Nostalgia eh? It’s a funny old thing and make no mistake, it seems that at the moment there is a real fad happening for re-releasing old games on modern generation consoles. By and large this is a good thing. As I referred to in my Metal Slug review, I never had a Neo Geo as a kid, and consequently have never played any of these game that are hitting the store. This time, it is the turn of Sengoku to get the treatment, a game which first released way back in 1991, when this reviewer was a fresh faced 18 year old with the world at his feet. So, 26 years on, has time been kind to Sengoku, or should it have stayed a memory?
There is a story to Sengoku, which is the very pinnacle of Japanese weirdness I’ve encountered so far – and I’ve finished Okami. Centuries ago, a cruel Warlord was defeated by two elite Samurai, but as he was defeated he swore to return in 400 years to wreak havoc again. Well guess what? It’s been 400 years and he’s back, and only a martial artist (1 player) or a cowboy (in two player) can stop him. He’s not come alone this time either as he now has the power to raise past ghosts to fight in the modern era, in a devastated Washington City. You have some tricks up your sleeve however; as you fight and defeat some enemies, they will join you, allowing you to transform into their bodies. These are an armour clad wolf, a Samurai and a Ninja, each of which has different attacks and will come in useful in different situations. Or at least that’s what it says here. In practice, it doesn’t quite work out the same.
First up, the now familiar range of choices are offered to you. Will you play the original mode, and if so would you prefer that in English or Japanese? Will you play Hi Score Mode, where the goal is, believe it or not, to score the most points using a single continue. Or does Caravan Mode appeal, where you again have a single continue, but only five minutes on the clock to score as many points as you can? These are the same choices as were offered in both the Neo ports of Metal Slug and Neo Turf Masters, and I dare say the same modes will be offered in any future Neo Geo titles to appear on Xbox One too.
So, having chosen our mode, it’s straight into the action.
Being a straight arcade port, there’s none of this namby pamby multiple difficulty levels here. You play the game the way the developers intended, and back in those days there was only one difficulty level – rock hard. And my goodness, when they say hard, they mean it. This isn’t all down to the game however, as there are a lot of things that conspire to make Sengoku a lot harder than it needs to be, but I’ll come onto those in just a little while.
Graphically, the best I can say is that for 1991, these visuals were mind blowing. The way some of the enemies appear to run out of the background straight into the camera is sprite scaling at its best, for the time period at least. Of course, to our eyes of today, those used to graphical loveliness at every turn, the sprites as they run into shot appear to be made out of Lego, but that is missing the point of these remasters. I feel it’s worth stressing this again – this game is 26 years old, and back in the day, the effects would have blown gamers away.
Anyway, as things get moving and the action starts to hot up, the enemies pile up and you have to unleash martial arts based justice on everyone in your way. Again, having a total of two moves available to you – a punch combo and a jumping kick – limits your options somewhat, and the animation is stilted, going from punch to punch to kick as a series of jerky stills. Still, I remember this from the arcade playing Final Fight all those years ago, so I can look past it. On a sound level it’s straight out a 90’s martial arts movie – punches, kicks and crunching impacts, laid over some cheesy digitised Oriental music. Of course, when the music stops it means a boss is coming, so you’ll learn to dread the silence.
When it comes to the gameplay however, that’s when the wheels fall off. Enemies move in “lanes” and lining yourself up with the enemy will allow you to punch them, kick them, or more than likely get battered by them. As enemies are destroyed, they can release orbs for you pick up, in five different colours, with five different effects. Green orbs, if you collect 10 of them, will heal one chunk of your six part health bar, prolonging your life that little bit longer, whilst the red ones give you a cool sword, and a light blue orb brings dual swords.Yellow gives you a limited duration magic attack, allowing you shoot whirling things of doom (I can’t tell what they are, but they are definitely whirling), and the last orb, the purple one, gives you a Holy empowered sword. Sadly, collecting these is something of a chore, as pressing jump and then a direction results in your guy jumping straight up with no lateral movement. To jump forward, you have to be moving in that direction before you hit the jump button, which usually results in you walking into an enemy sword, poke or punch. It’s something which is frustrating at best.
The character change mechanic which is included in Sengoku, while interesting on paper, doesn’t work in the heat of battle. To change form, you have to hold down the Y button, then choose the form you want to be by keeping the button pressed until your chosen type appears in a bubble over head. Now, what do you imagine the enemies are doing while you’re holding down a button and trying to stay out of trouble? Well, I’ll tell you: they are piling on and pressing the attack, forcing you to let go of the button sooner than you meant, and leaving you facing four sword wielding baddies as a wolf. Armour clad or not, this never ends well. By the ten minute mark I’d given up on bothering with the other characters, and finished the game using my bog standard martial artist.
By far the biggest crime the game commits however, is that it just isn’t fun to play. By stage four, I was bored, by stage five I was willing the game to end. By the time the last boss went down, I was already plotting ways in which I’d never have to play this game again. Add to this, bosses that normally have unblockable moves and jump around like they are wearing Air Jordans, and the final nail in the coffin is ready to be hammered home.
In conclusion then, and ACA NEOGEO Sengoku isn’t a game that I can recommend to anyone but the most ardent retro fiends. It has aged horrendously, and even judging it by 1991 standards, it isn’t a fun game to play. For the asking price of £6.39, you can buy a lot of sweets, and I personally think I’d enjoy the tooth ache more than this game.