Okay, Bandai, you had your chance. I played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein and they both sucked. Time to step aside and give Data East a shot at the monster-themed sidescrolling brawler genre with their grandly titled Werewolf: The Last Warrior.
Surprisingly, “The Last Warrior” isn’t just an arbitrary tagline. According to the game’s intro, the titular werewolf really is humanity’s one remaining hope against the machinations of the evil Dr. Faryan and his horde of bio-monsters. Faryan is engaged in your typical world domination scheme and it’s up to you to wolf your way through five levels and stop him.
You begin in your beefy, yet ineffective, human form. After some hasty advice from your creepy spirit guide mentor, you’re dropped immediately into a mini-boss fight. I kinda dig this approach. It gives you an extended fight to figure out your attacks (a simple punch and a chargeable ray-shooting attack), as well as an immediate sense of accomplishment when you dispatch your foe. The confrontation also yields your first red W icon, which triggers your transformation into your lycanthropic alter ego.
As a werewolf, you’ve got a more powerful slash attack in place of your punch. You can also jump higher, climb walls, cling to ceilings, execute a graceful backflip to avoid danger, and perform a super attack that kills everything on the screen (except bosses) at the expense of a chunk of your own life bar. Lose too much life and your back to human form, jonesing for your next red W.
Enemies come in quite a variety, ranging from bats and rogue boulders to ninjas and laser-equipped hover turrets. They aren’t quite as off the wall as the rogues gallery from Bandai’s Frankenstein, but they certainly never get boring. Like Frankenstein’s baddies, though, Werewolf’s foes are fast and annoying. But the difference is that Werewolf’s more substantial life bar and better attacks leave you feeling much more up to the task.
Your sub-boss for each level tends to be a version of this recurring guy called The Giant Head, who, to be fair, does have a pretty big head. But he’s got a pretty big body too, so I’m not sure his nickname is all that appropriate. Or maybe he’s just really egotistical and I failed to pick up on it. The main bosses all have some loose Mega Man style theme, like Green Slime Man and Fireman, with attacks to match.
The game mechanic immediately reminded me of Amagon, wherein you start out as a regular guy, but can eventually bulk up to the Tarzan-like Megagon. But you need only play the first level of Werewolf to see that it’s a vast improvement on the concept. This game is much more forgiving, letting you take a fair amount of damage as the wolf before finally reverting you back to the human. And when this happens, you can bet there’s a red W coming your way before too long. Where Werewolf gets it right is in letting you actually play the majority of the game as the fun character.
And he is pretty fun. You’ll tear through the first level, one-shotting weak enemies and dispatching most others with relative ease. Fighting control is nice and tight, so you’ll have no trouble landing your slash attacks properly. Even the first sub-boss and boss are no match for you. But, just as you’re getting complacent, the developers decide to step it up a little.
Werewolf ramps up the difficulty pretty damn fast. By the beginning of the second level, you’ll be trading blows with some sort of break-dancing clown thing, while batting away a hopping gargoyle and dodging a barrage of dynamite and falling bricks. I actually had to advance through the level step by step, tentatively pressing the right directional button every second or two, so I would only trigger one or two attackers at a time. And, as is the case in these games, if you get knocked backward after defeating an enemy, you’re liable to re-trigger that same enemy as you walk right again. Oh, and you’re being timed. You get like four and a half minutes to complete a stage or you die.
Normally, caveats like that would be deal-breakers for me. I particularly hate timers. But Werewolf makes a strong effort to balance things out. For one thing, you start the game with five continues. That’s some unheard of generosity from an NES game. And by the time I reached level three, I’d found two more. That’s probably because the game gives out power-ups like they were Mardi Gras beads. Every enemy drops something and every level has some type of scenery you can slash (signs, pillars, boxes) to uncover hidden bonuses. Hearts refill your life, red balls make you temporarily invincible, bullets give you a one-shot gun attack, dollar signs add to your point total, 1ups award continues, and, most importantly, hourglasses pad your timer by fifty seconds.
There are also little bubbles that add to your werewolf’s anger meter. Fill up the meter and you transform further into the super werewolf, which significantly increases your attack damage, among other bonuses. It’s only temporary, but it’s a nice feature, especially when your last bubble shows up right before you enter a boss battle.
There’s also one “fuck you” item in the game, the blue W. Picking it up as the wolf causes you to lose enough health to return to human form. Blundering into it as the human means instant death. If you see two item boxes next to each other, you can bet that one will be something awesome, and one will be the blue W. The thing is, Werewolf’s got a lot of cramped spaces. So if you slash the box with the blue W, you may not have enough room to maneuver around it without picking it up. Of course, as I said above, if you do end up a human, it’s pretty certain that the next enemy will drop a red W for you. But this does make you think twice about how to position your character before checking for items.
So, does the game achieve the necessary balance in difficulty? It’s kind of a mixed bag. It definitely pulls some dick moves on you, like occasionally making the most obvious path lead to certain death, or pitting you against a boss that sideswipes you before you even know you’re in a fight. But, after a few tries, you’ll get the rhythm of a level down, have a sense for where the good power-ups are, and be able to complete it fairly easily. If you’re playing honest, you’ll probably be running dangerously low on lives by then. But, c’mon, I know you’re on an emulator. You can retry as many times as you want. And since the core gameplay is pretty fun, you might as well do so. Personally, I’d had enough after I reached the water-themed fourth level and was informed that water is the werewolf’s greatest enemy. But I didn’t quit out of frustration, I’d just had my fill and was ready to put it down.
The game controls fairly well, with fighting and jumping feeling especially refined. I also really like that you can move at full speed while crouching. This comes in very handy for certain enemies. However, there are some control-related eccentricities. Jumping against a wall will cause the Werewolf to cling to it. Great if you’re about to fall down a pit. Not so great if you’re trying to slash a pillar full of power-ups and end up sticking to it instead. This is particularly annoying when you get stuck in the space between two pillars and just keep alternating between which one you’re clinging too until you’re finally able to jump free. Climbing up walls results in similar mishaps, but luckily the game gives you a bit of control over you direction while jumping or falling. So if you come to the top of a ledge, you can jump away and then quickly back, in order to hop onto the top.
Backflips are also something of a chore. To execute one, you have to press A and B together. If you want to flip through a long series of obstacles, like a wall of lasers, you’ve got to hold the buttons down. Too often, though, at the end of a flip, the game sees your holding down A and thinks you’re trying to trigger your super attack. Unless you let go fast, you end up wasting the attack and losing some life in the process. And the game will let you use the attack even if the amount of life it costs will revert you to human form or even kill you.
The character sprites are nicely done and well animated, though the backgrounds tend to be a bit spartan and repetitive. I enjoy the Doom-like face icon in the lower right of your screen that reminds you which stage of transformation you’re currently using. Sound is unremarkable but inoffensive. Music differs subtly depending on whether you’re human or wolf, which is a nice touch. My only audio-related complaint was the piercing intruder alarm that persisted through one entire area.
If you’re into hardcore brawlers, Werewolf is definitely worth a play through. It’s got its flaws, but it delivers on the basics, while throwing in enough of its own personality to stand out from the pack. If you’re a more casual brawler fan, like I am, you probably won’t see it through to the end, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth picking up for an hour or two of throat-clawing fun.
You’re a badass werewolf!
Being a badass werewolf? Sometimes challenging.