Narc is an interesting game now because it reflects a different era. Between the early 1980’s and early 1990’s, the United States saw a surge in crack cocaine. The Reagan Administration expanded on the initiative known as the “war on drugs” and Nancy Reagan championed the “just say no” campaign. And that’s where Narc comes in. It’s an arcade game with a strong anti-drug message. From what I understand, the idea for it stemmed from the campaign. It’s one of the first ultra-violent video games and was a target for parents because of its content. Developed by Williams Electronics and published by WMS Industries, Narc was released in 1988. It was designed by Eugene Jarvis, the same guy who designed Defender and Robotron: 2084. For this review, I played the arcade version using the MAME emulator and the version from the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 collection for the original Xbox.
Narc is a side scrolling shooter that supports up to two players. The protagonists are Max Force and Hit Man, two narcotics officers dispatched to apprehend Mr. Big, leader of the drug cartel known as K.R.A.K. Both protagonists are equipped with a machine gun and rocket launcher and can drive vehicles. You kill enemies for points and you’ll earn extra points for arresting them. You can walk, duck, and jump and have a limited amount of lives. Lose all of your lives and you can spend a credit to continue. If you access the game’s test menu in the Arcade version, you change the difficulty, starting lives and amount of rockets, what scores you need to reach to earn extra lives, and you can enable Free Play or infinite continues. You can also adjust these settings in the console version and they can make the game easier but even if you make it as easy as possible, Narc is still a very challenging game. On lower difficulties, I noticed some enemies move slower and I got overwhelmed less but still got my ass kicked.
Narc is an arcade game. Pure and simple. Enemies will drop ammo, drugs, money, and safe cards when killed. The drugs and money reward you extra points and the safe cards are needed to progress. Firing rockets is a way to kill multiple enemies in the vicinity quickly. If you run out, you can easily get overwhelmed and die. Enemies come from left and right, they’ll attack you from helicopters and vehicles, and you’ll always be outnumbered. The gameplay does feel borderline impossible at times and practice will be required to progress and beat the game without spending any credits. To put it simply, Narc is brutal. Every level requires you to do the same thing, get to the exit. And to do that, you have to survive the seemingly endless supply of bad guys. And in the final level, you’ll have to defeat Mr. Big. You can see where you need to go and where the enemies are on the map or radar at the top of the HUD.
You’ll encounter different types of enemies and they will sometimes surrender. You need to stand near enemies to arrest them but it’s kind of risky because standing in one spot for even just a second can result in taking damage or death. You’ll engage drug dealers, P.C.P. addicts which are big tough types, and clowns that wield knives. Enemies will fire guns, use flamethrowers, others throw syringes which can stun you and inflict a lot of damage, some lob dynamite, and then there’s dogs and bugs, the two most annoying enemy types in the game. They always show up in numbers and if they get close to you, they drain your health until your dead. The problem with these enemies are if they’re actually on you, you can’t fire a rocket at them or shoot them easily. You need get some distance between you and them which feels almost impossible to do. You can jump on the bugs to kill them but the dogs will rip you to shreds. Many enemies move faster than you do which makes trying to evade them extremely challenging. Plus, they can attack you from different planes. You basically have kill enemies before they get close to you and considering how many enemies will be gunning for you at once, it’s not exactly an easy thing to do. It’s the kind of game where you need to know what’s going to happen before it happens. You need to be quick to react and not miss. The final areas throw a crazy amount of baddies at you and if you can get passed them, you’ll fight Mr. Big. If he gets close to you, you take damage. It’s hard to distance yourself from him and the worst part is if you spend a credit to continue, you have to restart the entire fight. It’s ludicrous.
The game has you progressing from one drug infested area to another and you’ll go through doors that take you to different areas. You’ll face more and more enemies the further you progress. You’ll blow them away on the streets, in a drug lab, nursery, bridge, and K.R.A.K. headquarters. In one level, you’ll get the opportunity to protect innocent people which I think are hookers. The game puts you in the seediest parts of town and you’ll have to be careful of mines and what I guess are pot plants rigged with explosives. To achieve a high score, naturally you’ll need all the points you can get. Killing enemies, collecting drugs and money, rescuing hookers, and destroying shit will earn you points. Since you can play with infinite credits, you can practice to your heart’s content without losing any real money.
Narc was a great looking game in 1988. The digitized actors and detailed environments help to make the violence more pronounced. Projectiles and enemies are always clearly visible and blowing up enemies results in burning bodies and body parts flying through the air. Narc had a higher resolution monitor than the other arcade games of the time and it was the first game to use a 32-bit processor. The console version comes with some bonus content like videos and history which is where I got this information. The levels include detailed environments and backgrounds. You might even say they looked somewhat realistic for the time this realized. You’ll walk passed adult shops, trains, and garbage pails as you annihilate foes. Explosions and gunfire sound decent, enemies will shout “I give up” when they surrender, and they grunt and groan when they get shot. The music is okay and includes some catchy tunes but does get repetitive after a while. On the technical side, I have no complaints.
This is the first time I played Narc and despite it being very frustrating, I developed a soft spot for it. I’m not saying it’s incredible because it’s not. It’s cheap and very trial and error. But it’s so over-the-top that I couldn’t help but smile and chuckle as I played it. It’s definitely a product of its time. I was born in 1989 and the big thing in my school was the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. I didn’t pay much attention to it back then so I had no idea what D.A.R.E. was for the longest time but I remember the cops coming in every so often and hearing “just say no” a lot. And I ended up with a lot of D.A.R.E. branded items. Keep in mind that both the “just say no” campaign and D.A.R.E. were efforts to encourage children to reject drugs. In fact, arcade games from that time included the “winners don’t use drugs” slogan accompanied by the FBI seal and I think Narc is one of the first games to include it. It’s very important that we understand this message before shooting drug dealers, blowing them to bits with a rocket launcher, and running them down in vehicles. It’s actually very comical. Narc is an insane game and as over-the-top and technically impressive as it was for the time, the ultra-violence and carnage do not mask the fact that at it’s core, it’s an arcade game designed to eat your money. It’s brutal, challenging, and unforgiving.
I would recommend Narc to anyone interested in challenging side scrolling action games. It often feels downright unfair at times but at least you don’t have to spend any real money to play it. One of the benefits of the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 version is the little extras you get like the history and videos. If you enjoy over-the-top violence and unrelenting difficulty, definitely check out Narc.