Through the very late ’80’s and into the early ’90’s there probably wasn’t a single major arcade manufacturer who did not publish a scrolling beat ’em up of one kind or another. Double Dragon, Altered Beast, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are some of the releases that roll off the top of my head, and of course there was Capcom’s seminal Final Fight and the slew of games that followed, both in the arcade and on home consoles, trying to emulate its success and format.
It’s easy to credit Technos’ 1987 hit Double Dragon as the game that really kick started the demand for scrolling beat ’em ups, and Double Dragon certainly was innovative for its time, but it is Irem’s Kung Fu Master that can be seen as the first landmark title in the genre. Nevertheless, Irem never really pursued the scrolling beat ’em up further, instead generally relying on a steady stream of high quality shoot ’em ups to make its name, (chiefly through 1987’s R-Type).
Released on the powerful M-92 hardware, Undercover Cops hit Japanese arcades in the Summer of 1992 in what would become one of Irem’s final commercial successes before their arcade division was wound up, and their penultimate scrolling beat ’em up (their last being the obscure and imaginatively titled Ninja Baseball Bat Man).
Having more than proved themselves capable of doing a decent shoot ’em up, could Irem work their magic on a scrolling brawler, in the face of the high standards already set by Capcom?
The premise of Undercover Cops is as flimsy as just about any other scrolling beat ’em up from the era – in the year 2043, New York City has become over-run by crime, and the mayor and city officials have called in three specialists, dubbed “City Sweepers”, to come kick ass and ask questions later. Thus the scene is set for you and your character, plus a friend in two player co-op, to go in and defeat the minions of the evil Dr Crayborn.
With credits inserted you have the choice of three playable characters each with their own individual strengths and weaknesses. So, as either Zan Takahara, Matt Gables, or Rosa Felmonde, you will punch and kick your way across five stages to save the City and win the day. Each character has your standard punch and kick moves, plus two desperation moves which help you out in the tighter situations you find yourself in. However, as with Final Fight, pulling off either your desperation or super-desperation moves will cost you a chunk of your character’s remaining energy bar.
A novel feature that helps to encourage plenty of direct action against your enemy is that at the end of every stage you get rated for your performance in disposing of your enemies. Surpass your “finesse” (spelt “finess” in the game) target score and you can benefit from bonus energy and additional lives, plus a better score. The action itself is pretty text book – punch, kick, repeat to defeat your foe. Each playable character has their own move set and animations, with your enemies having a limited set of responses to try and stop you. The five stages are each of a decent length, but as the game wears on, the enemy doesn’t vary greatly and you tend to have the levels loaded with the same enemy creating a degree of repetition, which in many respects is a staple issue of scrolling beat ’em ups, but it feels more or a chore than usual with Undercover Cops when compared with either Final Fight or Streets of Rage 2. Both Capcom and Sega’s efforts cleverly break up the monotony of the minion enemies, but by Stage 5 of Undercover Cops a stagnation begins to set in which takes the sheen off the game.
The sprites are excellent. The three protagonists are each individual in their appearance, well drawn and distinctive. Thought has also gone into the enemy the sprites as well, making them stand out well against the usually less creatively styled enemies of other scrolling brawlers. The stages are well drawn but they are not particularly original in concept, although the end of stages 1, 3 and 4 are well executed with some original features. The final stage is a bit of a let down, with the majority of it set on-board a giant helicopter; that is, sadly, rather blandly drawn inside. On some stages, the first in particular, there is still the Irem trademark of high detail in the backgrounds, but across the game not to the level as seen in Gun Force II or In The Hunt. Indeed, the first stage is arguably the best stage of the five – the backgrounds have plenty going on, there’s lots of detail, and there are plenty of items to pick up and utilise against the enemy along with a decent end boss battle. From there on in, the subsequent levels fail to match this for some reason.
While it does try its best to do things differently, Undercover Cops fails to do anything particularly original. The enemy attack patterns become repetitive after a while, there just isn’t enough variety within the stages, although credit has to be given to the end of stage bosses. This is where the game becomes memorable and at its most challenging. All five bosses are very original in appearance, drawn to a high standard, well animated and given plenty of creative character. They’re also pretty cheap with their attacks, with only Parcs and Balbarotch relatively straight forward to dispatch.
As one comes to expect with Irem’s late efforts, the graphics are highly detailed sprites with excellent animation as I have already alluded too. The music is good, but not particularly memorable. The game is challenging, but generally enjoyable; a worthwhile addition to the roster of scrolling beat ’em ups if for nothing more than its highly distinctive style to help it stand out from the crowd. I would say it is definitely worth a play if you want an alternative to Final Fight without feeling you’re playing a total clone of the same (for example SNK’s Burning Fight).
