Just say no – or else! If you were an 80s gamer, you’ve probably heard of this arcade classic. Or, you might remember its three-second cameo in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (I, for some reason, do). The plot is simple: NARC casts you in the role of the world’s two most badassed narcotics commandos out to clean up the streets. If you thought Chow Yun-Fat was excessive in his methods of crime busting, you’ve never seen these guys. With a machine gun in one hand and a rocket launcher in the other, it’s your job to carve through waves of drug dealers to get to the final corporate cause of all the drugs on the street and the ultimate drug kingpin himself: Mr. Big. I love 80s justice!
NARC in the arcades was the first truly hyperviolent title, and would set a profitable precedent for Midway/Williams to exploit later with Mortal Kombat. It cloaked the obvious carnage in a mildly unenforced anti-drug message; featuring the first time I recall seeing the “Winners Don’t Do Drugs” splash screen from the FBI, and I suppose, the suggestion that doing or dealing in drugs was going to get you blown away by the cops. But simply casting dealers as “the bad guys” wasn’t enough to mitigate parents’ ire at the content of the game, and certainly contributed to the ongoing debate of “should we really let our children play these games?”
Regardless, NARC enjoyed a lot of success in the arcades, and this is the direct NES port. The graphics took a noticeable hit, and are no longer digitized as they were in the arcades. Otherwise, the gameplay and other aspects are very much intact. Waves of attacking enemies swarm from both sides of the screen. You must dodge their fire and employ your own weapons to cut them down mercilessly. The machine gun drops them in a few hits, enabling you to cut swaths of destruction through the hordes. When they fall, they will sometimes drop precious ammo, or drugs and drug money which add to your score. The rocket launcher blows groups of enemies into a number of bouncing severed limbs if fired into a crowd (it’s okay, they’re drug dealers, remember?).
Your third option is to stand next to one of the enemies for about a second, after which they are arrested and removed from the level. You get more points, but it’s obviously a more dangerous task since it requires you to somehow sashay through flying bullets to play tag with a coke fiend, and some enemies simply refuse to be taken downtown.
Though it looks like a side-scroller, NARC actually plays more like a vertical shooter such as 1942. Your primary concern is not so much shooting bad guys, as it is shooting bad guys while dodging bullets. You’ve got to use shooter tricks like never staying in one place, and quickly moving up and down the screen, to last very long at all. You won’t die in one shot, but you could easily use up all your lives by the end of the first level if you’re not careful.
Despite being a pulp comic caricature of the infamous “War on Drugs,” and thusly pretty apparently about drugs, most drug references are removed from the NES version. Marijuana leaves and syringes are no longer pickups, instead, all drugs are covered by a single, nondescript baggie. A semi-bonus level where you rush through a greenhouse and collect rows of cannabis plants for destruction and points is altered to picking up a handful of what appear to be simple evergreen trees. A gang known as K.R.A.K. is now known as K.W.A.K, and the introductory level briefings in the NARC car are noticeably scaled down.
Surprisingly, the violence stays. The NES’s processing power isn’t enough to muster the numbers of baddies present in the arcade, but it can still manage about six plenty deadly fellows at once. This means a whole lot of guys you’ll be shooting. Graphics here aren’t as realistic as in the arcade – which perhaps is why the majority of the violence remains – and the backgrounds and characters are pale renditions of the arcade visuals. Still, everything is clear and understandable, right down to the distinctive arms, legs, and heads of blown-apart enemies. There’s less blood, but there wasn’t that much in the arcade to begin with. You’ll most notice it in the cleaner explosions of bad guy parts, though each flying limb will have a suggestive red outline. Dog bites also draw blood, but here is the only real violence censorship you will find. Attack dogs, when shot, turn to puppies and run away. That’s right. You can shoot junkies all day and into the night, but doggies are a no-no. I guess Nintendo might have had to answer to the ASPCA, but luckily, there are no lobbyists for those filthy, fucking human drug dealers.
The controls are easy to use, but more constrictive than they probably should be. Dodging gunfire can be a little hard, due to both the speed of your movement and the difficulty in telling where bullets are within the depth of the street. Otherwise, moving around, aiming, and shooting are all pretty straightforward and accurate. The B button controls the guns. Holding her down sprays the machine gun like a champ, double-tapping it unleashes a rocket. Switching between the guns is very clean, and there’s not the expected “tap for the rocket but get the machine gun” problem. The A button crouches and is only good for shooting the vicious dogs you’ll run across. Otherwise it just kinda makes you move slowly and get shot in the head. Double-tapping the A button makes you jump, which is equally underused.
Sound is pretty cool. The effects aren’t amazing, but mostly clear for the NES and well-placed. Guns sounds like guns, and you get the cute little pickup riff when you snag some drugs or bust a pusher. There are different themes for each level which sound nice and generally keep quietly to the background. They don’t get in the way, which is good. The digitized voices and screams are removed, of course, but the game doesn’t lack too much without them.
NARC is primarily an arcade game, so your only real goal is getting the high score. There’s a definite end to the game, and a plot you can try and follow, but this is made difficult since most of the objectionable drug material and information on the bosses have been removed. It’s all still quite tongue-in-cheek, and the untouched majority of the game is still about picking up point bonuses and lighting up crowds of bad guys. You do get some variation here and there, mostly in the level-specific bad guys, and some optional destruction. A few levels have drug lab equipment scattered around that can be shattered for points, albeit in a less-satisfying manner than was featured in the arcades. There are also Ferrari-driving moments, where you take the NARC car and wreak havoc on the freeways. Maybe it’s me, but these sequences seemed forcibly shorter in the NES – i.e. I kept running into barriers every few feet instead of getting a real burst of speed. Could be masking a technical limitation, could be bad driving.
NARC NES isn’t as impressive as its bigger counterpart, but that’s to be expected. At the very least, Williams would want to drive gamers back to the arcade, and it would make no sense to outshine that in the home version. But while the feeling of taking on hordes of bad guys, and the number within the hordes themselves, has been clearly diminished, the home version can still be rather fun. Two-player is great as well, and you and a friend can tear through the game pretty speedily while watching each other’s backs. It’s certainly worth playing through to the end, which you were quite unlikely to do in the arcade. The plot, as it is, starts to kick in once you get to the later stages and closer to Mr. Big. As a boss… well let’s just say he’s an arcade classic, and drug money can buy some pretty amazing things.
A fun arcade blaster. Worth playing through.
Great nostalgia, but can get boring by today’s standards.