Retro Review: Last Battle
Last Battle isn't terrible, but it's bland environments and awkward controls prevent it from reaching even an average standard.
We’re continuing our coverage of the SEGA Genesis launch titles with Last Battle, a 2D side-scrolling brawler set in the Fist of the North Star universe and pseudo-sequel to the SEGA Master System title Black Belt.
Yes, indeedy. When it was released in Japan, the game was titled Shin Seikimatsu Kyūseishu Densetsu Hakuto No Ken (新世紀末救世主伝説 北斗の拳), which was a direct sequel to the SEGA Mark III title, Hakuto No Ken (北斗の拳), which was released on the Master System as Black Belt in the US. Since SEGA completely altered the identities and plots in both games when they came stateside, there is no connection between Black Belt and Last Battle with regard to their storyline. In Last Battle, you play as Aarzak, a hero who is of course off to save the world by punching stuff. That’s all you really need to know, anyway.
It’s also worth mentioning another stylistic difference between Last Battle and its Japanese counterpart. In Shin Seikimatsu Kyūseishu Densetsu Hakuto No Ken, when you punch a guy in the face, his face explodes. It’s awesome. Oh, excuse me, when I say awesome, of course I mean glorious. The bosses also bubble up and burst apart in a cathartic spray of scarlet once you deliver the final blow. It’s like vampire porn, and you just want to guzzle it as it pours all over your face!
This is very much in line with the Hakuto No Ken/Fist of the North Star license, which is possibly why it was removed when Last Battle hit stateside. However, it’s far more likely that the violence was toned down so as not to offend all the mommas and papas watching their sons and daughters plug away on their newly-purchased 16-bit marvel, a system with a name meant to evoke Christian overtones, no less. Keep in mind, in 1989 Mortal Kombat was still three years away, so these localization changes did make sense at the time.
It’s still very easy to see the similarities in the gameplay, though, which is very much in the tradition of two dimensional brawlers that, in a way, both begins and ends with Karateka (Hint: you should try that game). Trudging through each stage, you punch and kick your way through fodder enemies until you reach a much more difficult end boss. However, Last Battle changes up the formula a little bit in that instead of being forced along a set of stages in a predetermined order, you’re given an overworld map and can progress along it on any path you so choose.
These alternate paths are critical to advancing in the game, however, because you upgrade Aarzak’s power levels as you progress through the game and perform certain actions in the stages. If you take the wrong path and fight a much more powerful boss before you’re fully prepared, you’re going down for the count. Hard. Through trial and error, you can determine the “optimum path” (stealing your words, Sean!), or you can go online like I did and hunt down a guide.
The story is fleshed out as you play… sort of. Aarzak meets allies along the way who power you up a bit and, I think, are supposed to advance the story at the same time. Unfortunately, these plot developing moments don’t really make any sense. They don’t really intrude on the game either, so their inclusion is more quaint than annoying.
A Last Battle for Your Fists
Many modern gamers may be taken aback by the simplicity of the gameplay in Last Battle. Other than the aforementioned re-release of Karateka, purely two-dimensional brawlers and their simplistic style of play have been largely abandoned by modern developers. Even the 2.5-D ones (for lack of a better term) like Streets of Rage or the TMNT arcade games are only revisited in classic collections or in “throwback” form. So yes, the fighting mechanics in Last Battle are simple, but certainly functional enough. The jump kicks are a little overpowered, which was a typical phenomenon from brawlers at the time. Still, punching a dude in the face and watching him fly offscreen is satisfying, so the majority of the game when you do just that is a lackluster but enjoyable experience.
And you will indeed do a lot of punching stuff. In fact, once you power up enough and punch a sufficient number of bad dudes, you’ll tear off your shirt in a lady-pleasing display of the Y chromosome, making your punches even manlier. In addition to the battered faces of thine enemies, you will also punch your way through traps and projectiles within temple mazes. Sword falling from the ceiling? Punch it. Boulders rolling at your feet? Kick ’em. Arrows and axes flying at your face? Don’t be timid! Punch that nonsense right out of the air!
That brings me to one of my most appreciated design choices in the game. While most stages have a running clock which will begin to tick away at your life bar if you let it reach zero, thankfully the timer is dropped inside the temple mazes, so you are free to screw up ad nauseam. It’s still a maze, though, and we’ll investigate that a bit more below…
Boss battles are where the game is at its most difficult. You can advance along the most advantageous path and still get annihilated by the bosses pretty quickly. If you pay close attention to their patterns, you will eventually find a good technique to whittle away their life bar and defeat them, but make no mistake, this is in no way an easy task. The final boss of the game will seem extremely unfair, although if you do everything right as far as powering up is concerned and stay on the offensive, you might get lucky like I did and squeeze out a victory.
