This is the fifty-sixth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

It’s time for another random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The random number generators have picked Chipmonk! by Niemi Bros Entertainment. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

Retro-inspired beat ’em up starring chipmunk warriors!

These chipmunks came to kick ass and gather nuts in their cheek pouches to bring back to their burrows. And they’re all out of nuts.

Niemi Bros Entertainment cite several classic beat ’em up games as inspirations, including Golden Axe, Battletoads, and Streets of Rage. But to me, it seems like Golden Axe is the main one. So many details are nearly identical to that game. More than just the swords and sorcery theming, the special magical attacks work just like they do in Golden Axe, right down to the little creatures who occasionally appear and drop items that power up characters’ magic (here they are bumblebees). The three playable chipmunks have similar strengths and weaknesses to the three characters from Golden Axe, and even the fighting itself works in a similar way. The only things from Golden Axe that don’t appear here are the rideable creatures.

This isn’t a bad thing. Golden Axe is a classic for a reason. And Chipmonk! feels much more slick and modern, despite it’s old school appearance. In fact, even the art is fancier. While it’s still pixel art, the backgrounds are drawn with smaller pixels than those in the character art, which looks a little weird in screenshots, but I found I didn’t mind it so much in motion. There are several layers of parallax scrolling as well fancy reflections and other visual effects that look pretty cool. The background art reminded me a little of impressionist paintings, a fitting style for the woodland scenery. The chunkier pixels on the characters means they are never lost in the detailed backgrounds, but some pixel art purists may be bothered by the inconsistent pixel sizes.

Controls also feel really smooth and responsive. Beat ’em up games have always had a relatively slow pace, being more about positioning and timing than frantic action, and Chimpmonk! is no exception. But that doesn’t mean it has to feel clunky. Movement is smooth and responsive, and I felt more in control of my chipmunk warrior than I usually do in such games. The default controls are odd, though. I didn’t try using a gamepad, because that makes it more annoying to take screenshots, and because there really isn’t any need for one. The only inputs needed are four movement directions, attack, jump, and roll, which could easily be handled by the keyboard. But the non-rebindable keyboard assignments are strange. Movement can be done with either WASD or the arrow keys, but for some reason jumping is assigned to the space bar (I strongly dislike using the space bar for controlling games), attack is Ctrl, and roll is E. These are really awkward to use with the arrow keys. But, despite there being no use of mouse positioning in the game, the left and right mouse buttons can be used for attacking and jumping, respectively. Doing so along with WASD for movement actually works fine, even if my preference would have been an all-keyboard setup. But I got by using the mouse.

As I said above, the fighting itself is highly reminiscent of Golden Axe. Standard attacks will chain into a five-hit combo that knocks enemies down with the final strike. A jump attack or dash attack will knock enemies over instantly, but they do less damage than a full combo, so they’re mostly useful for clearing out some space to maneuver. If enemies manage to surround one of our heroes, they can easily unleash multi-hit combos of their own, so creating space to fight in is key. Pressing jump and attack simultaneously makes the hero attack whoever is behind, but I found this hard to pull off in the thick of battle. Attacking while moving vertically towards a foe will pick them up for a throw, which can even hit another enemy. One interesting thing that Chipmonk! does is display damage numbers for every hit, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a beat ’em up. But these are surprisingly informative. For example, throwing a small enemy (like one of the mouse rogues) at someone only does a small amount of damage, but if you manage to grab one of the hulking hedgehogs and toss them, they’ll really flatten your foes.

The damage numbers are also really helpful when using the big magic attacks that hit the whole screen. Just like in Golden Axe, these are charged up to various power levels by collecting special items dropped by the bumblebees, and then unleashed all at once to blast everyone with some elemental power. The damage numbers meant I could tell just how much power my magic had compared to my standard attacks. I usually saved my magic for mid-stage or end-stage bosses, but it’s also useful for defeating the last few enemies of a group when at low health. Bumblebees also drop healing items, so lost health can be recovered, but players can never get lost lives back, and with a set number of “continues” (another homage to the original arcade design of Golden Axe), it’s important to preserve every extra life that you can.

For playable characters, we have Grey, the well rounded fighter who is analogous to Ax Battler in Golden Axe. He carries a sword, has moderate damage, health, and movement speed, and decently powerful water magic. Then there’s Cheeks, the big brute who fights with a mace and shield, who is similar to the dwarf Gilius Thunderhead from Golden Axe. His attacks are powerful, but his movement is slow and his earth magic is relatively weak. But with his great strength he can throw enemies much farther, which allows for some interesting tactics. My favorite character, however, is Red, the fast-moving analog to Tyris Flare from Golden Axe. His attacks are relatively weak, but he can unleash blindingly fast combos with his staff before enemies have a chance to react, and his fast movement speed lets him get into advantageous position on the battlefield. Like most beat ’em ups, characters can move in and out of the screen as well as left and right, but they can only attack to the left or right, so quick vertical movement is very useful for evading incoming attacks. Red’s fire magic is also the most powerful, letting him take off a big chunk of bosses’ health bars, as long as he’s able to power up his magic ahead of time.

Play progresses through the four seasons, from spring to winter, with two playable stages in each. These stages are nicely varied. A personal favorite is the first summer stage, in which characters wade through a shallow stream and, naturally, face off against beavers in chainmail. I also enjoyed the colorful autumn stages, including one set in high tree branches where enemies can be knocked off to their deaths through careful fighting. The frozen puddles in the first winter stage are another highlight, causing characters and objects to slide around. Enemies are also imaginative, from simple rats with clubs, to weasels with spears and metal helmets, to mole ninjas. In true beat ’em up tradition, tougher palette swapped versions of each of these appear throughout the game, and certain combinations of foes coupled with smaller spaces in the later stages make for some challenging fights. Even the boss enemies, like the dashing skunk fencers or the red squirrels in full plate armor, appear again in later stages for an extra challenge.

And Chipmonk! is certainly challenging. Players are given three lives and a generous 5 continues, for a total of 18 lives to get through the adventure before they must start over from the beginning. That sounds like a lot, but heroes can fall startlingly fast when facing the hordes in the later stages, or navigating the instant death pits that occasionally appear. I did manage to reach the end with Red after several attempts, but I doubt I’d be able to repeat that feat with the other heroes. Overall, however, I was impressed with the game. It’s a solid, if simple, brawler, and a lot of fun to play even if its inspirations are obvious. Players who fondly remember the classic arcade and console beat ’em up games will enjoy this slick homage.

There’s local coop multiplayer too, but I didn’t have anyone to play with. I’d guess that tackling the adventure with a friend would be a lot of fun. There are also Duel and Onslaught modes in addition to the main adventure, but I didn’t try these. A decent sized offering. If you missed it in the bundle, Chipmonk! is sold for a minimum price of $8.99, including Windows and Mac versions.

That’s 56 down, and only 1685 to go!