You could be forgiven for thinking that the company crossover game is a rite of passage for any esteemed software house, history’s littered with them: Konami’s Parodius, Sega’s Fighters Megamix, Nintendo’s evergreen Smash Bros. series, the self explanatory Namco Super Wars, Capcom vs SNK, SNK vs Capcom, and every other imaginable permutation of the above. The list is endless and at times reality sounds more like the playground rumours of old that always began with “My uncle at Nintendo said…”: Darth Vader in Soul Calibur? Freddy Krueger in Mortal Kombat? Daytona USA’s Hornet in Ridge Racer? They’d be ridiculous if they weren’t true.
Irem’s take on this IP-celebrating love-in movement hit Japanese Game Boys in 1993, starring characters from their R-Type, Mr Heli, Kid Niki (the most radical of all ninjas), and Hammerin’ Harry series as well as a small smattering of cameos from other popular games (X-Multiply and Undercover Cops, for example). At first blush it appears to be some sort of card-based SRPG, but it’s actually more like a digital board game played between one person and the CPU.
It doesn’t take long to get started – especially handy when you consider the game has no save or password functions – you just pick a “hero” card at random from a selection of four cards (this is the card that will sit on your start zone and is your equivalent of the CPU’s boss character), then you choose your starting hand of six – a mixture of character and “option” cards (“Select” is too strong a word: Whether you go for auto or manual the cards are handed out at random and your only decision is to accept what you’re given or try again), and then play a game of rock-paper-scissors to determine who goes first.
Once you’re on the board routine quickly sets in; summon your maximum allowed three characters (or after the first turn, summon enough to replace any that were previously lost) and then make your way to the goal tile. All four boards are designed so that every possible route takes the exact same amount of moves to go from one end to the other (both you and the CPU may only move towards the other’s end of the map, never away) so your path largely depends on what the enemy is doing at the time: Do you send out a single unit to block them off, place a stronger fresh character on the same spot as a near-death one to stop the CPU from overpowering the team and taking that spot (to prevent this sort of scenario from becoming a permanent roadblock, health doesn’t reset after a fight), or split everyone one up and try to sneak a character in on an unguarded route?
Whatever you decide to do moving from place to place triggers a shift to a single-screen area that looks like it’s been lifted from a generic platform game, the twist here is that your generic avatar (always either a spaceship or a astronaut-like figure) can neither jump nor move backwards but has to make their way to the right-hand side of the screen, ideally avoiding the minor battles marked on the various paths by static icons but still trying to deliberately trigger one of three possible mini games by running in to any roving grunts. Strangely enough these games are the only part in all of Shuyaku Sentai Irem Fighter where the outcome depends entirely on your own skill; the shell game is slow enough to follow and the sprint race is winnable even without the good old “rubbing a sleeved hand across the buttons” technique. The final mini game is a completely random highest/lowest wins dice roll, just to drag things down when it was starting to look like players would have some real input. Winning any of these will randomly (there’s that word again) take you to one of three positive outcomes; either refilling your character’s HP or allowing you to pick one from a choice of two option or character cards.
Should you land on an opponent’s node (or they yours) a battle ensues that only stops when one side is defeated. This is done using – you guessed it – cards. At the beginning of battle you are shown five attack cards which are then shuffled out of sight to keep you from having any battle strategy beyond “Press A and hope for the best” and then you and the CPU take turns choosing and immediately executing whatever’s on these cards (whoever initiated the battle always goes first every turn) until there’s just one left, at which point the final card is discarded and a different set of five take their place.
Most battle outcomes boil down to hitting your opponent, hitting them hard, hitting them really hard, or hitting them really super hard. That’s really no exaggeration – those are four of the six possible battle cards – so as you can probably guess, it’s not too heavy on the strategy. But we’re not done yet!
You also have the ability to use any available “option” cards (any card that’s not a character) in battle to temporarily turn your unit into a completely different one and then hopefully pick out that elusive “special” card from the shuffled set on offer to unleash a damaging attack… something that will never happen on purpose due to the completely opaque card selection mechanic. Your only other battle option is to consume an unused character card to restore a portion of the current fighter’s health; as you can do this for as many cards as you have available in a single turn and without penalty, this is your cheesiest and most helpful boss battle trick, and one that mercifully the CPU will never pull on you. The only other thing left to mention is the “hindrance” card that randomly (again) inflicts one of three negative status effects; either draining your health, making you miss a turn, or removing your transformation.
It’s very important in a game this reliant on random chance to know that the CPU doesn’t cheat, and I’m pleased to say that some save-state testing proves it doesn’t. Once a set of cards have been shuffled their positions are fixed and the CPU is picking from the same cards in the same places that were shown to you… but you have no way of knowing this through normal play, and even when you do know it doesn’t make all of this blind guesswork suddenly feel satisfying. At the very least the CPU isn’t doing anything you can’t do and won’t suddenly turn your hard-fought almost-victory into a bloodbath thanks to a mysteriously “lucky” streak, but it still feels incredibly shallow.
Shuyaku Sentai Irem Fighters, like Shadowrun: Chronicles, is a game that takes a fantastic idea and then spectacularly fails to do anything meaningful with it. Almost everything you do is decided by chance rather than skill and there is no synergy between any of the cards at all, not even something as simplistic as cards from the same series giving each other a little boost if they’re on the same space on the map. And speaking of the maps – they offer no unique play styles or any kind of homage to the classic Irem title they’re based on beyond their static background art and the small set of enemies you’ll encounter there. I wasn’t expecting this to be an overlooked treasure but to think that this comes from the same company that gifted the world Undercover Cops, or the one that did such a fantastic job reimagining one of their own games into a completely different genre with R-Type Tactics, is mind boggling. Unfortunately this neither a great celebration of their classic IPs nor simply an engaging title in its own right: The box art promised me Hammerin’ Harry riding an R-9 like a horse, the game can’t even square up to Mario Kart Monopoly