Videogames set in space: harmless diversions or part of a worldwide government conspiracy to subconciously alter humanity's ideas about a life amongst the stars, a constant feed of stories about deadly alien invasions and interstellar pirates designed to stop people complaining that we aren't living in Lunar City Seven and eating nutri-pills in our astro-kitchenettes? It is clearly that second thing, and if you visit my new site at illuminati-psyops.net/lies/operation_space_hate.html then the evidence there is sure to convince you. Even Konami are in on this sinister scheme, as demonstrated by their 1990 arcade moon-madness-em-up Surprise Attack!
Now that's some classic arcade typography: big, bold and with more gradients than the Tour de France. One look at that logo tells you that you're in for some serious arcade action, and because this is a Konami action game that isn't based on an existing franchise - no Ninja Turtles or Bucky O'Hares here - it's probably going to involve a lone soldier gunning his way through some terrorists. Let's meet those terrorists now!
They call themselves Black Dawn, or possibly their leader's name is Black Dawn. Whatever his name may be, here is the leader of Black Dawn, dressed in an outfit singularly unsuited for space travel. Unless the WWE have decided to draw in viewers by holding the next Wrestlemania on the moon, I think what has happened here is that the terrorist leader is desperate to show off his musclebound physique, but he's also heard that space can be pretty cold so he threw on a cape as a compromise. Everyone still gets to see the gun show but if the merciless vacuum of space gets too chilly he can wrap himself up.
It's interesting that he says Earth will be his in twenty-five hours. Maybe an extra hour will be added to the day in the future, but I can't help but think that the 25-hour ultimatum was a threat that didn't quite go according to plan. "You have twenty-four hours to meet my demands... and to show you I'm serious, you have twenty-five hours! No, wait, that's not right."
Opposing Black Dawn is player character and hero of Surprise Attack, Sergeant John Ryan of the Special Task Force. They call him the Red Thunderbolt, because you see him before you hear him and because he is an avowed follower of Socialist thinking. Or because he wears red, I don't know. His age is given as 32, which makes him an OAP by the standards of Japanese videogames protagonists. It seems that the moon is the one place where high-school students aren't humanity's best hope.
John Ryan's mission is clear - enter the space station and the moon base, take out the Black Dawn agents and disarm the many time bombs they have planted around these facilities. As the screenshot above shows, the Red Thunderbolt is so keen to get his mission started that he is leaping right into the fray. While this may seem like an impressively gung-ho way to assault the enemy forces, don't forget that Surprise Attack takes place in a low-gravity environment so in the scene above Ryan is presumably slowly floating towards the gun-wielding terrorists.
Oh good, he managed to survive his blisteringly stupid approach to covert operations and has made his way to the outside of the space station, where he can begin his one-man mission to eliminate the cosmo-terrorists. This explains the name of the game, then: Surprise Attack sounds like a relatively sedate title for a space adventure - it doesn't even contain words like "laser" or "galaxy" or even "space" - but "surprise attack" is a good description of a single man landing on the outside of a spacecraft and fighting his way through hundreds of soldiers. They'll never see it coming!
Surprise Attack is a run-n-gun game, and in the grand tradition of arcade titles John Ryan is not overburdened with fancy combat techniques. He can walk, he can jump, and he can fire his gun straight forwards. Actually aiming your firearm at the bad guys? A rookie mistake, one that John Ryan is far too much of a grizzled veteran to fall for. You don't reach the age of 32 in the space commando business without learning a thing or two.
To complete each stage, Ryan must find each of the bombs scattered around the area before proceeding to the exit. There are three bombs in the screenshot above, they're the objects with the glowing yellow outlines. Protecting the bombs are the Black Dawn soldiers, a vicious band of killers whose obedience to their master is so absolute that they will follow the same attack patterns that have been drilled into them over and over again, without hesitation or deviation, even if the Red Thunderbolt is calmly avoiding their space-bullets or shooting them in the knees. The bad guy in the red spacesuit on the upper level might think he's safe, but he has reckoned without Ryan's ability to leap up to a higher level of the stage by holding the joystick up while jumping. Even when our hero does jump up there to collect the bomb, it won't effect the evil spaceman's orders or battle strategy: he'll just keep firing at head height, as is the will of Black Dawn. Yes, those bombs are as good as mine already.
Once you've disarmed all the bombs by walking into them, all at remains is to make your way to the Clearan Point of th Missio. It's never hard to find, usually being at the far-right of the stage, but this helpful and very large marker will make sure you can't miss it.
