Another wind blows…

It feels a little disrespectful to so glibly call the excessively titled Bakumatsu Roman Tokubetsu Ben: Gekka no Kenshi: Tsuki ni Saku Hana, Chiriyuku Hana (AKA: The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny) as good as all the other fighting games created for SNK’s glorious little handheld when presented with such quality but it’s simply true: You can expect any Neo Geo Pocket fighter you can think of to be an incredible experience (even pink-coded ones for girls), and by any measure this is. It’s fast, fluid, tactical, and a joy to play thanks to that unforgettable and unsurpassed clicky stick, and just like all the rest it somehow captures the true spirit of a lavish arcade title on a budget format designed to go toe-to-toe against the technologically conservative Game Boy Color.

Well titles, really, as this is a (heavily sequel leaning) combination of both Last Blade games. By default nine characters are selectable, all of them taken from the series’ debut arcade release, and when playing story mode as any them you’re initially taken through an abridged reinterpretation of the first game’s plot, culminating in the usual battle against the smartly clothed Shinnosuke Kagami. Just like it’s more technologically muscular arcade cousins this dinky cart is a richer experience for this unusual emphasis on its story, stuffed as it is with character-specific rivalries, short snatches of dialogue, and a serious plot involving a trio of adopted siblings, powerful spirits, and noble sacrifice. SNK have always been better than most at this sort of thing, making interesting and popular playable characters out of someone’s son, dad, or sister and then wrapping it all up in a setting that if not detailed at least feels like it’s content to live with its own consequences (which is more than some RPG sequels can say, thinking about it); the tightly interconnected Last Blade duology are arguably the peak of this aspect of their craft.

After you’ve reached the end of one person’s story and seen the first tantalising “To be continued…” message the gallery option unlocks in the main menu and the game becomes eager to prove that being a fantastically playable port of an already complex title was only one of its many ambitions. Every victory against Kagami adds that character’s ending scroll to the gallery,  available for purchase using points earned during play (a single run through the game will generate enough to buy one scroll from this tier, and all unspent points are kept safe for spending either way). Buying this scroll not only allows you to view that particular ending whenever you wish but also transforms that character’s story mode into its Last Blade 2 form with new opponents, new stages to do battle on, a new final boss, and a new story to experience. Miss the old adventure? No problem: just select a character using the Option button instead.

And as remarkable as cramming two(ish) games into one cart smaller than a chocolate biscuit (and manufactured over twenty years ago) is Last Blade just keeps on going: In total there are over a hundred things to unlock across nine different categories, including seven new characters (well, five plus Awakened Kaede and Hagure Hitogata), unique full screen art purely for art’s sake, minigames (plural), character profiles, as well as helpful equippable abilities to use in battle. It’s worth taking a moment here to emphasise that these are unlockable extras, not secrets: The manual explains everything in full, including how to play both minigames (scroll down for a little more info on those) and dedicates an illustrated page each to every nonstandard fighter (even Hagure), just the same as all the rest.

Survival and time attack modes are on hand if you’d like to spend a little time away from the usual single player action (you still earn points in both), each blessed with a unique twist on their expected rules. Survival presents players with an optional challenge before each bout: You’ll be given a task along the lines of “Repel an attack twice!” and you have to decide there and then whether you’re going to attempt it or not. Succeed and you get some extra points (on top of the expected bonuses for surviving each round with as much of your life bar intact as possible), fail and you get the same amount knocked off your current survival total (total, not only the points earned that round). There’s no penalty for chickening out – apart from knowing you’re definitely not getting anything extra this match no matter how well you do. Time attack invites you to throw caution to the wind by giving you a thrilling sixty seconds to defeat as many people as possible, a fresh opponent with a single life bar dropping in from the sky the instant the previous one falls. You are invincible in this mode, and at the halfway mark your health automatically reduces to that special blinking SNK state that allows you to be the most powerful, most desperate, version of yourself and try to squeeze as much damage as possible into the closing seconds of the game. Two comical minigames (these again dish out gallery-expanding points just for playing them) round out the package: There’s one where Juzoh uses his club to try and score homeruns off Akari’s pitches, and another where Mukuro tries to swim through the air and away from the portal threatening to suck him into the underworld. These modes, simple as they are, still reward skilled and attentive play above anything else and are a more inventive – and humorous – way of having as many characters as possible appear in the game even when the cart space really can’t be pushed any further (I should mention that Shigen, Musashi, and Shikyoh aren’t present at all – a shame, but there’s no doubt the most popular characters made it in).

Whatever you decide to do in this game it can’t help but feel like you’re witnessing the very best the Neo Geo Pocket has to offer. The character portraits are huge and artistically striking. The animation is impeccable, not only when judged on the number of frames used but their execution as well, exaggerated smears and dramatic damage reactions making it appear that two people are clashing on your tiny unlit screen, hitting each other with force and momentum. Facial expressions – facial expressions – are readily visible on characters standing barely a few centimeters high; you can clearly see the cocky ease of Amano, Akari’s impish temperament, the weary reluctance of Hibiki. The animated backdrops (almost all of them taken from Last Blade 2) are equally lavish, introduced by short cutscenes that echo their arcade counterparts before giving way to hot flickering flames as Wadamoya burns to ash, the Forest of Forgetfulness’ beautiful waterfalls flowing as you fight to the death. Stages without animation are still full of detail, boasting the same towering elephants, nighttime festivities, and sunset oranges as they always have. Not even the gallery escapes untouched, the text and art within shown on scrolls that seem to unfurl when selected.

The game can only be honestly described as extraordinary. This is an 8-bit portable game, released at a time when the writing was sadly on the wall for the entire format (and SNK as a whole wasn’t exactly in the best of states); it shouldn’t have existed at all, never mind had this much heart and soul poured into it. The way its been so brilliantly tailored to its host hardware means it’s also still well worth playing today, even though the most casual pocketable emulation has long surpassed the technical requirements necessary to accurately replicate the arcade originals. Best of all it’s now part of the Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection rather than something doomed to languish on an eBay watch list, the game once again as affordable and accessible as it should be.

[Ko-fi supporters read this a week ago! Why not join them?]

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