Tuesday, 7 February 2012

SNK must have thought war was so much fun (upd 02/03/12)

We all know that it's impossible to say SNK without mentioning its most prized asset, the Neo Geo in the same breath or sentence so I'll touch upon a more unexpected angle.  During its decade or so releasing their own unique brand of arcade games, well to a certain extent as many would become later computerised and used to console us when in our times of extreme sorrow, SNK and their designers seemed to have a soft spot for war.

I'll describe what I know and can remember.

My Ikari Warriors memories
I thought I was playing another game by some ordinary arcade publisher when I first played Ikari Warriors on the C64.  Its arcade parent smashed into arcades in 1986 and was probably the first SNK game that was multi-ported to home computers and consoles including the NES, Amiga and the beloved rubber keyed behemoth, the Speccy.  I'll admit I didn't know who they were and who did apart from SNK and the Japanese?

This game deserves a mention as it was sort of a classic in its own right; and was my first SNK experience.

SNK was brought to me totally unexpected in a mega game bundle bought for me by my parents that in my eyes was a super computer, but primarily was made for games.  It was a Commodore 64, with the 64 meaning K, yes 64K of memory - with that in mind - what power.  There were two releases of Ikari, Elite and Data East but I had the Elite release.  I'm not sure what the difference was but I bet was minimal.

When I first handled it, it was an expensive first release which I reckon would've cost about a tenner.  I mean that box was big, but the game was just on a single small cassette, what a fucking waste of packaging.  I thought there was a tape missing as the plastic stuff holding the tape had space for another but it was tough if I only had half the game..I slammed it in the the tape deck, watched its loading screen and music and after what felt like an age, it suddenly loaded.

I watched in awe as the intro rolled (as i affectionately called these sequences) which were big deals at the time.  It looked brilliant, your plane crashed, as far as I remember it crashed for no fucking reason but I suppose it wouldn't be a game without this random descent.  During which some music played and it didn't bother me at first as I thought it'd change, but no, no it fucking didn't.  It repeated, it repeated and yes it repeated some more and that was it, until you died.

That little variation for the Game Over music was of welcome relief.  Oh I'm lying, if you left the title screen running long enough, there was a slight variation but I mean very slight...  I've got a theory as why this unfortunate mechanical malfunction occurred, the pilot was happy, forgetting about the hellish reality of war by smoking a fat cigar and necking a bottle of fine bourbon and then, oh dear, then, he stumbled upon that music and that was it, he only had one way out and that was to push the one way ticket to crash and burn button.

Ralf and Clark tried to dissuade him but it was too late, the music had consumed him and with it, his soul.  And who was flying? we'll never know.   It wasn't even catchy, it was an insanity test, whoever composed that tune, must have endured some tortuous repititions of madness in a padded cell. Dum dum, du du du du du da da dum dum dum, it just looped, it was awful.  I'd like to force that lunatic to endure it at 50 million decibels forever and a day and see how he'd like it.  Other brilliant loops included BTTF on the NES and here's a random example for you - Strike Gunner on the SNES.  Youtube them if you want some pain, they were shit.

Thankfully, the SFX were marginally better but not much better, somehow though I gritted my ears and due to concentration, sorry was that concentrating on not muting the volume or concentrating not been labelled MIA and played it, many times.  Anyway, no doubt already slightly troubled by that audio mess, you picked up a stick, unless you were deprived and was forced to use the qwerty, whatever you hit that fire button and after emerging from your plane who conveniently malfunctioned, away you went.

It was a vertically scrolling shooter where you could play solo or simultaneously with a friend and shot and/or blew up anything in your path.  In the arcade, it was revolutionary as it featured 8-way rotational joysticks, one to move and rotating the other to shoot but of course this was impossible to incorporate to the home versions.  It was one of the many Commando clones doing the rounds at the time (Commando was by Capcom in 1985 - oooh you make me mad, why, you'll find out).  I also played a port of Commando on the Speccy, I remember it being in custard vision...  Sticking with it, Capcom eventually made a sequel called Mercs in 89.

I reckon it was the only game of its type to have a limited supply of bullets, grenades I can understand but been starved of bullets, c'mon - how could they be so tight.  You could replenish them but you had to collect an item. The baddies included soldiers, tanks, helicopters and strangely some kind of face sculptures that would be more at home in an Indy film.  I didn't think they were odd at the time, but what the fuck were they doing there and for what purpose, I know you was in a jungle but hmmmm, it's a mystery.

