Vice: Project Doom (American Sammy, 1991)
This may or may not surprise you, but I have a pretty short attention span. With a scant few exceptions, I tend to get bored quickly. This applies to video games as well. I don't tend to play most of them for long, and despite their entertainment value, they don't really suck em in most of the time. As I said, there are exceptions... and Vice: Project Doom is definitely one of them.
Left: The US box art. "Chris Isaak knows two things: the spice must flow, and he's pissed that you tore his shirt." Right: Some promotional art, wherein Hart gives us his version of the Rick Deckard look.
The first thing that grabbed me was the intro, which I have lovingly curated on YouTube for you:
Once I pressed Start and got to playing, I found that the intro was simply the first of many immersive cut scenes in the game. Not unlike Ninja Gaiden, V:PD offers a lavish story that is conveyed through a set of nearly movie-like cinematic sequences between the action bits. It's still only 8-bit, to be objective... but what's accomplished with that level of graphic detail is incredibly impressive.
While the story and cut scenes really steal the show for this one, don't let me tell you that the game itself isn't a spectacle in its own right. You play as a character named Hart, who we can draw from context clues to assume is some kind of cop or agent in a dark future reality. You start out by bringing down a maniac on the freeway, and end up investigating the disappearance of a fellow agent/cop. As you go on, you discover the incident has ties to a corporation called BEDA and a substance called “Gel...” and to avoid spoiling anything, the story gets more intriguing as you go. Just one semi-spoiler: when I finished the game (by the skin of my ass), the intro made a lot more sense and seemed less non-sequitur.
Plane trips and pervy shadow dudes... all in a day's work for Hart.
You lead Hart through the city, travel to an area of Central America, and end up doubling back after you learn a few things out there. The game borrows a page from the Konami turd-fest The Adventures of Bayou Billy and improves on it tenfold: Hart not only must make his way through platform-style levels, but must also handle a couple of first-person-perspective shootouts and top-down driving scenarios. In fact, the very first thing you do in the game is a hectic top-down chase that ends in a showdown. Your futuristic car even shoots little Galaga bullets!
The platform levels start out fairly easy and quickly ramp up the difficulty; the best way to describe them would be “a collection of situations wherein you are battered constantly to death unless you couple lighting reaction time with paranoid vigilance.” It's sometimes really fucking annoying, but overall, I found V:PD to be genuinely enjoyable despite its difficulty. I think it was because I felt involved and connected to what was going on plot-wise by the awesome cinematics. It's also cool that you get a selection of tools with which to deal out death; not only does this cop have a sword for some reason, but he also has a gun and grenades. The grenades are almost as effective as you'd assume, causing wanton destruction but being slow to throw in succession. The gun has a terribly truncated range, but is often the best way to clear a path in front of yourself. The sword? Well, the sword actually rules pretty hard. It's got the most rapid rate of fire for any of your weapons, and it's no less lethal. I honestly had an easier time dispatching some of the bosses with it than grenades or the gun.
And let me tell you: the bosses and enemies in this game are one big round bright red son-of-a-bitch. Birds show up to play their time-honored console game role as assholes who help knock you into pits, and red ninjas co-star in that role; there are times when the game seems like one big exercise in mocking you for trying to gain an inch of ground without plummeting to your demise. Mutants galore fill out the ground force, as expected for a game like V:PD. There are also more-or-less human seeming soldiers (or maybe they're just guys with guns, who knows) and even some mixed-in bullshit like dudes with jack-o-lantern heads and pissed-off house cats. One whole stage seems to be a Chinatown-like affair, complete with extremely dangerous caricatures of that culture. The bosses include a massive robot that uncreatively spams the screen with missiles, a goo man, a tree man, and your classic “end boss with multiple forms” setup. It is worth mentioning that this game absolutely LOVES making you fall into pits by placing small fucking armies of birds/assholes with projectile weapons/static hazards on either side. You also leap backward when hit and are unable to react for a second, which it takes full advantage of. V:PD is a cruel mistress, but her kiss is all too sweet.
The shooting levels are governed by the game pad, but the controls are nice and tight so you're not flailing all around the screen while people shoot you to death like in Bayou Billy. The car scenes are also pretty well-handled, even allowing you to shift gears while driving. (did I mention that your future car shoots adorable little spaceship bullets?)
Left to right: the guy who looked so cool I almost didn't shoot him (but then I did); mutant rats in the Mountain Dew sewer; the red ninja makes sure I don't get too far across the huge chasms inside the mansion.
The music is... well, I can't say it's stellar, but it's good where it's good, if you know what I mean. Some level music is awfully damned repetitive, but a lot of the music for cut scenes is suitably intense and dramatic. The graphics are on par with something Sunsoft or Konami would put out in the same class, and in fact they remind me a little of Sunsoft's Batman NES game: muted but almost candy-like colors with a lot of drab tech-aesthetic shapes.
I'm gonna go with my reflex and throw 9/10 at Vice: Project Doom. It's another classic from late in the NES's library history, a real artistic effort with a great story and plenty to keep players interested. It's occasionally a bit insane in terms of raw difficulty, but I didn't find it as stupidly hard as Ghosts & Goblins or Battletoads. I was eventually able to beat the sumbitch and get the sense of accomplishment we all love from that triumph.