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30 May 2016 @ 07:23 pm
Game Review: Shatterhand  
Shatterhand is one of those second-tier NES games like Kick Master or Vice: Project Doom or Power Blade that don't get talked about as much as Castlevania or Mega Man but are still pretty good. I've wanted to play it pretty much since I saw it in Nintendo Power back when I was subscribed to it, but I never did for reasons that I no longer remember. Fortunately, the state of modern gaming and the fact that I do all of my gaming on my computer means that I can play all the old games I missed out on and then write about them in a way that I never would have thought to do as a kid.

The intro is less than informative about the game. Our hero is fighting either a robot or someone wearing power armor and shooting a machine gun, which pour hero blocks using his bare hands. Then he punches the robot. The end. Truly a story for the ages, or at least for NES platformers.

Step One: Punch. Step Two: It explodes.

Consulting external sources instead tells me that our hero is named Steve Hermann, a police officer in 2030s New York who accepts a pair of special cybernetic hands from L.O.R.D. (Law and Order Regulatory Division) and a commission to use those hands to fight the sinister cybernetic forces of Metal Command and its leader, General Gus Grover. Code named "Shatterhand," Hermann takes the fight to the cyborgs of Metal Command in order to defeat the rebellion and save the world!

It's even more ridiculous than most single-protagonist-versus-an-army games, though if you think about it, it's basically a sci fi recasting of the classic fantasy trope of the one weapon that can defeat the dark lord that is gifted to the protagonist and catapults them out on their journey. It just seems even sillier when it involves punching robots to death and when your robot buddies do the majority of the damage. In fact, despite Officer Hermann's titanium-crushing fists, I avoided melee combat as much as I could, especially during any of the boss battles.

I did like the punching animation, though. It's done as a combo, where rapidly punching does two short jabs and then several heavier blows with the other hand. It looks really good and it makes me wish that melee was a bit more satisfying against anything but random minions. True to the story and the intro, though, you can punch bullets out of the air. If you can overcome your platformer reflexes to duck under them.

Take that, kendo masters.

I mentioned robot buddies above, and that's the main way that you do most of your damage in Shatterhand. Throughout the game are robo-crates--like crates, but in the future--that drop money, grenades that explode or damage you, or alpha and beta symbols. Across the top of the screen is a series of three slots, and picking up those alpha and beta symbols fills those slots. Get three of them and it spawns a little robot who travels over Hermann's shoulder attacking enemies when he punches. There are eight different robots based on the eight possible combinations of letters, from sword robot to discus robot to flamethrower robot to grenade robot, and managing robots is the key to winning the game.

Punching bullets out of the air is all well and good, but it doesn't help against the enemies that throw grenades or fly around the room or against the variety of bosses, most of which seem to be balanced assuming that you have a robot with you when you fight them. This can turn problematic pretty quickly, since the robots can take damage and explode and trying to fight the bosses by punching them while they're throwing fire everywhere, reversing gravity, or jumping from wall to wall. Hermann's punch range is just short enough to to be incredibly annoying in any kind of highly-mobile fight, and all the boss fights are highly mobile.

There are a couple that seem designed to account for punching, though. My robot exploded in the final boss and I had to resort to punching, but Gus Grover's wave laser doesn't hit the spot right by his feet, so I just ran up to him, ducked, and attacked. I had to avoid the flying kick he does, but the rest of the battle went much easier when I found that spot.

Jump. Punch. Repeat.

The graphics were better than I was expecting, especially the ruined city level with the burning subway tunnels, and I already mentioned the punching animation. The music was good too, at its best approaching Contra, and now I understand why I found that A Tribute to SHATTERHAND album on Bandcamp.

Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn't quite match up. The levels are the classic fire level, ice level, underwater level trope-filled old-school platformer stage dressing, but the enemies aren't similarly themed for that selection. Most of the time it's just Guy With Gun, Guy With Shield, Strangely Large and Slow Robot, and Emplacement Weapon. The forest stage that's actually an ice stage has some weird biologically-based enemies, including corridor barriers that explode into giant monsters that attack you, and since that was the first level I picked after the opening stage, it gave me the impression that each level would have its own enemies and I'd have to learn the strategies for all of them. That is not the case. Other than that level, enemies are basically the same everywhere, with even the final level only introducing a soldier that fires slightly bigger bullets and a boss rush.

It's not even a full boss rush, strangely. It's a boss rush of two bosses and then the final boss. And one of the bosses in the boss rush is the ghost boss. I'm not sure how that fits into Metal Command.

Well, the real reason is that Shatterhand was originally based on a tokusatsu series called Super Rescue Solbrain, but for America they replaced the power-armored warrior with a New York cop and explained aways his powerful punches with the cybernetic fist story I gave above.

Rocket Force Punch!

It's those issues that prevent me from really liking Shatterhand as much more than a pleasant diversion. Obviously, making it a shooter would remove the whole point, but if the boss fights had been better balanced for punching or if there had been a better way of punching other than just "punch left" and "punch right," I would have liked Hermann's controls better. And if each of the stages had a themed set of enemies, they would stick in my memory rather than me remembering the biological enemies in Area D, the burning trains, and having every other area blend together.

Contrary to what I remembered, Shatterhand is not a Nintendo Power cover--issue 29 had an NES Star Trek game on the front--but I really think that it should have been. Shatterhand is a fun little game that doesn't have quite enough going for it to launch it into the ranks of the NES greats, but I don't regret the hour and a half I spent playing it. I just wish that a bit more time had been spent on it.
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished