An obscure game for the NES that ranks as one of the best
January 07, 2019
Hello once again, my fellow Retro Junkers! I know I've said this before, but one of the great things about being into retro gaming is discovering those many great games for older systems that fell through the cracks back in the day. As kids, we could only afford so many games, or have to wait for birthdays or Christmas. So, naturally, we missed out on a lot of great stuff, unless our parents allowed us many visits to the video store on weekends. But, as adults, we can go back and play either games we were interested in back in the day, but never got the chance to try, or discover hidden gems that definitely should have gotten more attention when they were released.

Shatterhand for the NES definitely falls into that category. Developed by Natsume, and published in the US by Jaleco, Shatterhand is a brilliant action platform game released in 1991, right around the time the Super Nintendo was beginning to steal the attention away from the aging NES. This is one of those games that grabs your attention right from the first level, with its detailed graphics, amazing music, and incredibly fun gameplay. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest hidden gems I have ever discovered in my years of collecting retro games. Under the right circumstances, this game would have become a gaming institution like Contra or Mega Man, and gone on to great success and many sequels.

Alas, this obviously did not happen. Shatterhand has remained more or less obscure to this day, and is hardly ever mentioned when people bring up the best NES games ever made, even though it should be. There are a lot of factors that led to this. One, as previously mentioned, is that the game came out so late in the NES' life that it just never got noticed, due to the fact that every kid's mind was on 16-bit by that time. Second, the game's publisher, Jaleco, was not exactly a big third party. Oh, sure, they had some hits back in the day. I seem to remember their Bases Loaded baseball franchise for Nintendo being pretty popular, and they also are known for doing the NES port of the PC adventure game Maniac Mansion. But Jaleco was just one of those companies that never achieved household name-status with gamers that some of the other third parties like Konami or Capcom did.

And, admittedly, maybe the American box art had something to do with it. I mean, yeesh. Imagine you're walking down the video game aisle at your local Toys R Us back in the day, and you come across this picture of a guy wearing a white T-shirt and those dumb looking sunglasses, screaming at you. He's also punching at the viewer, but...what's wrong with his hand, anyway? It looks like he has a robot skeleton under his fist. Is he supposed to be The Terminator, or something? And look, he's even punching part of the game's title. This is just such cheesy and unappealing artwork. I know that the NES was not exactly known for eye-catching artwork on its covers, and I've definitely seen a lot worse. But, at the same time, it just doesn't really grab you, and tells you little to nothing about the game.

But enough about that. It's time to talk about why Shatterhand is one of the great games for the NES, and why if you're into old school gaming, you should play it as soon as possible. What's interesting is that the game was completely different when it came out in Japan a couple months before its American release. In Japan, the game was actually a licensed game, and was based on a TV action show for kids called Super Police Solbrain. It was basically a Power Rangers-like program about a high-tech police force where the officers would wear these powerful robot suits to fight crime. I know little to nothing about the show, but I did track down this promo that was used to hype the program before it came on the air. I am posting it, simply because I love it how the announcer says "With boundless love and courage, save the lives and hearts of innocents!", and how "the fiery souls of youth are ready to combat mysterious crimes". You just don't get dialogue like that anymore.

The hero in the Japanese version of the game is on the left, the hero of the US version is on the right.

Naturally, when Jaleco bought the North American rights to the game, they had to remove all references to the TV show, and come up with their own story. All the major character and enemies were changed to remove any connection to the license, and the robot suited police hero who originally starred in it was replaced by that goofy-looking angry guy you see on the American box art. (Although he does look different in the game itself.) They also had to come up with a completely new story, and let me tell you, if you think the box art is cheese, wait until you hear the American plot. The best way I can describe it is this is what would happen if Hollywood decided to hire a 10-year-old boy to write the plot for a Schwarzenegger movie from the late 80s or early 90s. Get a load of this, folks...

Gaze upon the face of evil!!!

In the year 2030, scientists have discovered a way to replace human limbs with powerful cybernetic upgrades. Over time, scientists discover ways to weaponize these cybernetic upgrades, and this leads to a group of rogue scientists creating an army of cyborg criminals to help them take over the world. These criminals come to be known as Metal Command, and they are led by a man with a name that will no doubt strike fear into the hearts of law-abiding and decent people everywhere. That villain's name is none other than General Gus Grover! Yeah, I'm sorry Jaleco, but you can't make the name Grover intimidating after years of Muppet association.

