Playing – and writing about – the best and brightest games from retro gaming’s past is all well and good, but, as I so often find, the weird and obscure often prove to be a far more interesting prospect than simply revisiting a game everyone knows to be a classic.
And we’re certainly erring on the side of obscure in this edition of Retro Revisited, as we take a look at Manhattan Dealers, one of the first games to be published by the French developer, Silmarils.
Released in 1988 for Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS PC, Manhattan Dealers (also known as Operation: Cleanstreets) marks the studio’s earliest forays in the world of video game development, a time before it found recognition and mainstream success with the Ishar series of dungeon-crawling RPGs.
Designed and programmed by studio co-founder Louis-Marie Rocques, Manhattan Dealers falls squarely into the latter camp, a multi-screen beat ‘em up starring street-smart narcotics detective, “Cleanup” Harry. Harry must scour the most salacious of Manhattan’s back streets in search of pushers, smugglers and crack-heads, relieving them of their various illegal substances.
The game map is divided into 9 individual screens, taking in the slums, back alleys and crumbling tenements of Manhattan. I suspect the decision to implement a flick-screen navigation system was probably due to limitations of the Atari ST and even more limited CGA PC ports, removing the headache of having to create a routine for handling background scrolling.
While the number of locations is small in number, each locale is rendered with a surprising level of detail. I wouldn’t say it’s a shining example of pixel art at its very best, but the distinctive visual style lends the game a sense of personality. The Chinatown district, in particular, features glowing neon signs, rotating barber pole, not to mention a brightly-lit dojo, breaking the monotony of the dingy alleyways of the downtown area.
In a bid to lend the game some semblance of longevity, the action spans five levels of ever-increasing difficulty. The locations and objectives remain the same, but you’ll often encounter multiple foes at once, get chased by motorcycle gangs, as well as collecting ever-increasing volumes of drugs.
Each level is prefaced by a short cut-scene, where Harry’s literally ashen-faced boss pounds on the desk, informing the detective as to which drugs ring he’ll be busting next. Whether it be the ill-effects of too many burgers and cigars, or simply poor palette choice, the chief has been rendered a ghastly shade of charcoal, and clearly isn’t long for this world.
Following this somewhat disturbing interlude the game proper begins, with Harry free to begin the clean-up operation in earnest.
Each of the nine locations is occupied by one-or-more street punks, gang members and pushers, each of whom can be carrying a random amount of drugs. These punks aren’t going to give up their ill-gotten stash without a fight, so Harry must put up his dukes, engaging in a frantic bout of fisticuffs. Only when the perp is out for the count can the drugs be collected, appearing in a collection of packages around the sprawling body. Harry must be quick to grab the evidence, lest any other thieving miscreants make off with the packages.
Various punches and kicks can be executed through a combination of fire-button presses and joystick movements, although the only thing to differentiate these moves are the time to execute. Jabs and body blows are far quicker to perform than kicks, and since they all have the same range, there seems little point in mixing things up, other than for your own amusement. Even so, there’s a strange sense of satisfaction in giving your foes a good thrashing, at least before the difficulty begins to ramp up.
Harry can carry a maximum load of 30 kilos of drugs at any given time, and with pockets bulging, he must now find a way to dispose of the drugs, permanently.
The screen located to the farthest right of the map contains a flaming oil drum, which can be used to burn the drugs he’s currently carrying, although the projectile-hurling thugs occupying the adjacent apartment block mean getting near said brazier is anything but easy.
Even if you manage to get close enough, actually depositing drugs into the fire proves to be far harder than you’d expect. The game regularly refuses to recognise you’re within range of the barrel until you’re standing in precisely the right spot, something I never did quite fathom, and I found it progressively more difficult to torch the drugs with each new level.
Fortunately, the game certainly lets you know when you’ve got it right. Stoked by several kilos of the finest Colombian, the roar with an unparalleled ferocity, turning blue in the process. If that weren’t indication enough, the ear-splitting whine that accompanies the process will certainly confirm the outcome of your actions.
The reward for sending the evidence up in smoke in such fashion is the restoration of a significant portion of Harry’s health. Quite how or why this works is unclear, but one assumes that the fearless detective makes sure to inhale one or two lungfuls of narcotic vapour before the fumes it dissipate.
What makes this vignette particularly amusing is the fact the miscreants continue to pelt him with bricks and broken bottles from the building above. Pain receptors clearly inhibited by the thick fug of burning marijuana only-knows-what-else, Harry remains rooted to the spot in a state of blissful catatonia, oblivious to the hail of bricks and bottles bouncing off his desensitised cranium.
Unfortunately, humour can only carry a game so far.
Manhattan Dealers suffers from a number of problems, not least the fact that, despite my observations about the artwork, it looks – and sounds – closer to a 8-bit game.
The reason for this could well be as a result of Silmarils intentions to release versions of the game on 8-bit home computers. In its February ‘89 review of the Atari ST version, CVG Magazine stated that it expected versions for 8-bit machines to reach the market by March of April that year. These versions would ultimately fail to materialise, but one has to wonder whether the 16-bit versions were deliberately limited in an effort to make cross-platform conversions easier.
Making things even more unpalatable is the fact that Amiga owners were expected to fork out £24.99 for the game, as opposed to £19.99 for the Atari ST version. The game manual boldly proclaimed many “optimisations” and enhancements had been made for the Amiga (no doubt an attempt to justify the additional price hike), although I think any such claims have long been disproved as unsubstantiated rubbish.
That said, by far the biggest of the game’s problems are the abysmal controls! Unresponsive doesn’t even begin to describe them, with the game flat-out ignoring the player’s input.
Despite furious and repeated stabbing of keys and waggling of joysticks, the game resolutely refuses to recognise that buttons have been pressed, leading to one of the most frustrating experiences possible. The problem is exacerbated when multiple enemies occupy the screen (which I suspect results in additional CPU overhead), with the ensuing action reduced to a crawl.
What starts as, dare I say it, an amusing and entertaining fighting game soon degenerates into one of pure futility and frustration. Surviving fights against multiple adversaries is often due to luck more than skill, especially against foes wielding knives, chains, or anything that gives them a longer reach than yourself.
Even if you do manage to make it back to the brazier with a stash of drugs, you’ll usually be taken out by a half-brick, hurled by one of those infuriating yobs in the windows above. This really is the final insult, and I suspect that most players will turn the game off in disgust, rather than to suffer its hellish controls one moment longer than is absolutely necessary.
It’s a shame then, that the game’s lasting impression is one of frustration. It’s clear Rocquet put a good deal of effort into the game’s design, and there are worse efforts from far more veteran programmers. The attention to detail in some of the animation – limited as it might be – is admirable; look closely, and you’ll notice Harry’s attack moves differ slightly, depending on whether he’s leading with his left or right foot.
I wanted to like Manhattan Dealers, but, to use an appropriately drug-related cliche, it simply fails to deliver the kind of gaming hit beat ‘em up fans desired.
Instead, it’s simply an interesting footnote in the history of a company that would eventually go on to achieve bigger and better things.