Psycho Soldier

Platform: Arcade (SNK Z80 hardware)
Developer: SNK
Publisher: SNK
Released: 1987
Genre: Platformer - Auto-Scrolling
Players: 1-2 (Co-op)

Psycho Soldier is an example of what happens when you take a game with an OK concept but lousy execution (in this case, Capcom's SonSon, which is marred by sticky controls and boring mechanics) and making it good. That's honestly what this game is- SonSon without the crap, and with a lot of added bells and whistles that make the game even more entertaining. As either Athena or Kensou, your job is to make your way to the centre of the earth and defeat the evil Shiguma armada with only your powerful psychic abilities (and a very annoying vocal song) to aid you.

If you're not intimately familiar with SonSon (and I don't blame you if you're not) then the basics that Psycho Soldier pinches are pretty simple. Each stage auto-scrolls, and your character can move up and down between several different tiers (SonSon had six, Psycho Soldier settles for four) and fire a basic shot attack. Where Psycho Soldier differs is that it adds more abilities- as well as an upgradeable shot, you have the Psycho Balls, powerful attacks that have different effects depending on how full your energy meter is (at the start it'll destroy anything in a vertical line- at max, it decimates three entire rows worth of objects). You start each life with four of them, but you can pick up more from destroying bricks, and these bricks also hide many other items such as the Psycho Sword for close-range attacks and even Skull items that power you down, an SNK tradition. On top of this, the game looks much nicer than SonSon and actually has some of my favourite early SNK sprite-work- it's brimming with goofy charm, even if it clashes a bit with the somewhat gloomy backdrop.

Of course, this is an SNK game and you're probably expecting it to be brutally hard... Initially, it is. The first few times you play the game, you'll die quite a bit; there's a few cheap hits here and there, and most people assume that the final boss can't be beaten without dropping a lot of coins into the slot. This isn't the kind of difficulty you'd find in King of the Monsters 2 or Art of Fighting, where the computer blatantly cheats to get its own way, though- Psycho Soldier plays fair, for the most part. Once you learn how to correctly use the Psycho Balls (and abuse the small invincibility time they offer) and develop a strategy for each boss (they can all be beaten very quickly, save for the last boss, if you know what you're doing) then you'll actually find it's a decent challenge to get through. A stern, but altogether fair challenge that offers a mix of memorisation and pure twitch-reflexes. Just the right sort of challenge, then.

So, with a fair learning curve, charming graphics and enough additions to the SonSon formula, Psycho Soldier is a nice little arcade game. So why isn't it deserving of five stars? It's certainly not the length (it's got six fairly large levels which some argue are too long- only true for Stages 4 and 6, really) and it's not the amount of abilities you've got at your disposal (there's enough of those to give you plenty of tactics). The main problem is that, well, it is based on SonSon so heavily. A game like that gets old pretty fast, and as much as Psycho Soldier adds, you can't help but feel that there's something missing from it. It's the auto-scrolling nature of the game, if you ask me- it robs you of a bit of freedom (especially since you can't make it scroll faster) and while it suits shoot-em-ups, it always feels out-of-place and constrictive in a platformer such as this. Essentially, this is the best game that could come from the SonSon framework, and for that, it has earned its four stars. Play it to learn that, sometimes, SNK does what Capcan't. [You're fired. - Ed]

For building a kick-ass house on slightly dodgy ground, Psycho Soldier is awarded...

In a sentence, Psycho Soldier is...
A charming little game.

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