Anyone who spent any amount of time in arcades in the ’90s is familiar with SNK’s MVS hardware, whether they know the name or not. If you played any of the titles in some of the most beloved arcade titles of all time, series like Samurai Showdown, Metal Slug, Fatal Fury and its beloved progeny The King of Fighters, then you’ve been a party to Neo Geo’s arcade dominance. One of the great things about the MVS hardware, apart from its capability with astounding 2-D graphics and scaling, was the fact that it was cartridge based, allowing for operators to bring in new titles without having to pay for a new machine, and in some cases stack multiple games in the one cabinet. This made for a lot of easy change, and nearly everyone has a “Did I really play this game, or did I just imagine it?” story.
Even though the system had plenty of Japan-only releases that may have been imported State-side, we’ll be focusing on titles that were given an American release. We want to tell you about titles not only known by the hardest of the hardcore, despite the MVS and its home version, the AES, inspiring that kind of devotion. So here are seven titles that for a lucky few may have been arcade mainstays, but for most of us were blips on the radar, if we experienced them at all.
7) Magician Lord
Magician Lord is most definitely a product of its time. A launch title for the MVS hardware, it subscribes far more to the Ninja Gaiden school of punishingly difficult gameplay than to later titles’ focus on fun as a way of separating kids from quarters. You control Elta, last of the Magician Lords, which is a pretty fancy title for a guy who dies so easily.
But the appeal of this game, especially at the time, is in the graphics. The sprites are huge, and that size allows for plenty of detail; from the zombie-like creatures, to the hulking bug-men and Cthulu-esque… thingies, it all looks gorgeous, and after playing this many a kid must have groaned at the thought of having to go back to the NES. But the same kind of praise cannot be given to the voice acting. Nothing kills your sense of presence in the game like an intern’s voice drenched in reverb reading out poorly translated threats.
The gameplay isn’t hugely removed from another arcade hit from around the same time, Ghouls’n Ghosts, but the inclusion of power orbs that take advantage of the excellent graphics and character design give it enough character to avoid too direct a comparison. As far as power-ups go, they are pretty righteous, being from the “Why isn’t my guy a fire-breathing dragon right now?” school of design. Certain orbs can turn you into the aforementioned dragon, a Shinobi, Samurai, and motherfreakin’ Poseidon, so I guess “Magician Lord” is pretty apt after all.
A variant on the ‘one-man army’ style of shooter pioneered by Cabal, NAM-1975 might not be quite as fun, (no dancing off into the distance upon stage completion here) and it’s obvious they’ve gone for ‘gritty’, hence the use of the titular as a backdrop, but NAM does boast a hypnotic quality that’s not to be underestimated. On more than one occasion, we can remember pumping in more cash just to get back into the zone, trying to mark up every surface with bullet holes, bring down every building, and kill every bad guy before the scenery scrolled on.
The game was also released at a perfect time to capitalize on young men’s “one man army” fantasies, and heading down to the local arcade to pretend to be Arnie after watching Commando for the fiftieth time proved to be a perfect Saturday afternoon time-filler, and this brings up the game’s hidden strength: Even though it tries to bank on some of the grit that made Full Metal Jacket and Platoon popular, trying to shoe-horn in a story about saving a scientist and his daughter, the fact is that despite a few generic Asian set pieces, the game could be set anywhere, and the enemy could be anyone. It was a blank canvas to live out your adolescent anger on, always being the hero (best exemplified by your ability to rescue female hostages from machinegun-toting baddies, allowing them to aid you for a time) and kicking ass. So while the game may be called NAM-1975, for some it will always be Commando or Missing In Action, and earning its place on the list because even though these associations made the game more fun, it had a name, and sadly, those weren’t it.
Released by Data East in 1994, Windjammers is a game most definitely of its era. Day-glo colours? Check. “Rad” character design? Check. Capitalizing on a ’90s fad? OMFG triple check! Remember playing Ultimate Frisbee? You do? Oh, you poor thing.
But don’t let those things discourage you, as there’s a solid, fun as hell game under those ’90s trappings. It’s like a mash-up of Frisbee and tennis, but awesome. There’s also an element of air hockey in there, as your character tries to throw the Frisbee into the opponent’s end-zone via the clever use of angling the disc. You try and defend your own zone, which is divided into three areas; depending on the stage the size of each varies, but the more difficult areas are worth five points, the easier ones are worth three. The first to 12 points wins the set, and the first to win two sets moves on to the next round. It may sound somewhat complex, but it’s such an easy game to pick up. Mastering it, however, is a different story, but the fun inherent in the title meant you rarely regretted feeding it your lunch money.
4) Stakes Winner
Apparently something of a trend in Japan, horse racing games were a bit of a non-starter in the West, which is a shame, and not just because of their pun-tastic value to reviewers; there’s actually a great deal of fun to be had with the Stakes Winner series. The first game in particular was very challenging, but it just made your victories all the sweeter as well as give a small insight into how coming second or third can be a victory in itself for horse-folk.
