Back in the eighties and through the early nineties, “Just Say No!” was part of the ongoing war on drugs. It was a slogan and a campaign all in one aimed at encouraging kids and young adults to “just say no”. From ’89 to 2000, the FBI struck a deal with the American Amusement Machine Association to deliver the message “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” on arcade machines. Not every machine got it, but enough did back in the day that I couldn’t pass one by without seeing then-director William S. Sessions’ name.
But in 1988, Williams decided to make the war on drugs more than just a fancy buzz phrase with NARC when they re-entered the coin-op scene. Delivering a blood-saturated propaganda message to the masses, Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign had suddenly found a beachhead in arcades.
NARC was the Michael Bay of arcades. The action side-scroller used digitized graphics for the enemy profile pics at the start of each stage as well as the swaggering duo that players could co-op as. Bad guys also looked as real, at least from the side, and they could either be put down or arrested. Bullets dropped from the dead to keep your gun fed along with money stashes and dime bag contraband to add to your score.
Missiles brought Baysian explosions to life onscreen as wrecked helicopters and body parts rained down in subway tunnels, abandoned factories, and drug labs. Voice samples also added audio candy in between stages and during carnage. It was great fun, though a tough game with an end boss that was nigh invulnerable…something that would become a theme with Williams’ Smash TV a few years later in 1990.
NARC was later ported to a wide number of platforms from the Amstrad CPC to the Amiga and the Commodore 64. In 1990, it would also find a home on the NES and create one of the more contradictory arguments on Nintendo’s ethical stance on what and wasn’t allowed on their console. Though things like Nazi or religious symbolism were toned down or changed entirely, something like Hitler’s exploding head in Bionic Commando would get a pass.
The port wasn’t actually bad, though it also wasn’t pretty. The core elements survived, however, such as the side-scrolling shooting and even the four-button control scheme from the arcade. For example, to fire a missile, you just had to tap the “fire” button. To fire bullets, you just held it down instead. The crouch button also doubled as the jump button in a similar way. You could still even arrest the bad guys for more points and it even kept co-op for two.
The lack of details can be attributed to it being on an NES and not a state-of-the-art arcade standup. It also wasn’t as bloody, probably due to the same limitations, though hitting a crowd of baddies with a high-speed explosive still resulted in charred rain. The digital portraits of the bad guys at the start of every stage still held up along with the layout for the scoring page and each locale was about as close to the arcade version without the looks. Rare (who would go on to fame later on with titles such as GoldenEye) did a decent job.
The one thing, however, that the game left out (but the manual did not) were some of the more graphic drug elements. Despite retaining much of the body-part blitzkrieg, Nintendo decided to scrub it down a bit the only way their censorship practices of the day could. For example, the K.R.A.K. drug lab became K.W.A.K. instead, though there was no doubt at what it was making or what those little white baggies were.
NARC would also go on to be revived in a 2005 sequel that was markedly different from the original allowing players to do things such as seize contraband and either send it to the evidence locker or keep it for their own use. The sunny anti-drug attitude of the eighties and early nineties was washed away in favor of gritty cops who were interested in doing anything and everything to succeed instead.
“Just Say No” is also featured on the ad below with the black paper dramatically torn back to show off how the game looks in 8-bits. It wasn’t the prettiest action game on the NES,and it also stands out as one of those stranger clashes between what Nintendo’s censorship practices did and didn’t allow. It was also a clever piece of propaganda that relished its role as an action title gobbling up both tokens and space at home to wage a virtual war on drugs that it was all to happy to bring on.