Friday 17 March 2017

Mega Drive Review - General Chaos (Game 129)

There’s a huge demand for old games to be dusted off for modern consoles. However, is console based RTS ‘General Chaos’ worthy of a remake?

Developed by Game Refuge Inc
Published by Electronic Arts
Released in1994

Each new console generation presents publishers the opportunity to resell old games. It seems sometimes a fresh lick of paint is all that's needed to tempt gamers back to an old title and it happens with such regularity now that remakes are even being remade. In 2016 Capcom managed to sit atop the download charts with their PS4 reissue of 'Resident Evil'. This was of course an up-scaled version of the GameCube 'Resident Evil' which was itself a remake of the PlayStation original. It's easy to be cynical and say these polished up games are just trading off past glory but they also present chance for undeniable classics to be enjoyed by a new audience. Twenty year old ps4 gamers weren't even alive when the original 'Resident Evil' was released after all.

Sometimes however you have to wonder why certain games are treated to modern updates. A 'Putty Squad' remake was sold as a PS4 launch title, though very few picked it up with their brand new consoles. Similarly new versions of 'Super Frog' and 'Alien Breed' were released on digital platforms to a lukewarm reception. Sometimes it seems people simply don't want to tread old ground again, even if the original was critically and commercially successful.  Being remembered as "a cult classic" doesn't guarantee that people will want to lay down cash and buy a new shinier version of the same game. This was something legendary designer Brian Colin discovered the hard way.

In a career spanning over 30 years Colin had had the opportunity to work on some landmark titles. Starting out as an artist on the celebrated  arcade games 'Discs of Tron' and 'Spy Hunter', Colin  went on to become principal designer on a number of well regarded titles including  'Rampage' and 'Xenophobe'. However despite making over 80 games for Coin Op, Console, Casino, Social and Mobile manufacturers, there is evidently one game that Colin is always asked about. "I still get more fan mail for 'General Chaos' than for any other video game I've ever done" the designer admits. "'General Chaos' fans have always been extremely vocal about asking for a remake; I felt guardedly optimistic that their enthusiasm was indicative of the [...] community as a whole."

Driven by this fan appreciation Colin embarked on an ambitious Kickstarter campaign. He wanted $125,000 to create a "long-awaited sequel to the cult hit Sega Genesis game 'General Chaos'". However to create the "grand vision" Colin needed $700,000 which would see the game released on home consoles rather than just PCs.

Though pitched as a follow up, it was to be a remake of the first game. "The core game is primarily a reinvention of the fast paced original, but we’re using today’s technology to make it easier & more FUN to play". With modern hardware the team could finally implement all the design ideas that weren’t possible on the Mega Drive. "We've been dreaming about remaking 'General Chaos' for years" reiterates the Kickstarter page. "The hardware and memory limitations of the 16-bit era meant that we couldn’t really “do justice” to the original game concept back in the day. We’d love to re-introduce this unique game play mechanic to today’s players as it was meant to be played". Throughout the campaign Colin clearly believes there's an audience eager for this remake. He points to "hardcore 'General Chaos' fans begging [them] for years to do it all over again".

Tragically these hardcore fans didn't pledge enough to the campaign. Embarrassingly the Kickstarter closed with just $15,835 pledged. It raised 12% of the amount required to make the PC version and just over 2% of the $7000000 needed to create "the grand vision". Colin in defeat remained optimistic. "Although we haven't reached our Kickstarter Goal, I want to assure you that this game will get made; it just may take us a little longer." Three years later and there is still no sign of the promised remake. So to get their 'General Chaos' fix the "legions of dedicated fans" have no choice but to return to the original game that started it all.

Designer Colin seems to run out of genres when he attempts to describe 'General Chaos'. "It's an intense, squad-based multiplayer slapstick action/strategy/tactics game" he claims "one of [publisher] EA’s top original Sega Genesis titles". Clearly inspired by his past success Colin's 'General Chaos' is an arcade-style real-time strategy game where the player controls a team of five soldiers who fight on a number of single screen battlegrounds. Every battle is a "fight to the last man massacre" where the objective is simply to kill the opponent before they kill you. To win the war you simply have to win enough individual battles to reach the enemy's headquarters.

Simplicity was considered essential if the game were ever to find a market on consoles. Unlike PC gamers who typically enjoy prolonged campaigns, the home console audience expect more immediate action. The VG247 website notes “the original 'General Chaos' was largely famous for being an RTS that worked on the console at a time when the genre was even more PC-exclusive than it is today". According to Colin, the game was consciously designed to side step the parts of RTS games that typically alienate casual gamers.  "War can be boring" the designer claims. "Everyone's seen that movie where the grizzled veteran turns to the young recruit and says 'the worst part is the waiting' and yet most of RTS war games out-there force the player to wait through hours of resource building before getting to the good stuff. That's usually just the last five minutes. A battle is where the action is, a battle is where the fun is."

