I’ve said it many times that for every quick nostalgia fix this retro-gaming thing can offer, its real long-term joy is to be found in discovery, and with tens of thousands of games across dozens or maybe even hundreds of systems over the best part of half a century, there’s no quick fix for that! And that sense of discovery is like panning for gold – the search, the expectation, to a lesser extent the disappointment, but, above all else, the absolute exhilaration when you strike lucky with something that you quickly realise might be a new all-time favourite! Now, obviously that sense of exhilaration is a rare beast, but for me nothing beats the joyfully troubling process of trying to squeeze something new into my long-established big list of favourite games (which generally floats around two hundred at any given time) and deciding where it sits and why.

As I write, last night I got to the end of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Nintendo Switch Mega Drive Classics compilation. Despite its predecessor coming with my brother’s Sega Mega Drive, I’ve never been much of a fan, but a few weeks previously the Sega Mega Drive Mini 2 arrived and I’d got a bit hooked on Sonic CD. In parallel, a very long-term favourite podcast, Cane and Rinse, released its deep-dive into Sonic 2, timed with the recent thirtieth anniversary since its legendary Sonic Twosday release on Tuesday the 24th November 1992 (and yes, if you’re reading this close to publication I have got about three months’ worth of these things stacked up)! Despite being deep into Sonic CD at this point, that episode got me really fired up to try the second game immediately, and this time I was properly hooked! I played it for days solidly… So fast, so ambitious, so vibrant, so as soon as I eventually saw the credits I just started again! I have since finished Sonic CD (as well as various versions of the original and the Game Boy Advance games) and I did really enjoy it, but this was another level, and so it’s sitting in my big list of favourites waiting list, stewing away to give me time to properly think about its impact and how much it’s worthy!

There have been a couple of other games that already made it from the maybe pile and stomped all over my big list over the last six months or so… Wonder Boy has been hanging around the lower end of my top hundred one way or another forever, but I fell away from the series and it’s mind-boggling offshoots when it went all RPG, or so I thought! I’m not going to open that can of worms again here, but over the course of the summer of 2022 I was asked to review the new Wonder Boy Collection on Nintendo Switch, and while I did give everything a good old bash, Monster World IV, originally a Japan-only Mega Drive release in 1994, really shone. Its incredible diversity of environments and characters really got the best out of the late-in-life console, teeming with life and detail and the most gorgeous colours; the RPG systems were refined and simplified, movement and combat felt great, level designs were complex but focussed, and the whole game was just a great time!

The other one I want to mention is Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which arrived as part of the Capcom Fighting Collection in June but – as I’d done several times since 1996 – I totally ignored it because it’s impossible for my wonky eyes to distinguish between the yellow and green falling tiles that I’m supposed to be matching! Then in September this otherwise wonderful compilation, which I have on Switch, got an update – bug fixes, online patches, some extra training features and all that usual stuff, but also six all-new colourblindness options for this game, and suddenly my eyes were literally opened! It’s way more than just an ancient tile-matching puzzler in a Street Fighter (and Darkstalkers!) skin, mainly thanks to its Crash Gem mechanic, where you’re building up matching colour combos then unleashing one of these things to inflict some serious violence (in a cute, chibi fashion) on your opponent in the middle of the screen, with the traditional fighting action going on there reflecting the gem-matching and counter-chaos on either side. It might be a bit late in the day for it to bother Tetris as my favourite puzzler ever, just outside the top twenty-five, but the more I play, the more Dr Mario a bit further down should be looking over his shoulder!

Unlike Sonic and Puzzle Fighter and Monster World, I’d never even heard of Growl when it suddenly started coming at me from all directions in February and March and then again in August 2022! Well, apart from inadvertently owning a copy on PS2 but we’ll come back to that! Anyway, the end of February brought with it Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide to Side-Scrolling Beat ‘Em Ups from Bitmap Books. This thing is a beast! The quality through its 450+ pages is second to none, with lavish illustrations and more beat ‘em ups than you ever knew existed, going deep into familiar stuff like Renegade, Golden Axe, Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as well as delving into more obscure brawlers like Denjin Makai, Shadow Force and Gaia Crusaders. And, of course, Growl! Just make sure you’re sitting comfortably though when you start reading this thing though because, as much as you won’t want to put it down, it weighs a ton!

