When Street Fighter II became such a success in the early 90s, many competitors tried to ride the wave. Some decided to just release what was essentially the same game without adding much in terms of innovation, such as World Heroes and Fighters’ History. Other games decided to use Street Fighter II as a foundation and make something new, such as Mortal Kombat.
The latter series led to the same kind of behavior. Sure, you had Killer Instinct, which was different and unique enough to not be considered a Mortal Kombat ripoff, but there were so many fighting game footnotes that tried to just be Mortal Kombat and leave it at that.
None of them are fondly remembered.
One of the games that falls into this pit is Data East’s Tattoo Assassins,a game I’ve seen referred to as the worst fighter of all time. I don’t agree. After all, it’s still better than fellow Kombat knockoffs Survival Arts and Shadow: War of Ascension.
Tattoo Assassins is the Plan 9 From Outer Space of video games. There are worse games out there, but this one gets the attention because it’s too weird to exist…and it kind of doesn’t. At least not officially.
Despite having early builds shown off at conventions and getting a four-page article in the pages of EGM2, Tattoo Assassins has never been released. Instead, only a few prototype arcade machines existed, which led to the game seeing the light of day as a ROM many years later. While not completely finished, the game is still very playable, and the glitches are mostly in the audio. Though there is that screwy Zamboni kill, where the vehicle never leaves the left side of the screen to actually run the guy over.
The story of Tattoo Assassins began in the early-to-mid ’90s with Bob Gale. As in Bob “Back to the Future” Gale. As in Bob “Seriously, he’s the guy who wrote the Back to the Future movies” Gale. Anyway, Bob Gale. After Data East developed a pinball machine for Back to the FutureGale continued his business relationship with them by offering them up a script he wasn’t really doing anything with. Gale figured that it might make for a cool video game plot, and the Data East bigwigs agreed.
The plot involved magical ink that could grant certain hosts great power while the underserving would be transformed into gross mutants. A mighty warrior named Koldan got some of that ink tattooed onto him, making him really powerful, but it went to his head, and he became corrupt. Various worthy people were sought out and tattooed with the special ink to make them strong enough to defeat Koldan and his army of mutants.
The magic tattoos are able to leave the warriors’ bodies and attack on their own in the forms of skeletons, snakes, dragons, spiders, etc. Not the worst idea. Kind of a trashy, Americanized version of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Plus, say what you will about the rest of the game, but there’s a neat kind of Who Framed Roger Rabbit deal with the tattoo attacks, which are cartoonish and creative.
We have our writer/director with name recognition. We have our concept. We have a foundation from Mortal Kombat. Data East put together a team of developers to finish the game. Presumably after having watched the Michael Keaton/George Wendt classic Gung-Ho, the Data East suits told the crew that if they were to have Tattoo Assassins done and ready within 9 months, they would each get a $25,000 bonus and other big perks, according to The Gameological Society. Company pressure over an unrealistic deadline eventually led to the plug being pulled on the game.
That’s why I take issue when people claim that Tattoo Assassins was half-assed. It’s simply not true. They were really into the game for months. THEN half-assed it. Mathematically, it was more 3/4-assed. 2/3-assed at the very least.
The game received just enough hype for people like myself to remember it over 20 years later. An extremely early build appeared at a convention, and flyers were released for the arcade machine along with a “Girls of Tattoo” poster featuring the three female characters together.
Most notable was a featured article in EGM2’s April 1995 issue. The 4-page story featured plenty of screen shots, character profiles, and the basic gist of what it was all about. Tattoo Assassins was going to out-Mortal Kombat Mortal Kombat! It had farts and “Nudalities” and that guy who did Back to the Future!
Speaking of random pieces of name recognition, due to Data East putting together a Guns ‘n’ Roses pinball machine, they ended up getting Slash’s then-wife, Renee Hudson, to play the major role of…um…the select screen. You would pick your character through perusing around her naked back. Sure, why not.
Of all the other digitized actors, they were mostly people whose careers never really took off, showing up in low-rent martial arts movies and Silk Stalkings and the like. The only big deal was former Oakland Raiders cheerleader Gretchen Stockdale, who played vengeful stripper Hannah Hart. If controversy creates cash, the game’s would-be release could have received at least a little bit of a boost considering Stockdale was a witness during the OJ Simpson trial. Yeah, the lady with the spider tattoo was one of OJ’s closest friends right around the time of the murder. Crazy.