While the larger sprites are rather appealing, especially considering other games in 1989, none of them animate particularly well, and the backgrounds consist of mostly dull, drab, nearly monochrome environments, several of which are just palette-swaps of another. You want desert tan? Now it’s a dusty gray. Congratulations, you arrived at a new stage. The music ranges from passable to pretty rough. Trust me when I say that you will have incentive to pick your next path on the map as quickly as possible.
I Go Crazy and Lose Control
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the controls for a bit. Your buttons are mapped as A=punch, B=kick, and C=jump. There is no controller configuration, so I hope that suits you. Personally, I felt that jump-punching would have been far easier to execute if you were able to swap B & C, as shifting your thumb all the way from C to A is a bit of a reach to make quickly. Even an option to jump by pressing up on the d-pad might work well for this game. This of course is less of a problem if you are playing on an emulator or a clone console like the Retron 5, but for those of us rockin’ the old school cartridge, we’re stuck.
The most critical sin committed by the game’s designers is this: to make longer jumps, you don’t push C while pushing forward, you actually have to jump straight up in the air and then push the d-pad in the direction you want to go. Thankfully, there isn’t very much actual platforming in the game, and the only time it matters is when you are jumping over chasms in the temple stages. However, it’s still completely unintuitive, and any time you have to carefully consider the process behind an action as simple as jumping forward, it takes you out of the experience.
A Last Battle for Your Controller
You know what else takes you out of the experience? Screaming at the television and pounding a throw pillow with your fist because you don’t know where to go. I can tell you where to go… to the refrigerator to grab another Sam Adams, because you are stuck in a maze stage with no in-game assistance helping you determine the proper path.
I’m more than thrilled that maze stages have largely been left on the dust heap of video gaming history, but these are even worse in that they all look pretty much the same, both between the different temples themselves and internally, making them ugly and boooorrrrring. To be fair, none of them are really all that long, but it is still very annoying to take your final hit from an axe flying down a hallway that you have already traversed three times before.
And when you take that last hit? You are dead, my friend. Aarzak gets one life. That’s it. Add that simple fact to the overall difficulty of the game, and I hope you have a hardy controller, because you may be tempted to crush it with your bare hands. Your only option to continue is hidden away in a cheat code, which I suggest you track down. Oh, fine! I’ll do it for you: Hold A + B + C when you see the words “Legend of the Final Hero” appear on the screen, then push Start. You can then press up and down to select from any chapter completed in your last play through. You’re welcome, you lazy, ungrateful sloths. (I can hear my esteemed editor’s voice in my head reminding me to not insult our readers, so of course what I meant to say was that you guys are great! Buy a SEGA Nerds shirt here!)
A Last Battle in Your Pants
I’m certainly not going to hold the high difficulty against the game, nor the lack of b-b-b-BLOOD! You know what? I’m not even really going to hold the presence of maze levels against it either, because I realize that my desire for them to be removed is more a question of preference than principle. However, Last Battle is really only an average game at best, and considering the vapid background designs, and especially the static and unintuitive controls, I have to knock it down a notch.
If you are a fan of the 2D brawler, you can definitely still have fun with Last Battle, and at a low price (I recently got a complete copy for about ten bucks). However, if you are looking for a similar experience on the Genesis, I suggest Splatterhouse 2 (yes, I know this means throwing down more cash, but you cheap, thieving bastards are all just playing on emulators anyway, am I wrong?… Ugh. Right. I love our readers! Buy a shirt!). Oh, and if you haven’t played it, I will again plug Karateka as one of the best in the genre. It’s great, it’s on Steam, XBLA and PSN, and nearly nobody bought it.
You may be noticing a pattern in our launch game reviews so far, each having only ranked in with just 2 out of 5 stars. Launches back then, like today, typically included games that are very rough around the edges. Fortunately, we still have Altered Beast, Thunder Force II and Space Harrier II left to go, and while I can’t speak for the opinions of my fellow SEGA Nerds, I expect that things only get better from here.
+ Nonlinear gameplay
+ Slick large sprites
+ Pounding enemies feels good
+ Challenge extends replayability
– Awkward controls
– Maze levels always suck
– Bland environments
– Zero exploding heads