Everything old is new again, or so you would think with all the remakes and “retro gaming” you see lately. Falling somewhere between “retro,” homage, and parody, Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond, the second title in the Matt Hazard series, follows in the footsteps of many great 2D side-scrolling shooters complete with the feature to play through the game side-by-side with your buddy on the couch. While the game does manage to invoke a few golden gaming memories, and a few co-op ones as well, it also reminds one why the past is some times better left alone.
From the start, you know that you’re getting into a game that is not going to take itself very seriously. The three difficulty levels you can select are Wussy, Damn This Is Hard, and, appropriately enough, Fudge This Shamrock [Ed. Note: The name of the last one has been cleaned up]. Players wishing to relive the olden days of Contra will want to go with the hardest difficulty level, where enemy bullets will cause your player to die in just one hit and you only have three continues. After selecting the difficulty level, you’re launched once more into the world of Matt Hazard and things quickly spiral into the realm of wacky. In the opening bit of dialogue, there are at least two self-referential moments, one self-deprecating comment about the first Matt Hazard title, a comment about how the plot is so ludicrous that you’re better off just ignoring it, and a couple of references to other games and movies.
It is rather impressive the degree to which the developers went to recreate the levels of other games
Oddly enough, this opening bit of dialogue also seems to follow the general flow of the game. The premise for each level is either a nod or a direct reference to some movie, TV show, or video game; the backgrounds and settings pull from video games both modern and old; and there are at least a few points in each level that make you think “this is absolutely ridiculous,” but not in a good way. The game play is about what you’d expect for a 2D shooter, i.e., you run, gun, jump, duck, and huck some grenades, with the somewhat added feature/annoyance that you can shoot enemies in the background and vice versa, ala Shadow Complex. Enemies occasionally drop different weapons, such as a shotgun, machine gun, laser, and flamethrower, and if you rack up enough dead bodies before becoming one yourself, you can activate “Hazard Time,” which makes your character invulnerable and increases your firepower for a limited period of time. With a second player in tow, not much changes in the game except that you now have two guys running around causing mayhem and destruction instead of one. In a nice little throwback move, if your buddy should run out of lives, he can always steal one from you to ensure that the fight lasts at least a little bit longer.
While the co-op portion itself is solid, it’s basically spoiled by the game at large. Replicating 8-bit games in a next-gen world – where color shading, environmental textures, and everything else needs to be just so – tends to make the implementation of some of the most common retro features more frustrating. Pitfalls, for example, were typically easy to identify in an 8-bit game (those big black squares in the midst of a patch of color) but in Blood Bath and Beyond you may not even realize something’s a pit until its too late. Not being able to scroll back may be something authentic to older games, but when your enemies are still spawning off-screen and dropping some needed power-ups, it’s just annoying.
Matt and Dexter face off against one of the game's bosses, a giant mechanical scorpion
Finally, the one certainty of any 8-bit side-scrolling shooter was that the player’s bullets followed a certain set of restrictions that dictated at what angle they could be fired and what path they could take, restrictions that the enemies’ bullets shared. In Blood Bath and Beyond, not all of the enemies are right in front of or right above you and in order to hit them, you have to stop and aim using the same joystick you use to move in order to shoot at that bad guy that’s at a 56-degree angle. Of course, said enemy has no trouble shooting you at that precise angle while his buddies in the background shoot at you as well. While these are all small annoyances with the game, the combined total of them adds up to a rather frustrating experience as players will likely encounter a lot of cheap deaths where there was little they could have done to avoid it. Having a buddy along helps make the game more fun overall, certainly; it’s just too bad that your only option is to have that buddy in the same room with you.
In the end, Blood Bath and Beyond does manage to capture the spirit of many of its 2D side-scrolling shooter predecessors, but most of what it manages to capture are the frustrating moments of those games. It still has its share of fun moments and players looking for a semi-amusing shooter to play with a friend may be interested in picking it up, but anyone truly looking to relive the glory days of Contra or Ikari Warriors should probably look elsewhere.