29/03/2014

SPARTAN X 2 (FAMICOM)

They made a sequel to 300? Really? That seems a trifle redundant. Oh, the new one has boats in it? Well, why didn't you say so, I'm sure it's great. Today's game isn't about those Spartans, but in a roundabout way it's born from two blokes with a fast-food van and a private detective who gets mixed up in their business. None of that is depicted in-game, but you get to kick a hell of a lot of people in Irem's 1991 Famicom game Spartan X 2!


It's a shame this isn't a more traditional logo-on-black NES title screen, then I could have made a joke about it looking spartan. Instead I think I'll just press start and try to avoid any more terrible jokes that don't really work given the context.


Two men glower at each other. One of them looks like a standard action game protagonist. The other looks like a WCW wrestler from the nineties, or Robert Z'dar with a bowl of spaghetti tipped on his head. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that these guys probably don't get on with one another.


Yep, they're definitely having a tete-a-tete. I know the warm pink tones give the scene a more romantic vibe than you might have expected but these guys were engaged in pugilistic violence mere moments ago.


Oh, hello there, Middle-Aged Chinese Woman. Are you involved in this somehow, or are you just watching?


And now I'm jumping out of a helicopter. Crikey, this is an action-packed thrill-ride and I haven't even started the game yet! Maybe I never will get to start the game, because it doesn't look like I'm wearing a parachute. There also appears to be no pilot in that helicopter. I'd better be playing as a rule-breaking maverick, a loose cannon who does what it takes to get results, even if it means an unmanned helicopter killing dozens after it crashes into a busy dual carriageway.


Spartan X 2 was a Japanese-only Famicom release, but thanks to an English translation by Abstract Crouton I can read the compelling plot of the game. It seems I am indeed a lawman who doesn't play by the book but who gets the job done, dammit. My name is Jonny, and according to the lady on the radio I'm in pursuit of a man named Flamey. Flamey is a children's fire safety mascot who has snapped and burned down an orphanage after spending too many hours in a claustrophobic, sweltering fursuit. That's not true, Flamey is some kind of smuggler. I still like my version of events better.


Okay, here's the actual gameplay and if you're the kind of reprobate who gets a twisted thrill from kicking people in the face then please leave my website. On the other hand, if you like basic, single-plane beat-em-ups from the 8-bit era then Spartan X 2 is probably something you'll enjoy. That's Jonny in the red, and he's punching a soldier. That's fifty percent of the gameplay right there. The other half is kicking people. One button for punch, one button for kick, and you can perform crouching and jumping varieties of both. Enemies run at you from either side of the screen, and it seems that most of them are just lonely, because all they do when they reach you is give you a big, health-draining bear hug.
If all this seems familiar to you - the action, the moveset, maybe even the title - then you might be thinking of Spartan X 2's prequel. Yes, of course this is a sequel, it's called Spartan X 2. So what was the prequel?


Well, Spartan X, obviously. Pictured above is Kung Fu, the NES port of Irem's classic arcade game Kung Fu Master, often described as the first-ever beat-em-up. I'm sure most of you have at least seen the NES version of Kung Fu, because as an early and pretty decent NES title it seemed to be everywhere. In Japan, Kung Fu Master is known as Spartan X, making this game a sequel to Kung Fu. It's called Spartan X because it's (very) loosely based on the excellent 1984 Jackie Chan / Sammo Hung / Yuen Biao movie Wheels on Meals, which is called Spartan X in Japan, so that bit at the start of this article about the fast-food van wasn't just me pulling things out of my backside.


Back to the action, and whatever gang of villains I'm fighting - Flamey's Combustion Rangers, maybe - have realised that hugs probably aren't going to stop a man with the balls to jump from a helicopter onto a moving train and so they've brought out the elite purple troops. It's a guy with a knife! It doesn't sound like much, but that knife can whittle away at your health bar just as fast as it it can whittle a tree branch, so you'd better be quick to give these purple knifemen a jumping kick in the head. Kicking this guy in the head is so effective because it scares away the eagle that is quite clearly holding on to his scalp. That's not a quiff, it's a beak.