The end sequence suggests room for a sequel but none was forthcoming before Irem stopped releasing arcade games in 1994. In late 1993, and exclusively on the Nintendo Game Boy, an RPG based on the game, Undercover Cops: Hakaishin Garumaa, was released. This was also, fact fans, the second-to-last game Irem release on Nintendo’s hand held.
The original arcade hardware comes in World and Japanese rom sets. An original Japanese M-92 board-set will be neither cheap or easy to acquire; the World board is a lot less desirable because of changes made to the game, and although not terribly common, it is cheaper than the Japanese board. There is also a third PCB release known as the “Alpha Renewal” version, which is a “fixed” version of the World rom set which restores the features from the Japanese ROM set.
Unfortunately outside of a now very expensive 1994 Super Famicom port by Varie, Undercover Cops is not available for play in any other format save for emulation. Unless you are either a big Irem fan, or simply a connoisseur of the scrolling beat ’em up, you would do better by spending far less money on Final Fight and Streets of Rage 2. Undercover Cops is an above average effort that could have been something exceptional if it weren’t for a few details that let it down. As it is, Final Fight, Streets of Rage 2 and Aliens Vs Predator are all superior entries into the genre. Undercover Cops is good, but it could have been great.
Version tested: PCB (Japanese ROM set)
Also available on: Nintendo Super Famicom
Over the last twenty years Twentieth Century Fox’s Aliens franchise has become a much sought after commodity in the gaming world, with some of the games released bearing the brand name polarizing feelings amongst gamers and hardcore fans of David Cameron and Ridley Scott’s cinematic visions. Obviously, from a pure action perspective, it has been Cameron’s 1986 blockbuster Aliens that most developers have sourced inspiration from in bringing the franchise to our homes, in an effort to not only scare us witless, but to also give us the satisfying opportunity of unloading heavy artillery into marauding hordes of hostile xenomorphs.
I have to say I am a big admirer of both Alien and Aliens, and have always looked forward to playing a game based on the series, and have been fortunate enough to play the many of these titles over the years, some of which I will revisit for the purposes of this blog. Around the time of Aliens original cinematic release in 1986 there were two games, both published by Electric Dreams, that tied in to the film; one of which was a rather tense first person view affair, and the other a rather crude looking top-down game which I have yet to have the pleasure of playing, but I recall the press at the time lauding it as the better game (it tended to be referred to as Aliens: US Edition for reasons that escape me now).
Moving on a few years, and, around 1990, Japanese arcade developer Konami, probably at that point best known for Contra and Metal Gear, released several arcade games based on high profile film & TV licences – The Simpsons: The Arcade Game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Aliens.
Konami’s Aliens was the first foray into the arcades for the franchise, and was also pretty faithful, in setting, to the film. Split over six levels, you take control of Ripley, fighting through waves of Alien’s, armed with your trusty Smartgun until you reach your final battle against the Queen Alien on-board the Sulaco. A simultaneous two player option is also available, whereby Player Two picks up control of one of the marines, presumably as Hicks – the characters names are never mentioned and the likenesses are altered from those of the original actors.
The level settings are faithful to the film, are well drawn, and recreate many locations that will be instantly recognisable to fans of the movie. The Alien’s are well animated and Konami do a good job of creating some additional Alien foes not seen in the films, but which clearly add much needed variety to the proceedings here. Some fans may take exception with the artistic licence Konami took with these enemies that are not true and accurate to the film, but to be fair to Konami, the game would be pretty dull if you just shot at wave upon wave of Alien drones. Fans should take delight in the appearance of the Power-Loader, including a final battle with the Alien Queen (should you get that far) that pays excellent homage to the original movie.
The sound effects are spot-on, with Alien screeches and Smartgun sounds all recreated perfectly from the source material, and although the music used is not ripped from James Horner’s brilliant film score, it fits in with the action nicely – the opening sequence at North Lock features a great composition that really sets up the entire game.
The game is challenging, even when set to “Easy”, and although not quite what I would class as a “quarter-muncher”, it does takes practice to get really good at it, which isn’t a bad thing of course as it brings you back for more plays! As with Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, opportunities to grab items to replenish energy are considerably few and far between, meaning any carelessness will usually be punished with loss of a life. Along the way you will come across cases that will spill out weapon power-ups, however, if you die you will lose your power-up and revert back to the default Smartgun. The Smartgun is fine against most standard enemies but will make tougher opposition all the more challenging to overcome. The game play is very old school, and unless you grew up with this style of side-scrolling action game, or have got into them at a later date, I would imagine that gamers used to modern gameplay mechanics would find it a chore to play through.
