Not every game has to be fun AND polished at the same time. Refinement is appreciated, but it’s not always needed if a game has a completely ridiculous gimmick that lends it a unique sense of identity. It’s especially noteworthy when a game stands out in the formulaic beat-em-up genre which was so prevalent in the late eighties to mid-nineties. If it wasn’t Double Dragon, Final Fight, or Streets of Rage, it would often come off as a shallow clone. You would have other standouts like Golden Axe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and yet even more games feeling derivative of these. It was a delightfully monotonous yet cathartic genre that admittedly lacked innovation, but even the ripoffs of more popular entries can be fun in their own right. That said, I bet nobody will ever mistake Taito’s Growl for any other game in existence. It’s not smooth, it’s not that varied, and it can be frustrating, but it has a scene where an elephant explodes a tank by headbutting it. If that’s not worth the price of admission, what is? So let’s learn more about this yarn involving Indiana Jones ripoffs beating the snot out of a nefarious poaching ring made primarily out of newspaper deliverymen.
Growl wastes no time getting off to an explosive start.
It starts with all these vile poachers killing off too many animals and coming to your doorstep with a rocket launcher to make sure you don’t meddle in their affairs. Our heroes, as part of the somewhat awkward sounding WAPS (World Animal Protection Society), take the fight to these scumlords on what looks like 1930’s city streets near a railyard, riding the train over to a port and taking a boat to a cave that leads to the enemy base. It’s a simple itinerary blocked by a legion of baddies called the Belser Animal Protection Organization. If the name “Belser” sounds familiar to any Taito-heads out there…I’ll get on that later. Two of the playable characters, Gen and Khan, are basically playable Indiana Joneses (and not the game’s only reference to the beloved pulp film series), while the other two, Burn and Jack, look like motorcycle gang punks wearing bright neon pink and orange respectively. They differ in how much damage they deal and take, as well as how high they can jump (a normally irrelevant stat in a beat’em up, but not in Growl). After taking cover from all the explosions at their office, the heroes take up their own rocket launchers and soon OH MY GOD BODY PARTS ARE EVERYWHERE.
I’m getting ahead of myself, but Growl moves a mile a minute with the Belser army of weirdos out for your hide with even more dedication than their hunt for the hides of endangered animals. The enemy variety isn’t particularly rich, with only four different types of poachers in various colors serving as your rocket fodder:
1: Goons ripped off from one of the earliest enemies in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
2: Crimson Bandits who bear a striking resemblance to the Thuggee warriors in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
3: Short-Skirted Businesswomen who have a penchant for throwing lots of grenades and style their hair after Dr. Elsa Schneider from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
4: Fisticuffs-Focused-Fez-Flaunters modeled after Sallah’s look in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
This is one of the goons a young Indy attempts to steal the Cross of Coronado from.
Dr. Elsa Schneider, annoyed that she has to seduce yet another Jones family member to get that damn Grail diary.
Sallah as he fails to stop Nazis from abducting Marcus Brody.
A Thuggee approaches Indiana Jones outside of the…TEMPLE OF DOOM.
It’s certainly a brazen quartet of borrowed foes, and it gets redundant to spend most of the game beating up these clone soldiers. That being said, this is somewhat compensated by the screen being FULL of bloodthirsty poachers all at once. You don’t really have any special moves aside from jump kicks to take care of them either, although you can at least punch quite fast, mixing in kicks and throws at random. The only other technique is that tapping forward twice before hitting an enemy will let your chosen character perform a pitifully short running headbutt.
An absurd number of enemies attack the
player every step of the way.
But what Growl lacks in skill and variety, it makes up for with lots of weapons, including knives, pipes, swords, whips, pistols, rifles, grenades, rocket launchers, and of course exploding barrels. In line with the game’s cinematic inspiration, the best weapon is the whip. Indiana Jones mostly used it in the films to solve puzzles and escape danger with only occasional combat use, but Growl’s whip is a large death rope with good range that instantly knocks down hordes of opponents. It first strikes behind its user before lashing forward and is the greatest means of crowd control in the game. Considering how often enemies surround our heroes (and there’s no universal “get off me” move to take advantage of like in the Final Fight series), holding onto the whip as long as possible will generally reduce the amount of quarters you plunk into the machine. Rocket launchers are also great to clear out crowds, reducing a blockade of enemies into a gruesome display of flying charred limbs and eyeless heads. It may not quite be Mortal Kombat‘s level of viscera, but it’s still noticeably morbid for an otherwise cheerfully presented game.
