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Total Carnage—A F*cking Crazy Sequel

What arcade game does Mortal Combat, Robocop, and NBA Jam have in common?

The Midway published 1991 spiritual successor to Smash TV: Total Carnage. As for how those three things are related though…well, for that, you’ll need some history.

Designer Eugene Jarvis started his career with scrolling shooter Defender and sequel Stargate, then went on to create mega-hit Robotron 2084. Widely praised for its innovative, polished control scheme, and fast action, Robotron brought forth a genre that had only been teased at previously with games like Gun Fightthe multi-directional shooter, more widely known today as the twin-stick shooter.

After wrapping up space shoot-em-up Blaster and don’t-do-drugs shooter NARC, Jarvis felt the need to work on another twin-stick shooter, and with programmer, Mark Turnell, and artists John Tobias and Tim Coman, Smash TV was born.

Most gamers of a certain time know it well—anything from the original arcade to the multitude of home ports retro and modern, Smash TV was everywhere after its 1990 release. Its combination of rock-hard difficulty, TV show presentation, and even further improved from Robotron twin-stick shooter gameplay got it a place in the history books. With the resurgence of twin-stick shooters today, thanks to the modern indie boom, many of them have Smash TV to thank for helping to popularize the idea the first time around.

What hasn’t seen as much exposure as Smash TV is its own sequel. Total Carnage was released to arcades a year after Smash TV, and was worked on by the same team as Smash TV—Jarvis, Turnell, Tobias, and Coman.

While not a direct sequel, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was—the same move-and-shoot action, almost identical art, tons of references to Smash TV including word-for-word voice lines, and the entire ending being one big referential fanfare…

But I digress, let’s talk about Total Carnage for a bit.

General Ahkboob has been working on bio-weapons and mutants in his baby milk factories, kidnapping journalists, and the population of his fictitious country to keep the military at bay. This doesn’t stop Captain Carnage and Major Mayhem from dropping in and engaging the masses of his military, man-to-man…or radioactive-beast-to-man, or horrifying-war-machine-to-man, depending on how far you get.

March forward across the auto-scrolling dusty terrain of Ahkboob’s military bases, blowing the bejesus out of everything that even looks at you funny, while rescuing as many hostages as possible. There’s plenty of weapons to help you out, including a spread gun, two kinds of flamethrowers, and grenade/rocket launchers, each of which is tremendously overpowered, which is fantastic when the enemy gives you no quarter.

“Ruthless” doesn’t begin to describe the enemy density in Total Carnage. They come in packs of multiple soldiers at a time, all shooting into the wind. Giant APCs and tanks cross the scene without warning to run you down. Fat flamethrower-wielding baldies hide in crates. This doesn’t even touch the mutated freaks of nature, or the three gigantic bosses that eat enough bullets to murder a small country, and break into enough parts that they start to resemble people who looked too deeply into the Ark of the Covenant. And of course, if you so much as touch an enemy or a bullet, you die—usually in spectacularly gory ways, my personal favorite being the death where you fly into the sky with a giant hole in your chest.

This is helped out by relatively frequent pickups—we already went over the weapons, but there are also timed invincibility collars, bombs you can drop where you stand by hitting start, missiles that clear out a screen, and little spiky balls that protect you from physical contact. Combine that with lots of pickups for your score, including little USA flags, and hostages, and also harmful ones, like bombs that’ll blow everything up, including you, and you have a recipe for chaos.

Chaos is absolutely the state of things, too. With everything coming at you at once, breaking down the steps to stay alive is absolutely necessary—never stop moving, get every pickup you can, drop bombs at the first sign of trouble, and pray to whatever god you have.

Total Carnage is hard, even for arcades, a definite step up from Smash TV. Even on the easiest setting the machine can give you, your default 3 lives will disappear before you can say “I’ll buy that for a dollar.” You will need a lot of money if you want to beat the machine proper.

There are things that’ll help—warp zones that are sometimes shortcuts, sometimes ridiculous gauntlets, and sometimes button mashing tests that’ll see you electrified and all your lives taken away. Every big boss and warp gives you a four-letter password to skip back to it later on. While you could realistically beat Total Carnage in one sitting thanks to arcade emulation letting you dump in infinite virtual quarters, it’s best played in short bursts.

There is one annoying thing that Total Carnage shares with Smash TV though—while you can finish the game, the good ending is locked away.

In Smash TV’s case it was omitted due to the devs thinking no one would ever finish it, but in Total Carnage, it’s a nasty bug that even the original programmer couldn’t figure out while working on the 360/PS3 Midway Arcade Origins collection. Collecting enough keys during gameplay won’t ever let you into the Pleasure Domes, and unlike Smash TV, there was no later revision to fix it. The ending is definitely in game though, and the password “AZAZ” will let you skip straight to it.

The reason why there was never a revision to fix the bug was that the game didn’t actually sell too well, by arcade standards. Despite being pretty much anything a Smash TV fan ever wanted in a sequel—which is basically “more stuff to blow up,” let’s be real—less than 2,000 cabinets were sold, a relative non-starter. Console ports were made at the time, but it definitely avoided most ‘arcade collections’ that Smash TV made it onto. The best way to play it is definitely MAME, which has more or less got it perfectly emulated, with support for any dual-stick controller you want.

Circling back to the question asked at the beginning of this article, just how do those three franchises have anything to do with Total Carnage?

Well, Robocop is a little more obvious than the other two—the infamous “I’d buy that for a dollar” line shows up in both Smash TV and Total Carnage, alongside the huge amount of inspiration taken from 80’s action movies. Programmer Mark Turnell’s next project was for an arcade sports game that would eventually become the slam dunk that is NBA Jam.

The Mortal Kombat connection is much more interesting though (and no, it’s not just ‘the same publisher’). John Tobias, artist for Smash TV and Total Carnage, would eventually go on to more or less create the entire Mortal Kombat universe—the plot, lore and characters of the original trilogy and MK4 are all thanks to him.

There’s a more amusing relation though—throughout Total Carnage, your commanders are contacted by General Akhboob, who makes general threats and just makes more of a boob out of himself while you’re chasing him down. When you hit the credits though, its revealed that Akhboob is voiced by none other than Ed Boon, the Mortal Kombat creator himself, several months out from the release of MK that would see him rise to stardom—a star that’s shining very bright indeed, considering the incoming release of Mortal Kombat 11.

That’s the story of Total Carnage, more or less—the ‘series’ created by the two games never saw another entry.

It’s still a blast to play today despite it’s rake-you-over-the-coals difficulty, and the widespread accessibility of MAME definitely helps with that. Eugene Jarvis would go on to create the Crusin’ series, his name solidly in arcade history as one of the greats. His latest project is as a creative consultant on Housemarque’s “Nex Machina.” Midway no longer exists, having gone bankrupt in 2009; Warner Bros. owns the Midway catalogue now.

If you ever have the opportunity to boot up Total Carnage, it’s 100% recommended, but good luck—you’ll need it.

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