When it comes to video gaming, there's really nothing else that brings greater joy than being assaulted with an endless curtain of destruction and running headlong in the fray - mowing down everything with a stream of machine gun fire - scorching the Earth and obliterating everything in hail of explosions and gunfire. It's just as gloriously awesome in video games as it is in 1980s action movies. Obviously, this is not so great in reality, but we don't question why it works in Rambo or Commando, so we don't need to question why it works in video games.
Recently, Run 'n' guns have tragically never been the best supported genre, and the overhead variants have been even less represented. While we did get Neo Contra a few years ago, overhead run 'n' guns are more or less extinct. Most of what people remember from the genre's past is horizontal (Contra, Metal Slug, Gunstar Heroes, Alien Soldier, etc.), but there are plenty of great overhead run 'n' guns as well, like Commando, Mercs, Kiki Kaikai / Pocky & Rocky, and others. Most of these were either ported to or originated on consoles. Arguably one of the bests of these is a series of games called Shock Troopers, which was developed by a team known as Saurus, and was exclusive to the Neo Geo. Shock Troopers was mostly neglected during its time, but has found a cult following via word of mouth (and emulation) in the years since.
These days video game developers occasionally try to interject "tough moral choices" and "strong political messages" into their games to excuse the brain-dead, meat-headed carnage. I miss the days when the only excuse that was required to blow things up in a video game was "just because". Shock Trooper is definitely this kind of game. Both games have plots, but there is nowhere near the level of plot complexity that you get in Metal Slug (which actually have fairly elaborate plots if you read the manuals.). Also like in Metal Slug, any plot it does have never really comes into play during the game. This is pretty much just old-fashioned blowing crap up, and definitely that much better for it.
Like many of its ilk, Shock Troopers is all about marching forward and blowing up things, but rarely did any of its type offer this much variety. There are a total of eight different characters to play as. Each has the same kind of weapon, but slightly differs in attack strength, speed, and how much damage they take from getting hit.
Jackal's girlfriend, Cecilia, has been kidnapped, and it's up to our heroes to rescue her. He has blond hair and wears sleeveless military fatigues. His statistics are average and his bomb is a grenade that's thrown with an arc, so it will go over any standard enemies that are directly in front of him. It's also low powered, but he does get more of them than any other character.
Milky has long blond hair that she keeps out of her face with a pair of shades that are kept pushed up on her forehead, and wears shorts. Her speed is high, her endurance is low, and her weapon is average. After her bomb explodes, it will erupt into flame that expands to the left and right. This flame will stay on screen for a few seconds, so it can do massive damage to bosses. However, it lacks the range that most other characters' bombs have.
Loki wears a sleeveless shirt and has a ridiculous hair style that brings to mind 1980s action movie heroes. His statistics are average like Jackal's, and his bomb is a rocket launcher that fires a rocket with full screen range that foes significant damage to whatever it collides with.
Southern Cross is a shirtless behemoth with low speed, high endurance, and a weapon that fires two streams of bullets for slightly higher damage. His bomb is a boomerang that moves across the screen on a huge arc before moving back toward his direction (he can't catch it and throw it again, sorry). If it collides with anything it explodes into two paths that move out at 45 degree angles from each other.
Marie Bee has short blond hair and wears military fatigues. She has high speed, low endurance, and her weapon is average. These are pretty much identical statistics to Milky's, but her medal rankings are generally not as good. Her bomb is a rocket launcher that fires a heat seeking rocket, but does fairly low damage.
Rio is a large shirtless man with ridiculous pants and shoulder length hair. His speed is low, but not the lowest. His endurance is high, but not the highest. His weapon is average. For a bomb, he fires an exploding arrow out of a crossbow, which will detonate into a path of fairly powerful explosions. Given his look, name, and bomb, it seems like he may be partially based on Rambo.
Maru wears glasses and is the only male character in the game with sleeves. His speed is low, his endurance is average, and his weapon fires two streams of bullets for slightly more damage. His bomb is a canister of poison gas that spreads out in three directions. How poison gas can effect tanks and other vehicles, I have no clue.
