100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #18 Burning Fight

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Developer: SNK

Publisher: SNK

MVS Release Date: 20/May/1991

AES Release Date: 9/Sept/1991

Longplay Playthrough

The first game of this year’s oft delayed (yet again) 100 Days of MEGASHOCK! post is Burning Fight, the third traditional beat em up released on the Neo Geo MVS (not counting weird experimental beat em ups like The Super Spy). Burning Fight was released on May 20th, 1991, barely a year after the launch of the MVS in April 26, 1990. But despite being the third beat em up, Burning Fight is easily the one that offers the least within the MVS library so far, and is in all earnestness just unremarkable, aside from its almost blatant plagiarism of Capcom’s Final Fight.

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Kind of appropriate that Burning Fight starts next to an arcade. Also that looks like a Beast Busters cabinet.

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Not only arcade centers, but pachinko parlors too. This is certainly not New York.

The controls in Burning Fight work as such:

  • A button Attacks
  • B button jumps, wherein you can do jump attacks
  • C button is a “Middle Attack” but it really is just a long range slower kick attack. Also useful if you have a weapon equipped but don’t want to use it and want to kick instead.
  • Pressing AB does the “Hyper Attack”, a high damage attack that’s also a good “get off me” attack, but just like Final Fight (a phrase you’ll be hearing a lot) and other beat em ups, it consumes a bit of your health bar.
  • You can grab people by approaching them. It’s supposedly useful to break enemy guard but it’s finicky and does little damage.

Like Final Fight, you have 3 hard boiled tough vigilantes to play as:

  • Duke, the blonde dude who looks a lot like cody. His Hyper Attack is a Shoryuken
  • Ryu, the Japanese dude who wears an orange jump suit just like Guy, and yes his Hyper Attack is a Tatsumaki/Tornado Kick.
  • Billy, the “big guy” of the group who is surprisingly NOT that much like Haggar. His Hyper Attack is a very useful shoulder charge.
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Burgers conspicuously left on the ground next to a sewer manhole. Yummy.

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At least this Roasted Pork is on a plate

So you pick a dude, and then you immediately get into the heat of things, walking in streets and beating thugs up. Burning Fight doesn’t even bother with a short intro to set up the story, or cutscenes in between levels, not that stuff like that was ever important but still, seems like an odd but ultimately inconsequential emission.

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That’s a very nicely drawn BMW. Note the skidmarks.

 

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Watch out for Dudes in Forklifts.

Although unlike Final Fight and other beat em ups, the streets and alleys you are wrecking in Burning Fight are clearly based in Japan. From pachinko parlors to conbinis to tiny bars located in  second story buildings accessible by elevators, the setting does feel different than Final Fight’s Metro City, or the cities in Streets Of Rage, most of which look like a cliche’d up crime ridden New York City.

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In a (rare) effort to distinguish itself from Final Fight, Burning Fight has a stage ON TOP of a train…

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….where this chopper will sometimes pass by to try to gun you down. It’s a neat little scene.

And this is more obvious because one of the few novel features of Burning Fight is that every once in a while, you can actually decide to enter one of these shops as they act as optional bonus stages, where you can go in and wreck more people and stuff to get bonus items, like food from questionable sources (trash cans, clothes rack, signboards), or to get money, or even jewelry that probably doesn’t belong to the player character (but lets assume they’re just planning to retrieve them as stolen goods).

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A SUN MARKET “Conbini” (Convinience Store) that you can enter for a bonus stage. Also hi G-Mantle.

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Inside the conbini, you of course have to wreck more shit, even that copy machine.

Still, despite it’s Japanese-location, Burning Fight takes you through the usual spots found in many beat em ups: From the main streets, to an underground shopping center, which leads to a ride on the metro commuter train (and by that I mean literally ON the train), which leads to a downtown segment that leads to a construction site (with an obligatory elevator section), then to a bunch of warehouses, and then finally on a boat.

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It’s not a beat em up if it didn’t have an elevator stage. Nice music here though…

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…and at the top, you’ll fight this boss. He jumps around and slashes with his sword. Also nice music here.

Mechanically, Burning Fight is fine. It’s not the best playing beat em up but it does the job. Throws are somewhat useless though, and barely do good damage. Even Billy, the big guy of the group, doesn’t get any better throws then the other characters. If you want someone with sick throws like Haggar, you won’t find them here. Jump attacks aren’t that great either. They don’t stay out for long, so trying to jump kick the motorcycle dudes is harder than it should be. You have weapon pick-ups, and they are as handy as you’d expect: Knives, guns, long sticks, and of course bottles. They do seem to be timer based, and your guy would dispose of them even if you didn’t use them, so just spam that knife you just got.

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This Hulk-Hogan looking boss has quite an entrance

And that’s pretty much it . So the point of all of this is Burning Fight is a pretty average beat em up in all that entails. It’s not great. It’s not bad. It’s not terribly original, it has a few novel things. And it plays like every beat em up your ever played. Compared to the frantic Sengoku, or the somewhat bizarre Ninja Combat, Burning Fight is forgettable, and just doesn’t have enough to make it stand out of a crowd of hundreds of beat em ups released around this era on all platforms. At least it looks nice. SNK are certainly on their game with the spritework and background art.

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The last stage is set on a boat owned by….

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this dude here, the Final Boss named “Casterora”. And yes, his cane is a gun that shoots. 

This won’t be the first time SNK outright copies ideas from Capcom, but in the future, SNK will realize they need to do more than make shallow imitations of successful Capcom games. And that they need to make their games more distinct. The good news is SNK does.

