Do you like punching things? In videogames, I mean, I'm not trying to find out whether you're a violent sociopath or anything. If you do like punching things in videogames, I think I have just the game for you. Oh no, it isn't this game. This is Taito's 1994 SNES less-punching-than-you-might-expect-em-up Sonic Blast Man II! It does contain a fair amount of punching, but I was thinking of, I dunno, Punch-Out or something.
What with it having the number two in the title, you've probably guessed that Sonic Blast Man II is a sequel and yes indeed, the franchise has a long and storied history consisting of, ooh, at least two other games. Sonic Blast Man originated as a 1990 arcade machine that challenged the player to impress their loved ones and risk crippling hand injuries by punching a padded target as hard as possible. The harder your punch, the higher your score and the more of the day that is saved by Sonic Blast Man himself, a superhero who will definitely not be getting the big-screen blockbuster treatment any time soon. The Sonic Blast Man machines were eventually recalled because people could not be trusted to use them without hurting themselves.
Sonic Blast Man was popular enough that Taito decided to port it to the SNES. Now, the SNES does not have a punchbag peripheral, so Taito turned the game into a side-scrolling beat-em-up, which you can see pictured above. The original megaton-punching gameplay of the arcade machine was replicated in the between-stage minigames, where the player has to rotate the joypad as fast as possible to build up power and then press the button to clobber a train / street punk / giant crab. I wrote all about it a long time ago, and as I recall it was a lacklustre and somewhat tedious addition to the brawler canon. Can Sonic Blast Man II take the series and the belt-scrolling beat-em-up genre to exciting new heights? No, of course not. I'm still going to write about it, though. I've taken all the screenshots now.
Aliens attack during the intro, arriving at planet Earth in their flying space-cathedral and immediately laying waste to the cities of the world under the orders of a being with the laughably unmenacing name of Yafu. Apparently Yafu possesses "astounding mental powers," but he doesn't seem to have much faith in them because he blows his targets up with the traditional Independence Day-esque orbital laser instead of by thinking about them really hard.
There wouldn't be much of a game if a group of brave heroes didn't step up to the challenge of stopping Yafu's machinations, and before you can say "Yafu? It sounds like a brand of budget probiotic yoghurt" three mighty warriors arrive to defend the Earth.
From right to left we have Captain Choyear, Sonic Blast Man himself and, um, Sonia. Sonia was absent the day codenames were being handed out. Judging by her barnet I'd say she was at the hairdressers.
As ever, here we have the Beat-Em-Up Holy Trinity - the fast-but-weak Sonia, powerful sluggard Captain Choyear and Sonic Blast Man as Mr. Average. He's average only in his combat abilities, mind you. That getup is anything but average. The only way that costume could be average is if you lived on a planet populated solely by people who think they can make a decent RoboCop costume by collecting scraps from a charity shop's bin. He has a clock embedded in his chest, for pity's sake. An analog clock. He can't even see it from there! The only way SBM can get away with that particular fashion choice is if all the numbers are replaced with the phrase "ass-kicking time" and he points to it each time he encounters a bad guy.
One nice touch is that the characters you're not highlighting on the player select screen are shown in their civilian alter-egos. Sonic Blast Man looks precisely as dorky as I expected. I bet his real name is Clive Klemp or something.
As is traditional with these things, the game starts on the dilapidated city streets. Yafu's death-beams looked far too explodey to have done this little damage, so I guess this is just the wrong side of the tracks. Enemies appear - grey, boring enemies in lycra leggings who look like they got lost on the way to a Power Rangers audition - and you have to punch them to death. Sonic Blast Man 2 gets an early boost to its credibility by not blindly following the standard control system for side-scrolling beat-em-ups. Usually you have attack and jump buttons, with repeated tappings of the attack button resulting in short combo and pressing them both producing a special, wide range attack that costs a small portion of your health to use. Not so in SBM2.
Instead, you have one button for light attacks, which you can chain together for a short combo that ends with a different move depending on the direction you're pressing, and another for a slower heavy attack - in Sonic Blast Man's case, his light attack is a quick jab and his strong attack is a wider, three-fisted punch. You can also perform two separate running attacks and two different throws, and there's even a button dedicated solely to a defensive roll. Press the A button to roll in the direction your facing. Roll often, roll forever, roll with a song in your heart and a smile on your lips because the roll is your greatest weapon and staunchest defence.
Even the desperation moves are replaced by a two special attack, activated by holding a shoulder button and pressing either light or strong attack. The light attack version is generally a projectile or longer range attack - Sonic Blast Man launches a small fireball when you do his - while strong attacks set off a screen-clearing super move like the one pictured above. Please see the article on the first SNES SBM game to find out just how bad an idea standing near a 100 megaton explosion is.
