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‘Zed Blade ACA NEOGEO’ Review – Well, It Certainly Isn’t an ‘A’

SNK’s NEOGEO platform played host to a great many classics, both famous and under-the-radar. The Metal Slug games. The King of Fighters series. Magician Lord. Shock Troopers. Sengoku 3. NEO Turf Masters. Fatal Fury. Samurai Shodown. Twinkle Star Sprites. Blazing Star. Truly, the system was a treasure trove of arcade experiences that kept players coming back again and again, and still do. And then there are NEOGEO games like Zed Blade ($3.99). Almost entirely unremarkable. Eminently forgettable. The nicest thing you could say about it is that it’s serviceable. Nevertheless, it’s the latest ACA NEOGEO release on mobile from SNK and Hamster.

Let’s start with the good news. As NEOGEO games go, Zed Blade maps fairly well to touch controls. You’ll likely have a better time with an external controller, but it’s not terribly cumbersome to play it with the touchscreen. Hamster has kitted out this release similarly to the others in this line. You get both the Japanese and Overseas versions of the game, support for external controllers, multiple modes of play with support for leaderboards, and an embarrassingly thorough array of options to tweak to your liking. While none of this is new to those who have already dipped into the ACA NEOGEO mobile waters, there isn’t really anywhere else for Hamster to go here. It’s as full of a package as you could ever ask for.

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Unfortunately, all of that is in service to a rather substandard game this time around. Zed Blade was the sole NEOGEO game from developer NMK, a Japanese company that kicked around from the mid-1980s to the end of the 1990s. This is normally where I would tell you what it is best known for, but none of its twenty or so games really made much of a mark. Its biggest success was probably the Game Boy title Rolan’s Curse, in as much as it is its only game that got a sequel. By and large, NMK paid for its daily bread by making middling shoot-em-ups for the likes of Jaleco and UPL. Zed Blade saw the developer joining up with SNK for exactly the sort of affair it tended to busy itself with.

The game launched in September of 1994 for the NEOGEO arcade hardware, so we’re well and truly out of the launch period here. While there were plans for the game to make the usual trip to the home version of the NEOGEO and the NEOGEO CD, nothing ever came of them. That’s typically not a great sign for the quality of a NEOGEO game unless there were some licensing circumstances at play. Indeed, Zed Blade didn’t exactly light the arcade world on fire. That’s not entirely its fault, mind you. Shoot-em-ups didn’t put butts in seats the way they once had by the time the mid-90s rolled around. But if any shooter was to do it, it sure wasn’t going to be this one.

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Again, Zed Blade isn’t a bad game. It has a neat concept where you’re battling against a rogue AI that can cobble together forces from whatever is laying about. The soundtrack is quite good, as one would expect from the work of Manabu Namiki, who would go on (among many other achievements) to create the music for most of Cave’s legendary shooters. You get a lot of customization options, with three pilots available and a decent array of selectable weapons. You can choose your forward shot type, your rear shot type, and your missile type. There are three different options for each, and if you add in the pilot selection there’s quite a bit of variety here. Those weapons will also power-up as you collect icons, and there’s also a special bomb that you can use a limited number of times.

The visuals are nicely detailed, though the colors are on the blander side of things. The enemy designs aren’t very exciting in general, though some of the bosses are cool. For a 1994 NEOGEO game it really doesn’t have much graphical dazzle, but it’s not hideous either. There are eight stages of varying degrees of quality, with a few inspired bits sandwiched between a whole lot of overly familiar locales. It takes about a half hour to sail through the whole game, which is par for the course for many shoot-em-ups. As always, it comes down to the scoring system.

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One of Zed Blade‘s quirks is in how you can rack up points. For the most part, it’s similar to other horizontal shooters of its era. Destroy enemies, grab power-ups, don’t die. But you can also earn points by hitting things that can’t be destroyed. So if you want to destroy the bosses quickly, aim for their weak spot. If you want to milk them for points, aim anywhere but. I’m not sure that it works, but I appreciate there was some effort here to do something different. It makes for an interesting Caravan/Score Attack, if nothing else.

The biggest problem with Zed Blade, apart from its bland visual style, is in how it plays. Your ship is just a bit on the big side, with a hit box to match. Depending on the character and weapons you choose, the game can feel like a slog with extremely spongy popcorn enemies until you get properly powered up. It takes a while before you feel like you’re commanding any real destructive force, and you always feel like you’re taking up an uncomfortable amount of screen real estate. This is one of those games where nudging obstacles and walls will blow you up, too. Mind the roof.

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If you’re just looking for another arcade shoot-em-up, Zed Blade does the job. It doesn’t do it particularly well, and it probably won’t etch itself into your memories with any force. But it’s okay. For its part, Hamster has given it the same star treatment it has offered the other ACA NEOGEO titles. If enjoying Zed Blade is a thing you want to do, this is a classy way to do it. Those who are looking to collect them all will probably have fun playing through this once or twice. Those who are more selective will want to look elsewhere for their arcade kicks.