“Casey fucking Ryback?” In the 1995 Steven Segal vehicle Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, this line is uttered by one of the incredulous terrorist hijackers upon learning that Segal’s character, Casey Ryback, was aboard the hijacked train. These mercenary cutthroats suddenly begin to question their life choices because, in their words, Ryback is “an ex-Navy SEAL captain. A counter-terrorism expert.” The best there is. There are only so many places to hide on a train—a classic, increasingly rare film setting leveraged with great success by the action star. At close quarters, Ryback uses his mastery of aikido to bend, break, and otherwise punish the overmatched bad guys. Ryback is a bad, bad dude.
But Ryback owes something to an earlier epoch of master killers. The ’80s were a golden era of martial arts, a post-Bruce Lee jump-kicking paradise. Film stars like Michael Dudikoff, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Ralph Macchio all competed for the unofficial title of baddest dude around, but it was in the realm of gaming that these nunchuk-wielding übermensch would appear. None were badder dudes than Blade and Striker, the heroes of the 1988 beat-’em-up Bad Dudes. Blade and Striker are violent men, forged in a violent, ninja-infested time.
The sleeveless duo is briefed on the situation by a Rainier Wolfcastle look-alike: “The President has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the President?” Apparently ninja-related crime is at an all-time high, and the evil DragonNinja (the other half of the game’s original arcade title, Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja) feels that the U.S. government isn’t treating the looming ninja threat with the seriousness it deserves.
The President needs rescuing, and since the SEALs are apparently unavailable, the government must rely on the next best thing: two guys in tank tops and sneakers from Dude City. Blade and Striker must punch, kick, stab, and nunchuk their way through waves of measurably less-bad dudes. The two most memorable levels of the game have them fighting back-to-back on top of moving vehicles. In level two, our heroes must repel car-borne ninjas from the top of a Data East truck. Later on in the game, the Dudes once again find themselves speeding across the landscape, this time on top of a freight train. The canyons in the background suggest a location somewhere in the American southwest. The accompanying music is suitably up-tempo, like something that belongs in a Van Damme training montage. This level rivals the train hijacking scenes in the NES Civil War lark North And South as the finest locomotive skirmish in early gaming.
It is also an exercise in relativity. The cars appear almost stationary, and the camera pans at only a slightly faster speed, moving slowly to the left, even as the landscape in the background appears to move at a much faster clip. If they react fast enough, Dudes that fall off the train can defy physics and hop right back up. It’s not possible to get to the front of the train faster than the game allows, but this creates a sense of inevitability that the ninjas seem to sense. Unless they kill Blade and Striker soon, the level will end, and the Dudes will progress. The ninjas are getting desperate, throwing everything they have (including the occasional flaming ninja) at these grunting Bad Dudikoffs.
It’s not enough—not even close. These are some of the worst ninjas ever, perhaps more impotent than the Foot Clan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most die after a single punch or kick. DragonNinja would have been better served by bribing some of the train’s more aggressive hobos with the promise of moonshine. The only remotely effective fighter is the gray ninja that runs onto the screen, throws his shuriken, and then runs off before getting kicked in the head. Bad Dudes indulges the conceit peculiar to ’80s action flicks that muscle-bound American steroid abusers have no trouble beating up wave after wave of lithe, deadly assassins trained in martial arts. It’s complete nonsense. Does anyone believe that Revenge Of The Nerds’ Ogre would survive more than five seconds in Bloodsport’s Kumite tournament?
But trains are a great setting for any story, a symbol of adventure and exploration in the modern age. They are at once elegant—recall the fancy nabobs of Murder On The Orient Express—and a symbol of accessible freedom. In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston can leap from his horse to a moving train, climb up to the roof and ride around for awhile, forgetting his troubles and clearing his head by taking potshots at passing wildlife. There is no similar moment of rail respite for the Dudes.
Like Marston, and like the trains themselves, the Dudes are the product of a fading epoch. Soon enough, counter-terrorism doctrine would no longer call for amateur martial artists—Ryback aside—as the default quick response to a crisis of this severity. Commandos would soon be given small arms and tactical air support, rather than nunchuks and knives that they find on the ground. Dog The Bounty Hunter wasn’t the guy they called to go get Bin Laden; it was SEAL Team Six, a stealth helicopter, and some truly scary automatic weapons that won the day. Our present-day games reflect this prevailing mode of highly trained techno-combat.
But Blade and Striker will not go quietly into that good night. As the train hurtles toward DragonNinja and who knows what other perils, these Bad Dudes rage against hapless ninjas and the dying of the 8-bit light. Eventually, this excruciatingly slow advancement to the train’s engine is complete, and the Dudes face a boss with some terrifying chain weapon. Here, it seems, is a ninja adversary worthy of the Dudes, an imposing guardian that would instill hesitation in even a tested train-fighting vet like Ryback. While the ninja grunts have failed to stop—or even slow—the advance of Blade and Striker, now they’re faced with a new foe. Is he able to halt the Bad Dudes Express? Blade’s bloody knuckles say, “No.”
The train shuttles the pair to their destiny, a showdown with DragonNinja that can only end with the last and baddest dude left standing. Once the President is back in friendly hands, he captures the solemnity of the moment perfectly, recognizing the Dudes’ superhuman level of effort and sacrifice. In retrospect, he’s not merely ending a mission; he’s ending a strange era of macho, all-American, fists-of-fury individualism in pop culture. So it’s fitting that he concludes with the immortal, baffling words: “Hey dudes, thanks for rescuing me. Let’s go for a burger… Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”