Rather than draining your health, these specials are powered by the "blast" counter at the top of the screen. You start with five "blasts" per life, and the light specials cost one blast to use while the big move takes two.
"Karate Hulk crush bad costume man! Karate Hulk is strongest and most honourable there is!"
So yeah, SBM2 has divested itself of the traditions of its forebears, and this bold experiment works out... okay. I'm not complaining about the attempt to mix things up a little, but unfortunately the gameplay itself is slow and clunky, and it's all well and good having a wide variety of moves but if they don't flow well together then they're kinda redundant. Even more of a blow is that your standard punches aren't that much use - throws are where it's at, and once you've learned to roll close to your enemies and grab them when you stand up that will be the most effective attack strategy for most of the game. On the plus side, Sonic Blast Man has a throw where he holds the enemy still before really slamming them into the ground with a haymaker. That, at least, is very satisfying.
Dear me, that painting is awful. Now I've said that, I bet it turns out that it was painted by the kid of whoever owns this building and I end up feeling like a right dick.
Wait, I'm looking for the president now? Is this the White House? I think I'm lost. And just who are you talking to, Sonic Blast Man?
Oh, right, this guy. Say hello to stage one's boss. He's already said hello to Sonic Blast Man using his ridiculously large set of nunchakus, that's why our hero is having a quick nap on the floor. He's just getting his wind back, he'll be fine in a minute or two.
So, a boss fight. Yup. This sure is a boss fight. Look, I can't really think of anything much to say about it other than that I mostly won by using Sonic Blast Man's special projectile five times, losing a life and then using five more projectiles. I rolled around a bit, too. Okay, I rolled around a lot. I rolled around like a gymnast trying to put themselves out after their leotard has spontanously combusted. It seemed like my only defence against someone manly enough to wear such a prominent metal codpiece.
Stage two begins with Sonic Blast Man using his powers of flight (yes, he can totally fly, of course) to intercept a plane in mid-flight, except he doesn't because I've switched to Sonia for this stage. I like Sonia. Her zippier fighting style is a welcome change of pace, that change being from "leaden" to "brisk," and her dashing hard attack is a jumping drill-kick that's so much cooler than any of Sonic Blast Man's moves that I spent the whole stage repeatedly trying to pull it off despite running face-first into the enemies' fists more often than not.
Sonia's big super move is also easily the most impressive of the bunch. She's got sort of a Jean Grey / Dark Phoenix thing going on, even if the ring of flames she's standing in does look like it belongs to a gas hob. Between these superpowers and her typically comic-bookian outfit, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Sonia's the most competent of the SBM team.
In the Japanese version of the game, Sonia is dressed in pink rather than the red of the Western releases. I can see no reason for the change, so maybe someone on Tatio's localization team simply decided that they were fed up of female characters always being dressed in pink. I think she looks better in the pink, though. It's more vibrant, more fitting to the mood. Please don't take this to mean I believe that women should conform to gender stereotypes.
Now that I've told you all about Sonia, I've almost run out of things to say about stage two. The enemy forces are comprised of the same generic alien troops as the first level. Some of them have riot shields, which is not the level of technology I was expecting from a race of interstellar warmongers. If only I could somehow roll close to them when they attack and then grab them while they're distracted by trying to punch me. A riot shield is of little use when your opponent is gripping you by the astro-tackle.
The only new enemies are the hunchbacks pictured above. They're suicide bombers who explode when you hit them. No wonder they look so fed up.
A mysterious voice calls out to Sonia, a voice that she immediately identifies as belonging to Heavy Blast Man. Heavy Blast Man was the villain of the first SBM beat-em-up, and he is an evil version of Sonic Blast Man with larger shoulder pads. Sonia claims that she'd never forget that voice, which is impressive considering she wasn't even in the first game.
Sadly Heavy Blast Man is far too busy blasting things and being heavy to fight Sonia, so he delegates the task to one of his robot minions.
It seems that Dr. Wily has been hired as a subcontractor in Yafu's plot to conquer Earth, because that is quite clearly a robot that wasn't good enough to get into a Mega Man game. You can tell by the eyes. Dr. Wily gets a call from Yafu, (or Heavy Blast Man, I have no idea who's in charge any more,) accepts the task of building a robot and slaps together this hunk of junk from some of Guts Man and Napalm Man's spare parts. The fact that it's head is shaped like a dunce's cap seems appropriate.
The boss even fights like a Mega Man boss, launching missiles into the air before dashing across the screen in a simple pattern that is best interrupted by, you guessed it, rolling and grabbing. The only danger with rolling is that while I think you're invincible during the roll you are vulnerable as soon as you stop because you character takes a while to get up. The problem is solved, as are all problems in SBM2, by ensuring that you never stop rolling.
