We all have those special games that aren’t necessarily great but that we cherish for one reason or another. The memories forged with that game through the years stands the test of time. For me, The Combatribes is that game. The North American SNES port turned 25 years old this month. I have so many nostalgic memories of The Combatribes. I rented it 7 times spanning a period of 6 years at 5 different rental stores. Just last weekend, I beat the game for the first time in 20 years when a friend and I took to the means streets of the Big Apple. It’s still as fun today as I remember it being 25 years ago. In many ways, The Combatribes is a relic from a bygone era. A reminder of when things were simpler. They just don’t make games like this anymore. It’ll always have a special place in my gaming heart.
FLASHBACK TO DECEMBER 1992
It’s been well documented on here that Power Moves was the first import I ever rented. One Saturday in late 1992, I happened to discover a brand new rental store. GAME HUNTER. It was the stuff legends were made of. Nothing but video games. Plastered from wall to wall. Best of all, they had a section devoted entirely to imports. Back in late ’92, this was absolutely mind-blowing.
The following week, January 1993, my dad took me back to Game Hunter. This time my brother accompanied me along, something he rarely did back in those days. But I had hyped up Game Hunter so much that he wanted to see it first hand. It was on that fateful day that we came across The Combatribes. The back of the box sold me with its big colorful sprites and Double Dragon-esque atmosphere. We played it to death that weekend and loved it!
The North American version of The Combatribes landed three months later. I remember seeing it at a mom and pop store named Video Mart. Man, I loved Video Mart. It was the epitome of mom and pop shops. It was stationed in a small lot next to Target. Right across the street you could see the much bigger Hollywood Video. In fact, that picture above is my actual childhood Hollywood Video store. That means right next to that Target sign is Video Mart (sadly not pictured). Anyway, I rented The Combatribes for a second time and my brother and I still loved it.
As the years went on, I rented Combatribes five more times. Back in those days, my brother shipped me out each weekend to rent his game of choice. Half of those Combatribes rentals were on account of my brother’s request. I had a freebie the other half and somehow I always came back to it. It was my comfort food. My mac and cheese, my burger, my pizza. The Combatribes was my special little game. It never failed to put a smile on my face. After all, it’s impossible to swing a thug by his heels, taking out his delinquent buddies in the process, and NOT grin.
Honestly, I don’t know why we never bought the game, seeing as how we rented it so much. But I do remember the last time I rented The Combatribes. It was the summer of 1997. I was feeling nostalgic on this particular Saturday night as an insatiable urge to visit my old stomping grounds overtook me and refused to let go. I guess my dad was in a similar mood because that night he and I made the trek back to our old home town. For what turned out to be the last time, we entered the hallowed halls of Video Mart. The store owner has known me since I was six when I first came trampling through Video Mart in 1989. That was the infamous night where Uncle Jimmy allowed me to rent John Carpenter’s Halloween, but that’s another story for another day.
The store owner dropped everything he was doing when he saw me walking through his door once more. He looked like he just saw a ghost. And for all intents and purposes, to him perhaps I was. My family moved in early 1996 and it’d been a year and a half since I last visited. He asked me where I’d been. It was like catching up with a long lost uncle you hadn’t seen in ages. Ah, the Video Mart man. And suddenly, all was right again in my innocent young world.
He used to hold a lot of video tapes for me back in the early-mid ’90s. Many nights he’d make a house call. Whether it was for the latest WWF extravaganza or a horror movie, I could count on him to supply me with what I needed. For some reason, I vividly remember a house call he made in 1994. “Hi Steve, Leprechaun 2 just came back in. It’s here on hold waiting for you.” It’s so strange that I remember that phone call conversation to this day, nearly 25 years later.
As I stood there that night, I could hear his accent ringing in my head again. Of course, he was speaking to me in the flesh then and there, y’see.
“Wow! Where have you been?”
