A bit like sci-fi ice skating… with missiles

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Cut from the same polygonal cloth as Namco’s beautiful Starblade, Cyber Sled brought full 3D arena combat to arcades in 1993, causing everyone nearby to stand and stare in awe of its flat-shaded graphical muscle and wonder what the heck they were supposed to do with those two identical joysticks sticking out the front of the cabinet. Fast forward two years and future-embracing early adopters of Sony’s 32-bit console were finally able to bring these arcade-only releases home, an entire arcade machine trapped within an extremely affordable black-tinted CD-ROM.

Well… almost.

That next generation of home gaming brought with it arguably the biggest technological leap the hobby will ever see until holodecks finally become a thing, and that meant in 1995 a nigh-perfect port of what had until very recently been a premium arcade experience was no longer impressive enough to be worth buying. So what could Cyber Sled do to make itself appealing to these newly-demanding customers while still being faithful to its original self? The PlayStation, and the nineties, had the perfect answer: Texture mapping. Textures were proof you and the developer both were indulging in the technology of the future, and this is why in single player mode Cyber Sled’s console port always makes sure the stages themselves are (crudely) textured while still giving players the choice of switching between what is charming described in the options menu as “Original” (arcade)  and “Real” (enhanced) graphics, letting loose the raw unbridled power of PlayStation on the inhabitants of 1995.

“Real” mode does this by, um, by adding some basic textures to your and your opponent’s ships. And absolutely nothing else.

The other big “I paid a heck of a lot for CD gaming and I want it to show” consumer-led improvement comes in the form of a swish FMV opening (endings too) and a clutch of pre-match character introductions: These scenes don’t just fill up the vast expanses of storage space optical media newly provided but also make some attempt at serving an actual purpose, giving you a little visual taste of each character’s strengths and weaknesses before you fight them (for example: the big bruiser type with the powerful weaponry will stop and obliterate obstacles on their way to the arena, while the fast but weak ninja type will deftly manoeuvre around them before zooming off) and thankfully they don’t take long to load or last very long once they have and can even be skipped with a quick jab at the controller if you find yourself fed up of seeing them so there’s never any danger of them destroying the game’s quickfire pacing.

And Cyber Sled really does feel quick, even for an arcade game: You pick your character and that’s it, the game’s finished displaying your opponent’s intro and the rotating overview of the battlefield’s up on the screen before you’ve even had a chance to blink. There are six characters and their matching [cyber] sleds to choose from and a further five unlocked with a button code, and they all possess different strengths and weaknesses spread across three categories: speed, weapon, and shields. It’ll take a few goes to find the one that suits the way you want to play best – the slow sleds tend to be more powerful but they really will have trouble keeping up with speedier adversaries, and the weak ones with their lighter armour should be extra cautious around an opponent bristling with missiles – but they do all feel balanced within themselves and against each other so it’s really a matter of picking the one you like the best than trying to figure out which one’s the secret “seasoned players always go for this machine” model. 

And once that decision’s out of the way all that’s left to do is slide around a beautifully blocky arena and take out the only other person in there before they do the same to you. Now angular futuristic shapes aren’t usually the sort of forms that bring to mind intense rivalries or grab anyone’s attention within seconds in the traditionally competitive and noisy arcade environment, a problem Namco addressed by making the six standard craft deftly angle their sticky-out sci-fi structures in response to every turn and burst of speed, leaning into forward movement and making graceful arcs around corners. They’re utterly mesmerising to watch, all of them beautifully communicating not only a sense of weight and inertia with their movements but also a distinctive fluidity that makes each high-speed twist and turn feel almost balletic. I know that all sounds like so much fluff but it’s easy to prove how much of a difference these animations make because Cyber Sled unfortunately ships with the perfect contrast on the same disc: The unlockable vehicles. They’re all totally unique in their design as are the pilots that go with them (my personal favourite has to be CYBER BATTLE CRAB) but the most any of them ever does in battle is very slightly tilt to the side during a turn, which gives them about as much in-game presence as sticking a sled-shaped piece of paper on top the the screen. This crude inclusion is at least much harder to spot in two player mode as that forces you both to use a first-person point of view at all times but it’s still a real shame to see such lively designs look so stiff in action.

Originally this smooth movement came from the arcade machine’s twin stick control scheme, beating the superficially similar arena combat of Virtual On‘s Operation Moongate to the mech punch by a couple of years. The trouble is these rarely-used controls are an acquired taste even at the best of times on dedicated hardware so at home Cyber Sled defaults to basic forward/back/strafe movement on the d-pad, puts turning on L1 and R1, and weapons on the circle and cross buttons. It does take a little getting used to, but it felt like an honest period of adjustment rather than a badly-handled hindrance and before long I was sliding around with the best of them. The second option is to go for twin-sticks-but-not, two sets of up/down/left/right spread across the front of the PlayStation’s then all-digital controller with weapons on the shoulder buttons. How well you take to this control scheme is largely down to personal preference. Me? I love it, I enjoy the more complex inputs required to turn these machines around and the tactile feel of having weapons assigned to L1 and R1, as if I’m squeezing the triggers on a PlayStation twin stick controller that never existed and I could never justify paying for even if it did. Potential Cyber Sledders also have the opportunity to give Namco’s very own NeGcon a twist if you happen to have one hiding in the back of a drawer somewhere.

