Saturday, 15 August 2015

Skeleton Krew (Genesis/Mega Drive)

Skeleton Krew title screen
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.

There you go, have picture of a beat up angry pointy old skull in some moody red lighting. It's almost (but not quite) the same art used for the Genesis version's cover, so someone had faith that his smile would shift copies.

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.

Whoa, they’re really going all-in with swapping out hard Cs for Ks huh? 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.

Ah, I thought something might come on if I left the title screen on long enough.

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.

Damn man, Spine's been doing Skeleton Krew work since he was just 19... hang on more like 18, as that's the date of 'konception' not birth. He was probably only 5ft 6 when he started too, before the neck extension and waist reduction surgery. Also I just noticed that they've removed one of his little fingers! Now he's got one hand for holding tiny gun handles and the other for throwing up the horns.

And then there’s the female member of the team who of course looks basically normal. Relatively normal I mean, for a comic book character. I doubt that’s even a surgically attached arm blaster, her hand’s just hidden behind her gun.

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:

It turns out that our three heroes are stored in protein baths between missions, reliving firefights and past agonies in their nightmares, ready to be activated whenever someone has a job for them. Can you imagine how horrible it must be to live like this? Not the protein bath bit, I mean having conversations like this every time you're conscious.

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.

This really reminds me of Golden Axe's character select screen for some reason.

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 there's our hero's ship, the Skulker. It's that tiny line in the distance that zooms straight into the, uh... Earth I guess? Though it looks more like the Sun to me, except with a blue forcefield around it. I guess the green-tinted sphere in the background must be the terraformed Moon then.

Skanning for DNA pattern you mean.

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.

You misspelled 'Kryogenik plant'.

This intro's determined not to let us have a clear look at our heroes' ship isn't it? 

Oh wait, we've been given a good angle for once!

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.


Okay that looks awesome. The turn animation is slick, there’s no mirrored frames, the bullets cast light on the floor, and my hand is already starting to hurt doing this. Holding 'B' makes him fire, then while he's unloading infinite plasma balls I can also press 'A' or 'C' to make him rotate left or right, and it's not all that comfortable to do. Still, this probably hurting him even more than it does me as I'm not sure torsos are supposed to keep twisting around like that.

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.

So these turrets are indestructible? Guess I'm not going up there then. The enemies on the other hand are very destructible, given the proper encouragement, and I like their stylish death animations. Shame about that terrible slowdown though!

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!

See, look how fast it is at the proper speed. Well, the PAL speed anyway, as I'm playing the slower European version (still 50 FPS though)

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'.

Amiga AGA
Here's a shot of the Amiga version for comparison, and it's actually all been redrawn to make use of the larger palette, with proper shadows under the characters instead of ovals! I was expecting it to be a straight port of the Sega version but now I've no idea which came first.

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.

It's nice that I can't accidentally walk off the side of this bridge, but I'm still not hanging around to kill these gentlemen. Enemies have started to teleport in now using these green energy cylinders and I'm thinking that they're not going to stop until I get myself elsewhere. I'll throw a few bullets their way as I go, but I'm mostly just running for safety.

Well I’m certainly feeling a lot safer now.

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.


I lost way too many lives, an entire credit's worth in fact... hang on, they didn't even call them kredits? Wow they got bored of that gimmick fast didn't they? Also they wiped my points!

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.

I beat the giant gross boss! Turns out that I really did have to walk over and shoot out his other engine from my tile of absolute safety.

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!

Characters don't die right away, they can still run around for a bit on fire, and once the torso explodes the legs carry on without it (therefore proving that they keep their brains in their ass).

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.

Wow, you don't often see enemies using cover like this in a 2D isometric run and gun shooter. Fortunately they only fire directly forwards, so I've got all the time in the world to stand in the open and fine tune my aim.

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.  

Awesome, I've found the level exit door! It was right where I least expected it... at the end of a linear path. Maze-like this level ain't. This gives me a good opportunity to show off one of my other skills: jumping! This comes in handy for when I want to jump up to level exits and possibly other things in the future, who knows?

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.


Some games have sewer levels, others have elevator levels, but Skeleton Krew efficiently combines the two. Seriously, I'm on a lift filled with sewage right now. That's just amazing.

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.

First stop, floor four: the sewers.

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.


I eventually killed enough enemies to complete floor four and now I'm back on the elevator again, heading to floor three.

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.

Well at least I get more room to move around on this floor full of sewer monsters. Also there's two orange orbs over here at the end of this tiny side passage, and I'm not sure what they are. I can't say I'm optimistic though as the game's been really stingy with the pick ups so far: there's been no health, no lives, no extra weapons, no weapon boosts, no weapon drones, no bonus letters, no temporary invulnerability, no invisibility, no reverse controls, no clone, and definitely no super-fast running shoes.

But I have to go over there and see what they are.

Well I can't say that I'm entirely surprised. 1 life left.

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.

Skeleton Krew game over
That's a nice blood trail effect for sure (I especially like the drips), but I'm fairly sure that it says "Game over" so I think that's it for me. I have a password for level 2, but I don't think I can stand playing through all those sewer floors again. Not on my own.

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.


Old school ex-Super Adventures writer mecha-neko has emerged out of exile to play as Joint! He's not going to be writing anything though, just shooting, so don't get your hopes up.

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.


