Best Games - Shatterhand (Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain)
By 1991 the last nails were already being driven into the coffin of the NES. The console wouldn't actually be discontinued for years, and in its home market of Japan, a full decade. Games would continue to trickle out during those years (there are still games being made for the old Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System), but releasing a game for that machine in 1991 was just asking for it to be forgotten.
At the tail end of a console's life there are usually only two kinds of games that get released. Weird licensed games and games that started development way earlier but took a long time to reach release. Either way, the results are not usually stellar.
Shatterhand is sort of an outlier. It originated as a licensed game based on a Japanese action show. Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain or Super Rescue Solbrain was a superhero show where cops wore special high tech armor to fight crime in Tokyo. This is the sort of thing that licensed game dreams are made of. If you want to make some money selling games to kids there are a few things you will need to do. Make something flashy, make it vaguely resemble the show, design and develop it quickly so that it comes out while the show is still relevant. Making the game good usually doesn’t factor into these equations. If you can, you just copy another game, a popular game, and you use all of those mechanics in your licensed game. Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain does none of that.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. They did make the game quickly, and it did come out when the show was still on the air, but Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain is not a quick flip of some existing game design. It is the height of what the developer, Angel, was capable of making at the time. Nearly a decade into working with the famicom hardware, they made a game that is rock solid, interesting, challenging, beautiful, and, above all, fun. That isn’t normal for licensed games.
Even if people from Angel or Bandai suspected that they may have a hit on their hands, localizing the game must have been difficult. Obviously, very few people outside of Japan had any reverence for Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain. Instead of a basic translation, the developers opted to create Shatterhand, a recreation of the original with new art, a slightly modified story, and some new level designs. Playing them back to back, I would even say that Shatterhand plays a bit nicer. Smoother. Better.
The game is, as the English name would suggest, all about punching. Unlike Mega Man your attack range is the length of your arm. That means that playing Shatterhand feels a lot more timing based and visceral. There is an immediacy to all your actions that just feels great to play.
You do have more than your fists to get you through the game. Shatterhand also has one of the most innovative upgrade systems I think I have ever seen. You collect Greek lettered power ups, either Alpha or Beta. When you collect three of them they combine to activate a satellite robot. Depending on the order you collected them, you will get a different helper, with different abilities. Trying them all out and finding which ones are the most useful for each stage offers a whole range of exploration that action games of this type just don’t have. To top that, if you collect two sets of the same robot helper in rapid succession, they will turn into a super armor that will give you enhanced abilities for a short while.
There are a lot of reasons that Shatterhand shouldn’t exist. It was released too late in its console’s life. It was a remake of a Japanese licensed game. It bucks convention for the type of platform action game that it is.
This is a game that should never have seen a North American release, and yet, here it is. Claiming its place as one of the Best Games.