I loved that weird period in the early 90s where caveman platformers were an actual thing. Bonk’s Adventure, Chuck Rock, Prehistorik Man, the Humans, I loved all of them. Except Chuck Rock. Because Chuck Rock sucks and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. While Bonk received the lion’s share of attention in my heart of hearts Joe & Mac was my favorite of that subgenre. I only played it briefly in the arcade but loved it and played all of the home ports I could get my hands on. The Sega Genesis version is the most accurate and a great addition to the system’s library.
As much as I liked the Super Nintendo version of Joe & Mac it was an almost completely different game. Its good when judged on its own merits but took some strange liberties in terms of what was cut and changed. The Sega game, released two years later in 1993, is a faithful adaptation with all of the arcade’s content and gameplay. It is brutally difficult which is unfortunate but overall is still a great platformer.
Despite its Caveman Ninja subtitle you won’t find anything to do with ninjas in the game. The duo are certainly acrobatic like ninjas but considering how short the levels are you won’t find many opportunities to take advantage of it. By default you wield a throwing axe that travels a short distance. This can be upgraded to a boomerang, a wheel, fire and useless seeds. For an extra boost you can charge up your weapon and unleash a larger, stronger attack, perfect for dealing with bosses.
One detail that was changed from the arcade is your life bar. In the arcade it constantly ticked down as in the Adventure Island and Wonder Boy series. Taking hits removed large chunks rather than instant death. Here it actually functions like a health meter. The abundance of food dropped is a remnant of its former status and in my opinion it works better this way.
Joe and Mac is odd in that most stages are incredibly short. Aside from a few enemies and a little platforming you’ll reach the bosses within a minute or so. It almost comes across like a boss rush at times. The more interesting levels that see you riding on various dinosaurs are the longest and stand out. Not just because they are a nice diversion but because it will leave you wanting more. While that would indicate that the game is short there is some replay value. A single run of Joe & Mac encompasses six or seven levels. However you have a choice of two routes at the end of each stage. Plus there are multiple endings although two of them are, uh, strange.
One element I don’t think most will be prepared for is the insane difficulty. You see that long life bar? It means nothing as you can take three hits at most. Most enemies drop food that restores health in varying increments so it balances out somewhat. The boss battles are where the game becomes sadistic. For some reason it was changed so that bosses take far more hits than is reasonable to defeat. Unless you play perfectly you are going to die repeatedly and unfortunately this version uses checkpoints. This difficulty spike is really noticeable and will turn some away I’m sure. That being said it never reaches a point of frustration like Ghouls & Ghosts. But you might punch a wall, be warned.
Joe & Mac was a graphical showpiece in the arcade and Data East have managed to recreate most of what made the game look so great here. The lush jungles, icy caverns, and fiery mountains sport a high degree of detail and the sprites are large and animated very well. The game only suffers in the area of color which is unavoidable. The sound doesn’t fare as well. The soundtrack only faintly resembles the arcade and is largely forgettable and the sound effects are weak. Too bad as the rest of the package is great.
It stumbles a bit in a few areas but on the whole Joe & Mac is a great game. The humor and art direction give it a unique identity and while the journey is a bit short it is enjoyable from beginning to end. Don’t pass this up.