Before I could answer, DING DING. I glanced over my shoulder and saw my dad stepping in the small dimly lit store. The two of them greeted as though they were long lost friends. We caught up for a while before I made my way to the corner where all the wrestling and horror tapes sat. Right beside that was a small wooden shelf adorned by about two dozen SNES boxes. It was July 1997 and he was still only renting out SNES games. No PlayStation, no Nintendo 64 or even Saturn. God Bless Video Mart. A flood of memories swept over me like a star streaking through the night sky as I gazed at the 24 or so SNES boxes. My eyes caught sight of The Combatribes. Oh my gosh… this was the same copy I rented over four years ago back in 1993. Sentimental value overtook me as I figured I would give it one last hurrah.
My brother couldn’t believe I came home that night with The Combatribes in tow. After all, it was ’97 and we had pretty much made the jump over to the PlayStation and N64. But for that one magical weekend, we turned back the clock. We beat the game three times before my dad and I headed back the very next night to return it. The Video Mart man greeted me with a huge grin and wished me the best of luck in high school. He also told me to please come back and visit. I said I would…
But sadly I never did.
High school happened. Life happened.
When I finally stopped by again in the late ’90s, Video Mart was gone. It was a sad day for me, and it made me wish that I’d visited earlier and kept my word. It’s a sad ending but I’ll never forget all the memories Video Mart gave me. Wherever that family may be today, I hope that life is treating them well.
NO COMBATRIBES DIATRIBE HERE
This marks my third and final review for The Combatribes. I submitted my first review of it to some random gaming site back in 1999. I wrote my second review for The Combatribes on March 30, 2007. Today — March 30, 2018 — marks 11 years since I wrote that review. This is as much a review as it is a loving look back on my nostalgic memories of the game.
My buddy Jeffrey Wittenhagen recently published a massive Super Nintendo book summarizing all 700+ North American SNES games. Several retro gamers contributed to the project; I was honored and lucky to be one of them. I wrote about nine game, including EarthBound and The Combatribes.
BEST ADVERTISING EVER
Oh definitely not! Look at poor Bullova there looking like f*cking Teen Wolf! They even switched his colors with Blitz’s. Speaking of Blitz, he looks like a Native American zombie! His in-game model does not look like that at all. The arcade version didn’t have such a hot ad but the SNES version definitely did.
Now if that isn’t the best SNES ad ever, I don’t know what is! 25 years later and I still remember it word for word. That closing remark is downright Schwarzeneggerian – “CYBORGS AIN’T LADIES!!” That’s just f*cking gold.
I liked the two in-game shots they chose, too. The blurbs were vintage early ’90s. I remember wanting to “blast the blazin’ Slash Skaters under the strobe lights of the Lexington Disco.” There was even a 1-on-1 VS. mode that tried to capitalize on the whole Street Fighter II rage. The mode wasn’t really good but hey, home bonuses!
THE STORY GOES…
I love how New York City is deemed “the center of all evil in the United States.” Good one, Technos…
I’m not sure why they changed the spelling of his name from Berserker in the arcade to Berzerker (maybe they were trying to go for that “cool” early ’90s ‘tude thing), but as you might guess, Berk is the all-around fighter of the group. He’s got decent power and speed. His swing has two revolutions.
Ah, Bullova. He was my guy from DAY ONE. The powerhouse of the group, Bullova can sustain the most damage of the trio. Slower than a snail but stronger than an ox, his swing sees a whopping four revolutions.
Not surprisingly, Blitz (as in Blitzkrieg) is the fastest of the group, but also the weakest. He incurs the most damage of the three but he’s quick enough to evade the carnage in some cases. Because he’s the weakest, his swing only gets one revolution. Poor guy.
And there’s the arcade shot. Not sure why they changed the height and weight, but the arcade version is super questionable. Berserker is 7 foot tall but only 176 pounds? Who is he — Manute Bol?!
THE MOVES OF DOOM
What resonated with me so much 25 years ago was all the killer moves you could do to inflict pain and punishment on the bad guys. My favorite one was the giant swing. Grab a thug by his heels and spin him round, knocking out anyone caught in his path of whirling destruction. It was brilliant and made me think, “Why hasn’t a beat ‘em up done this before?!”
SAVING THE BIG APPLE
Bullova, meet the Motorcycle Nuclear Warheads. Warheads, meet Bullova’s fist.
Bullova, ever the well-rounded Samaritan and not one to discriminate, shows off his lethal kicks as well.