Cameo Corner

Cameo Corner is the section where we look at cameos of characters from the game we just covered in other games. Of course sequels and crossovers don’t count because that is kinda obvious and doesn’t really count as a “cameo appearance” anyways.

Burning Fight never had a sequel, but Duke Edwards (I guess that’s his last name?) does make appearance in the future, mainly in various King Of Fighter games (which will be the case for A LOT of characters from random SNK-made Neo Geo titles). First, he appears in KOF 2000 as a “Another Striker”, which are characters that are not fully playable but can still be used as strikers. It’s one of the reasons why KOF2000 is such a fun KOF.

As a striker, Duke isn’t so useful. The big problem is that he is so slow. He takes ages after calling him out to reach the opponent and even then he also has to slowly charge for his attack, which is his Shoryuken “Hyper Attack”. Duke can work as a striker with some characters but KOF 2000 has other much more useful strikers. Duke also shows up in KOF 2002 and its remake, KOF 2002 Unlimited Match, in the background.

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Here is Duke, next to King, who was not playable in KOF2002 for some reason. Also Heidern is on tv btw.

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Here is Duke again, apparently manning the concession stand in the Neo Geo World theme park. Quite a career change from uh…cop? special criminal investigation force? roaming marauder? who knows.

Finally, Duke appears in KOF 94 Re-bout, the remake of KOF94 made for the 10th anniversary. The remake added quasi-redrawn sprites, but with an “HD” blurry filter that muddies things up and removes the crispiness of SNK’s original sprites. It also had not so great looking 3D backgrounds. KOF94 Re-bout ended up being a weird curiosity, and is probably not a coveted game that gets played often compared to the remakes of KOF98 and KOF2002, but I suppose it did begat those other two anyways, so maybe it should get some credit.

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If you can sway your eyes from these not so good looking sprites, you can see a tiny Duke hanging out there on the right.

Sadly (or not), none of the other characters in Burning Fight get to reappear in future SNK games. Oh well.

100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #17 Alpha Mission II/ASO II: Last Guardian

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In this long-delayed edition of 100 Days of MEGASHOCK!, we’ll be looking at Alpha Mission 2 (known as ASO II: Last Guardian in Japan). Similar to Baseball Stars, Alpha Mission 2 is a Neo Geo sequel to an SNK title made prior to the Neo Geo’s debut. The original Alpha Mission was developed for arcades in 1985 and then ported to the famicom/NES. But unlike Baseball Stars, the Alpha Mission series never progressed past this second entry. Incidentally, skimming the Neo Geo release list shows that all subsequent SNK-developed games will be original Neo Geo stuff (although there will be plenty of callbacks and references to SNK’s pre-Neo Geo library of games).

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Alpha Mission 2 is a vertical scrolling shooter, similar to Ghost Pilots, which we looked at in post #14. But where Ghost Pilots took a more grounded fake-historical approach, with planes being inspired by real-world World War 1 and 2 era planes, Alpha Mission takes a more scifi approach, so lots of flying in space, shooting robot aliens, and having boss fights with huge spaceship on different planets.

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In Alpha Mission 2, you have 2 types of shots: Lasers that destroy flying targets, and air-to-surface missiles that destroy ground targets. It’s works a lot like Xevious, and you can assign lasers and missiles to shoot simultaneously with just the ‘A’ button, or have them separately assigned to ‘A’ and ‘B’ respectively. Unlike most shooters, There are no bombs that decimate enemies and clear-up bullets from the screen. Instead, you can select one of several types of “Armors” with the ‘C’ button, wherein the ship will temporarily transform into a much stronger one equipped with more powerful weapons and a better armor that can take multiple hits. This is the signature feature of the Alpha Mission series.

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It’s generally a good idea to activate armor at boss fights, like so. Note the energy bar at the left, which now depletes with each hit.

However, you don’t come upon these Armor upgrades so easily. Alpha Mission 2 requires you to collect each armor piece by piece, and there are 11 armor types, such as HOME (as in homing), FIRE, SIDE, BUBBLE etc. In order to build-up one armor type you are required to collect 3 pieces of the same armor type CONSECUTIVELY. Collecting any other armor type would reset it, so then you have to start over again. However, you can simply buy complete armor sets at the end of each level, granted that you have enough ‘G’ currency for it.

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This boss reminds me of the second boss of Ikaruga, which has a similar moving shaft thing that conceals a weakpoint while you keep getting shot at from the side.

And there are more items to collect in Alpha Mission 2. Collecting items like speed (with an ‘S’ item), or lasers (with ‘L’), or missile (with ‘M’) will upgrade that ship attribute. In addition, some levels have warp items that warp you a few screens ahead in a stage. Other items warp you BACK a few screens. Then there are items that power you down, either by depleting the Armor energy, or by decreasing your stock ship attributes.

This stage looks pretty cool.

Stage 4 has a cool background

And all these upgrades you gathered will disappear as soon as you die, which is one reason why I’m not totally into Alpha Mission 2. I think it’s somewhat of a rule in video games that if a game has so many upgrades, whether it’s a shooter or RPG or metroidvania or even career-mode in a racing game, then the initial stock attributes of the player ship/character/car are made so middling in order to allow some room to grow. Sometimes good game designers try to make that initial portion of the game feel great, or at least reduce that portion as much as possible so that you’re already getting a number of upgrades so early into the game. But Alpha Mission 2 does neither to alleviate that. I realize that Gradius and other shooters with upgrades mechanic do the same thing, but they’re more streamlined and focused. In Gradius for example, the energy-pellets can be accumulated to upgrade any stat of the ship, whether it’s speed or adding sideweapons or whatever. Fantasy Zone uses currency that you collect and then spend at shops floating around in any level. In TwinBee, shooting at clouds reveal these bells. And Shooting those bells makes them change color and thus which power-up you get. Alpha Mission 2 sorta takes all these upgrade-type ideas and smooshes them together without much rhyme or reason, without making them gel together. It’s like living in an economy that has 2 or more currencies for mutually exclusive goods and services. A more uniform upgrade method would have helped make Alpha Mission 2 a better game.

