Super Comboman Review
You super-comboed my patience, man
Games have come up with some pretty poor excuses over the years for why legions of ineffective goons are willing to throw themselves in front of the protagonist's fists – or minigun, or fire-breathing spiked steamroller, as it were – despite a clear lack of a pension waiting for them at the end of it all. Alright, so maybe there's the occasional believable case of insanely passionate loyalty to an extremist cause, but by and large it seems like a lot of enemies don't have much of a reason to not just turn on their heels and run for the hills, or even just not fight you in the first place. Say what you like about Halo, but at least those little squealing alien grunts knew when things were going watermelon-shaped and high-tailed it accordingly. Super Comboman, though, goes one step further than those poor excuses, and genuinely has enemies in it with no motivation against you whatsoever. More than that, they're your colleagues.
It's perplexing, really. You start off as the wonderfully-named Struggles, a comic-book nerd with a massively overdue mortgage and a similarly pressing waistline issue. My inner cynic wants to point out that this is hardly an appropriate character to carry a carefree action game – in part, because his troubles might hit uncomfortably close to home for a large slice of his target audience – but it's admittedly difficult to not like him: he's naive, earnest, and innocent as a newborn puppy. Anyway, Struggles joins a construction company to pay off his debts – one that's curiously lax about qualifications and paperwork and other such trivial nonsense – and then, without any transition whatsoever, is beating the snot out of his fellow workers in order to get from point A to point B. Why? And what reason, besides pre-emptive revenge, do they have for fighting him? Later on it's revealed that the construction company has a sinister agenda of its own, but it doesn't explain all the fighting that occurred prior to this revelation. Even in dialogues between Struggles and the occasional boss characters, this gets carefully glossed over.
Whatever, it's not as if side-scrolling brawlers were ever remembered for their nuanced storytelling. 'Here are some bad guys between you and your MacGuffin, go ahead and punch them' was about their level of narrative complexity. Super Comboman continues this tradition, thankfully, and largely concentrates its efforts on leaving thousands of individuals with crippling hospital bills in as stylish a manner as possible. The idea this time around is that the combat mechanics are ripped straight from various fighting games, and if I'm perfectly honest I can't think of a better match. So, from the likes of Super Smash Bros (shut up, it is a fighting game) it takes the omnidirectional block and a focus on launching your enemies around like unwanted food at a child’s birthday party, but many of the special moves have decidedly Street-Fighter-esque input requirements of the quarter-circle half-circle variety, a similarity that grows uncomfortably close when you unlock the not-Shoryuken and the not-Hadouken, but never mind that for now. Under the right circumstances, it's a system that works fairly well. There's something almost universally gratifying about knocking an enemy into the air, juggling him for a moment, jumping up to meet him and punching him with such force that he flies through a plate-glass window, carrying three of his mates with him. No complex plot, no engaging characters, no deep mechanics, just some rudimentary physics and the ability to smack people around.
That's what would happen if everything worked. Now let's examine why it doesn't.
Things started off on an unsteady footing when the game demonstrated itself incapable of letting me change the key-bindings. Alright, technically it would let me assign new keys, but in a staggering demonstration of the interconnectedness of all things – or merely the programmer's predilection for unsafe memory management – doing so would actually break the game. Seriously. Loading levels would deposit the camera in the boundless void, or inflict Struggles with some kind of debilitating paralysis. Perhaps he, like the tutorial and move lists, was simply unprepared for the possibility of somebody actually using something as breathtakingly heathen as a keyboard to play the game. Clearly this is a game for the hardcore crowd, and people like me are going to be gobbed on at the gates. Here's the thing though: fans of hardcore action games tend to prefer tight, responsive controls. I can't imagine that floaty jumping controls, limited frames of animation and a wall-jump that feels like you're pulling your own fingernails out are welcome features. Just a thought.
Do you know how else I know that Super Comboman is a game for the hardcore crowd? Because it's about as forgiving as an iron maiden full of used hypodermic needles. You have an aggressively small health bar and enemy attacks – even the ones coming from the titchy combo-fodder goons – can chew away at it in an eye-blink. It's incredibly easy to get stunned and equally difficult to disrupt an enemy's wind-up animation. Miss an attack, fluff a special move or – I shudder at the thought – mis-time a parry, and the game will promptly give a burly construction worker the green light to give you a set of work-related injuries that not even the OSHA could have accounted for. Now, technically speaking there's nothing really wrong with this, but the thing about making a game this punishing is that it puts the difficulty balance on a knife-edge. A single cheap attack or a single awkwardly-placed enemy can turn an otherwise manageable fight into a total stun-lock nightmare. Every aspect of the design needs to be tight, immaculate, tested to perfection.
Oh, what do you know, seems that isn't the case. Super Comboman's difficulty curve is like the silhouette of a city after a completely sloshed Godzilla stumbled through, full of jagged outlines, gaping holes, and long flattened stretches broken up by overturned lorries. Some levels I could breeze through with nary a backward glance only to get completely crushed by a single encounter. There's no sense of subtlety or elegance to the level design; it's just haphazard, constructed with the attitude of 'anything goes'. Checkpoints spaced like a gutter urchin's teeth, liberally placed one-hit-kill hazards, platforming on janky physics objects, occasional examples of staggeringly poor enemy placement; it's a mess. Even better, the game goes one step further in its pursuit of retro side-scrolling action by including that most archaic feature: the lives system. So, if you fail to pass a level three times in a row, you can look forward to being arbitrarily robbed of your checkpoints too. Oh joy of joys, I can just feel the challenge. I mean, being forced to repeatedly play large sections of a level just so I can get another three tries at this one rotten fight near the end of it? Ingenious!