Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.
Today’s review is based upon the original arcade iteration of Ikari Warriors as featured in SNK 40th Anniversary Collection on Nintendo Switch.
A military plane under heavy fire desperately skids above the green sea blanketing the South American jungle. Its jets sputtering and all systems failing, the men inside have no choice but to brace for fiery impact. Surviving a miraculous rough landing, two figures emerge from the blazing rubble — Colonel Ralf Jones and Second Lieutenant Clark Steel, mercenaries hailing from the Ikari Warriors commando unit-for-hire squad. As hordes of armed men surround them, the two soldiers cock their guns and recite their mission: rescue General Kawasaki from a remote occupied village, where Neo-Nazi scum have constructed a military fortress retrofitted with ancient technology. It’s do-or-die, boys!
My corny write-up aside, you’d be right to say Ikari Warriors’s gun-toting frenzy is siphoned straight out of a violent B-movie: SNK’s Keijo Iju apparently claimed the 1986 game was heavily influenced by the Rambo film series; in particular, Rambo: First Blood Part II, wherein the Japanese title (Rambo: Ikari no Dasshutsu — “The Furious Escape”) inspired the name. Alas, yours truly grew up under a culture-less rock, meaning the closest experience I’ve had with Sylvestor Stallone’s mountain of muscle was Green Jelly’s famous non-sequitur in their Three Little Pigs music video; sadly, no falsetto-singing pigs are present in our featured game today, but in strict adherence to its popcorn flick roots, Ikari Warriors ain’t afraid to challenge our suspension of disbelief in everything from zombie Nazi supervillains to disproportionately-sized captives.
Anyways, Ikari Warriors was something of a spiritual successor to 1984’s TNK III; no, confusing localized name aside, Ikari Warriors isn’t the fourth entry, although Ralf Jones returns as co-protagonist. The game was released when shooters still dominated arcades, with Ikari Warriors following on the heels of Capcom’s Commando — a 1985 top-down run-and-gun game starring another lone soldier storming enemy bases and gunning down waves of fighters. While other clones flooded game centers, Ikari Warriors‘ co-op was a stand-out — the appeal of two brothers-in-arms teaming up and tearing up enemy fleets proved itself a popular attraction. (Enough, even, to be considered SNK’s first Western success, although as we’ll discuss later, another publisher handled its overseas debut)
Furthermore, Ikari Warriors was particularly innovative thanks to its rotary control stick, which SNK lovingly dubbed the “Loop Lever.” Birthed from TNK III’s laborious development period when employees hurt their hands during testing sessions, someone installed a film canister over a stick to soften the impact. Its new rotary properties quickly caught on — as opposed to the looser movement of traditional joysticks, one could simply rotate the knobs in precise fashion to navigate their avatar through bullet hell. Featuring eight-directional movement, Ikari Warriors wasn’t the first shooter to combine independent movement and aiming fire, but the game’s technical improvements and state-of-the-art tech helped it rise to the top of the pack. (For instance, Commando‘s Super Joe will always throw grenades upwards no matter what direction he’s facing, whereas Ralf and Clark have mastered the art of directional grenade lobbing)
At this point, you’re probably wondering what “Ikari” stands for; as it happens, the original Japanese title is just “Ikari,” meaning “anger” or “fury”. I can’t help but wonder if the name was actually something of an ironic meta-commentary on SNK’s part, because when I say it’s hard, I do mean it is impenetrably difficult. Indeed, Ikari Warriors commits itself to ranking among the most cynical of 80’s arcade ventures, and from limited ammunition to land mines impeding our progress to exploding tanks to those stupid arrow-slinging statues, you’ll be sucked dry of quarters in no time. Luckily, while the 80’s arcade-goer might’ve found themselves destitute in their ill-fated Nazi-slaying ventures, the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection was most gracious in its rewind feature, and so wasted time was narrowly avoided on my end. (It’s worth noting that as opposed to the Japanese version, the American release boasts infinite continues, so it’ll take maybe 20 or 30 minutes to reach the ending.)
