25/10/2011

NIGHT SLASHERS

In an effort to improve VGJUNK, I embarked on a great quest. Dedicating myself to videogames, I became a wandering hermit, immersing myself in electronic entertainment while destroying my enemies, those misguided fools who preach the benefits of board games and word puzzles. Once I had attained true enlightenment, I climbed to the summit of the tallest mountain in the land and issued a plea to Videoludens, God of Videogaming. "Oh merciful and occasionally backwards-compatible God," I cried, "grant me my wish: give to me a videogame that combines my love of all things horrific and macabre with the side-scrolling beat-em-up genre I love so much." The clouds parted and there, bathed in light and wearing a cloak made of unnecessary and overly-expensive peripherals, was my God. "I SHALL GRANT YOU THIS BOON, MORTAL!" he cried, before departing in a crash of thunder. There, standing in a smoking crater beside me, was the game I had be searching for - Data East's 1993 gore-soaked punchathon Night Slashers. Turns out, it's really bloody (pun intended) good!

Okay, so obviously that story isn't true. I found out about Night Slashers the same way I come up with pretty much every game I talk about on VGJUNK: a combination of hazy childhood memories and poking around on the internet. The bit about this being a good game is very much true, though.

What we have here is belt-scrolling beat-em-up, but rather than the standard street gangs that need a thorough beating (you know, for justice) it's all manner of horror movie staples that you'll be pummeling. A mysterious evil has raised an army of the living dead that has quickly overrun most of humanity, because as a species we can deal with zombies but we soon lose our shit when vampires and wolfmen get involved. The only hope left for the planet is our three playable heroes: the Night Slashers! Yes, I know it sounds like they have a bladder condition that prevents them from getting a good night's sleep but trust me: they're heroes through and through. Let's meet them now!

First we have the glam-haired, all-American monster hunter Jake. His arms have been replaced with bigger, more punchier arms, which probably gives you an idea what kind of character Jake is. It looks like he's also replaced his cowboy boots with robot cowboy boots, but nobody seems to have noticed this.

Next is Christopher, Europe's most famous vampire hunter and winner of the European Mullet Society's prestigious "Hairdo of the Year" title for the last seven years. I love Christopher's design because of the insane world it presents - a world where a man can combine the sartorial elegance of formal wear with the mullet and fingerless gloves of an eighties street punk and still command some measure of respect. Oh, and bicycle clips. Mustn't forget those.

Finally there's Hong Hua, the speedy-yet-weak martial artist of the group. Night Slashers must take place in some distant future where Jackie Chan has sadly passed away, because she's described as "Asia's most revered martial artist".

After a nice little attract mode intro where our heroes save a cowering family by punching zombies in half, the game proper begins as our heroes resolve to purge a nearby hospital. Jake does get cranky when he hasn't had his dialysis, that's for sure. However, the path to the hospital is blocked by a horde of the undead. Our quick-witted champions of justice quickly decide upon the most heroic yet efficient course of action - they mow everything in their path down with a Transit van.

I can already tell that I'm going to enjoy this.
As Night Slashers is a belt-scrolling beat-em-up, I'm sure you've already guessed the basic mechanics of the game: walk from left to right, killing things until you reach the big thing at the end of the stage, which you must also kill. Simple enough, and the controls and fighting mechanics are broadly similar to most other Final Fight clones. I'll get on to that in a bit, though. First, let's enjoy the presentation.

Graphically, NS is very good, with all kinds of well-animated, detailed sprites and interesting backgrounds (particularly the backgrounds in the minigames, as we shall see). The enemy designs are great, being the Hallowe'en monsters we all know and love but with a sprinkling of the sort of over-the-top "bigness" that only seems to come from Japanese arcade games of the nineties. Then there's the music. Make no mistake, Night Slashers has an excellent soundtrack - here's the first stage's theme, the unsurprisingly-titled "Night Slashers!"



I'm pretty pissed off that I forget to include some Night Slashers tracks amongst my votes for HG101's best VGM ever poll. Composed by Tomoyoshi Sato (working under the alias Tom Sato) and the mysterious Mr. K, the soundtrack to NS is probably my favourite soundtrack to any belt-scroller: with its excellent mix of diverse styles, catchy compositions and excellent synths and samples, it stands head and shoulders above most beat-em-ups of this ilk.