After a while - a short while, because all the stages in SX2 are tiny - Jonny drops into the train carriage for more of the same action, the only thought in his mind being whether to punch or kick anyone who confronts him. As far as I can tell kicking is more powerful but slightly slower than punching, although Jonny's kicks are pretty snappy so you might as well use them all the time. They also have just a touch more range, which is useful when you're crouch-kicking a conga line of charging enemy soldiers one-at-a-time before they can grab you.
Also in the train are ordinary commuters reading newspapers. Some of these commuters are actually bad guys merely pretending to be businessmen ruing the life choices that lead them into this soulless grind, and these sneaky villains will leap from the background to attack when you get close. Their surprise attack plan is undermined by them being bright purple.


Here's Flamey, so called because he can breath fire. Hang on: big hair, oversized boots, fire breathing... am I fighting the secret fifth member of Kiss? Kicked out of the band, stripped his facepaint and forced to earn a living on the wrong side of the law, Flamey could almost elicit sympathy if he wasn't constantly trying to set fire to my face with his mouth. I found the best way to defeat him was to open with a jumping kick to close the distance and then just keep kicking him over and over again because he can't escape. Justice is served!


His full name was Flamey Joe, huh? I take back what I said about him being a fire safety mascot, "Flamey Joe" sounds much more like the cartoon spokesman for a chain of low-rent burger restaurants.


Between stages my boss give me a call, telling me to wait for backup and not to do anything foolish, blah blah blah. Jonny ignores him, of course - who could sit on their hands knowing there's an evil magician inside who needs a good slapping? - and this is the running theme of SX2's story. Jonny is told to wait, Jonny doesn't wait, thousands of drug cartel soldiers are beaten to death.
I also like that Jonny just calls his boss Steve. Not "sir" or "chief" or anything, just Steve. What a rebel.


Stage two: the box district, where everyone in town stores their boxes. One of the bad guys was simply placing boxes onto this conveyor belt. At least I hope he was a bad guy, because I kicked him even though all he was doing was placing boxes onto a conveyor belt like it was, I dunno, his job or something.
Also on the subject of boxes, fair play to Spartan X 2: I had a rant all stored up about how getting lightly touched on the foot by a cardboard box should not hurt a kung fu master, or anyone for that matter. I had to stow that rant, because the boxes don't hurt you. They just get in your way. Thanks, Irem.


Something that can hurt you are these Tarzan wannabes who swing around the second half of the stage. However, this guy is about to get an unpleasant surprise that will force him to sit on a special inflatable pillow for the next few months. You see, Jonny has a couple of special moves, both of which are triggered by crouching. Duck down for a couple of seconds and Jonny will start glowing, and once you're glowing you can press punch to unleash a huge uppercut that sends lesser enemies flying and does a big chunk of damage to bosses. Once the king of the swingers here flies overhead, he's getting a super uppercut so hard and in such an ufortunate place that his doctor will be telling the story of the resulting injuries to his golf buddies for years to come.
The other special move is perhaps even cooler: if an enemy approachs from behind while you're super-crouching, pressing punch just as he reaches you will make you grab the guy and throw him over your shoulder. It's very satisfying, and you can even take out multiple enemies with it.


The end-of-stage boss is indeed a magician, but not the pulling-rabbits-out-of-a-hat type that I was expecting but one with actual sorceries at his command. His attack pattern is simple - he sends out a ring of green light that grabs Jonny and hold him in place if he walks under it. Once contained by the Mystical Hula Hoops of Tarak-Thuul, the boss throws objects at Jonny to hurt him. The first one was a beach ball, but I think that was just to lull me into a false sense of security because after that he started chucking dynamite at me.
The boss' magic is his downfall, because it's really easy to get out of the magical bindings by waggling the joypad. Your best strategy is to get caught on purpose, shake yourself free and wait for the magician to teleport somewhere. He's very slow at teleporting. So slow that you can see where he's going to arrive and stand there, waiting to slap him as soon as he materialises. He doesn't take long to beat once you've figured that out.


