“The eight soldiers get to attack the wicked terrorists!!”
So ran the promotional blurb on the arcade flyer for SNK’s Shock Troopers, a well-regarded installment in the Neo Geo library developed by Saurus and originally released in 1997 to both home- and arcade-based Neo Geo systems.
This is not by any means a unique setup for a video game, particularly an arcade title from the era, but what makes Shock Troopers truly special is its execution. And its presentation. And, well, everything.
For those yet to have the pleasure, Shock Troopers is a top-down “run and gun” game for one or two players that initially appears to be a spiritual successor to games like Capcom’s Commando and Mercs, or perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be SNK’s own Ikari Warriors series. It’s often described as “Metal Slug from above”, despite hailing from a different developer, but make no mistake; this is a distinct experience in its own right that you should definitely spend some time with.
Taking on the role of up to three (six in two-player mode) of the eight soldiers so enthusiastically referenced in the promotional material, it’s up to you to infiltrate an enemy base via one of three routes, rescue a scientist and his pretty ’90s anime girl daughter Cecilia, and, of course, prevent the evil forces of the Bloody Scorpions from using said scientist’s knowledge to create an army of super-soldiers.
So far, so generic. But the rather ho-hum setup belies the fact that this is a game absolutely brimming with personality and slightly dark humour, not to mention excellent gameplay.
You begin the game by choosing whether you want to play in “LONLY WOLF” [sic] or “TEAM BATTLE” mode. In the former, you pick a single character and have three lives. In the latter, you pick three characters and can switch freely between them — or are forced to do so if one dies. There are pros and cons to each approach — in Lonly Wolf mode, you have more health per life, but in Team Battle mode you have a higher total number of special weapons to start with.
Each character has their own characteristics in terms of speed, attack power and the types of weapons they wield. There’s plenty of variety in the cast, both in terms of their visual appearance and how they play; the delightfully named “Milky”, a sexy girl sporting tight shorts and a pleasingly pert bottom, is a decent all-rounder, for example, while the formidable “Big Mama”, who is exactly as big and black as you’d expect from such a name, is much slower but packs a serious punch with both her weaponry and melee attacks.
Once you’ve chosen your character or team, you then pick one of three different routes to attack the base from, which determines the levels you’ll proceed through. Character and route choice determines how much life bonus you get at the start of each level, so it pays to experiment a bit rather than getting hung up on one particular combination; you also get the opportunity to change your route halfway through the game if you so desire.
Once into the action, Shock Troopers immediately starts to shine, with its most magical element being the fact that it effortlessly combines top-down run and gun gameplay with elements of more conventional shmups and belt-scrolling brawlers. It does this through a combination of the variable character abilities, the angled perspective from which the action unfolds, the fact that each level is split into a series of distinct encounters that you’ll need to clear in order to progress onwards, the many and varied settings in which you’ll fight, the necessity to dodge sometimes intricate bullet patterns and, naturally, the ability to acquire various power-ups.
The controls take a little adjusting to for those used to twin-stick shooters. Tapping the fire button allows you to shoot in the direction you’re moving, while holding it down locks your direction and allows you to “strafe”. A second button executes a dodge roll, which includes some invincibility frames and is thus essential for surviving tougher encounters, while a third throws a “bomb”, the exact implementation of which is unique to each character; it’s worth noting that these are not shmup-style screen-clearing weapons, however, so you’ll have to throw them in at least vaguely the right direction! Finally, the fourth button allows you to switch which team member you are in control of in Team Battle mode.
A real highlight of Shock Troopers is its wonderful, wonderful pixel art, which not only looks magnificent in still images and is one of the best representations of what “the Neo Geo look” truly is, but also animates brilliantly. Each playable character is packed with personality through their movements, but this level of detail extends to even the most generic of enemy grunts, too.
Your foes die in different ways according to how you dispatch them and the context of where they are in the level. Riddle a guy with bullets and he’ll double over in pain, continually forced backwards by the force of your onslaught; hit him with a flamethrower and he’ll dance around on fire; catch the forces of Red Scorpion unawares and you might see them enjoying a crafty cigarette, waving vehicles in or carrying wounded comrades on stretchers. Naturally, you can ruin all these little tableaus with some well-placed bullets or bombs.
The bosses provide interesting encounters too, generally involving you attempting to take down some form of vehicle while on foot. Doing so requires you to learn to dodge their attack patterns, fend off spawning enemies and find the best opening in which to toss some bombs or unload your main weapon. These battles tend to conclude with satisfyingly huge explosions, and often see the vehicle’s occupant being thrown clear before they either run away in fear or, occasionally, turn around and attempt to fight you on more equal terms.
The game is extremely violent, though it’s worth noting that the colourful graphical style and lack of any blood and gore in its default settings means that the whole thing is given a distinctly cartoonish feel with occasional black humour rather than coming across as crass. There is an optional “brutality mode” that adds a much wider variety of death animations, many of them gory, though these still err on the side of darkly humorous rather than horrifying. This is not a game trying to depict the gritty realism of “war is hell” or say anything meaningful about violence; rather, it’s simply trying to be an enjoyable arcade experience, and in that regard it succeeds extremely well; ultimately there’s nothing here more offensive than you might see in an anime aimed at teens.
While considerably less well-known than its stablemates from the Metal Slug series, Shock Troopers remains an absolute delight to play today, both from an aesthetic and a mechanical perspective. Between the wide variety of playable characters, the three routes through the game and the standard “arcade challenges” of going for one-credit clears or high scores, there’s plenty of longevity here — not to mention the additional potential for enjoyment baked right into the simultaneous two-player mode.
Best of all, the advent of good quality Neo Geo emulation on modern consoles means that you can now play Shock Troopers on a wide variety of different systems, even if you had no means of doing so back when it was “current”. Hamster’s console ports also include dedicated high score and caravan (timed score attack) modes as well as the Japanese and English variants of the game with as many credits as you want, so really there’s never been a better time to check this game out.
And after that, there’s a (largely unrelated) sequel to enjoy, too. Get blasting, you LONLY WOLF, you.
More about Shock Troopers
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