So... Back when this article was first written, it was the year 2010. 2010! That's almost ten years ago! Things were very different here at Gaming Hell. We were young and rough, me with my unkempt locks of hair billowing around the office, my writer operating on a laptop only slightly less capable than the potato we have now, a time before we stopped worrying and learned to love the idols. As such, the tone was very different and more... Antagonistic. Especially towards SNK for some reason. We were still burned by Metal Slug Anthology, I guess. So, we've gone over and touched this up a bit. Dunked less on SNK, gave Athena way less shit, and obviously corrected any mistakes that were in there because, you know, we're bad at this. We hope, reader, that you understand, and excuse this little look behind the curtain.

SNK before the Neo Geo is... Interesting. In a time before Terry Bogard, before The 100 Mega Shock, and before even Street Fighter I would help give birth to SNK's favourite genre, there's a lot to be said about their output. You can look at how they really got fixated on war motifs, leading to the Ikari Warriors series and P.O.W. - Prisoners of War and the like, or perhaps you can have a gander at some of their stranger releases such as Munch Mobile or Jongbou- if you like Breakout, and you like mahjong, Jongbou is both at the same time. One of the more interesting things, though, is looking at how they would take game concepts worked on by other companies and make them their own. This is something we look at a little more in our look at SNK Arcade Classics 0 and SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, but a few examples include HAL 21 taking the Xevious formula, Marvin's Maze iterating on a million maze-em-ups in an isometric way, and...

Ah, yes, the times SNK saw what fellow Kansai studio Capcom was up to!

Yes, there's quite a few examples of SNK taking something done by Capcom and giving them their own, unique kick up the arse. Not always successful, of course, with at least two of them being awful and doing nothing for their original games (don't worry, you'll figure out which ones they were if you read between the lines) but it's hard to deny that there's at least four of these games (assuming you count one Neo Geo game) that fit this bill. Good ol' Shin Nihon Kikaku looking over their neighbour's shoulder, Capsule Computers, for a few notes! To be more specific, the most famous of these is Ikari Warriors (1986) taking the Commando mould pretty brazenly, adding two-player co-op and rotary joystick controls, but there's also Ikari III: The Rescue (1989) taking 'inspiration' from Avengers (1987) and adding, er, rotary controls (and machine-guns, and a very obnoxious time limit), Burning Fight (1991) being an unashamedly blatant copy of Final Fight (1989), and finally, we get to the point of this article- Psycho Soldier (1986 in Japan, 1987 elsewhere) being a clone of SonSon (1984).

Now, you may be able to argue either way with those others, but to us Psycho Soldier gives SonSon a bloody good seeing-to!

We'll get back to the SonSon connection in a minute, but we'd better get the silly 'plot' bit out of the way, as per legal requirements. So, Psycho Soldier is supposed to be a sequel to 1986's Athena, in so much as both games have a strange fixation on breaking blocks and the protagonist is a pink-haired character called Athena. That's as far as the 'sequel' element goes though, no bored Goddess of Wisdom this time! Unless you're playing the home computer ports, but we'll save that for later. In Psycho Soldier, Earth is doomed, as always, because of some evil aliens called the Shiguma who can't decide whether they're invading Earth from outer space, or whether they've come from the Earth's core (what little story snippets we could find give both explanations). Anyway, modern weaponry can't kill them, etc. etc., only two warriors of light can stop them, yadda yadda yadda, you've heard this story a million times before. The warriors of light in this game, however, are... Different.

(The artwork here- which I never knew existed before making this article- comes from the SNK Wiki. Hope they don't mind!)

Athena Asamiya

Making her idol debut well before THE iDOLM@STER and even Idol Hakkenden, Athena Asamiya is one of the very first video game idol characters. Unless Yohko Ishino counts, and let's face it, she doesn't. As the purple-haired, psychic-powered, J-Pop singing descendant of the old Goddess of Wisdom Athena, she's not that fleshed-out here, but her later appearances in The King of Fighters series would add a bit more to her character (as well as changing her voice and costume every year). For now, she's just one of two final hopes for the Earth against the evil Shiguma hordes. Putting the fate of the planet in the hands of an idol... What savage times the '80s were.

