13/06/2011

SONIC BLAST MAN (SNES)

Disclaimer: Sonic Blast Man does not use sonic power to blast things. I know, I know, it's disappointing. Here you are, expecting a hero who uses the raw power of sound itself to defeat his enemies, but what you get instead is a man who punches things. He punches things really hard, if that's any consolation to you. The name Hard Punch Man was probably shouted down at the developer's meeting for being somewhat literal. Anyway, here's the titular Sonic Blast Man in Taito's side-scrolling megaton-punch-em-up Sonic Blast Man.

First, a trip back in time to Sonic Blast Man's origins. The series began in 1990 as a novelty arcade machine, which was in essence a test-your-strength punchbag game with a screen.

There were five stages presenting different dangerous scenarios which could only be defused with a good solid punching. You punched the bag as hard as you could, and if you weren't a noodle-armed schoolboy like me you'd defeat whatever foe you were up against. I remember SBM cabinets being fairly common around the various seaside arcades at the time; you couldn't stand near an arcade for more than five minutes without seeing someone attempt to improve their score by hitting the pad with a roundhouse kick/baseball bat/Ford Escort. Yes, as would seem obvious to anyone that's ever been near to an arcade, people would hit the pad with things other than the gloves. Gasp! In fact, the machine was eventually recalled in the US because people kept hurting themselves, usually when trying to impress a girl after a few too many Bacardi Breezers.

Still, it was successful enough for Taito to consider a home console port. Obviously, the "punching things really hard" mechanic couldn't be replicated on the SNES. Instead they decided to take Sonic Blast Man out of his natural element, and in 1994 they shoehorned him into a side-scrolling beat-em-up, where he could put his fists of justice to good use.

The intro depicts a no-doubt mild-mannered young man transforming into Sonic Blast Man, who quite frankly is one of the stupidest-looking superheroes ever created. I'm fairly certain that the intent was to parody American comic book heroes, but the point was never really reinforced and you're left trying to straight-facedly control a hero who looks like he made his costume by coating himself in glue and rolling in the bins outside an electronics store.

His first act as hero is to save a woman who is tied to some train tracks, a large engine barreling toward her. When that's the level of imagination put into the opening scenes of a game, you'd be forgiven for getting a little disheartened, but I'll try and keep an open mind; I'm sure the madness level can only increase. Anyway, SBM saves the day the only way he knows how: by punching the train, destroying it and saving the maiden.

This raises a few issues. The obvious one is hey, Sonic Blast Man, the driver of that train had a life and a family and hopes and dreams, you fucking dick. Even if it wasn't a passenger train, our hero still made the judgement that the life of the beautiful woman was worth more than the train driver's. Secondly, the woman doesn't appear to be tied to the tracks, which makes you wonder why she didn't just wriggle out of the way. Thirdly, when our "hero" hits the train he apparently does so with a force of 100 megatons. Just to put that into perspective, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki had a yield of around 21 kilotons. The largest nuclear device ever detonated, the Russian "Tsar Bomba", was about 50 megatons. So, Sonic Blast Man puts you in control of a selfish, sociopathic weirdo with twice the destructive power of mankind's most devastating weapon. What could possibly go wrong?

The first stage, then. SBM is tasked with protecting the city, although judging by the state of it there's probably not much point. Your opponents? Street punks, of course. It's always street punks. They appear in so many videogames, they've established themselves as somewhere between dragons and failed super-soldier experiments in the villain hierarchy. Still, they do alright for themselves, seeing as they can stand up to punches with the power of an atomic explosion and all.

Fighting-wise, for a game about punching SBM seems oddly reliant on grabs. You've got a basic jab combo, and once you've hit an enemy with a few of those, SBM grabs them. From there, you can choose one of several moves to perform on them by pressing a direction on the d-pad. You can uppercup them, which also fires a shockwave forwards, or you throw them behind you, or you can finish them off with a giant swinging punch. You can also grab enemies simply by walking into them, and then you can shake them like an abusive parent with a crying baby, or simply throw them aside. Most of the skill in SBM comes from knowing which throw to use in a given situation, like throwing bad guys at other bad guys who are sneaking up behind you. SBM also has a limited supply of screen-clearing "Dynamite Punches", which seems like a step down from the 100 megaton range to me, but what do I know? I don't punch people for a living.

