Undercover Secrets

like to think that I know something about video games. It’s one of my hobbies, after all. Yet there are moments which remind me that, like some deep-sea cartographer, I’m immersed in a realm too vast and varied for a lone observer to fully comprehend. The most recent such moment involved Undercover Cops, an Irem beat-‘em-up from 1992. It seems, at a glance, fairly basic: a city full of street thugs and general corruption is set to rights by a scruffy, bearded martial artist, a doughty British lass named Rosa, and a blond American football player who predates Brian Battler of The King of Fighters by a few years.

While it lacks even the semiotic endurance of Bad Dudes in its expository scenes, Undercover Cops has aesthetics and level design more clever than those of the typical brawler. The characters can heft everything from motorcycles to fish, even using stone pillars and girders three times their height to whack enemies across the screen. And in addition to the usual batch of boring street punks, those enemies include robotic mole-people, a first-stage leader with a trash compactor for a weapon, and a fat dominatrix boss who cries profusely when punched.

The game even retains a certain visual appeal, as everything’s presented in the same gritty, highly detailed style as Gallop, In the Hunt, and other Irem arcade titles (which, by extended rumor, would include some of the Metal Slug series).

That's all there is to Undercover Cops. In 1994, Irem and a little-seen developer called Varie ported it to the Super Famicom and planned on an American release, but the latter was canceled. Half.com preserved the box art for the SNES version, if you need a laugh.

But my story doesn’t end there. A few months ago, I was flipping through a Japanese Samurai Spirits 4Koma manga, one of those game-based comic strip collections which, unlike independent doujinshi, are published with the full permission of the company in question. The back pages of the book held some ads for similar comic bundles, and among them was a promo for this.

It’s a manga anthology based on Undercover Cops, and judging by the copyright notice to the left of Rosa's head, it’s a legitimate publication. Now, I realize that a lot of games (Psychic Force, Black Matrix, Magical Drop) are far more popular in Japan than they could ever be in America, but I found it hard to believe that, even in 1993, Undercover Cops would have had enough fans to merit its own Irem-approved comic. A slim doujinshi volume I could have understood, but this? It was like finding a novel based on Vendetta, Two Crude Dudes, or some other early-90s beat-‘em-up that no one talks about anymore. Odd as this discovery seemed, I brushed it aside.

Last week, however, I became convinced that even if I’ve finished with Undercover Cops, it’s not finished with me. While sifting through Japanese sites in search of early PlayStation release schedules, I stumbled upon a gallery of fan art depicting video game women in freakishly muscular form. Among the bulked-out caricatures of Final Fantasy and Street Fighter females, I found a subject that I didn’t recognize at first, though she seemed vaguely familiar.

And then comprehension struck: this is Rosa from Undercover Cops, as rendered by someone with a severely mutated muscle-girl fixation. Out of all sorts of well-known female characters from all sorts of well-known video games, the artist chose the star of Undercover Fucking Cops to be part of this bizarre fetish parade. If my exploration of gaming culture is like charting the ocean floor, this amounts to a brief glimpse of a giant squid. Or perhaps a crashed UFO.

Yes, this boggles my mind as only minor, inexplicable trivia can. Undercover Cops is a fine game, but I’d written it off long ago as an obscure piece of Irem’s history. Yet after encountering two seemingly unrelated examples of the game’s fan following, I wonder if there’s more to it. Perhaps, in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, there’s a unremarkable arcade staffed by an equally unremarkable clerk who, upon hearing the proper turn of phrase, will unlock a rear door and reveal the stairs to a basement stocked with every kind of arcade unit: sit-down models, massive three-player arrays with huge screens, and even a battered upright cabinet from America.

All of them are running Undercover Cops.