Atari Games was still an arcade player in the early 90s even though their glory days were far behind them. Responsible for memorable hits like Marble Madness and Gauntlet, their attempts to steal away players’ tokens became increasingly harder to do in the face of quality stand-ups from the likes of Nintendo, Konami, Capcom, and Taito who continued to get better at what they did during the 80s.
By the time the 90s dawned, Atari Games wanted to jump onto the urban beat ’em up bandwagon being built up by a number of their competitors before they were left behind. The result was Guardians of the Hood in 1992. If you’ve never heard of it, a reason was because it was pretty terrible. In the arcades, it could easily be confused as “Pit Fighter the Beat ’em Up” even though it had nothing to do with Pit Fighter aside from what it borrowed in a technical sense.
Pit Fighter was a fighting game also created by Atari Games and was released two years earlier in 1990 as an answer to the Street Fighter wave kicked up by Capcom in 1987. It was particularly noteworthy for taking a few baby steps into the uncanny valley by using digitized actors to represent the actual fighters instead of creating animated sprites. It would then cast these against digitized backdrops, allowed stage depth for eight way movement as if in an arena (similar to Renegade, only a much smaller scale), and was a solid hit in the arcades.
Guardians was similar, but instead of an enclosed space for one-on-one fights, up to three players could go in and fight through a number of different side scrolling stages to save their neighborhood from gangs led by someone dressed like Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal…only in a black suit and hat.
Atari Games didn’t standardize their arcade hardware to the same extent that Capcom or SNK did in the late 80s through early 90s with the CPS-1 and the Neo Geo AVS, respectively. Instead, they tended to go in and build custom hardware that would run for a smattering of titles before making a new set. The Atari G42 which ran Guardians, for example, only ran one other game referenced by sites like System 16 (where you can see a pic and a list of specs for the board among many others) – Road Riot 4WD. And that was it for the hardware.
The G42 was built using the MC68HC000P12 which was part of the amazingly prolific Motorola 68000 16-bit CPU family, but it wasn’t paired with Zilog’s Z80 which was extremely popular at the time in hardware such as that used by Capcom and SNK. Still, it was a solid piece of custom hardware boasting hardware zoom and fast sprite scaling.
But the hardware was only as good as the games that ran on it and Guardians of the Hood was clearly outmatched by the competition. Despite boasting digitized actors and scenes to wow audiences into spending their quarters, the actual gameplay was about as rough as the visuals. Guardians’ made the argument that having that much realism was actually not as good, or quite as inspiring, as the often imaginative and fantastic sprite art used by the competition.
The choppy animations made fighting moves and reaction shots look about as herky jerky as the fighting controls. The oddball hit detection also made it seem as if punches would occasionally pass through enemies or mysteriously hit you even if it didn’t seem they had connected. The boring moveset didn’t help, either, though that could probably be blamed on trying to keep things grounded in the pseudo-realism they wanted to give a few things in the game outside of the ‘magic’ attacks (like Ryu’s fireball attack in Street Fighter). Everyone moved as if their muscles were starched.
Encounter pacing also suffered — it didn’t throw a ton of enemies at players the way that Double Dragon or Gang Wars did to spice things up, only a few at a time often by cloning them from a very tiny selection of boring bad guys. Continues did allow players to pick new characters, start from where they had died, and actually keep their score as they pummeled an incredibly bland variety of digitally captured bad guys and girls.
The game was broken up into four areas: the neighborhood run by the Dreads, the subway area that was run by the Shavers, and a Chinatown mock up run by the Dragons. The last stage was the boardwalk where the final battle took place in a funhouse. One neat thing that the game did was when you cleared an area and beat the gang leader, that leader would join up as a selectable character much like what Toaplan’s Knuckle Bash (which Atari distributed in the States) in ’93 also did. What those two games also had in common were terrible “end of stage” challenges.
In Guardians’ case, it made a money grab for players’ quarters. Here, players visited a gym and took part in a Pit Fighter styled one-on-one fight between you and the AI (if you were playing solo) or against your friends. The loser was literally kicked off the game and had to pay up to join back in. If you were playing solo and lost to the AI, you had to continue and try to beat the AI if you wanted to keep going. If you didn’t, it was game over. If they wanted to piss off players that wanted only to play co-op with their friends, this was one way to do it. After winning the gym session, you could either do it again (why) or keep going with the actual game.
So it’s not really a surprise that Guardians of the Hood didn’t enjoy the kind of success that Pit Fighter did, not by a longshot, leaving the beat ’em up genre to its peers. Interestingly, Atari Games’ console-focused Tengen label would enjoy better success on platforms such as the Sega Genesis in the years ahead. Despite ports of other Atari favorites like Primal Rage, however, Guardians of the Hood would instead become almost as forgotten as the arcades they called home.