I assume that a lot of you just read the title of this article and shook your head. Quite a few people have gotten their hands on this game before, whether it was through a quick weekend rental or a speedy co-op stint at a friend’s house. Heck, it even got a couple sequels. How can such a well known title be considered underappreciated?
Looking back on the consoles that have graced my living room at some point or another, I have to say that the most consistently fruitful platforming machine had to be my old Genesis. I know, I know, there are an endless amount of greats on other systems as well, but I can’t help it; early Genesis platformers have produced some of my most cherished gaming memories to this day. Beyond the Sonics, there’s Rocket Knight Adventures, Dynamite Headdy, Ristar, Alex Kidd, Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse, Cool Spot and a whole lot more.
But as I peruse several online lists of platforming favorites, I’ve come to realize a nagging little question: Why is Joe & Mac so rarely mentioned in these definitive lists? Maybe I’m wrong, but doesn’t it deserve a little more love than it’s getting?
I guess it’s worth mentioning right off the bat that, as a kid, dinosaurs kind of consumed my waking consciousness. I wanted to be Jurassic Park’s Alan Grant with every fiber of my being, down to the point where I could quote a good 75% of his lines in the movie, complete with pitch-perfect Sam Neill inflection. These days, my dreams of paleontology have faded pretty significantly, and my “NO Tim” is admittedly lacking, but dinosaurs in a video game will still snag my attention, no questions asked. I love Jurassic: The Hunted, I don’t care what anybody says.
When I originally played Joe & Mac (AKA Caveman Ninja, AKA the best title ever), I was initially drawn in almost solely because of the amount of dinosaur battles that filled its stages. In this game, you will stand toe-to-toe with a gorgeously rendered, screen-filling Tyrannosaurus Rex, a detailed Ankylosaurus, an angry Wooly Mammoth, a piranha-spewing Brachiosaurus, and a protective mama Pterodactyl. One stage even has you riding on the back of a Plesiosaur! What other game gives you that opportunity?… Well, I guess if you called Lapras a Plesiosaur, then Pokemon counts…
Nonetheless, nearly every boss battle in this game is memorable, huge, and just awesome to look at. The animations were weak at best, but their designs were just fantastic. As you get deeper and deeper in, you’ll realize that these epic showdowns between man and beast are really the meat and potatoes of Joe & Mac, and the developers seemed to have no qualms about focusing on what this game does best, both in gameplay and visuals.
This surprisingly stunning visual quality isn’t exclusive to the boss battles either. I still maintain that Joe & Mac has some of the most detailed, gorgeous environments I’ve seen in a Genesis platformer. Even now, going back to play through it for this retrospective, I’m still taken aback by the painstaking detail put into the piles of bones in dinosaur graveyard, or the variety of colors of the obligatory river riding stage, or the giant floating red blood cells seen in the background when you fight the final boss inside of a T-Rex’s stomach. Even the very first moments of Joe & Mac are visually memorable, as you navigate the massive tail, back, and head of a sleeping Tyrannosaurus Rex, knocking down waves of enemies on the way. This little bit of gameplay still sticks out in my mind as one of my favorite instances of foreshadowing in videogame history. Even though you’ve survived the sleeping beast, you know that you’ll be seeing him again.
The rest of the platforming is pretty enjoyable, but there’s a reason I come to it after I’ve mentioned the bosses. As I said before, the giant dinos that you will be fighting are the primary focus of this game, and there isn’t a whole lot of material in between. Don’t get me wrong; the platforming is there. It’s just painfully lacking in length. This is an utter shame, as the gameplay that is there is hectic, entertaining and occasionally very creative. As Joe or Mac (you can play it as a co-op game as well, if you want things to get really hectic), you traverse the prehistoric stages, collecting different weapons from pterodactyl eggs dropped carelessly by their parents. Keeping in line with the caveman theme of the game, each of these weapons are all based on the stone-age invention clichés you might expect – stone wheels, fire, arrowheads, boomerangs, bones, etc etc. You can whip these at your enemies (who are more often than not other cavemen), jump on them in the classic platformer attack, or, if you hold down the throw button, you can even charge up your throw to chuck out a massive form of your weapon, doing even more substantial damage. This is especially effective when facing the bosses, bringing their sometimes crushing difficulty to a much more manageable level.
After replaying some of the most aggravating, relentlessly difficult games of my childhood over the past several weeks, I can’t say how thankful I am to see a game that actually throws the player a couple bones here and there to help soften the challenge just enough. The platforming is still tough, and bosses even tougher, but little touches like the super charged weapon just give that extra edge to the player to keep him or her from giving up. Another example is the constant flow of health. When you play through the early portions of the stages, you will almost certainly be beaten down by the constant flow of enemies coming at you. This is mollified by the fact that almost every fallen enemy yields some form of health. You’ll find pretty quickly that the difficultly will repeatedly beat you down, but the game is not above lifting you back up and brushing off your shoulders for another try. I just wish more early platformers handled difficulty in the same way.
Like many games of this ilk, one of the most crucial aspects of Joe & Mac is its light-hearted aesthetic and ubiquitous yet subtle sense of humor. Little touches like cavemen that swing at you then run in terror, T-Rexes vomiting somersaulting cavemen, and modern foods like soda and corn on the cob as health powerups are around every corner, injecting quite a bit of character into this short little romp of a game. At times, I was even reminded of Rocket Knight Adventures and its occasional stab at a visual gag. It’s amazing how a well-placed joke here and there can really increase the replay value of a title by momentarily calming the anger of most any frustrated gamer.
Now that I’ve played through the game again, I can understand why so many people let Joe & Mac slip from their memory. It’s just too damn short. What’s there is great, but it just isn’t enough. It’s also quite possible that its lack of console exclusivity may have hurt its reputation back in the cutthroat Nintendo vs Sega days. Many Sega devotees were always on the look-out for their next boon in the battle to prove their system’s superiority in the 16-bit arena. It may be that a game that decided to play on many fields as possible (Arcade, Super NES, Mega Drive/Genesis, NES, Game Boy, Amiga, DOS… Hell, even Zeebo) was just played and forgotten, while the next Ristar was held high as the genre’s new champion. But I hope I’m wrong. Maybe there’s a group of fans out there that still hold this classic platformer on high. I just need to find them.
Whatever the case, we’ll all get the chance to experience it again soon, as Golgoth Studios will soon be releasing a well-deserved HD remake for XBLA, PSN and PC. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait. My dino-lust needs the fuel. I just hope they reinstate Caveman Ninja as a secondary title. It’s honestly the best combination of words I’ve ever heard.