Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Year: 1988
Developer: Williams
Publisher: Williams
Platform: Arcade; later ported to Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, NES and ZX Spectrum
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

Ultra-violence is nothing new to entertainment, from modern cinema back to the gladiatorial fights of Rome it's clear that humans have a deep desire to witness bloodshed that goes well beyond our actual propensity for causing it (for most of us, anyway).  Just as old is fretting over the societal impact such violence supposedly causes.  In the 1950's there was a Congressional inquiry into whether comic books caused delinquency and Homer's Odyssey, composed sometime around 1200 BC, is best summarized as a tale of monsters, cannibalism and violent death that ends with the hero savagely murdering the hundred or so men who tried to sleep with his wife during his 10 year absence.  In one of the earliest recorded acts of political censorship the infamously sadistic Caligula attempted to ban it on account of its depravity.  NARC, a product of Williams' arcade division, was one of the first to confront this topic in video games and drew plenty of controversy at the time.  

It's no Breaking Bad, but back in 1989 this was a pretty sweet drug lab.  Look at the size of those beakers!

In many ways the game is a mashup of two distinctively 80's conventions: action films and Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign.   This heady concoction was then turned all the way up to 11, as evidenced by the license plate on the fake Porsche murder-machine that reads "SAY NO OR DIE".  That threat is backed up as you mow down waves of junkies and dealers to unravel a powerful cartel.  In the gritty dystopia which you protect and serve the streets are under constant threat by the drug network known as K.R.A.K. and NARC units patrol with Judge Dredd-like authority over crime and punishment. You and a color coordinated partner are given dual SMG's and a rocket launcher along with the aforementioned Mad Max mobile to clean up those streets in the most violent way possible.  You can also bust enemies when you get next to them which rewards you with more points, but it's certainly more entertaining to blow them to pieces with a rocket.  Enemies drop cash and drugs which adds on to your score at the end of each level, but the real reward is knowing your murderous rampage has made the city safe from the dangers of drugs.  Actually, your real reward is finally confronting the kingpin Mr. Big who [25 year old spoiler alert] is the massive floating head of a rejected Miami Vice villain.  

Are his initials ME, or does he actually have a framed portrait of a himself labeled "me" in case he forgets who he is?  
Underneath the extreme exterior is a fun side-scrolling run 'n gun game that feels like a mix of Contra and the classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade games from Konami.  The game was hard in the typical arcade way, meaning lots of cheap deaths and extremely difficult boss fights designed to suck down quarters.  The fight against Mr. Big is notoriously difficult, in part because you have to fight him while constantly resisting the urge to gauge your own eyes out.  NARC was also notable for the 32-bit processor that powered it, the first arcade game to do so, and the digitized graphics that would later be used in Mortal Kombat.  Both these factors have helped the game retain some visual appeal despite its old age.  It certainly hasn't lost any of its nightmare-inducing potential over time.  The knife-wielding PCP addict clowns are still just as terrifying as I remember, and perhaps those alone justify arming the police with an infinite supply of Porsche-mounted machine guns.  The driving segments are usually fun, but are occasionally hindered by weird design choices such as the obstacle laden streets where you first find it.  Even solo and on foot you pack enough firepower to gun down everyone who didn't just say no, which is apparently most of the city.  Seriously whatever city this takes place in makes Robocop's near-future Detroit look like friggin' Disneyland.  

This exists solely to terrorize the dreams of children

Unless the above image has traumatized you into a coma, you've probably already guessed why this game flew under the radar.  Despite its aggressively strong anti-drug policy, the game nevertheless attracted criticism because it still contained numerous references to drug use (even if all those references were "If you do drugs a militarized cop will blow you to smithereens").  When the game was ported to the NES by Rare in 1990, the instruction manual proudly proclaims it to be the first video game with a strong anti-drug message even though Nintendo insisted upon scrubbing all references to drugs from the game.  In the NES version, criminals no long drop backs of crack which implies that instead of taking down dealers, you're now just blowing away addicts wandering the streets in a drug-induced haze.  That's really more of a strong anti-rehab message, but either way the distinction was lost on angry parents.     

But it was the level of violence in the game that earned it the most criticism.  It wasn't the first game to give the player an automatic weapon and infinite ammo, but it was one of the first to include animated gore.  Blood sprayed from enemies when they were shot and a rocket blast would send bloodied limbs flying in all directions, not quite what we'd called realistic violence today but at the time it was more graphic then anything people had played before.  Williams seemingly knew well enough to try and skirt the controversy, as aside from the bullet holes and blood splatter across the logo the arcade flyers seem to intentionally downplay the amount of drugs and violence.  That strategy is probably what prevented the sort of all-out media backlash that greeted Mortal Kombat's commercial success, but it also ensured that NARC cabinets remained in the seedy shadows of the already incredibly sketchy arcade scene. 

Bullets, drugs and cash drop from almost every enemy but rocket ammo is very precious.   Explosions like this make it hard to not pull the trigger.

While attitudes regarding what level is violence is considered "normal" or acceptable in video games, it's unlikely NARC will ever rise from the ashes.  An attempted reboot of the franchise was launched by Midway in 2005 but it bombed spectacularly.  The game was billed as a direct reboot of the original, but the nonsensical plot was further hashed out in a vain attempt to not make the game seem balls out crazy.  Also, in a move that would have brought swift death from the original duo of Narcs the remake gave players the option of stealing the drugs they bust and using them to gain perks like increased fire accuracy.  Kind of lost the whole anti-drug message there, and it sort of calls into question the methods used to prevent the flow of apparently beneficial illegal narcotics.  Decisions such as this sparked an even more intense reaction then the original game.  Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich remarked on its release "These kinds of games teach kids to do the very things that in real life, we put people in jail for.", and he should know since he is currently serving 14 years in a federal prison for corruption charges

The reboot was probably destined to fail regardless of any controversy because the game is a true relic of the 1980's.  The shredding theme (which was awesomely covered by The Pixies), the radical biker getup for two cops that never use a motorcycle, and the hilariously incongruous stern anti-drug warnings delivered through extreme violence are all so uniquely 80's that anyone who didn't live through the decade would probably be completely bewildered by this game.  In that sense playing the game can be an exercise in cultural anthropology, trying to wrap your head around a simpler time when machine-gun toting cops who executed drug users on sight was considered preferable to the crack epidemic.  For that reason alone it's probably worth tracking down an original copy or the version ported to PC, Xbox and PS2 in the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 collection.  The more widely available NES version was hampered by the two-button controller scheme and noticeably inferior graphics, but still made for a fun two-player game.    But if you ever happen past a NARC cabinet it's definitely worth your time to plunk down a quarter or two.  Just make sure you keep your nose clean if you hope to survive the encounter, because as we all know Winners Don't Use Drugs. 

Anyone who played an arcade game between 1989-2000 remembers this title screen.  It may have kinda sorta worked too since teen use of weed and cocaine fell slightly during this period, though meth and ecstasy usage skyrocketed so make of that what you will.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

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