Warheads are led by a fat slob that goes by the name of Fats. How appropriate! Before the big battle, he tells you he’ll give you a taste of his “lumber.” Hmm, just another typical night in the Big Apple, eh? Shouldn’t have wore that lipstick, Bullova…
Swinging a bad guy makes you invincible for the duration of your swing. It comes in real handy! I love Fats’ lumber — wait whoa! That didn’t come out right. But look at the amazing amount of detail on that sucker. I guess that’s what 12 MEGS of hot arcade action will get ‘cha back in good old 1993. Keep whacking his lumber [Er… -Ed.] and eventually Fats will lose his meal ticket.
Whatever you do, don’t try to throw Fats. He’s too big and will shove you hard to the canvas. Great attention to detail by Technos!
Speaking of attention to detail, look at the pain etched on Fats’ face as Bullova sends his fat ass flying to the ground. The SNES version added in some basic cutscenes between levels where the defeated boss offers some tips to our victorious heroes.
Making your way to Coney Island, you’re greeted by the Demon Clowns. The clowns are agile and somersault to safety if you attempt to throw them. Some even come drifting down from the sky on balloons. Gotta love that! But yeah, if you see Pennywise and the Joker, you’re not alone.
Technos with some major balls. First the Joker and now Karnov! Salamander is a big bad dude who carries a torch. He breathes fire and would be a hell of a smash hit at your local summer barbecue.
Remember Karnov from the arcade and later the NES? Damn, Technos…
Salamander will lose his torch after enough damage is inflicted. Watch out for his tricky leg kick when he’s down on the ground.
Bullova defeats Karnov, I mean, Salamander, and the dude squeals. I hope you like disco, because that’s where we’re headed!
LEXINGTON KING, HERE WE COME! Greet the Slash Skate Screamers with a meaty fist to the face. Swing them round and round over the flashing disco lights. Make it a night they’ll never forget… or remember…
“GIMME, GIMME, GIMMIE A MAN AFTER MIDNIGHT! Won’t somebody help me chase the shadows away?“ I can almost hear ABBA’s classic 1979 disco song blaring in my head as I dish out justice and show these bozos what a real Saturday night in New York looks like!
Appropriately named Trash, this guy is a handful. He always takes me a continue or two to beat.
Swinging the skaters offers you temporary protection. After a long and grueling war, Trash clues you in to the next turf. Who’s up for a little baseball?
Nothing completes a quality beat ‘em up quite like a bad guy with a Mohawk. But don’t get caught up admiring it for long, unless you like being stabbed!
Throwing a bad guy into his buddies never fails to satisfy. The same can be said for a well placed uppercut that sends a bald mofo sailing in the air.
Windwalker carries a vicious Tomahawk, and he isn’t afraid to use it.
Bullova fights valiantly, but Windwalker’s Tomahawk proves to be too much.
Bodyslamming bald bastards may be a riot but it can leave you wide open for a vicious shoulder tackle. Luckily, Bullova gets the last laugh. Is there anything better in a beat ‘em up than clearing a stage with barely any health remaining?!
Windwalker is oddly admirable. Before the fight he promises to reveal everything you need to know should you be successful in defeating him, which he claims no one has done before. After losing to our heroes, Windwalker honors his word. See? There’s a decent soul underneath all that war paint and savagery.
Ground Zero Headquarters is at 1991 GZ Avenue, eh? How creative. Speaking of creative (or not), The Combatribes does what many beat ‘em ups from that era did… a boss rush on the final stage! Normally, I’m not a fan of the boss rush, but it’s actually not too bad here thanks to the fact that your health bar is refilled after each boss.
Shouldn’t you have learned your lesson last time, Fats? [I could ask you the same, Bullova… -Ed.]. Touche!
Elevator scenes are a classic staple in beat ‘em ups, but for me The Combatribes by far did it best! Double noggin knocker FTW!
There’s just too much subtle black humor in this game. I love it!
Karnov, I mean, Salamander… is back for more. He’s not so hot without his torch. Sorry…
Beware Trash’s gimpy leg attack. But if you position yourself correctly, you can safely squash the punk bastard!