Even if they sidestepped that piece of headline news, they at least had Karla Keller. While it’s nothing new to see fighting games base their characters on real people, they’re usually ones with ties to fighting, such as Bruce Lee, Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan, and so on. Karla – wielder of the deadly rose tattoo – was a take on Olympic figure skater and ambush victim Nancy Kerrigan, clad in ice skates.
Other fighters included AC Current, a cyber mercenary with a lightning bolt tattoo, on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. Tak is a yakuza assassin with a double-headed dragon tattoo, on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. Luke Cord is a Navy SEAL with an octopus tattoo, on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. Then there’s Derek O’Toole, a skull-chested rocker who is…well…on the run for a crime he didn’t commit.
Okay, so maybe Gale peaked with the initial tattoo gimmick.
They aren’t all fugitives, though. The others are mostly out for revenge, including the aforementioned Hannah and Karla. Maya, a jungle warrior with a tiger tattoo, is out to stop greedy white dudes from tearing down her rainforest home. Billy Two Moons, with his phoenix tattoo, has the same thing going on, only he wants the government to stay away from his ancestors’ burial grounds. Billy Two Moons is probably the most cringe-worthy part of the game, mainly because of how his stereotype win pose – where he does a running man dance while going, “Hey-ya, hey-ya! Hey-ya, hey-ya!” – is pretty racist.
Finally, there’s Truck Davis, also out for revenge, after his biker gang was killed by rivals. Rocking a snake theme, Truck is a bald, bearded brawler in a black vest, jeans, and celebrates his victories by drinking beer. Who knew that Data East’s failure of a game would feature the winning formula that would give pro wrestling its top character only a couple years later?
The bosses include Rhyna, a large half-woman/half-rhinoceros, and Deke Kay, a shambling zombie and walking pun. Prizm is a morphing, crystal being with a skull inside, who is easily the coolest and most original design in the game. Last is Koldan the Conqueror, a clawed giant who appears to be unfinished due to having very little in terms of special moves. He doesn’t even have a gimmicky tattoo.
Rather than make the bosses naturally harder, the programmers just sped up their behaviors. It would make sense that the bosses would walk and attack faster than the player, but it also means that all of their physics are a step faster, such as their relation to gravity. Uppercut Deke Kay and he’ll be back on his feet before you can even recover. This also screws up Koldan’s otherwise badass death animation, where his flesh melts away and his skull explodes into the screen, cracking the glass upon impact. It ends up animating all too fast.
Killing Koldan nets you the character’s ending in the form of a newspaper headline, explaining what becomes of them. You get stuff like Karla saying she’s going to Disneyland, a bad Photoshop of Billy threatening President Clinton, and Luke starring in an octopus-based sitcom called Eight Arms is Enough. If you can win the final round with a perfect, the newspaper story is a couple of sentences about how your character viciously slaughtered Koldan in a specific way. Coincidentally, the three women all have endings based on cutting his wang off. Because of course they do.
Truck’s ending includes the line, “Truck then starts a brewery and uses his tattoo powers to make his product the #1 Beer in the World!” Not sure how having a living snake tattoo helps out in this situation, but I’m happy to see Truck succeed.
Something I need to mention is this really bizarre thing that happens in the Tower between each match when you’re playing against the computer. You know how in the Mortal Kombat games they would show Shao Kahn or whatever final boss at the top of the Tower and then scroll down to the bottom as you gradually go up one opponent at a time? In Tattoo Assassins, Koldan appears as if you’re going to fight him after every match, but then he yells, “NOT!” and it scrolls down.
Okay, so two things about this. First off, while that might be amusing or even clever the first time, Koldan pulls that shit every single time. Even if you’re going to actually fight Koldan!
Second, even though Tattoo Assassins has ties to Mortal Kombat, Nancy Kerrigan, OJ Simpson, Bill Clinton, Slash, Lorena Bobbitt, and so on, having the final boss constantly go, “NOT!” is the most ’90s thing imaginable in this schlocky game.
Data East knew that they weren’t going to be making a game that played better than Mortal Kombat and, at best, all they could do was make a Xerox copy. Their strategy was to make Tattoo Assassins something that went further with everything else. Mortal Kombat had blood and punches to the balls? Tattoo Assassins had blood and punches to the balls and more! They couldn’t beat them with substance, but perhaps they had a chance with style.
For instance, every playable character has a fart attack and the ability to kill their enemy by spraying them with fiery diarrhea until they’re reduced to the world’s smelliest skeleton. Also, since Mortal Kombat flooded arcades and playgrounds with unfounded rumors about getting to see Sonya Blade’s boobs via code, Data East would make the idea of “Nudalities” a reality by giving everyone the ability to strip their opponent. Nothing graphic, mind you. Just a single frame of the actor or actress naked (with gloves and footwear at times), shivering due to the embarrassment or cold.
