By Michael Allen Rose
Beat-em-ups have been popular for decades. From the girlfriend-rescuing, brother-resenting, face smashing of Double Dragon to the pizza eating, time-travelling shenanigans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there’s something very pure about the simplicity of punching and kicking your foes into quivering piles of meat. Although many companies found success in the genre, Capcom was the absolute king of side-scrolling beat-em-ups throughout the 1990s. It didn’t matter if it was a license, like Alien Vs. Predator, or a historical take on the dark ages like Knights Of The Round, Capcom’s beat-em-up games taught a generation important and strange life lessons: the best way to stay healthy and strong is to eat meat we find on the ground; bad guys have names that sound like swear words; people disappear without a trace when you punch them enough. But, after some time, Capcom had pushed creativity to the brink of exhaustion, and decided they really needed to get weird and go completely off the map. Enter 1997’s Battle Circuit.
Things get surreal right off the bat, starting on the character select screen. In normal beat-em-ups, players expect a stereotypical martial artist, a big strong wrestler guy, and a fast and agile female character. Maybe one of them has a pet bird or a robot arm or something, but that’s usually about as off the wall as it gets. In Battle Circuit, The player is given a choice between five different fighters:
- Cyber Blue: the ever-smiling cybernetic man of the future. His moves include the hyper tornado where he punches someone so hard he actually flies up off the ground in a streak of blue plasma. He also appears to have rocket boots which are one hell of an impractical fashion statement. Cyber Blue also possibly has rocket gloves on his hands. In fact, he might be entirely made of rockets that somebody slapped a smiling human face on and ran an electrical current through. He is the most “generic hero” of the bunch.
- Yellow Iris: the scantily clad woman with pink hair and a pet fox that looks like a squirrel made love to an alien cat. It follows her around everywhere, sometimes leaping upon her enemies to scratch their eyes out. She’s the speed character, by which I mean that she’s on speed. Very quick, agile, and vicious, like a jungle cat playing dress up at a totally normal human debutante ball. That’s right: one of her special moves involves suddenly changing into a very slinky, glamorous, night-on-the-town outfit while the image of a rose appears behind her in garish neon lights, like a debutante coming-out party only with lots more kicking. Other moves include pulling out vines from some hidden pocket and whipping people, and ignoring the laws of physics to kick robots in their vital components. Sometimes her pet mystery mammal thing flies up, crashes into the ground, and then explodes. Taking public transportation would be so much easier if we all had exploding cyber foxcats to fling at anybody taking up two seats.
- Captain Silver: a man so tall and gangly he can actually change shape like a rubber doll. He can grab an enemy and turn into a cannon to shoot them across the screen, turn his limbs into sharp objects, or even multiply himself and teleport around the room. Just like for Yellow Iris, the laws of physics do not matter to Captain Silver. I think he hates them. On the other hand, he seems like he’d be fun at parties. “Hey, Captain S! Show Sheila how you turn into a beer bong!” His victory pose involves him turning his own ass into a chair and sitting down to relax, which would be not only another great party trick, but a good stress reliever if he’s been on his feet all day working the 9-to-5. He has special moves like the “silver wind,” where he teleports through the air and then uppercuts a person, or the rolling crush where he turns himself into a giant saw blade. Also he has mysterious ice powers that you unlock later on, which nobody saw coming, because how many superheroes get more than one general theme for their powers? This means, at the hypothetical party, Captain Silver could also chill your drinks.
- Pink Ostrich: A pink ostrich. The name is right there on the package. I’m not kidding. Well, technically, it’s a little girl riding an enormous pink ostrich, but rest assured, you’re playing as the bird. The ostrich is festooned with a spiked ankle bracelet, an ostentatious necklace, a pirate’s eye-patch, and a really smug facial expression. The girl, for her part, does very little except ride the ostrich around while it continues to be a badass. It can kick, it can peck, it can whirl around like a tornado. It slices, it dices, and it makes julienne fries. Pink Ostrich also has a move called deathblow that powers it up into that much more of a badass. This is the kind of ostrich who would walk away from an explosion in slow motion. This ostrich has seen some shit. Yeah, they’re all bounty hunters, sure, but this ostrich would do it just for the blood sport.
