Nice one, Switchblade II!

The first time I played Switchblade II it would have been on its native format, the glorious Commodore Amiga 500, and I remember being enthralled by its unique “Japanese” look (we were all very much fumbling in the dark back then, grabbing incomplete VHS copies of whatever was available) – it was just like those cool arcade games I used to read about in magazines and see released on the Mega Drive, but a home-grown version just for us! Who playing games back in 1991 didn’t want their favourite format to have its own take on Strider/Shinobi‘s action sword-swinging platforming?

The happy thought of “Amiga Strider” is unfortunately one that doesn’t survive contact with Switchblade II’s gameplay: The hero, Hiro (how very clever), walks so slowly he could be outpaced by a Belmont and there is nothing about either the level design or his abilities that make his game feel anything like the nimble action stars my younger self was hoping it would. Hiro’s slow, stiff, and he can actually get hurt if he falls too far – something that can occur on the first screen of the first level.

He’s a platform game hero who can get hurt while platforming.

And this is the part where we’re supposed to stop for a minute and have a good old chuckle at the inevitable awfulness of retro European game design. Oh look at those poor people, holding up on their one-button joysticks to jump! They think they’re playing a great platformer just because the collision detection actually works! They want everything from the title logo to the hero’s underpants to look like they’re made of brushed metal and will claim any deeply unfair miserable slog that lasts a month is better than something you can complete without shedding tears in a week, the fools!

OK so it wasn’t quite that bad at the time but it’s fair to say we collectively did have some very strange ideas about what made a good game – and back then most of us – professional and player alike – thought Switchblade II was a good game.

We were wrong.

Having said that – and while I still don’t think this is a in fact a classic for the ages – the thing that’s struck me while playing it this time around is that many of my problems with Switchblade II were more down to how I was playing it than they were with the game. It doesn’t work as a speedy arcade-like platformer not because it’s copying those games badly but simply because it’s not a speedy arcade-like platformer. I can’t play Switchblade II like Strider 2 any more than I can play a Mario game like I do Sonic.

So what is it then, really?

I’d say Switchblade II’s more like classic Mega Man than anything else, something to be played methodically and carefully, a game where you pay close attention to repetitive patterns and waiting for a safe opening rather than rushing in guns blazing. You’ll last longer picking off pesky turrets squirrelled away in corners from a distance and taking the time to leap down to slash a little bug-like enemy at the edge of their back-and-forth patrol route so you can hoover up the money they drop and then spend it later on something sensible in the affordably-priced in-game shop. There’s no reason to rush – there’s no timer (in any version) or time bonus (in this Lynx port), nothing to miss later if you make the effort to grab an out of the way ammo pack for Hiro’s gun arm, nothing forfeited if you take a moment to see where the short path behind a crumbling wall leads.

The game’s a heck of a lot more fun when played this way – and I say that as something who’s never really got on with Mega Man (I do keep trying). This new approach also allowed me to notice all sorts of little things I’d either never appreciated at the time or had simply forgotten in the years since: The generous high jump, able to clear even the largest gap with ease. The way the short knock backwards and upwards that occurs when hit can be consistently cancelled out just by holding the d-pad in the direction you want to go in. How not being able to jump up through platforms also means enemy shots can’t pass through them either, creating little safe zones where you’re out of reach. The way going through open archways in a mountainside takes you “inside”, as if you’re now exploring the internal section of a large structure.

The Atari Lynx port shown here runs at a resolution below even the original Game Boy’s screen, and that forces the game to alter what was at the time one of the original’s selling points – it’s faux-“anime” style. This newfound grittier art actually suits the game better than the overly clean style of the computer releases; a look that always favoured smooth shading over increased detail or personality, Hiro’s bland metal tube of a gun arm more rounded but no more interesting to look at on a larger screen or more powerful hardware than it is on the Lynx.

This handheld reimagining of the game also omits many enemies – and most of all in the final stage, which is where you’d normally assume the game would be trying its hardest to overwhelm you with metallic monstrosities. This is again a compromise for the better as the reduced number of opponents helps to tone down the frequently unfair sting of those hidden spike traps, fall damage, and sometimes cruelly-placed laser turrets. It still looks and feels like the original in every way that matters, it’s just “worse” only when judged against how much of the original content made an unaltered leap onto the Lynx’s distinctive HuCard-thin cartridges. Whether by accident or design what’s missing from this port actually makes the game better and although these changes still aren’t able to bring Switchblade II up to the level of the Japanese titles it tried so earnestly to emulate this “bad” port comes far closer than any other version of the game you could play.

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