The next stage, and here Ryan is demonstrating one of the two power-ups you can collect. It's called the Mover, a charmingly understated name for a device that covers you in electricity, makes you invincible and lets you fly around the stage, killing enemies just by bumping into them. I would have called it the Super-Powered Airborne Cloaking Electricity Matrix Attack Neutralizer, because people want the sizzle as much as the steak. The other power-up is a simple gun upgrade that changes your weapon from "normal disc" to the more damaging "grenade disc." No, I don't know why they're called "discs" when they are obviously firing bullets.
Now that we're indoors and there's plenty of life-giving oxygen cluttering up the place, we can get our first proper look at John Ryan. He's a typically blonde, blue-eyed all-American hero, and he's shooting all these terrorists with a slightly disturbing smile constantly plastered on his face. Maybe he overdid it on the astro-Valium he used to calm his nerves on the rocketship over here. He also walks with his hand near his face, obstructing most of his vision. Okay, now I get it. I was wrong earlier, the game's called Surprise Attack because Ryan is doing his best to make sure every attack that comes his way is a surprise.
In this stage, the play area is split into two layers, spearated by the glass windows that Ryan can hop between at certain points. Interesting, but not as interesting as the message at the left-hand side of the screen. It's one that will become familiar to you if you spend any amount of time playing Surprise Attack, because every time you collect a bomb this small message saying "U DID IT" floats into view. U DID IT, huh? What a strange way to phrase a message of congratulations for achieving a small portion of your goal. I'm sure it is down to years of reading internet sarcasm that U DID IT does not feel like the most sincere praise I have ever recieved.
And now, a boss. The laser moves up, then fires. The laser moves down, then fires. Not a pattern that will take long to commit to memory, granted, but things are complicated by Ryan only being able to damage the laser while it's open and shooting at him. Luckily it was at this point that I realised the player is invincible while they're performing the big between-level jumps, so as long as you fire and immediately move back to the other level you'll be fine. It's a good thing I figured out this period of invincibility exists, because some of the later stages would have been extremely difficult without exploiting this trick, to the extent that I wonder whether Ryan was always supposed to be invincible during his big jumps or if Konami added it later to give players a chance.
After the boss, there was something that took me completely by surprise: a trivia quiz! Oh man, this is great - I love arcade trivia games, and it's nice to see one that's in English for a change. Hosted by blonde twins who can only be differentiated by their choice of lipstick, possibly seen here during their day off from appearing on Smash TV, the quiz poses a series of space and sci-fi themed questions that you can correctly answer to gain points. Without wanting to brag - because this is not something a grown man can brag about - I found the quiz pretty easy, generally only stumbling on dates because I am terrible at remembering dates. It helps that the questions often include one obviously incorrect answer. Even if you have only the faintest notion of what the Periodic Table even is, you are unlikely to believe that "bananas" is the name for a part of it. My favourite question of all, which I sadly did not get a screenshot of, was "who flew too close to the sun?" One of the possible answers was Eddie Murphy. Ah yes, Eddie Murphy, he flew too close to the blazing sun of Hollywood fame and crashed down to Earth, the starring role in Daddy Day Care inflicted upon him as further punishment for his hubris.
Answer all the questions correctly and the ladies will shower you with kisses. This is terribly cruel on any young nerds who may have played Surprise Attack in their formative years. I'm sorry, kids, but women will not kiss you because you are good at answering space questions. In my experience the opposite is true.
Because we're in space, there's no gravity to keep your feet on the ground (literally) and so in this stage Konami gave Ryan the ability to switch between walking on the normal, boring ground like some common savage, or walking on the ceiling. Oh, what a feeling! The feeling of blood pooling in his brain and causing blackouts, no doubt.
A lack of gravity may account for Ryan's upside-down adventures, but these Black Dawn troops that can stand at a ninety-degree angle to the floor must have something else going on. Magnetic boots, I assume. Just behind complete obedience and a dedication to bloody revolution, it seems that extremely strong ankles are a key feature of any Black Dawn member.
Jumping between the floor and the ceiling is handled in the same way as jumping between the different height levels of other stages and is all very intuitive, but one thing I did struggle wth was crouching while I was on the ceiling. Ducking under enemy fire is an integral part of Surprise Attack's gameplay, and you can even crawl forward while crouched, but doing so while standing upside-down took me a long, long time to master. This is because the past twenty-odd years of playng videogames have deeply engrained within my very soul the idea that you hold down on the joystick to duck. Of course, when you're upside down you have to hold up to crouch, but this simple fact was one that my brain stubbornly refused to accept and I lost many a life to getting shot in the face, all because I kept holding the wrong direction to duck. It's weird, because I recently played Sonic Racing Transformed and whenever I was hit with the attack that reverses your controls, I had no problem making the immediate mental compensations for left and right being swapped, but up and down? I just could not get a handle on it.
