The first stage is a typical post-apocalyptic city overrun with nasty bug-like aliens, but that's not the first thing you'll notice upon starting the game, and neither will you pay attention to the fact that Athena starts every life flying around in a little UFO. No, no, the first thing you'll notice is the music, because as the flyer enthusiastically states, "OH! ATHENA IS SINGING! ATHENA SINGS LIVELY". What that means is Psycho Soldier is the first video game with a vocal song, sung in the Japanese version by Kaori Shimizu, an idol active between 1986 and 1991 (JP Wiki page here), but if you're playing the English version, it's translated and sung by an unknown individual. Well, 'translated' in the loosest sense of the word, it's in English but has no relation to what's being sung in the Japanese version (which explicitly refers to Psycho Balls, nowhere in the English version). To pull this off, SNK created a monster setup that's actually three PCBs sandwiched together. All for one vocal song. I mean, if you're gonna add something like this, you may as well go all-in. When you first listen to it, it's not great- there's no way they could get cassette-quality here, this ain't no Journey or NATO Defense- and while it's playing it stops Athena and Kensou's sound-bites from playing! A tragedy! When the song eventually loops, it'll play an instrumental version, which is a little easier on the ears when you first hear it, at least.
To get back to the game itself, the first stage is pretty gentle with you. There's two main enemies here- the fedora-sporting zombies that can only lumber forward and kill you on contact, and the giant insects. The insects are the ones to watch here, and there's three kinds- the small ones which can only roll forward, the medium-sized ones that can fire projectiles at you, and the fully-evolved ones that fly around the screen and can also throw energy balls at you. What puts them a step above the fedora zombies is that they move between the levels far more often (the zombies only do so rarely) so if there's one above or below you, watch out- they might jump up / down at you and take you out. Aside from that, it's nice and breezy here, giving you the chance to get used to how things work here, in particular learning to destroy every single brick and power-up, and how to take out two enemies at a time by shooting while you're moving between levels.
Now, at one point during this stage, you'll find the Psycho Egg. This always appears in the same spot, about two-thirds of the way through (the items are only partly randomised in this game, with some always appearing in the same spot) and I'd love to tell you the exact way to guarantee you'll get the Flame Orb rather than the maggots... but I can't. According to the only Psycho Soldier guide on the internet (found here) you'll definitely get it if you have the Psycho Sword, a full Psycho Ball stock and a full energy meter, but nope. On several occasions, I've got the Flame Orb after dying a screen or so away from the Egg, and even with full energy and Psycho Balls, I've got the maggots. As near as I can tell, the only way to guarantee getting a Flame Orb (in the US version at least) is to have the Psycho Sword equipped- anything else isn't necessary. Anyway, to get back to the point, I'm going to demonstrate what this item does right now, because you're probably not going to see this again.
"Hensin a go-go, baby!"
Oh, wait, shit, wrong game.
Well, actually they do scream 'HENSHIIIIN' in the Japanese version. In English, we get 'WATCH ME CHAAAANGE'.
Yes. Grabbing the Flame Orb turns Athena- who, I'll remind you, is a reincarnation-of-the-Goddess-of-Wisdom J-pop idol who runs on psychic energy- into a giant flame-throwing phoenix with purple hair and a little flower broach in said purple hair. Yes, yes, but what's really amazing is how powerful it makes you. Not only are you now free to roam the entire stage by flying, you're also given the aforementioned flame-throwing ability which cooks enemies to cinders, breaks blocks in one hit and has absolutely killer range. Of course, the danger is that while you can crash into enemies and projectiles, it'll rob you of some energy, and the Phoenix is pretty big, so when the screen gets crowded, you're more at risk. When your energy's all gone, you'll turn back into normal Athena (with no Psycho Balls or energy!) but if you keep your distance from the enemies and be sure to avoid any skull-related items, you can keep it going until the end of the stage- finishing the stage as the Phoenix robs you of your Psycho Balls but lets you keep any reserve energy. It's up to you if you go for it- if you're confident you can reach the end of the stage as the Phoenix, and you're lucky enough to get the Flame Orb, give it a try! It's fun!