Windwalker, I thought we were good, yo?! Nevermind, I take back what I said about you earlier being honorable and decent. DIIIIIIE!!!!! Hey, one of us has to, and it ain’t gonna be me! I got better things to do tonight than die.
Finally we make it to the top floor. You’re greeted by gun-toting enforcers. Lucky you! Fortunately, their long bodies are great for swinging and taking out their buddies.
Unfortunately, they’ll snipe yo ass if you let them.
Swinging protects you from even bullets. Whew! No time to admire the gorgeous night view — Bullova is too busy serving knuckle sandwiches!
Before you can exit to the rooftop, M. Bison, I mean, M. Blaster comes after you like the friggin’ T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Enforcers prove to be real pesky. If they’re not busy nailing you with the butt of their rifles, they be sniping yo ass!
Bullova is so strong that simply running into bad guys will knock them over! No punch required, although it certainly adds to the fun. But just when you think you got things in order, M. Blaster reveals a f*cking gun from his chest. Who does he think he is — MechaGodzilla?!
There’s no loyalty left in this world. Martha Splatterhead, we comin’ for you!
Martha is a bitch. It takes me at least two continues to beat her, if not three or four. On an interesting side note, the name Martha Splatterhead was taken from an ’80s punk band, The Accüsed, who had a zombie mascot by the same moniker. Technos with the shout out!
Splatterhead is lightning quick. She’s got that M. Bison psycho power shit going for her. You feel quite lucky when you do manage to get your licks in.
Technos back in those days had an affinity for making the final blow happen in slow mo. It makes delivering that last attack so damn satisfying.
Martha reveals she can’t control herself and that you were the only one who could put an end to her terrible reign. It’s actually quite sad. I even felt a little sympathetic for her. She was a cyborg programmed for evil. She couldn’t help herself, even if she wanted to. I always felt this made her stand out from the typical “I want to rule the world!” type of final boss we would see in similar games from that era.
There’s a strange mix of melancholy and triumph in the closing shots. Martha Splatterhead was once a part of The Combatribes unit, but went rogue. Still, there will always be that inexplicable bond shared between the four of them. Thus, the boys set out to give Martha a proper burial. It’s interesting to note that in the arcade, Martha Splatterhead has no backstory and she shows up at the end as the true big bad with no explanation. I like how the SNES home port humanized her. Well, as much as one can humanize a cyborg, anyhow!
STREET FIGHTER II — NOT REALLY
Remember the home port of Double Dragon on the NES? It contained a special home bonus: a 1-on-1 fighting game mode. It was very basic though but hey, it’s hard to complain about anything that is a bonus.
Technos does it again! At the end of each stage, a password is given. This password isn’t to skip stages, though. It’s used rather to unlock the bad guys in the 1-on-1 mode. Select from one of three stages. The first two stages contains hazards similar to the Death Matches from World Heroes. The third stage takes place in a single plane field.
Insert the code of 9207 and it gives you access to all 16 fighters! Now before you get too excited — no SNES fighting game gave you 16 characters until 1994’s Super Street Fighter II — it is pretty limited in terms of moves and overall fluid control. Still, it’s a notable home bonus and certainly a novelty that’s worth checking out at least once if not a few times. It’s definitely better than the Double Dragon one.
Curious to see who would win between Fats and Salamander? Wonder no more! This mode answers all your burning questions. I love the animation of Fats “running.”
There’s a subtle sense of black humor to this game, as seen here. Fats may appear to be safe but in actuality he’s quite screwed.
Hilarious! My brother and I used to just dick around on this mode back in the day. Like I said, it’s mostly a novelty but it can kill 10 minutes or so.
Fascinated to try one of the low-tier bums? You can! It’s interesting to note that their health starts out lower than the bosses and protagonists, and rightfully so. These fighters are pretty much useless but it quells the morbid curiosity.
Bullova channeling his inner HADOKEN! This special move is exclusive to this mode. Nice to see Technos put some effort into it.
Surrounding hazard will harm you if touched. This probably looks ho-hum now but back in early 1993 it was rather memorable and impressive.
