The Great NES Bandana Split part 2, feauring three red/blue soldier tag-teams where the guy in red has a mustache…then there’s Isolated Warrior, whose isolation means he doesn’t get a buddy with a mustache :(
One of the greatest things about the internet is that it’s given rise to a whole bunch of game-related YouTube accounts and blogs that shed light on unappreciated classics that would otherwise be lost to the black holes of time. It was through one of these new independent outlets of video game media (’cause let’s face it, traditional gaming journalism ain’t doing so hot nowadays) that I learned of the existence of a 1991 NES game that is truly the tits. That game is Shatterhand.
Actually, I kinda lied. While I did see Shatterhand gameplay for the first time via an old playthrough that the Game Grumps did on their YouTube channel, the game had fallen on my radar a little earlier thanks to a sick-looking Kickstarter called Steel Assault that was announced in early 2015. Steel Assault cited Shatterhand as a major influence, and the name made me remember that I’d definitely laid eyes on the game’s weird box art before, perhaps in an old issue of Nintendo Power. The box art isn’t the most flattering thing in the world - it features a constipated Mel Gibson with skin flying from his knuckles - but an hour of online research revealed that Shatterhand consistently made lists of “best NES games you’ve never played” or “forgotten NES gems.” So there was nothing else to do but fire up an emulator and test this bad boy out. (Alas, I don’t believe it’s on Nintendo’s Virtual Console yet.)
Shatterhand immediately impresses right off the bat with a very simple premise: you are a dude with cybernetic hands who runs around punching crap until it explodes. The game has a barebones story where you’re supposed to be this futuristic Robocop wannabe who got cyborg arms after an accident, but all you really need to know is that the main character is the 8-bit ancestor of One Punch Man, and that’s a beautiful premise for a game. Anyway, Shatterhand is filled with all the hallmarks of stellar NES game design - tight sidescrolling levels (five of which are selectable in any order, Megaman-style), varied bosses, a solid chiptune soundtrack, and really high difficulty.
Thankfully, the game’s also progressive enough to give you infinite continues, and is ahead of its time in other, more subtle ways too. Some of the level design is downright ingenious, with anti-gravity floors that challenge the player to make tricky platforming jumps upside down, and the main character also has this nifty ability to grab onto fences and suspend himself in mid-air, similar to the wall cling that Ryu has in the old Ninja Gaiden games. The best feature, however, are Shatterhand’s robot companions - spread throughout each level are various powerups marked with alpha and beta signs, and if you collect three of them, a little floating buddy will appear by your side, kind of like the Options in the Gradius series. Depending on the combination of alpha and beta powerups you picked up, a different companion will appear, and there’s a hefty amount of variation here, with a sword-wielding buddy, a bomb-tossing one and even a guy with a flamethrower that can be charged up. But wait, there’s more - if you collect the same combination of powerups while you already have a robot companion out, BOOM, you’ll suddenly transform into a near-invincible mech that does super damage for 15 seconds! Astounding!
Interestingly, the mech transformation seems to be a remnant from Shatterhand’s original Japanese roots. In Japan, the game was actually a licensed tie-in title for the TV show Tokkyu Shirei Soruburein, or Super Rescue Solbrain. (You can see a comparison video of the US and Japanese versions of Shatterhand here, and check this clip to see footage from Super Rescue Solbrain.) Personally, I prefer a crazy boxer with steel hands for my main character rather than the leader of a squad of Power Ranger policemen, which is probably why they changed Shatterhand for overseas audiences in the first place. But honestly, either version of this game is worth a play, particularly for lovers of the NES who are searching for a good challenge.
In conclusion, I’d like to tip my hat to the internet for giving me an excuse to play Shatterhand, and I also beseech everyone to take a look at Steel Assault, simply to see an example of the great stuff a forgotten 1991 gem managed to inspire in the 21st century. Steel Assault is still in pre-alpha, and recently went through a graphical revamp that no longer looks quite like Shatterhand anymore, but I have a feeling the gameplay’s still going to be based on that old school, bitchin’ NES goodness. As long as baddies explode when you punch ‘em, it should be close enough.
Screenshots courtesy of the Mobygames Shatterhand entry and Hardcore Gaming 101′s article on Natsume action games - because believe it or not, Shatterhand was made by Natsume before they started making idyllic farming games! Oh, and the header image I screenshotted myself from a Shatterhand YouTube playthrough.