To combat these cybernetic enhanced criminals, the Law and Order Regulatory Division (L.O.R.D.) is formed. Their goal is to create enhanced police officers to fight back against the crime wave, by giving an officer a pair of robotic hands that have the strength of a piledriver, and are capable of shattering metal on impact. Enter our hero, a highly decorated young police officer named Steve Hermann. Steve was just your regular cop, trying to chase down a cyborg criminal, until the bad guy turned the tables on him, and managed to crush his ribs and both hands in the process. After getting his hands amputated, Hermann is approached by L.O.R.D., and becomes the test subject to receive the enhanced cybernetic hands. With his new hands, which hold the power of 100 strategic missiles with every punch (as the back of the box excitedly explains), Steve sets out to destroy Metal Command, and stop the evil General Grover once and for all!

Okay, so like a lot of NES games, the joy comes not from the storytelling, but from the gameplay. And the joy in Shatterhand comes from how powerful this game makes you feel right from the first level. The game itself doesn't really bother with plot (all the information above came from the instruction manual), and instead drops you right into a factory level, where the game immediately gives the impression to the player that your character is not somebody to mess with. Not only can Steve's punches send any bad guy flying several feet, but there is just no obstacle that can stand in his way. At different points in the first level, you come across these massive metal barriers that block your progress. In most games, you would have to solve a puzzle, or perhaps access a key card that would allow the barrier to open. Not in Shatterhand! In this game, you simply throw a few punches at that barrier wall, and watch that sucker explode! This introduction level is a wonderful showcase for Steve's abilities, and is simple enough so that just about anyone can play and get the hang of the mechanics. Yes, unlike a lot of other games from back in the day, Shatterhand actually has a gradual increase in difficulty, instead of hitting you over the head with obscene challenge right off the bat like in Battletoads or Bayou Billy.

After you have beaten the introduction level, you are taken to a Stage Select screen, where you can play the next five levels in any order. The levels are represented with giant video monitors displaying the location before Steve, and the stages include a refinery, a submarine, a filtration plant, an anti-gravity research center, and a ravaged city. Once these five levels are conquered in the order the player chooses, they are sent to a place called Missile Command for the final level, where General Grover awaits as the final boss. Unlike games such as Mega Man, there is no specific order to the levels that the player has to figure out. You can complete the levels in any order you wish, although admittedly some are tougher than others. The order that I listed the levels above probably represent the proper difficulty curve, but you really can play the game however you want.

Shatterhand is a great-playing, but simplistic game. You basically move Steve left-to-right, and punch the life out of any robot or obstacle that gets in your way. There are naturally some additions to the gameplay to help make it stand out, which I will get into later, but that's the basic gist. There are no special moves or attacks at your disposal. But, given how powerful the game makes you feel, there is just something very satisfying about the combat in this game. Naturally, there is also platforming involved, as Steve will have to jump across ledges over hazards like open flames and bottomless pits. Fortunately, the control on your character is excellent. He responds instantly, and can turn and stop on a dime, so anytime you screw up or miss a jump, it is the player's fault, and not the fault of the control design. This is one of those games that likes to throw a lot of difficult jumps, or some tricky enemy placement in your path where you might have to stop and try to figure out how you're going to advance safely. Fortunately, there is no time limit in the levels, so you can take your time and strategize.

However, one of the coolest features of the game are the little Satellite Robots that Steve can find throughout the game who will fight alongside him. You can summon these robots by finding power up blocks that are represented by the Greek letters of "a" and "B". When you collect three of these icons, you will summon the robot. The strategy comes in how different combinations of the letters can summon a different robot. There are 9 different robots you can call upon, and they all have different abilities. If you collect three "a" symbols, you get a flying robot armed with a yo-yo weapon. Two "a"s and a "b" gets you a robot with a powerful laser gun. An "a" "B" "a" combo gets you a robot that swings a sword at enemies whenever Steve punches, allowing you twice the damage.

