Hidden gems are always a true joy. I have always loved how my fave band, Rush, were never something that was forced on me from every direction. It was my pleasure, to enjoy when I want, how I wanted it. I’ve enjoyed them for over 25 years and just this year, turned over on TV and for the first time in my life I saw a music video of theirs, on the glorious Vintage TV channel. When you find something that just does it for you, and no-one else knows about it, it can be a wonderful thing.
My dad rented The Firemen on the SNES for me when I was about 12, I wanted it on the basis that the pictures showed a really intriguing game on the back of the box. All I saw were images like this:
This looked like nothing else I’d ever played before. I looked and it and genuinely had no idea what kind of game it was. Kind of a cross between Zombies Ate My Neighbours and… I couldn’t think of anything else. It couldn’t be ZAMN though, I mean, it was firemen! So the rental came, I retired to my bedroom with cartridge in hand, and proceeded to play. The game opens up with an intro which explains that as an office Christmas Party in New York gets underway, an unattended kitchen decides to break out in flames! The office party is ruined and a lot of the attendees are trapped in the building! You, playing as Pete the fireman, must take on the roaring monster with your partner Danny and try to save as many people as possible. Very Towering Inferno.
The game cuts to your first in-game shot and you find your pair of heroes stood in the entrance lobby. They’re chatting to the rest of their team who are currently stationed outside the building, and who will henceforth aid our heroes in their quest for glory. The moment the chat ends, you’re thrown right into the thick of it immediately. You hear the roar of the fire raging around you, flames are spreading quickly, it’s time to get on with the job.
The Firemen plays a lot like Smash TV curiously enough. Pete can ‘shoot’ his hose in 8 directions, and you can strafe by holding down the R button. He has his fire decimating water stream, but also a close range ground controlling spray which helps break through fires that aren’t necessarily causing as much chaos but are making it difficult to manoeuver around the levels. The fire isn’t the only obstacles stopping you progressing; destroyed offices mean you will have to crawl under desks, boiler rooms with burst pipes shooting out fire will have you diving under the flames, you even have to deal with backdrafts in this game on entering new rooms! If you open the door and you’re not prepared to dive for cover, you can be rocked massively by the effect of this fiery phenomena.
Graphically, it does a wonderful job of conveying the dangerous environment that’s to be tackled here. The flames are constantly dancing about, rain will batter down when outside, and the rooms are really detailed. Initially it seems like your usual 2D fare of the time, but there’s a lot of effort that has gone in to the whole setup here. Nothing feels wasted, and it’s great when you come across a doorway you think you can enter, only to find a backdraft which suddenly destroys the route. It’s all really convincing and helps you feel a real part of the game. You may find yourself experiencing slowdown every now and then, but considering how much can be happening in this game at any one time, this can be forgiven.
There’s water bombs that can be found which will aid you on your way. Find them and they can be hurled at the inferno so as to ease your passage through to the next areas. However, if you stockpile the bombs, they eventually upgrade your hose into an absolute beast of a fire-ender! As long as you don’t get hit whilst bolstered by this beast, you’ll now be flinging aqua coloured tides all over that pesky fire. Set-pieces ensure the game remains fresh throughout and the constant beeping of the heart monitor means you’re always determined to find those survivors as opposed to simply rushing through the floors. Oh, and Danny, the AI, uses an axe to beat the fires. Like, literally chops the fires away with his axe. *Shrugs*
There’s bosses! Not your conventional end of level meat-heads of course, but machines that have gone out of control and as a result, need to be destroyed to continue to the next floors of the building. They range greatly in difficulty but are always a nice interlude between all the usual fire-fighting you’ll undertake. The music also perks up in these moments and can really make for a tense battle. I also appreciate the final boss being unlike any boss I’ve ever experienced. I certainly won’t spoil the nature of it but it was truly unexpected for me.
Health is dictated by a simple health bar. Naturally, different fires will affect your health in different volumes, and the only way to regain that glorious life-extending goodness is by either saving the injured citizens trapped in the building, or by beating the end of level bosses. Music in-game is fairly generic but always up-beat in a hectic kind of way. The sound effects are just fantastic and really help set the mood of you being in an actual burning building. There just seems to be so many different types of fire effects, you’re never truly 100% sure what you’re going to encounter next.
The story-line is so engaging, by the time you’ve completed the game you’ve become heavily invested in the whole cast’s plight. You’ll be determined to find the son of the injured mother you come across, her begging you to save his life because she’s unable to move. Pete will be venting his frustration about having to do the job on Christmas Eve, while Danny urges him to concentrate on the job so they can celebrate as soon as it’s over. The building designer will show up to aid the boys in traversing the various floors, guiding them in the best directions and what they should be avoiding. It’s just all written so well, there’s not a dud character to be found, and the translation from the Japanese version is spot on; there just aren’t any noticeable issues here.
Sadly, the game’s not too long, being completable in a few hours. There aren’t any save points either, or passwords, this is Sonic the Hedgehog Mega Drive style gameplay. Complete or be killed. But the time you do spend playing through this is time well spent. It’s probably a top 10 game for me, and considering that personal list includes such titles as Shadow of the Colossus, Super Mario World, and WWF No Mercy, that’s quite the accolade where I’m concerned. If you can play this little treasure, do so. It’s an absolute diamond of a game, one which had no press, no advertising campaign, no fanfare since its release… and yet is one of the most original titles you’ll ever play. This is a ‘hidden gem’ I DO want as many gamers to know about. Get it on cartridge and you’re looking at about £40+ for just the cart alone. I’ve never seen a boxed version of this on ebay, just a lot of repros, but if I did see one and had the money? In a second.
This game can be played on the Retron 5; which is available to purchase through Funstockretro.co.uk
Follow Carl on Twitter: @auto2112