Retro Gaming Challenge Week Five: Three Dirty Dwarves (Saturn)

Time to get down and dirty with Three Dirty Dwarves, a lesser known Saturn game with a nicely offbeat sense of humour.
Another week of my 52-week challenge down. Mathematically, by next Monday/Tuesday, I’ll be ten percent of the way through the entire thing. My, how time flies when I’m having retro fun.
For those coming in late, I’m going to play one retro game a week for the next year; everything from every platform is up for grabs, as long as I own a physical copy of it. I have, at a conservative estimate too many games, so choice is not going to be a problem, and you can vote on what I play next at the bottom of this piece.
Retro Gaming Challenge Week One: Shin Nippon Pro Wrestling: Toukon Road 2: The Next Generation (N64)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Two: Donkey Konga (Gamecube)
Retro Gaming Challenge Week Three: The Firemen (SNES)
Retro Games Challenge Week Four: Space Invaders (2600)
I’ve still got to make a week where I play the Dreamcast Godzilla, although the eBay seller I bought it from says it’s incoming. It’s only now that I start hoping like crazy it’s a legit copy. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Three Dirty Dwarves: Time to get dirty

There are Saturn games that everybody knows. Nights, Virtua Fighter 2, or even (if you like your games on the pricey side) Radiant Silvergun.
Then there’s Three Dirty Dwarves, a 1996 Saturn title with very little online pedigree. No, really; in researching it online for writing up this week’s challenge I was struck by how little information there is on it compared to other Saturn titles. It doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia page of its very own for whatever reason.
That’s a pity, I think, because while it’s a game with some significant flaws, it’s also an ambitious title for its generation, and one that later games such as Castle Crashers owe a rather obvious debt to.
That doesn’t mean it’s a mystery game; just that it’s under-represented relative to the rest of the Saturn catalogue. For whatever it’s worth, I randomly discovered that, apart from the Sega Saturn version, there’s also a Windows PC version of Three Dirty Dwarves. Also, that Appaloosa Interactive were responsible for Ecco The Dolphin, a game which at least thematically shares just about nothing with Three Dirty Dwarves. But I digress.

I'm struggling to think of another game that has an entire gym (on tiny feet) as a boss battle.
I’m struggling to think of another game that has an entire gym (on tiny feet) as a boss battle.

In terms of modern analogues for Three Dirty Dwarves, about the closest you could get would be Castle Crashers. Both games are ostensibly beat-em-ups in the classic Double Dragon style, with intermittent mini-game levels that pit you against other hazard types, such as the inevitable mine cart level, or larger boss fights. Three Dirty Dwarves does have the benefit of coming out some twelve years beforehand, though.
Still, both games also share the same roughly crude sense of slightly self-deprecating humour, which is why Three Dirty Dwarves features a level where you take on an entire gym, or one where you defeat a dragon using wrecking ball. Or one featuring naked ninjas, their rude bits covered with specific black bars of decency. It’s gloriously silly, and it knows it.

Three Dirty Dwarves: Show, don’t tell

One of Three Dirty Dwarves’ most endearing features is the use of animated cutscenes to tell the story. The Dwarves aren’t just rumbling in the Bronx for the sake of it, although the Bronx they’re in is certainly a place to rumble. They’re the imaginary constructs of children being held for military experiments who roleplay as the Dwarves in their spare time, and fervently believe that the Dwarves can come and rescue them. It’s Tinkerbell, in essence, except that Tink in this case has a beard and a shotgun.
The animation in Three Dirty Dwarves is kind of cheap and nasty, but the tone works well enough within the scope of the game itself. It’s a pity, though, that there isn’t more of it. It starts out well with breaks between levels that progress the narrative along, and then more or less stops until right near the very end of the game. Yeah, I know, most people don’t want to sit through loads of cut scenes, but given their generically cheap look, it’s a pity there weren’t a few more in there. Watching Fantasy Dwarves swallow maps or beat each other up is never not funny.