I remember they shot three way bullets too?  Also placed every so often were sneaky mines that were invisible until you entered their 'area' and when awoken, they made some annoying high-pitched bitch beeping noise until you either blew them up or retreated for another approach.  They would be placed unfairly within playable tanks too.  Careful players could destroy a single mine which created a chain reaction that destroyed the entire space time continuum.  Or just destroyed a row of mines or any other sprite in its path.  Annoyingly, it could also destroy a nearby friendly tank but that's the price for been so destructive in war....

I also remember it for being able to travel in a tank and blow things up that way.  To enter a tank you simply held the button down which sparked it to vibrate.  Once inside you were invincible to normal gun fire but not so to grenades or explosions which makes sense.  Here's something to think about - when the tank sustained a fatal hit, its cannon changed into some wobbly line but you could escape and use its nuke to your advantage.  Forward to the mid to late 90s and what other famous tank allowed you to do that (albeit in a slightly different way)?  The Super Vehicle of course, the Metal Slug.  Hey it's their game, well Nazca's at first, but surely too much of a coincidence...

The enemy soldiers had a fucked up way of dying - when you shot them, they'd beep, do some kind of drug-induced pirouette and then disappear like a fart in the wind.  Apart from the obvious way of killing you, they could also kill you by simply bumping into you.  What and why?  And how is that fair?  Were they laced and coated with some kind of deadly venom or nerve gas? Or I guess Ralf and Clark were simply allergic to and while surviving on wild berries and rainwater, became solideraphobic, sorry he he.

In addition, they became snipers and also puddles (yeah I'm not joking) and I'm sure they even ganged up on you.  I think there was a general who gave you something when you shot him maybe in white, ala Green Beret but I'm sceptical about that one.

The protagonists looked strangely similar to the Italian Stallion, of course not him but one of his most other famous creations Sly's Rambo, but I don't think there were any issues with copyright as it was Rambo who was the games inspiration with Ikari literally meaning 'Fury' I believe based around First Blood Part II.

They were named Ralf and Clark (again they might later become famous).  Staying with the oddness, when you died it looked like you discintergrated in quicksand, it was a bit obscured and wow could you die repeatedly.  The game was one huge level and it took some time to go through.  Probably the most amazing achievement of all was that it wasn't a multi-loader.   I expected it to load half way through, failed to warn you it was gonna start again and then while you was having a quick pea, all that effort was wasted and you were dead.

You could even power up your pea-shooter like making it having see-through bullets and more powerful grenades.  It even had a plot - rescuing your commanding general or some shit, the latter was huge and stood on a red carpet tapping his baton when you reached the end.  The ending was no epic but what did I expect?  Some epic 30 minute ending but as with any game in those days, you didn't expect it, heck, if you got moving images or even some new static graphics it was an achievement as many games in those days just featured some crappy text ending saying 'Well done, you've saved Earth from the evil invading forces from the Planet Bongo.  Congratulations, have some supper and sleep well'.

What a load of bullshit! I've no idea what it said, but I don't imagine it'd make its way to a film script.

After Ikari (the rest and others)....

SNK went on to make two sequels, the originally named Victory Road and Ikari III: The Rescue.  They too were consolized for the NES.  So my first taste of SNK was not a sour one, but a bit like Pringles - addictive at first but becoming boring after thirty or forty chomps.

SNK also made other games of similar ilk - Guerilla War in 1987 and was intersting in itself.  The game itself followed on from Ikari (not a sequel but more in its controls and its game mechanics), featuring the same 8-way directional joysticks as in Ikari but it was based upon the exploits of Che Guevera and his uses in Cuba - when a crisis was going on.  Fiedel Castro was also 2P.  To avoid inevitable controversy, SNK changed things around from the Western version but the original Jap name was Guevera.  I never played any home version but in screens, it didn't look as impressive as the home versions of Ikari.

Time Soldiers in 1987, had a time travelling theme ho ho, but was mildly interesting as the enemies were varied but as using the format of the Commy at least, your char looked ill had serious problems.  The artwork on the front cover teased me, I thought I'd be some cool ninja karate chopping my way through time and kicking neanderthal arse but no, what I got was matchstick man.

If reincarnated in another life, he'd have no problems fitting through a letter box in a novelty envelope.  Still it had some cool looking enemies for the time and lots of mid-level bosses as well as an end boss for each level or time zone.  They ranged from dinosaurs,aliens, robots and yes, not getting away from the war theme obsession, some kind of world war.

