Friday, September 7, 2012

The Justifier and Lethal Enforcers II for Genesis

I love light guns. Love 'em! You can keep your Kinects and your Eye Toys and your Wii Motion Plussesses because video games attained interactive perfection with the NES Zapper. Though I've never shot anything more formidable than a BB gun in real life, nothing gives me greater joy than blowing holes in pixellated bad guys with a gun-shaped hunk of plastic. Unfortunately, light gun games always seem to get short shrift, as they typically make up a small fraction of any console's library. Sega didn't see fit to include a light gun with the Genesis at all, so it fell to Konami to release the Justifier, which was bundled with its Genesis port of the arcade game, Lethal Enforcers.

There are two versions of the Justifier: a blue revolver that plugs into controller port 2 on the Genesis and a pink revolver that daisy-chains into the blue revolver's butt for two-player games. It's an awkward setup that requires the second player to sit uncomfortably close to both the first player and the Genesis, as neither of the guns' cables are very long. Though not particularly heavy, the Justifier has decent weight and balance, and is comfortable to hold for extended periods. The Justifier's trigger feels mushy and imprecise and it lacks the Zapper's satisfying clang when pulled. Its accuracy is significantly better than the Zapper's, though, and it can't be tricked by aiming it at a light bulb. Of course, you must use a CRT TV set with the Justifier, as it will not work with any other kind of television.

So now that we know all about the gun, let's talk about a game that uses it. Lethal Enforcers II: Gun Fighters is an on-rails arcade shooter that plays like Hogan's Alley meets Mad Dog McCree. It's 1873, and you're a sheriff sent to fight crime in a nameless spaghetti western town by shooting nearly all of its inhabitants.Your weapon of choice is a revolver that holds six bullets at a time. (Aim the Justifier away from the screen & pull the trigger to reload.) In most levels, the bad guys move around a static background location like a bank or saloon, shooting at you from windows, kicking open doors, jumping out from behind barrels, etc. The criminals run the Old West cliché gamut from scruffy cowboys and outlaws to banditos, indians and even Derringer-packing hookers--and they're all gunning for you. Pick them off in the split-second before they get a bead on you, but watch our for hostages or innocent bystanders who wander onto the screen. You start the game five lives represented by stars at the top of the screen. If you get shot, or you shoot an innocent bystander, you lose a star. Lose all of your stars and it's game over, though you can continue up to nine times. There are several weapon upgrades to be found in each stage, such as a rifle with double the ammo capacity of your revolver, a fully-automatic gatling gun, and a cannon that looks more like a dodgeball launcher. Some weapons, like the rifle, can be reloaded while others, like the gatling gun, are dropped once they're empty. However, all of them disappear the moment you take a hit, so unless you're really quick on the draw, most of your time will be spent wielding the lowly revolver. At the end of each stage, your score is tallied and you're given a rank from Posse (worst) to US Marshal (best) based on how accurate your aim was and how many innocents survived the onslaught.

Most of the action in Lethal Enforcers II takes place in the aforementioned static environments, but it does mix in some variety. For example, Stage 2 has you defending a runaway stage coach from outlaws and indians on horseback. Bonus stage awards you big points for shooting as many bottles off a saloon's bar or thrown in the air in a short amount of time. Most levels also end with a boss who will really punish your trigger finger, as you try to land hits on him while fending off his attacks. Many of the object in the background respond to being shot, like signs & paintings that fall off walls and reveal weapon upgrades. Lanterns and bottles explode in showers of glass, chandeliers crash to the floor, and barrels spring leaks when shot, all adding tiny bits of verisimilitude to this otherwise very arcade-y game. Other clever touches include a piano that can be 'played' by shooting it, bad guys who fall down stairs or into horse troughs and the town drunk who wanders through the middle of a gun fight, like some Crazy Guggenheim routine.

Lethal Enforcers II is, for the most part, an excellent game. There are a few hairy spots that require nearly superhuman reflexes, but it's never so hard as to be unbeatable, and the difficulty can be lowered at the game's title screen. I do have two nagging problems with this game, though, and they're both related to the hardware it's running on. I hate to say it, but this is one of the ugliest Genesis games I've ever played. Most of the characters and backgrounds are digitized photos lifted from the arcade game, but the Genesis, with its low display resolution and measly 64 colors, can't effectively show one photo-realistic image, much less several at once. As a result, the backgrounds are badly-dithered and nearly monochrome. The characters, while a little more colorful, lack detail and look completely out of place on the drab backgrounds; like paper dolls pasted on top of an old daguerreotype.

 Lethal Enforcers II uses recorded samples for most of its sound effects, and they sound better than the average Genesis game. However, there are maybe ten or so spoken lines in the entire game, and they get repeated ad infinitum by the various characters. You may find yourself reaching for the mute button after hearing 'You ain't a-gonna get me, Sheriff!' repeated for the umpteenth time. Fortunately, the background music is much more enjoyable. It sounds like a synthesized, up-tempo Ennio Morricone soundtrack, right down to the Good, Bad and Ugly flute sting that plays when you earn an extra life.

Presentation issues aside, Lethal Enforcers II is a lot of fun to play and well worth owning if you enjoy fast-paced arcade shooters. The Justifier light gun and Lethal Enforcers II sold like crazy back in the day, and are still easy to track down today. I've seen the blue gun and both Lethal Enforcer games sell on eBay for less than 25 bucks. If you're as big a light gun nut as I am, pick up a Justifier, haul the ol' Radiation King out of the attic and bring a little frontier justice to the lawless 16-bit West.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I play DOOM. Lots and lots of DOOM.

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