Cyber Sled may be a speedy action-based arcade game but it’s one that actively discourages mindless firing or thoughtless charging around: Even the most extreme weapons-toting craft will have a starting stock of just nine homing missiles and the ammo pickups dotted around the arena (mixed in with a few repair items – you can tell which is which from a distance) only replenish two missiles at a time. There’s an unlimited-use machine gun to fall back on but it overheats quickly so it’s best used intelligently rather than casually sprayed around every corner – firing first without knowing you’re likely to hit is going to leave you exposed and defenceless. Should a computer-controlled opponent finally get the better of you (or if you manage to defeat all eleven of them without dying) the game over screen shows various in-game statistics and your final score for each enemy defeated, followed by a rank from A to G and a suitable descriptor to match (such as “Pacifist”, “Trainee”, or “Civilian”, none of which have ever applied to me… honest), again reinforcing the idea that simply defeating your enemy is never enough: You can win and still score minus hundreds of points per “victory” because your shots weren’t accurate enough. And in practise the apparent harshness of this all-or-nothing approach, where you play until either your fingers give out or you emerge undefeated against all challengers and still don’t quite measure up to the game’s exacting standards is completely fine – like any number of classic arcade titles Cyber Sled is meant to be played for skill and score, a game built on high speed decision making and mastery of your digital avatar where intense matches are won or lost in the blink of an eye even for the most defensive soul.

The thrill of these matches reach new heights when you persuade someone else to join in, as aside from the greater stakes that come from potentially crushing a friend or loved one to dust in seconds as they sit mere inches away from you two player matches also offer a much richer battle experience, containing additional options and items that aren’t present when playing against the AI. These differences start before the fight does as you have to settle on not only a stage to slide around but one of three weather effects as well: normal (radar and enemy marker on), night (radar on, marker off), and fog (radar blinks on and off, marker off). Each setting reflects the weather as well as you’d expect an early PlayStation game running in split-screen mode to do so, with “night” meaning “dark and a shorter draw distance” and “fog” being “like dark, but everything’s grey instead of black”. They may not sound like much but they’re enough to make Cyber Sled’s arenas look and play a little differently, turning the all-out action of the standard matches into something more like a deadly game of cat and mouse as you sneak around and try to catch a glimpse of your opponent’s sled as they skid around a corner (or you “accidentally” glance at their screen… which is something you absolutely shouldn’t do… unless it helps you win). The new item that randomly gifts you one of three temporary advantages is just as much of a game-changer, either jamming the other person’s radar or missiles (these are the only items that directly effect the other player’s craft), or giving you an extra shield. For all the graphical limitations that go hand-in-hand with having split-screen multiplayer in such an early PlayStation game – there’s no third-person view of your ship and all scenery textures have been removed (those “realistic” ship textures can still be turned on if you wish) – it’s a real credit to Namco to see Cyber Sled still run as fast and smooth as ever, accurately capturing the clean look and blazing spirit of the adrenaline-fuelled lightning-fast matches of arcade original even when it’s pushing itself this hard.

Cyber Sled may be light on extra features even for an arcade port but as this narrow selection of craft and game types allows you and a willing opponent to get straight in to and then maintain this fast and furious gameplay loop for as long as the two of you can handle it nobody can seriously object; it’s a game that knows exactly what it wants to achieve and wastes no time doing anything that might detract from that breakneck pace, always making sure it plays like the very definition of arcade action. The only issue here is this attitude requires a certain mindset from anyone seeking it out – Cyber Sled was never supposed to be a game you settle down with to play all day long but more something to be put on for short sharp sessions as the mood takes you, the gaming equivalent of guzzling a pint of espresso without pausing for breath.

3 thoughts on “A bit like sci-fi ice skating… with missiles

  1. Leave it to you to play a futuristic mech arena shooter and still find a way to point out a crab.

    It is funny how in the 8 and 16 bit days having an almost-Arcade-perfect port was like the coolest thing. Finally you played a “real” game at home. But then beginnining in the 32 bit days the got a bad rep for being too short and offering not enough. I can almost see CyberSled getting mixed to bad reviews by mere fact that the rounds are so short and the two “modes” turn out to be the same thing just with slightly different graphics.

    “I enjoy the more complex inputs required to turn these machines around and the tactile feel”
    Ohoho, clearly there needs to be a Steel Battalion article playing it with the 44 button controler article in the furute.

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    1. It’s not my fault there was a crab! :P

      You’re absolutely right, it was all very odd seeing gaming go from “This one actually has all the stages but no 2P mode! 9/10!” to “Yeah but what *else* is there?” :S

      Oh my goodness I used to love just flipping all the switches on the start-up sequence, never mind playing the game! :Q

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  2. This just screams Namco. I am not surprised this came out around the same time as the original Ridge Racer (both its arcade and its home release), I’m just surprised there are no Pac-Man or Galaxian references all over the place. lol
    Anyway, I had never heard of this game before (I say this often on this blog…), but it definitely sounds like a fun game for quick go.

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