Nobody said these Dwarves were bright. Just dirty.
Nobody said these Dwarves were bright. Just dirty.

As I’ve played Three Dirty Dwarves this week, I’ve also been struck by how it has gameplay balance issues. The basic premise of the game is that it’s a scrolling beat-em-up, years after such things were really fashionable (mental note: Do a Double Dragon-style-but-not-Double-Dragon-itself-week), but rather than a health bar, you have three Dwarves to pick between. A single hit knocks out a given Dwarf, but you can revive him with any other Dwarf by walking over to them and hitting them on the head. That feels nicely Dwarvish, and means you can progress quite a bit, but against that there’s a variety of enemies with rather odd attack patterns, which means that often the first time you face them, they will quickly beat all three of your Dwarves, and that’s rather frustrating.
The trick, as I discovered, is to treat your fellow dwarves as enemy combatants. No, I’m serious. Because the action to revive a fallen dwarf is to hit them on the head, if you make roughly every third hit one towards your dwarves, even on the tougher level you’re more likely to be reviving a dwarf (and keeping yourself alive) as you go.

Three Dirty Dwarves: I did what now?

Now, something interesting happened during my week of playing Three Dirty Dwarves. Something that isn’t always going to happen while playing a bunch of retro games, one at a time for a week only.
I finished Three Dirty Dwarves, you see, and I did so on Tuesday night, quite early into my week. Never quite finished it before; it was always a title that I’d play for a bit, enjoy for a bit and then put down and move onto something else. That’s the large scale benefit of focusing on one title at a time, I guess.

If there's one lesson that Three Dirty Dwarves has taught me, it's that playground equipment IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED.
If there’s one lesson that Three Dirty Dwarves has taught me, it’s that playground equipment IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED.

Three Dirty Dwarves does allow for multiplayer play with each controller taking hold of one dwarf, with only one in “reserve”, but this is an oddity, because while there’s no balancing of enemies to take multiple players into account, it’s actually much harder that way. In single player when you’re controlling just one Dwarf, the other two tag along but are effectively invincible (and non-combatants, the lazy swines) until you switch to them. Passing that control onto a second player means you’re much more likely to run out of Dwarves more quickly, especially with some of the overwhelming foes because it’s very easy to lose track of who got hit first and has control of the last dwarf. All too fast, he’s down too, and you have to restart the level.
The key idea of doing this retro games challenge was to make sure I got some gaming time in every week, and to have fun doing so. I didn’t expect to finish Three Dirty Dwarves, though I’m happy to do so, and not usually part of the “short games are bad games” crowd anyway. Its relative obscurity means it’s not the easiest game to track down – I think I’ve only ever seen my own copy even from back in the day – but it’s good, if not entirely clean fun. They are Dirty Dwarves, after all.

Next Week:

The votes for which NES title to play came in thick and fast last week, but quickly resolved down to a battle between just two titles: Capcom’s classic Ghosts & Goblins and Acclaim’s rather less well known Trog. Presumably all the folks who loved Kung Fu back in the day (and I was one of them!) didn’t vote, and the legions of Elite fans are all too busy playing the new version. In the end, the title that generated the most votes, by a very slim margin was Trog, so that’s what I’ll play next week.
I’m rather liking the idea of doing single-system voting challenges, so I think I’ll stick to that for a bit for the following week’s challenge, which will revolve around games for the Sega Megadrive/Genesis. Sure, it was the Megadrive here in Australia, but I’ve got a smattering of titles built for the Genesis, so I can live with the dual branding if that was your name for Sega’s 16-bit system. Although having picked through the titles, I’ve chosen the Megadrive-branded version of each game. Ah well, such is life.
But which title should I play? Here’s where I hand it over to you; you can vote for the game I play the week after I play Trog by clicking on your selection to vote below. Feel free to share the love around if you’re willing.
[socialpoll id=”2357092″]

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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