Sometimes I can't resist picking up a Japanese game based solely on the way its name plays in English. And that's certainly the case with Mad Stalker: Full Metal Force, a 1994 scrolling mecha beat-'em-up created by KOGADO STUDIO and Fill in Cafe Co. Ltd., published by NEC on the PC Engine's most powerful iteration, the System 3.0 Arcade CD-ROM format:
It's not actually a game about a mad stalker -- the title seems to refer to a class of mechanical exoskeletons driven by human pilots, in the standard mech mold. The production values are high, as was usually the case with these late-in-the-life-cycle PC Engine games. The CD-Audio soundtrack is typical of the era, with synthesized horns, bass guitars and percussion driving the action forward. And even though the game's voice-acted dialogue is in Japanese, all of the onscreen text is in English, so it's not a difficult game to get one's Western head around. The game opens with a lengthy animated sequence, apparently pitting two CEOs against each other -- this grumbling, angular older gentleman:
And this attractive female executive and her attractive executive assistant:
The introduction also introduces us to three playable mech pilot characters -- Chico Rodriges, Richard Winston and Eve Lurdia, with the traditional stats and blood type:
Each stage is preceded by another lengthy intro, though the animation is simpler, limited to lip-synced portraits and illustrations that pop up over the player's radar:
And then, we select our pilot of choice, and the action begins... or ought to. First, there's a lengthy loading screen -- something of a rarity on the PC Engine, or at least it's usually better disguised. (This is the same image displayed if we try to boot the game with a System 1.0 or 2.0 card, along with a Japanese message indicating we need to use the 3.0 version.)
Once we get into the action, we discover that this is basically a scrolling beat-'em-up in the vein of Final Fight or Golden Axe. Our mech runs from left to right, knocking various robot enemies out of commission with punches, kicks, grabs and throws. Some of the one-on-one fights are a little more challenging, feeling more like a Street Fighter clone based on duration and the quality of the enemy AI.
I'm running this on the Magic Engine emulator for ease in capturing screenshots, and it appears that the official System 3.0 card is NOT the best way to run the game -- the graphics tend to get rather garbled, though it does provide an interesting look at how the sprites are laid out and the matrix of occupied "squares" modified from frame to frame:
Running correctly (using the Magic System 3.0 card in this case), the game looks much more like the mid-80s coin-op standard many PC Engine games successfully mimicked:
This flying mech is an interesting enemy to deal with -- we have to jump up while he's preparing to fire to knock him down, and then attack steadily and rapidly to keep him grounded. I spent quite a bit of time ducking his attacks while the clock counted down before I realized patience was not going to win the day. He's initially presented as if he's a mid-level boss, but then more of them show up and we realize we're just going to have to deal with his like on a regular basis:
The game's engine does have its limitations -- while the animation is very smooth and flicker-free, it can only handle so many moving objects at once. This battle near the end of the level features clinging robots that push the player's mech around; they're meant to attack as a swarm, but only four are ever seen at the same time. When one is disposed of, another one flies in until the supply is exhausted and we can move on:
The game is fairly difficult -- we have a limited number of credits, arcade-style, and I had burned through my second token by the time I did much damage to the first stage's boss:
Continuing, I used up at least another credit before I finally managed to dispose of this charging, hopping robot:
The next mission takes place in an industrial building of some kind, and we see pretty much the same assortment of enemies we've already met, just toughened up. The boss at the end of stage 2 proved to be my undoing; the mechs occasionally suffer equipment malfunctions after taking damage, making it impossible to do anything for a few seconds, but this is a proud boss, who stands by patiently until his opponent recovers. I was unable to get past this guy, even after starting over with the difficulty turned down to easy:
Mad Stalker: Full Metal Force is remarkable primarily for its system requirements -- most of the Arcade CD-ROM games for the PC Engine were ports of SNK coin-ops, and while this game takes advantage of the extra memory, it seems like it could have been squeezed onto a lower-spec configuration. But the game clearly had its fans -- an enhanced version made it to the Sony Playstation in 1997, upgrading the audiovisuals but retaining the basic gameplay. The action is competent and challenging in the classic arcade tradition, and sometimes that's enough.
This is a decent if unspectacular game that collectors and mech fans might want to own. Keep in mind that the American TurboDuo was only a System 2.0 console, so this is one of the rare Japanese PCE CD-ROM titles that will not work on a North American system. If you're equipped with suitable hardware or emulation technology, you might be able to buy a copy here (and there's actually a copy in stock as I write this, which is often not the case!)