The game also included Animalities, which at the time was another unfounded Mortal Kombat rumor. Mortal Kombat 3 would feature them though, in a different way. In Mortal Kombat 3, you could become an animal and maul your victim. In Tattoo Assassins, you would transform your opponent into some kind of animal. Years later, SNK vs. Capcom would include the same kind of gimmick whenever your character would lose a fight against Athena, the final boss.
So let’s talk about the Fatalities. Giving credit where credit is due, there are some good Fatalities mixed in there, including some that are pretty gruesome, like Karla slicing her opponents in half with her ice skates, causing their guts to fall out. Everyone had a few Fatalities of their own, along with some that were based around their magic tattoos. Billy could summon his phoenix to fly over his enemy and melt them with flaming bird poop. Truck could devour his opponent with his giant snake tattoo. Tak had his two-headed dragon bite each end of his opponent and tear him/her. His tattoo also mutated into a smiling, two-headed Barney, which caused his enemies to keel over.
Just another friendly reminder that this game was made in the ’90s.
The most notably bizarre one appears to be an already weird Fatality that got glitched into being something even weirder. The fighter bends over and poops out a turkey. Like, a cooked turkey on a plate. It then flies into the opponent and knocks him/her over. The turkey then multiplies and ricochets until you have about eight turkey dinners bouncing around, constantly hitting and juggling both fighters.
You can also crush your opponent with a giant Burger Time burger, a nod to another Data East release. You can also run them over with a Delorean, a nod to Bob “I just want to reiterate that this man was behind one of the greatest cinematic trilogies of all time” Gale.
All together, there are about 50-60 Fatalities, but Data East wanted to play up the whole quantity over quality angle. One version of the game claimed that the game had just over 200 Fatalities. Another claimed an exact 2196. That’s a total bullshit number, as you can probably guess. The way I see it, I’m pretty certain they were trying to count each combination of fighters as its own Fatality to beef it up. Like Truck shooting his victim with a shotgun actually counts nine times because it can be done against nine different people. Or maybe they were just straight up lying because they stopped caring.
Even with the ginormous claim of Fatalities and everything else it swore to have going for it, Tattoo Assassins would never see the light of day. At first, even more competition rose from new fighters like Primal Rage and Killer Instinct. Hell, Primal Rage even ate their lunch by introducing fart moves and a urine-based Fatality. The brass wanted them to add some innovation, but the development team refused, wanting to just finish the game and wash their hands of the project.
The final nail is actually the saddest part of the story to me because, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter that Tattoo Assassins was mediocre. Even if it was the second coming of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, it was still going to be held under lock and key.
At the end of 1994, SEGA bought out the U.S. part of Data East, mainly to attain all their pinball treasures. It was decided that they wanted to push Virtua Fighter so hard that any other SEGA-owned fighting game was only going to be seen as a distraction. Both Tattoo Assassins and the planned third installment of Eternal Champions were deep-sixed because God forbid we have more than one fighting game under the company’s roof.
Meanwhile, Capcom and SNK shrugged and kept churning out as many fighting games as possible because they weren’t dicks.
Only a few arcade cabinets were made and fewer survived after SEGA has most of them destroyed. Almost a decade later, someone got their hands on one of the prototypes and was able to yank out the rom and upload it to the internet. Since then, people have been playing it on MAME as a prime target of jabs as “the worst fighting game ever.”
But does it really deserve that? Sure, it’s not all that great, but it does have its certain awkward charm. I don’t know if I’d even call it a guilty pleasure, but I do love the overwhelming absurdity built into the game. It’s just such a strange little ripple in video game history that almost was and probably shouldn’t have been to begin with. Tattoo Assassins may not have been original, but by God was it unique.
Despite all of this, you know what blows my mind the most? Not the ’90s references or ridiculous Fatalities or the tiny monk dressed in a diaper (I forgot to mention him, didn’t I?). No, it’s this.
There could have been a Tattoo Assassins comic book! Sweet Jesus, that would have been amazing!
Wait, Archie does all the SEGA comics these days, right? Somebody get them on the phone! I have a pitch about an Olympic figure skater who can crap out projectile turkey dinners!
Gavin Jasper is very underwhelmed by the Sonic/Mega Man Worlds Unite crossover, because it won’t feature Truck Davis in any way. Cheer Gavin up by following him on Twitter.