While Sega were the undisputed masters of this technology, other developers also tried their hand at Super-Scaler-style games and today I'll be looking at Taito's 1989 arcade attempt Night Striker.
I can't believe the gaming industry waited until 1989 to use the name Night Striker, possibly the most eighties name for anything I've ever heard. I'm fairly certain that changing Striker to Stryker and then writing the title three times in hen's blood on the sleeve of a Duran Duran album will cause the zombified corpse of Ronald Regan to rise from his grave, so, uh, don't do that. Instead, enjoy the spine-tingling chills promised by the attract mode!
Yes, sir! Pushing start button now, sir!
Yes, Night Striker decided that one clichéd videogame plot simply wasn't enough and offers you both the "terrorist organization" and "kidnapped girl (oh, and her dad)" reasons for getting into your "special armored motorcar" and shooting things a lot. As always, the terrorist's goals are vague and ill-defined - no ideological statements are forthcoming, no demands for the release of political prisoners or the return of native lands are ever made. They're just... kind of a bunch of dicks. City-attacking dicks.
Even their choice of kidnapped scientist seems half-hearted. Dr. Lindvery Maska - a name Taito clearly created by picking Scrabble tiles out of a spinning tumble dryer - is an expert on lasers. I dunno, it just seems a little dull. At least the scientist in Avenging Spirit was an expert in Ghost Energy. Kidnapping a laser expert just makes me wonder if the terrorists have a lot of problems with the lenses in their CD players.
What about the game itself, though? Well, it's pretty much just Space Harrier. You fly forward and shoot at the bad guys. There's one fire button, and the joystick allows you to move freely around the screen. Unlike Space Harrier, you're not fighting in a fantasy landscape filled with bizarre alien creatures and segmented dragon bosses, you're battling through a futuristic city filled with tanks, helicopters and segmented dragon bosses.
It also takes some inspiration from OutRun, like the branching system pictured here. At the end of each stage there's a short section in a tunnel where you can choose which route to take by going left or right at the fork. Unlike OutRun, I'm not sure that taking the right-hand path increases the difficulty - it might do, but I didn't really notice. Towards the end, Night Striker gets so hectic that it's difficult to notice much of anything that isn't the enemy's constant missile attacks without your UN-sanctioned flying police car exploding into a million smouldering pieces.
Enemies love to crowd right up to you and block your view of any incoming attacks, twirling aside at the last second like some mechanical matador to reveal a plasma blast coming right at you. The gameplay techniques you will need to survive become evident very quickly: hold down the fire button and concentrate on dodging as much as possible, hoping that your barrage of energy blasts will clear a path while you dart around the screen avoiding homing missiles.
Night Striker also contains a hell of a lot of hovercrafts.
Hundred upon hundreds of hovercrafts. I'm guessing this is down to the terrorists' habit of kidnapping random scientists and forcing them to aid the terrorists in their diabolical plans regardless of said scientist's chosen field. Occasionally this works out great and they kidnap a virologist who can create them a new bio-weapon or something, but more often than not they end up with an agricultural scientist who'll help them breed a race of disease-resistant battle-sheep. At some point down the line, world-renowned hovercraft expert Dr. Aerode Slizador fell into their clutches and, well, the rest is history. As were all the terrorists' normal, non-hovering boats.
Every stage falls into one of two general gameplay styles: there are the "open" stages that are mostly filled with waves of enemies, and there are "tunnel" sections where the focus is more on avoiding the obstacles that some thoughtless clod has placed in said tunnel.
It's almost like they don't want me racing through these tunnels, intent on destroying their criminal organization. This feeling is only intensified by their decision to set a pack of cybernetically-enhanced wolves on me.
In the terrorists' most misguided abduction yet, they kidnapped respected dog breeder Suzanne Worthing of Faversham, Kent. They'd been targeting her sister Julie, a software engineer specializing in data encryption, but they were so embarrassed by their mistake that rather than admit it they kept Suzanne and put her to work building an army of robotic dogs.
I have an issue with the scale of these robo-wolves. How big are they supposed to be? Bigger than my car? That does seem to be the case, making these wolves around eight feet tall. Miss Worthing is a shoo-in for Crufts this year, let me tell you.
The branching system is a little misleading, and the promise of twenty-one unique stages is never really delivered on as many of the stages are quite similar: there are three or four "Tunnel" stages that only really vary in background colour, for instance. Night Striker is a game that wears its inspirations on its sleeve, up the arms and all the way across its back, and it'll never win any prizes for innovation, but that doesn't mean it's a bad game. There are a lot of things to recommend it, starting with something that might just be personal to me.
