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)