Well, might as well start at the bottom of the barrel and work our way up. Now, I'm not one to advocate the whole "best/worst [insert thing here] ever" mentality, but if Hard Head 2 isn't the single worst video game of all time, it's certainly close. It's up there with the cream of the crap, rubbing shoulders with such greats as Pit-Fighter and Ground Zero Texas. And believe me, that is one classy crowd to roll with.
Obviously (thankfully, mercifully) I've never gone toe-to-toe with this game in an actual arcade, but it was brought to my attention via the Wikipedia page for the first game (don't ask me how I got there, you know how it is with Wikipedia; you start on Batman and end at Cow-Tipping) as it described the sequel as 'kitschy', 'quite embarrassing' and 'surely one of the most graphically bizarre video games ever.' With a sales pitch like that, how could I refuse? I'll play anything once. So I booted the game up in MAME, and...
Half an hour later, I'm staring blankly at my laptop screen, wishing I could have my time and sanity returned to me.
I present to you, the reader, a full run-through of this 'game', wherein I'll try to explain the many crimes it committed against me.
But first, let's just establish the basic facts here, so it's not like the whole of this article is spent ragging on the game and its lack of taste and decency. Released in arcades in 1991, developed by the mysterious, almost sinister SunA Electronics (who were these guys? Where did they come from, and what did they want?) and distributed in the U.S. by Space Age Electronics, it's your standard platform game, closest to the somewhat slow and sedate Toki, released by Tad Corporation in 1989- a scant two years before this abomination. You move from left to right (usually), hitting things and doing your best not to be killed. At the start, all you have to defend yourself with is a painfully short-range kick, which is accompanied by a mildly disturbing, yet obviously masculine and authoritative scream. In your way are lots of enemies who don't really look like anything at all and are relentless in their sheer numbers, if not their actual pursuit of you- sometimes they'll just wander around aimlessly and completely ignore you. As such, they usually have you outnumbered to quite a degree, so actually getting past the hordes makes the entire game one long struggle from beginning to end.
One minor difference between this and normal platformers is that little box at the bottom of the screen, which reads 'STOP' in the example above. It's a direction indicator. It tells you where to go. You may think "Oh, boy! That must mean that the stages are as sophisticated and deep as fuck! Just like the Sonic games!" but you are mistaken. The direction indicator only serves three purposes: to point out the bleeding obvious by telling you "GO RIGHT LOL", to annoy you when it suddenly declares "STOP!" and you have to kill every enemy on screen at this stupid box's will, and finally, to flash up "DANGER!" when a boss shows up. Yeah, this box is super useful.
Another change from the norm is that you can pick up three different weapons which seem to show up randomly. Sometimes the turtles with pots drop them, I don't know. I'm not playing this stupid game again just to 'get' the no-doubt intricate system that dictates which weapons will appear when, and with what frequency. I'm willing to jump through hoops like that for something like DoDonPachi or Bubble Bobble, but not for this. Err, where was I? Oh, right. The weapons. If you pick up a POW item (which looks suspiciously like the POW items from old Capcom games like 1943) when you've got a weapon, it'll temporarily make it stronger, and it'll usually change what it does, making it slightly more useful. Sometimes. In fact, you can upgrade each weapon several times- the Bugle, for instance, eventually launches out bouncing stars- but since you're not going to hold on to any weapon for long enough (dropping it resets it to zero, and the power-ups are on a timer) then you'll never see them, and neither did I. So, I'll only discuss the second power level.
The Bubble Bugle
Useless. Seriously, it's a bugle that fires bubbles. Bubblen and Bobblen are allowed to get away with this, because they have the distinction of being bubble dinosaurs. Whoever this guy is, he does not have the right. It becomes marginally useful when it's powered up, as it shoots out balls of fire, but it's still not great. I guarantee you'll pick this up by mistake about 50 times through a single playthrough, and guess what, you can't get rid of weapons without taking a hit or finding a new one. Joy.
This is a bit more like it. The normal cudgel can just be used to hit people with, although it'll arc a little so you can sometimes hit enemies above you (but ha, don't count on it in this game). Also, if you duck, your guy will waggle it about, which seems to be more useful. The powered-up cudgel is thrown by the nameless hero, giving it a little bit more range.
Incidentally, in these screenshots, you can see the wings on our dude's back. They're an item too, but they're useless- you tap the jump button in mid-air to use them, but they don't seem to do much, really. Then again, this game as a whole doesn't do much, so why break with tradition? That's why I didn't give this item the dignity of its own section.
I originally called this weapon a mace, but an email from a truly excellent reader, Anthony "Smog" pointed out my ignorance- it's not a mace (a heavy head on a solid shaft) but clearly a flail (a spiked ball on a chain). His email was so nicely written that I had to give him a mention in the article itself- enjoy your internet fame!
Anyway, this is a real weapon! The unknown protagonist swings it around his head, but curiously enough the chain simply disappears when you do this. It's actually got decent range, so you don't have to be right in the face of the enemy to have a chance of hitting them! The upgrade makes it stronger, with better range, and makes it a nice orange colour.
And this is how the game is played. 8 levels lie between you and the sweet taste of victory. Sure, there's a few slight problems exhibited by the game, and by 'slight' I mean 'holy hell how can this be', such as the fact that there's only 2 different music tracks that repeat incessantly until the end of each stage, the horribly slow scroling speed, the sheer ugliness of every single facet of the graphics, the sense of despair you'll feel when you've played this thing for more than 2 minutes, and yet more, but I'm sure all of these things will become obvious when we start the analysis.
Now, before we actually start getting through the game, it's time to deal with the bit that everyone else who even gets within striking distance of this game covers, seconds before they scarper and stop talking about it. The fools, they have not even begun to see the horror that is Hard Head 2! As you've noticed from the screenshots above, sometimes your character is without clothes. He can take two hits- one hit and he's in the buff, another hit and he's dead. It's similar to Ghouls 'n Ghosts, except that Arthur at least had the dignity to put some pants on. Our hero here evidently prefers to go commando, and although it's a bit odd (to say the least) to see this sort of thing in what's otherwise an apparently normal platformer, I'm just wondering why it was put in to begin with. You know, a little bit of context would be helpful.
Worse than this is what happens when you get killed.
Oh yes, you'd better believe it- this happens every single time you die.
Even better, you get to hear this horrible scream every time.
Sigh. It's going to be a long night.
Anyway, I'm almost certain that smart and discerning readers such as yourselves have already figured out that this intricate explanation of the game system is just to avoid actually playing the damn thing, so let's put this one-legged puppy to sleep already. Let's play Hard Head 2!
I'm not looking forward to this.
It might be a trap... But let's go on. To the next page!