Tag Archives: Nintendo Entertainment System

Shatterhand Review

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The NES was a haven for action platformers by the early 90’s. Castlevania, Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden had all become mainstays. So companies were desperately trying to get in on the trend. Some of the games that came out of this trend became system sellers, while others went under the radar. Natsume, who is known mainly for the Harvest Moon games these days, were unsung heroes of action games back then. Known for stuff like Shadow Of The Ninja, and S.C.A.T. But some of their titles didn’t get the fanfare.

PROS: One of the best action platformers you can find for the NES.

CONS: High difficulty.

TUNAGE: This game has some of the memorable chip tunes on the console.

Abadox was one such game. It was a very good shmup that outside of a wild commercial, didn’t get much attention. This game didn’t either. In fact, Shatterhand was given almost no advertising by Jaleco, and I only found out about it back when it was coming out because I frequently read Nintendo Power. But those of us who did get a copy back in the day got a big win.

For those who missed it back then, or those who are into discovering old games, Shatterhand is definitely a game that should be on your radar. In Japan, it was called Super Rescue Solbrain , and based on a show in the Metal Hero series of TV programs there. It centers around a team of police cyborgs that can power up, and fight super criminals.

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The shows weren’t released in any form in North America, or Europe at the time. So when the game was released outside of Japan the story was changed, the game retitled, and one of the stages was replaced with an entirely new one in its place. The game’s intro was also changed, as well as some of the character sprites. But the gameplay itself remains unchanged.

In Shatterhand the hero is renamed to Steve Hermann. The retooled story goes that a group of Military renegades form a terrorist organization called Metal Command. In 2030 they take over the world by unleashing their army of robots, and cyborgs upon the Earth. Streetwise cop Steve Hermann loses both of his arms in a fight with some of these terrorists, and a new agency called the Law, and Order Regulatory Commission (or L.O.R.D.) gives Steve new cybernetic appendages. So he becomes Shatterhand, and goes on a one man army mission to take down Metal Command.

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Right away you’re going to notice how good this game looks. Visually it’s held up very well over the years. Sprites are very detailed, with some really nice animations on everything. Characters, background objects, enemies, everything looks really cool. The tile sets, and parallax scrolling work really well, and every stage oozes with atmosphere.

The stages themselves also have really clever layouts, with power ups placed in great risk/reward positions. Of course sometimes this makes things seem masochistic. Like when you’re going up an elevator with missiles coming at you from the bottom, and the top of the screen while guys in Cobra Flight Pods come gunning for you. You spot that crate you need to get to  in order to build a robot companion only to escape with a single hit point left.

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But there are a wide range of power ups to help you. The main ones are robotic companions. But it isn’t a case of simply picking them up. Peppered throughout the stages are crates. Many of them have two different types of boxes inside, each with one of two letters. Along the top of the screen are three spaces. Each time you collect a letter it takes up one of the spaces. Grab three letters, and then a robot companion will beam in to help you. The robot that shows up depends on which letters you collected. You could get one that throws grenades. You could get one that uses a flamethrower. There are a few different robots. The key is knowing what combination is the best for each stage.

You can also become an invincible super robot if you collect the same sequence twice. This is only temporary, but if you can pull it off at the end of a stage, it will really help out in boss fights. Some of the bosses in the game have an insane amount of health, and so being able to deal high damage, without taking any helps a lot. Of course you can also destroy them by learning their patterns, and moving accordingly.

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Rounding out the power ups are an upgrade for your punches, health, a 1-Up box, and bags of gold. Which you will need because the power up punches, health, and extra lives cost money. You can also get money by beating certain enemies to death. But what adds to the challenge is that aside from the robot companions, you have only your fists. You have to kill everything in this game with your literal bare hands when you have no pick ups.

