The Firemen 2: A flash in the pan

As you may have already guessed, The Firemen 2: Pete & Danny is the PlayStation exclusive sequel to SNES hose ’em up The Firemen, and as this made its debut in 1995 it’s a very early PlayStation game at that.

As before the game’s set within a burning New York skyscraper over the Christmas holidays, only this time around it’s a special sort of general entertainment tower packed with rollercoasters, aquariums, and wedding venues. This clearly reheated concept should probably feel forced—hey look, a novelty New York skyscraper’s on fire, again—but being asked to believe trained firefighters may deal with two fires during their careers in a common type of building for the area (New York apparently has over 300 skyscrapers, a figure only outdone by Hong Kong and Shenzhen) doesn’t require any great stretch of the imagination, and to think badly of the game for using the same great idea twice under the circumstances would be picking fault for the sake of it in my opinion.

The pixel art used to create this high-rise environment is varied, detailed, and packed with one-off details. Everyone and everything—including our returning firefighting heroes (that’s the Pete and Danny of this game’s subtitle)—are more intricately drawn and better animated than before, each new stage showing off some fun new thing that might only be used in a single room. My personal favourites are the cheeky little copyright-dodging cameo from some of Sega’s biggest arcade games in one section of the game, wordlessly implying that even in a game by a different developer on a rival company’s hardware, it’s just not a proper arcade unless it’s got Sega games in it.

It’s a shame this level of polish didn’t extend to Danny’s AI: he’s definitely not as proactive or helpful as he used to be. He might chop at a fire every now and then but he’s far more likely to either stand around and do stuff all, or run around like he’s got angry weasels trapped in his underwear, which as far as helping you out goes is exactly the same as doing stuff all. In a single player game he’s there pretty much because he was there last time, and it’s endlessly frustrating to watch the game be so obviously inferior to its own prequel in this regard.

At least this issue can be worked around, thanks to The Firemen 2’s new (asymmetric, I suppose) cooperative play mode. A friend can now take full control of Danny and pick up the slack on the programming’s behalf, although you’ll never stop wishing they didn’t have to.

Fortunately the lack of help isn’t too much of a practical barrier as The Firemen 2 is on the whole not as challenging as its predecessor. There are still several different types of fire to contend with, and many of them behave in much the same way they did before, but the rather dull stage design flattens their differences, making them feel less intense and dangerous than they did on the SNES. Bar a few exceptions everywhere’s quite open, so there’s never any need to treat a fire racing across the floor any differently from a gigantic static blaze or worry you’re going to get hemmed in if you don’t deal with the spread of embers before you quickly—just keep spraying everything with water and step to the side if any flame happens to get too close.

You still use the same high/low shot types to quash the blazes (the low spray no longer slowing you down by any great degree), and you can still crawl around or strafe your way around a fire. The biggest new feature is nothing more than an optional dash, although it’s a quite small speed boost and you can’t run and shoot, so it’s mostly for helping to keep you out of trouble or get you to wherever you want to be in a time-saving, fire-leaving, hurry. It’s the one part of the original game they transferred over correctly and in full (with that one addition on top), and although it’s not especially exciting it does work, and you never take a hit and think to yourself “If only Pete could have… …then I would have avoided that”.

Sadly the same can’t be said of many of The Firemen’s most exciting and unpredictable mini-disasters: most of them didn’t make the cut, leaving the levels behaving more like a string of toasty tidying up than a desperate struggle through an ever-changing inferno. The lack of backdrafts is perhaps the most glaring omission: they were some of the most dramatic “Oh sh—” moments in the first game and one that with experience you could even turn into a risky advantage. They’re just gone, with nothing new to replace them. Crawling may be present but it’s only needed once—there are no sweeping walls of fire or burst gas pipes to duck under, no collapsed scenery to drag yourself past belly-first.

There’s no map this time around either, just a biosensor showing roughly where you are in relation to any nearby survivors, and after the staff roll there’s no final results screen to proudly share with the world or quickly click through in shame, even though it gave you a great reason to come back over and over again. So much of this game’s a hollow shell of its former self, copying the what but not the why, and then leaving out anything it didn’t understand in the vain hope nobody would notice.

Even though this PlayStation game is soundly outdone by the cart-based one that came before it, it’s not all doom and gloom for The Firemen 2. Boss fires are back and this time around one of them’s a giant robot dinosaur, which is a short string of words I wish I could type out more often, and there’s a fun part where you have to douse (comically!) flaming penguins with water before they can leave the building.

Scenes like these and all other story-related segments are now voiced (without subtitles), your characters now locked in place for the duration of the audible chinwag. Even though the voice acting features some experienced talent making an emotive effort, being made to sit through them even though the place you’re standing in is literally on fire automatically makes the whole situation less organic and immediate no matter how energetically anyone’s shouting, as there’s always a clear line drawn between the “talky bits” where you’re completely safe and the “game-y bits” where all the hazards you have to deal with are and, again, this wasn’t the case in the SNES game. It’s another unforced error in a game that has too many of those already.

When put under a critical microscope there’s no doubt The Firemen 2 is a less refined experience than its predecessor, lacking not only the (faux) improvisation and adaptation of old but also all the tiny nigh-invisible things that make a good game great. However, the truth is I generally enjoyed my time with it, the forty-ish minutes it takes to clear turning genuine issues into fleeting quibbles. Yes there will be another misstep along in a moment, and yes it’s probably one that wasn’t there in the earlier entry in the series, but even when considered as a collective whole they’re all introduced, dealt with, and gone before plenty of other games even get started: I just can’t get that worked up about a game whose worst crime is to be only OK for such a short length of time.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: the version shown in the photo at the top of this page is the second (and apparently budget) release of The Firemen 2 (with in my opinion the better cover art), but as far as I’m aware the game itself is identical to the original.

[I wouldn’t have been able to cover The Firemen duology without the help I receive through Ko-fi!]