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by Federico Tiraboschi - August 6, 2017

SNK's Beast Busters series, despite being around since 1989, has never been one of their most popular franchises. In fact, while the company has tried to reboot it twice (for its 10th and 25th anniversary respectively), it has never become anything more than a curiosity. Only the first game is being somewhat remembered, while the others were more or less instantly forgotten, for various reasons such as bad timing or just plain bad luck. These games are for the most part based on a somewhat parodic view of Western horror and action B-movies such as Nightmare City, as seen by a Japanese perspective, complete with weird plot twists and bombastic narration.

Beast Busters (ビーストバスターズ) - Arcade, Amiga, Atari ST (1989)

Arcade Flyer (US)

Arcade Flyer (Japan, Back)

Amiga Cover

The first game in the series came out for the arcades one year before the Neo-Geo. It was clearly inspired by Taito's Operation Wolf and SNK's earlier Mechanized Attack, but far more bizarre and over-the-top. The story: in 1999 strange things are happening in a nondescript town in the middle of the USA where all of the population is seemingly missing. The government then offered a $50,000 bounty to whoever could help solve the mystery, and three mercenaries armed with machine guns and a few grenades came forth. They are tough guy Johnny Justice, soldier Paul Patriot and Chuck Norris look-alike Sammy Stately. Upon setting foot in the town, however, they immediately realize that things are far worse than they imagined: the place is swarming with blue-skinned zombies and other strange creatures. These aren't “regular” undead though, they are intelligent, able to operate weapons and vehicles... it's likely that, much like Mechanized Attack's cyborgs, the enemies being nominally zombies is just SNK's excuse to blow people up and get away with it.

The game's cabinet is built for three player simultaneous machine gun play, and in fact this is the only way to get to the end of its seven stages. Completing it solo is impossible, unless you want to spend a ton of coins, since the enemies shoot relentlessly and the weapons aren't powerful enough to clear the screens without getting hit at least once. In fact most of the enemies, being undead, rise again after having been seemingly killed, making an already tough game even needlessly harder. Not to speak of the bosses, since most of them have more than one form. Strangely, enemies on foot are much tougher than the ones driving cars, bikes or other vehicles.

The machine gun's bullets are limited, but you'll find so many magazines that it's very hard to run out of them; much rarer are the special bombs and other bonuses that can be found by destroying elements of the scenery. Every level has one spot where the scrolling stops, a “Warning” sign appears and the players have to face a mid-boss or a huge pack of enemies, after which crates hiding bonuses will fall from the sky. This is a rare occasion to try and find the bombs, first-aid kits or other, much rarer, bonuses, such as bulletproof vests that absorb a certain amount of damage, and a medicine that restores all life. There are different kinds of special bombs (rocket, napalm and electrical), but they all seem to do the same amount of damage.

Not even the most disturbing thing in the game.

The first stage, set in a subway complete with cars full of graffiti and empty corridors, is actually fairly creepy... until you get to the bats carrying guns and the boss, a knife-throwing punk that after being hurt turns into a yellow rabid dog for seemingly no reason. Beast Busters never really takes itself seriously, and after a while you'll want to survive just to see whatever insanity the game throws at you. Some examples: zombie owls carrying zombie American footballers, a river monster with an expressive human face, robots formed from scrap metal that at one point merge into a huge robot, a hostage situation where the seemingly human kidnapper is actually a giant one-eyed creature... The weirdest thing happens in stage 6, where you have to fight a jeep armed with missiles as a mid-boss. After a while, pieces from the car start to fall, just to reveal flesh underneath... it was actually some monster masquerading as an armored jeep for no really explainable reason. And that's not all: at the end of the stage, its mangled carcass somehow manages to follow you and get on the elevator you're using to escape!

The seventh and final stage is, in the usual cheap quarter-munching fashion, a boss rush, where you have to fight clones of all previous mid-bosses and bosses coming out of glass tubes. It ends with one of the most drawn-out final battles in the history of arcade gaming. At first, it seems that a random mad scientist on some kind of technological throne was the responsible of the zombie epidemic, but after having defeated him he swells and explodes, revealing an one-eyed alien brain that phases in and out of walls shooting missiles. It takes forever to hit and kill it, but the fight still isn't over: its remains crawl into some kind of giant alien contraption, powering it, and you have to destroy it piece by piece. After that, the game finally ends, but the alien invasion just begun, as a giant spaceship descends from the sky and the alien leader taunts us one last time. SNK in the past had this nasty habit of killing the player characters and/or rendering their whole quest pointless in the ending cinema, as shown in other titles such as Cyber-Lip, Prehistoric Isle and SAR ? Search and Destroy.

