1987’s The Running Man was one of a few cautionary tales from the back half of the 80s preaching against the trend toward gross materialism, dwindling morality, and rampant commercialism (Stephen King’s original novel is better, but there’s still heady stuff in between Schwarzenegger’s grimaces and one-liners). In it, a repressive government regime maintains control over a shattered global economy through the use of violent reality shows (headed up brilliantly by the late Richard Dawson). The theory is that as long as the population is distracted with small, cheap comforts (like tasty “Cadre Cola”) and gladiator spectacles, then they won’t be engaged in riots or watching too closely as their neighbors are rounded up.
If Smash T.V. wasn’t directly inspired by the film, it at least was sitting across the desk at the library and reading the same subject matter. You play as a contestant on a Running Man-esque game show, risking life and cleaving limbs for nothing more than cash and prizes. While you could argue whether the excessive violence here is intended satire, or just typical “kill-em-all” videogame conventions (Static and I did, briefly, before giving up), the idea of slaughtering waves of faceless attackers for a brand new VCR or a year’s supply of meat should fit obviously into the previous paragraph.
Parody or no, the central idea is that you will kill – literally – tens of thousands of guys in your quest for the high score. There are three levels to beat, four bosses to maim, and a semi-secret Pleasure Dome to collect keys for, but your ultimate goal will be your initials at the top of the leaderboard. Gifts, schwag, and gold bars appearing throughout the levels simply add to your final score.
Meanwhile, the enemies that offered token resistance in the first few rooms quickly build up into manic swarms of club-wielding crowds, suicide bombers that fling shrapnel when they detonate, high-tech robot drones, and lightning-fast snakes. You also stay locked in rooms for minutes at a time, while clusters of enemies keep swarming. I would love to know an exact tally of how many enemies get slaughtered in a complete play from start to finish – it could conceivably be closer to a hundred thousand – but I can safely say that you will never kill more digital creatures in one game than you do here. Again, is the excess strictly for parody, or really just an excuse for traditional gameplay action? Probably both. I leave that to you.
Being an arcade title, gameplay is very straightforward. Each of the three levels are made up of multiple rooms with simple square layouts. Every room is identical, with doors on the north, south, east, and west. These doors randomly open to disgorge wave after wave of enemies, with powerups and prizes frequently appearing around the room. Occasional gun emplacements, land mines, or even a TV control booth blocking part of the room all serve to give each room a little different challenge from the last. After clearing enough waves, the doors open and allow you to pick your next path. A map shown only at the first area briefly shows you the way to prize rooms, and remembering the way to these bonus rooms is really the only value in letting you pick your exit. Repeat through room after room until you defeat an enormous boss and watch your score for that level tally up.
The major feature that set Smash T.V. apart in the arcade is its use of dual joysticks – like its predecessor Robotron 2084, one controls the movement of your character, the other fires independent of that movement in eight possible directions. This system is entirely what allows you to survive being surrounded. Complicated dodge moves – like something out of a vertical shooter – dovetail nicely with sliding the right stick around to lay down fields of fire and clear a path. Circle-strafing is also a valid tactic, and the ordinal directions further allow you to hole up and work the corners. A variety of temporary weapon powerups make this task easier, including spread shots, rockets, and a cannon that shoots clusters of grenades out like a fire hose.
Clearly, the dual joysticks are crucial to the game. And if you rack your brain, you’ll recall that none of the major consoles had a dual joystick controller until late into the Playstation era. Every console port of Smash T.V. suffered for this very reason. The NES required you to hold two controllers and fire with the second controller’s D-Pad (awkward!) The Genesis used a scheme similar to Predator 2, where one button free-fires and another locks your fire in your current direction, freeing up the D-pad to strafe. The Master System only allowed you to shoot in front of you and behind you, and nearly broke the gameplay. Only one console made it out unscathed.
The SNES just happened to have its four face buttons arrayed like a second D-pad, and that’s exactly how it’s used here. Each button fires in its corresponding direction, and two buttons held at once cover the diagonals. Just like the arcade, you instantly get a feel for how to play, and the controls remain as quick and accurate as they need to be. While the other versions are playable, the SNES’s control scheme is the only one that makes playing as effortless as it was in the arcade. This version almost wins by default for that fact alone.
It also helps that the SNES, again, is the only console to use the arcade’s sprites. Just like T2: The Arcade Game, every other version – including the home computers – had to redraw their own assets. Reduced detail, color, and a disassociation with the arcade’s style are the unfortunate result. Meanwhile, the SNES port looks exactly like a port should. It’s lower res and somewhat smaller, but instantly recognizable. It looks just like a scaled-down version of the arcade, and not a completely different game altogether. Sound isn’t bad either, with a true enough representation of the arcade’s themes. The effects can sound a little muffled or muddy, but also true to their source.
The tradeoff, of course, is traditional Nintendo censorship. All blood is removed. Boss mutants still have individual limbs shot off and rib cages exposed, but without a drop of the red from the wounds. Stepping on a mine or detonating a bomber no longer throws bloody chunks and limbs at the screen. The censorship does extend to shooting standard enemies, but isn’t such a loss here. They now disappear in suggestive explosions of fire, but you’d have to be looking specifically to notice that the explosions are no longer blood. Really, it’s not a tremendous loss. The host also no longer sneaks peeks at his hostess’ tits, but the lower detail now makes them look a little flat-faced and manish anyway.
The biggest problem goes back to the game’s arcade heritage. It’s a quarter muncher, and pretty much impossible to design any kind of strategy for. Though you can kill any standard foe in one hit, there are so many swarming at you that you will inevitably get overwhelmed, by design. You have no life bar – one hit does you in as well – and special weapons have astonishingly limited ammo supplies. If you try to stick to the walls, you will eventually run afoul of a door admitting a new group of baddies. Later enemy types block your path and are very hard to dodge. And while shooting in eight directions helps, you can’t cover all the angles you need to without moving – so sequestering yourself in a corner won’t save you. Don’t forget about those mines further restricting your movement to limited safe paths.
While that’s just the way the arcade was, it diminishes the value of a home version. As you progress deeper in the game – deeper than you could if you were shelling out real quarters – you start to see just how unfair the design actually is.
Virtual credits add some artificial challenge by limiting how many continues you have available based on the difficulty you chose. But again, this isn’t really a game that’s meant to be beaten. If you’re up to the challenge though, the home version does have a unique “expert mode” not in the arcades. There are question mark pickups in every secret room, and if you collect them all and beat the game, you get the option to play again on an even harder difficulty! I don’t even need to comment on how pointless I think that is, but maybe you and an expert friend could tear that shit up in two-player. To quote the game itself – “Good luck! You’ll need it!”
This one’s pretty open-and-shut. If you enjoyed Smash T.V. in the arcades, then this was the king of the 90s home ports. It’s the best choice if you have no way to play the original. If you simply like the sound of the idea, then it’s probably not worth tracking down. Every room is essentially the same, every level is essentially the same, every moment – while sometimes chaotic and fun – is essentially the same. Fun while it lasts, but gets old too quick for a serious investment of time or money.
Excellent 16-bit port. Easily the best graphics and best control of anything other than the arcade original.
One trick pony. Taken out of the arcade and played ad nauseum, that trick gets pretty tiring.