Shatterhand is a seven stage affair. The game borrows a bit from Mega Man in that after the first introductory level you’ll be able to choose your mission order. The first stage gets you acclimated with how things work. You’ll discover the basics of running, jumping, and punching bad guys, and obstacles. You’ll figure out how the letter combinations for robot assistants work, and you’ll face a pretty easy boss. But from this point on the game becomes brutally difficult.

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The submarine stage for instance has some very annoying enemies in its top-secret mad science lab area. Floating aliens that are hard to hit. Monsters that leap from the chambers you have to destroy have almost as much health as some of the boss characters. The city stage is especially tough because everything is on fire, bombs constantly fall from the sky, and it will easily have you using continues like crazy when you first play it.

These are just two of many insanely difficult moments in the game. After you clear the five stages in whatever order you choose, you’ll go onto a final level. This stage is a medley of the earlier levels’ mechanics. Including a boss rush with three of the bosses you already defeated earlier. Thankfully the last stage is a bit forgiving in that it will let you continue from the middle if you lose all of your lives.

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While on the subject of continues you do get a lot of them. But you have to remember to push the start button after the first few Game Over screens to bring up the option. If you don’t do it before the sad music of failure ends, it just assumes you quit. Also know that if you’re looking to beat the game with any respectable score, you’d better beat the entire game on three lives. Because continuing erases your score. It is possible to beat the game on three lives, but it isn’t easy. Particularly if you get to a boss without a robot, or without the suit of temporary invincibility. Because at that point you have to know the boss patterns to a pixel perfect T. Compounding this is that General Gus Grover is a massively huge cheater. First, he dons a power suit similar to the one you get for getting the same robot satellite twice. Second, he starts to blow up chunks of the floor, causing them to engulf themselves in flames. This makes parts of the floor impossible to walk on. So you have to act fast to kill him before you have nowhere to stand.

As much as it may sound like I’m complaining about the difficulty on display, I’m really not. For the most part the difficulty is still pretty fair. You know it’s your own fault when you die. The game isn’t overly long either, the stages can be cleared pretty quickly once you’ve figured out exactly what you need to do. The thing is, it is also the kind of game that requires a lot of practice, and a lot of patience in order to win. You won’t beat it on your first attempt without using any continues. You may not be able to clear the game on your 500th attempt without continuing either. But you’ll have a lot of fun trying to.

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Shatterhand is awesome. Beating the low-level enemies to death is a blast. Managing to even get to the bosses feels like an accomplishment. Defeating a boss will make you feel like a superhero. And after weeks of practice when you finally kick General Gus Grover’s ass you will want to celebrate with anyone who will listen. What sets the game apart from stuff like other hard games though is that again, doesn’t feel cheap. Except for the final boss setting the floor on fire. But even still, keep playing, and you’ll persevere.

Of course a lot of collector’s have discovered this one over the years, so it isn’t going to be a low-priced Game Pak. But unlike the terrible games that cost a fortune because of their rarity Shatterhand is a really good game. One that you’ll definitely want to keep in your collection once you find it. It’s one of the best action-platformers on the NES.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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DEATHBOTS Review

A few years ago I stumbled onto an unlicensed game for the NES. By now you’re probably familiar with the concept of unlicensed NES games. They’ve been covered by all of the greatest gaming personalities over the years. Several vendors back in the days of the NES opted out of Nintendo’s licensing program. At the time, Nintendo had an ironclad list of demands for anyone looking to get their software on its console. Publishers could only publish a limited number of titles a year. Cartridges (called Game Paks) had to be manufactured by Nintendo, and Nintendo was paid for doing so handsomely. To ensure that publishers had to meet their demands, the NES had a chipset that checked to see if the cartridge inside was a legitimate Game Pak. So a number of companies tried to go on their own by circumventing Nintendo’s lockout technology. Some, like Tengen reverse engineered the lockout chip in the console to find a way to get their titles running.  American Video Entertainment followed the path of others, using a voltage spike to temporarily disable it. Speaking of voltage spikes, here’s Deathbots.

PROS: The cover art is on par with big box VHS B movie covers.

