100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #4 NAM-1975

Nam-1975

Spurred by the success of Ikari Warriors and other military-themed games, SNK developed NAM-1975 as the 4th and last game to launch with the Neo Geo MVS arcade system on the 26th of April, 1990. Rather than sticking to the top-down commando-style formula, SNK went with a Cabal-style game where the viewpoint is much lower to the ground and set behind the player character. The conceit is that you have to aim with the reticle & shoot at the enemy yet at the same time maneuver the player character safely between enemy bullets, explosions, and other hazards. In a way, this style is sort of a hybrid between first person light-gun shooters such as Operation Wolf and scrolling run ‘n gun games with visible avatars that you control directly such as Contra or Commando.

These grey dudes jump from behind the screen, over & across your boat, then swim back to you. Why not just jump ON the boat?

These grey dudes jump from behind the screen, over & across your boat, then swim back to you. Why not just jump ON the boat?

Upon starting the game, you’ll watch the rather intense intro scene, which echoes the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. The protagonist, US Special Forces codename SILVER, is actually dreading his return to “THE HELL”, and then appropriately has a NAM flashback where he looks like Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket. This sets a darker, more morose tone that runs throughout the game. Unlike other games that glorifies war, in NAM-1975, war is hell and there are no heroes, only those who survive and those who die, just like any good Vietnam movie. And yes indeed, that is the voice of Michael Beard.

Dr. Robotnik Muckly and his daughter.

Dr. Robotnik Muckly and his daughter.

The plot particulars revolves around Dr. R. Muckly, a genius scientist in the field of making super weapons of mass destruction, who looks quite a lot like Dr. Robotnik (Dr. Robotnik Muckly?). He has been kidnapped by “enemy forces” in Vietnam probably to work on creating a super weapon for them. Naturally, the only ones capable of saving the Doctor is you and maybe a player 2 buddy might join in to help, US Special Forces codename BROWN.

The girl on the right (not sure what's shes doing in a warzone with that dress) was a hostage I saved. Now she's helping me thru. Cool.

The girl on the right (not sure what’s she’s doing in a warzone with that dress) was a hostage I saved. Now she’s helping me out. Cool.

As in cabal, the joystick controls both the reticule and the player character. The ‘A’ button shoots, ‘B’ is grenades, and ‘C’ is run (but if you tilt the joystick at a downward angle, you do a cartwheel, a very very important move). When you press the ‘A’ button, your character stops moving and shoots while you continue aiming the reticule with the joystick. This creates an interesting strategic dichotomy between offense and defense. You can either shoot/throw grenades but remain immobile like a sitting duck, or move/run/cartwheel to avoid getting hit, but never both simultaneously. And your decision to choose when to shoot and when to avoid bullets is the fundamental skill that NAM-1975 is based on. Additionally, the cartwheel move makes you momentarily invulnerable to any attack whatsoever, which makes it extremely useful. Learn these skills and NAM-1975 should not be that hard of a game (sans the final boss).

You can Cartwheel thru anything, and I mean ANYTHING.

You can cartwheel thru anything, and I mean ANYTHING.

So you go about fighting through each stage. And in-between stages there are “mid bosses” that you seemingly fight or skip based on certain parameters (or it could be random). You soon learn that Dr. Robotnik’s daughter has also been kidnapped. And at the end of 5th and penultimate stage, you find her hanging on a noose. Just as she’s about to inform you on who’s behind all of this, someone shoots & kills her. Then after the ensuing boss fight you forcibly interrogate an enemy commander, who yet again just as he’s about to spill the beans, gets shot & killed by a “Sniper” who was 6 feet away and clearly wielding a small submachine gun. Not what I’d call a “Sniper” at all.

Famous last words...

Famous last words…

Then you reach the 6th and final stage, where at the end you discover that IT WAS DR. MUCKLY WHO PLANNED THIS ALL ALONG. That bastard would even go as far as kill his own daughter if it meant protecting his “world domination” scheme. And what’s sad is he really didn’t have to kill her since you do manage to find Dr. Muckly and his “laser weapon” on your own. Her death was in vain. After fighting him (he’s apparently paraplegic and uses a wheelchair), his guards, and his two blue female guards who at first pretend to be hostages, you meet his ultimate creation, the “laser weapon”. At this moment, the game blocks any additional continues and you only have one credit chance to beat this final boss. And oh man is he hard.

Just Look at his smug face. What an asshole.

Just look at his smug face. What an asshole.

He only uses two weapons, a super fast almost instantaneous but pretty small energy orb projectile, and a larger slower continuous stream of cannons. The problem lies in that, if you carelessly cartwheel away from the energy shots (as you’ve been taught throughout the game to just cartwheel 24/7 from anything), you will probably end up in at the cannon stream and die. Instead, you need to quickly run for a split second away from the energy orbs and cartwheel through the cannons. Doing this constantly, you barely have any time to aim let alone shoot.

