I’m breaking my own rules a bit here. This is the final post in my 1981 phase, and normally, all games in a post are related to a whale that came out in the year of the corresponding phase. I’ve used Super Cobra to introduce Konami, Kaboom! to introduce Activision, Donkey Kong to introduce Nintendo, and Venture to introduce (and conclude) Exidy. In all cases, I had used the company’s earliest whale, and selected a small number of preceding games to accompany the post.
SNK’s earliest whale is 1986’s Ikari Warriors, not 1981’s Vanguard, but the 1986 phase is so far away, that Vanguard just feels like the more appropriate game to use as an introduction to the company.
The early history of SNK is a bit obscure. Multiple sources state that before expanding into developing coin-operated video games, they produced electronics and software for business purposes. Wikipedia states they were founded in 1973 and went through a public reorganization in 1978, launching as “Shin Nihon Kikaku,” but doesn’t say much about what they were doing during these first few years of private operation.
Ozma Wars is often cited as their first video game, released in Japan in 1979. But recently, the existence of some earlier games has come to light, courtesy of Frank Cifaldi of The Video Game History Foundation.
Unplayed: Micon KitIn 2018, during the production of the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, Cifaldi posted a Twitter thread concerning a number of lost SNK titles, including their very earliest “Micon Kit” machines. Like so many other early works on Japanese corporations who dipped their toes into the world of coin-op video games in the late 70's, these too are Breakout variants.
|Micon Kit 1|
|Micon Kit 2|
|Space Micon Kit|
Brandon Sheffield, who was also involved in the SNK 40th Anniversary collection, located a functioning cocktail cabinet in Nagano, and posted information in a Twitter thread as well.
Interestingly, this machine turned out to be CPU-based. “Micon,” in fact, is a Japanese abbreviation for “microcomputer,” and the implication is that logistical difficulties notwithstanding, this shouldn’t be terribly difficult to emulate. But logistical difficulties withstanding, namely, getting this rare machine into the hands of someone with the ability to write such an emulator, I wouldn’t count on it anytime soon.
|Scan by SNK Fandom wiki|
This game is so obscure that it isn’t even listed on Mobygames. SNK 40th Anniversary Collection and Wikipedia both place it before Ozma Wars chronologically.
Inspired by a pop song about a lumberjack, you must chop down three trees while avoiding forest critters and falling branches. It’s among the rarest Japanese arcade games, and is unemulated.
Amazingly, there is gameplay footage on Youtube.
SNK would much later remake this game for the Neo Geo Pocket, as a secret minigame in King of Fighters: Battle de Paradise.
Game 113: Ozma WarsRunning on the same hardware as Taito’s Space Invaders from a year earlier, Ozma Wars looks and plays much like it, but with enough forward-thinking ideas to stand out. There’s a variety of enemies here, which pitch and weave and use different tactics against you. Enemies are constantly spawning from the top of the screen and diving at you, on the bottom, making it almost like a vertically scrolling shmup, except that you have no vertical movement control. Instead of having multiple lives, you have an energy meter, which gradually ticks down as you fly and fire, drains very rapidly when you take hits, and refills somewhat in between levels, as your spaceship docks and refuels from a carrier.
Ozma Wars’ most famous innovation is having meaningfully different levels, with alien attack patterns distinctly varying on each discrete stage. But I think this property pales next to the innovation of having such a wide variety of enemy types, each with different attack formations, weapons, and animations.
This is one of the few arcade games where I decided to use official emulation rather than MAME. MAME, unfortunately, does not emulate the sound correctly, and instead as a placeholder, plays the Space Invaders' ear-splitting UFO whine on a permanent loop. What were they thinking? The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection uses proper sound effects. Are they authentic? Hell if I know, but it’s so much more pleasant to listen to than the MAME loop is.
I had a good run, seeing all four of the attack patterns, but then the final player kill was pure bull; the boss just teleported directly above me and smashed my atoms into particles with a barrage of unavoidable projectiles. Bosses are the most difficult part of the game, showering you with ordinance that blocks your shots and provides little opportunity to slip through or fire a shot that lands through, and as there’s no mercy invincibility, you can easily take multiple consecutive hits and end your game no matter how well you performed on the waves before. But this one didn’t even give me a chance!
Ozma Wars may be a bit too ahead of its time. The Space Invaders hardware is clearly struggling to keep up with the action, with slowdown and sprite flicker the normal state of gameplay, and sudden speedups when the screen is partly cleared. While Space Invaders made this an asset by deliberately speeding up the invaders once their ranks started to thin, here it just feels like the machine is straining. Slowdown affects everything; your ship movement, your laser shots, your rate of energy consumption, and sprite flicker hurts gameplay, as enemy ships will randomly blink out of existence, causing your shots to move past them. I enjoyed the game's innovations, but the technical issues got in my way more than they should have.