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I mean it could be a symptom of me sucking at scrolling-shooters, but I think for the most part I’m playing the game trying to acquire power-up (or better yet, acquiring the RIGHT power-up items while actively trying to avoid others) more so than trying to play the level itself, because the stock-ship simply isn’t fun at all to play. It’s slow and weak. Fighting bosses with the stock-ship is an unfun chore that lasts way too long.

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You can buy armor upgrades at the end of each level. I just can’t seem to get enough ‘Gs’ to get the good armor types.

Then there’s the issue with lasers and missiles. As I mentioned before, each of these weapons attack a certain type of target, and what gets killed by one usually doesn’t get damaged by the other. Lasers go faster and further, and they can be shot more frequently. So they’re the easier weapon to handle than the slower missiles, which require more deliberate placement. And that’s fine because for the most part, the more immediate threats come from flying targets as most of the grounded targets shoot slow projectiles that are easy to dodge, or they contain one of the various pick-ups to upgrade your ship.

But then you reach a boss. And many of the bosses can only be damaged by missiles (or at least have major parts/final forms that are only vulnerable to missiles) and it’s just an excruciating bore to fight, especially compounded with the resetting-upgrades issue. A big offender is the Boss of Area 5:-

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The only way you can damage this boss is by missiles, which is fine…

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…until it submerges part of itself. But then you say “look, parts of it are still in the open”. And you are correct. However…

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It can submerge itself COMPLETELY. Becoming fully invulnerable. All I can do is wait till it emerges again. Ugh so infuriating.

That boss fight took around 5 minutes exclusively, which is pretty long for a shooter. I guess what I want to say is some of the boss fights in Alpha Mission 2 aren’t great.

Still, I feel like Alpha Mission 2’s problems aren’t necessarily the ideas it has. It’s just that they’re not balanced well. And for the most part, Alpha Mission 2 is a decent shooter with a ok graphics . It looks more like an enhanced 8-bit shooter than a true 16-bit shooter, with tiny ships and lots of tiny enemies and targets on screen. Only the bosses and some of the backgrounds in the game look large, with impressive animations. It more resembles the likes of Star Soldier or Zanac but if they got an enhanced 16-bit port. And considering that the first Alpha Mission was exactly that sort of mid-80s 8-bit shooter, it’s not surprising that its sequel maintains that look.

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The whole of area 2 is a fight against this huge thing.

And Alpha Mission 2 still has its moments. I like how Stage 2 is all a fight against a massive multiscreen mothership, where you’re tasked to destroy different parts of it, and then to enter the ship itself during the second half of the stage to permanently destroy it from the inside. Stage 4 has some nice backgrounds. And I like the fight against the final huge-terminator-looking boss. Plus I think Armors are a pretty cool alternative to your regular shooter-bombs. And there’s plenty of Armor types that you’ll probably not be able to try them all in one or two playthroughs.

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The final boss looks cool. Oddly enough it’s pretty easy compared to other bosses in the game.

It’s ironic to compare Alpha Mission 2 to Ghost Pilots. Ghost Pilots issues were that it was a very uninspired vertical shooter with not a lot of neat new ideas or features. But in being so, it also didn’t have anything objectionable. Alpha Mission 2 on the other hand incorporates a few novel ideas (some taken from other games, like Xevious as I mentioned). It has all these upgrades and features and shops and warps. But it does not balance them well. Half the time, you’re focused on which pick-ups you wanna get & which you wanna avoid. And then you die and end up fighting a boss who takes about 5 minutes to die strictly because you only have your puny stock missiles that barely chip away damage. With some balancing Alpha Mission 2 could have been great. Sadly, the series never got the chance to better itself with a 3rd installment. But it’s ok, there’s plenty of better shooters on the Neo Geo, which we’ll soon be looking into (that is, if I can put these posts out more frequently, haha).

100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #14 Sengoku

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Sengoku is the second beat em up on the Neo Geo, after Ninja Combat. But unlike Ninja Combat (which was by ADK), Sengoku was internally developed by SNK. According to the intro, 400 years ago, a warlord was defeated by 2 samurais. But just before he died, he promised to return in 400 years to bring death and destruction to the land. And 400 years pass. And lo and behold, the warlord actually kept his promise, resurrecting, along with his magical floating mansion and massive undead army, to bring the apocalypse to modern times. Interesting tidbit: The intro is different between the MVS & AES versions of the game. The MVS intro, while more impressive looking, has a rather fast text scroll that is hard to read. The AES version slows down the text scroll. But the intro is just a series of static screens, which is less impressive. But back to the game itself.

Two Crude Dudes!

Two Crude Dudes!

So who will save this world from the mad man warlord in his floating, spinning magic mansion? Two dudes. Player one is a Mad Max or Kenshiro looking guy, complete with leather jacket and metal shoulder pads, but with a brighter attire to give him a bit of legitimacy/avoid lawsuits. Player two is a shirtless cowboy. The two of them will have to get to the mad man warlord by punching hundreds and hundreds of ghost ninjas, undead samurais, demons, Kappas, evil spirits, and a host of other mythical Japanese monsters under the warlord’s command.

Buildings crumpled, cities levels, but somehow, this billboard is nigh intact.

Buildings crumpled, cities levels, but somehow this billboard is nigh intact.