'Genres Chaos' is therefore designed to get to the "fun battles" as swiftly as possible. You don't have to build bases or scout enemy locations. Even the ammunition and equipment screens that you would typically associate with RTS games are absent; the only thing a player need do before entering battle is pick which combination of troops will fight. There are five kinds of soldiers and each has their own weapon and attacks. The machine Gunner for example has a weapon that covers a wide arc but has shorter range than the trooper carrying a rocket launcher. Chucker can throw grenades over barricades while Scorcher (carrying a flame-thrower) and Blaster (armed with dynamite sticks) do more damage when closer to the enemy.

Unless you choose to take in two commandos (who are controlled directly) the game plays in a similar way to 'Cannon Fodder'. A cursor is moved around the screen with the d pad and the player cycles through the squad by Pressing C. When a trooper is selected a B button press will make them move towards the pointer and the A button makes every soldier fire at the nearest enemy. If two opposing soldiers touch during battle they start a fist fight. Much like a school playground when a fight breaks out everyone turns to face the two brawling and the player adopts direct control of the solider.
It's hardly 'Street Fighter II' tough, A punches, B kicks and C blocks. The fights are essentially a button bash till one fighter's energy is reduced to zero. But death isn't always the end. Every downed soldier can be rescued if there are enough medics available. These are earned at the end of each battle depending on how well the player did.
I have many happy memories playing this game with a school friend and several birthdays were spent with a crowd of us playing the game. Although 'General Chaos' predates "J-Carts" (which allowed two control pads to be plugged directly into cartridge) 4 players could battle simultaneously using a multi-tap.
It was furious, funny, frantic and true to the game’s name, chaotic. ‘General Chaos' is clearly meant to be played with friends and some mechanics within the game are designed to aid the losing player. For example during a cost fight, a fallen combatant will sometimes pull a gun and instantly kill the victor. It seems random but many speculate it's far more likely to happen for your trooper if you're losing the battle.
Similarly both the Scorcher and Launcher's attacks will sometimes randomly cause an instant death. Other soldiers will have their guns jam and be totally vulnerable in battle. There's no warning and no way to avoid it, though again, these sorts of things seem more likely to happen if you're winning.

While these balancing mechanisms may be a great way of keeping everyone involved during multiplayer, they make 'General Chaos' incredibly frustrating when played alone. Derek Buck from Classic Games Room even suggests that their inclusion means the game shouldn't be called a RTS at all. "This thing is supposed to be a strategy game but there's nothing strategic about it. Strategy relies of predictability; if I do this then they'll do this. But it seems everyone does whatever they like in 'General Chaos'". While he admits there's a lot he likes about the game, Buck seemed to find the whole experience infuriating. "It's just so unbalanced. The game decides when you're going to win and when you're going to lose and there's nothing you can do about it. The levels jump about so much in their difficulty [...] you can win three battles in a row and then lose the next one, seriously, in about a minute".
Unless the soldiers are engaged in a fist fight no one has any idea how much energy a team has left. Sometimes the computer soldiers seem to be bullet sponges while your players die in a single hit. Given that Colin had a history of designing arcade games it isn't entirely surprising that 'General Chaos' consists of short blasts of frantic gameplay. It's not even a shock that sometimes you seem to lose through no fault of your own; after all arcade owners didn't want games to last too long as that meant less money being pumped into the machine. "The Operator" according to Colin, "wants the player off the game as soon as possible".

The game looks and sounds like an arcade game too. The music is catchy loud and bombastic drawing attention and lingering in your mind. Battles are noisy, a cacophony of explosions, grunts and death cries. The character sprites are large on screen and wonderfully animated. It's a deliberately humorous game, with soldiers instantly turning into skeletons when they die and looking directly at the player when their gun jams. "I took great pride in the amount of expression & character I was able to squeeze out of the graphic limitations of the day" claims Brian Colin. "Laughter is the key. The humour and the violence complement each other. The cartoon look reminds the player that the action, however brutal or over-the-top, is still just a slapstick parody of that can be enjoyed guilt-free." The game shares a tone with the 'Advance Wars' games and like those games it's easy to see why so many remember 'General Chaos' so fondly. It's just unfortunate for Brian Colin that these fond memories didn't lead to large pledges on Kickstarter.

But the truth is this game probably didn't need a HD spruce up. It looks great with its pixel art and music that's unmistakably coming from the Mega Drive. It would probably benefit from touch or mouse controls but "the somewhat clumsy control limitations of the Genesis D-pad" wasn't the only reason the game was limited and flawed (despite what the game’s designer has retrospectively said).  'General Chaos’ is flawed because it doesn't adapt to the number of players.  It’s limited because once you have learnt how far the troopers shoot there's very little variation in battles.

'General Chaos' is a game of good ideas that need perfecting. However, it seems that without the demand for a modern revised version we will never get to see Colin's intended game. "I really, really want to play the version of 'Chaos' that’s currently nowhere else except in my head, and I can’t do that till I make it." Perhaps it was one remake the gaming community didn't need. Luckily for the 357 backers who did get behind the Kickstarter campaign the original remains a lot of fun today, especially if you've got friends who enjoy random chance.

Where did I get this game from?
While browsing my local games shop Level Up Games I saw 'General Chaos' on the shelf. When you have so many happy memories associated with a £9 game it's hard to leave it on the shelf, especially when it's boxed complete.  Now I just need to throw a party to truly enjoy it.

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