If you were to look back to all the games you’ve bought and remind yourself of why you bought them you’ll likely come to the conclusion that you got interested because ‘that game had such cool cover art!’. Not surprising, especially back in the day, with no internet and no real media attention for your favourite pastime. The modern gaming industry is one where publishers with buckets of money, invest in marketing their games on a grand scale. Who cares about a game’s cover art anymore? The choice of whether or not you buy a game is already been made through the countless press releases, Youtube reviews and let’s plays and even random anecdotes about the game that circle the internet on a daily basis. It’s hard not to get a good idea of what a game is about before you buy it unless you deliberately try to stay in the dark. One of the things that happens as a consequence to this exposure is that nowadays it’s hard to be truly surprised by a game. It’s harder to find the hidden gems, because many games aren’t exactly ‘hidden’ in the first place, not anymore.
But let’s be honest: what is more amazing than being genuinely suprised by a game you knew nothing about and expected nothing of? Especially when all the information you have is the lacklustre cover art. In true 90’s style of course, in that it tells you nothing about the game. It’s these hidden gems that resonate strongly with me because I feel that they are truly overlooked and don’t receive the credit they deserve. I make it a habit to write about these whenever I come across one (or two) of them.
The Super Nintendo is definitely a personal favorite of mine since my youth. I make it a point to try almost any Super Nintendo game I can come across in hopes of finding those rare undiscovered masterpieces, like how I learned of Blackthorne (which I wrote about in an earlier part of the Hidden Gems column). Recently a good friend of mine – with a near inexhaustable knowledge ánd collection of SNES games both rare and obscure – introduced me to several new SNES titles that I had never before heard of.
One of these games was First Samurai. I’m sure this game won’t ring a bell for most of you, unless you are a collector or one of the rare few who bought First Samurai back in the day. If you did, it’s no doubt because of the samurai in the title – for anything with samurai is irrevocably awesome. Or it might have been the cover art, with its overly stereotypical depiction of an armorless Japanese warrior and the written promise that you will ‘duel a Demon’ – one can’t be certain.
First Samurai is a platform game that controls slightly sluggishly, features peculiarly large sprites and looks a bit out of place as a Super Nintendo game. If so, that’s because First Samurai was actually originally an Amiga game, and the SNES version is simply a port. It’s primary distinguishing feature is that the main character has two life bars: one for himself and one for his katana. Before our samurai hero is truly hurt, his katana sponges up all the blows until its durability is depleted and with a resounding ‘Oh No! My Sword!’ loses said weapon and continues punching and kicking enemies. Defeating enemies this way results in them dropping energy pickups, and when enough of them are collected you regain use of the sword. It’s actually a pretty interesting mechanic and I cannot recall any SNES games that feature directly comparable concepts. Other than that, I guess First Samurai is a pretty unremarkable game that isn’t hard or pretty. Perhaps it would’ve fallen by the wayside if not for it’s highly entertaining, bat-shit insane storyline and setting. It’s hilarious. Because as we learn in the opening screens, our hero is a samurai from feudal Japan sent in pursuit of the power-hungry, time-traveling Demon King and must stop him from dominating the universe. Along the way, you are aided and taught magic by the wise Wizardmage. What follows is a crazy ride through feudal Japan’s landscape, a train in space (no kidding), the ruins of 1999 Tokyo, a robot fortress and the underworld itself. If that doesn’t describe a perfectly wonderfully campy experience I don’t know what does.
Honestly, for a game this random and unknown, it plays surprisingly well. A lot of it is totally bonkers, but that adds to its unique charm. You’ve got to love the hysterical sound-effects and crazy locales, or how the Wizardmages says he teaches you magic and then all he does is show up and ‘do magic’ himself whenever you call him. It’s all straight from a 80’s comic book or campy science fiction movie not unlike Flash Gordon, or Big Trouble in Little China. The whole game is ridicilous but it tries to play it cool and serious, so much so that it becomes even funnier; behind it all is actually a mechanically sound game. It won’t stand the test of time as one of the SNES’s greatest games, but it’s a game that is worth the hour or two it takes you to beat it.
A game I feel that actually DOES deserve that honor but likely never will is one I would recommend to anyone who like the SNES and platform game without exception. That game is… Skyblazer. If you’ve never heard of Skyblazer, do yourself a favor and look it up right away. Then after you’re done, track down a copy or someone who owns a copy and play Skyblazer. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the non-representative cover art, or even the bland red-with-white-letters intro screen. Everything before you start the game itself, including the actual title screen, reeks of cheapness. But as you start to play the game proper…
Skyblazer suddenly becomes a game of exceptional quality, right on par with games like Mario or Mega Man, and leagues above the run-of-the-mill litter that fill the bottom regions of the SNES’s extensive platform library. The well animated, colorful sprites and stylish environment, the fluid controls and catchy soundtrack immediately took me off guard. I had expected to play a subpar platform game like I had played so many before. But what I was playing is one of the most criminally undervalued platform games released on the system.
After you complete the intro level and meet what will be one of the game’s main antagonists, you are transported to a world map. I guess that right there is the moment where you realize you are in for something great… Next comes a good 3 hours of platforming fun full of mythological imagery, Dragon-ball Z style powerups, solid gameplay, Mode 7 enhanced stages and some pretty impressive bosses. The whole game is full of references to Hindu mythology, with many boss-designs based on oriental creatures and deities. Asura, for example, is the aformentioned antagonist you meet early on. This style is unique and well-done, and sets the game apart from many of its competitors at the time. While it is certainly less of an animated feature and more of a game than Asura’s Wrath is, both games still feel comparable in terms of theme and artistic presentation. Each time you defeat a boss, you’re rewarded with a new special power like a super dash, stronger projectiles and much more, and your life and special energy are upgraded along the way as well. Skyblazer isn’t an incredibly long game, and that is perhaps it’s biggest flaw. With how it’s set up – collecting powerups, traversing a world-map – it would’ve easily been fun for twice as long as it takes to beat the game.
Even so, Skyblazer is by all means one of the best games I’ve played on SNES and I wonder why it never became popular and remains in the realms of obscurity to this day. If there’s anything that can be done to get it out of there, it certainly deserves it. If you are looking to be pleasantly surprised and like platform games, it definitely worth it to seek out and play yourself some Skyblazer.
These are just two of the many hidden gems that await those who wish to abandon the beaten path and search for undiscovered greatness. As I find more amazing games that you may have never heard of or dismissed without giving them a real chance, I’ll happily share my experiences once more.