The Neo-Geo CD was first introduced in 1994, four years after the release of the cartridge based Neo-Geo home console – the Advanced Entertainment System (or AES). The idea of the Neo-Geo CD was easy to understand – as awesome as the Neo-Geo AES cartridge hardware had been, the cost of the cartridges was always going to limit its contemporary user base.
In the UK, new AES releases would run anywhere between £200 – £300, and in the early 1990’s that was a huge amount of money to pay for any videogame. The story was the same in the USA and Japan where the AES had the bulk of its modest sales success. The cost was due in part to the use of ROM chips, which were expensive to produce back then, and the fact you were basically buying a full and proper arcade game for your home.
So, the concept of playing SNK’s eclectic range of Neo-Geo arcade games at the same price point of a PlayStation game was clearly going to be appealing to gamers – on paper at least. The hardware was still expensive, $399 / £399 (dearer than the PlayStation and Saturn), but now the games were priced at around £45 making Neo-Geo software on a par with the mainstream consoles of the day.
Contemporary writers have criticised SNK for releasing the Neo-Geo CD, and its price tag, in the same year as the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, and despite the Neo-Geo’s impressive 2D handling ability, the hardware specs of SNK’s new console were no match for the new 32-Bit powerhouses.
Doubtless the intention never was to compete directly with either Sega or Sony’s new consoles, but to make the arcade experience of the Neo-Geo more accessible. Bearing in mind that many arcade games, especially beat’em-ups and shoot’em-ups, in the mid-late ‘90s were still using 2D graphics, the Neo-Geo was still well placed to serve. And besides, if you weren’t a fan of beat’em-ups why on earth were you buying a Neo-Geo home console anyway?!
Why the Neo-Geo CD hardware became such a ham-strung compromise may forever remain a mystery. The technology certainly was available at the time to make the data management on the console a whole lot more tolerable than it what it became. Implementing this may have led to increased hardware costs, but the machine was too expensive anyway, and both Sega and Sony had long since realised that you do not make money on the hardware – you make it on the games.
The original MVS arcade hardware had been a huge international success for SNK, and by 1994 I am more than confident in saying that they had made their R&D costs back for developing the platform and then some.
While I do not know how much the Neo-Geo CD cost to develop, in the grand scheme of things I would wager very little. The hardware is still Neo-Geo, but instead of ROM cartridge as the delivery medium for the games it became CD-ROM. A major mistake was fitting a single-speed CD drive to the unit, and the late 1995 release of the Neo-Geo CDZ did little to improve things. Some hardware improvements saw loading times speed up, but there was still no progress in improving the way the system handled in-game data delivery of the King of Fighters series or others with large meg counts.
So, are the loading times so appalling that the Neo-Geo CD isn’t worth bothering with?
No, far from it. Some of the earlier games load in one hit, making loading times moot, and many of the later games with relatively modest meg counts carry, fairly, unobtrusive loads between stages.
Sadly, some of the later releases are just not worth bothering with, as the loading times completely ruin the flow of the gameplay. These games are usually post ’96 releases with high meg counts. A good example would be Metal Slug 2 whereby there is at least one-mid level load per stage (excluding the first stage). It’s a real shame, as, from what I can see, it’s identical to the ROM cart versions, with the bonus of CD quality audio.
The King of Fighters ’95 through to ’99, inclusive, are almost unplayable as SNK intended. Each bout is broken up by loading the next character, and the loading on KoF ’99 is really excruciating due to the huge meg count. Single play is just about tolerable, but King of Fighters is not supposed to be pure 1-on-1 fighting, it’s all about the team play!
Some late games are not as bad as you would perhaps think. Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers is more than playable on Neo-Geo CD, with relatively quick loads between stages, making it, arguably, one of the best brawlers for the CD system.
The original Metal Slug is eminently playable, largely, due to the fact the game is under 200 Megs. There are loads between stages, but you get a nice map showing your progress, there is no in-level loading, and there are other exclusive bonuses such as the Combat School.
Bonus material like this, is definitely one of the Neo-Geo CD’s strongest assets. Besides the CD quality soundtracks many of the games carry, there are a number that have features not found anywhere else.
