As an SNES owner for the majority of the 16-bit generation certain games made me extremely jealous. Gunstar Heroes is a contender for game of the generation in my eyes and few action games could match it. Shinobi III was another, especially as the Super Nintendo did not have its ninja equivalent. It came close however with Hagane, an underrated little gem that few had the chance to play due to its exclusive Blockbuster release. Even though it falls short in a few areas it is one of the better action games for the system.
The Fuma and Koma clans have coexisted for many years, with each mastering specific arts of ninjitsu. The Koma plan to turn the world into dust and launch a sneak attack that decimate the Fuma with one exception. This lone ninja is encased in a cyborg shell by a monk named Momochi to take revenge on the Koma and retrieve the Holy Grail.
Your primary weapon is a sword slash that resembles Strider Hiryu’s plasma blade. You also have a chain that doubles as a medium range weapon plus shuriken and bombs. The chain sees little use as it is too slow and weak to be effective. Bombs are very strong and cause splash damage but are thrown in an arc. The shuriken compete with your sword as the most effective weapon as they are incredibly fast and strong. The last two have limited ammo however enemies are extremely generous with drops. To get the most out of the game you’ll have to switch weapons constantly.
Aside from your weapons Hagane is loaded with an assortment of ninja moves that are all pretty cool. You can slide, perform a diving kick attack, cartwheel, somersault, flip off walls, and even perform a charge attack. The timing for some of these moves is very unforgiving, most specifically the double jump. It’s clear that the game was heavily inspired by the Shinobi series. Unlike those games Hagane isn’t as well designed.
Probably the game’s biggest failing is that it gives you all of these neat moves but does nothing with them. Most of these techniques see very little use or are completely useless. I can recall maybe two instances where I used the slide. The cartwheel looks nice but is worthless. Maybe if it could have been used to dodge attacks its inclusion would have been worthwhile. The somersault sees the most use but unfortunately it is just as finicky as the double jump in Revenge of Shinobi. Prepare to lose a few lives because of this. Had all of these techniques been better integrated into the game Hagane would have been really special.
Mechanics aside the game hits all of the right notes frequently. Hagane does not linger in one area too long before moving to the next set piece. It starts off with an aerial attack from a flying fortress before tossing you in the desert for a cool mini boss battle. After destroying the enemy’s mobile fortress you escape on a flying platform in a trippy Mode 7 sequence. Your ride is shot down over a forest as you trek to the Koma base on foot for the final battle. Even the mini bosses are awesome and almost outclass the end level monsters. The designers do them justice however and make each encounter epic. The end sequence of the game sees you chasing a rocket up a vertical shaft and trying to destroy it before it takes off. It is incredibly thrilling and a worthy conclusion to a great game.
Overall this is not an easy ride. Most of the difficulty comes from the lack of any reaction when an enemy is hit. In most games they will stumble backward but here they flash and keep coming. The enemies attack in large numbers at almost all times with most taking multiple hits to kill. There’s some pretty devious enemy placement that I can’t decide is either clever or just bad design. It can be a bit excessive at times but the game is generous with its power-ups. Despite all of this most of your deaths will come from the segments that rely heavily on platforming. The finicky somersault will lead to many a cheap death and almost ruins some of the game’s more hectic sequences. You might just punch a wall in the final level, trust me.
While it doesn’t break new ground technically Hagane is a triumph of brilliant art direction. The steampunk meets mystical ninja setting makes for some interesting set pieces. The Japanese temples and theme never seem to clash with the future technology and instead give the game a very unique visual identity. The overall color palette is extremely dark and the game makes use of few special effects outside of light Mode 7 and transparency. In some ways the game’s look reminds me of a Turbo Grafx game with its large sprites and at times flat backdrops. That isn’t a knock either as the game can look stunning such as stage four’s rain soaked forest or its ending boss battle amidst a burning temple.
Hagane is a pretty fun game overall that could have been really special with a few minor adjustments. Its set pieces are great, it has some cool if underutilized mechanics, and the art direction is superb. It simply lacks that last bit of polish that separates the classics from the runner ups. Still great and worth tracking down if you can find it.