Like other contemporary beat-em-ups/belt-scrollers/brawlers (pick your favorite term), you walk to the right and punch people, monsters, demons, and other such things. [A] button attacks, and [B] jumps. But the main gimmick of Sengoku is that, on your journey you will befriend three different “warrior spirits” who will help you out: A Wolf, a Ninja, and a Samurai. And you can “tag-in” any of these spirits with the [C] button. But each of the 3 spirits has their own 60-second timer that counts down when they’re “tagged in”. And once the timer reaches 0, they’re out, lost for good. And you can’t get them back (not even after dying. Death actually doesn’t take away your spirit friends if you have them along when you die). That is, unless you find another one of the lost spirits on your way, which is pretty rare. So it’s very important that you tag them out before they’re timer runs out to have them recharge their timer (although, if you’re like me, you’ll probably die & use all your lives pretty quickly before the timer runs out, wherein you’ll continue and then have all your spirits fully charged).

Here's where you get the wolf. Which oddly has the same wolf-howl sound sample as Galford's Poppy.

Here’s where you get the wolf. Which oddly has the same wolf-howl sound sample as Galford’s Poppy. Also look at that army!

Many of these battles won’t even be taking place in the earthly domain. See, every so often, your player gets transported instantly. Sometimes to the heavens, sometimes seemingly back in time, or just to the lower city levels, in the subways and severs. It’s a very abrupt, very interruptive sequence. And it’s Sengoku’s other big gimmick that’s also really weird. In fact, in stage 1, mere seconds after starting the game and walking for a few feet, you will suddenly be transported to the heavens to fight a horde of monsters. It’s a hectic kind of pace, ensuring that you’re not fighting in the same locale for too long. It’s an obvious gimmick to reduce the apparent tedium that a lot of beat em ups can have by “mixing it up”. And honestly it works, even if you are still fighting the same types of enemies wherever you are. And yet even within the same plane, Sengoku tries to mix it up by having the same enemies appear on screen in new ways. Sometimes, they just walk in from off-screen, or come by running from the background (with lots of sprite scaling. This IS an early-era Neo Geo game, so expect plenty of ridiculous sprite-scaling). Other times they appear as weird ghosts that transform into the usual set of enemies you fight. It doesn’t really have an effect on how you play the game, just a variety of fancy wrappers for the same types of sandwiches.

I kind of want to listen to Sewer Surfin all the sudden.

I kind of want to listen to Sewer Surfin all of a sudden.

But is the meat of Sengoku good (Apologies for the heavy handed metaphor)? Past all the gimmicky visual tricks & the fancy spirit-tagging mechanic, is the raw punching & kicking good?

Ninja's throwing shurikin, naturally

Ninja is throwing shurikin, naturally

Well, not really. For one, regular dude moves quite slowly. But more importantly, there’s no “combo lock” like you have in Final Fight or other beat em ups. When an enemy is punched, they go into a “getting hit” animation frame & are pushed back a little. And during the “getting hit” frame, all subsequent attacks won’t register until the enemy is back into normal state. So it feels flimsy hitting attack 4 times & only having attacks #1 & #3 register as hits. This is unlike Final Fight, where once the first attack lands, the subsequent attacks initiate a combo that ends with a final attack that knocks down the enemy. Also, there aren’t a lot of moves you can do. There’re no throws, only 1 jump attack, and no running at all. Although you can break enemy sword with your bare hands but I’m not sure how to trigger this move. But it’s useful and looks pretty cool.

This midboss shoots tiny versions of itself out of that big sack.

This midboss shoots tiny versions of itself out of that big sack. Weird.

The spirits you can tag with are also of mixed usefulness. The wolf is nearly useless, with very short range attacks. The Ninja is basically a faster version of regular dude (that’s because instead of walking, the Ninja does acrobatic ninja flips, as a Ninja should). The Samurai is the most effective of them all, as the samurai’s sword has great reach and does great damage.

Ninja is shooting this thing. Naturally???

Ninja is shooting this thing. Naturally???

But even if the wolf and the Ninja are not that much more useful than regular dude, it’s still a good idea to switch to them whenever you get a power-up. Defeating some enemies would yield different colored orbs. which give you power-ups, like giving regular dude a sword, or 2 swords, or 1 BIG sword, or can make him shoot stuff. But if one of the spirits gets a powerup (or powered up regular dude is switched up to any of these spirits), they will shoot a plethora of crazy looking projectiles too. So it’s a smart idea to change to one of the spirits when powered up (even the nearly useless wolf gets some much needed firepower).

SNK doing more of their usual referential stuff.

SNK doing more of their usual referential stuff.

So despite not having a strong basis in terms of bare-handed combat, there’s quite a lot of switching between the 4 characters. And optimally, you won’t be using regular dude for long stretches if you’re playing well. And yet, thanks to some smart enemy designs, there are some instances where you’re better off using regular guy against some enemies. Sword wielding enemies can reflect projectiles, so if you were using a powered up spirit that’s shooting stuff, your attacks would be reflected back. Therefore it’s better in this case to switch back to regular dude to use his sword-breaking move (which would be much more useful if I knew how to do it). Or you can clash your sword with an enemy sword and presumably mash in order to win (unless it’s done like in the first Samurai Shodown, then you really shouldn’t bother with the wasted effort).

Final boss encounter is some crazy high-flying sword fight that...

Final boss encounter is some crazy high-flying sword fight…

...and this is the warlord's final form.

…and this is the warlord’s final form.