Big Tournament Golf has a full extra course, many of the King of Fighters games have art and character galleries, Ninja Masters has extra game modes, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer has a vocal soundtrack not found in the AES/MVS version; and there are the Neo-Geo CD exclusive games as well.
Neo Driftout: New Technology, Ironclad, Puzzle Bobble, Futsal, Zintrick, and Samurai Spirits RPG are just some of the titles that only officially appeared on the CD unit as published by SNK for Neo-Geo home hardware. Some were never officially released on MVS either!
With a catalogue of just under 100 titles to choose from, there is plenty for the Neo-Geo enthusiast to play, and with the exorbitant prices of AES cartridges on the used market nowadays, the Neo-Geo CD may well be the better buy for the casual fan to get involved with, if you don’t wish to get into MVS gaming.
Nevertheless, be aware, that in recent years, games collectors have started to move in on the potential of the Neo-Geo CD as a collector system. The system’s lacklustre showing at retail in the 1990s resulted in many titles only receiving very small print runs, making some games very hard to track down, and in certain cases making the games expensive to buy as well.
If there’s any solid advice I can give, it’s to stay clear of the titles published in English for the US and European markets. Print runs for these titles were ridiculously low and to pick up some of the games, complete, if you can find them, will run serious coinage. Most Japanese titles can be bought for comfortably under $100.00 US, including some of the more sought after titles if you have the patience, and look in the right places (i.e. not eBay). It’s certainly worth me mentioning that all Neo-Geo CD software is region free, but remember: PAL hardware will only run the games at 50hz (letterboxed) no matter its region.
Hardware prices are modest, a loose Neo-Geo CD top loading model (the most common unit) can be picked up for under £150.00 with hook ups and a controller. Only the CDZ is still holding value, especially if it’s boxed, largely due to its short, Japanese market only, production run. Expect to pay north of £250.00 for a CDZ – and the loading isn’t that much quicker, honestly.
The Neo-Geo CD was one of many follies to be borne out of SNK during the 1990s; the Neo-Geo CDZ, Neo-Geo Hyper 64 and black-&-white Neo-Geo Pocket being the others. One cannot help but think that these hardware failures all contributed to weakening SNK financially, hastening its sale to Aruze, and thus the beginning of the end for the business in its original, and much loved, form.
The Neo-Geo CD could have been so much more, but remains another footnote of how SNK had the potential to really impress and entertain, but fumbled the opportunity by producing hardware that simply could not deliver the gameplay experience needed. Some observers have argued that CD technology for gaming was still in its infancy at the time, but I disagree. NEC had proven since 1988 that the CD-ROM format could deliver great games beyond ROM cartridge limitations; Sega’s Mega-CD (1991) had the potential (Final Fight CD / Sonic CD) to impress as well (it was just badly marketed and supported); and with Sony developing the PlayStation during the same period, its baffling to see SNK get the hardware delivery so wrong.
The Neo-Geo CD hardware was quietly abandoned in 1997, with the final official game being published in December 1999. Ironically the final game was one of the most unplayable on the system due to its high meg count and therefore ruinous loading – The King of Fighters ’99.
I’ve always had a soft-spot for the Neo-Geo CD, and it’s disappointing to hear some of the vitriol the system receives. SNK’s short sightedness with the hardware certainly is deserving of criticism, but the machine still has a place in any hard-core SNK fans heart, and is still worth checking out for those who don’t want to pay AES prices, and don’t want to suffer with emulation. I just hope that software prices do not begin to spiral too far out of most gamers reaches.
SNK Neo•Geo CD
Produced: 1994 – 1997
Neo•Geo CD (front loading limited edition launch unit) – Japan only.
Neo•Geo CD (top loading unit) – Japan / USA / Europe.
Neo•Geo CDZ – Japan only.
Please note that prices are based on UK perspective and do not including any shipping or import duty costs that may be applicable. Price estimates correct at time of publication.
Let’s not mess about here, Metal Slug 4 was awful. Sadly its development was caught up in the turmoil of SNK’s collapse and its re-emergence as Playmore (later to be SNK Playmore). Out sourced to a little known Korean developer called Mega Enterprise, Metal Slug 4 was a patched together effort which resembled more of a Mugen-style hack than a professionally accomplished product.
