*Review based on Joe and Mac 2’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Service*
Developed by Data East and released on the Super NES in 1994, Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics is the third game in its series (yeah, it’s one of those video game sequel situations), being the sequel to the original Joe & Mac, and Congo’s Caper, which was a sequel in world and gameplay but featured a different character.
Joe and Mac are two cavemen on a quest to reclaim a crown that was stolen from their village elder by a rival clan. Equipped with (what else?) clubs, Joe and Mac venture to various lands, fight rival cavemen and vicious dinosaurs, and in a strange, quasi-RPG twist, can find brides and build up their homes on the side.
The core game is an action side-scroller with a dash of platforming, where the aforementioned bashing of enemies with clubs takes place. But the game also features an old RPG-style world map where you travel between the stages, which is a nice touch that I wish more action and platformer games of the time would have adopted. Once the first stage is completed and you’ve visited the local village, you can basically choose the order in which you complete the other stages via the world map which, again, is a really nice change of pace for the genre.
On the downside, there are only six stages in total (not counting the final level, which is a boss rush), but at least they’re decently lengthy for a game of its time. While the stages follow usual platforming themes (there’s a snow level, a volcano, and a swamp), the level design is distinct enough to make each stage stand out. I especially like how different segments of each stage are given different titles, which pop up in a window in the middle of the screen.
As you might expect, each level comes with its own gimmicks. The snow level, for example, has a section that sees Joe and/or Mac cling to ropes to prevent getting knocked off the stage by an avalanche. Other stages have portions where the cavemen can ride on cute dinosaurs, who each have their own projectile.
Although the core gameplay is decently fun, these gimmicks drag the game down somewhat. While Data East’s attempts at level and gameplay variety are commendable, the level gimmicks aren’t nearly as successfully realized here as those in more famous platformers like Super Mario World or Donkey Kong Country. It’s way too easy to let go of the ropes by accident in the avalanche segment, making it more difficult than intended. And as cool as the idea of riding dinosaurs is, they feel extremely underpowered. Remember how powerful Mario felt when riding Yoshi in Super Mario World? Well here, it’s the exact opposite. The dinosaurs Joe and Mac ride on die in one hit, while Joe and Mac themselves take six hits to take down. Worse still, each rideable dinosaur only appears in a single segment of the game. So chances are your experiences with each dinosaur will be insanely brief.
One cool aspect is how healing items also serve as power-ups. Eat a piece of meat to heal Joe or Mac, and then you can spit out a few bones as projectiles (although I wish using the club and spitting bones were used with different buttons, since it’s difficult to hit smaller enemies with the bones, but you have to use them up before you can use the club again). Eat chili peppers and of course you can spit fire, just like in real life. Joe and Mac can even gulp a handful of water to spit at enemies. It’s simple stuff, but I like the idea that these items both heal the characters and give them new abilities. Additionally, you can also get upgrades to your club, allowing them to shoot shockwaves in addition to simply bashing someone on the head.
The highlights of the platforming stages are the large dinosaurs that serve as the boss fights. Though most of the bosses are pretty easy, I like the simple idea that each stage gets its own dinosaur as its boss. It’s kinds of ideas that give retro games a fun sense of personality that many modern games lack.
While the main stages feature action and platforming, Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics attempts something of an RPG element in its town. During the levels, you can pick up stone wheels (think Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings), which can be spent in the village as currency. Unfortunately, it’s here where the game really drops the ball, as the RPG element feels pretty pointless and tacked on.
Aside from purchasing the same healing items you can find in the stages themselves, you can also purchase melons which – as far as I can tell – don’t do anything of note (a window pops up to tell you that the melon tasted fresh, but I never noticed it had any utilitarian usage in gameplay). Additionally, you can purchase flowers, which you can then give to one of three cavewomen behind a curtain. If the girl likes the flowers, she’ll marry your character. If you can get her flowers she likes two additional times, she’ll produce a child (just like real life). Finally, you can also buy upgrades to your home, making it bigger and have more in it.
What’s the point of all this? Nothing, really. You can go back to your home village and enter your home, but all that gives you is some basic dialogue from your wife and then you automatically leave the house. You also get to see your house during the end of the game, but again, it’s no different from when you drop by any other time. It’s bizarre, you go through all the trouble of collecting the stone wheels, only to spend most of them on a pointless side quest with random elements (you’ll probably spend a good few wheels on flowers only for them to fail to impress the girl). It’s as if the developers wanted to add this whole other side to the game, but barely got started on it before they had to ship the final product.
Still, the core gameplay in the platforming stages is decently fun and fluid, though they aren’t immune to what can only be described as “old video game jank.” That is to say, certain clunky elements that feel like the product of their time. For example, there’s one instance in the swamp level where you climb down a rope, and an enemy spawns mid-jump as you’re heading down. Unless you know that’s going to happen, you can’t avoid it on the first try, so hopefully you have more than one hit point when you get there. Another such instance happens in the caves of the snow stage, when an absolute barrage of enemies just keep coming at you. Perhaps this section (and others) isn’t so bad when you have two players and both Joe and Mac can take on the enemies. But the developers clearly had the idea of a solo player as an afterthought, because so many sections feel overwhelming for a single player.
If there’s one area in which Joe & Mac 2 gets things consistently right, it’s in the aesthetics. Visually speaking, the game looks amazing! I have stood firm in my claims that the 16-bit generation of gaming remains its most timeless era, and Joe & Mac 2 is another example why that is. The background graphics are rich in detail, and the character sprites are vividly animated (I especially like the contrast of the boss dinosaurs with everything else in the game. The cavemen and friendly dinosaurs look cartoony, but the boss dinosaurs are highly detailed and more realistic, relatively speaking). And though the soundtrack isn’t one of the many all-time greats to come out of the SNES library, it’s still upbeat and pleasant.
Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics can be a fun game at times, and with two players, you’re probably going to get even more enjoyment out of it. Unfortunately, without a buddy by your side, its faults are more apparent. Some poorly-realized elements in the main stages hold the fun back a bit, but the utter pointlessness of the RPG stuff on the side is what really feels like a missed opportunity.
Still, in this day and age of nostalgic comebacks, I wouldn’t mind seeing Joe & Mac make their long-awaited return. Hey, if Bubsy can do it, anyone can.