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Shatterhand (NES) artwork

Shatterhand (NES) review


"You might suppose that in a game where youíre supposed to wail on everything with powerful fists, your enemies would attack in a manner that encourages brawls. However, your foes often fire potshots at you from a significant distance. Youíll almost never meet an enemy that is an easy target for your fists, so instead youíll spend a lot of time slowly sneaking forward while leaping or ducking to avoid projectiles. It slows everything to a crawl at the best of times, while in other instances youíre pretty much screwed until you memorize the layout of a level."



Buying games in 2012 isnít nearly as frightening a prospect as it was a couple of decades ago. We have the Internet, so we can look up a bunch of insightful reviews for any hot new title in a matter of seconds, or we can wait for an online sale and spend half the going rate on a game that excites us. We can download demos and we can even rent games through the mail. As much as we complain, weíre actually quite fortunate.

Shatterhand, an old NES title developed by Natsume (perhaps known best for its work with the Harvest Moon series, though it definitely produced a number of action titles in the early going), released during a time when buying a mediocre or bad game was a huge deal. For most kids--including myself--$50 or $60 was a lot harder to come by in 1990-whatever and it wasnít unusual to only obtain one or two new games each year (if that). Iím glad that when I saw Shatterhand in the pages of Nintendo Power, I was intrigued but not to the point where I put it anywhere near the top of any wish lists. Winding up with Shatterhand when I was a kid would probably have ruined my year.

Thatís not to say that Shatterhand is a bad game. Itís just decidedly underwhelming compared to the other options. Even at the time of its release, it didnít do anything especially fresh. It also has low replay value and a number of other flaws to boot.

The idea in Shatterhand is that youíre a hero--I think a cop, though the pre-game cutscene doesnít make much about your background obvious and I donít have an instruction manual to consult--with a fist that is capable of punching through architecture and robotic enemies alike. So thatís what youíll do, over the course of seven stages. Then the credits roll and you can enter your initials if you managed to break any high score records (though of course none of that will be saved after you power down your system).

As in Whomp ĎEm, another Jaleco-published NES title that I recently played, you start your journey through Shatterhand by clearing a relatively simple introductory level. Then you can choose the order in which to visit the next few levels before you tackle a final area. However, this isnít really a Mega Man clone. Thereís not a special order that you can follow to make your adventure much easier, since you donít gain new abilities with each stage cleared. Instead, the ability to select the order in which you visit levels is just a nice way to let you skip to your favorite areas of the game.

Iím not sure that I really even have a favorite area in the game, though, because most of Shatterhand blurs together into a generic depiction of the sort of grim future that serves as the setting for nearly any game of this sort. By NES standards, background art qualifies as ďgrittyĒ without appearing too dark, and thereís a lot of detail (concrete and iron and lava are all easily distinguished from one another), but otherwise thereís not much worth noticing. Better than average tunes pipe through your television speakers as you play, but none of the audio selections are going to dethrone something like the soundtracks that drive the Mega Man series; youíre not likely to get any tunes stuck in your head.

Lackluster visuals wouldnít be an issue if the level design at least gave you a reason to be excited, but thatís actually the area where Shatterhand falls flat. You might suppose that in a game where youíre supposed to wail on everything with powerful fists, your enemies would attack in a manner that encourages brawls. However, your foes often fire potshots at you from a significant distance. Youíll almost never meet an enemy that is an easy target for your fists, so instead youíll spend a lot of time slowly sneaking forward while leaping or ducking to avoid projectiles. It slows everything to a crawl at the best of times, while in other instances youíre pretty much screwed until you memorize the layout of a level. After the first stage, there arenít even a lot of ways that you can use your fists to get through a given environment. Itís like someone forgot that this is supposed to be a game about a dude with powerful fists.

Iíd almost be willing to believe that several different people designed the stages, though I suspect thatís not actually the case given how small NES development teams usually were. Sometimes, youíll get to do something kind of cool, like when you scale grating and leap onto ledges to dispatch goons. Or youíll pass through a pressure chamber and suddenly gravity is reversed and you have to run along the ceiling and duke it out with floating, spike-covered monsters (though that particular instance also has elements that suck, since you have to keep punching and retreating from enemies that are capable of sustaining so much damage before finally dying). Unfortunately, the gameís most impressive moments are joined by less thrilling instances where you find yourself running headlong into bullets fired from an enemy off-screen that you didnít even know was waiting for you, or meteors suddenly start dropping from the sky and knocking you all around, or a guy flies around using a jetpack and pelts you with missiles while staying outside the range of your fists.

Incidents like I just described occur far too frequently in a game this short. Itís true that many hazards are easily enough avoided once you know theyíre coming, but until then youíre stuck in a mire of trial-and-error that seems designed specifically to punish you for playing. So the game is either unfairly cheap and you die more than you should (or advance much more slowly than you might like because youíre trying to be cautious), or itís relatively easy because you know all of its surprises.

One final thing I should mention is the gameís power-up system, which is wonderful because finally you can attack with something besides your fists (even though barehanded brawling is supposed to provide the gameís core appeal). As you work through the stages, you can break open crates and assemble a helper drone. It will fly behind you, near shoulder level or just above your head, and it will eliminate enemies on your behalf once they come within range. There are several potential drone configurations, depending on what pieces you collect, and your helpers will usually stick around for a decent span of time before deserting you. Itís even possible to bring them with you to boss encounters, if you plan carefully.

So like I said, Shatterhand isnít a bad game. There are moments that you should genuinely enjoy, which isnít something I would say about any number of NES duds. Thatís not good enough in 2012, though. If Iím being especially honest, it also wasnít good enough in 1991.

Rating: 5/10

honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (June 30, 2012)

Jason Venter founded HonestGamers in 1998, and since then has written hundreds of reviews as the site's editor-in-chief. He also is a prolific freelancer with game reviews, articles and fiction available around the Internet.

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dagoss posted July 04, 2012:

I've always enjoyed this game. Trying to fight and dodge enemies with the drone and yourself simultaneously was almost like controlling two players at once. Being able to punch bullets was handy, though I do see your point that more could have been done with those bionic fists. You can throw some drones at enemies, but I've never been very good (I vauguely remember one of the drones you could grab on and fly, but I might be mistaken)

You might be interested to know that the Japanese counterpart, Solbrain, has some significant difference. It was licensed (a TV show, I think) and the opening sequence and character sprite is different. One of the levels is entirely different too. There were probably a lot more difference, but I haven't played either in a while.
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honestgamer posted July 04, 2012:

Thanks for the background, dagoss, and it's good to see you post! I actually didn't know that about the licensed background for the title, but I can't say that it surprises me. So many great games from that era were changed radically to work for a North American audience, when perhaps there wasn't anything wrong with the original version.
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overdrive posted July 10, 2012:

Kinda bummed to see you didn't like the game. I've never played it, but remember thinking it looked cool in the Nintendo Power it was featured in and always wanted to play it. I do have the ROM on my computer, but never have gotten to it. That is, assuming I still have the ROM...a year ago, I deleted a LOT of stuff I figured I'd never get to.
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honestgamer posted July 10, 2012:

Definitely give it a shot, Rob. You might like it. Some people clearly do, even now. I didn't hate it or anything, but you and I saw and became excited by the same Nintendo Power coverage and I just didn't feel the game lived up to that. Thanks for reading!

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