A shout out must go to the chat members of LordBBH and Jiggeh's Twitch channels, in particular trap0xf, whose commentary during LordBBH playing The Combatribes and Jiggeh playing Double Dragon 3 were quite helpful and confirmed a couple of things for us (mostly how Martha Splatterhead behaves with regards to hit-stun and that we were right, the default settings in MAME are the factory defaults and not an error as sometimes reported). Anyway, these screenshots are primarily from the US version of the game, set via dip-switches to two-player so I didn't have to reconfigure the controls every time my dullard writer wanted to play as someone else (but with the odd shot from the three-player version just for variety's sake). Please, enjoy far, far too many words about a mostly-middling scrolling brawler.
It is the '90s, and a developer responsible for a pivotal, genre-defining arcade game has a dilemma: what do you make instead of yet another sequel to that game?
This is where Technōs found themselves at the very beginning of the decade, and the game they made instead of Double Dragon 3 was The Combatribes.
Some context is probably in order. If you know at least a little about your arcade game history, you'll perhaps know that Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone was not made by original Double Dragon developers Technōs, but instead farmed out to East Technology, probably better known for their collaborations with Taito such as Operation Wolf 3 and Silent Dragon but with some original titles under their belt like Sel Feena and, uh Balloon Brothers. Why, though? Well, beyond Technōs famously playing fast and loose with their own IPs (it's how Renegade III: The Final Chapter happened, I suppose), an interview with Double Dragon director and producer Yoshihisa Kishimoto suggests that Technōs themselves had their hands full at the time, as they were working on WWF Superstars (which would later to lead to the very successful and beloved WWF Wrestlefest) and today's subject, The Combatribes. So, they decided to let someone else have the reins on their most internationally-successful IP, thus ensuring Double Dragon 3 lives in infamy, and instead worked on a completely new IP. I wouldn't say they wanted to escape the Double Dragon name solely to do something completely different in the genre, mind- despite the change in developer The Combatribes and Double Dragon 3 do have a couple of design choices in common like running, downed enemy attacks and a de-emphasis on weapons- but perhaps the staff (primarily old hands who'd worked on the first two Double Dragon games, such as programmer Naritaka Nishimura, musician Kazunaka Yamane and animator / character designer Koji Ogata but not Yoshihisa Kishimoto himself, we'll see him later) just wanted a fresh setting and coat of paint to work with.
In any case, it's time to set the scene for the clashing of bone and sinew.
New York's various gangs, from the Lower East Side to Coney Island, have been united by a mysterious boss for reasons unknown.
Seeking out this leader, the three members of The Combatribes will have to carve a path through the gangs to get to them!
BERSERKER Height: 7'01'' Weight: 176 lbs Almighty Type
BULLOVA Height: 6'10'' Weight: 258 lbs Power Type
BLITZ Height: 6'11'' Weight: 239 lbs Speed Type
Oh, sorry, were you expecting more story than that? Nah, mate, not happening.
All I can tell you (for now) is The Combatribes is indeed the name of our heroes, not the enemy gangs, even though that'd make more sense.
Across six Acts with such amazing titles as THE MOTORCYCLE NUCLEAR WARHEADS, THE SLAUGHTER TROOPS and THE SLASH SKATE SCREAMERS, your chosen Combatribe member makes their way across New York, beating up every street tough and area boss to find out just who's responsible for bringing the gangs together. Structurally, this has more in common with the earlier Technōs brawler Renegade / Nekketsu Kouha Kunio-kun than Double Dragon or most others starting to populate the genre at the time. Rather than areas that scroll as you defeat waves of enemies, each Act consists of one or two arenas that have either a full stock of enemies from the start or have them show up as you beat them up, and allow you to scroll freely across a large area, with a boss showing up after clearing out enough enemies. There is progression at points- Act 2 has a very short tower you climb after the boss appears, Act 3 is split into two areas of a roller rink and Act 5 has a couple of different floors of a high-rise to fight in- but it's limited. This works pretty well, surprisingly, as it gives the game the atmosphere of a small-scale street brawl gone out of control, a somewhat different feeling to other brawlers where you're always moving forward.