CONS: Nearly everything else.

WEIRD: The disembodied heads that first appear in stage five.

Originally, an Amiga game, Deathbots is a terrible three-way blend. Combining elements of Berserk,  Gauntlet, and Alien Syndrome. You move a robot around in an isometric set of levels. Each of the stages operates in a maze-like fashion, as a vast amount of enemies spawn in to come, and get you. You might not think combining three arcade classics would result in something this terrible. Oh but it is terrible.  But how is it terrible? Oh let us count the ways. Let us count the ways indeed.

For starters, the visuals are atrocious. Absolutely atrocious. Sprites are chunky, with muted colors. Some of which are indecipherable. Deathbots looks barely better than games on some of the Golden Age consoles did. One wouldn’t be faulted for thinking this was running on a Colecovision. Backgrounds sometimes blend in with the sprites making it difficult to see them. This becomes problematic because you can’t always see when you are being shot at. Compound that problem, with the fact that there are often times hundreds of things attacking you. Right away things start to feel less, and less playable.

But that’s just the beginning of how horrific this game is. The game continues to fall apart when you realize there are no visual ways to tell that there are finite shots your weapon can fire. Or which weapon you are using. There isn’t a bar listed anywhere while you are playing. Except your health meter of course. But you won’t even realize it is your health meter at first because there are zero words or symbols indicating it.  The meter is made of relatively thin rectangles that slowly or quickly turn into periods or hyphens before disappearing. When all of them disappear you’ll see a black screen with a cut scene depicting you clutching your stomach, and keeling over. If this happens four times, you lose. The game gives you three continues, for a total of twelve lives.

It won’t be until you have to pause the game, and accidentally press SELECT that you’ll even realize there is an inventory for ammo. Unless you are one of the few who has a manual. When you do enter the menu, you can cycle through whatever guns you’ve picked up, and whatever explosives you’ve picked up. This is also where you can go through your medical kits to regain some health.  You use the D-pad to move, up, and down through the various icons of items you’ve gained while playing. Keep in mind, the game doesn’t simply give you a number of any given item next to the icon. So that means if you’ve picked up five medical kits, you actually have to scroll through five medical kits. The game also doesn’t group these icons together. So if you have five medical kits you need to use, you may find yourself starting from a medical kit. From there, scrolling through fifteen different weapons before you get to the next one. Plus, because during game play you can’t really see any of this, you will be pausing it every thirty seconds. That isn’t hyperbole either. You will chew through ammo, and health like a hot knife through butter.

But it still gets worse from here. Weapon pick ups also vary. There are boxes on the ground with initials, and icons representing them.  There is also a second way you can find new weapons. Occasionally you may see a monitor on the wall. Walking up to a monitor will sometimes give you a weapon, other times they will give you an ACCESS DENIED message.  If you luck out, and find the former, you can add the weapon to your arsenal. If you forget to go into the inventory menu, there is one other way to tell you’ve run dry. You’ll stop shooting. Which again, is why you’ll be checking the menu every thirty seconds in the first place.  But wait! It gets so much worse folks. So much worse.

You see, Deathbots has another huge problem. Collision detection. Or rather the lack thereof. As you run through the stages you will find doors that will open that you won’t be able to walk through. But surprisingly, you will be able to clip through a chunk of wall next to that open door. You’ll be able to run past an enemy with ease. But then one of its clones on the same line of pixels will trip you up. One laser will go through you but count as a hit. Another laser will hit you without visually showing up on the screen.  Sometimes you’ll walk over a pick up only to have the game not register that you’ve picked it up. Taking damage feels absolutely arbitrary, as if the game is making up the percentages on the fly. This is where the game becomes nearly unplayable. Worse yet, all of these problems sprout up within the first few minutes of game play.