Sie Kensu Kensou

Oh, poor Kensou. They couldn't even decide how to translate his name at this point, it's spelled Kensu in this game and Kensou in his later reappearances in The King of Fighters. Kensou is the man who never wins- you can't play as him without specifically starting a two-player game with two credits, he's kinda treated as a joke in The King of Fighters (has a bunch of goofy animations, loses his psychic powers at one point, has an unrequited Thing for Athena, isn't as broken as Chin in '96 is) and even in Psycho Soldier, there's bits here and there where he gets screwed over, as we will see. Poor guy.

So, now that I've met my quota for context / plot information, how is Psycho Soldier a rip-off of SonSon, and why is it so much better? Well, they both have the same basic set-up- the screen scrolls automatically as you fight off waves of enemies on levels arranged in neat rows, with six in SonSon and four in Psycho Soldier. You've got one basic shot attack to take down the enemy hordes in both games, or alternatively you can move between the rows by pressing Up or Down (there's no Jump button in either game) to avoid contact with the enemy, as one hit is instant death. There's little else beyond that, really- they're both quite basic games at their heart, but while SonSon is a game that has not aged with particular grace or style, Psycho Soldier fares a hell of a lot better. This is because it takes SonSon and adds more things, and, well, they actually work.

As well as lots of little additions that I'll deal with when we actually play the game, there's two really important additions to the SonSon formula, the first of which is the second button. This button uses your Psycho Ball attack, a jolly useful technique in a lot of situations, as it launches a ball of Psycho Power psychic energy at your enemies and, when you're firing it, grants you a tiny window of invincibility which is probably its most useful effect. You start each life with four of them circling your character, but you can pick up more along the way which get added to a little stockpile near the bottom of the screen. The ones circling your character aren't just for show- they'll block smaller enemy bullets at the cost of a little energy (also shown the bottom of the screen) and if your energy bar's empty when a Psycho Ball deflects a shot, the Psycho Ball gets destroyed. That energy meter (which you increase with power-ups, as we'll find out in a sec) also dictates how powerful your Psycho Ball attacks are, like so:

Green - When the Psycho Ball hits anything, it'll split in two, one projectile moving up and the other down. (Also when empty)
Blue - When the Psycho Ball hits anything, it'll bounce back the opposite way, towards you.
Purple - When the Psycho Ball hits anything, it'll bounce around the entire screen.
Yellow - The Psycho Ball becomes a penetrating projectile that goes in a straight line across the screen.
Red - Same as above, but it's two projectiles that twist and turn, cover about three rows at once (!) and even go through walls.

Having a full stock of Psycho Balls at the bottom of the screen and a full energy bar changes things a little. Your Psycho Balls spin around you at a ridiculous speed (offering excellent protection against projectiles), and pressing the Psycho Ball button lets you use a Super Psycho Ball attack which is your most powerful attack- your balls spiral out across the screen, which normally clears the screen completely. Naturally, it comes at a cost, as it'll cut a huge chunk out of your energy meter (it'll downgrade your energy meter by a whole colour) so just be careful with it, alright? You won't get to see it too often the first few times you play, though, as your Psycho Balls and energy meter are reset whenever you die. With a little practice, you might get it a bit more often, but don't bet on it... In fact, you might want to actively avoid it by keeping your energy meter just below max so you can use the Red Psycho Ball power indefinitely, as it's far more useful. That's the pro strat, write it down.

The next 'thing' added to the formula is the bevvy of power-ups you'll find. Most of the items in SonSon were for points (like the hidden bamboo shoots) and there was one that actually affected gameplay (the POW item that has an equivalent in Psycho Soldier too- the pulsing ball) but that was pretty much it. SNK decided that this simply wasn't enough. Taking its cue from Athena, there's loads of brick walls constantly in your way, and as well as serving as a way of bumping you off (if they crush you against the side of the screen, you're outta there) they're hiding all sorts of lovely goodies behind them. And when I say 'all sorts' I mean it, because SNK went a bit overboard in adding power-ups into this thing, including some particularly cruel ones that actually power you down. It wouldn't be Gaming Hell if we didn't cover them in exhaustive detail, so here we go:

Energy Column and Power Column
These two columns help you power up your character. The Energy Column (the red beam of light) gives your energy meter a boost (moving it up to the next colour) and the Power Column (the blue lightning) increases the attack power and frequency of your normal shots (up to three times).