Stage Three: Protect "S" Port. Do they mean Steelport? Is this a Saint's Row spinoff? No, surely not, I've played Saint's Row IV and The Boss is far better at this superhero stuff than any of these three weirdos.
Speaking of weirdos, it's Captain Choyear's chance to brawl his way towards a bright future for us all. He does not seize his chance with much conviction. Naturally he's slower than the other two, but they weren't the most dynamic of characters to start with and the Captain plods along like a knackered old carthorse, getting slapped over and over again because he's just too sluggish to hit the enemies before they can react. All his moves, throws excluded, have either no range or so much range that you regularly overshoot your target when you're using them. His basic strong attack sees Choyear hop upwards with his hands raised to the skies, and while you will occasionally be able to hit an airborne enemy with it, most of the time its complete lack of horizontal range will be your downfall.
It doesn't help that stage three is as dull as a grey raincoat laying in a roadside puddle. It's a completely unimaginative slog through the same dockside and warehouse backgrounds that you've seen in a million other beat-em-ups, with wave after seemingly endless wave of the same enemies you've long since become bored of blocking your progress every five steps.
The only highlight is this impressively dedicated fisherman. Alien overlords from beyond the stars may be attacking his planet, the battle to save mankind may be being fought by a cyborg soldier right next to him, but Fisherman Joe has booked the day off work and hired a boat and by God he's going to get some fishing in if it kills him. He occasionally glances over his shoulder to see what's going on, no doubt furious that you're scaring away all the fish by bodyslamming aliens into the pier, but that's the height of his interactions with the player and he's still the most interesting thing about the stage.
Captain Choyear has to go now, his planet needs him. Unfortunately, he did not die on the way back to his home planet.
Oh good, it's time for a boss. An indescribable boss, at that, but I'll give it my best shot - a robot carrot wearing a pair of those toy Incredible Hulk hands with giant wheels on his shoulders. Sorry, that was the best I could come up with.
Fittingly, the boss is just as much of a pain in the arse as the rest of the stage, and he spends the whole fight bouncing around the arena and knocking you over. Captain Choyear's deficiencies become ever-more apparent as he struggles to keep up with the Capering Carrot, his punches far too slow to connect more than once out of every five you throw. Even his roll isn't much help. It feels like Tatio realised they'd made the first couple of stages much too easy and far too short and so the third stage was made into pointless filler, and as the boss sproinged around just out of my reach I almost gave up because I'm not getting any younger, there are only so many seconds in my finite lifespan, I could be out helping the needy or writing my magnum opus or raking the lawn and organising the leaves by colour, why must I persist in oh, never mind, I got lucky and managed to grab him a few times. On to stage four, then.
The boss is still alive. There he goes, swathed in bandages. I can only pray that Captain Choyear inflicted some severe internal bleeding and the carrot-beast will succumb to blood loss before I have to fight him again.
We're back with Sonic Blast Man, because it's his game, after all. Sonic Blast Man is in the jungle. The jungle appears to have brushed concrete floors. That'll add some value, assuming any prospective buyers are interested a modern, urban feel when buying their vast tracts of dense rainforest.
Also pictured is an enemy so powerful, so sinister, so full of deadly martial knowledge that Sonic Blast Man stands little chance against him. No, not the monkey in the background, He's just creepy. I meant the green thing in the metal bra. These particular enemies don't seem like much of a threat, until you get close: then you realise that you can't grab them. Your number-one alien-busting technique is rendered utterly useless, and what's worse is that these green bastard can grab you, throwing you around the screen like a carrier bag in a breeze and not in a meaningful "American Beauty" way. It's fair to say they're not my favourite opponents.
Also new: giant hopping insectoid lizards. Nothing much to say about these, I just would have felt bad if I hadn't informed you that Sonic Blast Man 2 does sometimes offer up more than one new enemy per stage.
Oh, you've messed up this time, carrot-beast. The guy on the right, who is presumably Yafu himself, is not pleased and turns his minion into a frog. Fairly lenient, for an alien overlord.
Then his pet dinosaur comes in an eats the frog. It's the ciiiircle of liiiife! Look at that dinosaur's collar, Yafu must have had that made specially. You can't just buy dinosaur-sized collars off the shelf in a pet shop, you know. This dinosaur gets pampered. I'm really hoping his name is Rex.
After the frustrating bout of body-pinball Captain Choyear suffered at the end of the last stage, it's nice to face a boss who's bad at his job. Rex spits fireballs at you, so just roll past them, hit him a couple of times and then roll away to a safe distance.