As for the soundtrack? The music is dreadful. The annoying loop of buzzing, beeps, and screeches almost never stops. In fact, the only time you will experience a brief reprieve, is when you go into your inventory menu. Or if you pause the game. The same awful soundtrack plays in the background of every moment of every stage. The other sound effects aren’t much better. Killing enemies gives off a sound synonymous with early Atari 2600 games. Weapons do have different sound effects to try to differentiate them from each other to some degree. But frankly, it really isn’t much help, as you’ll still be going into the menu to figure it all out. Listening to any sound coming out of this game for more than a few moments will have you muting your television.

Deathbots goes on like this for six stages. There is a very minimalistic storyline about a base built on Alcatraz you need to infiltrate to destroy a robot. But beyond that there really isn’t much of a narrative. Most of it isn’t told through screen text, or cinema screens but rather the box, and manual. Unless you count the elevator doors that show up between stages. But even if you do, you still aren’t going to care.  All of the six stages follow a similar pattern. You have to move through the beginning of the area, to get to an exit. The exit is drawn almost like an inverse D-pad. In any case, getting to this exit brings you to the next area of the stage. Each area works the same way. Try to find a path to the tile of floor fitting the description of the exit.

For what little credit I can throw its way, Deathbots does try to add a puzzle element with teleportation devices. In some areas, there are huge chunks of tiles with black outlines on them. Running onto them will place you on another huge chunk of tiles with black outlines on them. Most of these teleport between two specific areas. So in the stages that use them, you’ll need to figure out which teleporters are synchronized. This quickly becomes a case of trial, and error. The problem with this mechanic is that the bad hit detection often can’t tell you’re on a teleporter properly.  While you are trying to bounce to the next one, you’ll also be fighting off enemies. Bottom line, if you’re lucky you’ll teleport. If the game doesn’t detect it properly, you’ll be dead from 1000 bad guys surrounding you.

Most of the earlier levels don’t have very many areas. Quickly running through them, and past enemies is a fairly sound strategy. But if you manage to survive the first half of the game, you’ll find the developers at Odyssey shoehorned in a lot of areas. The last few stages go on for eons. Being an action game, each of the stages ends with a giant boss battle. Each of which are poorly designed, and take a ton of punishment before they go down. Not only that, but much like the rest of the game, they give no indication of how injured they are. They don’t flash red. They display no health meter. It’s an entire crapshoot. A couple of the bosses are even cheap palette swaps of earlier bosses. There is a giant robot that does a march. There are blob monsters, there are a couple of electric blasting bell-shaped robots, in addition to the final bosses.

As for the regular enemies that swarm you throughout the game, there are actually a large variety. But, much like the bosses, they are uninspired, and drawn terribly. There are androids that resemble stick figures. There are robots with giant spheres in lieu of legs. There are small bots with  tank treads. There are some helicopter robots. Grey boxes that are supposed to resemble robots.  But strangest of all, are the weird, floating, disembodied heads. They’re not threatening, or imposing. They’re not well detailed or visually impressive. But they are fascinatingly odd, almost guaranteed to make you wonder what went wrong. If by some miracle you can get through to the game’s end you’ll contend with not one, but two final bosses. If you manage to defeat them, you’ll experience one of the more sub par endings to ever grace the NES. Deathbots is horrible. It’s one of the worst games ever released thanks to its myriad of glitches, and numerous other problems.

Nevertheless, as of this writing it seems to be following the trend of some other notoriously bad games. In that it’s a collector’s item. That is, a certain version of Deathbots is a collector’s item. Before going belly up, American Video Entertainment released the Maxi 15 cartridge.  It’s essentially a multicart compiling fifteen of the company’s games on it. Deathbots is one of them.  I won’t be going over the Maxi 15 as I don’t have one. But it can fetch a couple of hundred dollars in online auctions. As for the game I do have? Well that’s Deathbots. It isn’t very good. It isn’t worth a lot of money. If you’re morbidly curious, and like collecting fairly esoteric cartridges for your Nintendo Entertainment System you might pick it up. On the other hand, there are so many other things one could better adorn their shelving unit with.

Final Score: 2 out of 10