From there, we travel forward a couple of weeks and then all the way back in time to the winter of 1990-1991, where we’ll find The Video Wizards Podcast in residence, and this episode is outrageous! It’s seven and a half hours long, which took me almost as long to get through as the three months it’s covering, and as always covers the lives of the two presenters at the time, the wider world (and local Dutch) news, what’s going on in hip-hop and metal and the cinema (Silence of the Lambs, no less), as well as most of its exuberant time spent on the big-hitters in the arcades and at home. These guys (who you’ll also regularly find on the aforementioned Cane and Rinse podcast) really know their stuff, and they really know how to play it too, and, apart from their beef with my beloved Atari (and Hard Drivin’ in particular!), are just really nice blokes, and if you don’t listen already then do yourself a favour! Anyway, this was an intriguing time in the arcades because little did they know that they were about to be turned upside down with the release of Street Fighter II in March the following year, but over the course of several hours discussion on this, including about my old other favourite Thunder Force AC, my ears perked up when I heard them bring that Growl thing I’d noticed in a screenshot in Straight Up properly to life – now it was sounding really interesting too! And I think they also pointed me in the direction of the 2006 compilation Taito Legends 2 on PlayStation 2, which I owned but, despite its predecessor generally still being the disc left in the drawer the last time I used my PS2, to this day I’ve only ever dabbled with its almost forty arcade classics!

Dabble I then did with Growl though, and it immediately started to dabble with me – I’ve always loved a beat ‘em up, whether we’re counting Kung-Fu Master as the first (like Straight Up does) or something more traditionally associated with starting the side-scrolling genre like Renegade, but the chaos and general insanity here really gave it an edge (as opposed to its unique central theme which we’ll get to shortly)! Unfortunately, my curiosity to know more about what I was now thoroughly enjoying then led me back to my new book and to disappointment… “Taito also included a censored version of Growl on its outstanding Taito Legends 2 compilation pack on PlayStation 2 and Xbox, with all the exploding bodies removed.” Unbelievable! Those body parts that fly everywhere after a hand grenade lands are the best bit! That said, trying typing in “SEX” as your initials on any version! Okay, speaking of other versions, there’s always MAME, but there was one more trick up my legitimate sleeve on the way even though it took me a while to realise… I’d had the Taito Egret II Mini on pre-order since it had first been available to pre-order several months earlier, and as the time for it to arrive got closer, I was looking into previews and games list updates and the like, and noticed this newly familiar-looking game called Runark…

As we found out already from our friends at the Video Wizards Podcast, Growl – or Runark as it was known in Japan – was unleashed into the arcades by Taito in 1990, although I don’t think it went far outside of Japan until early 1991. It ran on their 16-bit F2 hardware, taking full advantage of its serious chops when it comes to sprite handing, and came in a kit that could be installed in any existing two-player or four-player cabinets, but would also allow for two two-player cabinets to be linked together for the full four-player experience! It’s a beat ‘em up, and the set-up is that in the heart of the jungle there’s an evil gang of poachers after all kinds of endangered species and it’s up to you – the world’s most dangerous park ranger – to take them down and save the animals. Think Steven Seagal in the role as an ex-Navy Seal if they ever make the movie! Anyway, you’ve got seven levels with various stages packed with enemies, taking in jungles, cities, caves and eventually the enemy’s hideout where you’ll face-off with a “beast of a boss – one on one!” Actually, while I’m nicking stuff from the arcade flyer… “Grab hold of your whip and get cracking! Only you can save the animals from their terrible fate. It is your job to bring justice back to the jungle. GROWL is sure to bring out the animal in you!”

The first thing that strikes you about Growl is its blockbuster presentation! And that’s shortly followed by its blockbuster gameplay, which is unashamedly more style over substance, but when there’s this much fun to be had, and within seconds, that doesn’t matter a jot! It also doesn’t hurt that the Taito Egret II Mini has got a fantastic, weighty eight-way arcade stick bolted onto it – this feels great that way, far more so than on a PS2 controller or the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller I’ve been using to grab screenshots from MAME… One-handed photos of the Mini screen from a phone camera while the game’s in motion, with reflections everywhere, are not a pretty sight! Anyway, before we get there, we should mention the character selection right at the beginning. You’ve got a choice of four characters, although it looks more like two sets of rough and ready twins in either a cowboy hats or bandanas, and whoever you choose will have different attack strengths, jump capabilities and life bar, as well as a nice bit of headwear! A really quick couple of static cutscenes then set the scene, the first explaining how (in Japanese on the Mini but English on PS2), in the early part of the 20th century, our group of evil poachers (complete with some very futuristic M-16 machine guns!) is recklessly hunting animals to the point of extinction, beneath an in-game graphical jungle vista where someone’s shooting an elephant, then the second is in a bar, with Ranger Corps taking the call about needing to defeat them, when in comes a guy with a knife and a busty blonde lady with a very short skirt, high heels and a hand grenade, and the subsequent explosion is where we begin…