Immediately after dealing with Rex you're throw into battle with... this guy? Is this Yafu? If so, his "astounding mental powers" clearly don't extend to choosing an outfit that doesn't look a last-minute Halloween costume assembled from items laying around an early-'90s arcade. That is an ancient Virtual Reality headset he's wearing, right?
Yafu's main power seems to be throwing tiny nuclear bombs at you that explode with a six-inch-tall mushroom cloud. Again, not very threatening. For once I'd recommend you stick to punching him, because he's too fast to get close enough to grab. You'll figure it out. How could you fail, with the might of Sonic Blast Man on your side?
Contenders for the title of "The Toughest": Batman, Mike Tyson circa 1988, Charles Upham. Definitely out of the running: Sonic Blast Man, me.
We're on the spaceship now - Yafu ran away after the last stage but I gave him a fairly brutal beating, so this should just be mopping up duty, really. All the enemies you fought before rejoin the action, including most of the bosses. That robot boss makes a couple more appearances. He still looks like something that didn't get off Mega Man 7's drawing board.
Finally, something interesting. That hovering drone thing at the top of the screen emits a beam of light, and woe betide any superhero who walks through it because the machine will then create an evil clone of them. Happily, Sonic Blast Man has enough self-loathing that he relishes the chance to punch himself in the face.
It's a shame this situation only crops up once, because there's a flicker of imagination at work here and it's - gasp - kind of fun, trying to destroy the doppelgänger-o-tron before it can clone you again.
I caught up with Yafu. He has transformed into a new form, a form that looks like the fursona of a Dragonball Z character. I punched him a few times.
Okay, now I know I've seen this guy in Dragonball Z. Super-Mega-Yafu here has a medical problem with whatever sphincter controls his ability to launch fireballs, leading to a constant barrage of annoying projectiles that steadily chip away at your health. Try to get close and he'll bash you with his giant punch. You already know that rolling around is the way to deal with this. Go forth, brave warrior, and roll around like a hyperactive kid in P.E. class.
But wait, there's more - after short corridor section spent fighting all the bosses again, Sonic Blast Man squares off against his arch-nemesis, the slightly fey Heavy Blast Man. It's that stance, he looks like a nervous schoolgirl. Maybe he has to stand that way lest his ludicrous shoulder pads cause him to topple over.
Being an evil version of SBM, Heavy Blast Man fights in a familiar manner, only with more oomph. His punches are larger, he moves more quickly and he generally seems to have more of an idea what he's doing than our bumbling hero. Of corse, this means that all Heavy Blast Man can do is punch, and I've already killed a fire-breathing dinosaur today so this fight doesn't take as long as you might expect. Poor old Heavy Blast Man, he backed the wrong horse in this space-war.
And when I say "horse" I mean "Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon." This surely must be the real, honest-to-god Yafu, and as he sits there in his floating chair I'm left to wonder who that other guy was that I've been calling Yafu all this time. SBM2 will win no prizes for storytelling, I'm sure of that much. No prizes for gameplay, either. No prizes at all, unless there's an award for "Most Needlessly Padded-Out Dockside Brawl in Videogaming".
Yafu, if that is indeed who the brain is, doesn't put up much of a fight beyond having some spinning orbs floating around his hoverchair that hurt you if you touch them. Guess what? You can roll underneath them. Do that. Punch Yafu a few times. The game is over. It's honestly kind of a relief.
Captain Choyear carries Sonic Blast Man back to Earth, and he carries Sonia in turn because they're not just superheroes, they're a team of superheroes. The giant spaceship they just blew up is hurtling to Earth in fiery chunks, but Sonic Blast Man clears up the danger by punching the debris into pieces.
Smaller pieces. Many smaller yet still quite large and extremely hot pieces scattered over a wide area. Sonic Blast Man really is a terrible superhero.
Well, I'm glad that's over. I do feel like I've been slightly harsh on Sonic Blast Man 2, which I suppose is a deeply average but mostly tolerable game, but then again I've never made any promises about VGJunk being unbiased so I'll admit that this game got on my nerves. Maybe it's because there's some potential here, a half-decent base around which you could make a really enjoyable game about a team of goofy super-doofuses.
The expanded movesets are commendable, having a roll / dodge command works a treat and I do like the graphics for the most part, but the dullness of the whole enterprise, the repetitive enemies and clichéd backgrounds, they just make the game a draining one to playthrough. SBM2 is barely an upgrade on it's predecessor, two-player mode and extra characters aside, and Taito even removed the arcade-machine-style power-punching minigame that could have broken up the stages at least a little. Thus cut off from his noble heritage, Sonic Blast Man has withered and died. I don't think anyone's going to mourn him much.