The Firemen: Hot stuff

Another epic disaster unfolding in a fancy skyscraper at Christmas? Gaming really does have a lot to thank Die Hard for. This time around the entertaining setting has been enthusiastically borrowed by The Firemen, a SNES exclusive by Human Entertainment.

On paper the goal here is a simple one: you’re the leader of a capable pair of firefighters, and it’s your job to put out a blaze that’s already engulfed an entire building while saving anyone trapped inside along the way. In practice the actual job is a complicated and constantly evolving whirlwind of roasting-hot chaos as plans change on the fly, doorways collapse, and the searing heat sends security droids out of control.

The only character you ever directly control is Pete: he’s the older of the two and sports a moustache a mile wide underneath a very sensible protective helmet. His character design cleverly brings a light touch of much-needed realism to The Firemen, the game understanding that, like Septentrion, the previous game in Human Entertainment’s loosely related “Panic Soft” series (the third and final entry being Clock Tower), the closer to ordinary it can get—however small a step away from established gaming norms that may be—the more dangerous every hazard it presents will feel. There are no tireless action movie heroes here, just a couple of trained men trying to do their best in a dire situation.

His constant AI-controlled companion is Danny, a younger blonde guy who’s got “typical game hero” written all over his pretty pixel face. He’s an impressively proactive and reliable assistant, always knowing what to do without needing to be artificially dragged anywhere or coaxed into action. By default he’ll stay close and chop any large fires with his axe, but the instant he spots some other pressing task—a door to open so you don’t have to, a box to kick away so you can proceed, a survivor to rescue—he’ll just do it, no questions asked.

Pete may not have an axe, but he is holding an infinite-use giant water cannon able to fire a narrow jet of the fire-dowsing stuff in whatever direction he’s facing (holding down a shoulder button allows you to easily strafe out of danger while still spraying in the same direction) as well as a wider, slower, shower aimed at the ground near his feet (a special and rarely-activated “hyper” shot is tucked away in there too). Both standard shot types have clear strengths and weaknesses, and you’re expected to switch often between the two.

Any and all attempts to model realistic blazes on Nintendo’s 16-bit console have been wisely avoided, The Firemen treating flames as enemy types that operate under defined rules instead, creating something that feels dynamic, exciting, and understandable all at once. Some race across the floor, leaving scorched floors and trails of embers in their wake. Others rush down narrow corridors in neat lines. Another type are a collective of constantly reproducing smaller flames, all of which must be extinguished quickly if you want to permanently put them out.

So after a short while you start to learn how to handle them, and get a little cocky… and then the game introduces a new kind of blaze. And another. And collapsing floors. And flaming pipes. And screen-wide heat waves that must be crawled under. And…

For every two things you learn, it feels like The Firemen has three surprises waiting in the wings to keep you on edge. My favourite are the backdrafts: when certain doors are opened or you break glass windows with a powerful jet of water you’ll unleash an explosion powerful enough to knock you backwards if you don’t lie flat on the floor or get out of its wide range fast enough, and at first the sensation is one of utter pandemonium—as if there wasn’t already enough going on. Doorways collapse if they trigger a backdraft, making them impassable. Naturally these are scripted events (otherwise there’s a chance the game would end up impossible to complete), but the genius thing is in areas where there are two doors to the next room, it’s always the first door you try to open that triggers the backdraft, with the other being safe; there’s no way you can completely avoid these hazards by remembering which one is the right door, because there is no right door.

Once you stop panicking at the air-sucking break in the action that precedes an incoming blast you might even find yourself triggering backdrafts on purpose from time to time as they serve as a sort of very dangerous “smart bomb” technique, clearing out every active on-screen fire in one go. You might feel a little safer sticking with the small supply of fire extinguishing bombs you begin the game with though, which you can prompt Danny to throw in whichever direction you’re currently facing with a quick prod of the X button. These can be a great help if used well—especially against the end of stage boss fires, if you can hold off using them for that long.

Boss fires? Yep, really. I know that sounds a little ridiculous, but in the moment these supersized infernos are thrilling gatekeepers standing between you and the next area, their unique and aggressive attacks a lot of fun to go up against. Once cleared your health is restored to full no matter how many hits you took—and thank goodness for that, as the game only gives you three continues and no lives to clear the whole thing.

You’ll also receive a good chunk of your health back if you find and then rescue any survivors collapsed in out of the way corners or optional corridors. Initially these can be quite easily located using the handy biosensor shown in the top-left corner of your HUD, but later on this helpful feature breaks so from then on you’ll have to conduct a thorough—and fast—search of each area (potentially guided by little snippets of information given by other survivors) if you want to find anyone, constantly trying to balance the risk to your own health against the potential reward.

And should you mess up so bad you find yourself kicked back to the title screen? Don’t worry about it, because it won’t take long to reach wherever you were as The Firemen’s a very short game: it took me a mere 48 minutes to get through a very scrappy shaking-off-the-rust run. The short span of time between you and the ending works entirely in the game’s favour, the intensity of the experience and the meticulous final breakdown of your performance giving the game an arcade style focus on score/rank that encourages you to fire it up for another go and then push yourself harder than before.

The Firemen’s compact stages never give you the space to catch your breath and the frequent, but not intrusive (most of the time you can play as normal as it goes on), comm chatter adds both extra clarity where needed as well as a sense of urgency to your actions. Thanks to these masterful little touches you’re always caught up in the moment and pressing forwards no matter how deadly the partially collapsed path ahead looks, The Firemen’s “Panic Soft” subtitle well earned. It’s a crying shame the Japanese release is expensive and the surprise European one even more so (I honestly don’t think I was even aware this game existed at the time), because few games have captured the chaos and bravery of firefighting as effectively as this game has.

[I couldn’t have written this without the help I receive through Kofi!]