Having the aid of a Satellite Robot can greatly reduce the difficulty of certain areas, as they will give you extra firepower, and can sometimes reach and attack enemies from far away. However, the thing you have to remember is that your robot can also take damage from the enemy, so you don't want to be too reckless with them. Having them take too much damage will cause them to explode, and you lose their help. The robots also play another important role. The first time you score an "a" and "B" combo, you get your robot helper. But, if Steve collects the exact same three letters by the end of the same level, Steve will suddenly gain a powerful robot suit of armor, and will pretty much be invincible for about 15 seconds. (A timer appears, and ticks down.) This can be incredibly useful on some of the bosses in the game, as they can be difficult, and having a few seconds of invulnerability can help you figure out an attack pattern, or the best way to go about the battle. The robot suit also increases the strength of your punches, and allows you to shoot fireballs from your fists. Once Steve loses the robot suit, it turns back into your little robot buddy, and you can finish the level or the boss battle on your own.

Another feature that can aid the player is that when certain enemies are defeated, they drop Super Mario-like coins that Steve can collect. You can use these coins on special platforms that are scattered throughout the level, and are represented as a unique white platform with the price of how many coins it costs to use it on display. These special platforms can either restore your health, power up Steve's attacks, or give him an extra life. You can also find coins in the power up boxes that Steve can punch, which reveal bags of money, or the power up letters you need to collect to summon your Satellite Robots. But beware. The designers also decided to hide grenades in some of the power up boxes, which will explode and damage you if you are standing too close. It definitely adds a risk or reward aspect to the gameplay, as you never know if a box will hold a useful power up or money, or if it will hold a damaging grenade.

But what really makes the game stand out in terms of gameplay is how each level offers something new that you usually didn't see in a lot of games at the time. There are certain levels where there is a fence in the background that Steve can grab onto and climb in order to reach higher platforms, or hit enemies. There are also certain stages where gravity reverses, which can actually be disorienting a little while you are playing. The developers are constantly throwing in little tricks in each level to add variety, and it really shows that a lot of thought went into the levels, when you see how varied they are and how no two are exactly alike. The game strikes a good balance between platform traditions, and adding some new ideas, like the Satellite Robots.

In terms of presentation, Shatterhand continues to impress. The graphics have a lot of great detail and animation, especially when it comes to the variety of robots that are featured throughout the game. I also like the animation, like the way Steve's jacket blows in the wind on the Stage Select screen. The game has a dark, gritty, and kind of cinematic style that you did not see in a lot of NES games. Also impressive is the music. While it's not one of the all-time great NES soundtracks, it still fits the mood of the game perfectly, and you'll definitely find yourself humming some of the melodies after the game is off. To me, it has a little bit of a Mega Man feel. Listen to the full soundtrack above, and see for yourself.

What it all boils down to is that Shatterhand is a wonderful example of a late-generation NES cart that has decent challenge, some fun and diverse gameplay, and it just does a great job of giving the player a sense of strength and ability with its level design that comes up with ways to allow the player to just smash their way through challenges. In a perfect world, this game would have gotten the recognition it deserved, and probably would have spawned numerous sequels on the Super Nintendo or Genesis. Sadly, as I mentioned, Shatterhand did not fly off the shelves when it was released during the holidays of 1991, and was largely ignored. And should you want to track down a copy, prepare to open your wallet wide.

Yes, it's time for the part I hate about these kind of articles, where I have to talk about how expensive retro gaming has become over the years, and how much you will have to pay out if you want a legit copy of the game. Of course, there is always the option of emulation, but I personally frown upon that, unless it's an officially licensed form of emulation like the Virtual Console. Sadly, Shatterhand has never appeared on any paid download service, due to the fact that Jaleco no longer exists as a publisher. So, should you try to scour eBay or Amazon for your own copy (and if you are a collector, you really should), prices range from around $50 to $75 for a loose copy, to around $150 or more for a Complete in Box copy, which is around what I paid for the complete package with instructions. As long as you're comfortable with that price range, this is one game you need to experience.

Honestly, though, try this game if you can. It's an extremely well crafted platformer with a lot of cool ideas, some great graphics and music, and even some originality. As long as you can look past the goofy box art on the cover, you will find one of the true hidden gems of the NES, and one I'm sure I would have loved if I had played it when I was younger. This one fell through the cracks back in the day, but I hope this article will bring it to light to some of the fellow retro gamers that I know frequent this site.
Until next time, my fellow Retro Junkers, keep the past alive.
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