Boss number two is the security pod, a hovering dustbin of a machine that is rather more ggressive than the laser cannon, trying its best to crash into our hero with its stubby little body. Again, the key here is to stay on the move, flipping between floor and ceiling when the boss gets close while plinking away at the vulnerable weak-point of its bubble dome.
As we follow John Ryan's ledge-hopping, bomb-collecting adventure, you might be thinking to yourself "this game sure does seem familiar." I understand, I had the same feeling too, and it's because Surprise Attack is Shinobi. It's Shinobi with the ninjitsu exterior scrubbed away and replaced with an outer-space sheen, but the gameplay is so close to Sega's arcade classic that "clone" feels like an accurate word to describe it. It's got the same multi-level jumping, the time-bombs are a stand-in for Shinobi's kidnapped ninja students, there are the same upgrades to your projectile attack - in the early stages of Surprise Attack, the biggest difference is that you don't have a close-range melee attack, which is a shame because the enemies kill you if you touch them. Happily, once you get a ways into Surprise Attack, Konami do shake things up somewhat with gravity flipping and other mechanics, and by the end I gave the game's relationship to Shinobi a mental downgrade from "clone" to "homage."
You know, I think this fan may have a weak point. That's one of the great things about arcade games: their immediacy. There's no time to delicately explain to the player the ins and outs of every situation, and so we're treated to enormous flashing icons and cigarette-paper thin plots that make an episode of He-Man look like Crime and Punishment. As well as the enjoyment of playing games that were often not available to a young VGJunk thanks to their lack of home ports, (as is the case with Surprise Attack,) this brevity and unrelenting pace is one of the reasons I write about more arcade games than any other system.
Surprise Attack is definitely fast-paced. It forces the player to move quickly thanks to the two-minute time limit on each stage, a limit that is certainly manageable but tight enough to stop you from dallying for too long. Plus, you get a grade based on your completion time at the end of each stage and I'd much rather be a Hi-Speed Dude than a Laid-Back Turtle.
This boss is called "Bowler" for some reason that Konami decided not to share with the player. Maybe he's a cricket player in his spare time, in which case it's a good job he doesn't play at Silly Mid Off. It's pretty hard to take him seriously as it is, what with him being all sideways and such.
Back outside in the cold vaccuum of space, John Ryan is attacked by a pair of cartwheeling gymnasts who hurtle towards the player and can only be stopped by a well-placed shot to the head. I mean, getting shot in the face will kill most people, but with these enemies it has to very specifially be a headshot or they'll just keep coming, prancing around like they were somewhere no more dangerous than a school gymnasium and not in space.
I know it's easy to mock the bizarre logic so often found in videogames - it is one of the core principles that drives VGJunk, after all - but the fact that these women have their hair sticking out of their space helmets struck me as so ridiculous that I couldn't take the mature path and let it go unmentioned. Their hair is sticking out of their space helmets! There's no way your suits can have an airtight seal if that's the case, and even if they did then it must be a very painful arrangement. I once got my hair caught in a hand-held electric fan and that was bad enough, god knows how unpleasant having your 'do trapped under your space helmet would feel.
I feel sorry for this Black Dawn member, you know. Not as sorry as I would if he wasn't a terrorist who was trying to kill me, but still: his superiors ordered him to climb all the way out onto the hull of the space station, past the deadly blasts of flame from the rocket engines, where he places a bomb that he has to stand next to until it detonates or the Red Thunderbolt kills him, whichever happens first. The life (and death) of a videogame goon is a brutal one indeed, but at least he gets a space burial, his body drifting through the stars for all eternity. No, you're right, that doesn't seem like much of a reward.
Umm... okay? What do you want me to do about it, tell him a joke? Okay then, here goes. Did you hear about that new military first-person-shooter game? They're calling it The Moon, because it's grey and it has no atmosphere. Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week. Alone, possibly crying to myself.
Now we're on the moon itself, where the danger levels are ramped up by moving obstacles, hazardous conveyor belts that lead to fatal rock crushers and enemies in greater numbers than ever before. The one concession to the player is that Black Dawn soldiers are too stupid to negotiate this chain-link fence, so Ryan has somewhere to hide. Hiding in plain sight, you might say, because this fence is see-through.
In one of Surprise Attack's more comedic moments, I stepped onto this ramp with visions of doing some totally sick skateboarding tricks flashing through my mind. Instead it turned out that this ramp is actually part of an extremely high-speed conveyor belt, and Ryan was hurled upwards to his death. There is no mention of whether he was launched out of the moon's gravitational field and condemned to a slow and lingering death in the depths of space, but I think it's a fair assumption to make.
