Thursday, August 13, 2020

PC-Engine Review: Super Star Soldier/Final Soldier/Soldier Blade


Confession time: I love the PC-Engine. While the PC-Engine (Turbografx-16 in the US) was largely outshined by the classic gaming giants known as the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, it has stood the test of time with video game collectors, especially because of its extremely large library of shoot 'em ups.

The shoot 'em up (or "shmup", for short) is a genre of gaming that has largely been lost to the 2D (e.g. 8 or 16-bit) era of video games. Most of the games in the genre consist of a ship or other aerial vehicle traveling quickly (vertically or horizontally) across the screen while hordes of enemies in various formations continually swoop in for the kill. The most notable example of this genre is probably the arcade classic Galaga (1981), but the genre made many more strides throughout its evolution, and the Turbografx/PC-Engine was a very significant contributor.

Galaga - the classic shmup

Frankly, there are a lot of shoot 'em ups that would be good contenders for review, and I enjoy many of them. However, there is one particular series of shoot 'em ups for the PC-Engine I wanted to take a look at and review all of its releases for the system.

The series of games I'm going to cover is Hudson Soft's Star Soldier series. The first entry, entitled Star Soldier, was released for the NES in 1986. It was a terrific, exciting shooter that used the system's capabilities well and never let up.

The next three iterations were released for the PC-Engine, and I fortunately happen to own all of them. These are the games I'm going to be reviewing, so let's get into it.

Super Star Soldier

Super Star Soldier, the sequel to Star Soldier, is the first entry of the series to be released for the PC-Engine.

Super Star Soldier immediately impresses, starting off with incredible music and fast-paced gameplay right out of the gate. Like most shmups, the game features a number of different weapons, in this case provided by dropships that need to be destroyed. Picking up the same-colored weapon power-up results in an upgrade in the weapons power.

The power-ups that you collect are plentiful and extremely useful. The red power-up upgrades your default missile so that it shoots torrents of missiles in multiple directions, which is extremely handy. The blue power-up ends up shooting an array of blue rings outward which are extremely difficult for most enemies to dodge. The green power-up fires out bursts of continuous energy, and the yellow power-up shoots out balls of fire in various formations.

Each of these power-ups has its strengths and weaknesses, and each of them excels in different combat scenarios. Because you'll be facing a number of different enemies with clever and interesting attacks, you'll need to carefully decide what power-ups you want to collect... in a fraction of a second, usually.

Super Star Soldier has some epic bosses

Additionally, there are special power-ups like one that gives you mini-ships as protection (which can be toggled into two different formations, MUSHA style) and another that fires homing missiles whenever you use your main weapon. There's also a glowing power-up that immediately detonates a super-bomb. The "Select" button can be used to choose from one of three speeds for your ship. Faster speeds are harder to control, but they can help get you out of a sticky situation quickly.

While there's nothing incredibly new here, everything that Super Star Soldier delivers is extremely well executed and fun. I am especially enamored with the level design and the bosses, who are appropriately large and intimidating and boast interesting attacks. I really also need to reiterate the fact that the music in this game is phenomenal: it's extremely infectious, intricate, and intense.

As for the difficulty of this game, it is a very challenging game. This isn't one of those shmups that starts out with a depressingly punishing difficulty, but after the first stage, the challenge does ramp up quickly, so learning the game well is critical to success.

Overall, Super Star Soldier is easily one of the best shoot 'em ups on the PC-Engine, which is essentially saying that it's one of the best shoot 'em ups of all time. If you like shmups at all, this one is essential.

Final Soldier

I remember when I first slotted Final Soldier into my PC-Engine and booted it up. Excitement rushed through me as I made my way past the title screen to the very beginning of the game. After about a minute or two of the game, I was surprisingly disappointed.

Final Soldier is not a bad game, but it's a serious step down from its predecessor. The gameplay mechanics in this entry are nearly identical to Super Star Soldier, with the exception of being able to use the "I" button to fire a smart bomb, which is definitely handy. In my opinion, the fact that the gameplay is essentially the same is a good thing: why mess with success?