- Alien Green: a sentient man-eating plant with an eyeball right in the center. Various shoots of the plant become spikes or jaws as it flails around murdering all lifeforms besides itself, stomping about on thick, hefty roots. It inhabits a character archetype somewhere between a houseplant and a lovecraftian horror. Like Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors, only able to summon honey bees and somehow, even hungrier.
It isn’t just the protagonists that are weird in Battle Circuit. The first boss you fight is Johnny, an Elvis impersonator. He’s all rockabilly all the time and enjoys leaping up into the air to do the splits and attacking with his guitar. After our heroes beat up Johnny in front of his posse for a while, he starts to shoot off pyrotechnics on stage like a true rock and roll super villain, so now they’re avoiding those too. Once Johnny is defeated, they find a disc, which is quickly stolen back by the evil super villain Doctor Saturn. You actually beat up Doctor Saturn quite often. It’s like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where he winks at the audience and says “I do this to him all through the picture.” Every time you think you’re getting the upper hand though, he zooms off again in his weird black hovercraft. At one point, you chase Doctor Saturn in a crazy, spontaneous road race, avoiding landmines and collecting giant novelty coins.
After that little diversion, you fight Barbara who looks like a drag queen dominatrix in red leather and has a group of jellyfish surrounding her with smiley faces. I love the names in this game. You don’t have too many enemies called things like “Knife Face” or “Killer Death Robot Man” or whatever, you have villains named things like “Bruce” and “Theodore” and “Florence.” It really gives credence to the idea that a well-rounded, three-dimensional villain believes they are doing the right thing and is probably just a normal person like you or I with well-thought-out motivations. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that these bosses attend yoga classes and are active in their kids’ PTA.
After defeating Barbara you learn that the disc Doctor Saturn stole can control all the computers in the world, which means of course that Doctor Saturn will be able to access everyone’s browser history, making him the most powerful being in existence. The characters end up at a waterfall, fighting more robots and lizards. I have to say that I love the design of the lizard enemies. Like everyone else, they’re in battle suits, but because they’re lizards, the suits are extremely ill-fitting and they look very uncomfortable the entire time. Their heads sort of poke out the top like they were jammed in there against their will. It’s like looking at tiny dogs in bumblebee suits that they’d rather not be wearing.
Next, our heroes fight a robot octopus, and it drops bombs everywhere like a dog that hasn’t been house trained. After its defeat, Doctor Saturn becomes enraged, screaming “No! My masterpiece has been mangled!” The heroes respond the only way that can accurately sum up all this madness: “Surrender now, you insane bastard!” Then, a band of tiny alien owl octopuses herald the coming of a large red knight on space horses. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder, the next boss is a female wearing a pith helmet, being carried by a giant alien baboon, shackled to a giant, spiky, iron ball. Even this is just an introduction for what’s to come: a steam powered knight called Zipang, astride a chariot drawn by alien snails; a rotund king named Pluto equipped with a massive robotic snake arm; and finally Shiva, the master program, who appears to be a genie riding a blue ghost dragon.
The character designs in this are so surreal and wonderful. Battle Circuit is worth tracking down, if only because it’s so different than any other beat-em-up! Where else do you get galloping man-eating plants fighting giant, four-armed, biker aliens by slamming them into the ground with vine-grown fists holding apples? Even the health pick-ups go beyond the usual cooked turkey and apples found in most of these games. Here, we have things like tacos, cake, and sandwiches. It’s much more lunchbox-friendly fare. Like everything else about Battle Circuit, it goes beyond creativity into the realm of madness, and I am totally here for it.
Michael Allen Rose is a writer, musician, editor and performance artist based in Chicago, Illinois. His stories have been published in such periodicals and anthologies as the Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, Heavy Feather Review, and Tales From The Crust. He has published several books including Embry: Hard Boiled (Eraserhead Press), Rock And Roll Death Patrol (Rooster Republic Press), The Indifference Of Heaven (Omnium Gatherum) and more. In Spring of 2021, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing will release Michael’s newest book, Jurassichrist. He is the host of the annual Ultimate Bizarro Showdown at Bizarro Con in Portland, OR. Michael also releases industrial music under the name Flood Damage. He lives with an awesome cat, helps his girlfriend make internet porn, and enjoys good tea.