After fighting your way through the very Final Fight-looking first stage, you'll reach the boss. He's a punk, but, you know, bigger. That's how you become the leader of a street gang: sheer physical size. You fight him on a swinging (back-and-forth, not groovy 1960's London) girder with a Mode 7 background, which is a nice touch. As an opponent, he's far, far tougher than the preceding stage. I put this down to the fact you can't use jumping kicks on him, because he just slaps you out of the air. Not being able to use jumping attacks against a side-scrolling fighter's boss? That's blasphemy, the natural order has been upset. Not that SBM's kicks are that much use, because every time you use one he flounces across the whole screen like he's auditioning for a role in Glee and usually ends up missing his target. So, I had to stick to punching him, which went well. Time for the next stage... but wait! What's this?

Is that a giant crab? Because it sure as fuck looks like a giant crab. I'll deal with you later, my brachyuran friend. First, I'll take on Zeed from Fist of the North Star.

Oh wait, it's not Zeed, it's some other punk. You see, inbetween stages you get a chance to play the original arcade version of Sonic Blast Man. Well, sort of; you don't have to punch your SNES as hard as you can or anything. Instead, you have to furiously rotate the d-pad to build up power and then press a button when the marker is over your target. The more damage you've done to your hand by twirling the d-pad like a loon, the harder you punch your target. Your reward? Points. Whaddya mean, "just points"? In my day, points were all we had, and we hoarded them as jealously as that weird kid at school did with his Pokemon cards.

Stage two is set in a factory. Again, it's a lot like Final Fight, only this time it's the industrial stage. What does this factory make? Well, judging by the vast swarms of them that populate the level, it makes kung fu masters. Between them and the machine-gun-toting soldiers, it's a tough slog through the (fairly lengthy) stage. And then you reach a lift. A lift you have to wait on while enemies pour in. Well, of course you fucking well do. You didn't think you'd gotten away from lifts full of kung fu masters, did you? You fool! As long as there are videogames, there will be lifts full of enemies. Hell, long after the fall of mankind in the future robot wars there'll still be lifts filled with the bleached bones of kung fu masters, slowly moving up and down amongst the ruined cities.

And there are two bosses. They're the standard pair of claw-wielding ninjas. These ninja clans really need to diversify, because I'm sure claws aren't exactly at the (if you'll pardon the pun) cutting edge of assassination technology. Even worse, these ninjas are wearing sunglasses indoors, so there's a precisely 0% chance that they aren't a pair of insufferable douchebags.

Today's inter-stage punchbag is a lorry that's hurtling toward a baby that's been carelessly deposited in the middle of the road. Rather than chastising the parent for her subpar childcare skills, SBM deals with the problem the only way he knows how: by killing the innocent driver of a large vehicle. Of course, SBM had plenty of time to just move the baby out of the way, but no: he couldn't help himself, and he beat the shit out of that truck. You've got problems, SBM, deep psychological problems.

Stage three: the sewers, and you're tasked to "Exterminate the hideous thing that has risen from the sewage". I'll let you make your own jokes about human effluent and "floaters" and such. It certainly cements SBM's place in the superhero pecking order. You wouldn't get Superman down here.
While initially wary about another boring stage, I was pleasantly surprised by the fairly cool enemies who live down here. They're some kind of race of gelatinous amoeba-men, which is definitely the kind of biological freak-show I can get behind. They've got stretchy limbs, and some of them like to cling on to you and drain your health. Well, they're probably starved of affection down there in the sewers. They're also slightly transparent, which is a nice graphical touch and really sells them as being gloopy sewage monsters. It feels a little strange throwing them around, though; they look like they should be floaty and light, like fighting a carrier bag, but they get bashed around as though they're pretty solid.

The boss is definitely solid, though. He's a skeletal alien thing with a gigantic arse, which is presumably where he creates the enemies that fill the stage. Assuming this beast is the hideous thing that rose from the sewage, SBM moves in for a good punching. However, there's a problem: it's really bloody hard to hit this thing. It never seems to be quite on the same plane as you, so you're constantly throwing punches that just graze its hideous skull-like face. That just serves to piss it off, so you want to avoid this. Luckily, SBM doesn't suffer a complete mental breakdown when he realises there's something in this universe that he can't punch - he just switches to throwing things around. The way to beat this boss is to stun one of the standard enemies that spawn during the fight and then grab it and spin it around like you've entered some kind of inter-species hammer throw event, hitting the boss with his own minions. I was reminded of the stage in Turtles in Time where you have to throw the Foot Soldiers into the screen, except not as good. So, I went to play Turtles in Time for a bit. Then I came back and realised I had to finish SBM. It was... disheartening, to say the least.