Beast Busters (Arcade)

Beast Busters, to be honest, did not age too well. It has good, detailed graphics but extremely simple gameplay (just shoot all the time) with no variety in weapons or objectives. The 3-player setup and levels with multiple scrolling directions were novel at the time, but the scaling effects are badly implemented (such as in the third stage, where enemies are seemingly bigger than the houses scrolling in the background). The music is okay but almost can't be heard under the gunfire, and after the first two stages enemies become almost too much to handle. The only reasons it's still somewhat remembered today are the plentiful gore and its general comic book-styled silliness, including the cutscenes that never really explain anything of what's going on.

Two years later it was ported to European computers Amiga and Atari ST, the only systems that received a conversion. For obvious reasons, the three-player simultaneous play had to be cut, so Paul Patriot was removed from the game. The graphics make a fair job of imitating the arcade's aesthetic, but the difficulty was lowered a lot and slowdowns were abundant. The Atari ST also has this extremely cheap cheat (or maybe a programming oversight?) where one can pause the game and still shoot and destroy the unmoving enemies. Some sources also cite a conversion for Commodore 64 that would have been made by Activision in 1990, but outside some mentions in magazines of the time nothing has surfaced, making it likely that it was never actually made.

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Beast Busters - Second Nightmare (ビーストバスターズ セカンドナイトメア) - Hyper Neo Geo 64 (1998)

Arcade Flyer

Arcade Flyer

Note: the screenshots come from YouTube user turfmasta's gameplay videos.

Almost exactly a decade later Beast Busters received a sequel on the short-lived Hyper Neo Geo 64, one of the only seven games released for SNK's unlucky 3D arcade system. Since the first game, released in 1989, was set in the year 1999, the events of this 1998 game happen in 2009, this time in the suburb of “New Tokyo Port Town” instead of a random United States town. The plot and style have pretty much nothing to do with its predecessor, though (no aliens in sight, for once), and instead are more blatantly based on the two most famous zombie video game franchises of the time: The House of the Dead and Resident Evil. A hospital for treatment of rare pathologies loses all connections with the outside world, and the UN discovers that a strange virus mutated, turning all the doctors, patients and personnel inside into monsters hungry for human flesh. It's up to two marine commandos to break in and kill everything before the virus can infect the whole city and the world. It's a B-movie plot typical of the series, and while the game is visibly darker and bloodier, the tone is still gleefully over-the-top.

Beast Busters - Second Nightmare (Arcade)

There are some slight differences in gameplay: the UZI have been replaced by shotguns, that need to be manually reloaded, another feature taken from Sega's series. This time it does actually matter where you shoot the humanoid enemies, since not only headshots instantly defeat them, with geysers of blood erupting from their neck stumps (and they thankfully stay dead), but they also give many more points for those who want to go for the high score. The headshots in fact can also be chained for even more points, but the biggest bonus of all is given by the "Perfect Breaks", obtained by first shooting off a zombie's arms and then its head. Big scores are also possible thanks to several medals hidden everywhere that do nothing but raise the player's points. Other items are the usual medikits, bullet power-ups and three tiers of bombs, the last of which is nothing less than a satellite shooting a huge laser beam: perfect for an exaggerated game such as this one, but far less effective than it should be.

The zombified dogs, fish and bikers with shotguns are more or less the only enemies reminiscent of the first game, although at the end of the first stage the commandos get attacked by what seems a bus sprouting tentacles, no doubt an attempt to recapture the magic of the fleshy living jeep. The enemy gallery features among others giant bugs, zombie nurses, hatchet-throwing undead blatantly taken from Sega's other zombie-shooting franchise, very agile zombies that are only torsoes with dangling spines and goofy bipedal eyeless things with huge mouths. Much like the first game, the fifth and last level only features the boss fight (thankfully without boss rush) against some kind of unexplained, meteor-throwing gigantic monster that just appears from under the hospital and floats in the sky for the final confrontation.

Second Nightmare is the typical arcade lightgun game, in that it is short, intense and never pretends to be anything more than a shooting gallery, but is still enjoyable in doing so. Unfortunately for SNK, the obscurity of the system, of the brand name and House of the Dead's enduring popularity meant that the few arcade goers that experienced it only saw it as a poor imitation (not without reason, mind you) and soon it became forgotten. Currently the Hyper Neo Geo 64 is still not emulated, and probably will never be, so unless you're a collector of cabinets playing the game is impossible now.

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Beast Busters Second Nightmare

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Dark Arms: Beast Buster 1999
Beast Busters Featuring KOF

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