|Developer:||Core Design|||||Release Date:||1995|||||Systems:||Mega Drive/Genesis, Amiga (AGA), CD32|
Today on Super Adventures I'm having a look at Skeleton Krew, which is something I vaguely remember playing off an Amiga demo disk! Apparently I subconsciously set an alarm in my head to go off exactly 20 years later, because I woke up today with a sudden inexplicable urge to see what the full game's like.
This is one of the final 16-bit games released by legendary UK developer Core Design before they embraced the PlayStation and Saturn and let Tomb Raider consume them. It's definitely the last game they made for Amigas, possibly the second last for the Mega Drive and Genesis, and it seems like they got bored of making SNES games way back in 1992 so it didn't even make it near Nintendo's system.
I'll be playing the Sega version of the game because I have a feeling it came first and will give me the better experience. Plus I've only put one other Mega Drive game on the site so far this year and that's kind of shameful.
Hey the game has passwords, the awkward alternative to battery backed-up saves! The 2 player option sounds good too but I'll not be getting any use out of it. Co-op makes everything better, but first I'd have to talk someone else into picking up a controller with me and for this game that doesn't seem likely.
Mortal Kombat at least kept it limited to the start of words, but this is throwing them in everywhere. Makes me wonder if it really is a cynical attempt to sound badass to 13 year olds or if they're just taking the piss. Or both.
At least they've let me keep my 'C' button, so I won't have to etch a 'K' onto it to keep track. Hang on, C is used for 'jump' and 'rotate right'? I kan't komprehend how that kan be konsidered a komfortable kontrol skeme.
Turns out that Skeleton Krew has an art style straight out of the Dark Age of comics, with weird-ass musculature, exaggerated proportions, and feet kept firmly out of sight. The guy's fortunate he wasn't named something like Bloodshart or Shatterfist.
I realise I'm spending a lot of time here showing off characters and not the actual game, but somehow I get the feeling that the art is going to be the main appeal of this one. In fact if someone had told me that these folks were from a '2000 AD' strip I'd have likely believed them, but they're actually original video game heroes. Though they did get a few comic pages in the game's manual:
I said this was Dark Age earlier, and it really does look like it was torn from an issue of 80s '2000 AD', back when it was mostly black & white. Except I don't remember '2000 AD' being so... campy. I haven't seen the word 'dastardly' in a comic since Silver Age Batman was having custard pie fights with the Joker on top of giant pianos while dressed up a like a mummy... or whatever it they did.
Wait, they've written "Select" with a 'C'? What the fuck is this? I was all set to write several paragraphs on how fantastic these sprites look and how smooth their rotation is, maybe even point out how weird it looks that their top halves have more frames of animation than their legs, but after seeing that rogue 'C' slip through it's all I can think about.
I think I'm going to pick... Spine. I'm sure if they have different stats, but if they do he'll probably be the most average of them.
Well Monstro City really lives up to its name (even thought its name was Cryo City before Cadaver took over). I'm surprised that anyone would be willing to live in a place that looks a pile of knives and cheese graters... but then again that red lighting is moderately badass. Plus maybe the apartments there are actually really nice on the inside if you can put up with a spotlight shining in through the window every two minutes.
This intro's determined not to let us have a clear look at our heroes' ship isn't it?
As the ship approaches the building, a little ball of light shoots out the hole in its backside and travels down to the roof. You'll have to take my word for it, as this one's just a still screenshot I'm afraid.
LEVEL 1: MONSTROCITY.
The thing that's really bothering me right now though is the music. The tune on the LEVEL 1: MONSTROCITY screen before the stage came on sounded like it was building up to something, but then it got switched out and replaced by this dull moody atmospheric soundtrack! Here, listen for yourself with this handy YouTube link.
I'm not saying that it's bad music, it just feels to me like it's been attached to the wrong game. This is one of the most metal looking games on the Mega Drive, so where’s the metal? I was hoping for it to sound more like the soundtrack to The Ooze, something that'd get me fired up for blasting through a grimdark rooftop infested with genetic atrocities.