There are also several fun moments where our brave WAPS rangers free animals from poachers attempting to capture animals, with cathartic results. These include liberating a deer to cause a whole stampeding herd of them to plow through the resulting crowd of enemies. If they think it’s wise to whip that lion, teach them a lesson. These sudden animal invasions add to the game’s lovable insanity factor, but you want more craziness? How about the first boss, who looks like some sort of wrestler wearing a barbarian helmet and a bandoleer of dynamite which he uses to explode himself around the arena as an attack? Or the second boss encounter, which is six well-dressed heavy gangsters in fezzes who greatly resemble Sallah? Or the third boss… eh, he’s a pretty standard Jason-esque masked muscleman, though he does attempt a “please don’t kill me” bait-and-switch on you.
This elephant just TOTALLY OWNS this tank!!!
It’s around this time the game starts to feel like it’s starting to run out of fuel, until the aforementioned elephant vs. tank clash which should undoubtedly invigorate you! And it does for all of thirty seconds before you are forced through one of the most grotesquely ill-conceived segments I’ve ever seen in a beat’em up. Remember those parts in the NES Double Dragon games where you have to jump around on precarious platforms to avoid hitting a spiky death or swimming in a pit of molten magma? Someone at Taito believed that must have been the pinnacle of game design, so Growl has a horribly evil lava cavern segment full of floating platforms and spiky traps guaranteed to knock you into a flesh-melting end. There’s nothing good about this part, but I guess it deserves a few points for trying to shake things up, key word “trying.”
The last boss sure is something.
For players who manage to power through that ballyhoo, Growl’s ending is one of the strangest finales ever. After all the goons, wrestlers, Sallah wannabes, and that godawful cave segment, you finally reach the big boss of the poachers, a…tuxedo-clad masked man in a top hat with claws and hidden machine guns in his sleeves. Plus, he enters the fight by throwing a tank at you, which he periodically picks up and wields like a gun before tossing it at you again, because why not. This isn’t even the strangest part about this battle or the boss’ design. Just when you think you’ve beaten him into submission, his body suddenly explodes and a large green alien worm emerges and starts spinning around from its corpse as the entire screen goes all wavy and weird. Turns out this weirdo was really an evil extraterrestrial controlling the poachers all along. Man, you thought Metal Gear had some weirdo twists, Growl‘s last-minute reveal puts plenty of Kojima’s improbable revelations to shame (except maybe the billion endings Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots dumped on the fans). Anyway, Poachy McWormthing only has to spin around repeatedly to smack you away and it’s more or less impossible to actually hit it without getting hit yourself. If you were hoping to beat Growl without spending any credits, here comes a screw-you-ex-machina to destroy that dream. The reveal itself is bizarre and kind of hilarious, but not so fun when it actually comes to winning the game. Still, a quarter or three later, it gives up and you’ve beaten Belser.
The reveal comes with a frustrating finale, but it does solidify Growl‘s place in the canon that connects many Taito’s classic arcade games. It’s more subtle than Banglar’s appearance at the end of Aqua Jack classifying it as a prequel to Ninja Warriors (this sentence probably makes little sense to non-Taito nerds and I apologize for that), but if the name “Belser” sounds familiar elsewhere, it’s actually the alien organization you fight against in the Darius series. The fact that an actual alien named Belser is Growl‘s big boss seems to indicate that it is indeed the same Belser between Darius and Growl. Apparently, before they constructed huge warships based on marine life, they resorted to capturing as much terrestrial life as possible for whatever unknown purposes. The final fight may technically suck, but that little burst of lore at least makes it conceptually amusing.
In short, Growl is sloppy. You don’t have many attacks outside of the various weapons at your disposal, enemies become overwhelming with anything less than at least three players, the hit detection is spotty, and that cave and the space worm are cheaper than wooden nickels. And yet, as I said at the beginning of this write-up, an elephant destroys a tank with a running headbutt, and that’s more than worth the price to play. It’s one of those completely crazy games where the developers didn’t give a flying flock and just wanted to make a fast and breezy game visually inspired by a popular film series (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had been released in theaters just a year prior) with as many explosions as animal attacks as they could cram into the arcade board. If you’re looking for a quick burst of adrenaline and don’t mind the numerous flaws, enjoy Growl in all of its wonderful stupidity.
If those parts near the end sound especially heinous, you might want to consider the Genesis version, which is a pretty faithful translation. Its graphics and sound take a slight spill, but it throws out the BS cave segment and replaces it with a tough-but-fair brawl in the dark where you can only see the light around yourself. More importantly, the alien that the final boss transforms into is completely different. Instead of a worm players must face a bulky bipedal beast that spits explosive orbs and transforms into a rolling ball of destruction. It’s a tricky final challenge, but it’s less ill-conceived than the spinning worm of random chance. Folks clamoring for the arcade version can find it on Taito Legends 2, which was released on the PlayStation 2, XBOX, PC. Whatever version you play, get Growl however you can and I’m sure you won’t regret it. Taito’s beat’em ups may not have the polish of Capcom’s or the dazzling artwork of Konami’s, but they have this panache that no other company could replicate. Call it weird, call it stupid, call it TAITO.