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Whomp 'Em is a platforming action/adventure game released by Jaleco for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991. Since such games were a dime a dozen during that generation of gaming, it was inevitable that each new one that came along would mimic an existing title to some degree. Whomp 'Em, however, seemed to have made a conscious effort of this, as it unabashedly apes at least two other flagship titles of the genre and is a strange misappropriation of a third. It is also a delicious pun on wampum, a type of beads used as currency. We're gonna see some clever stuff here, clearly.

Story

One thing that sticks in my craw about NES games is that they frequently skipped the story aspect altogether. Even when it was included it was typically presented in a vague opening movie and/or fleshed out in Cliffs Notes fashion in a blurb on the inside cover of the instruction booklet. Platformers were notorious for this, and Whomp 'Em is no exception. The manual sums up the "story" thus:

Whomp 'Em is the story of Soaring Eagle, a young Indian Brave who ventures into the world seeking totems for his magic pouch. Whomp 'Em consists of eight worlds. The first world acquaints you with the game. The next six worlds may be traveled in any order. The final world is a secret!

Totems, huh? As it turns out, these totems are actually weapons that can augment Soaring Eagle's spear with various powers, everything from flame to ice, spider webs to ensnare enemies, and even a ranged javelin attack. If any of this sounds familiar, it's because it is a blatant rip-off of Mega Man. Only difference is that the weapon powerups in that game were actually useful, often being all but required to defeat some enemies and bosses. Not so in Whomp 'Em. None of the totems, with the possible exception of the aforementioned Dart totem, are very useful and make the game more of a chore than it needs to be. It's nice to watch the totems do their thing once, but they really add next to nothing to the gameplay. Actually, I take that back. There is one mandatory totem. It is called Death Branch (although you won't find this name mentioned anywhere in the game or the manual) obtained after completion of the first seven levels, and the only weapon that can defeat the final boss. Oh yes, the final boss. I don't really know what to make of this guy, other than he looks like a psychotic samurai and his facial expression suggests he had just been on the receiving end of an ice water enema. Since this game basically has no plot, the final boss could have been anybody or anything. So why is he a constipated samurai? Well...

What the crap is an Ice Ritual anyway?

Whomp 'Em has a truly bizarre origin, one deserving of its own category. In yet another homage to Mega Man, the main six levels can be played in any order. There is really no rhyme or reason to this; it merely serves to mix it up a bit. The levels themselves, however, are rather odd and just don't "feel" right. Come to find out, there is a good reason for this. Whomp 'Em is actually based on a game called Saiyuuki World 2, released in Japan at around the same time. Japanese game developers have laboured since time immemorial under the belief that Western gamers just can't handle their games. This often results in dumbed down versions of said games being ported across the pond. In the case of Whomp 'Em, however, the changes were purely cosmetic.

Since anime and other Japanese mainstays had not yet caught on outside of Japan, it seemed reasonable to scrap everything remotely Japanese in Saiyuuki World 2 and replace them with Native American themes. That's actually not so bad. What is bad, however, is that Jaleco did a half-assed job of it. While they did an adequate job of transforming Son Goku, the protagonist of SW2, into a convincing Indian brave complete with feathered headband, war paint, and Indian-sounding name, they did not take such pains to reconcile other elements.

In addition to Soaring Eagle's appearance and weapons, each of the levels underwent a name change as well, which wouldn't be a big deal except it resulted in many of the thematic elements therein ceasing to make sense. A good example of this is the level called Sacred Woods. I had no idea bamboo was so abundant in North American forests, but the Japanese seem to think it is, since it is all over the place in this level. It's so prolific, in fact, that it falls from the sky like reedy daggers. I could understand if they skipped the overhaul on this level entirely if it wasn't incongruous enough to be detrimental, but it was obvious they didn't think this way. In the very same level, a brown grizzly bear appears as an enemy. Not a big deal, except for the fact that this bear started life as a panda in Saiyuuki World 2. Since there is only one bear in this level and it could be changed with a simple palette swap it was obviously the less arduous of the changes, but there is still no excuse for that damn bamboo. I'm going to stop thinking about the bamboo now.