Actually this is all my fault, as I lowered the framerate to get the filesize down. The actual game is silky smooth I assure you. Also look at how I'm actually able to walk and aim at things at the same time on a controller with three buttons and a d-pad!
I just wish that destroying these forcefield computers was a little faster. Maybe I'm supposed to be switching to my bombs here. Hey is that a stack of blue MiniDiscs I'm seeing down there, or am I just desperate to put some new music on.
Oh, it's only cash, piled up on the rooftop of a cryogenic plant. Sorry, I mean 'kash'.
It's not all good news for Amiga fans though. There's no in-game music, it doesn't have an intro, it loads from floppy disk, runs at half the frame rate and inexplicably there's no passwords. Also Amiga controllers have two buttons at the best of times, usually one, so in the default control style you have to walk in the direction you want to shoot and then hold down 'fire' to lock the aim. Tapping the 'fire' button makes the character jump.
The Amiga CD32 version has a weird trip-hop soundtrack and makes use of the system's extra buttons, but it's basically the same deal otherwise and it's still missing the intro.
Also damn this thing looks pretty as it tilts and swoops around. As pretty as a nasty biomechnical gunship with an ass-laser installed in its nose can really get. Giant sprites bobbing around in the background isn't unusual in SNES games, but I wasn't expecting to see this on the Mega Drive. Maybe I've just forgotten what the system can do in the months since I last played it.
I guess this is the part where I lose all my lives and get frustrated then.
Anyway I lost a bunch of lives because I suck at games etc. but I think I've gotten this figured out now. You see, if I stand right here, I win! The gunship can't do a damn thing to me. Though to be fair I don't seem to be doing a damn thing to it either. I'm going to run over to the same tile on the opposite side of the screen and see if I can blast its other engine out.
The boss is present in the Amiga version too, though he doesn't look so great as he weaves around and random mooks joined in mid fight to distract me.
But my good mood only lasted a few steps before these creatures cornered me and blew poor Spine up again. It wasn't my fault, I thought I could drop down here to the next floor here and instead ran straight into an invisible wall!
When the legs have finally fallen they're replaced by a flashing skull token which indicates where the respawn point will be. I can actually slide this thing around and stick it somewhere safe before teleporting back in, which is a nice feature.
You can see here that enemy bullets cast huge shadows, but I'm not complaining as it's kind of necessary to show where they are in 3D space.
Speaking of level exits, this bloody door isn't opening. Oh right, nearly forgot what I was playing for a second. I'll have to stand here unloading plasma at it for a few seconds until it explodes.
LEVEL 2: ELEVATOR SHAFT.
What's less amazing is the fact that the enemies are bobbing up and down past the side of the elevator, meaning that they've got no shadows and I'm not sure where I need to be shooting to hit them.I'm just going to have to sidestep back and forth spraying bullets out and hoping I catch them.
Hang on, is that brain down there spawning new enemies in each time I kill one of them? I bet he is you know. Come here and line yourself up with my bullets you sewer haunting brainpod.
Well this is kind of... tedious. I'm stuck in a square room with nowhere to go and nothing to do but shoot the sewer monsters, shoot the thing that spits out more monsters, shoot the replacement monsters etc. Nice water effects though.
2 CREDITS LATER.
This time the goons with rocketbutts have been replaced by a blue head that creeps back and forth along the edge. Oh damn, there's also spiky mines coming at me and my bullets fly right over them! Oh right, by hitting the 'selekt weapon' button I can switch my gun to fire out grenade-like bombs to hit the shorter enemies. I keep forgetting that because bombs are terrible and I never want to use them.
But I have to go over there and see what they are.
Aside from this minor failure of judgement I managed to survive this floor as well and made it back to the lift again. But this time I was fighting the hovering legless buff dudes and the blue edge crawler guy at once and I wasn't up to the task.
Though now that I think about it, maybe I do know one person I can convince to take the player two seat. Someone who with experience playing retro games, who can take on half-baked mid-90s run and gun gameplay with enthusiasm.