The largest and most difficult boss by far is the Moon Cruiser, a lunar rover on steroids that rolls back and forth across the surface of the moon, forcing our hero to hide in a hole like a frightened rabbit. You can't stay in the hole forever, and not just because of the time limit: eventually the hole will collapse and you'll be buried alive. Instead you have to time your escape from the hole just right so you have enough time to shoot at the Moon Cruiser while also running away. It was not my most heroic videogaming moment, I grant you, and I struggled to get a clear shot at the weak point because the Moon Cruiser's very soft suspension allows the tyres to ride up and cover the target, but with a large dose of luck I eventually managed to take it down.
The final stages throw everything at the player at once, from more powerful enemies to tricky jumps to moving scenery that can crush the unwary. It all comes together very nicely, too, and one thing for which I can give Surprise Attack great credit is its difficulty curve. So many arcade games start of fairly simple but quickly become punishingly, coin-swallowingly hard, as though an internal switch is flipped from "have fun" to "fuck you" around stage three, but not this one. Surprise Attack not only gradually gets harder but also more complex as you proceed, without ever feeling as cheap or unfair as many of its contemporaries. Most importantly it stays fun - it doesn't have the most original gameplay in the world, but it is quick, responsive and very enjoyable.
One thing that did catch my eye during these last few areas was the introduction of these enemies. My love for all things Xenomorph-related might be making me see connections that aren't there, but these troopers remind me an awful lot of smartgun operator and acid makeover recipient Drake from Aliens. The camo patterns, the white-blonde hair, the hip-level firing stance of his weapon... intentional or not (and don't forget that Surprise Attack was around the same time as Konami's official Aliens game) it was difficult for me to un-see the resemblance.
The penultimate boss is the Pig 10000. There are no pigs involved, it just shoots a laser that then bounces off a series of angled mirrors. Maybe the laser has the power of ten thousand pigs. As bosses go, it's not very interesting. Don't worry, though, another one will be along in a second.
See? Here's Brutus 03, grandson of Brutus 01. I don't know whether Brutus is the name of the pilot or the robot - Brutus would be a good name for a giant robot or the leader of a space-terrorists group - but I do know that the guy in the cockpit is the bloke from the intro so I'm certain that this will be the final battle. The Drake-marine clinging onto the side of Brutus-Bot is mostly there for effect and doesn't complicate the fight any, but my theory that these later parts of Surprise Attack were inspired by Aliens are lent further credence by Brutus' mehcnical claws - those things are taken directly from the Power Loader, and no, painting them green won't fool me.
I didn't even get the boss down to half health before it all became too much for the Black Dawn leader and he had to take a little nap, bless his heart. The pilot having gone to sleepytime dreamland doesn't affect the robot's combat tactics any, and there's much ducking under giant claws to be done, the fight requiring a degree of patience that is lacking from the rest of the game until you manage to land enough blows on the weak point - which is a glowing orb right in the middle of the robot's chest, naturally - to end the fight. Well, I say end: then the top half explodes but the legs make one last effort to see John Ryan dead by charging forwards, with a single accurate shot required to finish them - and Black Dawn - off once and for all.
Contrary to the usual Konami style, Surprise Attack does not end with a huge explosion destroying the enemy stronghold. presumably because even they thought destroying the Earth's moon would be a bit of a downer ending. Instead you're treated to a shot of Ryan staring at the Earth while his commander implies that saving the world from manaical dictators who would unslave the human race is not a "real job." Thanks, boss. I'll remember that next time aliens invade or the President is kidnapped by ninjas and you pick up the Red Thunderbolt hotline.
Would it be churlish of me to say "if you like Shinobi then you'll like Surprise Attack"? Maybe a little, because although the inspiration for Konami's effort is so obvious I'm almost surprised it didn't "inspire" a lawsuit from Sega, as the game goes on Surprise Attack tries it's own thing and succeeds pretty darn well. As a simple, straighforward slice of arcade action there's very little to fault it on - the gameplay is slick, it's challenging but fair and the gravity-flipping adds something interesting. Graphically, I love it, with chunky, colourful sprites that have a lot of character, and I especially like the way John Ryan looks left and right as he walks. It has a trivia quiz minigame, which gets a few extra gold stars from me. If I had to pick some negatives, well, it's obviously about as original as using a fey ukelele cover of a rock song in a TV advert, but I don't think that's a huge mark against it. There's maybe a little too much emphasis on shooting enemies from off-screen, and while the soundtrack is good it's not quite excellent, although that's only an issue because I hold Konami arcade soundtracks to the kind of standard that other people have for Beatles albums or sculptures by Michelangelo. Overall, I would definitely say that Surprise Attack gets the official VGJunk Seal of Approval, and if you do decide to play it then I hope for your sake you get the hang of the upside-down ducking more quickly than I did.
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