SNK Essentials: Psycho Soldier

Athena’s name is magic, mystery is what you see.

Her crystal is the answer, fighting fair, to keep us free. She’s just a little girl with power inside, burning bright. You’d better hide if you are bad, she’ll get you!

She’ll read your mind and find if you believe in right or wrong…

 

If you’ve ever played Psycho Soldier, doubtless you will have been able to hear those opening paragraphs, because there’s no way you can hear Psycho Soldier’s theme song and not immediately have it stuck in your head for the rest of eternity — although depending on where you are in the world (and perhaps your personal preferences) you may, instead, know the Japanese lyrics rather than the localised version seen above.

This song is one of the most noteworthy things about SNK’s 1986 arcade release Psycho Soldier: it is widely believed to be the first ever vocalised song in a video game, and is actually rather technically impressive when you think about it.

Rather than being a complete recording of the song, it instead combines an FM synthesised backing with sampled vocals, allowing it to “remix” itself to an instrumental version when necessary. It also allows the complete composition to sound rather higher quality than it could have been were it just a single sample. The technical limitations of the time mean that most sampled sounds were worse than cassette tape quality in most cases, so limiting their use to just one component of the complete composition minimises the impact on overall quality while still allowing you to do things you can’t do with just synthesis.

The song is one of the most well-known things about Psycho Soldier, but it’s worth noting that the song is just one cool part of a seriously great game — and a highly unusual game, at that.

Taking on the role of Athena Asamiya, aforementioned little girl with power inside (and wannabe idol), it’s up to you to use your psychic lightning-shooting finger powers to “get” all the people and things who are bad but forgot to hide. You achieve this by playing a rather unusual combination of shoot ’em up and platformer.

Psycho Soldier unfolds from an auto-scrolling side-on perspective. You can freely move Athena left and right on platforms, and pushing up or down allows her to jump up and down between the four “floors” of the buildings she proceeds through on her journey; you don’t need to wait for a gap in platforms to do this, though of course Athena will fall down if there’s no floor for her to walk on. This structure gives the game a distinctly “lane-based” feel rather than providing complete freedom of movement as in a more conventional shoot ’em up, though there are times when there is a bit more open space that demands careful jumping to defeat and avoid enemies.

Athena is armed with her aforementioned zappy finger ability, coupled with Psycho Energy-powered spheres that rotate around her. Pressing the fire button shoots a lightning bolt out in front of her in the direction she’s facing — meaning you can fire “backwards” as well as forwards, and you’ll often need to do so — while the “bomb” button consumes a sphere for a different effect according to how much Psycho Energy Athena has charged up, indicated by a meter at the bottom of the screen.

If Athena is carrying four or more spheres, they will rotate around her and help protect her against enemy projectiles, though if you use a “bomb” when you have four or fewer spheres remaining, you’ll effectively punch a hole in your own shield until you can replenish it, so you should take care as much as possible to ensure Athena stays safe.

Powerups can be found in destructible scenery elements. These primarily consist of energy fields that allow Athena to charge up her energy, a sword that allows her to do melee attacks and destroy blocks more easily, additions to her stock of spheres and occasionally skull-marked energy fields that will cause her to lose energy. If Athena fills her energy bar, breaks a green egg and collects the shiny bounty within, she can temporarily transform into a flying dragon phoenix thing with a powerful breath attack; if, on the other hand, you break the egg without being at full power, a bunch of irritating and difficult to avoid slug-like creatures will pop out and kill you if you don’t react quickly enough. Which, obviously, sucks. Don’t do that.

Each level concludes with a boss fight of sorts, which usually consists of something large and unpleasant poking out of a building. Demolish the building and you win. No problem for a little girl with power inside! However, do note that if you defeat the boss in your “transformed” incarnation, you’ll switch back to little girl form after the building collapses. Boo.

Psycho Soldier’s mechanics are straightforward and effective, making the game accessible enough for anyone to enjoy, but providing sufficient depth for more advanced players to feel like they are developing mastery over the game in the long term. It doesn’t provide much in the way of instructions — most notably, the energy mechanic isn’t explained in the game at all, and the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection doesn’t provide much additional help either — so there are certain elements you’ll need to learn and discover for yourself, but that’s part of the fun of the experience as a whole, and you can still enjoy it without knowing everything about it.

It’s a significant part of SNK’s history, too, since both Athena and her player two counterpart Sie Kensou have been seen numerous times in subsequent games from the company, most frequently in the King of Fighters series, though they also put in a guest appearance in NES action RPG Crystalis. Athena, being arguably the quintessential SNK heroine, naturally also appears in SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy.

The Japanese version of that song was also re-recorded using “proper” instruments and released as a single on cassette in 1987, though rather than having a full retail release it was only available to those who had purchased the Famicom port of Psycho Soldier’s spiritual predecessor Athena. Consequently, as you might expect, original copies are extremely hard to find today — though if you pick up the limited edition of the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, the soundtrack CD comes with both a remastered version of this track as well as a new remix from 2018.

Plus, if you really can’t get enough of it, those numerous appearances by Athena and Kensou in The King of Fighters over the years are typically accompanied by some sort of remix or rearrangement of the Psycho Soldier theme. So if you really wanted to, you could play a whole bunch of different games and keep hearing slightly different versions of the same incredibly infectious tune that you will never, ever escape for the rest of your life. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Anyway. Psycho Soldier. It’s a classic. Play it.


More about Psycho Soldier
More about SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

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