Incidentally, Kensou has the same power, but he turns into a Chinese dragon with exactly the same abilities. However, grabbing the Flame Orb is far more entertaining in two-player mode, because if the non-monster player taps Up while near their partner, they'll jump onto their back for a little ride. From there, they can fire shots and Psycho Balls while the other player moves around the screen (and they can tap Up again to get off) but this probably does you more harm than good- unlike their transformed friends, players riding around like this are still vulnerable to enemy fire, so if your partner is going on a genocidal rampage (as any sane person would when transformed into a giant fire-breathing monstrosity) and darting all over the screen, they're probably not thinking of their rider's well-being, so you'll almost certainly die. Still, it's a neat little touch.
So here's our first boss encounter, and early in the game they're basically like this- giant walls that you have to destroy in order to pass. This is very similar to how the boss encounters worked in SonSon- as if stealing the basic gameplay just wasn't enough for SNK, they pinched the boss fights too (although things get weirder later on). Unlike SonSon though, the game won't scroll on after a certain amount of time- you must defeat the boss to move on. For the first stage, the boss is just a building infested with giant caterpillars- they'll peek their heads out of the windows and take pot-shots at you, but they can be killed easily and all you really need to do is smash the building with enough standard attacks to make it crumble. There's no real strategy required- it's incredibly simple. If you're still in Phoenix / Dragon form, it can be destroyed in about two seconds, that's how pathetic it is.
Poor form, SNK. What happened to the ball-busting difficulty of your boss encounters?
Don't worry, I'm sure they'll up the stakes next time.
After each stage is successfully cleared, you get a little breather in the form of this refuelling room. It's a small area that's that's filled with blocks you can grab a few items from- most of them have, at the very least, a few Psycho Balls, one Energy Column and, if you're lucky, a Psycho Sword. Trust me, these little breaks will be very useful as you get further in the game. Anyway, once you reach the end of the room, your character dramatically jumps down to the next level. Here's what Athena does:
As for Kensou...
He just crashes into the ground.
I'm tellin' you, Kensou never wins!
The second stage starts the 'underground' theme of the game- after beating each stage, you go deeper into the earth, so our first stop is, naturally, the sewers. This is a touch harder than the first stage- while the insects are gone, the fedora zombies are back and move between platforms far more often, and we also get to tussle with some Gamera clones. These guys can take more punishment than the insects, fire huge bullets, and eventually evolve into flying things that move really fast and can be difficult to nail with any of your attacks. They also have an annoying tendency to emerge from the left side of the screen, so if you're hugging the edge of the screen (see also: every shoot-em-up ever) then this stage is going to teach you not to. Also in this stage, the game gets some new toys to kill us with, namely gaps at the bottom of the screen filled with water, and fake platforms that try to make you fall into said water. Aside from that, it's very similar to the first stage. Just try to stay close to the middle of the screen, and you'll be fine.
The boss of this stage decides to actually give us a challenge, unlike the last stage. Well, OK, it's not much of a challenge as it's only got two attacks- a rather piddly fireball and a lunge that goes across the whole screen- but while the fireballs are easily blocked by your Psycho Balls, the lunge is much deadlier. It's hard to predict which row the dragon's going to attack, as it moves between rows while it's lunging, and it's so fast that dodging out of the way isn't going to work if you're just a few seconds off. The only real strategy you can use against this guy is to simply destroy it as fast as possible- use your Psycho Balls to smack it right on the nose, and just try your best to avoid what it throws at you. More importantly, watch out at the very start- two Gamera Jrs. walk on-screen from behind you on the middle row! Don't let them get you, OK?!
Fight on, Athena! Dinosaurs attack on the next page!