The first letdown of the game is how slow and boring it is compared to the previous game: enemies are predictable, their attacks are easy to avoid, and they are much more sparse. Playing through the first stage, I found myself hoping that there would be a serious ramp-up in difficulty like the first game had. Spoiler alert: there isn't. Honestly, you can just park your ship in the middle of the screen a lot of the time and hold down the "II" button. I'm not even sure how many of the enemies' attacks are supposed to hit you; they often seem to be out of harm's way on purpose.

It's not inherently bad for a shmup to be an easy game. Star Parodier (a great spin-off of the Star Soldier series that any shmup fan should check out) is fast and intense, even though it's not really that challenging. Air Zonk is also a relatively easy shmup for the PC-Engine, but it has a ton of character. Final Soldier doesn't excite in the least, however.

It's fairly normal for there to be no enemies
on the screen in Final Soldier.

The music in Final Soldier is decent, but it's not as catchy and exhilarating as the music in Super Star Soldier. It sounds a bit lazy, honestly, which unfortunately fits the game pretty well. The sound is pretty lackluster in this entry, overall... One can barely hear a lot of the sound effects over the music.

The levels in this game look pretty monotonous, but overall, I don't think the game looks bad. It just doesn't look as good as the previous entry. I will admit that some of the bosses are pretty creative this time around, but the boss fights tend to be slow and easy.

Is all of Final Soldier disappointing? I'm pleased to report that there is something I quite like: there's a menu option on the title screen that lets you change your loadout. Basically, you can choose between multiple variations of each power-up, and this is awesome (especially because some of the starting power-ups are kind of lame this time around). I'm glad they added this feature, because this game really needed another high point.

At the end of the day, I'm not really sure what happened here. Objectively, this is a decent game, but it's maybe not worth playing if you have a good collection of A-tier shmups.

Soldier Blade

After the lethargic Final Soldier, could the Star Soldier series on the PC-Engine series redeem itself? The answer to the question lies within the Hu-Card that is Soldier Blade, released in 1992.

Soldier Blade follows pretty closely in its predecessors' footsteps, but it does something a bit more interesting with the power-ups: the lower right-hand corner of the screen shows the last three power-ups you've picked up, and the "I" button allows you to launch your most recent power-up as a sort of special ability/smart bomb. This is pretty cool, because each color of power-up has a different "special" effect, and since you actually use up the last power-up you collected, you are forced to compromise between a powerful attack and staying at the same upgraded level. This reminds me of the system Spriggan uses, another shmup for the PC-Engine I would highly recommend. Additionally, your first power-up automatically grants you a partner ship that will assist you in taking down enemies, which is pretty handy.

Besides this change, Soldier Blade is what you'd expect from a game in this series... except the execution is damn near perfect

If Super Star Soldier started out exciting and intense, Soldier Blade dwarfs that intensity by making all your ship's weapons incredibly fast and powerful. It almost seems ridiculous at first, because your ability to tear through hordes of enemies is like nothing you've experienced before. Additionally, the new special abilities the game features by launching your last power-up are roughly equivalent to the power of an atomic bomb, and these special abilities are amazing to look at.

Soldier Blade is pretty much bonkers

If the player is made to be extremely powerful in this iteration, is the game still fun and challenging? Absolutely. Soldier Blade balances out your superhuman power with a swarm of unpredictable, interesting, and menacing foes. The difficulty here is not to the level of Super Star Soldier, but there is no chance you'll fall asleep a la Final Soldier. It's a really optimal middle ground that provides a challenge but avoids frustration.

Like Super Star Soldier, the bosses are massively satisfying to battle. The music and sound effects here are also terrific - catchy, punchy, and addicting. The game ditches the load-out options of its predecessor, but that's okay - this game is incredible.

Super Star Soldier is a really really good game, but Soldier Blade just edges it out. The new power-up system, the feeling of being practically invincible, and the great balance in difficulty make this entry nearly perfect. It's easily one of the best shoot 'em ups of all time, and it's honestly tempting to give the game a perfect score. If Soldier Blade does fall short in any respect, it's only because it doesn't go the extra mile to add anything particularly groundbreaking; it simply executes the genre much better than almost any other shmup out there.


If you own a PC-Engine or Turbografx-16, the Star Soldier series is essential, especially the first and third entries. These games stand out in a large library of competent shoot 'em ups, which is a major accomplishment that we can thank Hudson Soft for.