Big Mama is a hugely muscular woman wearing a tank top. Her speed is low, her endurance is high, and her weapon fires two streams of bullets for slightly more damage. Her bomb is a rocket launcher that fires an extremely powerful rocket that causes a huge explosion. Since her bomb is so powerful, you get less of them than with other characters.
After beginning a game, you can choose to go it alone in Lonly Wolf Mode (yes, that's how it's spelled), or you can choose three characters in the awesome Team Mode and switch between them on the fly. The latter of the two modes will cost you a very slight reduction in health, but this reduction is very little, so do not hesitate to select it. Each character will have less bombs in Team Mode, but they each have their own stock, so you actually have more bombs in total.
Along the way you'll find other weapons with limited ammo in crates or elsewhere. There's a flame thrower, a weapon that fires in three directions, a more powerful machine gun, and a machine gun with a wider stream of fire, as well as a few rarer and much more powerful weapons like a rocket launcher, a giant laser, and others. Just push A to fire your weapon in whatever direction you are facing or hold the button down to keep firing in the same direction while you move around. This auto-strafing eliminates many of the problems presented in similar games. By pushing C, you can throw a bomb that's unique for each character. It might move at an angle different from the others, or having homing capabilities, or pass over anything directly in front of you to explode a distance away, or spread out after exploding, or whatever. Like in Metal Slug, making contact with (most) enemies does not result in any harm. If you hit A while directly next to a enemy it will result in a melee attack with a knife. This will generally reward you with a blue gem that is worth big points, so getting good at melee attacks is the key to getting better scores. There are a few other items that you can get via the same method - a red gem that destroys everything on screen, a yellow gem that grants temporary invulnerability, health items, or weapons.
There's a great deal of carnage in Shock Troopers, but you have been given a very beneficial evasion technique to make things easier to deal with. By pushing B ,you will dash in whatever direction you are holding on the joystick. You are completely invulnerable against every attack while evading, so you are never going to find yourself completely defenseless as there's always a way out of trouble. Obviously this greatly benefits beginners, but if mastered it also allows Shock Troopers to be played at a very high level of skill. Combine its scoring system with this evasion technique and Shock Troopers has a great deal of room for improvement. In this respect, you might consider it to sort of be an overhead equivalent of Alien Soldier.
There are also multiple routes through the game. Gunstar Heroes lets you choose the order you play levels in. Metal Slug 3 has branching paths through levels. Shock Troopers combines both of these ideas in a fairly novel way. You choose from three sets of three levels, then three sets of two levels, then play a final level for a total of sixteen levels and nine possible paths through the game. The level designs themselves are impeccable - there isn't a boring level in the game - so the replay value is pretty much limitless. Most of the time you are simply running around and blasting away at everything in sight, but there are a few sections that change it up a bit, like a mountain climbing section and others. If you are trying to 1cc the game or go for a high score, you'll find that certain combinations of levels are easier than others or allow for higher possible scores - upping its already fantastic replay value even higher. Also, characters get medal rankings when beginning each level. Heart medals will grant a health boost and star medals will grant a speed boost.
Shock Troopers also has fantastic presentation that ranks among the best in the genre. Its music is pretty great, and each character has a couple of their own voice samples and their own specific voice actor. As the credits amazingly reveal, The Commander is actually voiced by Meijin Takahaski, the guy who served as the basis for the main character in Adventure Island. It would have been easier to resort to mirror images of sprites for walking and bomb throwing animations when your character changes direction between left and right, but Saurus actually took the time to draw different sprites for each of the eight directions that you can move in. So if your character is a lefty while facing left, then they will remain a lefty when facing right. When enemies are shot, they will spurt fountains of blood or even lose entire limbs and then slump down on the ground. Like in Hollywood movies where a character can't seem to fall down as long as they are being riddled with automatic weapon fire, a few enemies can briefly be sort of "juggled" if you keep shooting them after the shot that kills them. They even gave each character their own victory animation after a level is finished. Backgrounds look great as well, and have awesome details like shimmering light reflected off of water in a cave or a monkey that runs across the screen in a few of the levels.
