Shatterhand (NES) Review

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Review by tankMage (May 2016)

Score: A- (9.2/10)

    So what do you get when you take elements from NES classics like Mega Man, Batman, and Ninja Gaiden and mix them into one big bowl of awesome sauce? Shatterhand, that’s what. This somewhat obscure title is one of the best games I’ve played since I started doing reviews. The only thing holding this game back from being of the same caliber as Super Mario Bros. or Legend of Zelda is that it is rather short, consisting of eight stages and the story is rather lacking. Even, so, the bottom line I set for a game review is based upon how much I enjoyed the title and I had a blast playing this one.

Graphics

    Where do I start? This game has some great visuals and puts many other NES titles to shame. Granted, Shatterhand was a late release (December of 1991 to be more precise), so Natsume had access to resources earlier developers did not. Still, the fact that Natsume took the time and effort to make this game look nice in a day and age where the Sega Genesis and SNES were claiming their respective thrones as console kings speaks volumes about their dedication to making Shatterhand a quality experience for the player. My only real complaint is that the enemies tended to be bichromatic and lacked the detail that the backgrounds and player sprite boasted; of course this was a common issue for NES titles and associated more with technical limitations (the NES could only display so many colors at once, something had to take the hit), so I’ll give the devs a pass here.

  The backgrounds are colorful, diverse and detailed to the point where you almost feel as if you are playing a 16-bit rather than an 8-bit title. Some areas, like the refinery have simple animations in their backgrounds, which wasn’t unheard of, but generally is reserved for better NES games. There’s also minimal recycling of tiles, which gives each stage a unique feel.

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   Steve Hermannn (of course the hero has to have two first names, right?) AKA Shatterhand is well drawn and looks superficially like one of the Belmonts from Castlevania, aside from the anime hair and sunglasses. Natsume did a good job animating Steve, who runs, jumps, clings to fences, and throws punches fairly smoothly. His punches even produce a nice impact graphic when he bashes a bad guy’s face. If that’s not enough, there are eight robot helpers, many of which have their own unique sprites and attack animations.

   As I said earlier, only the enemies lack color; even some of the boss sprites tend to be made up of only two colors. That’s not to say they are poorly done, it’s just that they aren’t quite up to the game’s own standards. To be fair, there is some degree of variety to the enemy sprites as well as some cool looking bosses. The final boss and the boss of area E are particularly well made and feature some cool effects.

Story

    There’s one problem with Shatterhand’s story: there isn’t one. Now, I’m not the type of person who needs a good story to enjoy a game (if I want a good tale, I’ll read a book), but it does help to have a good plot in place to support your game. The only clues as to what the title is about and what transpires during the course of the game are found in the manual, which talks about an evil team of scientists who try to conquer the world using a cyborg army. To counter the threat, several governments band together and form L.O.R.D., an elite team trained in cyborg killin’. Of course the hero, an ex-cop who lost his hands fighting the baddies, is a cyborg himself, so you have an interesting wrinkle to the story. While the US version’s story is somewhat bland, I did learn that the game is based on the Japanese TV series, Solbrain, and it’s likely that Natsume didn’t feel it was necessary to provide much in-game narrative, since most of the people playing it in Japan would be familiar with the source material. Unfortunately, Solbrain, is virtually unknown in the States, so we missed out and this game doesn’t offer much other than the standard save the world plot as far as we are concerned. It’s a shame really, because I often wondered if some of the bosses were taken from the series or what kind of person Shatterhand is in terms of backstory and personality. At any rate, if you’re looking for a story, don’t pop this one in your NES, because there is no story.

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Music and Sound

    They’re aren’t any super memorable songs in this game, but every song is at least good. One track reminds me of an Iron Maiden song (maybe The Wasted Years) which is a major plus in my book. Natsume did seem to slack off with the music at times since a few songs are reused, which is a lot for a game that only has eight stages. The sound effects are well done and give the game more personality.

User Interface

    The controls for this game are excellent aside from a few minor issues. One problem is you can not cancel a punch by jumping which is a significant issue since Steve’s heavy punches are slow and you’re probably going to sustain damage if an enemy attacks while you are throwing one. The hero is also unable to switch directions while ducking, which can put the player in bad situations at times. These limitations were most likely intentional, but are a bit unusual and take some getting used to; I know I ate damage on several occasions when trying to jump away from an enemy after tapping the attack button.