Retrodrunk Rating: 

Super Star Soldier


(9/10 shots of whiskey)

Final Soldier


(6/10 shots of whiskey)

Soldier Blade


(9/10 shots of whiskey)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Arcade Review: Altered Beast (1988)

The following review was requested by chewman. I was very fortunate to play this game at Grinkers before the city shut down for the pandemic!


In 1988, Sega brought Altered Beast to the arcades, with high hopes that players' minds would be blown by the newest release for their System 16 board, hardware responsible for the successfully notable first iteration of the Shinobi series.

Altered Beast was a beat 'em up, a genre that was actually pretty new at the time. There were fighters and action games, but before Double Dragon's release in 1987, the idea of fusing these two genres hadn't really caught on. Filled to the brim with kicking, punching, and morphing, Altered Beast is widely considered a classic entry in the beat 'em up genre.

Altered Beast arcade cabinet


In Altered Beast, you play a Roman Centurion summoned by Zeus to defeat Neff, the God of the Underworld. Neff has imprisoned Athena, Zeus's daughter.

The mythological theme of the game is very cool, and I think the game looks fantastic for a 1988 release. It almost feels like the levels you're playing are paintings. It's appropriately colorful, the animations are solid, and it's an attractive and alluring cabinet. 

The game has you fighting your way through hordes of enemies, left to right, to the end of each level. It's pretty standard beat 'em up fair, but the action is all on a single plane, so you can't move between the background and foreground to avoid enemies.

Each level has the occasional "glowing wolf" roaming around: kill three of these, and you become the Altered Beast: you transform into a ferocious beast (a different one depending on the level) that gives you unique powers to wreck everything in your path on the way to the level's boss. After each level, Neff turns you back to the Centurion.

Altered Beast looks fantastic.

This all sounds great on paper, but the main problem with Altered Beast is honestly how pathetic the protagonist is before he transforms. You move, kick, and punch pretty slowly, and while some enemies are just as slow as you (yawn), some are much faster, which means that your timing needs to be perfect if you want to avoid taking damage. Perfect timing in this game is easier said than done, because doing anything precisely feels clunky.

Now... the Donkey Kong cabinet that is potentially right next to this one features a pretty sluggish character named Mario, too. However, in Donkey Kong, you don't feel powerless: the game lulls you into a sense of security until you get pummeled by a barrage of unfortunate barrels, an experience that is fun to this very day. In Altered Beast, you get the feeling you never have much of a chance against what's coming. Your only hope is getting to that third wolf quickly so you can have some semblance of mobility. The ebb and flow of difficulty is kind of awkward, and it hasn't aged well.

The wolves in the game are pretty fast, and sometimes they can run on and off the screen in a blink of an eye, which is really frustrating. You do get enough chances to make the transformation, though, and when you do (probably about halfway through the level), you become a beast god.

Being the Centurion isn't much fun

Being the Altered Beast is the truly excellent part of the game. You are immediately faster and have two powerful abilities at your disposal, most of which are a blast. It's so much fun (relative to the rest of the game), that it's kind of mind-boggling that the game really makes you work so hard for it. Once you reach the end of the level and you transform back into a puny human, you can only sigh in disappointment. I found this transformation extremely regrettable heading into the final level, a point at which I found it impossible much of the time to avoid getting hit by jumping centaur-like creatures.

The boss fights are definitely one of the stronger parts in the game. The game's large bosses are appropriately weird, intimidating, and memorable. However, the game's final boss is a joke. Not only is the angry rhino pretty easy compared to much of what came before it, it's completely underwhelming in stature and design... definitely a puzzling choice for an end-boss.

Most of the bosses are messed up - in a good way

The sound in the game is great, especially the combat FX, but the cheesy voices are laughable. This is pretty much par for the course in 1988, though, so I enjoy them. "Welcome to your doom..."

Overall, I think the game is challenging but not nearly one of the hardest entries in the arcade, depending on how stingy you are with your quarters. The length of the game makes this especially true, ending after only five stages.

I've been a little harsh to this game. To be fair, beat 'em ups were a pretty new thing in 1988, and Altered Beast was really a marvel for its time. I think we as gamers tend to excuse the shortcomings of a game that really brings something new and fresh to the table, so I think I would have been a little less harsh with this one back in the day. However, there are some games that still stand the test of time, and Altered Beast doesn't hold up that well. In fact, the dawn of the age of beat 'em ups was just around the corner, and this entry hardly held up to games such as Golden Axe and Final Fight.