As hinted at just now, it’s not the most sophisticated of brawlers to play, so as well as your directions you’ve got buttons for attack and jump, while holding both together with perform a strong attack. This can be a bit hit and miss, with some seemingly context sensitive selection between a somersault windmill kit, a handy space-clearing spinning kick, a headbutt and a ludicrous grab by the arm and swing over your head to bash an enemy into the ground either side of you repeatedly – doesn’t stop it being very cool though! That single regular attack button works similarly, with all the various punches, kicks and shoulder barges – as well as a few combos – available to you. A + Down will allow you to switch weapons, which is handy because the floor is often littered with them, even as soon as the massive screen-filling explosion that kicks off the game, which reveals a pile of rocket launchers for instant mass destruction! Slightly less destructive, but far more frequent, you’ll also come across guns, knives, swords, clubs, grenades, machine guns and whips. The downside, of course, is that someone needs to drop them first, and as I said before, the floor is often littered with them…

Growl is all about the carnage, and as much of it all at once as the poor old arcade hardware will allow! As soon as you’re out what’s left of the burning bar you begin in, you’ll be swamped by turbaned thugs like something out of Indiana Jones, then other generic goons that range from something out of a Prohibition-era gangster movie to denim-clad Samurai and more of those ladies in very revealing power-suits! And at any given time the screen is going to be full of these loonies, and every single one is hell-bent on your destruction! It’s all so completely bonkers too – one of my favourite bits is when this tank rolls up, and once an elephant also arrives to literally stop it in its tracks, out jumps the stereotype Arab tank commander, then a couple more in different coloured clothes, then a bunch more goons, then all three skin and clothes colour combinations of the “Dolls” as they’re called in the Mega Drive instruction manuals, with their jump animations perfectly reflecting the very impractical predicament they find themselves in while fighting park rangers in the world’s shortest skirts; to their credit, though, they are left in a more flattering, albeit more provocative pose when they eventually go down!

Some madcap level bosses who can fling around cars, strap themselves up with dynamite or just charge around like a muscle-vest Jason Vorhees from Friday the 13th break things up a bit, as does a very Splatterhouse (and pretty horrible) platforming section, but there’s nothing more bonkers than the Voodoo priest final boss behind the whole evil poacher operation, and I know it’s a spoiler but I’ve got to say it, his head is not only hiding a rocket launcher, but it turns out he’s actually a giant caterpillar too! As well as the elephant that likes to run riot all over tanks and anything else that happens to be on the screen, you’ll also be able to enlist the help of a couple of the other animals you can rescue from their captors along the way, like eagles that drop rocket launchers and slap nearby enemies, lions that like to slash up faces, or herds of deer that trample everything in sight, and it was the first time I came across the latter that I knew this was one of the all-time great beat ‘em ups… There’s this scene in front of a train that you think you’re just about done with when a load of every type of enemy comes from every angle, then suddenly, right when things are looking hopeless, this herd of deer appears from out of nowhere and takes out the lot

The whole thing is just so much mindless fun, not that it’s easy though – there are DIP-switch settings that tone down the difficulty, but even though you can see then end in about twenty minutes, you’ll be doing very well to get there in the handful of continues that equal the handful of coins I might have had in my pocket in the arcade, which I use as a measure of success for these things! I think the problem is the whole thing is really designed for four players, and anything less will get exponentially overwhelming at some point. The final boss is too cruel of a beast too… Assuming you get through the lava cave platforming bit! Bit of patience for both is my advice… However far you get though, and whether you’re mashing buttons or deliberately and rhythmically double-tapping, you can’t help but adore the insanity of the non-stop explosions, the violence, the out-of-place sexiness and the marauding wildlife in the bulk of the game! There are things to not adore though… As well as lacking in the sophistication of something like a Final Fight to play, there are times the gameplay is a bit rough around the edges too. For example, if an enemy has been floored too close to the edge of the screen, you won’t be able to finish them off with the brutal series of knees to the face attack because you can’t walk close enough to the edge; frustratingly, you’ll have to give them the chance to get up (meaning the chance to attack you) then have another go instead. And that’s even worse when a weapon – for example the rocket launcher that’s helpfully dropped halfway through the final boss – gets knocked out of your hands and you can see if but can’t walk to it! The enemies aren’t the sharpest of tools either, with the Dolls especially prone to pulling a hand-grenade out of their cleavage then throwing it at something it will bounce right back off like an exploding boomerang!However far you get though, and whether you’re mashing buttons or deliberately double-tapping, you can’t help but adore the insanity of the non-stop explosions, the violence, the out-of-place sexiness and the marauding wildlife in the bulk of the game! There are things to not adore though… As well as lacking in the sophistication of something like a Final Fight to play, there are times the gameplay is a bit rough around the edges too. For example, if an enemy has been floored too close to the edge of the screen, you won’t be able to finish them off with the brutal series of knees to the face attack because you can’t walk close enough to the edge; frustratingly, you’ll have to give them the chance to get up (meaning the chance to attack you) instead. The enemies are the sharpest of tools either, with the Dolls especially prone to pulling a hand-grenade out of their cleavage then throwing it at something it will bounce right back off, like an exploding boomerang!

