NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I can never resist a video game with a political angle to it, even if its politics are repulsive. That’s how I found myself playing Tonight We Riot, a retro beat-’em-up in which you lead workers in a violent revolt against an oppressive capitalism where everyone but the rich toils away for a pittance.
The game’s developers, Pixel Pushers Union 512, are apparently not joking about this, at least not completely. They wanted this title to be “unapologetically leftist,” and they operate as a worker-owned cooperative.
The game’s ideology isn’t some kind of Bernie Sanders “socialism” based on Denmark, either. The story is full of references to taking over the means of production, and much of your time is spent pelting riot cops with bricks. You can unlock a “Haymarket bomb” and get a special achievement for using it to wipe out a whole group of police officers at once.
That achievement is jokingly called “Historical Accuracy,” but the setting is an entirely fictional world that, alongside the cops, features plenty of video-game mainstays such as huge robots and mutants. So, as a political statement, Tonight We Riot comes off as an immature and deliberately offensive cry for help, which I suppose need not be fatal to a video game. (This is the hobby that spurred hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of investment in Grand Theft Auto games, after all.)
But the game itself? It has some interesting ideas, yet it’s too simple, short, and easy to justify its $15 price tag. It’s pretty funny that socialists are selling an overpriced product via Nintendo’s latest console and the computer-game portal Steam, which is run by the multi-billion-dollar company Valve.
The clearest gaming influence here comes from the street-brawling games that were popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, both in arcades and on home consoles such as the NES and Sega Genesis. Think Double Dragon, Final Fight, Streets of Rage, or the classic Ninja Turtles games, and you’ll have a good idea of how Tonight We Riot works — and also how it looks, since the eight-bit graphics are straight out of 1990 too. The concept is simple and fun: Walk from left to right and beat up all the bad guys you encounter.
The best thing about the game is that it tweaks the age-old formula in a few interesting ways. As you progress, you liberate workers from businesses, and these workers fight alongside you. And you have to do your best to keep your comrades alive, because they also serve as your extra lives: When the revolutionary you’re controlling joins Stalin in hell, you switch to another member of your flock, and it’s game over when the whole crowd has bit the dust. You can also direct your followers to attack specific enemies (à la Overlord or Pikmin), and the game takes advantage of modern “twin stick” controllers to let you aim your long-range weapons, including Molotov cocktails, in any direction you want.
I hate to admit it, but this has the makings of a good game. The problem is that the rest of the presentation is thoroughly underwhelming.
The best beat-’em-up games slowly introduce challenging enemies in bigger groups, forcing the player to carefully learn each of the bad guys’ attack patterns and figure out how to navigate screens full of them. In Tonight We Riot, the enemies mostly stick to simple attacks such as “run up and hit you” or “hang back and shoot in your direction”; long-range weapons are so plentiful that they start to overshadow the normal fighting (which is hard to follow on the screen because all the characters are so small); and the levels are all easy after you learn the basics. There are a handful of boss fights, culminating in a battle against an arch-capitalist piloting a big machine, but none of these live up to the name. Indeed, I probably died more frequently on the normal levels than on the bosses.
The game is short as well, so much so that you can get through its four worlds in a few hours. Add in some technical frustrations, such as that the aforementioned twin-stick aiming never quite puts your Molotovs where you want them, and this is not worth your 15 hard-earned capitalist dollars. Go download Streets of Rage 2 for a dollar or the entire Double Dragon trilogy for $6 instead. More punching and less preaching for a fraction of the price!
Come to think of it, who would expect socialism to produce a better game about street violence in 2020 than capitalism was producing 30 years ago anyway?