip off of the Turtles, and we had Biker Mice from Mars, The Toxic Crusaders, Gobots and god knows how many more attempts to ride the crest of Eastman and Laird’s creations.
This seeped into movies and games too. What would Hollywood turn into a ninja next? What breed of animal would your next ensemble cartoon focus on? Shogun Burrito Silverfish, Ronin Lasagne Beetles and Yakuza Chilli Tapeworms are just some ideas surely condemned the ’90s cutting room floor.
Whoever came up with the premise behind Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja seems to have followed suit because the game has nothing to do with the long documented history of real life ninjas, those nomadic blades for hire who lived rough, blended with the night and killed a lot of people than, say Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. The ’90s-ification begins from the opening story crawl, which explains that back in the distant past, two cave “dudes” spent their days taking part in tubular activities like “Pterodactyl hang gliding,” followed in brackets by – and I quote, “Peaking the beak.”
Peaking the what?
Now, I don’t claim to be a cool dude, but I have no idea what Peaking the beak means. The crawl continues, explaining that a “bogus bunch of Neanderthal nerds,” came into the ninja’s village and scared all the “cave babes” away, so it’s up to the duo to save them all.
Am I condemning this use of language? Not at all, in fact, it brings an awkward smile to my face because it’s almost like ’90s popular culture has been perfectly preserved, much like a caveman frozen in a glacier and preserved for thousands upon thousands of years.
It’s silly and the slang is nonsense, and I feel it’s thoroughly embarrassing. That is, until I remember we’re living in the YOLO selfie generation, where slang has been reduced to acronyms because we have – once again, lost our imagination. We’ve gone full circle. It’s 1991 one again wearing a Justin Bieber face mask singing Gangnam Style in a pub that exclusively sells craft beers from Shoreditch.
The game itself splits opinions. It plays a bit like Contra – part platformer and part shooter. Well, I say ‘shooter’ because certain power-ups enable Joe and Mac to hurl fireballs, stone wheels, boomerangs and bones from their clubs, each with varying degrees of power and effects. You run from left to right, hopping over death pits and reducing bogus Neanderthal nerds and dinos to meat, which you then eat for health. It’s standard fare, but I don’t dislike it, although while playing my old cart again to write this review, I had it finished in just under an hour. This game used to kick my ass back in the day too.
Turns out the ice age didn’t kill the dinosaurs. Sorry Arnie…
I mentioned Contra 3 earlier. I firmly believe it to be one of the greatest games ever made. Yes, even better than modern games. One reason for my fondness is the game’s nightmarish bosses, which were either screen-filling or packing excruciating attack patterns that simply had to be memorised exactly in order to proceed. Joe and Mac face similar beasts at the end of each stage, complete with some genuinely impressive visual effects, along with a little Mode 7 (Google it!) thrown in for added effect. The giant Armadillo-like beast at the end of one lava stage is particularly inventive, while the palate swap T-Rex bosses start to wear thin over time.
The game has a dark streak however. Such as one boss – a woolly mammoth, that you defeat by hitting it in the face repeatedly until its tusks break off. It’s literally close to the bone, but then one you get it down to 25 per cent health its entire trunk splinters off, laving a jagged, gaping hole where its most vial organ used to be.
The final boss is another T-Rex – or so you think. Because once you kill it and it keels over, you then enter its mouth and proceed to destroy the creature from the inside. It’s a similar organ-based stage to the one featured in my previous review of Mega Drive shooter Gynoug. It’s all pink, fleshy and a bit weird. The dino’s gut is also filled with bogus Neanderthal nerds riding stone helicopters. It boggles the mind.
So it’s a strange, peculiar and timely game that captures the need of ’90s marketing execs and the entertainment industry at large to slap “ninja” in the title of everything, or at least some sort of melding effect, where animals or humans are given a radical vocation. This worked in several cases however – Earthworm Jim was a space explorer and star of a superb duo of Mega Drive titles, Robocod was a fish with a stretchy metallic torso, and so on.
But then you have the 16-bit slush pile of similar, failed attempts to ride the wave. Bubsy the Bobcat was a crock of shit. Mick n’ Mack: Global Gladiators and Cool Spot aren’t as good as you remember, and their blatant marketing ploys – for McDonalds and 7-Up respectively, would make today’s #GamerGate warriors chunder their colon onto the floor with disgust. Aero was an acrobat, Zool was a ninja ant from the N’th dimension – which I hear is next door to Dimension X, and Jazz as a Jackrabbit that propelled that bellend CliffyB* into our peripheral vision.
So should you play Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja? Yes, do so, but it’s an emulation job. I bought the cart on the cheap so I don’t feel so bad about blasting through it so quickly, but if you want a laugh at the opening text crawl and the weirdness of its later stages, you could do worse, and by worse I mean by playing Bubsy the Bobcat.
I seriously loathe that game, it’s totally not rad.
Disclaimer: CliffyB may be a misunderstood person who is genuinely quite nice, but the man cancelled on a pre-booked E3 interview for Gears of War 3 one year because he wanted to go to the cinema. He was there, I mean actually standing in front of me as I turned up on time for our interview, talking to me through his PR assistant who broke the bad news like a conduit. So cheers Clifford. I had hopes for you because you turned out a great trilogy of shooters and kept the wonderful John DiMaggio’s voice in my ears, but beyond that, you let me down mate. Cheers.