There’s something fascinating about the rather twisted morals of 80s action movies. If the cause was strong enough, any kind of violence was totally and completely acceptable. That’s why you had games like Williams’ NARC, where you were armed with rockets that could dismember drug dealers with the press of a button.
Taito’s Growl (known as Runark in Japan) is a beat-em-up that takes a similarly over-the-top attitude towards a different politically correct topic: poaching. Yes, yes, we’ve all heard fur is murder, but most official organizations just fight this by hiring a bunch of naked models to stand in the streets. This doesn’t exactly get results, though, so that’s where the Ranger Corps comes in.
There are four characters in Growl, since up to four players can play at the same time. The character select screen would have you think there was some difference between them, but they’re all pretty much the same. Two of them wear hats. Two of them wear bandanas and sunglasses. Their names, according to the Genesis version, are Gen, Burn, Khan, and Jack. At the beginning of the game, their bar is destroyed by some random jerks (“Drop dead you scum!”, they taunt in the least threatening voice imaginable), and it’s up to them to swear revenge (“You won’t get away with this”, your hero swears before picking himself off the ground), and maybe save some animals along the way.
Right at the beginning, there are four rocket launchers on the ground, which blow up enemies real good. Get in a good shot and all kinds of severed limbs will be flying all over the place, complete with comic book-style word balloon sound effects, although curiously, there isn’t much actual blood.
Although the launchers have limited ammo, you can find tons of other weapons scattered through the levels, including pipes, machine guns, pistols, swords, and whips. You can pick up barrels, rocks, and cars, or kick chairs around the screen, which glide around and bounce off walls, throwing anything resembling realistic physics to the wind. Growl often fills the screen with a dozen or more bad guys at a time, and unlike some other beat-em-ups, fallen bodies take several seconds to disappear, leaving you to fight over mountains of dead foes.
On the chance that you don’t have a weapon, you can pound on the attack button to unleash a rapid fire flurry of punches and kicks, or double tap the joystick to perform a headbutt. You can also execute spinning jump kicks by pressing both the attack and jump buttons when surrounded by enemies, but that’s generally about as expansive as your moveset gets. It’s not nearly as tight as, say, Final Fight or any of Capcom’s other brawlers, but it’s so fast and responsive that it’s hard to complain.
Plus, you can beat up enemies while they’re still on the ground, slamming them in the face or flipping them over your shoulder. Even the post apocalyptic punk heroes of Double Dragon allowed their enemies to get back on their feet before continuing to pummel them, but the protagonists of Growl take their love of animals seriously (“What do you jerks think you’re doing?” your character inquires when they find a bird being accosted). Any animals you come across will help you out if you save them – deer will stampede across enemies, eagles will drop stolen rocket launchers into your hands, and elephants will trample around the screen gleefully.
Just when it seems that maybe the absurd shock value of Growl might be wearing off, roughly two thirds of the way through, the game takes it to ridiculous extremes when you’re fighting on a boat, and then literally out of the sky pops Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th, who proceeds to kick the snot of you. In the next screen, the music grows silent as your wily foes bring out a heavily armored tank. Right before your hero concedes shameful defeat, the stirring main theme music starts up and an elephant pops out of the side of the screen, ramming into it and saving the day.
From there, it takes a note from the NES Double Dragon by featuring some ill-conceived platforming segments in a cave, before finally delivering you to the final boss, who arrives on the playing field carrying yet another tank, wears a tuxedo and top hat, and appears to have a grenade launcher for a head. When you kill it, Growl‘s epic plot truly unfolds in a single line of exposition – the evil hunters are all controlled by a giant caterpillar monster, whose magical abilities including spinning around and causing the screen to shimmer. When you kill the “poacher king”, the animals celebrate and there are fireworks.Whenever you die and choose to continue, a gigantic spiked ceiling drops from the sky and crushes all of the enemies on the field. It’s all so gloriously silly.
The major problem with Growl is that, outside of these amazing setpieces, it’s quite repetitive, even moreso than typical beat-em-ups. After the spectacular introduction, you fight the same handful of recolored enemies over and over (including Indiana Jones-style thugs, 1920s style newspaper boys, and women that appear to be nightclub singers), and most of the levels look exactly the same. Some kind of variation – heck, just giving the heroes different abilities – would’ve been nice.
Growl received a rather substandard port to the Genesis. The biggest knock against it is that all of the multiplayer options are gone. There isn’t even a two-player mode. The graphics have all been completely redone, and while they don’t really look all that faithful, they still look decent. The problem is that your character doesn’t attack nearly as fast as the arcade version – so you end up getting overwhelmed pretty quickly. Here, special attacks have been given their own button, and they now drain health, like typical beat-em-ups. Most of the hilarious flippancy is gone, and all of the voice clips have been removed.
Taito Legends 2 (US/EU) and Taito Memories Joukan (JP) contain an emulation of the arcade version, but on the PS2 releases (all territories), the enemies no longer explode into dismembered limbs when shot with a rocket.