Side-scrolling beat-’em-ups were hardly rare on the NES. Double Dragon, River City Ransom, Bad Dudes, Bad Street Brawler, Battletoads, the list goes on. Shooting gallery games had also made a few appearances, in the form of Hogan’s Alley and Duck Hunt and such. Games where you drove a car and blasted your way through the streets weren’t unheard-of, either, if Spy Hunter and Roadblasters were any indication. But, to combine those genres into one game would take the hands of an expert company like Konami, and in June of ’89, they gave us their mashup, The Adventures of Bayou Billy.
It starts promisingly enough, with Billy’s girlfriend Annabelle being kidnapped by a fat bastard named Gordon and brought to his estate in New Orleans, presented in a surprisingly decent cutscene that features some early digitized voice, and sure enough, that means Billy’s going to have to blaze a trail of whoop-ass across the state of Louisiana. Before he does, though, you’d be well-advised to stop by the practice mode, both to familiarize yourself with the controls and to unlock some helpful items for the main game, which you WILL need, for reasons we’ll discuss a bit later.
You begin in the swamp, in the beat-’em-up mode, fighting Gordon’s various minions. A kicks, B punches, and both buttons together do a flying kick that also serves as your jump. Some enemies carry weapons, mostly throwing knives and sticks, but some can pick up boulders to huck at you, and later, you’ll encounter enemies with pistols and whips you can scoop up. You’ll even have run-ins with the Louisiana wildlife, as gators will pop up out of the swamp and hawks will buzz you out of nowhere. The upside, though, is the gators basically serve as item farms that carry weapons and health-refilling turkey legs, so if you can figure out the trick to safely beating the gators, they turn out to be pleasant surprises.
After that, you’re dropped into an on-rails shooter stage, with the option of using the Zapper or the standard controller (decided by whether you selected Game A or B at the main menu). Baddies pop out from the trees and run around taking potshots at you, but here, it’s not just your life bar you need to worry about; you have limited ammo, and if it runs out, you die, but for whatever reason, hits don’t subtract from your ammo count, so it pays to be accurate instead of resorting to spray’n’pray tactics.
The third aspect of Bayou Billy is the driving stages, where you hop in your jeep and try to get from Point A to Point B before the timer runs out, and complicating matters are the legions of enemy jeeps (that can be blasted with B) and bomb-dropping planes (which you’ll huck grenades at with A). Not only that, but rocks will pop up in your path and posts line the roads, and any and all contact with anything means instant death, and the width and curviness of the roads make an already dicey proposition even less fun.
All this brings me to the point I wanted to make earlier when mentioning the practice mode, and the rewards for beating the different practice stages. If you beat the beat-’em-up stage, you’ll get a meatball that will refill your life automatically if it runs dry. For beating the shooter stage, you get extra ammo. If you beat the driving level, you’ll earn an extra life. Now, again, I’d advise you to run through these stages and get the rewards, because you will need them…Bayou Billy is fucking hard, and hard even by ’80s NES game standards.
Aside from your apparently explosives-laden jeep that will blow up at the slightest touch, Billy himself is not really built to kick ass. His attacks have the same reach as the enemies, and while your attacks do stun enemies, they stun them just long enough for your attack animation to finish, meaning that EVERY FIGHT basically devolves into either a war of attrition as you whack each other in the shins like a Sisyphean version of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots, or a long, drawn-out debacle as you try to stick and move past every baddie you come across.
Even worse, it doesn’t conform to other fighter conventions, either. You’ll frequently be set upon by groups of two or three enemies, and unlike some games where the enemies generally square off with you one-on-one, or you have some kind of back attack to keep them off your back, here, enemies will gladly run up from behind you and sucker punch you in the back of the head while you’re already engaged in your epic battle of shin kicks with the guy in front of you. Even having a weapon doesn’t slant things in your favor that much, as the knife can only be thrown before you have to go fetch it, and the stick barely adds a few inches of reach and no discernible damage upgrade, not to mention that one or two shots will force you to drop it, or that some enemies wear bulletproof vests that make them immune to most weapons…of course, you wouldn’t know that until your bullets bounce off or your stick breaks. Only the whip is a consistently useful item, and by the time you see it, you’ll wonder why it wasn’t in the first half of the game.
The shooting stages are somewhat better, enemy sprites as well as health and ammo pickups are fairly large, so picking them off with the Zapper shouldn’t pose much problem, and even if you’re stuck using the regular controller, your crosshairs are good sized and move quickly enough to respond to any threats. Only a few enemies have regular guns, others have bazookas or huck dynamite at you, and both the rockets and the dynamite can be picked off before they reach you, and every now and then, you’ll see stars you can shoot to clear the screen like a smart bomb. The downside, of course, comes when you encounter boss characters like the helicopter at the end of level 2. You can’t stop it from firing, nor is there any specific weak point, so you basically have to flood it with bullets, and if you’re using the Zapper, your trigger finger will be quite beat by the end.
It’s kind of a shame the game is such a rough experience, because if Bayou Billy was just a smidge less brutal, it’d actually be quite good. Gordon pops up in little cutscenes after each level to taunt you, and if the idea of a video game villain is to create a character you want to punch in the mouth, they rather succeeded; Gordon’s douchebag laugh serves as quite an effective piece of motivation. It’s not a very long game, but the time it takes to beat it is padded out somewhat by how much you’re going to die in the process. Billy looks rather like a cross between Billy Jack and Crocodile Dundee, but his sprite looks alright and not overly cartoony, and there’s enough different looking enemies to make it not feel too repetitive.
Sounds are alright, there’s different background music for each type of level, and weapons sound fine; the knife flicks through the air, the whip sounds sufficiently crackly, and the gun sounds like the small pop gun it’s drawn up to look like. The big downside to the graphics, though, is the flicker. Parts of Billy and the enemies will frequently flicker and disappear entirely, and not just when there’s a large group of enemies on-screen, but even when it’s a one-on-one fight. Granted, a lot of NES games had this problem to some extent, but when a game’s already as hard as Bayou Billy is, it doesn’t make things any better when you can’t tell if your kicks are landing because Billy’s leg just disappeared.
Overall, The Adventures of Bayou Billy seems like an ambitious little project. The combination of driving, shooting, and fistfighting make it seem a bit closer to the action movie vibe that beat-’em-ups were going for, and they’re implemented about as well as you could hope for, given the time and the hardware. However, as I said, it’s tough as nails embedded in cement, especially the last boss fight (SPOILER ALERT: The last boss isn’t Gordon, but it is one of the most bullshitacular swerves I’ve seen in a game), and the flickering issues didn’t help matters either, leaving us with a pretty cool concept marred in execution, putting it squarely in the average pile.
Fairly decent job of blending three different genres, and it’s hard to hate a game that uses the Zapper properly.
Ironclad tough, the graphical glitches REALLY get in the way, and the horsepucky final boss fight needs to be noted.