Whomp 'Em is a game that I came across during lonely days of working in a used game shop. I took one look at it and thought two things: "There is no way in hell that this is a good game," and "I absolutely have to play this right now." So, I hooked up one of the NES units we had lying around and got to work.
I was surprised on multiple fronts. That the game was actually quite fun honestly shocked me and I spent the rest of my work day trying to complete it. What really got me was that this is could be the most culturally insensitive game featuring Native Americans that I had played since Custer's Revenge. It doesn't hold a candle to raping a squaw tied to a cactus, but it has its moments.
I never did manage to complete it and it just wound up on the long list of things I would get back to some day. That day has arrived.
Whomp 'Em has a curious history. It is the second of two games by Jaleco to be loosely based on the classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West. Called Saiyuuki World 2 in Japan, its predecessor was never released in North America. At least, not by Jaleco. As it turns out, Saiyuuki World is an unauthorized port of Wonder Boy in Monster Land with redesigned character sprites and little else changed.
Well, if the first game is a rip-off of Wonder Boy, the sequel is taking its cues from Mega Man. You play as a young brave, seeking to earn your rightful place as a warrior for your tribe. To do this, you must undergo six trials and recover an emblem at each. These emblems will grant you new abilities, which you can use in other trials to help aid in your success. Once you have completed a brief, opening stage, you can choose to attack the six main levels in any order that you choose.
One of the most impressive features is in the control options for your character. The little injun can use his spear quite effectively, with high and low attacks. Holding down the spear button causes him to keep it aimed forward after his initial thrust, which allows the spearhead to work as a tiny shield for projectiles. By holding up, it can block attacks from above. And, while jumping or falling, the spear can be aimed up or down to attack enemies.
Monsters drop an assortment of items to aid in your quest. The most frequently dropped item is a gourd, which works a bit like experience in the sense that collecting enough of them will increase the length of your health bar. It's really important to grab as many as you can, as you start out the game very weak and the levels waste no time in becoming difficult.
Other dropped items include a flint spearhead and "buffalo" headdress (which, strangely, resembles a samurai headdress). These temporary items will increase health and defense for a limited amount of time. Also of note are magic potions, which will refill up to six hearts of your health bar when you take a fatal blow. I can't even imagine attempting to finish the game without these as levels have no checkpoints and death sends you back to the level select screen.
There is a lot of great variety in the enemies as well. Each of the six trials has a cast of monsters within them that are largely unique to the level. I do have to question the wisdom of some of them, however. In today's world, it's questionable if the flying pink elephant enemies would be considered an acceptable monster for a Native American to be fighting.
I mean, seriously? What the hell were they thinking here? If that's how you want to play it, Jaleco, I have a great ideas for how the game could be improved. Why not have power-ups be bottles of "fire water" that make you invulnerable? Perhaps there could be another one which is a blanket that introduces a time limit for finishing the level before dying. Maybe when you win, you get to open up a casino!
Now that I think about it, that could be a really good game. I think I'd call it, Trail of Tears. I digress.
Completing levels in Whomp 'Em awards you new abilities, such as spear-chucking or a burst of flame from the end of your spear. You can even earn the means to become a cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs by way of a skill which lets you spin your spear indefinately.
Unlike the series which the inspiration for Whomp 'Em obviously came from, these new abilities are nearly useless against boss enemies. Where they do come in handy, however, are in traversing the stages themselves. Thrown spears stick in walls, providing a platform for jumping from, while certain blocks can be broken using specific abilities. And basic enemies are, for the most part, no match for a wind power that allows you to capture enemies and fling them across the screen to their doom.
It's a strange game, overall, but a really entertaining one. From a graphical perspective, it is obvious that attention was paid to the look, as enemies and environments manage a cartoonish charm and have a good level of detail. The levels are designed quite well also, and the whole game has a challenge level which is considerable, but fair in light of how well your character controls and how many options you have for defeating your foes.
I rarely see copies of Whomp 'Em in stores, but I would recommend checking it out if you get the opportunity. It's a hidden gem for the NES and one which you can pick up dirt cheap (a cursory scan of ebay had copies listed from $4-10, with a boxed copy going for only $15). This quirky game with a surprising amount of polish is definitely worth your time.