At the outset, you enter your name, and then choose yourself a horse. Each equine available has a rating in the Speed, Stamina, and Strength categories, so choose whichever steed suits your style, and then it’s off to the races! You start out doing short-course events, trying to keep pace with the other runners while managing your stamina bar and jostling for a good position; a musical cue lets you know when you really need to drop the hammer (or whip, in this case) and go for broke. Power-ups that can mean the difference between first and fourth litter the course, but going out of your way to grab them can mean you’re stuck behind some slow-poke when the crunch comes, or in two-player mode it also can mean the difference between a fair win, or your buddy spending the next race driving you repeatedly into the barrier.
3) King of the Monsters 2 – The Next Big Thing
As nerds, most of us are familiar with kaiju movies, the genre of films made famous by the likes of Godzilla, but fewer nerds are familiar with the short-lived kaiju videogame series, King of the Monsters. Even fewer are familiar with its sequel,
em>The Next Big Thing, whic finally answers the question “What would happen if I threw the Arc de Triomphe at a giant tentacle-headed beast?” The game sees the return of three of the original’s beasties, but in upgraded form. You choose from Super Geon (a Godzilla-like lizard), Cyber Woo (a mecha King Kong), or Atomic Guy (an Ultraman rip-off). This time, the threat is an alien civilization led by a Blob-like villain named Famardy. But of course plot just gets in the way of the glorious destruction on offer. Unlike the original’s Japanese setting, TNBT is set in various cities around the world, offering a wider variety of buildings and landmarks to suplex your opponent into, though any semblance of city-planning reality has most definitely been set aside, unless there really is a city in America with the Space Shuttle poised to take off from the back lawn of the White House, which is across the road from a stadium.
But evil kaiju aren’t the only things trying to stop you from awesomely tearing apart a city. Fighter jets, submarines, tanks, and helicopters will try their best to stop you tearing a skyscraper from its foundations and throwing it at a giant frog-man like God intended, but they can be destroyed for points and power-ups, and their flaming carcasses used as weapons, because this is what makes gaming the greatest thing ever!
2) The Last Blade 2
The Last Blade 2 is a violently gorgeous weapons-based one-on-one fighter with a technical style of play, more akin to something like Garou – Mark of the Wolves than its much more famous Neo Geo alum, the Samurai Showdown series. And it really is a breathtakingly beautiful game; one can forgive its somewhat-slight roster as it more than makes up for it with its fluid animation, vibrant backgrounds, and incredible soundtrack. The overall presentation makes this game worthy of a place in any ‘best of’ list, but under all the pretty is plenty of awesome gameplay. Upon selecting one of the characters, you’re given the option of “Speed” or “Power.” Speed enables you to string together combos from more disparate moves, and at a quicker pace, and the rather self-explanatory “Power” is just that; you hit harder, but it also enables both Super Desperation moves (when your life bar is low) and Super Cancels, letting you cancel out of a special move and into your Super.
The biggest difference between this and the Samurai Showdown series is the “deflect” button. If timed correctly, you’ll cancel out an opponent’s attack, which leaves them vulnerable to attacks and combos. But should you mistime it, at best you’ll take the damage from the attack; at worst, you’re left wide open for whatever punishment Player 2 wants to dish out. The Strong Attack/Weak Attack/Kick buttons are the same as SS, but with the “deflect’ button it opens up a whole new world of strategy, and this is why this game earns itself a place in many Japanese tournaments.
1) Shock Troopers
Shock Troopers, developed by Saurus and released in 1997, is a 2-D shooter akin to the beloved Metal Slug series, but it has a few features that set it apart: There’s a greater freedom of movement, akin to games like Robotron 2084, along with a greater selection of characters, but what makes this game something to be sought out and savoured is the “Team Battle” mode. Like a lot of games of a similar stripe, you begin by choosing your character from a group of what could charitably be called “national stereotypes” (instead of, say, “racist caricatures”), each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks. But should you elect Team Battle mode, you can select three characters, and after you’ve chosen one of the three paths (another great feature), you can switch between them on-the-fly. This makes it not only immense fun, but also a strategic masterpiece in a genre not known for thought. So should you be in an area with enemy bunkers shooting mortars at you, with mines hither and dither, you can switch to, say, Milky, your agile fighter, and utilize the roll ability. Then, when you’ve cleared out enough enemies, you switch to Loki, who has slightly less agility but a stronger attack. And then when the boss arrives, you switch to Big Momma, a character with bugger-all agility but a duel machinegun attack, dealing massive damage.
As for those branching paths we mentioned: After you select your characters (though you can play with a single fighter in Lone Wolf mode), you’re shown a map, where you’re given the choice of Mountain Route, Jungle Route, or Valley Route; the design of each is different enough to make repeated play to see each one well worth it. Not a huge deal in and of itself. But then, after you complete three stages, you’re again given the choice of mountain, valley, or jungle, and each choice is different set of stages, as opposed to just giving you the first three of another route. It’s a nice little feature that gives you more playgrounds for more of the cartoonishly violent brand of fun the game peddles. Power-ups abound, but another point in the game’s favor is the manner in which the majority are obtained: Like the Slug games, each character has a m?l?e attack, but in ST, taking the gamble to get up-close and personal (usually via the aforementioned commando roll) will yield either points, a health bonus, or a screen-clearing red gem that awesomely sets everybody on fire, because that’s just how the Shock Troopers roll.
Is it better than Metal Slug? That’s a hard call to make, but as with the rest of the games on this list, it’s well worth the effort to find that answer out for yourself.