The environments are detailed to the point of being illustrated-realistic, but sometimes at the cost of coming across as a bit drab – a couple of the stages are like a Commodore 64 nightmare, with shades of browns on browns and greens on greens doing a great job of creating texture but maybe the tanks and the trucks and other incidentals could be a bit bolder on top. That said, there are a lot of explosions and there’s nothing like drab to really make them pop! They’re spectacular too, with balls of flame erupting all over the place before the whole screen starts to burn as old-school Batman-style captions start appearing… Fight! Action! Thrill! Excite! There’s plenty of colour in those too, just like the character costumes, which will typically give you a few colour variants per design, as is the case with skin tones too as I alluded to earlier. There’s a lot of bright red tunics, blue denim, open waistcoats and some very hot colours on very hot little dresses, and again, those muted tones in the background really make them pop. The detail in each character is incredible too – yes, it gets repeated, but you can see muscles flexing and fabrics flowing, and they’re all so well lit. As long as you’re not playing on poor old family-friendly PS2 there’s some wonderful destruction too! Unfortunately the animation can be hit and miss, where some moves, such as high kicks or whip-cracks, look fantastic, but the simple act of walking could do with a couple more frames. Your eyes soon adjust though, and there are more than enough flourishes to make up for it – a couple of highlights for me here are when you automatically hit the deck with your hands over your head after you’ve thrown a grenade, and a wooden crate smashing to smithereens on a sexy woman’s head never gets old!

Before things get too weird, let’s talk sound, and the sound in Growl really does some talking! It’s so bad it’s good throughout, from the worst of Duke Nukem-bad opening “drop dead you scum” to the guy who sounds like Tattoo from Fantasy Island in the tank saying “this is the end for you!” Sound effects are crunchy in the main, with a painful-sounding whip and some surprisingly thoughtful environmental effects, such as jungle birdsong or when you’re on the boat with the caged elephant, although I’d like a bit more boom in those explosions as they’re such a feature. While it’s not massively memorable, the relentlessly shifting soundtrack does a great job of conveying adventure in a fantasy-synth Saturday morning cartoon kind of way, with some genius changes in tempo to add drama in key set-pieces. Reminded me of PC-Engine-era Castlevania in a way, although less sinister in tone, and like that stuff, I’d happily listen to it standalone.

Until I started writing this paragraph, I’d never played the sole home conversion of Growl or Runark, if we’re not talking emulated arcade versions on Taito compilations, and that’s the one on the Sega Mega Drive or Genesis from 1991. Fantastic little beast it is too, and apart from only being single player, it plays just like the original, although special attacks now drain your health, which can now also be replenished from regular pickups rather than between stages. Which I don’t think I mentioned before! Anyway, there are concessions to the lesser home hardware, most noticeably in the number of enemies attacking you at any given time, as well as their even more noticeable lack of variety, but it runs well enough at a slightly slower pace and is a bit easier as a result. The environments are understandably simpler but they’re actually more colourful, and there’s still plenty of detail in the characters and its own take on how to do an impressive explosion too! Decent soundtrack too, and while it’s never going to compete with Streets of Rage 2 for the majority’s attention on here, it’s definitely a top effort and a lot of fun!

And that’s a good place to return to the arcade game before we part ways for now too. A lot of fun! And if I remember rightly, that’s exactly what I said when Konami’s not wholly dissimilar 1994 arcade game Alien vs. Predator was last bothering the likes of Kung-Fu Master (if that still counts as a beat ‘em up!) in my big list of favourite games! Which inevitably leads us to the question, which of these “modern” takes on the genre do I prefer – that or Growl? And it’s a really tough one! I’ve got to go AvP for every reason that isn’t gameplay – the subject matter alone should always win out, and those wild colours, those wild Predator moves… But all the same, I think I’m having more fun with Growl, even without four players. Or even two! And those explosions!!! Okay, before I change my mind again it’s time for Growl to return to its place next to Sonic 2 in the waiting list and stew a bit more, but I promise to report back the next time we talk beat ‘em ups to let you know where it eventually landed! Until then, if you haven’t played Growl or Runark yet you need to, and then there’s no need to hang around because you can make your own mind up!