I don’t know if many really fondly remember this game or not but I know I do – as you may know, my brother was largely responsible for my delving into gaming and this was one of the games we played competitively. It was really difficult because unlike games of its time, resources were not shared, I’m pretty sure you could peg the other player, and the end of every level had a clear winner; where Battletoads was steroids, NARC was more like adrenaline. There was a lot of concentrated chaos on the screen at once and a battle in-game would often turn from a competition between brothers to a competition to get through the game and complete it. It took way more skill to be the best as well as get through the game to its end, as well, especially if you didn’t know where to go and what to do; there were sections of the game where a little exploration was used. That being said, I poured a lot of time to beat my brother at this game and still get through the rest of this game so it sits pretty nicely in my mind as a part of my gaming history and a game I currently have in my collection.
At face value, this game does not have a lot going for it, in terms of story. There were a lot of arcade games like this back in the day and the ports were no exception. Your premise was simple; you receive a memo from the Narcotics squad in Washington DC, tasking you with a mission: take down Mr. Big, a known drug trafficker and suspected terrorist. I give this game’s story a lot of credit, looking back on it; all the drug references are thinly veiled and the hierarchy that’s typical of a massive drug ring are laid out in plain sight. Even in the NES port the game seems way more adult than I initially thought – the references are a little more veiled than the arcade version but they’re still there and, having played through it again recently, I understand them way more clearly than I did when I was a kid.
Your journey takes you on a one or two-man personal war against drugs and street crime in general. You take out drug pushers of all kinds, right from the junkies, to the dealers, to the cultivators and chemists, all the way up the chain to Mr. Big himself, who turns out to be the head of “K.R.A.K Industries”. I know, it’s laughable, but give them a break; the guys behind this game, Williams, were sending a strong anti-drug message and I suppose they wanted to inform people of the kinds of creeps that are out there and encourage those kids conquering the game to “contact your local DEA recruiter”. There’s a lot of strong symbolism in the game if you give it some thought and it’s really interesting to see the kind of work that went into this game, compared to other games, especially those that had such strong and compelling messages to tell to its players.
If there’s anything that can be said about this game is that it can be intense; whether borne of frustration, anxiety, or just plain sucking, you can often find yourself taking cheap hits and getting yourself cornered. This game was not forgiving and it certainly encouraged one to pour in the quarters. What you had was your basic run-and-gun gameplay, allowing players to move along an isometric field of view in all directions, facing off against your typical fodder by using either your automatic rifle or rocket launcher. There wasn’t much more to it than that. The difficulty usually came from the amount of obstacles or enemies you had on screen at any one time and what they were all doing – some shot bullets, some came in to stab, some threw needles that froze you in place, among others.
The one thing that I found particularly ridiculous and did nothing but add to the time where you were a target for bullet hell was the safe keys. Every level required you found a safe key to unlock the door to the level’s exit and some were harder to find than others. Some literally counted on a low drop rate from a particular enemy type. The entire time while you’re waiting for this thing to pop up you’re constantly being fired at and dropped in on. It was kind of frustrating and just felt like a cheap quarter-eating tactic… that worked.
Does It Hold Up?
The simple answer to that questions is: no, not really. While the game is great on nostalgia and reminds me of the journey I took to school my brother so hard it almost hurt, it was incredibly grating to get through it now without that drive. I still enjoyed it but not on a “oh, wow, this game is still great” level but, rather, on a “oh, wow, this game is actually pretty fucking annoying in spots” level. On the plus side, though, playing this on the NES, now, I find jumping much easier to pull off than I remember it being. Not sure why that is.