Who Shot Johnny Rock?

I shoulda known the game was trouble when I saw the Sega CD logo stamped on the case like a lipstick kiss from a cheap hooker. I knew it was fulla hinky FMV, but what can I say? I’ma sucker for tryin’ ta find a good Sega CD game. But this one was more rotten than a clip joint. More crooked than Lombard Street. I was gonna burn a lotta powder here, was gonna squirt a lotta metal, but I knew going in there’s no way this game’s hitting on all eight.

Who Shot Johnny Rock is an FMV shooter/period piece from American Laser Games. If you’ve heard of Crime Patrol or Mad Dog McCree, then you’ve heard of these guys, and you know this is their specialty. This particular FMV shooter takes place in a film noir story and places you as a 1920’s private eye going up against the gangsters who – you’ll never guess this one, really, you never will – shot Johnny Rock.

You visit (and shoot through) a nice variety of period sets.

The trouble is finding the one that actually did it, and the evidence is locked inside Johnny Rock’s safe. (Johnny, by the way, is a Sinatra-esque Mafia-connected crooner with a posh mansion in the hills) Somehow, all of the major crime bosses in the city each have a piece of that safe’s combination. It will be up to you to shoot your way through hordes of goons to get their boss to talk, while making sure you have enough money and ammunition along the way. This is an interesting concept, and it’s really too bad that all the shooting sections are impossible to beat without “cheating.”

The game follows a typical live-action setup, so you’ll probably know the drill. You’ll enter a scene, maybe talk to a few people to set up the forthcoming action, and then the camera is firmly planted in place while goons pop up from furniture and take potshots. The difference here is that most goons come out firing instead of giving you a few seconds to find them, and their first shot never misses. Instead of actually reacting to their appearance, you’ll literally have to know where they are ahead of time and start firing before they completely arrive.

To assist you in this, you have an automatic machine gun with an absurd amount of bullets – but you have that machine gun for a reason. You’ll have to pepper an enemy’s silhouette with about three seconds of continued fire, just for that ONE bullet that counts as a hit. All the other ones are simply ignored. Even if a goon is stepping out from a doorway, exposing himself long enough to put 100 rounds into him, there’s a window of only a fraction of a second when it actually counts. If you miss that moment, the goon will instantly kill you instead. Remember now, this is the case for every fucking pinstriped, roscoe-pointing chowderhead in the game.

There’s bad guys… somewhere.

The result is that the only possible way to play the game is to enter a scene and get shot by the first guy. You return to the scene with your crosshairs pointed where you know the first guy will appear from, and let loose until he pops his head out and dies. You’ll then get shot by the second guy. You return to the scene, taking advantage of your foreknowledge of where the first and second goons are, allowing the third to reveal himself and shoot you. So on and so on. It becomes a game of Memory more than anything else, as you learn a new goon’s position each time and add it to your growing list.

I hope this is just a mistake in the port to Sega CD. Unfortunately, it seems like a limitation of having FMV. They only filmed one death sequence from one position, so the goon will have to get into that position before the game will allow him to die. Otherwise the two video clips wouldn’t match up. It still doesn’t explain why you aren’t given at least a second to shoot him in that position, instead of having his aim be viciously true. Besides, the game certainly seems to apologize enough for the inconvenience – you’ll have infinite continues, and the order of appearing goons will rarely change between lives, allowing you to memorize it. If you really want to, you can plow through the game pretty quickly and pretty easily on even the hardest level. You just won’t have much fun doing it.

The video looks like a Sega CD title in every way, and carries with it all the expected problems. Next to nothing of the detail of the original video remains. There seems to be one shade of black – pure black – so a dark suited goon hiding in the shadows is absolutely indistinguishable. In most cases, you’ll only find a bad guy by spotting movement or the lighter oval of their face. The sets are nice and don’t seem overly cheap, and the period look is pulled off well. This hinges, of course, on your ability to see the sets through the pixels. This is absolutely a game where you shoot something that moves, and hope it’s not an innocent.

You pick where to go next, including to buy more ammo.

The game also has a few strange scenes where selective coloring seems to have been used – the scene is monochrome, except for the faces, which are outlined in a jaggy, rectangular area of pink pixels. Perhaps these scenes were shot early and the game was originally going to be black and white? Perhaps this somehow cut down on the final file size of the video? I suspect it will remain one of the game’s little mysteries, especially when the rest of it is in vibrant color.

You can use either of the Genesis’ light guns (Justifier or Menacer), the Sega mouse, or the regular control pad to make your way through the game. I don’t think any of them will be at an advantage. The issue is not tracking or moving your crosshairs to a goon in time, it’s the inhumanly small amount of time you’re given to shoot them with any effect. The control pad smartly gives you buttons to hold down that speed up the movement of your crosshair by varying degrees (2x with the B button, 6x with C), so lining up your shot is never a real problem. The controller and mouse also give an advantage over the lightguns, by allowing you to accurately place your crosshair at the spot where a enemy will appear.

All the dialogue and effects were recorded cleanly. The performances are a mixed bag, and all involved seem to be hamming it up quite heavily. The narrator, who is supposed to be your character, is the worst offender with an unimpressive attempt at Bogart. The requisite Damsel in Distress does a fine job of purring sexily as she convinces you to take the case. All the mob bosses have the expected tough guy accents and mannerisms. The goons wave their cap guns and fall to the floor convincingly. However, no one actor gets any significant screen time for them to stand out, and their performances fall strictly in the range of “average.”

Bosses give an image of art as their clue. Shoot the art in JR’s mansion to get the safe combo.

It’s also made quite clear that this is all meant to be campy fun. The mob bosses are all named after diseases that sound like Italian nicknames (Measles, Mumps), the doctors and undertaker are both quick with a quip, and the dame in red calmly lights a cigarette while you machine gun a goon outside your window – so cool she’s oblivious. Two goons carrying flower boxes step into your office, almost comically signposting trouble ahead (randomly, one may actually have flowers to deliver). They seem to know the conventions of lightgun shooters and have fun with them here.

There are some neat little ideas in the game, I will admit. I like how your “lives” are tracked through money; get hit and you have to pay the doctor, don’t have any left and you die. You can get more money by going to the casino and playing a randomly assigned “lucky number,” or by completing a stage. I like the overhead map that allows some non-linear choices about where you want to go next. I even like the idea of a 1920’s gumshoe shooter.

But damn, I do not like the hit detection. It’s as if they knew something was wrong and quickly gave you infinite continues as a chance to beat the game as it was rushed out the door. Even still, it feels like a mistake. It’s a short game anyway, and just isn’t much fun when you spend those six or so hours exclusively trying to remember the order bad guys appear in. Hopefully other ports pulled this off better.


The Good

Fun idea for a live-action shooter. Has a few neat ideas.

The Bad

Curiously limited response windows paired with infinite continues make it more a test of memory than reflexes.


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