It helps that each of the gangs has their own appearance and fighting styles- the Demon Clowns include tumblers who escape throws and bop on your head, the Slash Skate Screamers run across the arena and try to knock you over with their sticks, and so on. There are some generic grunts amongst them, of course, and the Stadium Barbarians are certainly the least interesting (their gimmick is 'we have a knife punk') but each one feels distinct enough to give every Act (beyond the final one) its own personality and feel, with variety in the small enemy mobs. Sadly, the game doesn't capitalise enough on each Act's sense of place- there's no real environmental hazards (the closest you get to that is a subway stairwell in Act 1 that you can throw people down) and not even real weapons to pick up (there's only big throwing items- motorcycles, go-karts and pinball machines) even though, like Renegade, some enemies do carry their own bludgeoning implements.
This lack of weaponry is made up for in the variety of ways to beat down the opposition. For the controls, Technōs ditched the left-right attack system of Double Dragon II: The Revenge and went for something simpler, with just two buttons, a Punch (which comes out fast) and a Kick (slower but stays out for longer), and no jumping! Pressing both buttons together (or double-tapping left or right) gets your character running, from where you can do a running attack or just bash into enemies to knock them over, assuming they don't dodge. Where the game distinguishes itself from its contemporaries is what you can do to enemies once they're on the ground or stunned, although this again is something borrowed from Renegade / Kunio-kun, just greatly expanded. There's no etiquette or Queensbury Rules on these streets, once someone's decked you're free to help them enter a world of pain in a few different ways- from a distance you can jump on top of them and stomp them, up close you can kick them or straddle them and slam their head into the pavement, near the head you can pick them up by the lapels to either throw them or carry them around (which you can also do when the enemy is sufficiently stunned while standing- if another enemy's nearby when this happens, you slam their heads together!) and near the legs you can do a genuine Giant Swing to them. These are all universal, by the way- the three characters differ only in movement speed, attack power and speed, how many times they spin when doing the Giant Swing and what they do for a running attack (although mobility is the most important- the Kusoge Wiki suggests Bullova is, if not impossible, extremely difficult to beat the game on one credit with, whereas videos exist for Berserker and Blitz pulling this off).
Whoever you play as, that's a lot of ways to pummel your enemies, and is probably my favourite part of the way the game feels- all of these are deeply, deeply satisfying to see play out, even more so than some of the moves in Double Dragon (and the fact that The Combatribes is on hardware that doesn't burst into flames if you so much as sneeze at it, like the first two Double Dragon games, helps). It's a combination of the animations used (including gushes of blood during the pavement-slam and enemies feebly kicking their legs as they're being carried) and the powerful sound effects like enemy yelps and impact effects you get with each wallop. Most of them are quite useful as well- the stomp and head-slams do a lot of damage and can be used to finish enemies off, and the throws and the Giant Swing are your main crowd control techniques, as this is still a little too close to the release of Final Fight for the ol' health-sapping desperation attack to be a genre staple. The Giant Swing in particular is the one with the most utility, as it clears out anyone nearby and also gives you temporary invincibility, and so similar to D. D. Crew, you'll be using this constantly to keep the mob off you. A bit too much, probably (not an unusual thing for a Technōs game, as those who mastered The Elbow of God in Double Dragon will confirm) and you'd better watch out if you're playing in co-op because your partners are definitely going to get hit by it.
