Nostalgia Tripping is a column in which Dan Tallarico explores his collection of retro games to see how well they hold up. You can expect heartbreak, childhood flashbacks and a ton of Capcom games. Want to yell at him about old games? Find him on Twitter.
What I Remember
I looked up to cavemen growing up. Their carefree spirit, refusal to comb their hair, crude drawings that could withstand father time himself. Something about their lifestyle just spoke to me. Idolizing cavemen went far beyond video games, too. My neighborhood friends invented a game called Caveman Ball. It’s a variation of baseball, but instead of a set of rules there’s an “evolution” after every inning. What begins as a primal game of boy vs boy, slowly turns into a game with three bases, then proper positions, and soon it resembles modern day baseball with a bit more baseball bat throwing.
Joe & Mac spoke to me. It represented the promise of video games, a true example of the experience they can deliver a young boy in his basement. Inside a stone-colored cartridge hid the secrets to the caveman lifestyle. Finally I could emulate my ancestors with accuracy. Joe & Mac didn’t disappoint.
I remember a game with clubs, dinosaurs, and rocks. A primal setting that took the modern day concept of Mario and infused it with practicality. My brother, Joe, played the role of Joe, and I Mac. Together we trounced triceratops and climbed volcanoes. While kids my age were losing themselves in young adult fiction, I was exploring the prehistoric world without fear of paper cuts. It was all fun and games until I would eventually die, leaving Joe to carry on without me.
Playing it Now
I’m not really that into cavemen anymore. As an adult I’m free to scribble on my walls, eat hunks of meat with my bare hands, and smash things with clubs whenever I please. The allure and mystique of a lost civilization doesn’t do it for me. Despite those woes, Joe & Mac was able to keep my attention for equivalent length of a T-Rex’s arm. Those tiny baby arms.
Lingering questions like, “how does a T-Rex have such tiny arms?” addled my brain, but after dipping into Joe & Mac I come away with a sweet and sour taste in my mouth. Joe & Mac does so many things right that when it begins to go sour I just want to grab one of their developers by their shark tooth necklace and scream at them until my lungs no longer burn with rage.
It’s a platformer that runs at 70% of the speed video games normally propel themselves forward at. If this is slowmotion is a purposeful gameplay choice then I totally understand. I’d like to think that it’s a commentary on how slow cavemen were able to evolve, but somehow I think it’s more processor related.. Evil Cave Men dive at Joe with bushy beards and reckless abandon. Their motives are as clear as a dinosaurs hide. Never the less, with carefully timed swings of my club enemies are thwarted. My reward is progress along a dinosaur littered path. Sometimes there’ll be an egg that hides a power up that imbues the club with fire, or the ability to toss boomerangs. Classic cavemen powers.
Here’s what prevents Joe & Mac from becoming a true classic of the 16-bit era: with no barriers or expectations, the creators set the world in a tame and typical environment. A story of two cavemen could have invoked whimsical backdrops with radical looking dinosaurs. It could have evolved around the discovery of fire and how a single caveman had to escort it through the jungle back to his tribe. A solemn caveman could be forced to sacrifice their loved ones to a volcano, but the volcano actually turned out to be the place where dinosaurs hung out and at the last second Joe & Mac change their minds about the ritual. Anyone of those things would have propelled Joe & Mac into the record books as one of the most realistic and emotionally charged game to be inserted into a SNES. Instead, it plays like a stroll through a museum.
Enemies are torn from the discarded pages of a Hanna Barbera cartoon. Dinosaurs reflect the bones seen in the museum. Backdrops begin with boring greenery and slowly evolve to a lava backdrop.
The setting and story is paltry, but it does a few things that I can respect. Powerups are persistent and once they’re obtained they become selectable until death. Being able to swap between prehistoric weaponry on the fly is a welcome change. I’m mostly surprised that a caveman, wearing only a loincloth, has the luxury of an inventory. Data East, you little scamps.
A worldmap is present, but the only thing worth talking about there is that your character doesn’t travel to the next spot on their own. The direction has to be pressed in the whole time which can result in stopping in the middle of spots, which is kind of cool. Sometimes it’s pleasant to sit in no-man’s land wondering where to venture towards next. The “Caveman Dilemma.” Paths branch and zig-zag, but opening up secret areas requires the use of a key which I saw none of on my journey. Perhaps it lays inside an egg waiting for me to club it to death?
Clubbing in this game is as realistic as you’d imagine. Hits connect with a thud and the prey falls to the ground unconscious. You can club just about anything: humans, pterodactyls, dinosaurs, piranhas, eggs. Seals are nowhere to be found, for better or for worse. If this game billed itself as a club simulator I would be raving about it. Unfortunately, it’s but a journey of two cavemen who kiss a cave woman at the end of every level. A different cavewomen every time, no less. Is this evidence that mormonism was prevalent back in B.C.?
I’m looking forward to trying out Joe & Mac 2. If you’re looking for a caveman fix this is unfortunately one of the only games that’ll satisfy your hunger.