The JAMMA PCB is getting much less common now than it was a few years ago, and the version to buy is the board with the World ROM set. There is a board with a Japanese specific ROM set but it omits parts of the game – namely the sections where you ride in the APC. The great shame is, of course, that Konami never ported Aliens to home hardware. My hopes of a home port were raised when both The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles received ports to XBLA / PSN download services in recent years, but as yet, no sign of Aliens. As the current video game licence holder is Sega, it is unlikely we will see a port anytime soon, and if Fox want big money to award Konami the licence again, it will not be economical to port. Nevertheless, for those who do not have a Supergun or home arcade set up, both ROM sets were dumped on MAME many years ago, and so can be easily accessed for those who want to.
Aliens is a great example of early-90’s scrolling arcade run-and-gun games with big bold sprites, a range of weapons and atmospheric music. The game is, for whatever reason, one of the few stand-out memories I have of playing video games in arcades when I was on holiday as a kid; and it was also the first arcade game I ever completed… and it wasn’t cheap to do it either!
No self-respecting Aliens video game fan should live their life without trying Konami’s take on the franchise at least once, and for me it will always hold heady memories of family summer holidays, sea-front arcades, and a fistful of ten pence pieces… “Game over, man! Game over!” indeed.
Version Tested: Arcade (World ROM set)
Also available on: n/a
The late 1990’s saw a slew of shoot-’em-ups hit both the arcades and home consoles, some good, some bad and some truly awful. The Sega Saturn is renowned for its comprehensive shoot-’em-up library and saw many of the era’s best arcade shmups successfully ported over. The Sony PlayStation also saw some of these arcade titles ported, but, by-and-large saw more in the way of exclusive console only titles to pack out its shmup library, arguably the most famous of which is SquareSoft’s one and only foray into the genre – Einhander.
However, Einhander benefited from securing a release in both North America as well as Japan, ensuring that it did not just become another Japanese only curio for hardcore gamers to “discover” later on down the line. Still, many of the PlayStation’s “exclusive” shoot-’em-ups do fall into the category of a Japan only release and have thus fallen into general obscurity. Mentioning games like Stahlfeder, Two-Tenkaku and Air Grave will probably bring blank responses from many a gamer, as will bringing up Sky Think System’s 1997 release – Harmful Park.
That’s right, that Japanese powerhouse of arcade action Sky Think System, the geniuses behind games like Harmful Park, and, um, Harmful Park. Okay, so they released a couple of obscure puzzle games prior to this, but otherwise Sky Think System’s legacy kind of begins and ends with Harmful Park, which is a damn shame really considering how good Harmful Park is. For what appears to be, on the face of it, Sky Think System’s one and only foray into shmup territory, this is really up there with Einhander as a truly awesome one-hit shoot-’em-up wonder for any given developer.
Harmful Park is split into six stages, with each stage representing a different area of a large theme park which has been invaded and taken over by a mad-scientist type. Each stage is filled with a variety of wacky enemies to shoot down, with some stages having a mid-stage boss, before reaching the main boss fight for that particular level. There is an incredible number of different enemies that will approach you on your quest, many with their own unique way of attacking you, and each superbly animated and drawn. Some of the larger enemies are very well presented, and very memorable. You certainly won’t forget fighting the giant gorilla, eating bananas, riding on the rear of a train which looks like a cow in a hurry!
To help you defeat the weird and wonderful opposition thrown at you, your character comes armed with no less than four different weapons – a potato gun, a jelly gun, an ice cream laser and a gun that throws pies. No, I am not making this up. Honest.
At the beginning of the game all four weapons are set at level 1 power, and each will level up to a maximum of four when you collect on screen power-up icons. Each weapon must be levelled up individually, adding a bit of strategy into the mix, and if you die the weapon you were using at the time will reset to level one, the other weapons not affected. Each weapon also has its own smart bomb, each of which has a different effect, again adding to the strategy element of the game.
One of the nice things about Harmful Park is its simplicity. You can play for score, there is a score multiplier for chaining successful enemy hits, plus a hefty end of level bonus if you clear 100 per cent of enemies for that particular stage, and there are also green gems and hidden icons to pick up to increase score too. Alternatively, you can just play for fun and enjoy the amazing detail of the sprites and backgrounds while the cheerful background music plays. The only on-going strategy you need to employ is deciding which of the four weapons you wield and how you wish to power them up. After each stage a small animation plays detailing your progress through the “story”, but sadly this is all in Japanese, so I have no idea what they’re saying!
