by Matt Paprocki
In Growl, a pithy number of mammals are saved by sanctioned murders, a style of overboard slaughter that separates legs, arms, and heads, a spectacle of hypocrisy. Oddly connected to Taito, a Japanese studio known for chipper military games, run-and-gun espionage thrillers, and harmless alien fantasies, Growl is an outcast beat ’em up full of unapologetic political litter.
Around 40 animals are rescued throughout Growl’s 20 or so minutes of anti-poacher carnage: eagles, elephants, lions, deer, gorillas. Comparatively, hundreds of human lives are lost. Men in turbans are brutally kneed in the face. Others are stomped into the ground. Some drown. Women explode into chunks after grenades time out. Growl is among the earliest video games to feature women of color prolifically and blows them up at the hands of four “heroic” white men who make up the Ranger Corps. Growl is apathetic to all, because animals.
The graphic violence is not necessarily repulsive in and of itself (though Growl’s ferociousness was unorthodox in 1991). Rather, Growl chooses to be crude and reactionary, content that an audience willing to pour in quarters would accept such a heinous depiction of human execution. The imagery is outright vile. PETA could hand out Growl as a digital business card. Sympathy for poaching is inexcusable, but believing this to be a solution is equally grotesque. Growl is as effective in its messaging as a campaign yard sign.
Weirder still is Growl’s playfulness. Cartoon words across the screen — “Shboom!” — degrade the fiction to camp television standards, a display of artless cruelty. Colorful, comic words are no shield to Growl’s abhorrent bigotry. Fern Gully this is not.
Growl is among the more critically confusing mass-produced arcade games of its era. A rallying cry of “Defeat the evil hunters!” is swept away by the nonsense of its closing act in which a rogue clown sprouts a rocket launcher for a neck, tosses around a tank, and rips open upon defeat to reveal an alien worm who was controlling members of the villainous poaching squad. Preceding actions take on the connotation of an exploitative zombie movie, matching the B-level tonality of the trailer-esque intro screens.
Growl’s sci-fi horror only makes things worse. Body parts and blood remain — now of innocent people controlled against their will, not poachers. Aliens are comforting foes. Slithering, slimy. Green. They’re often vapid as villains, too. But what would an alien want with these animals? Growl has no idea. Neither will an audience. Growl becomes expressly salacious without reason.
As a surface allegory, Growl is partly caught in the limited narrative bandwidth of the arcade form. Instant gratification is of prime importance, not storytelling patience, so the game calls the poacher group RAPO. Underneath this lack of subtlety is a competent brawler. Punches are fired (and sound) like machine guns while mayhem is celebratory, a fireworks show of scattering intestines. Dull moments do not exist.
Certainly, the game stands in contrast to an industry feeding on low-grade Cabela-licensed hunting simulations that flagrantly use birds, cheetahs, and alligators as mere antagonistic filler. Taito’s Growl loves those animals, just too much so and it’s damned mean about it.
Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 15 years. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can follow Matt’s body of work via his personal WordPress blog and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.