Ah, poor old SNK. Back in their prime, they were so proud. So cocksure. Prancing about the arcade scene with their fancy Neo-Geo MVS system, and calling themselves the real deal for home console action with the Neo-Geo AES. They sure had a lot to boast about later, considering that the AES has the second longest lifespan of any home console, living from 1990 to 2004- 14 years, second only to the Atari 2600). Now, after a few years surviving off favours from Eolith and Mega and becoming SNK Playmore, they're not so hot anymore. At least, that's what the die-hards say (mostly that lot over at neo-geo.com). They've got a point, though. Their most successful game in years is the mind-fuck that is (and I can't believe I'm actually typing this) Doki Doki Majo Shinpan, that infamous 'witch touching' DS game; their flagship series KOF has been humiliated twice (once with the prototype that was KOF XII, and again with the KOF movie); and let's not even get to what they've done to Metal Slug. While the slew of PS2/Wii collections was a nice gesture to fans, and KOF XIII is a massive improvement, it feels like they're riding on the old SNK's laurels to bring the money in. Poor, poor SNK, what should you do?

They should go back to ripping off Capcom, that's what.

Y'see, back in the 80s, SNK had an woefully under-utilised gift of taking old Capcom games and giving them a short, sharp kick up the arse. Admittedly, precisely half of these 're-toolings' are legitimately terrible and don't do anything interesting to the original games, but there's no denying that there's at least 3 shockingly blatant examples (4 if you're willing to count Neo-Geo games) of good ol' Shin Nihon Kikaku 'tampering' with games released by the fine folk at Capsule Computers. Or, er, SNK pinching ideas off Capcom. The most obvious is Ikari Warriors (1986) simply being Commando (1985) with rotary controls and two-player co-op (probably the biggest contributor to its success), but there's also Ikari III: The Rescue (1989) taking 'inspiration' from Avengers (1987) and adding, er, rotary controls (and machine-guns, and a really obnoxious time-limit!), Burning Fight (1991) being an unashamedly blatant copy of Final Fight (1989), and finally, we get to the point of this article- Psycho Soldier (1986 in Japan, 1987 elsewhere) being a clone of SonSon (1984). There's a big difference with this last one, though.

Psycho Soldier kicks the living crap out of SonSon.

We'll get back to the SonSon connection in a minute, but we'd better get the silly 'plot' bit out of the way, as per legal requirements. Despite appearances to the contrary, Psycho Soldier is supposed to be a sequel to 1986's Athena, in so much as both games have a strange fixation on breaking blocks and the protaginst is a pink-haired character called Athena. That's as far as the 'sequel' element goes. Basic plot time- Earth is doomed, as always, because of some evil aliens called the Shiguma who can't decide whether they're invading Earth from outer space, or whether they've come from the Earth's core (the poorly-translated story gives both explanations). Anyway, modern weaponry can't kill them, etc. etc., only two warriors of light can stop them, yadda yadda yadda, you've heard this story a million times before. The warriors of light in this game, however, are... Different.

(The artwork here- which I never knew existed before making this article- comes from the SNK Wiki. Hope they don't mind!)

Athena Asamiya

Sie Kensu Kensou

Behold, Sie Kensou, the Man Who Never Wins, and SNK's eternal Player 2. In his first game alone, they spell his name wrong (as Kensu) and make it impossible to play as him without starting a two-player game and killing off Athena. Since then, Kensou has been the laughing boy of the King of Fighters series, the Dan Hibiki if you will- he's obsessed with meat buns and is continually choking on them, he has a variety of goofy animations, he kept losing his psychic powers between KOF '99 and 2003, and to rub further salt in the wound, he's in love with Athena, and she completely ignores him. Dude just can't catch a break. So you see, Kensou never wins, and that's why half the screenshots in this playthrough have him in them- I just feel sorry for the poor bastard.