A NEW CHALLENGER APPROACHES: MECHA-NEKO!
We replayed the game from the start again to give him a chance to get used to the controls and together we've made it back up to the elevator level, just past where I got Game Over'd. Now he's shooting at a giant face in the wall while I'm trapped in the corner by a spiky snake. Seriously I can't get my respawn circle free of this thing, so when I come back I'm going to instantly explode again. Not good news for poor mecha-neko as we share the same pool of credits and I'm burning them all up.
This boss fight's actually much easier on the Amiga version, as it's not in it. It just skips right past it and moves onto level 3.
LEVEL 3: SEWER DUCT, LATER.
Oh, we can just walk up to the door and it opens. Well… okay then.
To show I'm not a complete idiot, here's two things I've learned from playing co-op mode so far: the characters walk at slightly different speeds and only mecha-neko's character Joint gets illuminated by his weapon fire. I'm jealous.
Also we've found another enemy too low to be shot, so we'll have to break out the bombs again. The reason I whine about the bombs so much is that they fire so slowly that they always seem to come out the wrong direction or at the wrong time to do any good. We have to be holding the button down to aim you see, so the bombs get fired out on their own timetable. That's how it is on the Sega version anyway. On the Amiga you can fire out a million of the things a second and go wild.
I lost my last life shortly after this part and mecha-neko’s barely hanging on, so I’m thinking this is probably going to be the end of this (because neither of us are eager to replay the sewer levels again).
There wasn’t any boss at all for level 3, so he was able to walk right out with a tiny sliver of health and no trouble. Also how weird is that we’ve gone from a cryogenic plant, to a sewer lift, to the sewers, to the planet Mars. I thought we'd found Moribund Kadaver on the scanner and knew for a fact he was on Earth. So what, did he stash one of the portals from Doom in his basement or something?
LEVEL 4: MARS, LATER.
Level 4 is a huge open area in a volcanic wasteland which is a bit of a departure from the cramped linear corridors of level 3 and the tiny arenas of level 2. I'm watching mecha-neko go around looking for these blue pyramids and try to blow them up without getting hit by their bullet spray and losing his last drop of spinal fluid. There’s a gap in the circle of bullets though and it's in the same place each time, so this is actually pretty easy.
Those steam pipes down there will get you though. Mess up the timing and run through when they're about to turn back on and it’s instant death. This is likely more of a problem with two players as they can block each other's path.
Of course this GIF isn’t an accurate demonstration of how long it takes to blow these things up, as it’ll keep looping forever. But that’s pretty close.
The sad thing is that after this he went and lost his last life just before destroying the final pyramid. It's sad because it means we both have to replay the whole Mars level now because he came just a little bit short of getting the next password. I just hope he remembers where all the pyramids are.
MEANWHILE, ON THE AMIGA.
Or back in its CD case, back in the box and then back on the shelf.
LEVEL 5: VENUS.
And this thing we’re shooting really doesn’t seem to want to die. I guess we need to find the right path to get us through this maze of walkways without running into one of these patrolling bots. They’ve got two glowing orbs orbiting them and getting hit by one won’t necessarily kill you outright but it’ll definitely move the process along.
That’s why it’s essential that we coordinate our movement in here or else we'll stray too far and put the camera in a place that gives one of us no escape route (we can't walk off screen), or get too close and block each other's path.
There must be something we're overlooking here. We've both managed to miss the obvious a couple of times, so what are we missing now? Wait, you don't think that the black void to the left is an exit?
Oh shit, I can't believe that it's actually the way out! It's impossible to walk off the side of bridges in this game, except for this one occasion where necessary to reach the next area. Ignore the ankle-high girder blocking the way, they can just step over that.
It's kind of like going around and triggering the bullet-activated nodes in The Chaos Engine, except those things only take a half-second to fire up.
After blowing up all devices we were finally allowed to leave! Trouble is that it kicked us right back to the maze level again. This is like the sewer lift all over again.
