Giving players control of a giant walking robo-warrior and encouraging them to stomp around making things explode sounds like a pretty easy way to make a game appealing in my opinion, so it’s always surprising how few and far between action-mech games really are. Luckily for us Fill-in-Cafe graced 1994 with their excellent X68000 side-scrolling beat ‘em up Mad Stalker, giving those of us who dreamed of becoming mech-police officers had a reason to put down their Patlabor manga and pick up a pad.
This initial two 5 1/2 inch floppy disc release was swiftly followed up by an FM-Towns port a few months later that added redbook music but removed the lush parallax scrolling from the backgrounds, and a short while after that a much sought-after PC Engine port by Kogado surfaced that again removed the parallax scrolling but also gave the graphics as as whole a more general downgrade and allowed you to play as recolours of two of the boss robots without inputting a cheat first. They also gave the game standard-issue PCE exclusive intro, ending, and between level cutscenes - added because everybody knows if there’s one thing a short action game needs it’s to be constantly broken up with static images of people talking to one another. The one thing the PC Engine version definitely has going for it is that of the three possible 1994 options it’s the one that’s most readily available in physical form to importers, although this helpful little fact is slightly tempered by a price tag that currently stands at around £110 on a good day. a few years later the game finally received a true upgrade on the Playstation, but as it’s significantly different from the three mentioned above I’ll talk about that in its own dedicated blog post soon.
The most important thing to focus on is that whichever 1994 version of Mad Stalker you end up with you’re in for a great time – this is a title that was specifically named in the November 2012 issue of Nintendo Power as a direct influence on Treasure’s Guardian Heroes (all praise to RavenWorks for providing that image) after all.
The seeds that would eventually grow into into the Saturn’s humans-vs-demons-vs-gods-vs-anyone left standing brawler soon become obvious with a quick glance over the Hound Dog’s move list, all Street Fighter-ish command inputs for special moves rather than some sort of power gauge or dedicated special attack button. It’s fair to say that the move list in Mad Stalker can’t match the likes of Bare Knuckle III or Capcom’s Dungeons & Dragons series but it doesn’t feel too limited in practise as you’ve got an response for every situation right at your fingertips including aerial throws, offensive slash-dashes, and the ever so important ability to block high and low at will. The strength of your attack also has a significant effect on how even the most basic moves perform, for example a weak low blow will come out as a swift jab of the foot while the stronger variant unleashes a slower but more deadly leg sweep.
You’re not the only one with a decent repertoire of moves though as even standard enemies are capable of blocking, throwing, and catching you out with a few unique moves of their own. There’s not a huge roster of adversaries but they all are genuinely dangerous (even the knee-high grenade lobbers that pop up later on) and if you treat them like the brainless punchbags you usually find in this sort of game you’ll die very quickly.
And when you do die you’ll find you’re unceremoniously dumped back to the title screen with no option to earn extra lives or continue even a limited number of times – something that sent me into a bit of a panic the first time it happened! Thankfully Fill-in-Cafe don’t expect you to play through the game without dying, as after being kicked back to the title screen you’ll find a continue option added that gets you back into the action at your last checkpoint (usually marked by a health canister in-game) with full health. This restart system isn’t enough to carry you through to the end without any effort, but it’s enough of a leg-up to save you from the tedium of wading your way through an onslaught of small fry just to face the boss that killed you last time. Phew!
When you finally need a break from saving Artemis City from an old warship’s AI and all the robots under its control you can have a muck around with the versus mode found in the main menu and engage in one-on-one fights against the CPU or a friend using any of the boss robots found in the game. The fights here aren’t balanced in any meaningful way so it’s not really worth spending any serious time with but even as-is this programmer’s lunch break project is still a million times better than That Game.
Mad Stalker is simply a nice idea done well. The environment and animations give Hound Dog a good sense of weight and scale, and the game is long enough to leave an impression without being in any danger of overstaying its welcome. The best news though is that it’s completely in English and only 500 yen on a site you're probably tired of me going on about. Perfect!