Psycho Balls
You'll need these to use your Psycho Ball attacks. You can either grab them on their own or as a pack of four from a Psycho Ball column. In addition to the four floating around you at any one time, your stockpile at the bottom can only show up to eight, but you can actually hold far more than that.

E Balls and B Balls
These only appear in the boss battles in Stage 3 and Stage 6. Both these bosses have little things in the corner that spew out projectiles, and sometimes (albeit rarely) they'll turn into these two different balls instead. Let them hit you and you'll get an energy boost (E) or an extra Psycho Ball (B). Not all the projectiles will change though, so don't get hit by mistake!

Skull Column and Skull
These two items reduce your power- the Skull Column drains your energy meter as long as you're touching it, while the Skull on its own reduces you to nothing, robbing you of all your energy and Psycho Balls, and even your Psycho Sword if you've got one! Needless to say, you want to avoid these items.

Arrow Up and Arrow Down
These items control the enemies on the level- picking up an Arrow Up item makes them more powerful (sometimes making them transform- for example, the Gamera Jr. clones on Stage 2 will grow wings) and picking up an Arrow Down makes them, uh, less powerful.

Pulsing Ball
A pseudo-smart bomb, grabbing this turns every enemy on-screen into Psycho Balls, and any projectiles into balloons and UFOs.

Psycho Sword
This is a bit different from the other items, as picking it up changes your attacks- you'll still fire out little electric shots, but they now pass through bricks completely, so to destroy them you have to get up close and smash them with the sword. This makes picking up items really, really easy.

F Ball
This maxes out out your energy bar. If you've got a full set of Psycho Balls when you grab it, then the Super Psycho Ball attack is yours.

Roadblocks, Balloons and UFOs
Roadblocks will sprout up everywhere- run into them and you'll trip over them, but shoot them to release balloons or UFOs, the only items purely for points. Grab them straight away and they're only worth 300 (Balloons) or 500 (UFOs) points, but wait for them to float up the screen and their value increases- balloons max out at 5000 points, and UFOs at 8000 points. This is the key to getting extra lives, so try and wait as long as possible before grabbing them.

Psycho Egg and Flame Orb
The Psycho Egg is another weird item. Sometimes when you crack it open, it'll spew maggots at you that spell instant death if you're not prepared for them. Other times, though, under special conditions, a Flame Orb will pop out instead. Grab it, and... Well, we'll find out what it does on the next page.

This playing card gives you an extra life, and is pretty rare- generally, it appears twice in the game, and while I've mostly seen it on Stages 3 and 6, repeat playthroughs show that it can appear on any stage after Stage 1. Be sure to grab it if you can, but remember that you also get an extra life at 50k, 100k, then every 100k points after, so if you play well, you should be swimming in lives by about Stage 3.

Pulsing Square and Orange Ball
Readers to the rescue! All three of these items will appear no matter how many players are present, but they only actually do anything in co-op, usually to screw over your partner. The Pulsing Square attracts enemies to attack the player who collects it more, essentially acting as a diversion so the other player can breathe a little easier. The orange ball, however, is absolutely fitting for use in Psycho Soldier- it will direct more enemy fire towards your partner. Yes, you too can throw Kensou under the bus if you so desire. Finally, the Infinity Symbol swaps the status of the two players- Player 1 gets Player 2's energy meter, Psycho Balls, shot power level, and vice-versa. Amusingly, this can lead to the situation where one player steals the other player's Psycho Sword! Originally, I had no idea what the Pulsing Square and Orange Ball did, but reader Kishi passed along that, on two Japanese webpages, the purpose of these items is explained... Thanks, Kishi, for the info!

... Anyway, there's your basics. Let's get straight to it- let's play Psycho Soldier!

On the next page, giant worms, molluscs and detectives, oh my!