I maybe have been hasty in declaring that the previous stage was the box district. Stage three is set on a boat, a boat full of boxes, enemy troops on hoverboards and the ocassional man with a rocket launcher. The high-explosive rounds don't seem to to any more damage than getting stabbed. The hoverboards just mean the bad guys fly into my punches faster. I think this gang need to go back to the drawing board - they're trying hard, bless them, but nothing has been as effective at slowing Jonny down as a prison shiv. If all those boxes were full of knives, I could be in real trouble, but I think they're full of drugs.


The theme of boxes carries over to the boss, who throws boxes at you. I can't spruce this one up, folks, it's kind of a dull fight. Avoid the boxes, kick the sailor in the feet, if you can get him with the uppercut so much the better.


There's no hard feelings after the fight. Judging by his portrait, Billy Bailey is too much of a simpleton to feel humiliated or angry or much of anything, really. He looks like a hugger. A big, clumsy hugger with a beard like steel wool that'll tear your face clean off if he manages to embrace you. Thank god he stuck to throwing things at me.


If there's something evil going down, I'd check whether or not the circus is in town because they are at the heart of all that is impure and unholy in this world. Clowns, animal cruelty, more clowns, overpriced snacks, an endless parade of demonic, white-faced killers in baggy trousers, you can always trust the circus to inject a little terror into the lives of the ordinary person.


This circus has their own plane, because they cannot be prosecuted for their crimes if said crimes take place over international waters.
The sinister if rather nebulous drug ring have finally hit upon a weapon more effective than a basic steak knife, and that's jetpacks. The flying troopers swoop around just out of jump-kicking range, toasting you with the fire from their jets, and if you're unlucky enough to be fighting two at once then you're in for a rough time
It was only here that I realised Jonny doesn't recover all his health between stages. It's unusual and at first I was outraged - okay, midly disgruntled - but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. From the perspective of the story, Jonny is supposed to be running from one crime scene to the next despite everyone telling him to wait for backup, so it makes sense for him to be knackered after each stage. Even more important is the gameplay side, however. Spartan X 2 is a short game with small stages that you're more likely to succeed at if you throw yourself at them rather than erring on the side of caution. This is especially true of the boss battles, all of which I've won so far through relentless offence... but at the cost of taking a few hits. Not getting all your health back forces you to take the game more slowly, more conservatively, thus stretching out a lightweight game into something a tiny bit more fulfilling.


Inside the plane, an ape holds me in place while a go-go dancer whacks me on the head with a caveman's club. The circus, ladies and gentlemen! That poor gorilla, crammed into the crawlspace under the floor. God knows how long he's been down there, waiting for cop who's dangerous but who gets results to come along.


My sympathy for these noble apes evaporated when one of them started trying to kill me. Like so many enemies in this game it just wants to give Jonny a squeeze, although the way it's hands fall on Jonny's shoulders it looks like the gorilla's giving Jonny a stern talking to about a truth he'd rather not know, like that wearing a red leather jacket makes you look like an idiot, Jonny.
Uppercuts are once more the weapon of choice, and as the gorilla tries to jump over your head, that's when to strike.


Once the gorilla's dealt with its trainer jumps into the fray, and I've got no qualms about pummelling someone who whips animals for a living. I honestly don't remember much about this fight other than the boss uses the range of his whip to keep you at a distance and that distances are best closed with flying kicks. I'm going to assume I kicked him until I won. It feels like a safe bet.


Stage five is off to a good start as I kick down the door to the villain's mansion. There was a soldier behind the door, but I slammed him aside by kicking the door into him. And Hotline Miami thought it was so original.


I've thought about it, and I've decided that Spartan X 2 is fun. Is it deep? No. Does it offer a lot of replayability? Not really. It is a very basic game, but you know what? That's okay. Sometimes you just want to batter a column of enemy soldiers who have little strength and even less survival instinct, and SX2 is a game that lets you do just that with an effective control scheme, tight gameplay and graphics and sound that aren't amongst the NES's top tier but which are certainly more than serviceable.


There are ninjas in the swimming pool. They're hiding under the water by breathing through hollow bamboo canes. That only works in ponds, you stupid ninjas. People don't generally have aquatic vegetation growing in their swimming pools unless they're really bad at paying the pool boy on time.