Anyway, back to the game. The hospital is full of zombies, the expendable footsoldiers of any self-respecting demon's world-conquering army. The Night Slashers don't rely on any of the traditional methods for killing zombies (or any other creature, really). They just hit them repeatedly until enough parts fall off to stop them being a threat. That brings me nicely to Night Slashers' defining features, the one that sets it apart from its competitors, and that's the wide array of different moves and attacks available to each character.

And I don't mean running them over with a truck, either. The basic controls are the same as every other game of this type. You've got an attack button and a jump button. Pressing attack repeatedly results in a short combo, you can perform a jumping attack if standing on the ground is too cliché for you, you can grab and throw enemies by walking into them and pressing both buttons together activates a radius attack that drains some of your health. Now, that may have been good enough for Final Fight, but Night Slashers decided that simply didn't offer a wide enough scope for battering monsters and added a much expanded move list. There's a third button that casts a screen-clearing magic spell, with a different variant if you're jumping, that takes a hefty chunk of your lifebar. You can also hold attack to charge up a special dashing move, which changes if you're low on health: however, if you charge up too long you become stunned. There are dashing moves, jumping attacks that stomp enemies into the floor where they're trapped for a moment, and even team-up moves in two-player mode such as dual throws.
This wealth of options really opens the game up and gives NS quite the edge over many of its contemporaries and makes even fun and playable brawlers like Vendetta feel rather limited.

While I've been yammering on about the control, Christopher has reached the first boss. As seems appropriate for a hospital you face a crazed doctor who enters the fight by riding a gurney while slicing zombie with his scalpels. If you're playing Hallowe'en Monster Bingo at home, you can mark off "Mad Scientist", I guess.
He's easy enough to defeat - after all, in this situation medical training is a poor substitute for cybernetic arms or mastery of the martial arts - but Night Slashers keeps you on your toes by throwing you straight into another boss battle.

As with all mad scientists, his greatest creation is a lumbering flesh-golem stitched together from necrotic body parts. It's never macramé, is it? You know, a hospital is actually a great place to build your reanimated corpse-man: aside from the easy access to medical equipment, if it’s anything like every hospital I’ve ever been to any mobs of angry villagers will get hopelessly lost long before they reach your secret lab. At least this Creature appears to have been given the correct brain and for a hellish crime against nature he's rather polite.

Until he starts trying to punch you, at least. The two back-to-back boss fights should clue you in to the fact that Night Slashers is certainly not stingy with the amount and frequency of the bosses: Data East clearly had their checklist of horror staples that must be included, and include they damn well did. Frank here is tougher than the Doctor, but repeated jumping attacks will see you through. No sooner have you punched the Creature so hard that all the flesh melts from his bones than a vampire pops up to take the piss and give you your next objective.

In the first level alone we've had zombies, a mad scientist, a Frankenstein's monster and a vampire. I may have to extend the Hallowe'en-O-Meter (not a penis metaphor).

Stage two, and a pleasant hike through the Transylvanian woodlands is ruined by the sudden appearance of hundreds of werewolves that need kicking in the face. This is an auto-scrolling section where you're chasing a horse and carriage, clobbering any of the aforementioned werewolves that get in the way of your righteous fury. Eventually you'll catch the catch the coach.

I regret catching the coach. Waiting to murder you are a wizened Geppetto (looking rather like the corpse-father from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and his demonic puppet boy. "Ah, Pinocchio, I wanted to you to be like a real, living boy. So I made a pact with the Dark Lord Satan in exchange for my immortal soul! Ho ho ho!"

Do I even need to reiterate that dolls and puppets are creepy as all fuck? I think next year, my Hallowe'en costume is going to be a porcelain doll. I'll just sit quietly in the corner of whatever party I'm at, only moving when people aren't looking and taking photos of myself hovering over them when they fall into a drunken sleep. As pictured above, a nice touch with Hong Hua's standard combo is that she sticks a paper ward to her foes as part of it.

A brief saunter through a graveyard brings you to another boss, this time a stone golem with a fondness for performing wrestling moves on you. This is something of a theme with the enemies in Night Slashers, as though their monster training consisted of nothing but watching old Hammer films and reruns of Wrestlemania.