METAL GE... I mean, LASER WEAPON.

METAL GE… I mean, LASER WEAPON.

 If you die (as I have time and time again), you get to witness the bad ending [skip to 32:44 if autoskip doesn’t work] where Dr. Muckly excitedly says “The world is mine” and ushers in the apocalypse by blowing up the earth with his laser weapon. It’s a very morbid, tragic ending and is very reminiscent of the bad “Lavos Day” ending in Chrono Trigger.

BOOOOM!!!

BOOOOM!!!

 And really, that is what makes NAM-1975 special. Coming off the decade where super masculine action movies glamorizing war & violence were king and thus influenced everything from games to comics to even cartoons, NAM-1975 goes against the stream. The hero is fearful and regretful about his involvement in war. The damsel-in-distress is killed by her own father’s hand. And losing the battle, leading to the end of the world, is an actual eventuality that is as legitimate as the good ending, which I think is considerably less interesting (despite the “Now we are called heroes…but the hell continues” line). Or maybe I just like to think that cause I gave up on beating the final boss no matter how hard I try.

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100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #3 Mahjong Kyoretsuden: Nishi Nihon Hen

Mahjong Kyoretsuden

Today we will look at Mahjong Kyoretsuden: Nishi Nihon Hen. Mahjong is an old Chinese board game that uses a set of painted tiles. Usually, it’s played with 4 players. But with the advent of video games in arcades and at home, several Japanese companies sought to adapt Mahjong as a 2-player video game representation, and with great success. Mahjong games became popular. And since Mahjong games are relatively quick and cheap to produce, droves of them were made on many systems, and they are usually launch games for several consoles, or at least are released very early on in a console’s lifetime. The Neo Geo is no different, with Mahjong Kyoretsuden being a launch title.

What a boring title screen. It looks like one from an early famicom game. "SNK" is barely visable.

What a boring title screen. It looks like one from an early famicom game. “SNK” is barely visable.

Since Mahjong Kyoretsuden is, well, a Mahjong game fully in Japanese, and I don’t know much about either, I really couldn’t progress far into the game. But from what I’ve seen, Kyoretsuden is a competent Mahjong game. There’s an elaborate story mode, where I assume you are Mr. Mahjong ToughGuy going around town challenging random opponents in Mahjong parlors to prove you Mahjong mettle. At the start of Story Mode, you are asked to create Mr. ToughGuy’s face by choose his face structure, eyes, nose, mouth, hair, eyebrows, moustache. You can even choose to wear one of a few choices of glasses. The create-a-face mode is pretty detailed. There’s Japanese Enka music playing in the background, showing off the Neo Geo sound chip’s vocal capabilities again, though it sound more like someone is playing off a soundboard with vocal samples rather than just a direct vocal recording, but what do I know about Enka music anyway. And that’s all I can say about what I’ve played.

Yep. It sure is a Mahjong game.

Yep. It sure is a Mahjong game.

But actually, I wasn’t really being completely honest. You see, Mahjong Kyoretsuden comes from the sleazier parts of the Mahjong games collective. And by that I mean it’s a Strip Mahjong game (that explains the cover). Later on in the game, you play against female opponents who, when beaten, will take off their clothes. I didn’t post these images here to maintain 100 Days of MEGASHOCK! as a family-friendly, safe for work blog for all to enjoy. I mean, I can’t progress that far enough in the game anyway if I wanted to. And no I don’t really want to. I really don’t…

I couldn't beat this guy so we'll never know if he does take his clothes off or not.

I couldn’t beat this guy so we’ll never know if he does take his clothes off or not.

You know, let’s end this post before we embarrass the both of us.

100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #2 Magician Lord + ADK Prologue

ADK Prologue:

Magician Lord is Alpha Denshi’s (or ADK, K is for Kabushiki kaisha, means corporation) first game on the Neo Geo. Previously, they made arcade games such as Crush Roller (or Make Trax outside japan), a neat Pac-Man clone, and their first collaboration with SNK, the incredibly hard-to-google Battle Field (or the easier international name, Time Soldiers), which is basically Ikari Warriors with a time-travelling theme. It seems that ADK became very close to SNK afterwards, as ADK staff member Eiji Fukatsu designed the Neo Geo hardware by improving upon the 68000-based hardware used for games like Time Soldiers. ADK would go on to be the biggest supporter for the Neo Geo outside of SNK, with World Heroes, a fighting game series also with a time-travelling theme, as their top franchise. ADK went bankrupt in 2000 and their IPs were bought by a newly reformed SNK Playmore a few years after.