The difficulty level takes a sudden upward spike with stage fives boss. She's presumably the Chinese woman from the intro and she's also the only boss to have done her research on Jonny and learned his one weakness: knives. She throws knives high and low, making it difficult to get close to her, and when you do get into clobbering rage she jumps to the other side of the screen and starts the pattern again. It makes a nice change to have to pay attention during a boss fight, making sure you take the correct action depending on whether her knives are heading for your face or your groin. With a bit of perseverance and some good reflexes you'll eventually wear her down.


Her name's Madda Lin. That's nice to know, but the knowledge has come a little late for me. I feel guilty about calling her "Chinese woman" this whole time. I feel less guilty about beating her into a coma, but then she was chucking cutlery at me.


Before the next stage the head villain pops up on your radio to taunt you. His name is Shi Son, and he likes to look down on Jonny. Literally look down on him, that is. Shi Son has a unfortunate neck condition, probably brought on my constant snootiness.
Shi Son also calls Jonny "Keiji Thomas" before correcting himself. Thomas was the protagonist's name in the original Kung Fu Master, so it looks like after the first game he changed his name to Jonny Spartan - a name that definitely doesn't sound like it belongs to a porn star - and joined an elite crime fighting unit. Well, you've got to pay the bills somehow, and if your only skills are "good at kung fu" then your options are Hong Kong movie star, kung fu teacher or special law enforcement agent.


After boasting that it "wouldn't be very interesting to just shoot" Jonny, Shi Son sends him into a fiendish, and incredibly short even by the standards of SX2's miniature stages, gauntlet of traps. Here, Jonny rides a moving platform while a constant stream of soldiers falls from the sky. I honestly though the game has broken here, because these grunts fell as though there was a huge goon-dispensing tap located just off screen, but in the end I realised the point of these bad guys is to push you off the platform and to your death. The trick is to let one of them grapple with you for a while so the others run past, like that bit in the movies where two characters kiss to avoid being detected except the two kissers are trying to murder each other.


There's also an underwater section, not that you'd know it was underwater unless you were paying close attention. The gameplay certainly doesn't change or anything, and the eagle-headed knife men are content to just stand in place, their lungs slowly filling with precious, life-giving water.


Here it is - the climactic battle between Jonny and Shi Son. Sorry, that should read anticlimactic battle, because Shi Son is easier to put down than any boss since the first one. He flips around like a ninja at a cheerleader try-out, he throws big but easily avoidable kicks, he tries to menace you with his size, but it's all for nothing. Just crouch until he gets close, hit him with an uppercut that takes a quarter of his health and send shim flying backwards, do that a couple more times and bask in your victory. Shooting me doesn't seem so boring now, huh?


That's it, Spartan X 2 is over and you get a wha-whaa "comedy" ending where Jonny finds another, bigger drug ring to bust. ADD and a knowledge of deadly martial arts seem like a bad mix, but I guess it works for Jonny Spartan, agent of Whatever The Hell This Organization Is Called.


Spartan X 2 is shallower than a puddle in the Sahara, but as I said, that doesn't have to be a bad thing. It doesn't do much, but what it does do is fun, well-constructed action - I'm thankful in particular for the game's crisp collision detection - that kept me entertained during the three times I played through it. If you're after a quick slice of Famicom face-breaking then you could do a lot worse than this and remember: don't wear a red leather jacket, you're not a cartoon character.

6 comments:

  1. I feel like the sky circus combines the fear of clowns with the fear of flying in a way that no person could possibly enjoy the show. No wonder they had to smuggle drugs to make ends meet. They didn't even really seem to have anything to do with the storyline, the designers just really wanted you to punch some gorillas.

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    Replies
    1. If the ringmaster was a spider this circus would be an inescapable vortex of absolute terror.

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  2. There's an unofficial English translation? Nice. The plot's still what I kinda expected it to be when I played the non-translated version all those years ago, but it was still fun to play. I should really play this one again...

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  3. Yeah, I'd say it's definitely worth a go.

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  4. that first stage looked pretty Bad Dudes-ish

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  5. His name is Jonny Spartan? So he's, like, a younger version of Sylvester Stallones character in Demolition man? I like the idea, I think I'm gonna pretend from now on that "Wheels on Meals" and "Demolitiin Man" are canonically linked through this game from now on!

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