Gameplay

    For the most part this is a rather traditional side-scroller that borrowed elements from well known NES titles. This game reminded me of Batman (another awesome game) in particular, since the hero relies heavily on his fists to do damage. Despite its resemblance to Batman, Shatterhand is rather unique thanks to the satellite bot system. The player can collect Alpha and Beta symbols from white boxes scattered throughout each stage. Gathering three of these symbols in any order awards the player with a robot helper that hovers above the hero and unleashes various attacks when Shatterhand throws a punch. The type of bot you get is dependant upon the combination of Alpha/Beta symbols you collect. For example, three Beta symbols generates a grenade throwing bot, while a combination of one Beta followed by two Alphas results in a bot that fires bouncing discs. If that’s not enough for you, collecting the same sequence of symbols twice will cause the satellite bot to encase the hero in protective armor that increases his attack power and makes him invincible for a short period of time.

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The Satellite Bot system is one of the coolest and most varied power-up mechanics I’ve seen in a platformer.

   Along with a diverse moveset that allows the player to hang from fences or throw heavy punches, the satellite bot system makes this title stand out from the crowd and turns it into a unique and fun experience. Learning how to use different bots makes the game more entertaining and developing strategies to deal with certain scenarios in the game was gratifying (it also demonstrates that the developers actually put some thought into level design).

   The difficulty curve in this title is rather gentle until you get to the final stage, granted that you play the stages in the prescribed order. I never felt like Shatterhand was taking cheap shots at me or throwing me into situations I wasn’t ready for, even though there were a few tough spots in the game. If anything, the challenge curve on bosses is perhaps a bit too gentle and tends to fall off at points. Fortunately only one of the game’s bosses is really poorly designed, since you can basically rush into it and pound away with your fists until you win, and some of the bosses like Infernon (Area F) or the final boss actually take some skill and practice to defeat (unless you are using invincibility mode hehe).

   You can’t really talk about stage design without taking a look at common enemies. Shatterhand has a fair amount of variety when it comes to enemies and they are often arranged very strategically throughout the level, which requires you to think a bit rather than simply rushing into the fight with your firsts flying. Some enemies even behave differently in later levels. I often had more fun clearing the stages than fighting the bosses, but as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination that matters. Speaking of stage design, there was also a cool gravity mechanic that allowed the hero to cling to the ceiling in some places, but it only appeared in two stages and I would have liked to have seen it used more often or creatively.

   So as well designed as this game may be, it does have a few flaws, aside from the minor issues with boss design I pointed out earlier. First of all, they allow you to select stages in any order you wish, which may seem cool, but it has no real effect on gameplay aside from giving the player the opportunity to mix things up a bit. In fact it’s probably unwise for someone new to the game to play the stages out of the order recommended in the manual, since life gets tougher as you approach the final stage (which is unlocked after beating all five of the selectable stages). In the end, the stage select mechanic seems thrown in to make the game seem more open and lacks a feeling of substance. I didn’t really count this against the game, since the manual is clear about what order the stages should be tackled in, but I think it is an eccentricity people should be aware of at any rate.

   Secondly, the game is a bit too short. I’m a strong believer in quality over quantity and am glad the devs chose to design the seven stages with care, but this game just leaves you wanting more. Players with enough time and patience could probably beat this in a single sitting. It took me roughly a week to finish it, since I only really have a few hours of gaming time per day and had to replay stages in order to make the Let’s Play I did bearable to watch (ok, so I die a lot), so most people will probably get a couple days mileage out of this one if they don’t have tons of free time. While you think the short length of this title would detract from it’s replay value, I feel the opposite is true thanks to its fun mechanics; I’d like revisit this game again someday and try using some of the bots more creatively as well as fight some of the bosses without cheesing them to death with the Invincible Suit.

Final Thoughts

    This is one of the best NES games I’ve played. I would have given this game a slightly higher score if it had a story or a few more levels, but much like Hagane (a rare SNES gem) it turned out to be a fun, interesting game that failed to give the player a sense of purpose through its story. Shatterhand does have an edge over Hagane in my opinion, since this title feels more fair and the satellite bot system is one of the coolest mechanics I’ve seen in any game.

Recommendations

While obscure and forgotten, Shatterhand is a must play for just about anyone who enjoys 8-bit platforming. The only reasons I can see for skipping this one is if you absolutely must have a strong story or prefer physical copies but, don’t want to shell out the 70 USD this game currently goes for.

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