Sega was in deep shit come 1996. The Sega Saturn console was flopping hard in the west and Sega’s market share was rapidly shrinking before Nintendo and a freshly minted Sony. Sega needed an edge and they needed it fast so they turned their attention towards the growing PC market and founded SegaSoft; a new company that would set about publishing their portfolio to home computers. All they needed now were talented developers who could reliably work with both platforms. Appaloosa Interactive had done well in the past with their most successful project Ecco The Dolphin giving Sega cred for beautiful, if horribly overrated, video games of distinction. The Sega Saturn needed all the help it could get too so the plan was made: Appaloosa would let “loosa” their creativity on a brand new title for both the Saturn and personal computers with Sega reaping the benefits. That game would be Three Dirty Dwarves.

Three Dirty Dwarves Gameplay Screenshot

In a thematic touch, the dwarves crash-land to Earth atop a sports shop whereupon they outfit themselves with sporting equipment that they think to be weapons!

The setup is actually more complicated than you might think. It’s modern day Earth and a group of four super genius children are languishing in an American military base run by a tyrannical Thunderbolt Ross type called General Briggs. The rugrats are tasked with creating super weapons for the army, but in a bid for freedom they’ve secretly devised a role-playing game in their genetically-altered heads. From this shared realm of fantasy emerge the titular dwarves; three 3′ heroes called Taconic, Corthag, and Greg, who must find a gateway to Earth, free the children, and send General Briggs and his cronies packing.

Although it was conceived as a multi-platform title, Three Dirty Dwarves is a console game through and through. For the most part this is a scrolling beat ’em up in the same vein as Sega’s own Golden Axe, but there are flashes of the ‘situation rush’ sub genre blended in there too. That is to say one moment you can be happily busting orcish heads on the streets of the Bronx and the next you might be knocking down a building with a wrecking ball, or riding an oversized mining cart, or navigating a busy freeway, Frogger style!

Three Dirty Dwarves Gameplay Screenshot

Among basic strikes and throws, each dwarf can call upon the others to launch devastating team attacks. Go Morph Dwarf!

Among the game’s other main selling points is a cool multiplayer mode that supports up to three simultaneous players via the oft-ignored Sega Saturn multitap. A dedicated 3-player mode is a rare feature for any video game not released in arcades and it is a lot of fun to have all three dwarves kicking tail on the same screen at the same time. In this regard the game is similar to another Saturn exclusive called Guardian Heroes which was also released in the same year. Whether there is any shared influence between the two brawlers is tricky to say, but it’s pretty clear that Three Dirty Dwarves trades in depth and tuned battle mechanics for a greater sense of speed and personality.

One of the reasons why these beat ’em ups dropped out of fashion was because of the repetition factor of actually playing them. Scrolling from left to right punching and kicking a near endless stream of baddies gets boring and whilst Three Dirty Dwarves can’t claim to have any nuanced gameplay to help counter this foible, it doesn’t make the mistake of having all the enemies look the same.

The enemy design here is superb with a huge variety of bizarre foes that add fun and colour to a slender collection of levels. The basic orcs are always outfitted differently for one (those in the industrial level carry lunchboxes as shields and wrenches as clubs!) and it only gets weirder and wonderfuller from there. The naked ninjas and their conveniently-placed censor strips are fun as are the brutish boxers and the dreaded masking tape ladies! There’s the onion merchant, the angry geek, the four-armed bus stop brute, and so many more besides that you’ll want to keep playing just to see what other crazy shit Appaloosa throws at you next!

Unlike other beat ’em ups of this style, all three characters travel and fight as one unit which is both appropriate and pretty handy. If you’re playing with fewer than three players then a quick button press will cycle you through each available dwarf so you can quickly take advantage of what each one brings to the fight. Greg can fire baseballs across the screen with his trusty bat, Taconic can barrage into enemies with his heavy bowling ball, and Corthag just rocks the place with his shotgun – complete with satisfying reload animation and spent shell casings!

The levels are fittingly designed with each one being your basic mix of high fantasy and urban nightmare. A lot of creativity is also reserved for the instruction manual of all things. From backstories and profiles to interview transcripts with the trapped children; it isn’t exactly short on verisimilitude to help flesh out the wacky world. The absolutely delightful FMV cutscenes only improve the game’s sense of character further. Each one essentially forms a mini cartoon where you’ll be treated to some genuinely funny animation and hilarious voice acting from Alan Bruce as General Waggon Briggs.

Three Dirty Dwarves Gameplay Screenshot

Pit Bully; the orc with the personality of a fire hydrant, and twice the charm.

Undoubtedly the best aspect of Three Dirty Dwarves though is its music. If you caught my Top 100 list for Best Video Music earlier this year then you’ll already have a taste of how this game sounds, but the point deserves to be reiterated because it truly does have an audio style all of its own. It’s a noisy and grungy sound that not everyone will take a shine to, but it’s unique and wonderful all the same and I’ve loved listening to it for many years now.

The music is an aspect of the game where the PC version is different from the console release. Some of the backing tracks accompany the wrong levels for some annoying reason, but then you also have tracks that were remastered to match the game’s high quality redbook audio. It really does make the difference too as there are a couple of occasions where the Saturn version sounds a bit grainy (especially on the Garbage Hills level).

The roughshod 2D art looks peculiar at times, though it does suit that ‘dirty’ theme that the game has going on. The in-game character sprites are massive in comparison to what 16-bit consoles could put out at the time, but this isn’t always a good thing either. Much like Guardian Heroes before it, there’s a tendency here for the characters to become bunched up on the tight terrain. Obscuring artwork in the foreground can make it hard to see what’s going on at times and obstacles such as trash bins and crates will often get you cornered by an enemy when you least expect it.

The scrolling levels feel too closely zoomed in and by the time you’ve spotted an approaching enemy you might already have been hit by one of its swift attacks. Dizzied dwarves need only be smacked by a teammate in order to revive, but it doesn’t stop enemies from catching you unaware and levels can end really quickly if your reflexes aren’t fast enough. The absence of a health system is fairly elegant all things considered and yet there are a few unpleasant difficulty spikes among some of the earlier levels. You also have to complete the game on at least normal difficulty if you want to see the full ending which is always a kick in the nuts.

Truth be told, Three Dirty Dwarves is an easy game if you know what you’re up against. It’s entirely possible to stunlock some enemies to death and often the best tactic is just to mash the attack button on an isolated foe before he/she/it finally succumbs to the beating. There are some well animated power attacks in there, but this is no Streets of Rage. All in all the gameplay itself is fairly routine and there won’t be much left to see after completing a playthrough other than an imbalanced hard mode that’s not worth your time.

Three Dirty Dwarves Gameplay Screenshot

This is one of those games that’s best learnt as you go along. Control schemes and objectives change so quickly between levels that you usually have little choice but to go with the flow!

What’s most disappointing about this game though is the fact that it can’t stick to its multiplayer framework. Some levels like the trolley ride can only be controlled by a single player and that really sucks when you consider how much better the game could have been with all players factored into the action.

Also unfortunate is the fact that Three Dirty Dwarves came out in a year that featured the likes of Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and Super Mario 64. The industry was moving so quickly back then that the game couldn’t help but look a bit outdated in comparison. Charming beat ’em ups like this one were becoming a rare breed on 32-bit systems and sure enough Three Dirty Dwarves quietly disappeared after securing a few mediocre review scores from the industry press.

That eventuality is a shame quite frankly as despite its obvious shortcomings, Three Dirty Dwarves is still a game with bucketloads of charisma and it’s one that deserved to be a bigger hit than it was, 3D be damned!