A simple but fun prehistoric platformer.
It comes as no surprise that back in the early 90s, there were a lot of Super Mario imitators, some more memorable than others. One in particular that I often recall renting was a goofy little co-op game set in the stone age called Joe & Mac. This title stars two little cave dudes on an adventure to rescue kidnapped cave babes from evil cavemen and their dinosaur minions. Yeah, it’s about as ridiculous as it sounds. But then again, so were the 90s.
Consisting of eleven stages and some bonus ones mixed in, players will trek across a B.C. landscape clubbing various cavemen and creatures, with some very basic platforming in between. From jungles to your typical lava and ice worlds, the levels are pretty much what you’d expect out of a game like this. Sadly, the length of each is often pretty inconsistent. The opening stages, for instance, take a few minutes to complete and have a few secrets to find; only to be followed up by a level that can be beaten in about 45 seconds, with little effort. This type of thing happens all throughout the game, which gives a very unbalanced feel to it. The saving grace to all this is that each stage ends with a different boss, although there is certainly some overlap in their performance.
To help out our caveman combatants are four powerups you’ll pick up in each world, all of which are distinct enough to justify their inclusion. The boomerang will return to you and hit an enemy multiple times while the almighty wheel will roll along the ground until it hits a target. Weapons like the bone and fire are also competent tools but pale in comparison to those previously mentioned. Thankfully, players don’t have to choose just one, because the game allows you to carry them all and switch between them by clicking the select button. You’ll keep these upgrades after death as well, but a game over will take them all away.
Speaking of game overs, there is a checkpoint system in place to help keep your progress upon continuing. In between each stage is an overworld map similar to Super Mario World but not nearly as complex and for the most part, kind of unnecessary. Within this map are a mixture of red, white and blue dots, each representing either a stage, checkpoint or bonus world. Standing on a white dot will create a statue, which means you can start back at that location if you lose all your lives. The blue bonus stages can be accessed through keys that you collect after locating hidden pterodactyls found in some of the levels. As for the overworld feeling like a waste, that’s likely because, unlike Super Mario World, the stages don’t branch out or contain any hidden way to complete them. This fact, combined with the linear layouts, makes the ability to revisit levels a near pointless feature. Checkpoints and bonus worlds could have easily been awarded after stage completion, removing the need to return to a very meaningless map.
The gameplay itself, is very simple, both in difficulty and design. Both Joe and Mac can perform jumps, but also have a roll ability and can leap even higher using a midair roll maneuver, done by holding up and pressing the jump button. While most of the platforming isn’t all that difficult on its own, sometimes jumping isn’t as responsive as it should be, which can lead to some unfair deaths every now and then. Same can be said for the combat, it’s not hard but occasionally your attacks don’t connect when you know they should have. While certainly a cause for frustration once in a while, neither issue should slow progression to a standstill. This is mainly because the game just isn’t very long, clocking in at about two hours, tops. Even with the short run time though, the gameplay is apt to feel repetitive due to the lack of enemy variety and linear level design.
The strongest asset in this game are the graphics. Both titular characters are designed well and stand out enough in appearance to feel different, even if they play identically. The enemy types do not vary much and can be a bit on the generic side, but they all fit the theme of the game and have well drawn sprites. The bosses are the standouts, however. From the towering stature of the T-Rex to the spiked exterior of the Ankylosaurus, almost every boss has a memorable look to them, especially the final boss. Backgrounds are nice to look at and are brimming with color, from the vivid blue river water to the boiling red lava of a volcano. Not much can be said about the sound in the game since there really isn’t much there to work with. Most of the themes are upbeat and enjoyable but are reused through stages, often back to back, so even tunes you like will become tiresome after a few sessions. Some of the best music comes in toward the end of the game but by then, it’s a case of too little, too late.
Joe & Mac may not excel at anything within its genre but what it does accomplish is a fairly fun if ultimately short experience. While there was no shortage of 2 player games at the time of its release, the ability to play simultaneously was a welcomed feature that some of it’s more successful competitors didn’t even offer. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any means, but it certainly provides a unique prehistoric perspective that earns it a worthy spot in gaming history.