Genre: Run-‘N-Gun Developer: Core Design Publisher: Front Street Publishing Players: 1-2 Released: 1995
As I swabbed down the contacts of my newly-arrived copy of Skeleton Krew with some rubbing alcohol, I thought to myself about the capricious memories of classic gamers. Some moderately-rare games of equally moderate quality are so sought after, and yet other games of higher caliber slip right on through the cracks. What makes a game a cult favorite and drives the eBay sellers to froth at the mouth? What prompts cries of “ultra-rare” and the perennial favorite “l@@k here!!!111!” – like the auction is some kind of peep show? I’m not sure if it’s anything you can quantify in a review; some games have it and some don’t. And there’s no doubt that Skeleton Krew doesn’t have it. On our own forums here at Sega-16, it’s only been mentioned a scant handful of times. After playing through the game, I feel like I am prepared to tell the world what I think of it.
You are stupid.
Skeleton Krew hails from the capable hard drives of Core, the people behind Soul Star and Thunderstrike on the Sega CD. There is very little plot to be seen apart from a few introductory cutscenes before each level and the stuff in the manual, and that alone should be a pretty good indicator of what this game is – a hardcore action shooter. You set your options, pick one of three mercenaries (Spine, Joint, and Rib. No, I’m not kidding at all.) and go blow the living crap out of the hordes that threaten Earth. If the preliminaries seem mundane, that’s because this is all about as formulaic as it gets. Still, the gory vibe is entertaining and the presentation is slick, so I plunged forth into the real game with a light heart.
And admittedly, once you start the actual gameplay, things get a lot better. Action is reminiscent of Ikari Warriors, with the ability to rotate your fire and move independently, but controls are spot-on. Far from being hobbled by the absence of a special joystick, the dynamic control system allows you to fire, jump, switch weapons, rotate, and lock-on using only three buttons. I’m glad Core paid attention to this vital aspect, because sloppy controls are usually what kills these types of games on home consoles. I’d still murder for some sort of swivel-joystick accessory, but this is about as close as you’re going to get. I never found myself hampered by the controls (unlike Caliber .50, for instance.). And believe me, you’ll need good controls because this game is of the chaos persuasion.
The reason for that is the amazing amount of crap on the screen at any given time. Between the animated backgrounds, gunfire, explosions, and enemies, it’s nearly impossible to see all the threats at once. After a while the wash of sprites sort of blend together and your best bet for survival is to – yeah, you guessed it – hold down the fire button at all times. That’s probably the biggest failing of the game right there. 90% of the time, Skeleton Krew is a vanilla, by-the-numbers run ‘n gun. There’s little variety in the level designs and not a gag or clever gimmick to be seen. It’s just you, your gun, and a horde of vague cannon fodder. This disappoints me, because Core definitely had the structural framework for a classic, but they just didn’t go anywhere with it in the execution.
But if Skeleton Krew is a mindless thumb-fest, then I say it’s a pretty good looking thumb-fest. Core blew our minds with Soul Star on the Sega CD, and they certainly made the Genesis work for its pesos. Smooth animations complement colorful art and well-implemented special effects. Expect a lot of warping, scrolling, and other such geeky treats – not on the gratuitous level of Adventures of Batman and Robin, possibly – but certainly more finely integrated into the gameplay. On the whole I was impressed with Core’s technical ability on this outing, especially in tandem with a solid framerate that only drops periodically in co-op mode. Still, trust me, you’ll get your 16-bit jollies when you see the first boss. By the way, I was very thankful to Core for including the two player mode. The game was built for it, I think. Taking along a comrade-in-arms greatly increases the fun and drastically decreases the repetitive level layouts.
Other aspects are pretty dull – the music is disappointing, and not nearly as aggressive or destructive to satisfy me. This is about a trio of blood-thirsty mercenaries turning baddies to a milky-white paste and generally taking no names. A thrashing metal soundtrack or oppressive industrial techno would have gone over well, but instead we get a (Metroid-ish?) electronic soundtrack composed mostly of bleeps, whistles, and general noise. Synth bass still kicks in nicely between levels, but overall the twelve-track OST is both boring and unimpressive. Sound effects are pretty blasé as well. Enemy screams and gun noises are largely undefined – it took me a while to figure out what was what. Basically this is a game you could play muted without any loss of joy at all. All you really need is to see the action; the rest is unremarkable.
Like I said in the beginning; the game is pretty uncommon. I’ve never seen a copy in the wild, but it’s regularly on eBay for about $5 to $10 before shipping, depending on condition. Odds are there are worse games that you’re planning to spend that money on, so I’d recommend you pick this one up next time you’re inclined. It’s a smooth looker with good gameplay, and although it’s not something you’re not going to dream about for years to come, Skeleton Krew is a worthy game that might surprise you. Take off a few points if you don’t like repetitive carnage and add a few more if you love Chaos Engine and other such games.
SCORE: 6 out of 10