Between stages, you get to play the first of two minigames - a grotesque version of Whack-A-Mole where you have to stomp on the heads of the zombies that pop out of the floor. There's no real reward for it, unless you count the satisfaction of crushing all those paper-thin skulls beneath the heel of your boot. The best thing about the minigames is the backgrounds, showing a crowd of zombies enjoying the action. One undead lady on the left became so excited she removed her head and has started tossing it around. You don't get that at the cricket.

The next stage is set within the vampire's castle, and like all modern dark overlords he's had a lift installed that drops a stream of enemies in with whoever's travelling in it. I wonder if Count Duckula has one? Night Slashers may be good, but there are certain genre clichés that you just can't ignore (no dominatrixes in this one, though).

The mid-boss is a demonic sword who controls a living suit of armour. Aww, he's shy, look. Come on out from behind that pillar and let everyone see how handsome you are, honey.

The armour was guarding the way to the parapets, an area that further enhances the Castlevania feel of this stage. That masked psycho at the bottom of the screen hasn't fallen over, by the way: he's simply using his incredibly irritating slide attack, which he does for pretty much the entire time he's alive. You'll be wanting to make these guys a lot less alive as soon as you see them.

The vampire himself is a big unit, but not too troublesome. You'll notice he's fighting you outside which, given the frequent problems vampires seem to have with remembering when the sun is going to rise, seems like a particularly stupid decision. Not that it matters to the Night Slashers: they'll have pummelled him into a fine paste long before sunrise.

For all his bravado and immaculate dress sense, it turns out that the vampire isn't the mastermind after all and there are some dark portals that need sealing tout suite. Never ones to shy away from a mission that has even the slightest chance of ending in a fist-fight with the undead, our heroes hop on a plane to South America.

Stage four's a short one that's mostly taken up by a battle with these two Aztec gentlemen. Angered by your interruption of whatever blood sacrifice they were planning, they spend much of the fight running around like hyperactive children soaked in full-sugar cola and, yes, performing wrestling moves on you. To the best of my knowledge there was never an Aztec-themed WWF wrestler, even during the glory years of the late 80s/early 90 when every stereotype from voodoo priest to Mounties had a representative in the squared circle. Maybe rituals of heart removal and impalement didn't test well with the 8-15 year old demographic.

The next stage sees more air travel, this time with a battle aboard a plane. The game starts getting pretty tough around this point: as you can see, a lot of enemies start appearing at once and they can drain your life very quickly indeed.

Still, you could always summon a raging storm to show them what for.

In their continuing quest to tick off all the monsters on their "Hallowe'en Superstars" checklist, Data East kindly included a mummy. He doesn't seem at all fazed by the fact that he's been raised from thousands of years of entombment and placed in a metal canister that's hurtling through the sky, and for that I have to give him some credit. Still, he's essentially just a zombie wrapped in bandages and we all know what happens to zombies when the Night Slashers are involved.

The other minigame appears, and this time you have to mash the buttons to build power before hurling a zombie at a bunch of other zombies in the underworld's version of ten-pin bowling. Again, the pleasure of this comes from the background, especially the advertising. Apparently the second bullet point on the Evil Power's to-do list, after "enslave humanity", was "start demonic advertising agency".

The following stage is a combination of a normal stage and a boss rush, with the boss rush aspect coming courtesy of the life-giving powers of the Grim Reaper himself. You'll battle a few of the previous bosses (plus, for some reason, a helicopter) before catching up to Death and beating him to, erm, himself.

The brown robes are his casual resurrectin' robes, these black robes are his more formal "eliminate these mere mortals" attire. He instantly destroys any aura of mystique and horror he might have possessed by spinning around with his scythe held out like a demented carousel. He does a lot of damage, and his attacks are fast and difficult to avoid, but in the end he's not the challenge you might have expected from the Harvester of Souls.
Death also informs you that he isn't the one behind the ghoulish goings-on. He often seems to get a bit of a bum deal in Japanese videogames, does Death: he's rarely the final opponent and a lot of the time (most noticeably in the Castlevania games) he's subservient to entities he really should be kicking the backside of. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, that's our Reaper.

The final stage, and after a brief bit of combat you reach the final boss: King Zarutz. If you were trying to guess what the final boss of Night Slashers would be, given that we've already seen almost all the classic horror monsters, I hope you said Robot Satan.

