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Brutal: Above the Claw

Genre: Fighting Developer: Alternative Reality Tech Publisher: Gametek Players: 1-2 Released: 1995

What happens when programmers attempt to upgrade a mediocre fighting game and re-release it on a new system? Well, besides a terribly cliché lead sentence, you’re likely to get something along the lines of Brutal: Above the Claw for the 32X, Gametek’s final attempt to cash in on the one-on-one craze of the ’90s with their furry fighting franchise.

I realized recently that out of the five incarnations of Brutal, I own… all five. Aside from confirming that I have a few screws loose, it helped me realize something: Gametek was a really lazy developer. The core gameplay hasn’t changed from the previous titles. Players still take control of a fuzzy fighter and battle their way to the Dali Llama, Kendo Coyote is still slower than grandpa wearing cement boots, and Foxy Roxy is still hot in the kind of way that makes you ashamed you noticed. What’s so frustrating here is that Gametek had the chance to make the 32X version of Brutal a great game by fixing the many imperfections of the previous ports and expanding on the best features. Instead they gave us two useless new characters and butchered the music. In fact, little else has been added to this “upgrade,” which turns out to be Above the Claw’s most fundamental flaw.

On the plus side, the graphics are better than the other versions. Characters are animated well, and they’re a joy to watch in battle. The lush, detailed environments are easy on the eyes, adding some much-needed flair to the experience. However, many locales are excruciatingly generic, lack the animation of the PC version, and are missing some of the clever touches found in the original Brutal game, Paws of Fury. Take, for example, Leon the lion’s old bridge stage, where players can fall off the edge mid-battle if they aren’t careful. For some reason, this and other fun details were removed from Above the Claw. Also, the music that was such a draw for the Sega CD game has been absolutely molested. The new jams have still got that Brutal-ish jungle beat, but there are literally only three or four tracks in the entire game. Each lasts approximately six seconds and is looped indefinitely, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for the mute button on your TV set a few minutes after plugging in the game.

The sounds don’t fare much better. Femme fatale Foxy Roxy now sounds like a man, where as on the Sega CD, she sounded as feminine as ever. In fact, all the characters make the same yelps and “hy-yahs,” leading to a very generic aural experience. In another small but annoying omission, Leon no longer plays his guitar riff during his Power Chord attack, killing much of the move’s humor.

Also gone is the pensive, meditative atmosphere of the Genesis and Sega CD offerings. The Sega CD version in particular feels like the player has been sucked into a martial arts film, with engrossing story screens detailing what the vanquished fighters do after being disqualified from the tournament, philosophical jargon about the true nature of the warrior, and a nifty intro sequence to pump you up before game time. Sadly, this is not the case on the 32X cart, which plays like a watered-down arcade game. The polished presentation of the Sega CD title keeps players interested and helps them forgive the slightly dull fighting sequences in favor of the “feel” of the game. This is another point where Above the Claw falls flat on its face: Without the awesome ambiance of the CD version, there’s nothing left to distract you from the tedious gameplay. Unfortunately, the two new characters, a bite-sized cat in boxer shorts named Psycho Kitty and possibly the lamest dragon ever, Chung Poe, do little to remedy the situation.

There are six different attack buttons – three kicks and three punches – but they often produce the same punch or kick animation, just faster or slower depending on the strength of the button pressed. There’s little reason to use anything but the most damaging attacks, making the Street Fighter-style controller layout unnecessary: medium attacks could have been eliminated completely without sacrificing any gameplay.

The special move system only adds to the problem. Like in many real martial arts, your character starts out as a white belt; as he or she wins battles, they are rewarded with special attacks. Why, then, is it just as difficult for a lowly yellow belt to defeat the Dali Llama as it is for a black belt? Because the special moves the player acquires are almost always useless. Often, these silly maneuvers send your character careening across the screen, recklessly swinging his or her fists. All your opponent has to do to put a stop to the onslaught is jump over you, turn around, and kick you in the face. I suppose special moves that aid your opponent are a pretty innovative idea, but in practice, they’re far from fun. And what’s more, many special attacks are difficult to pull off in real combat. Consequently, the password system that saves your acquired moves is unnecessary and ridiculous. Not only does it not matter what specials you have, but the passwords are so lengthy, players are likely to ignore them completely.

Furthermore, the AI is inconsistent and often super cheap, relentlessly using the same inescapable attack over and over; yet, other times, the computer characters just stand there and allow you to decimate them. Compounding the problem is the fact that hard attacks knock the other player down even if they’re blocking, causing negligible amounts of damage. I guess this prevents turtling but against the schizophrenic CPU characters, it’s just frustrating. The computer will often do nothing but block, forcing the player to resort to victory through block damage. Yes folks, Above the Claw spawns some truly marathon fights from time to time, but defiantly not the favorable kind.

As far as the two-player mode goes, there’s not much too it. Each player has the choice to enter a password beforehand, but it makes no difference, because characters are endowed with a full arsenal of special abilities from the get go. But with only twelve selectable characters (and seven that are any good), the two-player battles don’t stay fresh for long. As a sort of counter to this, the programmers added Island Conquest, a board-game like mode that has both players battling for the supremacy of Brutal Island. It’s a nice addition, but ultimately, it isn’t much different than the standard versus mode.

Despite its many problems though, some fun can be had with Brutal: Above the Claw, if only because the concept of anthromorphs beating the tar out of each other is undeniably cool. But the fun quickly wears off, and players are left with a shallow, button masher’s dream of a game. However, if you were hardcore (or crazy) enough to get a 32X, there’s a good chance you own a Sega CD unit as well. If this is the case, do yourself a favor and seek a copy of the superior Brutal CD; it’s defiantly a cut above the others. Regardless, Brutal: Above the Claw is more entertaining than Genesis and SNES ports, and is a fine game to fill an afternoon – but that’s about it. If you see it for a few bucks, pick it up, and daydream about the awesome game it could have been.

SCORE: 5 out of 10

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