This dependency on tagging between characters while also managing each spirits “cool down” period, factoring in whether you have a power up or not, and who are the enemy-types you’re currently fighting, all of this does build a simple strategy element on top of an otherwise pretty simplistic brawling system, a system which I believe could not sustain a whole interesting game on itself. And the pretty-looking, very imaginative stages you go through, especially with the whole warping around thing, is a clever gimmick that nullifies the “brawler tedium” that happens in similar games. Add to that some really cool looking bosses (mostly the minibosses. The real bosses are somewhat less impressive oddly), and a very climactic final boss encounter, and Sengoku ends up being a very good, smartly designed brawler that does enough to differentiates itself from the competition. And it seems SNK did a good enough job with Sengoku to spawn 2 other sequels, Sengoku 2 in 1994, and a Noise Factory-made Sengoku3/Sengoku 2001 in, well, 2001.

100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #13 Ghost Pilots

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A new year is upon us, both in terms of Neo Geo releases and with 100 Days Of MEGASHOCK! itself (KOF III? What’s that? I don’t know. You must have had a fever dream or something). Ghost Pilots, our focus for today, is the first release of 1991 (MVS-wise). 1991 also marks the year the Neo Geo AES is released. So are starting strong in this brand new and important year?

Not really. But let’s not jump to conclusion.

That downed plane, how it clearly chopped down all those trees before it halted, is a neat touch.

That crashed plane in the background, how it clearly chopped down all those trees as it was skidding before it halted, is a neat touch.

Ghost Pilots is SNK’s first attempt at a vertical scrolling shooter (or flying shooter, or shooting game, or shoot-em-up, or shmup. Pick your favorite) on the Neo Geo. It goes without saying that scrolling shooters were very popular at arcades, with very deep roots in the history of the medium as a whole. It’s arguable that the genre traces back all the way past Space Invaders and into Spacewar in 1962, even if these older titles lacked “scrolling”. SNK themselves had several shooters released pre-1991, like Ozma Wars (SNK’s first game ever), Vanguard I & II, and Alpha Mission. Suffice to say; by the time Ghost Pilots was out, shooters were a well-worn genre, both within SNK’s catalog, and the industry in general. So it’ll take a lot for any shooter released to stand out from the competition.

A traveling train of tanks towed by a tributary-traversing-transport.

A traveling train of tanks towed by a tributary-traversing-transport.

Ghost Pilots doesn’t stand out from the crowd. It’s a shooter in the same vein as Capcom’s 19XX series (or 194X series. It’s debatable). You pilot realistic-looking propeller sea planes, flying in a nondescript country, fighting against planes, tanks, ships, and other military combat vehicles, so nothing wacky like the Bydo or Aliens or magically flying people.

Ya know, hovercrafts are pretty vulnerable. All you have to do is shoot their skirt and then they sink. This one, however, wasn't that easy.

Ya know, hovercrafts are pretty vulnerable. All you have to do is shoot their skirt and then they sink. This one, however, wasn’t that easy.

At the start of the game, you can choose one of the 3 “stage” to play, though really they’re more like a string of stages. And only two of the 3 are unlocked at the start. You also choose one of 3 bomb types. And again, the 3rd bomb type is inaccessible at times. And also changes based on whether you’re going into an air-to-air combat stage or an air-to-ground stage.

Stage select screen. Top one is quite ominous.

Stage select screen. Top one is quite ominous.

Bomb select screen. Right-one is a napalm-type for ground stages...

Bomb select screen. Right-one is a napalm-type for ground stages…

...and a mine-looking one, dropped by friendly planes, for air-stages.

…and a mine-looking one, dropped by friendly planes, for air-stages.

Bomb#1 on the left is a standard a big bomb. Bomb#2 in the middle is a smaller bomb you can sort of push around post-explosion. It has some interesting uses. But with Bomb#3 on the right, if it’s a ground stage, it becomes a big napalm bomb that pretty much works like bomb#1. If it’s an aerial combat stage, bomb#3 becomes, well, not a bomb at all, at least not one that your plane drops. Rather, pressing the bomb button will call up 2 friendly planes to drop bombs near you. It has a huge area of affect, bigger than all the other bomb types, but it takes a while to activate. This can be a problem since, like many other shooters, bombs can suck up enemy bullets. And having a slow-activating bomb is less useful as a defensive measure.

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But really, I shouldn’t have been so detailed in describing the minutia of Ghost Pilot’s mechanics. The problem with the game is that it’s just unremarkably run-of-the-mill. Standard looking levels, standard powerups, enemy patterns, backgrounds. It’s nothing special (but I do like the ridiculously large planes & tanks you fight as bosses). Sure, most of the Neo Geo releases by then can be considered derivative too. But they were always supported by great art direction & soundtrack (like Magician Lord) or a unique take on the genre (like Puzzled/Joy Joy Kids), or a weird, unconventional story (like Cyber-Lip). Ghost Pilots has none of these. It doesn’t even have Michael Beard doing the voice acting, or any voice acting.

This screen has some nice detail.

This screen has some nice detail. This is during the final stage.

It’s also just not that fun to play. I’m no shmup-expert, but Ghost Pilots feels like SNK dropped a plane from an older shmup into a more intense, modern one (well modern by 1991 standard). The plane feels big, with a big hitbox that is almost as big as the sprite itself. And the guns have a pretty low rate of fire. You can, however, boost your shot power by collecting powerups that make you shoot more and more bullets. And you do become very powerful when fully powered up. But it’s still a very plain type of powerup. And it’s a very plain experience throughout the rest of the game, with not many highlights or lowlights. At least I do like how stage progression in the game is almost continuous. At the end of each stage, the plane lands at a different “rest stop”. And then you continue on from that rest stop at the start of the next stage. It’s a neat touch. But there’re not a lot of those in Ghost Pilots.