Today's bonus punching target: a building. It's full of terrorists or something.

Derr hurr, I punch building good!

The next stage is another factory, but instead of kung fu masters, it produces robots. Your mission is to defeat the mad scientist, although I wonder just how insane he is: these robots certainly seem to have been built by someone in full control of their faculties. One day, I'd like to fight a mad scientist who tries to defeat me by rolling around in his own filth and warning me about secret government satellites.
I must admit, I really like the robot designs in this stage. Even the backgrounds seem like a step up, with some nice mechanical designs. However, in terms of gameplay it's the same as all the other stages, with even more lifts. Oh well, time for the boss.

It's ED-209! He's branched out from waiting for waiting for people to comply and gone into the business of forcing them to comply by destroying all of humanity. Although, if he's the boss, does that mean he's also the mad scientist? Fair play to him if he is - putting your brain in a giant mechanical battlesuit is an excellent use of mad science.

And now it's time for a crab battle! Okay, so it's not much of a battle; said crab just sits there as I subject my controller to the kind of pressures normally reserved for astronauts in giant centrifuges. And then, get this - I punched the crab! Ha ha, magical. Truly inspired. It turns out that it's actually a giant mechanical crab, which I guess means it's technically a large vehicle. We all know how SBM feels about large vehicles.

With the crab sufficiently punched, it's time for the final stage. It's set aboard a space station, not that that makes any kind of difference. There's only one type of enemy to fight, but at least it's an interesting one: they start off as normal space-suit wearing goons like on the right of the picture above, but after a few hits they mutate into the gruesome hybrids on the left. Oh, and they come in different colors, like a bag of terrifying mutant Skittles.

Then there's the boss. The last boss, in fact, and he's SBM's evil clone Heavy Blast Man. Considering he's the final boss, Heavy Blast Man doesn't really have any clear motives. "What? I dunno, send the giant crab out or something. The claw ninjas? Yeah, send them out too. I dunno, it just seems like a good idea?"
Actually, I propose an alternate hypothesis. You know Bizarro from the Superman comics, and how he's always setting up dangerous situations that he can save people from in order to prove his superheroic worth? Well, SBM is Bizarro, forever leaving babies in front of trucks so he can save the day. Heavy Blast Man is, in fact, the true hero. He has finally arrived aboard this space station to put an end to SBM's insane rampage, but unluckily for Heavy Blast Man, (and the world in general,) I kicked his ass.

Once his alternate-reality brother is dead, the space station explodes and SBM finds himself floating in the inky cosmic vastness, staring at a space shuttle. He seems pretty calm about the whole situation; he probably figures he can just punch his way back to Earth. Or maybe his mind is set on more distant planets, whole worlds filled with civilisations that have never know the punch of a man with a flowing yellow scarf and a tiny satellite dish on his forehead.
Then there's the credits, where you get a roll-call of all the enemies in the game and... that's it, really. Nothing grand or exciting, just a thank you for playing.

I'm in two minds about Sonic Blast Man. On one hand, I love side-scrolling beat-em-ups. I like fighting gelatinous, neon-hued sewer monsters. I like punching a giant robot crab with a fist like the wrath of God, and the day I stop liking that will be the day I end it all. SBM offers these things, and I appreciate them, but it never quite makes it to that higher level occupied by the likes of Final Fight. The graphics are decent enough, I guess, and they seem to get better (or at least more interesting) as the game goes on. The music is nothing special, apart from the second stage theme which I rather enjoyed:



But worst of all is our hero himself. He plods around the screen so slowly that simply getting near enough to the enemy to hit them seems like a chore, and his penchant for falling over at the slightest hostile contact quickly become grating. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that overall, SBM has enough decent ideas and nice touches to mean that playing through it didn't feel like a complete waste of time. So, give it a go if you're a fan of scrolling fighters - just make sure you don't get carried away and take a swing at a nearby train/lorry/ocean liner.

2 comments:

  1. Haaha, I loved that game in his day... and I still playing it but... you're right with all the stupidiest things that happened in the game, anyway, nice review!

    Pd. You forgot to mention that SBM can destroy a Meteor, that shows the power of 100Mt haha

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    1. Hah! Yeah, this game was stupid. But it was stupidly fun. I played it at a friends house once. Every time SBM did that weird...hyper-fast punchy...uhh...grab thing, all I could think of was Ren Hoek screaming: "THIS'LL LEARN YA'!!

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