The main problem with these is that some of them are unreliable because of the controls and some of the mechanical quirks of the game. The pavement-slam, for instance, needs you to press down above a fallen enemy to get on top of them... But if you're trying to get out of the way of something it's so easy to do it by mistake and take a few punches to the face, and the generally slow movement of all the playable characters only exacerbates this problem. Even worse, grabbing enemies when stunned becomes a real liability from Act 4 onwards as knife punks and all of the Slaughter Troops will automatically counter any grab attempts by stabbing you for a fair bit of damage (fortunately they never outright kill you this way even if you have no health left- you need to be knocked to the floor to die). Enemies being stunned happens a lot when you're attacking, grabs are automatic, and once a grab is initiated there's no way to back out, so you'll take that damage and like it. This means that, again, a bit like D. D. Crew, you want to avoid using parts of your repertoire and focus entirely on Giant Swings and stuff you can actively get away with, which does make things somewhat samey. For me it didn't quite have the same level of satisfaction D.D. Crew did when it finally 'clicked', although some may find this easier to get into than that game. At the very least, the way the stages are laid out in that Renegade arena-style and the relatively small amount of enemy health means that each Act is fairly brief, which honestly something that other brawlers around this time could've done well to take note of.
Furthermore, it's a bit frustrating that you won't be using any of these fun abilities against the bosses, for the most part. Again, these are the early days of the post-Final Fight brawler, and so things like how to make fun and fair boss fights were still being worked out, so The Combatribes feels closer to Konami's brawler efforts with bosses that are pretty annoying to fight. There's at least some clever ideas with them- they're often equipped with a weapon you have to deal with like a big piece of lumber or a hammer, and precisely half of the bosses (for Acts 1, 2 and 4) drop their weapons when sufficiently weakened, changing their tactics in the process. However, you can't do any on-the-ground attacks on them for 95% of the fight- until you really wear their health down you can't even knock them down, eventually they can be knocked down but will automatically counter any attempts at on-the-ground attacks, and by the time you can stomp on them, it'll finish them off and the fight is over. As a result, boss fights are probably the least fun aspect of the game, mostly boiling down to moving vertically and getting in pot-shots when you can after you've cleared out their entourage (hopefully getting some Giant Swings in to slam into the boss), which is a shame as there's glimpses that they could've been more than that- the cyborg boss of Act 5 (who's basically Rudol von Stroheim from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure) gets into a pattern when you can knock him down where he uses his jet-boosters to hop back up, so with the right timing you can knock him back down but the length of his hop varies, so there's this neat rhythm to it you don't see in the other boss fights.
Moving on, the health system on its own is worth mentioning because it's a little strange and not entirely in the player's favour. The vague health blocks and bars of Double Dragon are gone, replaced with a number value (be glad it doesn't slowly tick down, Konami would've done that to you) but even though you'd think numbers are clear as crystal, it still has that Technōs-style vagueness to it- hit detection is a little weird as it was in their earlier brawlers at points, and sometimes you'll get hit and the number won't go down at all- but at the very least, once you reach 0 you don't actually die until you're knocked to the ground. However, getting health back is a different matter- on the factory-default settings according to the operator's manual, you start with 150 HP, do not recover health between Acts, and there are no health items, ever. As a result, The Combatribes is unusual in that the default settings are ignored for 1CC runs by channels like Janet- they switch health restoration on to either 100 or 150 after each cleared Act. This makes the game considerably more manageable (and it's crucial to 1CC it at all- you need as much health as possible for the final boss) and fair, but it's still not as ideal as health bars. The other thing about the health system is, well, as the game constantly (and on three-player cabinets, obstructively- look at where they put that prompt!) reminds you, you can insert a coin to get a top-up of 150 HP at any point you like. This is something Technōs clearly wanted to experiment with in the arcade space- it shows up in WWF Superstars as well, and while they may not have directly developed Double Dragon 3 the Yoshihisa Kishimoto interview suggests it was his idea to put the infamous shop mechanic into the overseas version of that game, where you need to put actual money in the machine for extra moves and weapons. It'd be so easy to accuse The Combatribes of being a "coin gobbler" or "quarter muncher", but that is absolutely not a term used around here lightly- a game has to be deeply cynical to earn that, and while I'd throw that label at Double Dragon 3, I don't think The Combatribes really gets that bad about it, seeing as you only get the same amount you'd get if you continued, although it does combine with those default settings to tempt you into it. When health restores are switched on after each Act, it feels more like a cheeky addition rather than something more sinister.