The final boss is a crazy multi-screen big tank that spans...

The final boss is a crazy multi-screen big tank that spans…

...not just 2 screen...

…not just 2 screen…

...but possibly 3 or 4 screens. Big thing.

…but 3 or possibly 4 screens. Big thing.

Overall, Ghost Pilots could have been an average but interesting game. But it’s just plain average.

100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #12 League Bowling

League Bowling

SNK keeps the ball rolling (heh) with more sports games. This time SNK adapts the sport of bowling with League Bowling. Bowling may not be the most kinetic or athletic kind of sport but it can make for a fun simple video game.

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In League Bowling, you can play solo or against up to 3 other players in 3 different modes. Regulation is your standard Bowling 10-frame game. Flash adds additional points to your score on strike or on spare based on a moving flashing cursor. And Strike 90 is the same as Regulation except that a Strike will add 90 points to the next two shots, a spare would add 60 to the next shot. And getting anywhere between 7 to 10 pins will earn you 30 points.

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Just look at that expression. And the excited audience. Who knew bowling could be so intense.

Before you get on the lane and start your set, you first choose whether to play left-handed or right-handed. Then you choose the weight of the bowling ball. I couldn’t clearly discern the differences between different ball weights. I think heavier balls are harder to center and tend to veer more. But they obviously pack a bigger punch.

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Flash mode replaces the “reaction cam” with a score board. Top line is the added score on strike. Bottom is for spare.

Once you’re on the lane, you choose the spin angle of the ball, then the power. You can also move the bowler whilst all that choosing is happening right until you throw the ball at the last moment. I found that to be very helpful since I can readjust the bowler’s position to account for spin variations. For example, if I wanted to bowl a straight ball but the spin meter veered a bit left, then I have a second or so before the bowler throws the ball to adjust the bowler to the right and let the ball hit dead center, salvaging the throw. This doesn’t make sense in terms of how real bowling works but it does make for an interesting comeback mechanic.

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DARN IT!

The game itself is a fine recreation of bowling. The pins fall in a predictable pattern. But recreating the same throw requires very strict timing. Making a strike is easy but striking over and over consecutively is hard. So I suppose SNK succeeded in recreating the simple but much nuanced sports of bowling (this conclusion coming from a man whose only concern with any bowling alley is “what arcade games do they have?”).

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But that’s really not the main appeal of League Bowling to me. Instead, it’s the lavish presentation that’s most interesting about League Bowling. Bowling is obviously not the most visually interesting of sports. But SNK managed to make it exciting to watch. The audience is cheering for you. Your bowler is a big, smoothly animated sprite. And when he’s doing the backswing, the ball sprite zooms in an exaggerated fashion, taking advantage of the Neo Geo’s scaling capabilities. While the ball is rolling its way to the pins, your bowler gradually opens his mouth in suspense and anticipation. And depending on whether it’s a strike, a spare, or a miss, you get to see a bunch of different funny animations. It’s like watching a cartoon short (a shame that Flash mode replaces the funny reaction top screen with the flash score). It really gives League Bowling so much character in addition to the solid bowling game basis.

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As the great Ricky Bobby once said: If you ain’t first, you’re last.

And that’s pretty much it for League Bowling. Well mostly. There’re a few little interesting tidbits that I couldn’t form into separate comprehensible paragraphs or combine into a singular cohesive paragraph. So I’m doing it in lazy lists. I heard that that’s how the internet works these days. So here are 7 interesting tidbits about League Bowling that you may or may not know:

1- The red bowling ball mascot looks a lot like 7UP’s Cool Spot but with different shades:

COOL SPOT vs League Bowling

No sightings or mentions of Fido Dido in League Bowling as of yet.

 Cool spot would eventually get his/her/its own game.

2- Michael Beard returns as the announcer: Still great as ever.

3- Nadia from Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is in the audience cheering for you:

Nadia vs nadia

It seems some in SNK are fans of her. The show would have been airing during League Bowling’s release and probably during development too.

4- It has self-promoting trucker hats:

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When playing 4 players. You get 4 different colored sprite-copies of the standard bowler guy. But even so, the player on the right gets a trucker hat with SNK written on it (Oddly it disappears in the “choose left/right hand + choose ball weight” screen and at the result screen). This could be the start of SNK’s infatuation with self promoting trucker hats.

5- Note the “KING OF LANES” sign on the floor:

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I guess SNK loved naming things KING OF THIS and KING OF THAT.

6- 8 player League Bowling on four linked Neo Geos is pretty rad.

Just look at this magnificent creation. So cool.

7- League Bowling was ported to Newgrounds in 2002Wikipedia says it’s by Newgrounds’ founder Tom Fulp. But the League Bowling Newgrounds page credits “CarrotClock” as the author who may or may not be Tom Fulp. For a 2002 flash game, it looks pretty authentic. But the ball-sprite is different. It’s bigger and moves way slower even at full power. And there’re some newgrounds logos plastered at the result screen. Also the pin physics kind of suck. You’ll get the weirdest splits. And striking is harder than it should be. So I didn’t like it.

100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #11 Puzzled / Joy Joy Kid

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Puzzle games were big in arcades. And being the arcade system that it is, the NEO GEO was host to many puzzle games. Puzzled (or the honestly more colorful Japanese name, Joy Joy Kid) is the NEO GEO’s first puzzle game. And unsurprisingly, SNK’s first attempt is to make a Tetris clone. Tetris was originally made in 1984, but by 1990 it was ported to several consoles, arcades, Western and Japanese computers, and the Game Boy. It was huge. So it’s obvious that SNK wanted to get in on the Tetris craze with Joy Joy Kid.