Martha Splatterhead or M. Blaster? You can finally settle that score once and for all…
ARCADE VS. SNES COMPARISON
It’s interesting to note, concerning the differences in stage two, that a picture was used for the SNES port in the February 1993 issue of EGM that depicted said scaffold. Whether this was a beta shot of the actual SNES port or not, we’ll never know.
- On controller 2, hold X, A, and L and reset the game. Release the buttons when the title screen appears. 10 Credits
- On controller 2, hold L , R and Select and reset the game. Release the buttons when the title screen appears. 30 Credits
- On controller 2, hold X + Y on it, and reset the game. Release the buttons when the title screen appears. 5 Round Match in VS. Mode
- Hold L, R, and Up on controller 2 then reset the game. Double your life
- On controller 2, hold A + B on it, and reset the game. Release the buttons when the title screen appears. One Round Match in VS. Mode
- On controller 2, hold A+B+L+R and reset the game. Release the buttons when the title screen appears. Super Difficulty Level
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
The critics were not too kind to The Combatribes. GameFan gave it ratings of 48, 56, 69 and 69%. Super Play rated it 57%. But among retro gamers on the internet it seems to have a decent fan following. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I enjoyed it a lot 25 years ago and I still do to this day.
As you can tell from this extensive rundown of my history with The Combatribes, it has a special place in my gaming heart. While it isn’t the smoothest playing beat ‘em up on the SNES (that honor goes to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles In Time), it’s an absolute blast playing this with a like-minded friend. In my experience, more fun than most other 2-player SNES beat ‘em ups. In fact, it’s a completely different experience (and animal) when playing with a buddy in tow. Double the swinging and double the smashing makes a bonafide difference. There are some beat ‘em ups that I can have fun playing alone but The Combatribes was designed for two players in mind. Yes, it’s a little clunky and rough around the edges, but there’s so much brutality and subtle black humor that I can’t help but love it. Jumping on a goon’s back before smashing his face in the canvas, or swinging him by his heels to takes out any compadres within arm’s length… this is the epitome of what it feels like to be a brooding badass! The visuals were very good for its time. Colors are bright and bold, and I swear it isn’t TOO far off from the 1990 arcade original. Even today, there’s a certain charm to the graphics. Animation is a bit suspect occasionally but the character sprites and backgrounds are all high in quality. The music can be catchy and the sound effects are rather convincing. Every crunch and smack sounds satisfying.
But as I mentioned, the gameplay has its share of blemishes. For all that it does uniquely (the giant swing being perhaps most notable), there’s a lot of genre staples sadly missing. This includes no weapons, no health refills, no jump option and a lack of throws and combos. But these are small gripes I can put up with. One flaw that many others have stated over the years is the length of the stages, or rather, the lack thereof. Each stage is more like a short area or zone. The levels don’t stretch on and on as most other beat ‘em ups do. But I rationalized this as kid as it being a legitimate turf war. Since Martha Splatterhead controls the gangs of New York, they each own a little slice of the Big Apple. They’re not rulers of entire countries. Instead, they own a very small turf. And it’s your job to invade it and take it back. In a weird way, this added a sense of “realism” to the game for me. Er, nevermind the fact that you’re playing as cyborgs beating up hordes of clones!
The small nature of the stages also added to the atmosphere. It sort of has that quaint “small town feel” going for it. Also, due to the short length of the five stages, the game can be beaten in around half an hour or so. It’s quick to pick up and play. Some beat ‘em ups can go on for 45 minutes or even close to an hour. The Combatribes is over before it wears out its welcome. Look, I understand this game isn’t for everyone, and my general sentiments about this game may be a bit baffling to some. But it’s a game I’ve cherished for 25 years now, and it’ll always be one of my personal pet favorites in spite of the fact that it’s not necessarily great. Hey, we all have those games we connect with that resonates with us that not everyone will get. The Combatribes will forever have a special place in my heart. It’s a relic from the halcyon days of gaming. It hearkens me back to an era where saving the Big Apple with a buddy made for the perfect Saturday night. And if you’re not down with that, WE GOT THREE WORDS FOR YA!!!
Just this past weekend, my friend and I had a blast beating The Combatribes. It was my first time beating it in over 20 years