The game defaults to easy difficulty setting, upon which most proficient gamers will glide through the game on a 1CC; however, once you up the difficulty the game starts to bite back, and on the harder settings Harmful Park presents a stern challenge. I quite enjoying playing on easy, it’s an entertaining challenge (nothing more), and it gives you more opportunity to enjoy many of the site gags and little quirks that have been lovingly programmed into the game rather than having to focus on dodging waves of bullets. The sound is of a good quality too, sound effects are spot on with the action unfolding before you, and the background music fits each stage’s area character perfectly.
In many ways it is a perfect shmup for the more casual shoot-’em-up fan, but the high price for the PlayStation original is likely to shut out this type of gamer, leaving the game to either more hardcore fans of the genre who don’t think twice about dropping big bucks for good games, or the collector who is just going to buy it to fill another space on a dusty shelf. There are, of course, many “rare” and “obscure” games out there that are expensive for just being one or either of those two descriptions, and the games themselves are far from enjoyable to play. Thankfully Harmful Park does not fall into that category, because all though the price of admission is steep, it is worth every penny. However, if you happen to own a PlayStation 3 and can get your hands on a Japanese PSN voucher, you can download Harmful Park from the Japanese PlayStation Store for next to nothing – comparatively of course!
Once you have finished with the main game, there is an in-game option to go back to play for score, and there are also three mini-games also thrown in aimed at multiplayer competition, including support for Sony’s four-player adaptor. Sky Think System certainly try and give you plenty of game for your money!
Overall this is a cracking horizontal shooter, which is very often, and sadly, overlooked when people look back on the late ’90’s era of shmups. The level of sheer detail, not only in the main on-screen sprites but the backgrounds as well, oozes a quality rarely seen in late 90’s 2D shmups; the love and affection with which this game has been created is very evident, and the gameplay is there to go with it. From my own recollection, this is easily one of the most detailed 2D games I have seen outside of a Neo-Geo game. I would certainly rate Harmful Park above and beyond many of the games it is often compared to such as Konami’s Parodious series, and even the excellent Star Parodier on NEC’s PC Engine CD-ROM.
Harmful Park is easy to get into and enjoy, it will present a good challenge when the difficulty level is cranked up and I would highly recommend it to any fan of the genre if you can look past the price tag.
Version tested: PlayStation NTSC/J
Also available on: PlayStation 3 (PSN download – Japan only)
When discussing SNK’s powerful Neo-Geo hardware, several titles will inevitably crop up in the conversation – King of Fighters, Samurai Spirits and Metal Slug will undoubtedly be mentioned. Having had an AES console in the distant past I have become pretty familiar with the titles in these three series and many of the other games that appeared on the system during its run. I was never a particularly big fan of run-n-gun games of the Contra mould in the past, although I did enjoy Data East’s Midnight Resistance when it came out. Yet, when I first started playing Metal Slug I fell in love with the detailed and well animated sprites, the cartoon style action and superb music and sound… oh yeah, and the gameplay was pretty good too!
As I recall it was around 1998 when I first got introduced to the Metal Slug series and became a keen follower of the series up when it pretty much went off the rails with Metal Slug 4 in 2002. I have devoted much time to the first three Metal Slug games over the years on AES, and other formats, but the one game in the set that has received the most love is Metal Slug X.
Metal Slug X (MSX) was released in the early spring of 1999 on the MVS arcade hardware and a little later that year on the AES home console system (both in the USA and Japan).
For those not totally familiar with MSX, the gameplay is good, old-fashioned, run-n-gun. You have four characters to choose from at the start (although you can change character at any credit continue point), and then you battle your way through six action packed stages as you attempt to defeat series regular, the evil General Morden and his allies. There are hostages to rescue, a variety of different weapons to collect, vehicles and animals (yes, you read that right) to utilise, and numerous different enemies to defeat. Even for its time it wasn’t a particularly original premise, but the sheer quality of the game is what sets it apart.
MSX is also a re-tooled version of Metal Slug 2 (originally released the previous year), and to the cynical, and/or those who do not know what they’re talking about, “is MS2 with the slowdown fixed”. Yes, sadly, MS2 does suffer with slowdown. Not horrendous slowdown, nor even protracted slowdown, but there are a few points during the game where there are basically too many sprites on screen. From memory, there is an issue on Stage 1, an issue toward the latter part of Stage 4, and at the end of Stage 6 when you fight the end of game “boss”. Those three examples are not meant to be exhaustive, and MS2 is still an eminently playable romp even with the slowdown, but some people just do not like it because of this issue. MSX does a lot more than just address the slowdown, and while saying “it’s a totally different game to MS2” would be stretching it a bit (a lot actually), it is significantly reworked to warrant being praised as a release in its own right. I guess you could call it the “Director’s Cut” version of Metal Slug 2.