Of all the powers that a blasphemous melding of robotics and sorcery could offer, Zarutz went with a particularly frustrating force shield that renders him invulnerable as well as doing you a bunch of damage if you come within thirty feet of him. Undoubtedly effective, but it's hardly summoning a dragon made of ethereal flame or opening a gateway to a dimension filled with giant pubic lice, is it? Must try harder. At least his sprite looks just as cool as you might expect. There's a shot of him in the attract mode that shows he has a Hebrew letter etched into his forehead:

I think it's the letter Ayin, which is apparently related to the eye, so maybe this is his third, psychic eye or something? I'm hardly an expert, so if you know of any other reason why Zarutz would have a Hebrew letter stamped on his noggin, let me know.
Letter markings or not, even Robot Satan cannot stand up to the furious fist of the Night Slashers and he eventually explodes like a poorly-maintained boiler. That's not the end of his evil ways, though...

...because there's another section where you have to chase his floating torso and kick it until it explodes. Only then is the world once again safe from Universal Studios' back catalogue of horror movies.

With Zarutz's power destroyed, the zombies suddenly remember they're actually dead and the monster army melts away. I don't mean like "melts into the crowd" or anything, they literally melt. Nothing in Night Slashers ever dies cleanly: it's ruptured intestines and bubbling soup-like flesh all the way.

Job done! The Night Slashers head their separate ways, and I'm left behind to bask in the glow of having played a very good game. As much as I love belt-scrolling beat-em-ups, it's hardly the most innovative of genres and the difference between an average one and something good like Night Slashers is more often than not down to atmosphere and setting rather than groundbreaking gameplay ideas. Luckily, NS has the perfect setting for me, with more horror classics crammed into one game than I could have ever hoped for. The graphics, music and excellent sound design (there's some fun voice samples in here) set a high standard but it's the wide range of moves, combined with simple and accurate controls, that push Night Slashers right near the top of my "favourite brawlers ever" list and providing stern competition for Alien vs Predator and D&D: Shadow over Mystara.
The flourishes of quality keep on coming right to the end, as each character gets their own individual ending. Jake's is my favourite - like most retired fighters, he can't handle the sedate pace of normal life and becomes a gambling addict.

It's nice to know that he has a pair of human-looking arms that he can pop on when he's not killing demons.
Night Slashers, then: if you have any interest in belt-scrolling fighters, then you must try this out. Data East may have a wildly inconsistent record when it comes to quality, but they really hit the nail on the head with this one.
One last thing - if you are going to be playing this out then you might want to know that the Japanese version has red blood, unlike the overseas version that I played for this article. Personally, I don't mind what colour the blood is: so long as it's a liquid that I punched out of a bad guy, I'm happy. If you must have red blood, play the Japanese version. There are a couple of other cosmetic differences, like Christopher brandishing a cross in his combos instead of the overseas version's glowing rock, and the "GO!" markers spinning around to inform you that where you should be GO!-ing is "TO HELL!". Thanks for that!

A great game indeed, but how will Night Slashers score on the VGJUNK Hallowe'en-O-Meter? If you've been paying any attention at all, you'll probably know the answer is going to be "very highly".

Maximum highly, to be precise! The first perfect score of the season, and the only thing that made me hesitate for even a second about awarding Night Slashers full marks was the complete lack of any pumpkins. Then I remembered the Zombie Bowling and decided that ten out of ten was the only choice. With only a few days until Hallowe'en, can any game challenge Night Slashers as the spookiest game of the month? Who knows? Exciting!

5 comments:

  1. Traditionally, you'd remove a letter on a Golem's head to change emet(h) to met(h) (truth to death) to destroy it.

    That's all I got.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Intruder_W: Hmm, interesting. I did wonder if it was a Golem thing, but then Golems are so rarely giant robot devils. Thanks for the heads up!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very entertaining, a great article as always. It inspired me to break out the arcade stick and give it a go. The final boss made me think of the "Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past From The Future" from Aqua Teen Hunger force when I encountered him! :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Mr. Vgjunk were did you find a working rom for this game?

    ReplyDelete
  5. There is also a fan-remake called "Night Slashers X"

    ReplyDelete

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