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What’s the story of Joy Joy Kid? Well for one, I’m surprised that you are curious about the story of a puzzle game. But there is one. The opening (which only appears in the AES version) tells of two warring villages, a male-only village against a female-only village. The war took the lives of many, leaving only children and the elderly. So the sun god built walls surrounding each village to stop the fighting, and a tower (that looks a lot like the Tower Of Babel) where he and several other gods resided in. Being the sun god, he also blocked out the sun from the villages as punishment. So each of the villages sent out a messenger in a balloon to the tower to go and appease the gods, RAD from the male village in a zeppelin (with a face on it!), and AM from the female village in a regular hot air balloon.

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Joy Joy Kid uses the same mechanics as Tetris. You have the same seven shapes (or Tetrominos). And you try to rotate the falling blocks to form lines and clear them. The twist is that the objective here is totally different. Here the game is level based, and in each level you try to save your character’s balloon that’s trapped by a different pattern of blocks. And you pass the level by clearing the blocks blocking the balloon from floating up. The levels, composed of 6 stages, each with 10 floors, totaling to 60 levels, get more difficult by adding new elements, like gold blocks that need to be lined 3 times in order to break, or wooden blocks that never break, or mines or electric fields that can stun your balloon, impairing it from movement for a few seconds, or regenerating blocks. In addition, you have a special bar that gets filled the more lines you clear, and when it’s filled halfway, you can unleash an explosion with the B button that can clear out or damage blocks surrounding the balloon. Filling the bar completely will allow you to create a bigger explosion.

Saturn bla bla

SHORTY?! Wow! what an a-hole.

And this all adds up to a pretty fun game. It does change they way you play Tetris since you are only concerned about clearing a specific set of blocks. But that doesn’t make it easy, oh no. Joy Joy Kid is very hard. Extremely hard. I only managed to reach the 7th level (with 53 left to go) and could not get past it. So I cheated and used the infinite bomb cheat to progress through the game.

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So Dreamcasty

Each of the 6 floors of the tower has its own background art and its own charmingly FM-synthy music. Some backgrounds have sort of ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, which while not directly related to the Tower of Babel, does fit in the whole “ancient human culture” idea in Joy Joy Kid. Between each floor, you meet these funny looking gods who talk to you and give you the key to the next floor. A couple of them won’t give you the key and instead force you to play this simple platforming bonus game. Though even you fail these they still give you the key anyway.

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I heart this level.

Once you beat all 10 stages of all 6 floors, you meet the sun god at the top of the tower, the one you’ve been looking for this whole journey, the deity who you seek forgiveness for all the atrocities created by the war. Finally after so many hours of playing it’s all over and you get to enjoy the ending, right? Well… (scroll to 1:54:00)

That’s right. Joy Joy Kid pulls a complete Ghost ’n Goblins, asking you to go through all of the game again, all 60 levels again using the other character (now with weirdly ominous music). Actually, these are new, different levels so you can’t repeat what you did the first time through. So really Joy Joy Kid has 120 levels (and to imagine I only managed to get %5.83 through). You also meet a different set of wacky looking gods between each floor, and another couple who have you do the platforming bonus game.

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Pictured: the “last” stage…before starting the second playthrough.

Once you reach the sun god with the other character, the game is truly finished. The sun god advises the merging of both villages, combining the male and female population, and thus bringing peace to the land. With the purpose of the tower fulfilled, it rockets into the air where it floats for all to witness as a memorial for the darker times of human history and as a reminder to uphold the ideals of compassion and understanding between all humans and I’m reading way into this.

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Note the 4 complete but uncleared lines. This glitch happens with the red regenerating blocks.  Don’t think you can remove the blocks (besides bombing them).

There is, however, a way to finish the game in one playthrough. And that it to play it with a friend in 2P. Sadly, two-player mode seems like a big missed opportunity for such a competitive genre like puzzle games, primarily because SNK did nothing with it (a puzzling decision if I must say). Each player plays on their own screen,  working on their own levels. And that’s it. There’s absolutely no “interactivity” between players. You can’t throw junk blocks or get power-ups or send power-downs or anything. Nothing that one player would do would ever have any effect on the other. You can’t even have a simple “who clears the level first” race. That’s because whenever a challenger joins a player who’s a few levels in, they don’t start at the level the first player’s in. Instead, they start at the very first level of the first floor. The only semblance of competition you could do is if 2 players decide to start the game together at the same time and race towards beating the game first, a race which might take 1, maybe 2 hours to finish. At least it’s somewhat of a cooperative experience. And the whole “2 groups of people working together towards a common goal” does fit the spirit of the story conveyed in Joy Joy Kid. It would be hypocritical  if the whole way through, both players are competing, throwing all sorts of junk to each other, hampering  each others progress, then at the end the sun god commends both players for being totally best friends and all. So I’ll give SNK some credit for totally committing to the game’s story.

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Wise words.

Joy Joy Kid never got a sequel sadly, not on NEO GEO nor the Neo Geo Pocket (which would have been great). I don’t know whether it was successful enough to warrant a sequel or not, but even if it was I suspect that the Tetris licensing issue might have played a big factor. This release does not mention anything about licensing Tetris or Bullet-Proof Software (Henk Rogers’s company that had the exclusive license for Tetris on arcades, home consoles, and portables). SNK doing a sequel without getting the Tetris license again might have gotten them into some legal trouble. And I don’t know if it would have been worth the trouble to license Tetris for a sequel or not. Although, Joy Joy Kid did get released on Neo Geo CD in 1994, on Mobile phones in Japan in 2008, on the Wii’s Virtual Console in Japan-only in 2011, and most recently on the Neo Geo X in 2012. I suppose Joy Joy Kid would not work as a game on its own today, but I feel like the game design itself would make for a great “extra” mode as one of the dozen or so modes in any of the new Tetris releases.