With the mechanics all covered, time absolutely has to be put aside for the presentation which is pretty great, with a ton of background detail on each of the stages- some highlights include the row of shops and restaurants in Act 1 and the crazy lights and monitors in Act 3- and an over-the-top design to everything. In particular, the player characters are huge boys, roughly a full head taller than most standard punks, which makes you feel immensely powerful while fighting, like a Goliath trashing hundreds of Davids (and some of the small-fry enemies even try to feebly grapple you, and you just elbow them in the head!). The enemy designs are also unique to each stage for the most part bar a few generic grunts and generally get the 'theme' of each of the gangs across, and the bosses are certainly memorable (although, of course, this is the '90s, so Act 4 has a Native American boss, you know how it is). All the characters have that distinctive Technōs style to them- the exaggerated frowns, the mouth-agape when they get socked in the face, that sort of thing- and it makes it stand apart from other brawlers coming in the wake of Final Fight. The audio does some heavy lifting for the fighting, with excellent sound effects that really sell the on-screen carnage plus some great background music, in particular Act 2 and Act 3 having some superb songs (although the quality of the soundtrack dips near the end of the game, probably because you spend a bit too long on the last two levels and they loop too frequently) and the Staff Roll having a strange, melancholy feel to it.
But speaking of presentation, we have to show off my favourite little flourish: the introduction of the final boss, the one and only Martha Splatterhead.
Sure, this is technically a spoiler, but if you know even only one thing about The Combatribes, you know about her, right?
In Act 5, you see this sleazy businessman order another round of the Slaughter Troops to fight you, then he escapes via helicopter.
He then orders for the boss rush in Act 6, and he's waiting for you at the end of the area by his limo. But then...
Now that's how you make an entrance!
(Oh, by the way, Martha can cancel out of her own hit-stun to attack you, and if you're in co-op, one Martha will appear for each player present. Have fun.)
The Combatribes is a pretty interesting study, then. While not quite the last scrolling brawler by Technōs (Super Double Dragon / Return of Double Dragon would release in 1992, and Shadow Force was 1993) it's one of the later ones by a company that helped to form the genre. It does take a lot of cues from the past in the form of Renegade, but it expands on its ground attacks in a deeply satisfying way, and the small arenas give it a unique feel to others that were to come. Sadly, it was released probably too soon off the heels of Final Fight (a couple of sources, including arcade-history, put its release in June 1990, which would've been a scant six months after Final Fight) to benefit from seeing the future that lay ahead for the genre, but while there's a lot of issues- the weird health system, lack of weapons, a large repertoire of moves but you're railroaded into only using a few- it also has some things I wouldn't have minded seeing in other brawlers, in particular the closed arena-style which honestly gives it an edge against the Final Fight clones that were to come in the following years, and brisk playtime (except for the boss rush, boo) as well as fantastic presentation, especially in the sound department. It's a bit of a shame Technōs never iterated further upon it, because maybe with some tweaks and fixes this could've led to a great game, something different from the games cut from the Capcom cloth to come. As it stands, though, with its issues it's just OK, something to try if you're looking for something a little different from a brawler, and certainly a decent knockabout with some co-op friends, but not anything more than that.
For being somewhat of a throwback but a riotous one, The Combatribes is awarded...
In a sentence, The Combatribes is... A very Technōs kind of scuffle, for better or worse.
And now, it's that time, folks!
The Combatribes only got one contemporary home conversion, but it's an interesting one- the SNES port.
