Back in the early 1990s, Data East released a dinosaur-filled arcade game called Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja that went on to spawn numerous ports and a sequel or two. Data East closed down in 2003, and the series remained dormant for many years thereafter. French publisher Microids and developer Mr. Nutz Studio (of Asterix & Obelix: Slap Them All! fame) have finally brought the heroic cavemen back with New Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja, an HD remake of the original arcade game. The remake features 2-player local co-op and a handful of new features but lacks some of the arcade game’s charm.
Whether new or old, Joe & Mac is the story of two heroic cavemen who must rescue the women of their village from a gang of evil, less evolved cavemen. Our heroes’ quest takes them through a lush jungle, up a mountain, across a river, through a volcanic area, and even inside the belly of a beast. Joe and Mac will battle cavemen, small dinosaurs, and several gigantic and memorable bosses, rescuing a cave-maiden at the end of each level. Four of the five levels end with alternate paths, and the game gives players a choice of three endings after defeating the final boss, enhancing replay value. See our Co-op Classics column for more details.
Gameplay consists of a mix of platforming and combat, with the heroes throwing axes by default. Inside dinosaur eggs, players will find a variety of ranged weapons, including boomerangs, dinosaur teeth, stone wheels, fire, electricity, and the ability to launch cloned cavemen. The clone and wheel are easily the best weapons, whereas fire has such poor range in New Joe & Mac that it sometimes can’t even hit bosses. Holding the attack button will charge up a larger projectile - but holding it too long will tire the caveman out. Joe and Mac have two heights of jumps; holding up while jumping performs a higher jump, Shinobi-style. High jumps are so necessary that a dedicated button would've been a great addition for this remake, but no dice, alas. Players have life meters that will continually drain (on Normal difficulty or above) and must be replenished by eating some of the ample food that enemies drop when killed.
The chief selling point of New Joe & Mac is the high-definition artwork from Mr. Nutz Studio. The game runs in widescreen and features completely revamped, hand-drawn visuals. For the most part, everything looks quite nice – especially the backgrounds. Bosses have been upgraded in the sense that they’re no longer restricted by the limitations of 16-bit sprites. We get to see a lot more of the Tyrannosaurus boss of the first level and the Tyrannosaurus skeleton boss towards the end of the game, and the penultimate boss is portrayed as a giant snake rather than just a T-Rex head with a segmented neck. The snake boss isn’t the only one to get a revisionist interpretation; Level 2’s giant plant now has eyes and a more expressive face, for better or worse.
New Joe & Mac (left); Joe & Mac (right)
Unfortunately, some of the details and animations present in the arcade game’s sprites didn’t make it into New Joe & Mac. Most glaringly, Mac is now just a palette-swapped Joe sprite instead of a different sprite with a unique haircut. Store screenshots and an early trailer showed Mac with his original haircut, so the downgrade to sharing the same sprite as Joe is curious indeed. Also missing are unique hairstyles for the kidnapped maidens, animations of the heroes getting scared by bosses, angels floating away when players die, the T-Rex opening his eyes as players walk by before fighting him, the mammoth's trunk and tusks don't break off until he dies, and the heroes walking into the snake’s mouth at the end of the game. Without that animation, it’s not really clear that the final boss fight takes place inside the snake! Also, when the cave-girl kisses the player with the highest score at the end of each level, the player who doesn’t get kissed no longer looks sad, and the game fades to black too soon.
New Joe & Mac launched without some promised modes and expected features, resulting in a bevy of negative Steam reviews. Since then, the game has been updated, and now offers two primary modes, a handful of extra modes, and five difficulty levels. Arcade Mode offers the traditional arcade experience, whereas Extend Mode features longer stages. The arcade game’s stages were always very short and tough, so the newly extended stages are certainly welcome.
Both Arcade and Extend only offer limited continues – a poor development decision, to be sure. That said, the game is easily beaten on the lowest difficulty level. As for extras, there are speedrun versions of Arcade and Extend, as well as a Boss Rush mode. Although the Xbox and PlayStation versions gained Achievements/Trophies for Extend Mode when it was added after release, the poor Steam version only has Achievements for Arcade Mode.
Joe & Mac has always shined in co-op, and that’s true of the remake as well. A second player can join in as Mac at any time (player 1 can't actually choose Mac). Bringing along a partner makes it much easier to deal with the constantly spawning regular enemies, but the main way co-op is easier is that when a player dies, he or she respawns right where they were. In single-player, you’re sent back to a checkpoint upon dying. The arcade game’s mechanic of being able to jump on your partner’s head is missing here, but it’s no great loss. That move was never actually needed in the original game.
Microids’ New Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja is an uneven remake. Most of the fun of the arcade game is present, but the missing sprite details and animations, as well as a general lack of polish (such as the absence of sound settings), make the game less special. The hand-drawn boss dinosaurs here are arguably less impressive than the colorful, creatively rendered sprites of the original game. That said, my co-op partner who had never played the original really enjoyed the remake. New Joe & Mac has enough content (and easy Achievements/Trophies) for a couple of hours of dino-bashing fun, but you’ll probably want to wait for a good sale.
New Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja sells for $29.99 on Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch, and $24.99 on Steam. Physical versions for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Switch go for $39.99. The Steam version is fully Steam Deck compatible.
A Steam download code was provided by the publisher for this review.
The Co-Op Experience: One pre-historical dude may be not enough, so ask a friend to play with you to share a stronger adventure.
Co-Optimus game reviews focus on the cooperative experience of a game, our final score graphic represents this experience along with an average score for the game overall. For an explanation of our scores please check our Review Score Explanation Guide.