Core Design had quite a run on the Amiga in the 90s. Even at the times when other major publishers abandoned the platform, they continued to provide what became quite major releases. Some absolutely amazing, some quite cool, but with a flawed finish, others broken almost beyond repair under the slick surface. Could Skeleton Krew do within the Gauntlet genre what Banshee did for the 1942-style vertical shooters?
For sure, it is one incredibly stylized game once again. One or two out of three monster superhero characters named after body parts shoot their way through a good dozen or so of levels in order to stop a baddie who… well, honestly, it seems what the guy is planning to do to the population is quite in line with what the “heroes” already are. But anyway, who needs plots which make sense in this genre?
The biomechanical designs, the run-down machinery, the flooded underground facilities, the vines reconquering the industrialized city, the mutated monster enemies who simply melt upon dying… it all comes across very thought through. Consistently, a hip-hop techno soundtrack booms from the speakers in crystal clear technical fashion (if only the bog-standard sound effects could live up). Animations are smooth, especially the player characters have been given a large number of frames to run, turn and jump in ways which were something to marvel at at the time and which still work today. Subjectively, this style doesn't appeal to me much, because it all appears as if they are trying too hard (also with the “k” onslaught of the manual), but that's just a matter of taste.
On control side, the game tries to solve one of the age-old genre issues of only being able to shoot in the direction you're running as well. Three different control schemes can be configured, and a fourth one selected if two fire buttons are available. One is the classic one, as all players are used to from other games. Another one enables decoupling movement and shooting directions, so that for example firing while running backwards is possible. Ironically, the two button mode is the most awkward one, requiring both buttons to be pressed to fire straight. For sure, there is no “perfect” mode and unfortunately, switching during the game (as in Alien Bash II) isn't possible. A brave and worthy attempt for sure, but not quite as optimized as one would have hoped for.
In any case, Skeleton Krew doesn't make it. Apart from the mentioned weakness in sound effects, it is the level design which simply doesn't live up. Everything is quite samey. Few hidden secrets exist, but never amount to anything else but bonus points (eventually resulting in bonus lives). Weapons remain the same throughout, without even power upgrades. Enemies don't show much variety, either, the sole small exception being the insect swarms in the jungle level.
Sure, running and shooting, it's been the core of the genre ever since the seminal title. Though by the mid-1990s, there had been offspring which had really done significantly better, most notably The Chaos Engine, sporting a similarly thematically stylized approach, but also memorable enemies and levels. Skeleton Krew has to be considered more on par with Alien Breed instead: it offers a really well done foundation, but execution, following through to the details, leaves a lot to be desired. It's entertaining once you master the controls, but not exceedingly so.
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