Fighting urban blight was a popular theme among beat ’em ups like Capcom’s Final Fight, Konami’s Vendetta, and Technos’ Double Dragon. SNK also stepped into the asphalt arcade ring in July, 1989, with Alpha Denshi’s Gang Wars. Players might remember Alpha Denshi from their time on the Neo Geo with games like World Heroes, Crossed Swords, and Magician Lord.
Until I started looking more into beat ’em ups, I’d never had heard of Gang Wars. I’ve never really seen it in any of the arcades of my youth and if I did, I don’t remember it. But looking back at it now, it did a number of surprising things that I would have expected to see on consoles or on PCs.
Gang Wars won’t win any prizes from those tired of the whole “damsel in distress” thing because that’s exactly what goes down. Cynthia is captured by a mysterious gang boss called Jaguar and it’s up to Mike and Jackie to head in and rescue her by wrecking every thug in their way.
Unlike beat ’em ups like Final Fight which allowed you to pick your hero, Gang Wars set it by player position. If you took up the second player spot on the cabinet, you played as Jackie the martial artist. Player one was Mike the street brawler guy with red gloves. Continues generously started you off right when were you went down.
But what the game did very differently from most every other beat ’em up was in allowing you to pick what their strengths were from three gauges that rated strength, speed, and “guard” which is the character’s defensive strength. So if you picked strength, your character would get a big boost in strength to start the game with and so on. At the end of every stage, you would get points that can be used to upgrade any of the three stats, kind of like what later beat ’em ups such as Treasure’s Guardian Heroes in 1996 for Sega’s Saturn would embrace as a part of its action-RPG angle. It was a very cool feature.
The sprite art was merely alright, but even there, Alpha Denshi worked in a few small things to make Gang Wars stand out in the actual game. Enemies could cry if they got up from the ground after a thrashing, enemy bosses panted as they neared death, and then there was the laughing…the endless laughing. Every enemy in the game loves to laugh at your character for no apparent reason, especially if they get knocked down.
Gameplay-wise, it was simple stuff with punch, kick, and jumping buttons along with a few combinations emphasizing lots of button mashing punches and kicks. There was no real ‘safe guard’ for enemies, either, allowing players to juggle them with impunity if they could push them against the edges of the scene or stand over their body and wait for them to rise.
Alpha Denshi also put effort into cut scenes between each stage with digitized, spoken dialogue, capping things off with an okay ending, something that other beat ’em ups at the time tended to gloss over including Final Fight which served up its story with only the attract mode and its own ending.
Gang Wars also had pick-ups like weapons dropped from enemies which included assault rifles and a flamethrower, firepower that you normally didn’t find in an urban beat ’em up like this one. There were no health gauges for foes, however, or for bosses making you wonder how you were doing which was typical at the time for a number of other beat ’em ups ranging from Technos’ Renegade in ’86 to SNK’s own P.O.W. in ’88. Bosses tended to be somewhat easy to wreck, on the other hand, because they were at the mercy of players that could corner and then juggle them at will — though they could take a lot of punishment before going down depending on how your stats were set up.
The fast action and comical sprites made it an appealing side trip for your tokens or quarters though the interesting additions that Alpha Denshi attached to the fledgling beat ’em up formula apparently weren’t enough to pull this game up and out from obscurity. As far as I know, other than its arcade release, it was never ported anywhere else or added to collections featuring SNK’s better known titles.
Gang Wars also kind of sat in that middle of ground of being a lot easier than SNK’s P.O.W. and Taito’s Double Dragon, but not quite as “amazing” or challenging. It wasn’t a terrible game, but with the better-looking and dynamic Final Fight coming out later in the same year, it and other beat ’em ups would soon find themselves facing the rising tide of serious competition brought on by a little company named Capcom.