Altered Beast was and is a divisive game. To me, it's a beautiful video game that feels like a missed opportunity when you play it. At times, it's fun, and at times, it's frustrating and boring. When you're the Altered Beast, it can be exhilarating, but when you're not, it can be painful. Make no mistake: this game is a classic, but it's unfortunately one of those classics that became outdated very quickly.

Retrodrunk Rating:          (5/10 Bloody Marys)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Console Review: Neo Geo Pocket Color


SNK is not a company that garners as much buzz as it once did. For those unfamiliar, SNK was responsible for the Neo Geo line of hardware. For those of you still unfamiliar, the Neo Geo MVS (Multi Video System) was an arcade system released in 1990 that supported up to six games in a single cabinet.

This was kind of a game changer, as arcade owners could purchase cartridges out of the Neo Geo's substantial library and slot a few of them at a time in a single cabinet. This library included several notably awesome series such as Metal Slug, The King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, and Samurai Shodown. The system was known for its great fighting games, which make up the bulk of its catalog.

The Neo Geo MVS

For home console owners, SNK developed the Neo Geo AES (Advanced Entertainment System) to provide the same arcade experience at home (it had very similar specifications and thus was able to reach the same level of fantastic performance). It even shipped with an arcade-like joystick controller. Unfortunately, the AES was an extremely expensive beast of a console which severely limited its home market. Because of this, the AES is even more expensive to collect for today. Many games go for thousands of dollars... yikes.

Neo Geo also released the standalone Neo Geo CD, released in 1994. which was released with a more classic controller pad instead of a joystick (this is really an excellent controller; the d-pad is replaced with a thumb-sized nub that uses micro-switches for an accurate and satisfyingly clicky experience). Unfortunately, this console's commercial success was hampered by its long loading times during gameplay.

Nowadays, one of the more popular ways to collect Neo Geo games is to procure an MVS, as the games are much cheaper than the AES in general. For those that don't want to stand up an arcade cabinet in their home, Arcade Works produces the Neo Geo Omega, which is a consolized version of the MVS. You basically get a Neo Geo MVS inside a home console (supports AES joysticks and Neo Geo CD controllers), so it combines the more affordable collecting of the MVS with the convenience of a home console.

All of this is good and (hopefully) interesting information, but I really want to talk about SNK's foray into the portable market. In 1998, the Neo Geo Pocket was released in Japan. One year later, the Neo Geo Pocket Color entered the Japanese, UK, and American markets as competition to the Game Boy Color.

Unfortunately, both the Pocket and Pocket Color were commercially unsuccessful. This had more to do with marketing and competition than anything else, though. Below, we explore the curious little portable itself.

Look and Feel:

The Neo Geo Pocket Color is one slick looking portable that comes in six different, sleek colors. It continues the popular portable trend of having only two buttons (A and B) and more interestingly boasts a control stick with "microswitches" instead.

The Neo Geo Pocket Color - a gorgeous handheld
I can't overstate how amazing the control stick is on this system. It blows the stiffness of a d-pad out of the water, but it manages to feel solid and sturdy, unlike the sticks of the Vectrex or Nintendo 64. This is just an exceptional design from 1998, and while the design is similar to the stick on the Neo Geo CD's game pad, it feels so much more comfortable and precise.

Picking up the system, it's a very light and decently small portable. While one might think a portable this size would be uncomfortable in large, adult hands, it's very comfortable, partly because it bears a landscape orientation rather than the unfortunate portrait orientation of Nintendo's portables of the same era. It also lacks the heft of the Sega Game Gear and Sega Nomad, which is a huge plus when you're relying on your hands to hold up your gaming experience.

The system avoids an ugly power switch by using a power button instead - fine by me and out of the way enough to not by accidentally pressed.

There's no "pause" or "start" button here, but instead an "option" button. This is kind of strange. In some games, you push this button to pause the game, but in others, it does something else. In some games, you need to hold the button down to pause the game. This merely causes needless confusion, in my opinion. At this point in time, some sort of a "pause" button was basically standard on most consoles so I'm not sure I agree with the omission.

