Once upon a time the house that Harvest Moon built used to make some of the most awesome action games known to man. That factoid is probably blowing the minds of a good lot of you reading this but it’s true. Natsume during the NES era were home to some incredible games that gave the likes of Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania a run for their money.
Shatterhand was released for the NES in 1991, pretty late in the system’s life. Aside from having one of the corniest box arts ever, it was actually a licensed game in Japan, though that was stripped for obvious reasons during localization. Set in the future you are a police officer who has lost both arms during a battle with Metal Command, the game’s protagonists. 2 cybernetic arms later and you are tasked with taking down Metal Command once and for all. None of this is explained in game; you have to read the instruction manual to get the back story not that it’s necessary.
Gameplay like most sidescrollers consists of you beating the snot out of any and all enemies in your path. Your primary means of attack are your fists. With your meaty mitts you can punch the bejeesus out of everything in your way no matter the shape or size. Walls? Doesn’t matter. Giant robots? They can get it too. Bullets? Get that weak shit out of here! Your standard attack can produce a more powerful hook if done in rapid succession. This punch is slower and can be repeated for more damage but needs to be timed based on the situation.
For added firepower collecting Alpha and Beta letters hidden in boxes will assemble a robot guard once you have collected 3 of them. 8 different bots can be assembled with varying powers. Collecting the same one again will make it fuse with your body for 15 seconds, boosting your attacks exponentially. The money dropped by enemies can be used to buy full health, extra lives, or stronger punches at set points in each level in pinch. Along with the ability to hang and climb from fences in the background there is no situation you are ill equipped to handle.
There are 7 stages total with the game opening up after the introductory level. From there you can tackle the next 5 in any order you choose before tackling the final stage, a lot like Mega Man now that I think about it. As it was released in 1991 Natsume had ample time to study similar games that came before it and it shows. You are far more agile than Simon in the Castlevania games and unlike those games there are no endless pits or flying enemies conveniently placed to knock you into them. There’s even a gravity level that functions a lot like (who else) Gravity Man’s stage in Mega Man 5. The boss battles are challenging just like in Ninja Gaiden but fairly balanced; the patterns are easy enough to recognize but surviving still depends on your reflexes and reaction time. Shatterhand truly plays like an expert concoction of the best NES action titles distilled into one fantastic package, one that is easily up there with the best of the genre for the platform.
The graphics are incredible, making use of parallax scrolling in some stages, an effect not often seen on the NES. The bosses are right up there with the Ninja Gaiden series in terms of design and challenge. The level of detail in the backgrounds is extremely high and the animation is leagues above most other games 8-bit games. If Shatterhand is a perfect synthesis of every action game for the NES in terms of gameplay then it’s also the same graphically. Simply put you’ll be hard pressed to find many games for the system that can compete technically.
If I were to sum the game up I would say it’s totally balanced. The levels are long, giving you ample time to build up money and sample your powers. There are enough power-ups that you can put together at least 2 bots to assist you and see which ones you like the most. The game is never cheap with checkpoints spread evenly and platforms to buy health and armor appearing right when you need them. The bosses kick the difficulty up a notch and even then you can identify their patterns quickly enough. This is a perfect example of the designers giving all of the games idea’s room to be explored, a lesson plenty of other games could learn from.
So where did the Natsume that could create games like this go? I won’t bemoan the fact that they milk the Harvest Moon cow in order to make money but it’s a shame they can’t balance their output with games like this, especially when they were so good at it. It’s a shame this went under the radar but being a late 1991 release it’s understandable. Don’t let that stop you from trying out one of the NES finest action games.