After the grandeur of Metal Slug 3, Metal Slug 4 was nothing short of disappointing.
At 13 years old, the tried and trusted Neo-Geo MVS hardware was starting to show its age, so it came as pleasant surprise when Metal Slug 5 was announced, and launched into arcades in late 2003. The question was though, who was programming this new Slug game and would it do the series justice, unlike its predecessor?
Fortunately, Metal Slug 5 was programmed jointly in-house and by Noise Factory (the Japanese developer behind the brilliant Sengoku 2001 and Rage of the Dragons). Therefore, most of the features introduced by Mega Enterprise are removed and the game looks and plays in a considerably more polished manner than Slug 4.
Which is a good thing, as this was the last Metal Slug game to be released on the Neo-Geo hardware, and not only did it get the standard MVS and AES releases, SNK Playmore also provided the game in a very nice JAMMA kit and produced home ports for the PlayStation 2 and X-Box.
The story is a bit thin, but gives us a reunion of our favourite Slug characters, meaning Player 1 and Player 2 can choose to play as either Marco, Tarma, Eri or Fio (Nadia and Trevor from Slug 4 aren’t mentioned – no great loss there). Then it’s straight into the action as our heroes battle against the Ptolemaic Army who are generally up-to-no-good and have stolen plans for the Metal Slug super vehicle.
Gameplay is straightforward run-and-gun, and anyone familiar with the previous games will feel instantly at home. Each credit gives you three lives, and it’s still one-hit and you’re dead. As standard you’re armed with a pistol with infinite ammo, and ten grenades, but there are plenty of power-ups to collect on the way by destroying certain enemies, or, in the main, rescuing hostages. If you get killed during a level you’ll lose all the hostages you’ve saved up to that point. Get to the end of the level unscathed and with plenty of freed hostages and you’ll get rewarded with lots of bonus points.
Although there is some re-use of previous Metal Slug backgrounds, it is nowhere near as blatant as Slug 4’s use of old graphic assets, and is usually fairly brief. The enemies have been redrawn and it’s refreshing to see opponents who aren’t part of General Morden’s army or alien invaders. End of level bosses are typically large, and well animated, guaranteed to give your reflexes a workout.
A new “slide” move is introduced (pull down and press B) which is useful at times, and actually necessary in a few places, and the dual machine-gun power-up returns. There are no new weapons to find sadly, and the flame-shot is missing altogether. “Big” mode is here somewhere, apparently, but I have yet to activate it. The useless “Monkey” mode from Slug 4 has gone, as have all the rather naff Slug variants introduced in that game.
And what about the Metal Slug? Our trusty Super Vehicle 001 makes regular appearances through the levels, along with the Slug-Mariner, Slug Flyer and the all new Slug Gunner. The Slug Gunner is a great addition, very well animated with some nice features, one of the best new Metal Slug variants since the Slug Flyer was introduced in Metal Slug 2.
There’s also the really neat looking Spider-Slug and the Slug Car – which looks like a Fiat 500 with a cannon strapped to it. I was a bit disappointed there were no “animal” Slugs this time, the Camel, Elephant and Ostrich were always really amusing (as well as useful) and added to the style of the earlier installments.
One of the great things about Metal Slug X and Metal Slug 3 were all the little nuances, like the Elephant Slug, “Thunder Cloud”, Allen O’Neil’s demise, suicidal mummy, the explorer, Hyakutaro Ichimonji… I could go on for ages. Little elements like this provided the series with a much-loved charm. Lamentably, there are no little features to look out for in this episode, which is a real shame.
Music is good, a selection of rock infused tunes that suit the game very well, but I can’t help but miss the soundtracks of composer Hiya! who scored the first three games in the series. Sound effects are great, though largely re-used from previous games.
The story, as presented through the game, is not particularly cohesive or fathomable, and although this doesn’t overly detract from the fun in playing the game, it does make the experience feel a little random. However, not long after the game was originally launched, some fans found a number of unused sprites and other game assets hidden in the game’s code, heavily hinting that the game was not finished properly and the release rushed.
Given that MVS releases soldiered on for another 6 months after Slug 5, it’s a shame SNK Playmore didn’t release a revised edition of the game with the missing content programmed back in… a Metal Slug 5 Special or Metal Slug X2 if you like. But, in retrospect, there probably wasn’t the time to do so.The game is not as large as Metal Slug 3 with its numerous branching paths; but nevertheless, it’s got as much action and longevity as the first few installments, and Slug 3 was always a bit too big for my liking. As a huge Metal Slug fan I found Slug 5 to be readily enjoyable, and a massive improvement over the dire Mega Enterprise effort.
Metal Slug 5 is a worthy entry into the series, and whilst it does not quite reach past glories, it’s a very playable, and fun, run and gun affair that no Neo-Geo owner or Metal Slug fan should be without.
Metal Slug 5
Version tested: SNK Neo-Geo MVS (JAMMA)
Also available on: Sony PlayStation 2 / Microsoft X-box / SNK Neo-Geo AES / SNK Neo-Geo MVS (cartridge) / Microsoft Windows
For those of us old enough to remember, shopping has changed a lot in the last thirty years. Some of the experience is still the same, but gone are the Wednesday’s of half-day closing, nearly everywhere is open on a Sunday (albeit at slightly reduced hours), and shops can stay open as late as 8pm during the week, all to satisfy our diverse lifestyles and thirst for consumer goods.
One area of retailing that has changed significantly since the mid-1980s is the experience of purchasing the humble video game. I recall, as a kid, being able to pick up a new Spectrum game almost anywhere, even my local newspaper shop could supply me the latest Joe Blade game for £2.99 or the newest shovel-wear to escape out of Codemasters. Oh yes, I didn’t need to scroll down the information super-highway, oh no, long before the mass accessibility to the internet, it was a stroll down the local high-street to get my gaming fix. WH Smith and Boots were brilliant for games in those days, and my town even had a very good independent just outside the town centre – Software City.
Software City was a goldmine. Not only did they stock all the latest releases at prices competitive with the major chains, but they also had some of the less recent titles at really good prices. I regularly walked up to their shop from Sainsbury’s car park whilst my mum did the weekly shop, and more often than not walked away with a purchase. I’ll always remember going in with my mate and seeing Ocean Software’s The Biz compilation (R-Type, Double Dragon, Operation Wolf and Batman: The Caped Crusader) on the shelf for a mere £4.99… it was supposed to retail for £14.99! Software City was a mecca to me for a good few years, right through until about 1992/’93 when more and more retailers were jumping on to the home console boom as gamers switched to Mega Drive’s and Super Nintendo’s and ditched the Amiga and Atari ST as gaming formats. Today, Software City is no more, their presence long since replaced by a hair salon. How the times have changed…
Whilst 8-Bit computer titles were an easy score twenty five years ago, console games were not. In the late 1980s video game consoles were very expensive compared to the popular Commodore, Amstrad, Atari and Sinclair home computers, and nowhere near as popular.
In the Christmas of 1988 I was very fortunate to receive a Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe pack (the one with R.O.B the robot), to which I was delighted, and played it constantly over the Christmas holidays much to the annoyance of my parents. However, two factors that did not particularly endear me to the system soon came to light. The first was availability. There was nowhere local that stocked NES games, the nearest place was Toys-R-Us, and that was a good forty minute drive away, assuming I could persuade my mother or father to take me there in the first place. The second issue was price. In 1988 / ’89 the average full price title for one of the 8-bit computers was £8.99, and for those who had an ST or Amiga between £14.95 and £19.95. Now, back then £10.00 for a game was a lot of money, and you didn’t want to spend that and then get home and find out it was a load of pants. NES games on the other hand were usually priced between £29.99 and £49.99 – an eye watering amount of cash for a video game back then and over £100.00 in today’s money!! Subsequently, my NES collection was very modest (at best), and I pretty much gave up on it within a few years as it was just too expensive and inconvenient to shop for.
I believe it was a copy of Mean Machines that I picked up at random one day that first altered me to the imminent arrival of the new, and powerful, 16-Bit home consoles from Sega and Nintendo. In the previews section I looked at the first screenshots I had seen of Super Mario World and Capcom’s port of Final Fight, and my jaw hit the floor at the stunning graphics. I eventually picked up a Sega Megadrive for cheap off a friend at school, but by now consoles were moving into the main stream and I didn’t have to travel to the other side of the county to buy games.
