The early 90s were big years for beat ’em ups. Both 1991 and 1993 would prove to be a peak year for both Capcom and Konami which released three apiece into the arcades in both years. The beat ’em up market was on fire, so it was natural to expect that others wanted to stick their mittens into the oven and pull a piece of that pie out for themselves.
Taito’s reputation was cemented by titles such as the iconic Space Invaders in 1978 and publishing Technos’ beat ’em up classic, Double Dragon, to arcades in 1987. They were a staple in the arcades — Taito’s name was everywhere. So when they wanted to jump into the beat ’em up craze, they didn’t hesitate.
Though Technos’ Double Dragon became a mega-classic, Taito was probably itching to build one of their own instead of publishing someone else’s. Their efforts, though, met with mixed results while Capcom and Konami continued to ramp up their race to be kings of the beat ’em up neighborhood. But they weren’t all as offbeat or as badly translated as 1991’s Pu Li Ru La.
Growl, also released in 1991, didn’t have the advantage of a fancy license the way Konami’s Simpsons did or looked quite as good as Capcom’s Knights of the Round — both of which were also released in the same year. What it did bring to the table was a ton of action and an environmentally friendly message.
Set in an “early part” of the 20th century, four hunters wage war against illegal poachers with everything at their disposal punctuating animal rights with missile launchers and assault rifles, fragging bad guys by the dozen.
Wait…missile launchers and assault rifles? Early part of the 20th century?
Well, that’s what the introductory text says, at least. There are four characters to pick from, each with their strengths and weaknesses, that can go in to wreck every poacher in their path. In the arcade, two players could co-op together on the same cab. There was also a way to hook two cabs up via a special cable and set it up so that four players could co-op in the game at the same time.
Taito didn’t try to create a standard hardware setup the way Capcom and SNK would try to do in the late 80s and 90s with the CPS-1 and the Neo Geo AVS, respectively. Taito, like a number of other arcade developers, built custom hardware for a number of games before doing the same with the next batch resulting in a huge collection of boards and cab configurations. In Taito’s case, though, it was understandable — Taito didn’t earn its place in the arcade scene by putting out a few titles and resting on their laurels.
The hardware that ran Growl, the Taito F2, came pretty close to a standard kit, though. It not only ran Growl, but a large number of titles besides. The CPU was an MC68000, the popular 16-bit Motorola 68000 processor, and the sound CPU was the trusty Z80. The Yamaha YM2610 supplied the actual sound. All three components were staples of the arcade scene, so it’s not a surprise seeing Taito pick them as key pieces for this board.
As a beat ’em up, Growl’s side scrolling action pit players against mobs of enemies across seven, seamless stages. There were no cutscenes or cutaway transitions that interrupted the flow — Taito’s game blended in text where needed to tell its story while keeping the action moving from one stage to the next. It even had a bonus stage where you just needed to smash open bird cages and barrels and voice effects for the characters and animals. As for baddies, it didn’t just toss in a few at a time — it saturated screens with them.
Special items like exploding barrels, grenades, and weapons like assault rifles and steel bars added to players’ arsenals. Breakables like crates, chairs, and plain, regular barrels were scattered everywhere. Players could also pick up boulders and toss them like Hercules at enemies. Captured animals could also be freed and go on a rampage. And one thing that the arcade game wasn’t shy about was gibbing enemies as a result of explosions or animal attack. Flaming people chunks liberally rained down on each stage after a good hit on a crowd of baddies.
What Growl didn’t do so well was in the unimpressive boss design or avoiding the creeping feeling of heavy repetition thanks to poor pacing. As much as I like beat ’em ups, it could get ridiculous even for me. Drowning players in enemies, even if they were made of paper mache, quickly turned into button mashing boredom in some areas. One or two bosses also relied incredibly cheap attacks and dragged things out by soaking up a ton of damage without showing a lot of variety.
But it wasn’t super terrible. Growl would even be ported over to the Sega Genesis in what was a solid translation of the arcade version in the same year (1991). A few years later, Capcom’s Cadillacs and Dinosaurs in 1993 would take up the “hunters vs. enemy poachers” theme again, complete with dinos that crunched on poachers and players, though it drew on a comic series that had been doing that for years before either game hit the arcades.
Growl packed in punches, kicks, and a lot of comic-book sized explosions with an uncommon premise and it had something of a second life when it was included as part of Taito Legends 2 in 2006 for the PS2, Xbox 360, and Windows (sans flaming people chunks). It might not have made as big a splash as a number of its high profile peers, but it’s not a bad way to take out poachers with a friend, either, while looking like Indiana Jones.