It came to my attention while researching our piece on Jaleco’s The Ignition Factor that it’s the subject of a hot (sorry) debate among dedicated enthusiasts of Japanese firefighting video games. That debate is pretty simple: out of the two big names in firefighting games on the Super NES, those being the aforementioned The Ignition Factor and its chief rival The Firemen by Human Entertainment, which is “best”?
I personally like The Ignition Factor a lot, but also acknowledge that its somewhat unforgiving blend of simulation and adventure game elements might not be for everyone, as it can be a tad frustrating at times. I’d never encountered The Firemen before, however, so there was only one thing to do: play it!
In The Firemen, you take on the role of Pete, a veteran fireman with an impressive moustache. You and your partner Danny have been sent into a chemical factory that has been hit by a massive fire the evening of the company’s Christmas party. What’s worse, the company has been storing some highly volatile and very explosive chemicals in its basement, and if they get too hot things will not end well for anyone. So it’s up to you to sort this whole mess out, figure out a way to efficiently put out the raging blaze and try not to die in the process. Easy, right?
As you might be able to tell from that description, The Firemen immediately distinguishes itself from The Ignition Factor by the whole game being one continuous “mission” rather than being split into completely separate, discrete assignments. The Firemen’s overall mission is, however, split into six separate stages, allowing you a moment’s reprieve after reaching a significant milestone, with the end of a stage awarding you additional time and health according to how much fire you managed to put out over the course of the level.
The other distinguishing factor that will become apparent almost immediately upon starting The Firemen is that this is not an attempt to be a serious simulation at all; this is intended to be a fast-action arcade game. Rather than being a dangerous hazard that simply stands in the way of your objectives as in The Ignition Factor, in The Firemen, the “fire” is treated almost as a living thing, as an enemy that actively wants to oppose you.
To that end, you’ll actually encounter many different kinds of fire during your time with The Firemen. Some will simply sit in place and require extinguishing before it spreads. Some will shoot out dangerous fireballs at unpredictable intervals. Some will follow set paths around rooms, or continually follow the perimeter walls. And some will actually aggressively attack you. On top of that, there are robots that have been driven crazy by the fire, too — though nothing a good hosedown won’t fix.
To further add to the arcadey feel of The Firemen, each stage, which unfolds in fairly linear fashion rather than requiring you to “explore” too much, actually concludes with a full-on boss fight where all pretence of realism is dropped and you face off against various different sentient fiery foes, each of which have their own attack patterns to learn. The Ignition Factor doesn’t completely lack this sort of thing, mind — a later level features a memorable optional “boss” encounter against an out-of-control boiler — but The Firemen’s boss battles are on a whole other level.
There’s also a fun sense of unfolding narrative as The Firemen progresses, with regular dialogue sequences between Pete and the rest of his squad. There’s dialogue in The Ignition Factor too, of course, but not a lot in the way of characterisation; most of it is relatively functional, intended primarily to help you work out how to beat the level you’re on, or perhaps track down some of its secrets.
By contrast, The Firemen, at times, feels like you’re playing through an interactive firefighting anime; the characters are all fun caricatures and exaggerated personalities, and the dialogue sequences really add a lot to the game’s appeal without being overly obtrusive.
On top of that, your partner Danny is controlled by some of the best cooperative AI I’ve seen in a game like this; he constantly and consistently makes sensible choices and actually does helpful things as well as providing useful feedback on the situation you’re in. This is certainly a far cry from The Ignition Factor’s NPCs, all of whom have an absolute death wish. It’s just a shame there’s no two-player co-op option — I feel like this would have been even more fun with a friend.
With all this in mind, The Firemen is definitely a game that is well worth a try for those who found The Ignition Factor a little cumbersome or frustrating. My only real hesitation in recommending it, particularly if you’re looking to pick up an original Super NES copy (which, it appears, can be pricey), is that at just six stages long — none of which are especially difficult — it’ll be over pretty quickly, and there’s not a ton of reason to go back to it once you’ve completed it, save to simply experience its fun factor again.
But sometimes that’s enough. The Firemen is a really good game while it lasts — and definitely one of the two best firefighting games on the Super NES.
Is it better than The Ignition Factor? Well, I guess that boils down to what you’re in the mood for — better play ’em both and see which one’s your favourite, no?