Software City stocked the latest PAL Megadrive and SNES games, and a new competitor shop, A R Computers had also opened selling console titles. The high street retailers had also jumped on the band wagon, with Dixons, Woolworths and Argos all stocking the major 16-Bit formats in the UK. I stayed loyal to Software City, other than when they didn’t have the game I wanted. I think the last title I got from them was Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition if I recall correctly. They closed down a short time later.
Later with the Playstation I finally got fed up with stunted PAL conversions and six-to-twelve month lead times to see the UK version of a new release, and so bought a NTSC/J Dual Shock Playstation package from Another World in Stoke-on-Trent. This heralded the last of the real games buying experiences for me.
Between 1997 and 2001 I would regularly go into Another World to see the latest import offerings, and they would generally not disappoint. It was a great shop, hidden at the back of a rundown shopping arcade in central Hanley and just a few doors away from the legendary (and by then defunct) Console Concepts store. The downstairs was tiny, and filled with comic related stuff, but go up the narrow wooden stair case and you entered import heaven! All the latest Playstation and Saturn games from Japan, and the odd US title as well, plus some Neo-Geo and PC Engine stuff too. It was a great place, I really miss its musty smell and grubby building it sat in (now demolished). I really hate to think about how much money I spent there, but, you can’t take it with you, right? At least that’s what I tell my wife nowadays.
Do you remember Tottenham Court Road Computer Exchange? Today they’re better known as CEX, but in the late 90s they had some brilliant shops in London, stocking all the latest import games for all the formats you could think of. I remember going into their, sadly, short lived retro shop and seeing the display of Neo-Geo AES games – I had never seen so many in one place before, and the price tags were wallet busting back then too (comparatively to today).
As we moved into the Playstation 2 and Gamecube eras, the international release dates for major titles began to standardise, and letterbox PAL games were replaced with proper full screen releases, and the import market started to rapidly contract. Who wanted to play the latest Resident Evil game in Japanese when you could go to Game and pick it up cheaper and in English?
As the sun has set over the Twentieth Century and the New Millennium marches on, the internet dominates the way we buy our games today. While some of the great names of ’80s gaming like Boots and WH Smith still permeate the Great British High Street, they have both abandoned video games retailing; Game has had some very serious issues and downsized considerably; and the independents have all but disappeared. CEX has changed beyond all recognition, almost becoming like a personal electronics (only) version of Cash Convertors peppered with a smattering of Xbox 360 & PS3 titles.
While video game nostalgia may only be a quick eBay click away, it could never replace cherished memories of going into WH Smith and picking up my copy of Elite’s Paperboy, the buying experience today is just so soulless.
During the mid-1990’s there were two shoot-em-up’s released which had, for reasons lost on my good self, a rather Germanic theme to them, and both were released exclusively for the Sony PlayStation.
One was produced by the highly respected, and influential Square Soft (they of Final Fantasy fame). This game was critically acclaimed, rather stunning, and, is this writers favourite all-time horizontal shoot-em-up – Einhander.
The other Teutonic release came from am obscure developer called Santos; and the game was the rather critically un-acclaimed, and equally as obscure, Stahlfeder:Tetsukou Hikuudan.
Released in 1995 for the Japanese market only, Stahlfeder is a vertically scrolling shoot-em-up with a style much borrowed from contemporaries such as Raiden, Strikers 1945 and the 194X series by Capcom. You take control of one of four different fighter planes, each with his/her own strengths and weaknesses as you set out to defeat the enemy before you over six stages.
As with most shoot-em-ups the plot device is pretty much superfluous, however, in this case it really needs to be unless you can read Japanese. There is no plot reference in-game and so only the actual manual advises of the plot over two very brief pages, and it is all in Japanese; and there is little to no additional information to be found on the web. Yes folks, Stahlfeder is that popular.