So as to not end this on a sad note, Joy Joy Kid did have some sort of legacy to it. Ai from Neo Geo Battle Coliseum has a few special moves that cutely references Joy Joy Kid. She can summon a falling Tetrominos (or several together as a Super move). She can also ride AM’s balloon (“Joy Joy Balloon” as she calls it) and fly around. She can even do the energy bomb when on the balloon. It’s a cute and clever nod to Joy Joy Kid. So at least it’s fondly remembered in a way.

I just wish it wasn’t so damn hard.

100 Days of MEGASHOCK! #10 Cyber-Lip

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The tenth game released on the Neo Geo MVS, Cyber-Lip is a Contra-style run ‘n gun side scrolling shooter internally developed by SNK. While the Neo Geo would eventually be famous for its shooters, with run ‘n gun series Metal Slug being the biggest one, Cyber-Lip was not one that contributed to that reputation in any shape or form (Spoiler warning: Cyber-Lip is a pretty average game).

This stage reminds me of Contra III. A lot of Cyber-Lip reminds me of different Contras actually.

This stage reminds me of Contra III. A lot of Cyber-Lip reminds me of different Contras actually.

So what’s the story of Cyber-Lip? WHAT IS a Cyber-Lip? For answers, we must travel to the far-fledged future of 2016. A Malthusian overpopulation crisis forces the Federal Government to build a space colony (or maybe multiple ones) that would be able to house a considerable amount of the world population. The government appoints colony C05 as a military complex used for earth defense against the alien invasion. The plan is to use military androids controlled by a supercomputer called Cyber-Lip, which is actually a giant floating cybernetic mouth that talks. The supercomputer then goes rouge (naturally) and is using the military androids to launch its own invasion against humanity.

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The final-boss fight against the Cyber-Lip super computer

As is with these types of games, (A) shoots, and (B) jumps. You can hold onto several weapons and switch between them with the (C) button. You can jump higher with up + Jump. You can crouch but you can’t move while crouching. Instead, you can roll with down + Jump. It won’t make you go through bullets and you can’t shoot during the animation, but at least you maintain your lower crouching profile. And it looks kinda cool. You can’t shoot diagonally, but the bigger problem is that you can’t shoot downward in the air or at anytime. This can get very irritating when you are standing on a higher platform, fighting enemies below. The only time you are able to shoot downward is when hanging off a ceiling railing.

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But even with such limitation, Cyber-Lip is pretty easy. You’re never swarmed with an overwhelmingly crazy number of enemies.  The bosses have pretty easy patterns. And you get to keep your weapons even after dying. So you usually have access to pretty much all weapons at anytime. And you also get to ride on a flying craft thingie after you respawn for a few seconds. So there’s plenty of help thrown at you.

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Lots of nods to G-Mantle, Mahjong Kyoretsuden, and maybe Riding Hero? I don’t recognize the one on the far left though.

Despite that (or maybe because of that), Cyber-Lip really doesn’t hold a candle next to the best in the genre. It doesn’t play as smoothly as Contra or Metal Slug. I particularly don’t like how some of the weapons lag a bit, with a noticeable start-up time. And they’re not balanced out by being extra powerful or useful or anything. There are “branching paths” later on, but they’re not really branching paths. After beating a stage, you ride an elevator and choose whether to go up or down. Both choices will lead you to the same next stage. It’s just that one of the choices would randomly trigger an event stage, and it’s always the same mini sewer-level with a moving robo-platform.

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Oh my Giger! Not the most subtle nod to one of the least subtle nods to Alien in all of video games.

Cyber-Lip also doesn’t look very impressive for a NEO GEO title either, with pretty small stiff sprites and a generally slow pace of action, even compared to some Genesis titles (like Alien Soldier for example. Then again, it is unfair to compare anything to Alien Soldier). Some of the bosses, however, look pretty cool, even if one of them does skirt on the side of plagiarism. And Cyber-Lip does have an impressive amount of voice-over dialogue (all done by the man himself, Michael Beard). All the cutscenes are fully voiced. And there’s plenty of contextual voice-clips in-game.,like “LOOK OUT BELOW” when near bottomless pits, or “WATCH OUT BEHIND YOU!” when enemies appear behind you, or “I’M A GONER!” when you die & lose your last life.

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But Cyber-Lip’s most defining moment is easily the ending. Throughout the game, you are being ordered around by the President of the Federal Government. He seems quite keen & intensely focused on getting you to destroy the Cyber-Lip supercomputer, no matter the cost. Just before fighting the Cyber-Lip, the supercomputer contacts you, saying that it was “EVILLY REPROGRAMED” and that it did not go “INSAIN” on its own volition. But you won’t believe a maniacal supercomputer hell bent on the destruction of  humanity, right?

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Well, once you beat the final boss, the truth is revealed in the ending:

And that’s it. You beat the game. CONGRATULATIONS! You destroyed humanity’s only means of defense against the invading alien force. What’s so clever is that the Alien invasion factor was kind of foreshadowed in the introduction, but brushed aside as a minor detail (it’s first mention in the 6th line of the 3rd text scroll in the intro). And for the whole game you’re fighting androids & other cybernetic robot enemies & bosses, not aliens (aside from a couple of  “fleshy” enemies and bosses). Weirdly, this is not the first downer ending out of SNK. NAM-1975 & The Super Spy both had less than cheerful endings. And I wonder if there’re more dark endings in upcoming SNK games.