What was really odd was the enemies ammo, it was white lines, I guess it was supposed to be bullets, but white lines, WTF, is that the best they could do.  Yes, imagine the Spielberg epic Jurassic Park when the mighty behemoth T-Rex roared into view or on screen for the first time and instead of stomping about causing all sorts of mayhem, it launched sticks of chalk, javelin style, right up the arse of the terrified protagonists.  Shiiitttt, duck and roll,that's what I say.   I can't comment on the arcade's ammo but you'd expect to be better and more inventive than 'white lines'.

Speaking of ammo, you however had a nice little arsenal, I think you had a laser, a three-way gun and a rocket, you could also power them up to become 'chunkier' but I don't think it made any difference in their power.  I also remember that your char was a speedy little bastard, Ussain Bolt would have difficulty catching him but the loading couldn't more different, an asthmatic sloth could move quicker.

The sound effects were goddman 'kin awful with just some muted beeps for gunfire and explosions.  When you defeated the boss javelin throwers, I vaguely remember that consequently, you rescued a similar looking anorexic.  There was no in-game music, but it did have a title ditty for the title screen.  I never did finish it as I wanted to experience my youth as dedicating my life this shit would cause me to age rapidly waiting for the fucking thing to load.  So all in all, not bad but badly flawed.

Getting away from Ikari, and slightly digressing but staying SNK's early arcade days, there was a strange sort of one on one fighter that was sort of a scroller too called Street Smart.  So as you can imagine, you fought a street fight in front of a crowd of people, baying for blood against whoever.

I think two players could play so four sprites could be on screen at once which I suppose was unheard of at the time.  I played it the only way possible in arcades in Bridlington and it was so satisfying, smashing the shit out of geezers until they started flashing red and also they became out of breath when you'd nearly won.

Strange sound fx too, 'jarvitch' could be heard when you smacked them or at least that what it sounded like and some meaty crunches were abound.  I most remember it though was when you killed an enemy, the SNK hospital turned up and sometimes were nowhere near the downed baddie and the latter just disappeared - maybe they had David Copperfield with them in tow.

It was surely the first and surely only portable hospital in video game history, all that technology on such a small vehicle, if SNK really were for real, sardines in a tin didn't even cut it - as it was clearly an ambulance, but that's SNK and arcades in those days; always different.  Funny seeing it though.  Shortly after, a dishy blonde appeared and said 'Congratulations' in really clear speech.  Oh the title screen was strange, it was titled Champion             Ship, I've exaggerated the gap on purpose as sandwiched inbetween this simple word was a black silhouette of a fighter...  I think there were about eight baddies and again I don't think I finished it but got to some big dude who kicked your arse....

Still, SNK got slightly better at fighting games....

There was also P.O.W. also in 1988.  I shovelled many 10ps into this and now I'm starting to wonder why....  This was a proper scrolling beat 'em' up as I assumed you were a pissed off US soldier who's clearly had enough and took it out on nazis.

The game started extremely unrealistically.  You char was knelt down who started off white and then faded out into your sprite, during which you magically light gun powder that leads to door exploding to escape.  I have a few questions, if you were locked up, was you searched before you got chucked in a cell to rot?  If so how thorough was it, thorough enough to miss the following suspicious essentials i.e. gun powder in an undisclosed container and a lighter, sad as it is I remember the flame being blue.

Even Andy DuFresne would have problems smuggling that shit in his pants.  So with the door blown off, baddies started attacking, you had a punch, kick, jumping attacks too and you happily went along your business beating people into submission.  Oh the nazis were also trained by Bruce Lee

Just like Street Smart, the baddies flashed red when they was near death.  You must of had some kick as those enemies soared in the sky.  I don't think there was any other enemies, apart from those with weapons and in vehicles likes choppers and tanks, bit boring really.  I'm sure the sound FX were recycled from Street Smart, as jarvitch could be heard.  You could pick up a knife and even a machine gun, but what started off quite useful became as useful as a chocolate fireguard when you ran out of ammo.

There was no way of dropping it, instead you swung the gun to little effect, the only way you could get rid was to get hit.  What a brilliant idea.  I got to the chopper bit and you got your arse handed to you.  It was tough, but on purpose as all games of that type just wanted money.  I don't think I got much further as money was limited to me in those days.  All in all, not bad but tough as old boots.

An oddity and probably a long since forgotten obscurity was Iron Tank, also in 88.  It was just Ikari but instead you was a tank, not much to say as it was the same sort of thing.

Interestingly, all title screens in early arcade games featured SNK Electronics, I'm glad they got rid of it....

I think that's about it but I've decided to cheat by dipping into the Neo Geo - in fact I'm going right back to the start... I was going to save this but the theme fits like a little dress fits an hourglass body.... but this is yer' lot for now as I'm gonna talk about the first ever Neo game designed for the arcade and home platform.
Most Neo games will be getting a spanking so your patience is appreciated....

