When you hear a title like Operation Ragnarok, you immediately get this monstrous sense of something bold and Norse, the idea and ability to bring down lightning and destruction on your enemies. It’s literally a military operation named after a Nordic idea of the apocalypse, what could be cooler? So I imagine that, upon hearing the title, the localization teams were probably eager and excited to bring such a game to the West. And then they played it. Somehow, after a lot of thought, the title was changed, and, here for the first time on the Switch, we bring you the NEO GEO shooter, Zed Blade.
There’s no evidence as to why the title was changed, but here is what we do know. You are one of three pilots, each who controls with slight differences to speed and handling. The slowest comes with an extra bomb, the fastest is, well, fast, and the medium one is…a woman. I guess that’s something? You are able to customize your ship’s blasters, missiles and rear shot at the start of the game, a refreshing change from some of the shooters that I’ve seen from NEO GEO recently. After that, you’re set out to destroy as many aliens as you can, complete with bosses and power ups along the way.
If you’ve played a single horizontal shmup from SNK at this point, you sort of know the drill. Select enemies drop powerups that will gradually increase your three attacks, and there’s also a special “hyper bomb” powerup that makes your limited shot take on a whole new and destructive form. Getting hit means dropping all your powerups, but with a couple spawning on screen for you to pick up during the invincibility flash. Blow up three times and it’s game over, but just toss in another virtual coin to make sure that you can keep going. This is one serious flaw that I think Zed Blade suffers from more than the other shooters that have been ported as of late. Most of those were already set for the home version, so there was an expectation on length and replay from the very beginning with some history of it already on a console. With Zed Blade, this was bold new territory, and I was almost shocked to see that, with enough currency, you could get through the whole game with minimal skill in a little more than 25 minutes, and that was with some serious fallacy. This could have been why the console version never arrived in the first place, but we’ll get to that later.
First, some of the good points on Zed Blade. Graphically, this is a pretty good entry for the 199X era. Your ships each have some pretty defining and sharp angles, and there’s a good use of animation to incorporate some originality into each of the enemies. There’s a cool, geometric morphing techniques that’s used to reveal several ships, almost like they’re spawning into being from an alien material. Between ground, sky and in-between attacks, you have a ton to see and do, and the bosses are appropriately difficult and large. As you actually move between worlds on your saga for…revenge? Salvation? Anyways, as you change stages, you also get a chance to change worlds. The wide variety of terrain and atmosphere was spiffy, and gave a much larger sense of the game.
The variation in blasters also added a bit to the strategy. Instead of focusing just on what’s in front of you, Zed Blade does ask that you keep an eye out on the whole screen. Your primary blaster is just that, bullets and lasers that take out your line of sight foe. The missiles target whatever they deem the most imperative threat, so they can be both a blessing and a curse, as they may take out what you don’t realize is about to assault you, or may fly off wildly instead of striking the huge boss that’s bearing down on you. The rear shot is an odd bit of strategy, as it only becomes useful in select occasions. For enemies that just end up behind you, they’re usually fleeing, so there’s little point in trying to chase them down. However, for the ones that actually spawn on the left side of the screen, it’s critical to get them in your butt sights and take them down. There were a couple of ground-based enemies that could only be targeted with the rear shot, which just felt like a strange sort of justification for why the gun even existed.
Speaking of strategy, Zen Blade does strike a nice balance between ship and bullet dodging. There’s nothing here that even comes close to the “bullet hell” field, but there are enough shots to keep you on your toes and make sure you aren’t just holding down the fire button while strafing up and down. But I always found the proximity of other ships more pressing as far as danger, and almost every lost life was a result of a collision instead of a bullet. This became less of a problem with the “Swift Arnold” character, but I also felt like my shots did less damage (though there is no evidence that solidly makes for this to be true). In the end, even with the biggest bosses, it was just a matter of time and patience.
And that’s what Zen Blade kind of brings to the table, in the end. It’s certainly not a bad shooter, and I rejoice in any chance for a “lost title” to make its way, legitimately, to a console or to the PC. I liked how it looked and how it handled, and it was cool to play it muted because I couldn’t stand the repetitive, upbeat music that felt oddly out of place at home (but was probably spot on in a Japanese arcade). This is a game for historians and shooter fans alike, as the point scoring system is fair and there’s a good amount of challenge in the overall presentation. The caravan and time attack modes are already lighting up across Japan, with fans eager to carve out a name in this throwback from the last century. I wouldn’t recommend it as the first shooter than anyone ever play, and I don’t think this will dethrone your favorite gunner (mine’s still Ikaruga), but you can definitely have a great time. If anything, this is a chance to prove that old titles can still find new life on the Switch, and, in general, I’m happy to see a publisher other than SNK move NEO GEO titles onto the Switch. Thanks, Hamster!
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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