The other levels were not so blatantly half-assed, but they make up for it by being all kinds of weird and nonsensical. Among the most notable is a forest level teeming with flying pink elephants, giant floating leaves big enough to stand on, and snails who look like they smoked one peace pipe too many. It's an acid trip in game form! The levels called Secret Cliff and Ice Ritual boast the same inscrutable claim to fame as well. The former is not so much a cliff as a booby-trapped fortress of some sort, filled with robots, crates of TNT, and metal spikes. The latter suffers most of all from the renaming process, as there is not so much as a half-melted ice cube in the entire level. There is, however, an abundance of creepy giant eyeballs and disembodied hands floating all over the place. These make perfect sense when you remember that this level was called Realm of Darkness in Saiyuuki World 2. I'll admit they are pretty cool, and if one can conveniently ignore the name of this level it may very well be the most interesting thing in the game. Incidentally, the level Water Test has ice out the wazoo. Huh. Moving on...

Gameplay

A game can be as bizarre and stupid as it wants when it's fun. And for all its flaws, Whomp 'Em is a fun game, albeit not very challenging. The majority of enemies can be vanquished with one jab of Soaring Eagle's spear. This is pretty great actually, as it affords momentum to the killing process, but it also renders one collectible powerup superfluous. The flint spearhead doubles Soaring Eagle's attack strength, and it would theoretically be useful during boss fights, except it disappears after so many hits and would likely go to waste defeating weaker enemies long before said fights. Thankfully there are some useful powerups, such as the buffalo headdress (raises defense), deerskin shirt (grants invincibility for a short time) and spear (doubles the length of Soaring Eagle's spear). Hmm...innuendo much?

As for the controls, they are really rather good. Soaring Eagle must have gotten fighting lessons from Link, as he utilizes the upward and downward thrusts seen in Zelda II: Adventure of Link. Pretty handy, really, since enemies can and do bound in from all directions. Another unique touch is the lack of extra lives; instead, Soaring Eagle can collect Magic Potions (which actually look more like baby bottles filled with cottage cheese) to keep on hand and use automatically when his health reaches zero. Pretty nice, since it eliminates that frustrating moment where you die stupidly and have to start the level all over again as penance.

Graphics/Sound

Standard disclaimer: I don't bash graphics unless they are bad to the point of being distracting. As previously mentioned, some of the Japanese elements were left intact in the port, and while they are indeed a bit distracting, at least they look good doing it. The colours are vibrant and each level is nicely detailed. The enemies, while strange and largely out of place, are entertaining to look at. Highlights include the aforementioned strung-out snails and a rather...ahem...flamboyant pink frog in a cape. Don't question, just enjoy. Plus the face Soaring Eagle makes when he's hit is just aces.

Music and sound effects are yet another thing to take with a very large grain of salt when dealing with NES games. They are rarely great but still excusable. 8-bits can only do so much, after all. That being said, the music and sound effects in Whomp 'Em are only slightly less dull than dishwater. At least some of the music "sounds" Indian (and Japanese, for that matter) making it more or less adequate, but that doesn't change things much. If you chose to listen to your iPod while playing this game you really wouldn't be missing a thing.

Replay Value

Since all the levels in Whomp 'Em save two can be traversed in any order they can technically make for a different experience each time. This is, of course, an obligatorily obvious statement. As so many platformers tend to be, it is fresh and new the first time around only. Whomp 'Em is a classic example of a rental game, something to play once and still get your 2 or 3 dollars' worth. In this sense it is a lot like cotton candy; no real substance, easy to go through quickly without thinking, and yet still good while it lasts. Plus there had to be something to absolve the gaming industry of the ghastly treatment of Native Americans perpetrated by the likes of Custer's Revenge.

Conclusion

Whomp 'Em can be summed up in one word: average. It's no Super Mario Bros., but it's still fun in its own little way. It's also a decent length for a game with no save or password feature and thus must be completed in one sitting. And if you can suspend disbelief at all even the regional inconsistencies can be charming. A game like Whomp 'Em could only have existed in the Age of the NES. Playing it while enjoying a healthy dose of peyote probably wouldn't hurt either.

See it in action here.

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