But even then, does it hold up? To the modern eye, Ikari Warriors is a maelstrom of chaos embodying the classic 80’s rule of “One Hit Equals Death,” and with storms of enemy troops and endless gunfire, crucial details in red soldiers dropping power-ups or kamikaze-prone soldiers are often overlooked in the confusion of battle. (Worse still, if you’re playing co-op, you may have the misfortune of shooting your own teammate!) But the troves of enemy waves are its secret ingredient — Ikari Warriors worships the ideal of a one-man army waging an impossible, unwinnable war for the sake of glorious bloodshed, and the power rush of firing countless bullets through masses of soldiers made our pockets easy prey. Gradual passerby would be turned off by its difficulty, but Ikari Warriors had no time for losers — to those who lived and breathed arcades, its difficulty was an open invitation: Bring it on.
Dying is inevitable, yes, but through gradual concentration and cooldown, bursts of opportunity inspire quick-thinking on our end. Take throwing grenades: we naturally reserve those explosive projectiles for enemy masses — be they approaching companies crowding behind rock formations or distant foes hiding up in their fortresses — but a stray lob may reveal they explode buildings and abandoned vehicles alike; a perfect recipe for chain explosions! Yes, we might be left without a ride, but to the coin-starved player, such sacrifices are necessary for longer play. (Not that you’ll have too long to stick around: lingering in any one location will instill tracking fire to speed you along) Perhaps that’ll even lead to more satisfactory strategies — might you desire pull a Metal Gear Solid and take down an armored vehicle all by your lonesome? Sure, but watch your ammunition gauge — enemies may drop hoards of supplies, but the inattentive player might quickly deplete themselves of ammo.
And hey, who’s gonna pass up on a free tank? Serving as Ikari Warriors‘ double-edged sword, the stray vehicles littered across the warpath might provide thrills in gargantuan firepower and tank-tread run-overs, but the power-drunk soldier will inevitably find themselves outsmarted– it’s one thing to keep an eye on your fuel gauge, but the tank’s large size renders itself susceptible to never-ending gunfire. In fact, you’ll often find that even blaring signs of self-destruct won’t save you from the ensuing explosion. Ikari Warriors‘s hit detection is typically fair, but if we must resort to finger-pointing temper tantrums and absolve ourselves of any blame, I can’t help but wonder if certain hazards place us into inescapable circumstances. True, the Ikari Warriors veteran could calculate when to ditch the tank and trod along on-foot, yet I shudder at the mere thought of those ancient arrow-lobbing statues: horizontal death-traps I slipped by on sheer luck alone. (The above video shares a solution at 11:43, yet even just looking at it’s akin to watching a finger-biting game of limbo; trust me, it’s harder than it looks, especially when you got guerillas on your business!)
True to the game’s Hollywood inspiration, Ikari Warriors sports a muddier look highlighting the grime of war. The results aren’t especially colorful, but the mid-80’s were when games gradually embellished graphical detail, so Ikari Warriors takes the opportunity to play with some perspective; for instance, check out my favorite example above involving the wooden bridges — look at how tall the ropes are! Meanwhile, for the sake of Neo-Nazi absurdity, the game’s not afraid of cartoonish exaggeration — there’s the captive General Kawasaki towering over our heroes by a good twenty feet, but that’s not even getting into the real weirdness just before his rescue, where the Neo-Nazi leader’s revealed to be…uh, some giant rotten corpse. Naturally, you gotta blow it up, but as advertised on the game’s Japanese flyer, we’re certainly left “surpriesed.”
(Yet as Flying Omelette notes, this unsettling revelation wasn’t universally shared across its home port — thanks to the Atari 2600’s, ahem, “humbling” presentation, it’s highly unlikely players recognized the big boss as a corpse, whereas the NES version instead props it up as a chilling prelude to the true final boss: a sinister, grinning countenance of unknown origin.)
As you’ve likely already deduced, that shambling zombie is implied to be Adolf Hitler; no, really. Whether Hitler’s decaying brain was somehow commanding the South American guerillas or they were reviving him through some hare-brained scheme, we cannot say, but Western players never could’ve caught on to the Neo-Nazi storyline, as any and all swastikas were scrubbed from the Americas — a common procedure in 80’s game localization. While SNK had already established a Western branch dubbed SNK Home Entertainment, Ikari Warriors somehow strayed from their flock and was instead published by the now-defunct Tradewest. (John Rowe, the company’s co-founder, previously headed SNK’s Western operations)
Tradewest also took some liberties with the characters’ names, with Ralf and Clark respectively renamed “Paul and Vince” in Western territories. (This was later rectified via their playable appearances in King of Fighters ’94); meanwhile, General Kawasaki (named after SNK’s founder Eikichi Kawasaki) was dubbed “Colonel Cook” in the US/European version (named after Tradewest’s co-founder: Leland Cook), although Kawasaki’s name was left unchanged in the NES version; uh, yay consistency?