Developed by Technōs Japan themselves and released in Japan two years after the arcade game and barely two months after the infamously-rushed Super Double Dragon / Return of Double Dragon (later rereleased on the Wii Virtual Console only on the US store, and on Project EGG only on the Japanese side of the site) The Combatribes on SNES scales things back in terms of what's actually in here, but weirdly adds more plot to an otherwise plotless game, and is also the only version of the game worked on by Yoshihisa Kishimoto, as the director. While the Double Dragon 3 / The Combatribes album seemingly lists a few boss names, this is the version that includes those boss names in-game (including Martha Splatterhead herself- did you know the name came from multiple albums by The Accüsed? You do now!) and establishes a proper story- our heroes are fighting against Ground Zero, a conglomeration of all the gangs in America, but The Combatribes head to 'the center of all evil in the United States', New York City (sorry, New Yorkers, that's the game talking, not me!) to find the leader. After beating up each gang boss, they learn the gangs are being gathered by Martha as she plans revenge against the army (which she used to be in a unit in alongside both The Combatribes themselves and the Act 5 boss) for turning her into a cyborg (The Combatribes themselves might be cyborgs but this is kinda vague and not really established in-game). This leads to a weirdly sombre ending for a game like this- completely different from the arcade game, making excellent use of the original Staff Roll theme (the actual Staff Roll uses a new, and rather good, composition instead)- that's more Metal Gear Solid 3 than Final Fight. Dark for a game from 1992.
As for what's cut, there's no three-player support, far less enemies on-screen at once (usually capping out at four), there's no longer any throwable objects (not that they were massively useful to begin with) and Acts 2 and 3 now take place in one single area, cutting the tower climb (meaning you actually get a lot more space to fight Salamander in) and the first part of the roller rink. Act 5 still consists of multiple floors, but there's now five of them, with the first four being host to the boss rush, and Act 6 is just a rooftop battle between you and Martha. A lot of detail has been cut from backgrounds and animations too, of course, but the post-Act cutscenes now have all new artwork with a somewhat mild anime influence seeping in. All this sounds like it's the inferior version, but as well as mostly keeping the aesthetics (the graphics are pretty close, and some of the instrumentation of the music is arguably better and clearer than the arcade), this SNES port feels a little better to actually play because of some other changes. The numerical HP counter has been ditched for a more traditional health bar which seems to let you take way more punishment (it doesn't even start decreasing until you've taken a bit of a pounding), you recover all your health after beating a stage (and inbetween boss rematches in Act 5!) and play control generally feels smoother- movement feels far less floaty, it feels like attacks come out faster and more reliably, and so on. It's still not easy, mind you- many of the control quirks from the arcade release remain the same, such as auto-grabs and mounting an enemy when pressing down- so the cheats for extra credits (both players share a pool of 5 credits by default, but you can use these cheats to increase this to 10 or even 30) might be helpful. Overall, I'd say this is the version of the game to play over the arcade release- actually having a proper health bar is a big improvement, even if some of the other criticisms are still unaddressed.
Finally, there's an additional gameplay mode, the scourge of all console scrolling brawlers- a Versus Mode. This is normally a completely throwaway mode that you'll read about in the instruction manual, realise it's just the main playable characters with exactly the same mechanics as the main game, and play it maybe once to never think about again. You'll probably only play the Versus Mode here once, but a bit more effort was put in than usual- they even advertise it prominently on the back of the Japanese version's box! Here the controls are actually different- you still have access to punching and kicking, but you also get one special attack or a jump depending on who you choose, and the ability to block incoming attacks or another special attack again depending on character choice. The Combatribes themselves, for instance, get to block attacks and also gain an energy projectile that can be charged (although it is weird that they have more utility in this bonus mode than the real game). More than that though, every enemy in the game is playable in this mode! As you clear the main game stages, you'll be given passwords, but these aren't to continue where you left off- you enter them when you enter Versus Mode, and they unlock the enemies and bosses from the stage you cleared (except for the final one, which also unlocks Martha Splatterhead). Additionally, this mode uses three completely new environments- a factory with flame walls, a misty cavern with fire traps, and a sewer with no vertical movement- with music made just for this port. Each character plays quite differently and there's a little novelty in being able to play as the bosses in a game like this, so it's worth a try- I'm quite glad I was able to try this with my brother for combat data (thanks John) but I only lost two of our three matches because my controller was broken, I swear.