So, according to SNK, the reincarnation/distant ancestor of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, happens to be a pink/purple-haired Japanese schoolgirl who is also a psychic, also an accomplished fighter, also a J-Pop idol with fans all over the world, also an annoying twit with a voice that can shatter wine glasses, and also the only hope for humanity against the evil Shiguma hordes. Yes, this makes perfect sense. Anyway, much like the Ikari Warriors and other pre-Neo-Geo SNK characters, Athena wasn't really fleshed out until her appearance in the King of Fighters series, and to be fair, she only became truly notable because of her role in the KOF series, as she's one of the few characters to be in every single instalment (with a different costume every time, no less). Even so, SNK really loves giving shout-outs to Psycho Soldier for some reason, so here we are!

So, now that I've met my quota for context/plot information, how is Psycho Soldier a rip-off of SonSon, and why is it so much better? Well, they both have the same basic set-up- the screen scrolls automatically as you fight off waves of enemies on levels arranged in neat rows, with six in SonSon and four in Psycho Soldier. You've got one basic shot attack to take down the enemy hordes in both games, or alternatively you can move between the rows by pressing Up or Down (there's no Jump button in either game) to avoid contact with the enemy, as one hit is instant death. There's little else beyond that, really- they're both quite basic games at their heart, but while SonSon is a game that's aged horribly and is almost interminable to play nowadays, Psycho Soldier fares a hell of a lot better. This is because it takes SonSon and adds more things, and shockingly, they actually work.

As well as lots of little additions that I'll deal with when we actually play the game, there's two really important additions to the SonSon formula, the first of which is the second button. This button uses your Psycho Ball attack, a jolly useful technique in a lot of situations, as it launches a ball of Psycho Power psychic energy at your enemies and, when you're firing it, grants you a tiny window of invincibility which is probably its most useful effect. You start each life with four of them circling your character, but you can pick up more along the way which get added to a little stockpile near the bottom of the screen. The ones circling your character aren't just for show- they'll block smaller enemy bullets at the cost of a little energy, also at the bottom of the screen, and if your energy bar's empty when a Psycho Ball deflects a shot, the Psycho Ball gets destroyed. That energy meter (which you increase with power-ups, as we'll find out in a sec) also dictates how powerful your Psycho Ball attacks are, like so:

Green - When the Psycho Ball hits anything, it'll split in two, one projectile moving up and the other down.
Blue - When the Psycho Ball hits anything, it'll bounce back the opposite way, towards you.
Purple - When the Psycho Ball hits anything, it'll bounce around the entire screen.
Yellow - The Psycho Ball becomes a penetrating projectile that goes in a straight line across the screen.
Red - Same as above, but it's two projectiles that twist and turn, cover about three rows at once (!!!) and even go through walls.

Having a full stock of Psycho Balls at the bottom of the screen and a full energy bar changes things a little- your Psycho Balls spin around you at an insane speed (offering excellent protection against projectiles). Pressing the Psycho Ball button lets you use a Super Psycho Ball attack which is your most powerful attack- your balls spiral out across the screen, which normally clears the screen completely. Naturally, it comes at a cost, as it'll cut a huge chunk out of your energy meter (it'll downgrade your energy meter by a whole colour) so just be careful with it, alright? You won't get to see it too often the first few times you play, though, as your Psycho Balls and energy meter are reset whenever you die. With a little practice, you might get it a bit more often, but don't bet on it... In fact, you might want to actively avoid it by keeping your energy meter just below max so you can use the Red Psycho Ball power indefinitely, as it's far more useful.

The next 'thing' is the bevvy of power-ups you'll find. Most of the items in SonSon were for points (like the hidden bamboo shoots) and there was one that actually affected gameplay (the POW item that has an equivalent in Psycho Soldier too- the pulsing ball). SNK decided that this simply wasn't enough. Taking its cue from Athena, there's loads of brick walls constantly in your way, and as well as serving as a way of bumping you off (if they crush you against the side of the screen, you're outta there) they're hiding all sorts of lovely goodies behind them. And when I say 'all sorts' I mean it, because SNK went a bit overboard in adding power-ups into this thing, including some particularly cruel ones that actually power you down. It wouldn't be Gaming Hell if we didn't cover them in exhaustive detail, so here we go:

Energy Column and Power Column
These two columns help you power up your character. The Energy Column (the red beam of light) gives your energy meter a boost (moving it up to the next colour) and the Power Column (the blue lightning) increases the attack power and frequency of your normal shots (up to three times).

