How’s your week been? Mine? Horrible. Worse than normal. So, it’s time for some self-care. Get in your pajamas, order some pizza, and let’s get into some Super Smash T.V.
Smash T.V. was originally released in arcades in 1990. It was designed by the legendary Eugene Jarvis, the guy behind 1981’s Defender. More importantly, he created 1982’s Robotron: 2084, which is the godfather of twin-stick shooters. Smash T.V. was built as a spiritual successor to that game, so it has all the features you’d expect, which is to say, it is also a twin-stick shooter.
Super Smash T.V. is the title used by the SNES, Genesis/Mega Drive, Master System, and Game Gear versions. What makes it “Super?” Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s just a straight port of the arcade title.
Go! Go! Go!
The SNES version is what I’m most familiar with, and it’s the one that is closest to the arcade version. For the Genesis and other versions, you can use the second player controller’s d-pad to work as a second stick, but the SNES has the now-standard four face button configuration, so the buttons just act as a second d-pad. It works well, providing 8-way aiming that matches the arcade.
It also sounds the closest, even when it comes to voice samples. On the other hand, when played through the Genesis’ FM synth chip, the soundtrack is amazing.
Smash T.V. lifts pretty heavily from ‘80s dystopian action flicks. Specifically, its premise is about a game show where contestants bet their lives to win big prizes, which is similar to 1987’s The Running Man. However, it also lifts from 1987’s RoboCop, with the rampant consumer themes and the host of the show frequently spouting, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”
I feel like the ‘80s were the point where everyone was becoming wise to the fact that modern comforts and excessive consumerism were doing harm to humanity. While a lot of media at the time sincerely bought into the decade’s excess, others were looking at it with cynicism. It was a theme that ran under a lot of media at the time, resulting in the best era of cyberpunk and other dystopian narratives. Ideas like Max Headroom and The Terminator are emblematic of the times, and Smash T.V. captures that perfectly.
The actual game show, the eponymous Smash T.V., is equally glitzy and violent. Hordes of enemies pour in from the doors on all sides of the arena. Each one dies in an explosion of blood, though the console versions, unfortunately, don’t include the dismembered body parts that added a splash of color to the carnage.
Meanwhile, pick-ups of all types appear at random as you wade through the relentless masses. Enticing things like money, VCRs, keys, and power-ups keep popping into existence to distract you from the walk-and-chew-gum gameplay of a twin-stick shooter. Worse yet, for each carefully wrapped present that you pick up, it will tell you what you’ve just won beneath your score. Did you find a 2600” Television, or was it a toaster? Don’t take your eyes off the shrapnel guy; he’s about to blow, and you need to get out of the path of his projectiles.
The feeling of excitement as you don’t just rack up points but also toasters is supplemented by the end-of-round tallies. As your buff dude in the dumb-looking helmet stands behind a podium, your VCRs and TVs get converted into points, stacking up behind you, accompanied by a buzzing noise building to a crescendo. If you manage to collect enough keys throughout the game, you win the ultimate prize: a trip to the Pleasure Dome. Except you don’t, because the Pleasure Dome doesn’t actually exist in the game.
Meanwhile, the show’s host pops up every so often to spout a one-liner, flanked by outrageously buxom women. “Big money! Big prizes! I love it!” or “Total Carnage!” among others. Unfortunately, the SNES version doesn’t show him taking overt glances at the women’s cleavage, but he still wiggles his eyebrows.
I’d buy that for a dollar!
The gameplay itself is dumb fun. There isn’t a huge variety of enemy types, but there’s always a lot of them. Typically, there are the ones that arrive in swarms, while others will just complicate things by adding deadly projectiles to the mix. There are tank cyborgs and guys that explode, sending shrapnel in eight directions.
If you’re familiar with twin-stick shooters, or generally any shoot-’em-up, you know that it’s about finding a flow state amongst the chaos. Being able to watch where you are while still keeping aware of the situation. That’s Smash T.V.
Then there are the bosses, who are every bit as ridiculous as you’d expect from the game. The first boss, Mutoid Man, is a giant man melded to a tank. Your pea-shooter is useless, so you need to grab whatever power-up you can to simply damage him. Thankfully, he can’t shoot behind himself because he has no neck. You blow his arms off, and when you destroy his head, it explodes in a shower of heads. Then, when you destroy the body, there’s another head underneath it. Simply incredible.
Good luck! You’ll need it!
On the other hand, it’s extremely difficult. Smash T.V. in arcades was a notorious quarter-muncher. The SNES version adds to this my favorite bugbear: limited continues. You have only a very small number of lives and continues before you’re starting the whole thing over again.
I’m not saying it’s impossible. There are three stages. On my first try, with the default number of lives and on the normal difficulty, I made it to the end of the second stage. For my second attempt, I used a cheat that adds additional lives and continues, and with that, I made it to just before the boss room on the third stage. I could maybe/probably slice that down, but it is very difficult.
Luckily, you can also recruit a second player to join in, which is an absolute blast. I once tried to pressure someone into playing repeatedly until we could beat it with the default number of continues, but that didn’t last long before they escaped my basement.
Feel better? No, me neither. But Smash T.V. is one of those games that force me to hyperfocus to the point where I can’t hear the things bouncing around my head. It’s effective relief, if only temporary.
Speaking of which, Smash T.V. did get a sequel called Total Carnage. Whereas I feel like Smash T.V. leverages its tacky satire to great effect, Total Carnage just feels plain tacky. It’s mostly a humorous take on the 1991 Gulf War, which feels pretty gross to write out. It’s probably made even less tasteful because of more recent conflicts. It also feels like they’re lifting another running joke from RoboCop, where the news would play off devastating events like they’re just the daily business, then pivot directly to feel-good fluff pieces. The difference is that RoboCop is using actual satire, and Total Carnage feels like it’s simply making light of war. But again, that may just be in the light of more recent events.
Smash T.V., on the other hand, plays perfectly fine. I just wish we could get a port on modern systems. There was a port on Xbox 360, but it got delisted in 2010 after the company went bust. The last time we saw it on a home console was 2012’s Midway Arcade Origins. Without digging through the used section, the only way to play it now is on Antstream Arcade. Why? Because Warner Bros. bought all of Midway’s properties and seems to think that the only one of value is Mortal Kombat. But then, they’re also pivoting more to live service games, apparently, which is somehow even more depressing.
I think I’d better play some more Smash T.V.