Beyond the game itself, it's worth looking at the changes between the Japanese and US version (no European version, of course) to tone a few things down and bring the game in line with Nintendo of America's official video game content guidelines, mostly violence. First, the cutscenes between stages show the boss characters bleeding in the Japanese version but they're sweating or drooling in the US version (which looks very silly, but whatever- hover over the images above to switch between the Japanese original and the US edited versions). Secondly, a few character names get changed, mostly from Act 5- the name of the stage is changed from The Slaughter Troops to The Demolition Troops (although they still have knives and guns), one of the grunts is renamed from Execution to Enforcer, and the boss is renamed from Swastika to M. Blaster (or Master Blaster) though you'll mostly spot those name changes in Versus Mode. Finally, one building name was changed in the back of Act 1- Steak & Brew Burger is now Steak & Shake Burger, as brew can refer to alcohol, even though the store next door has a glass on the sign that looks like it's got booze in it. Baffling.
Additionally, when the SNES version was rereleased on the Wii Virtual Console (R.I.P.), there was one significant change- the enemy organisation was renamed from Ground Zero to Guilty Zero as seen in the official Nintendo website page for the game and the screenshot above, kindly provided to us by The Opponent. This was almost certainly changed because, well, the phrase Ground Zero and New York put together puts something very specific in mind in the years since the release of the game. You can figure it out, right? Since I have no other place to put misc trivia, here you go- this Lost Levels thread mentions that the Japanese version was originally supposed to be distributed by a company called PALSOFT, and that it had this boxart by Angel Cop character designer Nobuteru Yuki (hey, he worked on Kaiser Knuckle too!) that sadly went unused beyond a promotional telephone card. In the end, Technōs published the game themselves both in Japan and the US with new art for both releases.
Honestly, though, if you know about this version of the game at all... It's possibly because of its infamous US print ad.
Next, there's some cute little nods to The Combatribes to be found in 2019's River City Girls.
This WayForward-developed game, one worthy of discussion on this site another time, lumps a bunch of Kunio-kun and Double Dragon characters together, so it's only right that The Combatribes gets a little recognition too. First, one of the recurring enemies, Trash, is the same Trash from Act 3: The Skate Slash Screamers in the original game (although he's missing his skater posse, he has two colour palette variants, Garbage and Scum).
And second, two of the game's shopkeepers are Bullova (running the Wardrobe in Crosstown Mall) and Martha Splatterhead (taking orders for Lucky Penne in Ocean Heights).
Finally... Oh, man, when you bring up The Combatribes, you have to, you just have to, talk about MUG SMASHERS.
The kind of game you can only discover by trawling the absolute bottom of the barrel in MAME or visiting very suspect arcades, Mug Smashers lives in infamy in the hearts of all brawler fanatics who have to play absolutely every game in the belt-scroll genre for being the personification of jank. Developed by Electronic Devices Italy in cooperation with 3D Games on England (hey, don't blame me for this), it's showing up here because the entire soundtrack, plus most of the sound effects, are robbed wholesale from The Combatribes. All of it. Most notably, the first stage uses the staff roll song... And somehow I heard it first in Mug Smashers so the song is ruined for me forever. Ahem. There are also some very obvious similarities with some of the sprite art, mostly the standing and running animations for the playable characters, but if they are, they've definitely been stretched and it's possible they just used The Combatribes sprites as a template or a basis. Still a bit cheeky eitherway.
That's it. That's all I wanted to say about MUG SMASHERS
Oh, wait, you gotta see the intro to this one, it's so good!
I'll never have another excuse to talk about this game, so humour me, dear reader.
Look on the bright side, at least this isn't Double Dragon II: Wander of the Dragons.