The first thing you’ll notice when booting up Magician Lord is that the Neo Geo boot up screen has a different sounding jingle, though it still has the same melody.All of the internally developed games at SNK used the same single jingle we all know and love. But other developers like ADK or Data East or Visco used a different “instrumentation” of the Neo Geo theme, while maintaining the same melody. This video shows different versions of the theme from several games.

magicianlord

Now that we went off on a couple of different tangents, let’s actually talk about the game. Magician Lord is an action-platformer in the mold of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. As Elta, the last descendant of the Magician Lord line, you are (as expected) the last hope for humanity and the only one capable of defeating the evil demon lord & main villain, Gal Agiese, by sealing him into 8 books. Pretty average stuff, but special credit goes to Gal (“You don’t mind if I call you Gal, right?”) for taking the time to pass by and tease you before every boss fight & continue screen with baffling quips. I suppose being sealed for so long, his speech might be a bit antiquated.

1

The six heroes. Gotta have Ninjas.

There are 6 heroes, each with different attacks, which you can turn into based on mixing & matching different colored orbs scattered around in a level. Turing into a hero also increases your HP, but if you get hit and lose all the HP you gained, you revert back to your normal Elta-self. You can also power up your attacks with [P] orbs, but again you lose a POW level if you get hit. Magician Lord starts off hard and then just ratchets up even further as we go, sometimes into NOT FUN territory.

LOVE your hot orange shorts. They suit you nicely.

LOVE your hot orange shorts. They suit you nicely.

Don’t take that as a judgment on the whole game though, I think Magician Lord is a very good game. The upgrade system allows you to try different heroes and go through levels again in a fresh manner, that is to say if you were able to retain them. I like that the stages are pretty expansive and invite you to explore side-paths to find better upgrades. I like how at the start of each stage you are shown an image of that level’s sub-boss sort of as a dupe. And then when you beat him/her, you meet the real boss who is much more intimidating & demonic-looking. Though funnily enough, I find that the sub-bosses tend to be more difficult than the real major bosses, who have clearer patterns and are, honestly, better designed in general. And the music by Hiroaki Shimizu is excellent. It sounds much more like FM Synth music than later Neo Geo titles. I especially like stage 2 & 4. But even stage 3’s weird sound totally complements the weird uncomfortable mood of stage 3. Which by the way looks like this:

An H.R. Giger level already?! But we're not even halfway through. (for the uninitiated, click on image)

An H.R. Giger level already?! But we’re not even halfway thru.

But I wish the difficulty for some sections in the later parts were toned down. Unless you manage to keep yourself powered up, your attacks are pretty weak against many of the late-game enemies. They take too many hits while you can die in 2. There’s also the maze parts like  the Bowser castles in Super Mario Bros., which grow more and more complex the further you are in the game. I always thought they sucked, even in Super Mario Bros..

This is a secret way to beat this boss easily. But don't tell anyone.

This is a secret way to beat this boss hehe.

And then there are the frogs. Dear God. With the passion of a thousand burning suns, I HATE THOSE FUCKING FROGS. They hop way too far, sometimes inexplicably through walls. Each one takes about 8 hits, more than any other standard enemy in the game. And well…just look at this:

I'M SCREWED!!

I’M SCREWED!!

It’s just insanely hard at times. If only ADK would tweak the difficulty a bit, things would be so much better. And well, they actually did, or at least attempted to. See, there are two versions of Magician Lord. The one I played has you starting with a 2-hit life bar that can extend to 4. And if you die you respawn immediately at the place you died. This version is the one installed on the Neo Geo X. But there was a revision version, which added a neat opening cutscene and lets you start with 3-hit life bar that can extend to 6. But when you die you restart either from the start of the level or at the last door you went through. This version is the one on PSN and possibly Virtual Console. As far as I know, none of the enemies attributes were modified. And the frogs are still awful. I have no idea what these versions entail in terms of Neo Geo cartridges (i.e. if one is the MVS release & the other is AES or if both are on AES or both were on MVS). Additionally, the Neo Geo CD version has the intro cutscene and lets you start with 3-hits but you can only extend that to 5 and you respawn where you die. The music isn’t all that different though. No arranged tracks here.

What...Is...This?

What…Is…This?

I hope I’m not being too negative. I really do like Magician Lord and it’s a blast to play, with cool boss fights and a neat upgrade system. It’s a shame ADK never did make a sequel. I suppose action platformers like Magician Lord or Strider or Ghosts ‘n Goblins stopped being  popular in arcades in the ’90s as demand went for more beat ’em ups, fighting games, shooters, and puzzle games, all of which we will see plenty of in future Neo Geo releases. And ADK never had the liberty to work on non-Neo Geo consoles. However, ADK did develop a Magician Lord 2 for the Neo Geo Pocket Color, which was a metroidvania style platformer. Given that the later stages in the original Magician Lord were pretty large & maze-like, this seemed like a natural progression of the series. But sadly, that was canceled. You can read about it and watch the prototype version being played here.

Explains why Magician Lord is fresh HA!... No? Sorry.

Explains why Magician Lord is fresh HA!… No? Sorry.