Why did Moribund Kadaver put all this shit on Venus anyway? Venus sucks! It's an absurdly hot dry desertscape with an dense atmosphere of CO2 surrounded by clouds of sulphuric acid. And what's worse of all, is that he's not even here right now so we're wasting our time!
LEVEL 6: KADAVERS BASE.
This is mecha-neko on his own again here (he accidentally respawned as Spine instead of Joint), as I went and got my poor Krewmember killed off again. He’s only got one life left though, so he’ll be right behind me.
Both players use the same stock of credits, so a survivor likely won’t be stuck playing solo for long unless they're really good. Though if the other player's the one that's always burning through the credits they might prefer a bit of solitude.
SOON, AFTER USING A PASSWORD TO RESTART LEVEL 6.
Also wow, we’re fighting a boss again! It’s been a long while since this last happened. End of level 2 I think, unless I’m forgetting someone.
SOON, AFTER KICKING HIS ASS WITHOUT LOSING A LIFE.
But that’s it, we’ve actually successfully completed Skeleton Krew, and honestly I’m more surprised about it than you are. I’m only supposed to be showing games off, not kompleting them. Aww, it says ‘complete’ too; what a disappointment.
The scene goes on for longer in the game, but I cut it down a bit for time (and filesize). This is cool though, as it's the closest the game's come to having a story since the intro!
It's an impressive looking boss but we're not struggling to dodge his shots, even when he creeps off screen for a few seconds to go into full bullet hell mode.
I honestly didn't know this was coming, and I've no idea what the outcomes will be (though I get the feeling one's going to be the wrong choice). This could be a 'press B to lose' situation.
Well we might be playing as a grimdark undead mercenaries, surgically enhanced for omni-directional slaughter (and to be tall enough for rollercoasters), but we follow the Skeleton Krew Kode, and that probably mentions something about not executing helpless prisoners. So I'm going to take him in alive.
A FLASH OF LIGHT LATER.
But the game is kind enough to let me have another go! I just have to beat the last boss again. BOTH his phases. If any other game had made me replay the final boss fight again after choosing the wrong ending I’d likely pull the game cartridge out and eat it, but this guy’s a total pushover. We can take him again, no trouble.
A COUPLE OF MINUTES LATER.
Sorry, I'll shut up. The art looks fine, the game looks great. Though the artist, James Ryman, went on to become an illustrator for trading card games like Magic: The Gathering and World of Warcraft, and his more recent work makes this look like... well, something from a 90s comic book.
Skeleton Krew isn't very good. I mean on a technical level it's actually very solid. It's slick, the isometric 3D is pulled off well, the camera always glides to where you'd want it to be, and even the ridiculous control scheme seemed much less ridiculous once we'd gotten used to it.
The trouble is that it doesn't really build on the base gameplay to offer anything new. Sure the enemies started getting homing missiles and hiding under our gunfire, but we were walking around with the same guns doing the same kind of thing all the way through. There's never any feeling that the next level is going to be the one that does something interesting.
It looks and sounds great for a Genesis/Mega Drive game, but the look and sound are almost like they're from two different games. It's grim and miserable either way, but a brainless shoot 'em up which likes to swap Cs with Ks should sound a bit more enthusiastic about its gameplay than this. Chaos Engine is the best comparison that jumps to mind and that has more exciting gameplay on its pause screen just because of its pounding techno soundtrack. Chaos Engine also has more exciting gameplay when you're playing it, due to the way it's continually opening up new paths and throwing new things at you to deal with (mostly enemies). Skeleton Krew just feels empty and half-finished by comparison.
We definitely got our asses kicked a few times, but I can't say that Skeleton Krew is a challenging game, at least not on normal difficulty. It's short too, you could finish it in less than an hour if you're good, but I'm not considering that to be a bad thing in this case as it's repetitive enough as it is. That said I don't think I would've ever made it through without the passwords. I definitely couldn't beat the passwordless Amiga versions.
So yeah I didn't enjoy it all that much, but I could tolerate it all the way to the end. There's a quote they can stick on the box (just 20 years too late).