When you power the console on, you're greeted by a built-in menu with a calendar, horoscope (I regularly check this to see how my "romance" and "money" is forecast), etc. It's a fun little menu that makes my Pocket feel like a palm pilot.

The cartridges are just slightly larger than Game Boy Advance cartridges. They definitely look a lot more classy than Game Boy cartridges. They slot into the console from the top in the back, just like most other portables at the time.

A Biomotor Unitron (US) Cartridge

The screen looks pretty damn good. It's not backlit, but that also means that this console has superb battery life. The Pocket can go for 40 hours on a single charge. While playing on a non-backlit LCD is a little bit of a pain nowadays, it was a fairly standard expectation in 1998, and there are aftermarket backlit LCDs you can get for the system today (I'm holding out for a full-size backlit LCD that Bennvenn plans to produce soon). At any rate, the Neo Geo Pocket Color is capable of producing twice the number of colors as the Game Boy Color and has a more powerful processor, to boot.

The sound is passable, but nothing to write home about. It's a little weak and tinny.  All said, this system sure is a looker, and the only portable consoles that rival how comfortable it is are the Game Boy Advance or the Nintendo DS.


Only 81 games were released for the Neo Geo Pocket and Neo Geo Pocket Color combined. Of these, only 31 were released in North America.

Wow. Even though there's no region locking preventing you playing the Japanese games released for the system, some of them are pretty challenging to get through if you don't know how to read Japanese.

The small library for the Neo Geo Pocket Color means that a prospective collector doesn't have a ton of options when it comes to buying games, but it does make the goal of having a complete collection attainable.

Personally, it disappoints me that this console was so short-lived in its day, and its library, despite how fantastically solid it remains, is more of an indicator of the portable's potential to me.

Moving on though, the console really is considered to have a strong library. It continues the Neo Geo trend of fighting games by reviving all of our favorite SNK franchises: The King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, The Last Blade.

Most of these fighters are remarkably fun, despite utilizing the only two buttons that the portable has. The games are colorful, fast, and the microswitch stick makes pulling off moves a dream (half and full circle movements are so much easier with a stick, though moves requiring orthogonal movements may be a little easier with a d-pad, honestly). SNK vs Capcom: Match of the Millennium is an especially awesome, polished fighter.

SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium

Unlike the Neo Geo MVS, the Pocket Color has a more balanced library, in my opinion - a good thing since its library is so small. It has a small but solid sports collection (Neo Geo Pocket Tennis and Neo Turf Masters being fun standouts), some excellent, unique puzzle games (Puzzle Link is addicting and original), and a whole host of fun, original curiosities.

In Biomotor Unitron, you develop and upgrade a robot in a town, which you proceed to take through procedurally generated dungeons and battle enemies. The battles clone the Pokemon battle system, but instead of having an arsenal of Pokemon at your disposal to switch out when you please, how you fit your Unitron before you head out determines your strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. It's a fun twist, and upgrading your robot to get that new part you've been wanting is extremely satisfying.

Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun is Tamagotchi game, but your "pet" is a game developer that lives in a small condo. Provided you keep him happy, he'll churn out mini-games for you to play. The game is a bizarre treat of an experience.

Ganbare is weird.

Dark Arms: Beast Buster is an overhead action RPG that has you collecting weapons, feeding them the monsters you capture, resulting in the weapons evolving... strange but cool.

Faselei! is a tactics game that utilizes programmable movement as a core mechanic - a fresh take on the genre.

I could go on and on about all the great games for this system. However, besides the plethora of unique gems on the system, the Neo Geo Pocket Color is the home of Metal Slug: 1st Mission and Metal Slug: 2nd Mission. These are two entirely new Metal Slug games, and they are absolutely phenomenal by the series' standard. The games add more vehicle stages and even a non-linear progression. While the system's limitations mean that they don't look nearly as good as their MVS equivalents, playing these is so enthralling that it was honestly hard to dwell on it, and they are among the best looking games on the system.

Metal Slug: 2nd Mission - a legitimately awesome Metal Slug experience


The Neo Geo Pocket Color is a stylish, functional, and incredibly fun portable to play. While the small game library is disappointing, the high % of quality games means that you are likely to be happy with what you collect and play, and I can't think of a better portable to play many of the best fighting series ever made.

Retrodrunk Rating:        (9/10 bottles of beer)