The Firemen is a good game. I know how weird it sounds to be so upfront about that, but it needs to be said. Technically speaking, Human Entertainment’s late SNES title is a good game. Unfortunately, that game is in a precarious relationship with its own scenario. The Firemen doesn’t know how to work its theming with gameplay, resulting in some really outlandish moments. While it’s still possible to enjoy the game in spite of those moments, it’s hard to deny the impact they have on the experience.
Not that you can see said impact from the start. In fact, its beginning moments look perfectly fine (if too serious). A fire has broken in a building on Christmas Eve, and two firefighters must go in and rescue those trapped inside before it burns down. (There’s also a subplot about using explosives to put out the fire, but the less I have to think about that, the better. ) Predictably, you spend a lot of time in the game putting out fires with both a long-range hose and short-range spray nozzle.
Yet perhaps unpredictably, The Firemen plays a lot like a Konami shooter, with emphasis on quick action, simple mechanics, and well defined challenges. (This is despite The Firemen not being a Konami game.) What’s more, the game understands what makes that model work, and does everything it can to cater to that model. Above all else, the levels stress skill and speed. They see you rushing through hallways, and while they do give some room for error, they still expect quick reactions out of you. No wonder I was so enthralled as I made my way through the building.
While some of that enthrallment comes from how fun it is to spray water all over the place, so much more comes from the game’s choice of setting. It’s a smart choice on the game’s part, since a lot of that setting naturally lends itself to good play. The building’s tight hallways, for example, force the player into the action. And the game’s structure of room/floor/stage breaks the game up into easily digestible chunks. I know how insignificant a lot of this sounds, but world building is crucial to the game’s success. Without it, the game’s planned design would become more apparent. That needs to be hidden. If it wasn’t, the game would lose its charm. You’d just be going through the motions. But with the game’s choice of setting, that doesn’t become a problem.
Unfortunately, the game creates several new problems with its use of setting. Or to put it more bluntly, The Firemen lacks credibility. Its titular heroes face off against exploding robot and homing fireballs. There’s even several boss battles against sentient flames, for whatever strange reason. As conducive to a fun game as these design choices are, they stick out because of how severely they violate the setting. Why am I fighting what is clearly a sentient flame? How does that work? What’s the logic here? The building is ordinary, and although the game takes place in the future (2010 compared to a 1994 release), it’s not a far-off sci-fi fantasy future where this would stand a remote chance of making sense. All the game has accomplished is distracting from otherwise good design.
It’s like the designers assumed that the game needed something more to fit the top down shooter template. While that’s certainly understandable, the game could have worked with a slight change in focus. Rather than focus on taking down flaming enemies, the game could instead focus on getting through the building quickly, rescuing as many people as possible, getting through the building as quickly as possible, etc. And instead of basing levels around exploding robot arms and industrial fans, the game could use collapsing structures and explosive backdrafts. Actually, the game already does all these things. Why it needs to couch them in more traditional shooter design is beyond me.
Now I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with shooter design, or that this game has to be some somber reflection on a tragic situation. The game already works just fine without being serious. Despite its somber introduction, the story plays out more like a buddy cop film than anything else. There’s a light back and forth between the firemen and their crew as the former navigate the building. All this works in the game’s favor, making for a more approachable experience. Unfortunately, the situations I described earlier don’t feed into that humor. Rather than point out how weird sentient flames are, the firemen just accept it for no real reason. So even with a humorous tone, these elements stick out. All I really want out of the game is some basic situational realism, or at least consistency.
This review puts me in an awkward position. I find myself congratulating the game from one angle and giving it a side-eyed glare from another. Yet I don’t see any other option. As strong as the gameplay is, it dominates every aspect of the experience, even when it shouldn’t. It intrudes into the world-building in some unusual ways, and the game needs that world-building if it’s going to work. In the end, The Firemen is a game that’s too strong for its own good.