Gameplay is a rather straight forward affair, each ship has two shot types, a weak wide shot type and a more powerful concentrated shot, and a bomb. The three attacks are spread over three buttons on the controller, ship speed is dependant on the player ship selected, as is the strength of your shield. Hit box is quite large, so bullet grazing is not recommended, and every time you are hit you lose a chunk of your shield bar. Once the shield is totally depleted it’s game over. Along the way you can collect additional bomb stock, power-ups for your two main shot types and also energy pick-ups to replenish your shield.
Scoring is as basic as it gets. There are no extra points for destroying scenery, there is no milking to be had, no chaining and no medal systems or ranking to be concerned with. At the end of every stage you will be rewarded for the amount of remaining shield you have and the number of unused bombs left in stock; so technically I suppose you could hinder your scoring opportunities if you select one of the ships with a weaker shield. Collecting shield items when the bar is full only adds score, it does not increase your shield capacity.
Enemy attack patterns, are, for the most part, not particularly challenging. Basic attacks seem to be Toaplan and Seibu Kaihatsu influenced, and bosses can be generally defeated without any reliance on bomb stock with the probable exception of the final boss who throws out near impossible to navigate bullet patterns where you’ll need bomb stock to cancel them out. In fact the game recognises this strategy by allowing you to pick up a quite healthy supply of additional bombs just seconds prior to the final confrontation. There is no second loop.
One area where Stahlfeder did break new ground, at the time, was that in the options menu you can select the colour of the enemy bullets to suit. The rest of the options are a distinct let down though, with even the difficulty setting only affecting how many credit continues you have at your disposal and not the enemy attack patterns. So, if you’re gunning for the 1all, you’ll bounce this straight on to “normal” knowing that the game will be pretty much no more challenging than when set to “easy”. The “hard” difficulty setting ups the ante by making the enemies slightly more aggressive, removing the end of stage shield top-up, and powering you down if you get hit; it also does reward with greater end-level bonuses though.
During the mid-1990’s there were many games that mixed sprite and polygon visuals, and Santos took this approach with Stahlfeder, using a combination of 2D and 3D. The player sprites are each well drawn, but lack detail, and the enemy craft is generally rather generic looking and does not differ much between stages. In the early years of the 32-Bit era, as developers got to grips with the new technology and shift from 2D to 3D games, many early PlayStation and Saturn games had rather crude 3D visuals, and as a result have aged rather badly. Stahlfeder is no exception. The 3D rendered bosses look rather basic in form and animation, the final boss in particular is very poor, and rather unimaginative, especially compared to some of the earlier boss encounters. The backgrounds are generally dull, uninspiring and lacking in any great detail.
Sound is par for the course for a shoot-em-up and the rock infused soundtrack has a few good tracks but does little to help drive the action along, and could be generally summed up as unremarkable.
That, ultimately, is the best word to describe Stahlfeder – unremarkable. The game is neither good, nor dreadfully bad, but it is rather bland, bordering on dull, and you’ve really got to want to play it to get anything out of it.
Santos will undoubtedly be an unfamiliar name to many, but they actually have a rather interesting history:
Founded by Takeshi Tozu, Santos also had on board Akio Inoue, who was the founder of Aicom, the developer best known for the classic Neo-Geo game Pulstar. In late 1996, with funding from SNK, Aicom and Santos were merged to create Yumekobo, who are now best known for Blazing Star and Prehistoric Isle 2 on SNK’s Neo-Geo hardware. Sadly, when SNK collapsed in 2001, Yumekobo folded along with it and the team disbanded. With only a handful of dedicated Japanese shoot-em-up developers left by the turn of the Millennium, it would be interesting to find out what happened to some of the Yumekobo team, but as yet I’ve not had the time to see if any names crop up elsewhere.
Overall there is little for me to really enthusiastically recommend to anyone about Stahlfeder, there are so many better examples of the genre out there, not only on PlayStation, but on just about any system of the era you care to mention. During a time when shoot-em-ups were developing into much deeper affairs than just “point-your-ship’n’shoot”, Stahlfeder delivered a back-to-basics package so unremittingly dull that it would seal its fate as nothing more than an early PlayStation curio.
Stahlfeder: Tetsukou Hikuudan
Version tested: PlayStation (NTSC/J)
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???!!!