So what is it that I like so much about it? Well, aside from the classic Metal Slug gameplay, it is the sheer detail that has gone into this game. A lot of time has been spent adding tiny details in, that on a casual play through, you would just not notice, or perhaps think to notice. There are obvious differences between the 2 and X as well. Although the Stages are the same in setting, some are set at different times of the day, enemies can be more prolific in number or a different type entirely, and some of the bosses have been altered, and on some levels a mid-Stage boss is also included. Remixed music, new weapons, new Metal Slugs and a different end-credit sequence are also thrown into the blend.
There are a lot of, new, hidden, elements in MSX for scoring opportunities, especially in the first few levels, and if you like playing for score or you’re trying to rescue all the hostages, you need to find out where these items are, because many are well hidden. In fact it took me ages to find many of the hidden point collectables and hostages, and I’m still not certain I’ve found them all on every level now! The backgrounds and sprites are highly detailed, the sprites in particular have a number of different animations unique to each character. Clearly a lot of time, and love, has gone into crafting this game and to make it stand out from its predecessor, and I, for one, am highly appreciative of this work as you just do not see it often enough in sprite based video games of this kind. In many ways, it is sad, that after Metal Slug 3 was released, the later entries in the series seemed more of a cynical way of generating cash from the name of the franchise rather than building on the quality that was laid down here.
Many of you will already know that on home cart Metal Slug X can cost an arm and a leg such is the collector demand for Metal Slug AES titles. The MVS cartridge can be picked up loose for reasonable money (complete kits will not be particularly cheap), and the game has been ported to several mainstream home consoles over the years including PSX, PS2, Xbox and more recently Nintendo’s Wii download service – Virtual Console. Having been thoroughly disappointed with the emulation used in the Wii version of Metal Slug Anthology, I was very pleased to find that the Virtual Console port is spot on and plays great with the Wii Classic Controller. So, if you haven’t got the Monopoly money required to purchase the AES version, nor a home-Jamma set up needed for MVS, then I would highly recommend the VC port whole-heartedly. Put simply Metal Slug X is run-n-gun at its finest and most enjoyable.
Metal Slug X
Version tested: Neo Geo AES
Also available on: Neo Geo MVS, Wii, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, PC, iOS, Android
Who needs PG Tips when you’ve got soup, fags, and Metal Slug X???!!!
Well, it probably won’t come as a surprise to many reading this that I am a regular reader of Retro Gamer magazine. I have been inspired to make several purchases over the years from articles published in some of my regular video-gaming reads, and this months copy of Retro Gamer (issue 123) has certainly had an effect.
I am a big shoot-’em-up addict, and although I have not been a big fan of Konami’s Gradius series, I have long had an interest to try out its distant cousin – Salamander. With Salamander featuring on the cover of this month’s Retro Gamer, (with a very good article to go with it inside), I finally decided to pick up the Saturn version of Salamander Deluxe Pack; which then promptly arrived on my desk from Japan the other day. More on Salamander Deluxe in a future post.
This month’s Retro Gamer also has an excellent feature on classic late 80’s software publisher Cinemaware… I loved Rocket Ranger back in the day, and have long been interested in seeing how it still plays all these years later.
So, last Sunday, after it has sat atop a wardrobe at my parents house for nearly 20 years, I decided to recover my once faithful Atari ST.
I have long toyed with the idea of bringing the old girl back to life, but procrastination has often got the better of me. However, with the idea of playing Rocket Ranger buzzing around in the back of my mind, and also keen to revisit the classic Carrier Command, I finally dusted off the Atari (literally), and went scouring in the loft of the garage to find what was left of my ST back catalogue.
Soon, with a handful of diskettes and my old ST, I was back at my own house, into the Games Room, and hooking the ST up to the TV. To my pleasant surprise it fired straight into life; and using a copy of Activision’s Ghostbusters 2 as a tester, was even happier to see that the machine seemed to be working fine.
I will report more on my re-established connection with the world of Atari later on – need to find a joystick, and waiting for a new mouse to arrive courtesy of eBay. One thing that did put a smile on my face during all this was, amongst a small wad of loose diskettes, I found a copy of Jeff Minter’s seminal Lllamatron! No copy of Rocket Ranger though… looks like that’s going to be another eBay job!