GAB rating: Average
Energy consumption is crucial to this game, but feels very random thanks to being tied to the game’s inconsistent speed. These are my rough measures:
- 160 units consumed per second (idling)
- 50 units consumed per second moving (cumulative with idle consumption)
- 30 units consumed per shot fired
- 100 units consumed per escaped enemy
- 8,000 units consumed when hit by a meteor or bomb
- 8,000 - 10,000 units consumed when hit by a laser
- 15,000 units consumed when hit by a UFO
- 20,000 units consumed when hit by a comet
- 15,000 max units recharged between levels
Basically, think of every 10,000 points as a life, and never let any of the UFO’s hit you, not even the smallest ones. If you don’t get hit, then you can play through a level sloppily and still come out slightly ahead when you recharge.
In 1980, SNK would release a sequel, Atom Smasher, but unlike Ozma Wars it is unemulated, and doesn’t even have a Mobygames entry.
Game 114: Sasuke Vs CommanderA peculiar game, credited by Mobygames to Tose Co.; a Japanese developer who almost exclusively takes outsourcing jobs and rarely accepts credit.
I don’t know who “Commander” is, but you, Sasuke, are a green-kimonoed, red-haired bodyguard, and must fight an army of ninjas bent on killing the shogun. At least that’s what the shogun tells you in the intro, which had me imagine something along the lines of Namco’s King & Balloon, but the shogun needn’t be protected; the ninjas only seem to be interested in killing you. Fail, and Sasuke trips over a rock.
It’s another vertical shooter, with some obvious influence from Galaxian. The ninjas are agile, colorful foes, flying through the treetops as they hurl deadly shurikens in your direction, and there are little things such as the sound effects and the tally of kunai in the lower-right corner to indicate the current wave. Although there are relatively few ninjas on-screen at a time, they attack almost constantly. There are no periods of calm as in Galaxian; if you don’t move right away, you’ll be dead within a few seconds of starting. But despite the ninjas' thin ranks, they’re easy to hit, as their movements aren't erratic, and their hitboxes are rather wide. Sometimes it’s better to ease up, though, as you can also be killed if the body of a dead ninja falls on you, and you can easily get overwhelmed with too many things falling at once. It may be better, on occasion, to let a ninja escape than to let its body become yet another falling thing that you have to worry about dodging. Unlike Galaxian's aliens, shooting ninjas at point blank is a very bad idea!
Between waves, you must fight a boss who will use magic against you. Here, you won’t lose any lives if you fail, but may gain thousands of points if you kill it quickly enough. The bosses add some variety, as there are at least three types; a fire magic user, a doppelganger spinner (the shurikens tossed by his illusions are just as deadly as those from the real one), and one that tosses swords at you, which embed in the earth and then explode.
Starting on the third wave, Sasuke starts throwing two kunai at once. Shades of Galaga, perhaps? It doesn’t make a huge difference, as if one hits, the other usually hits too, but occasionally you can kill two ninjas with one throw.
My best attempt got me to round five, and scored 27,000 points.
Sasuke Vs Commander is perhaps a simpler game than Ozma Wars, with most of the game spent fighting swarms of two types of ninjas who differ mainly by speed and aggression, but it plays more smoothly, and I think is overall more fun.
GAB rating: Above Average
Game 115: VanguardAlso credited to Tose Co, Vanguard is one of multiple side-scrolling shmups released in 1981, others including Konami’s Scramble and Super Cobra, Universal’s Cosmic Avenger, and most famously Williams’ shmupoids Defender and Stargate.
Of the ones that I’ve played, Vanguard feels the most like Scramble; you have a fuel meter, which is refilled by destroying targets, and also features stage-based level design, each stage with its own terrain style, enemy lineup, and even scrolling direction. One stage, full of stationary targets just sitting there for you to lay waste to, feels very much like it was lifted from a similar stage in Scramble.
In what could be a nod to Super Cobra, Vanguard also allows you to continue when you run out of lives for the price of another coin, but only during the first loop.
I was able to beat the first loop, which culminates in a boss battle (which oddly makes me think of the MCP in TRON), without having to do this.
Everything about this game, however, feels slightly bad. Being able to fire in four directions is a neat innovation, anticipating Robotron (and resembling the otherwise unsimilar Crossfire), but nothing feels quite right. Hitboxes are off, sprites clash, the laser doesn’t feel satisfying to use, diagonal scrolling produces garbage tiles on the edges of the screen, and enemy movement just feels random. The laser gun has a tendency to pass right through enemies if they’re close enough to your ship! Fortunately, the game is a bit on the easy side, which mitigates the frustration a lot. The first phase can be completed with an invincibility powerup active for almost the entire duration.
GAB rating: Average
These early games by SNK are all innovative, all a touch easy, and also all kind of janky feeling, looking, sounding, and feeling mechanically worse than their contemporaries. It’s an interesting contrast to the later Neo Geo games that I more associate with the company, which are polished and way ahead of the competition on a technical level, but at their best feel very derivative, and at their most innovative are a bit boring.