Welcome back to Co-op Classics, the column in which we look at unique cooperative games from yesteryear.
With the recent release of New Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja for modern consoles and PC, it’s a perfect time to look at the first game in the series: Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja. Originally developed for arcades by Data East in 1991, Joe & Mac would receive unique ports for Super NES, NES, and Game Boy, and decently arcade-accurate ports for Genesis and classic PC. In modern years, the game has been ported to Switch as Johnny Turbo’s Arcade: Joe & Mac, and to PlayStation and Steam as Retro Classix – Joe & Mac, as well as a few home arcade cabinets.
The game opens with the kidnapping of a group of cavewomen by evil cavemen. Joe and Mac, the green-haired and blue-haired good guys, immediately set out to rescue them. Our heroes start out in a lush field where they must battle across the back of a sleeping T-Rex. Thuggish cavemen and malicious dinosaurs attack from all sides; it's hectic. Once the two cave bros reach the tied-up maiden at the end of the first level, the T-Rex wakes up and a memorable boss battle ensues. The game doesn’t show that much of him on screen during the fight, but he’s still a huge, gorgeous boss beast – one of many.
The two heroes start out being able to throw axes horizontally or vertically, though they don’t go very far. Should an enemy come within melee range, Joe and Mac will strike with a club instead. Holding the attack button will charge up a larger projectile – a fun mechanic. Hold it too long, though, and the character gets winded for a moment. New projectile weapons can be found within dinosaur eggs, including fire, bones, boomerangs, stone wheels, and even shadow clones of the heroes themselves. This being an arcade game, players lose any acquired weapons when they die.
Level variety is one of Joe & Mac’s greatest strengths. Over the course of the game, the heroes will travel across plains, logs on a river, a jungle, a fiery volcano, an icy cave, and the inside of a downed dino, as well as climb gigantic trees and a mountain. The two crude dudes even get to ride on the heads of friendly plesiosaurs in an auto-scrolling, shoot ‘em up-style level! Some levels end with branching paths, so it will take multiple playthroughs to see everything. Not only does every environment just scream with color and parallax beauty, the bosses themselves are a treat. Some of the best beasts include a carnivorous plant, a river-dwelling Brachiosaur, a cave-inhabiting mammoth, and a skeletal dinosaur. I’d be hard pressed to think of a game from this era with more memorable monsters. After beating a boss, whichever player did the best gets a kiss from the rescued maiden – a cute touch that inspires a hint of competition.
Joe & Mac is not an easy arcade game, especially in the modern ports that lack difficulty settings. Enemies constantly threaten the heroes from land, sea, and air. On the one hand, the number of on-screen opponents was certainly impressive in its era. On the other, it can be annoying to deal with so many threats at once. What's more, the heroes have an Adventure Island-like life meter that constantly ticks down. If Joe and Mac don’t eat food periodically, they will actually keel over from hunger. Thankfully, the modern ports allow unlimited continues, but a more fairly balanced difficulty (like that of the Super NES version) would still be nice.
Playing with a local co-op partner makes things a little easier. Both players will still die a lot, but enemies go down quicker when faced with double the firepower. Joe & Mac also has a co-op mechanic in that players can jump on each other’s heads. Potentially, this could allow the top player to fire at higher enemies more easily. In practice, though, the head-hopping is more likely to lead to accidental deaths.