Uh... we're shooting and shooting but this beat up twisted wreck of a door just won't explode! We can't jump on that platform to get over, bombs are doing nothing to anything, and those... passageways in the floor are only there to spit out waves of tiny spaceships at us. Neither of us has any ideas left, so I think we're genuinely stuck here.

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.

Well that's real helpful, the way they've filled the foreground with this plant crap so I don't have to look at the enemies or their bullets any more.

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).


Mecha-neko made it through to the next level and got the password all on his own! The dick.

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 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.

Hey mecha-neko, has shooting these pyramids started getting fun yet?

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.


Amiga CD32
The Amiga version does have any of the messing around with passwords, instead you can just continue on the level you died on! Trouble is you can only do it once. Screw up again and it's back to the start of the game.

Or back in its CD case, back in the box and then back on the shelf.


Damn, Venus is the most 'Alien' looking level yet. A few of the other levels were a bit biomechanical, but this place has gone full Giger.

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.


This area leads to a dead end, what the fuck? Mazes are even more of a pain in the ass when there's no way out!

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.

Behind the exit I found this area, with a floor of solidified gunk and multiple devices that must all be blown up by subjecting them to sustained gunfire (while dodging the orbiting orbs of the invulnerable patrol bots).

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.

Turns out that there's multiple exits from the green maze bit leading to multiple areas each with multiple pieces of electronics to wreck. So we're going to be here a while. On the plus side, this time we get to play with vents that shoot you up into the air.

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!


Kadaver's actually hiding on the power saw infested Psykogenesis Planet, which is fairly straightforward by comparison.

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.


You’re probably not going to believe this, but the last boss fight involves shooting parts of the level over and over and dodging homing attacks. In this case we’re blasting force field emitters so we can get a clean shot at Kadaver over there. We’ve already done one pair, but now we need to deactivate the second and third ones before the first can power back up again. Sounds like a pain in the ass, but with two guns trained on them at once it doesn't take long.

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.


Congratulations… WITH A C? What even is this?

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.

Hang on. This doesn't look like the shuttle coming to pick us up.

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!

Kadaver’s installed his battered body into a heavily armed battle frog! I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be shooting the guns or the legs, but I’m seeing little explosions wherever we hit it so I’m assuming it’s not being picky this time.

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.


Whoa, we've actually been given the option to take the horrifically mutated remains of Kadaver in alive! Assuming he was really alive to begin with (it's hard to tell in this game).

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.


I got the bad end.

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.


There you go, now we've got the proper ending too. It was worth finishing it just so I could I could get a screenshot of this artwork. This is basically the same art used for the European Mega Drive version's cover, except squeezed down to less than 30 colours and 320 pixels across.

Also Spine's missing a couple of fingers, Rib's lost a hand, Joint's torso has jumped to the other side of his leg...

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).

Mecha-neko: Skeleton Krew is a perfect combination of time and place: an action packed cooperative blast-'em-up from the mid-90's. Except of course it's a few years late and a million dollars short. In single player, it's a hopeless slog. A feeble game that rouses as much excitement as mopping a floor.

In multiplayer however, you can ignore the blandness of the enemies and the worlds and focus on the way the game provides a consistent challenge. Even when your combat buddy is dead and it's effectively single player, bearing the standard as long as you can on your last shared continue and trekking into the unknown provides a video-game cause as worthy and compelling as any other. Being rewarded with a precious password means that the Krew is victorious, and you are a Goddamned badass just like the guys on the box. Even if that dramatic last stand consists of standing like a lemon and shooting every door you come across or wandering in circles not knowing where the exit is.

I played it out of curiosity (and to save Ray's sanity) having never played the game before (I originally thought Skeleton Krew was a Spectrum title for whatever reason). We beat it. Even the Kadaver sequence was a hoot. And then the game happened to be a good sport on top of it. But now that we've played it all the way through and seen everything there is to see, there's no need to play it, or look at it, ever again.

This week's 'next game' clue is really really easy, provided you can work out what exactly you're looking at. I'll be curious to see if anyone gets it. Also if you've anything you want to say about Skeleton Krew, my writing, my website or anything in close orbit to those particular topics then throw a comment or two in the box below. It hungers for words.


  1. Two opinions, wow, this is new :o

  2. The preview picture reminds me of either FreeSpace 1 or 2.

    1. It isn't either, but now I'm kind of sad that it's not.

  3. You know it never okkurred to me that all the hard Ks and macho posturing and skulls in this game were an attempt at parody. It was 1995, komiks were full of that sort of guff, and the game does seem to be tying in with that aesthetik, but now I wonder if Kore was taking the mikkey.

    Then again, this game does seem more like a tek demo proof of koncept with some half-hearted gameplay bolted on, so probably not.

    The musik seems to be going for Vangelis' Bladerunner, which does make a sort of sense as the game does seem to be set in a sort of cyberpunk future, albeit one with skulls everywhere.

    It also reminds me of the soundtrak to Fez, which is a bit odd as the two games are a million miles apart in terms of tone.

    1. Damn, why I can't I upvote comments on this bloody site...

  4. My love to this game ends on first level on amiga, every next one is ugly as hell, maybe only final boss level could be accepted. Game got lot of well done graphics and animated stuff by Core design, but it's also feel like playing prototype ROM, it's working, in some areas it look nice, but still it's lack something - I do not know, maybe shop to spend collected money? some different power-ups here and there? More hidden rooms?


Semi-Random Game Box