Psycho Balls
You'll need these to use your Psycho Ball attacks. You can either grab them on their own or as a pack of four from a Psycho Ball column. In addition to the four floating around you at any one time, your stockpile at the bottom can show up to eight, but you can actually hold far more than that.

E Balls and B Balls
These only appear in the boss battles in Stage 3 and Stage 6. Both these bosses have little things in the corner that spew out projectiles, and sometimes (albeit rarely) they'll turn into these two different balls instead. Let them hit you and you'll get an energy boost (E) or an extra Psycho Ball (B). Not all the projectiles will change though, so don't get hit by mistake!

Skull Column and Skull
These two items reduce your power- the Skull Column drains your energy meter as long as you're touching it, while the Skull on its reduces you to nothing, robbing you of all your energy and Psycho Balls, and even your Psycho Sword if you've got one! Needless to say, you want to avoid these items.

Arrow Up and Arrow Down
These items control the enemies on the level- picking up an Arrow Up item makes them more powerful (sometimes making them transform- for example, the Gamera Jr. clones on Stage 2 will grow wings) and picking up an Arrow Down makes them, uh, less powerful.

Infinity Symbol
This item isn't documented very well, because it only works in two-player mode. Picking it up swaps the status of the two players- Player 1 gets Player 2's energy meter, Psycho Balls, shot power level, and vice-versa. Amusingly, this can lead to the situation where one player steals the other player's Psycho Sword!

Pulsing Ball
A pseudo-smart bomb, grabbing this turns every enemy on-screen into Psycho Balls, and any projectiles into balloons and UFOs.

Psycho Sword
This is a bit different from the other items, as picking it up changes your attacks- you'll still fire out little electric shots, but they now pass through bricks completely, so to destroy them you now have to get up close and smash them with the sword. This makes picking up items really, really easy.

F Ball
This maxes out out your energy bar. If you've got a full set of Psycho Balls when you grab it, then the Super Psycho Ball attack is yours.

Roadblocks, Balloons and UFOs
Roadblocks will sprout up everywhere- run into them and you'll trip over them, but shoot them to release balloons or UFOs, the only items purely for points. Grab them straight away and they're only worth 300 (Balloons) or 500 (UFOs) points, but wait for them to float up the screen and their value increases- balloons max out at 5000 points, and UFOs at 8000 points. This is the key to getting extra lives, so try and wait as long as possible before grabbing them.

Psycho Egg and Flame Orb
The Psycho Egg is another weird item. Sometimes when you crack it open, it'll spew maggots at you that spell instant death if you're not prepared for them. Other times, though, under special conditions, a Flame Orb will pop out instead. Grab it, and... Well, we'll find out what it does on the next page.

This playing card gives you an extra life, and is pretty rare- generally, it appears twice in the game, and while I've mostly seen it on Stages 3 and 6, repeat play-throughs show that it can appear on any stage after Stage 1. Be sure to grab it if you can, but remember that you also get an extra life at 50k, 100k, then every 100k points after, so if you play well, you should be swimming in lives by about Stage 3.

Pulsing Square and Orange Ball
Readers to the rescue! Originally, I had no idea what this was supposed to do, MAME's history.dat was no help, and neither was the Psycho Soldier website. I was stumped. Fortunately, reader Kishi passed along that, on two Japanese webpages, the purpose of these items is explained... And their use is actually pretty funny, as they're only used in co-op mode. The Pulsing Square attracts enemies to attack the player who collects it more, essentially acting as a diversion so the other player can breathe a little easier. The orange ball, however, is absolutely fitting for use in Psycho Soldier- it will direct more enemy fire towards your partner. Yes, you too can throw Kensou under the bus if you so desire. Bwahahahaha! Thanks, Kishi, for the info!

... Anyway, there's your basics. Let's get straight to it- let's play Psycho Soldier!

On the next page, giant worms, mollusks and detectives, oh my!