One of the biggest regrets from my childhood is that I moved on from the NES earlier than I should have. With Genesis hitting its stride and the SNES on the market I, like many others, turned my back on the NES. While I was completely happy with the 16-bit games out it also meant that I missed out on some of the best Nintendo games released. Shatterhand was one of those titles and for a long time flew under the radar. Now it has finally started to get the recognition it deserves as one of the best action games for the system.
I don’t blame most gamers for passing on it. The box art is incredibly corny and does nothing to sell the awesome game inside. In Japan it was a licensed title based on the show Tokkyū Shirei Soruburein. The license was stripped and a new story was created in its place and it’s actually pretty cool. In the future you are a police officer who loses his arms in battle with Metal Command. With two cybernetic replacements it is time to get revenge and clean up the city.
The title should be a dead giveaway that your metal fists are your primary weapons. Your meaty fists can destroy just about anything, robots, walls, even bullets. A few quick punches leads into a slower wind up blow that has more power behind it. Special weapons are in short supply because they aren’t necessary. The currency collected in each stage is used to purchase health, extra lives and double the attack power.
The biggest supplement comes in the form of robot satellites. By collecting three α and β a robotic companion is assembled with different abilities. With all the different combinations eight robots can be assembled with such weapons as a sword, grenades, a flamethrower, etc. They are pretty sturdy and can take a bit of punishment before disappearing as well. Generally every stage has enough letters to create two companions, meaning you’ll spend very little time alone unless you suck. If you’re good enough to create two of the same bot you’ll merge for fifteen seconds and become unstoppable. Only the truly skilled will manage that though.
There are shades of nearly every major NES action game present in some form here. You have the stage select from Mega Man, the fast paced action of Contra, and pattern based bosses like Ninja Gaiden. If you didn’t know any better you could assume Natsume studied those same titles and incorporated the best parts from each. However Shatterhand is more than the sum of its parts, distilling what made those games great while still feeling unique.
The focus on melee combat might seem a drawback but the game is designed around it. In fact the level design is strong all around with a few unique twists. Platforming plays less of a role overall and as such there are few if any instant death pits. Instead you’ll spend most of your time in tight passages with enemies closing in on all sides. One level plays with gravity a year before Mega Man 5 would do the same. It all leads up to the seventh and final stage, where all of your skills are put to the test in one long grueling run to the final boss.
Shatterhand presents a perfectly balanced challenge that is enjoyable from beginning to end. Each level is pretty long, giving plenty of opportunity to purchase upgrades and create companions. The lack of item drops is counterbalanced by well-spaced health platforms, of which there are usually two per level. Depending on your robot companion you’ll blow through levels and bosses quickly or have to move at a measured pace. Each boss can take a lot of punishment but have easily identifiable patterns. The last level features one of my least favorite mechanics (boss rush) but It doesn’t tarnish a fantastic game.
Like most late era NES games Shatterhand looks fantastic. While the stage themes are the usual fare the game uses light and shadow to exhibit a greater amount of detail in its environments. It’s similar to Castlevania in that it uses the limited color palette to create more detail. There is an extensive use of parallax scrolling that helps it rise above most other games technically as well. I also have to give a special mention to the animation, which is smoother than normal. The only hitch would be some very nasty slowdown and flickering but it only occurs in one or two particular levels.
What a game. Natsume were the unsung powerhouse of NES action games back in the day and I wish they still made titles like this. Shatterhand is not only just a phenomenal game, it’s one of the top ten action games for the system in my opinion.