Nam 1975
As mentioned, this was the beginning of the Neo Geo and it was a very decent beginning....
It wasn't original but looked great.  Before I get to the actual game, it was incredible to me to think that this was available to buy and play in the comfort of your own home.  I suppose the real buzz was that unlike games on countless other consoles, you really had to pay to play this and other games were just conversions, no matter how competent, they were only ports and was never as good as the real thing embedded in a cabinet.  This was the only console at the time that would guarantee to be the same as the arcade as it was an arcade, only without needing a hefty supply of Bilton Grange, at home.

The intro featured excellent speech, as one man tells us he's been recalled to experience that hell again.  Cue an excellent recreation of a Animal Mother from Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (along with a scream).  There are more which I'll come to later.  The plot was you had to save R Muckly, a U.S scientist who has been kidnapped by terrorists so you're hired to help....

The game was a Cabal clone but was constantly scrolling until boss battles.  Although basically a rip-off of Cabal (which was by TAD Corporation in 1988) it was so much better as it built upon its premise.  There was also a spiritual sequel to Cabal, also in 1990 called Blood Bros (also made by TAD), exactly the same principle but was set nicely in the Wild West were 1P was a cowboy and the other, an Indian.  It's irrelevant what was out first in 1990 as Nam was not an original theme, so Blood Bros couldn't rip off Nam even if it wanted to.

Digressing again, it was set in the fictional last few weeks of the Vietnam war and those who have played it will be thinking 'No shit it was fictional, really' with a huge sarcastic grin on his/her faces, those that haven't read on, but read on anyway just for kicks, you may learn something :)

Like Cabal, when you wanted to attack, you were forced to be stationary and use your crosshairs, but wasn't unfair due its clever control design, you could also run and roll out of trouble when in sticky situations and when timed correctly, you were invincible.

Your standard weapon was a machine gun and grenades.  You could get a flamethrower to warm things up in there (incidentally, featured very nice animation when you made soldiers get a little hot under the collar) - strangely though, it didn't really reach the sky; and even rescue a woman who shot with you.

There was a nice variety of enemies, ranging from the cliched choppers and tanks, but also gunships, airships and boats.  Many of which threw various bonuses, from points, weapon upgrades and new weapons.  Speaking of the airship, shooting these reaped grenade awards.  I'm not gonna pretend I know the game inside out, although I did own it, I'm here to describe the best bits and what I know.  Scenery ranged from a jungle, up in the sky, and factories.  Bosses were tough and could half take some lead.

There was so much detail, not to mention great animation, the soldiers cartwheeled, jumped and more and where you shot, affected the scenery (most was destructible) i.e. bullet holes appeared and H2o splashed as you riddled the water with bullets.  Every time you died, something mocked you by laughing at demise.  Fucking hilarious obviously.

There was some nice intermissions that helped the story flow and I remember it really blew me away as not only the graphics were so good, is that the text was all spoken.  The first boss continued its FMJ undertones with Private Pyle as a boss along with his purely fictional partner (also bosses vary depending on how you play but not entirely sure how it works).

The best stage was on top of a plane with pesky parachutes, jets and a battle with a huge plane - a mothership if you will.  Wow - I thought.  You plodded through other shit and more bosses, some kind of fire engine I think and then you eventually get to the end bosses.

The VC Sniper that Animal Mother shoots at during the climax of FMJ and then Muckly who turns out to be the end boss in his laser robot super weapon.  But before Muckly dons his creation, he is in a wheelchair.  Yes, weird eh?  I remember thinking he some kind of relative of Belger of Final Fight fame, only Muckly was younger and didn't have harpoons but had a crazy moustache (Dr Robotnikof Sonic too).  After some effort, that was it and you flew home, but the hell still continued... Silver and Brown conclude.

So a great game and an excellent advert for the Neo and the video game world.  Still looks decent today and more importantly, it will still play good.

Kawasaki is described as God in the staff credits, few could argue that.

In homage to Mr Kubrick

Here are some screens that show certain comparisons between how much SNK paid homage to Kubrick's brilliant war epic - Full Metal Jacket which was made in 1987.

Using movie stills against static graphics just shows how mighty fine and faithful recreations the graphics were and while the VC woman is the best example, why SNK couldn't match the colour of her clothes is a video game mystery....



So all's fair in SNK and war and so signing off but can't resist having some kind of forced accident so I be witness to the medical genius that lay in wait for me at the SNK hospital....


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