A lot of the game takes place in whatever city the terrorists are attacking, and it's a shining neon metropolis, a cyberpunk-styled urban jungle dripping in hot pink and electric blue signage, huge tower blocks and monolithic corporate pyramids. I absolutely love this type of setting, Blade Runner seen through the filter of a Japanese arcade game, and it was the main reason I checked Night Striker out in the first place. It might not mean much to you, but for me it pretty much made the whole game worth playing on its own. I particularly like the use of VFD-style fonts throughout the game, a nice touch that makes you feel like you're piloting a VCR from the later eighties rather than a sophisticated combat vehicle.
The only problem with Taito's future-retro styling of the game is that your ship's on-board computer has all the subtlety of a kick in the knackers. You start off with five "shields" - that is, hit points - and when you drop to two shields remaining the ever-so-eager computer makes sure to point this out to you.
You're not helping! This is only making things more dangerous!
Oh, I see. I'm dead. I suppose you can write on the screen as big as you like now. You know, seeing as I'm dead and all.
Another quality component of Night Striker is the music, composed by Taito's in-house band Zuntata (although in this case I think most if it was done by Masahiko Takaki). It's mostly the kind of upbeat, semi-jazzy level themes that you'd expect from Zuntata, and my personal favourite of these is the Suburbs theme, which goes by the rather grandiloquent title of "Trance Parlant in Blue".
Every now and again, though, the soundtrack takes a strange detour into a different genre, best exemplified by the ending theme.
That sure doesn't sound like the music that should be accompanying my triumph over the terrorist forces, but there you go. Perhaps our hero is forever scarred by what he's seen and done. Perhaps we're supposed to be reminded of the human cost of this war on terror. Maybe they just thought it was a nice bit of music that didn't really have a place anywhere else on the soundtrack. All I know is that I rather like it.
Speaking of the ending, here's probably Night Striker's most interesting feature. Depending on the path you take, you can end up at one of the six final stages from P to U. Each stage sees your flying car transform into something else for the remainder of the stage. For example, if you reach stage P, then you transform into a bipedal robot.
Also, the final boss of stage P is a pair of industrial cranes. That's a little underwhelming, I'll be honest. If your ultimate super-weapon is a piece of completely-legal construction equipment then you may want to rethink you plans for global conquest. Start a building firm instead, there's more money in it.
Each final stage also gives you a different ending, meaning there are a total of six ways to end the game. Here's stage P's bit of poorly-translated congratulatory text:
"It took not so many hours" is right. Night Striker is a short game, and you can rattle off a playthrough in about twenty minutes if you know what you're doing.
Stage P is one of the less interesting ones. Let's try another one. How about stage S?
This is probably the coolest final stage, because your car turns into a motorcycle and we all know only cool dudes ride motorcycles. It's also set on a vast chequered plain filled with Buddhist temples and demonic stone heads, and at this point the game is getting dangerously close to becoming an exact copy of Space Harrier.
When you clear the stage our hero crashes his jet-bike into the enemy base, causing a huge explosion that wipes out all the terrorists forever and ever. And also presumably kills all the scientists they were holding captive. It's not all smiles and rainbows in this ending, though - there's a price the player must pay. "The player has however lost a big thing. Fare well to my machine" he says. Oh god, I hope it wasn't another sentient vehicle like the car in Mad Gear. I don't think I can bear the responsibility for another sentient car's death. Quick, let's go to a happier ending!
Stage U transforms your car into a death-dealing double-barreled laser machine, slicing through the vast navy of enemy hovercrafts with ease. You know what this ride is good for? Impressing ladies. This is handy, because stage U ends with you rescuing Dr Maska's dinghy-bound daughter.
I'm not sure what the "it was very good" is referring to here. The daughter's escape attempt? It wasn't all that great: if I hadn't happened to choose this stage, she'd still be bobbing around the ocean, encircled by hungry hovercraft. It can't be referring to the translation job, which managed the perversely impressive trick of spelling "daughter" correctly and incorrectly in the same bit of text.
A sudden volley of fireworks sets the romantic mood, and the girl and our hero settle down for some James Bond-style post credits fun. Where did those fireworks come from, anyway? Were they somehow tied to the head terrorist's vital signs, primed to explode when he flatlined? That sounds pretty cool, actually.
You've probably already figured out if you'll enjoy Night Striker, but if not, allow me to help. Have you every played Space Harrier or Afterburner, and if so, did you enjoy them? If you answered yes to both these questions then you should give Night Striker a go. It may be unoriginal, but it does what it sets out to do and it does it well. The presentation is good, with smooth graphics and a catchy soundtrack. It plays well, too, and reaches a nice level of hectic, missile-dodging action in the later levels while never becoming frustratingly hard. The sense of speed it delivers is impressive, and my only real problem with the gameplay is that projectiles can be obscured when there's a lot going on.
It's not a long game, but the branching paths do give it some replay value, and if you just want a short jolt of frenetic arcade action and you like the cyberpunk-inspired aesthetics then give Night Striker a try.