Speaking of ports, Ikari Warriors‘s popularity in both Asian and Western territories proved a number of ports — to name a few, there’s versions for MSX, Amiga, and even terribly belated ports to Atari 2600 and 7800 (1990, can you believe it?). As always, you can check out Hardcore Gaming 101’s write-up for a full gallery — but only the NES version was available in the SNK Collection. As depicted in the Angry Video Game Nerd’s struggles, Micronics’ port is serviceable until the level design completely falls apart inside the enemy base, wherein indistinguishable pipes and poorly-placed tanks impede our progress. Gun-totting helicopters are pilot-able in this version, although as you can’t exit vehicles in this version, you might be better off leaving them alone; after all, why bother shackling yourself to an inevitable death trap?
While arcade veterans might’ve been irked by the poor hit detection, this particular port was popular for its notorious difficulty. Personally, as opposed to James “AVGN” Rolfe, I find the tinny NES instruments more of an earworm than the arcade original; that, and the funky dancing animation for the dead soldiers — flopping and dangling about as if puppeteered by vengeful poltergeists — is unintentional comedy unto itself. Regardless, as every last one of these console ports lacked rotary sticks — rendering even the simplest of directional input as clunky tedium — the arcade original’s unanimously upheld as the best version.
Thanks to the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection‘s library-sized Museum, we get a sneak-peek into the game’s development process; for one thing, an earlier version of the game featured robots as enemies, in which only one carry-over remains: running over enemies to gain fuel — originally a violent means to siphon energy cells. As for the game’s iconic co-op, it turns out SNK simply attempted to circumvent Japanese law: when arcades could no longer function 24/7 as of 1986, SNK realized adding a second player would counteract against potential losses; in other words, taking coins from two players instead of one! A capitalistic decision, yet one forging Ikari Warriors‘ pedestal within gaming history.
Arcade-goers may have stayed for the gun-toting gameplay, but the game’s hook lied somewhere else entirely — sound design. Ikari Warriors and TNK III‘s aural output were crafted around arcade ambiance the team recorded beforehand; this way, the team appropriated everything from continuous gunfire to grenade explosions so they stood out from other games. It seemed to have worked: while Ikari Warriors didn’t possess the same staying power as Metal Slug, the series endures a strong legacy not merely in its two sequels (Victory Road and Ikari III: The Rescue), but its leads Ralf and Clark. Two classic 8-bit heroes and established figures within SNK lore, be it Metal Slug cameos, King of Fighters combatants actively participating in that game’s over-arching plot, and, as part of SNK’s overly-generous license to Smash Bros. Ultimate, stage spectators and even a Spirit battle as represented by gaming’s most well-known Soldier of Fortune: Solid Snake.
In past 8-Bit Chronicles columns, I’ve elaborated on my regret involving absent co-op impressions; naturally, the feeling’s mutual for a title synonymous with 80’s multiplayer, yet my thoughts linger on SNK’s Loop Levers — word has it their fragility often produced malfunctioned units, yet their unique design teases my curiosity; indeed, whereas the retro joystick has established a durable progeny, the meticulous massage of rotary knobs are forever trapped as a brief flash of 80’s ingenuity. An aspiring gaming historian like myself has no choice but to seek it, yet I’m in no rush: while I’ll leave the battle of preference to Ikari Warriors veterans, not once had SNK 40th Anniversary Collection‘s reprogrammed dual-stick use ever felt unnatural — a testament not only to Digital Eclipse’s porting expertise but Ikari Warriors‘ persistence beyond a temporary fad, such quality only speaks to the treasures awaiting me within SNK’s catalog.
(…actually, no, what was stopping General Kawasaki from smashing Hitler’s corpse with that baton? Guy could’ve demolished his moldy butt all by his lonesome)