Shock Troopers takes the familiarities of the genre, refines it, and makes for what is easily among the best run and gun video games ever made. Its designers made no attempt to hide its inspirations. There are a few possible references and a few obvious references to other run 'n' guns in Shock Troopers. For instance its main character is named Jackal. This could very reasonably be a coincidence, but his bombs are EXACTLY like the bombs in Jackal (though Jackal's bombs are identical to those from Commando). Most obviously though, is that the first level boss from Mercs is recreated five times throughout the game as bosses. In the first level of Mercs, there is a boss fight that involves a hovering jet that rises up from behind a cliff and begins firing machine gun fire at your character. In Shock Troopers, in different levels you will eventually come to a cliff ledge which a helicopter rises from behind and begins firing machine gun fire at your character. There's even a vehicle with spikes on its chassis that drives forward, like one of the bosses in the original Contra.
Shock Troopers never received any official ports until the 2008 release of the SNK Arcade Classics Vol.1 for the PlayStation 2 and PSP. Unfortunately, this version is emulated terribly - the game runs at a fraction of the intended speed, and pauses for a split second to load new data, which happens fairly frequently. There's also some annoying loading between levels. Thankfully, the Wii version of this compilation is much better, and runs Shock Troopers almost perfectly, making it the only true way to play the game without a Neo Geo.
What's most immediately noticeable about Shock Troopers: 2nd Squad isn't the few ways that it expands on Shock Trooper's gameplay, but rather on what's been removed from the original. The amount of levels, paths through the game, and amount of characters have each been severely reduced. After the first level you are given the choice of two sets of two levels, through either a mountain route or a sea route, and then will play the same fourth and fifth levels, for a total of seven levels and two possible paths through the game. Inexplicably, the character selection has been reduced to four, and, worst of all, Team Mode has been removed entirely. Maybe this game had stricter time or budget constraints, but its still disappointing to have all these things that worked so well in the original taken out completely. At least the four playable characters are fresh:
Nicknamed "Lion Heart", Leon is a commando who wears glasses, with the highest possible Attack and Defense rankings, but the lowest possible Speed and Evasion rankings. His weapon is a standard machine gun, his melee weapon is a knife, and his bomb is a napalm bomb that causes a path of explosions and eliminates every bullet on screen - making it probably the best bomb in the game.
VERY oddly nicknamed "Ceramic Arms", Angel has Speed and Defense rankings of two out of four, but makes up for it with Attack and Evasion rankings of three out of four. Her weapon is a double barrel machine gun that fires two streams of bullets, her melee weapon is tear gas, and her bomb is a napalm bomb that explodes to its left and right and stays on screen for a few seconds, making it great against bosses. She also has a very small shirt and extremely large... uh, hair.
With the strange nickname of "Lightning Eyes", Lulu has the highest possible Speed ranking and an Evasion ranking of three out of four, but the lowest possible Attack and Defense rankings. To compensate for her lack of power, she wields a firearm that shoots in several directions at once. Her bomb is a standard video game bomb and her melee weapon is a revolver. Lulu is kind of like 2nd Squad's equivalent of Fio, in that she is portrayed as being cuter than the other characters.
Completely nonsensically nicknamed "Ice Brain" (!?), Toy wears a t-shirt with a skull on it and has an absolutely ridiculous hairstyle in a ponytail. His Attack and Evasion rankings are two out of four, but his Speed and Defense rankings are three out of four. His weapon is a laser beam, his melee weapon is a TASER of sorts, and his bomb causes an explosion to engulf him and makes him temporarily invulnerable.
The basic gameplay is pretty much identical to the first game, but it's been expanded on and modified with varying results. The buttons for jumping and bombing have been switched, and the D button no longer does anything because there isn't a Team Mode anymore. Shock Troopers' health bar has been retained for 2nd Squad, but rather than a lone life you have three lives per credit. However, its difficulty has been given a major boost, and 1cc-ing the game will prove to be extraordinarily difficult. Each hit you take knocks off at least a good third of your health bar. The evasion technique works the same way, but it does not move your character as far out of harms way.
Combat has been changed a bit to give it more variation. Rather than being limited to either a standard shot or a slightly wider shot, each character has their own distinct weapon. Finding three power up items that are denoted with a "P" will raise your weapon's level up to a maximum level of three. If your character is hit, a power up item is knocked to the ground and has to be quickly reacquired. You will find vehicles along your way in the form of tanks, jeeps, and mechs. You have to jump into them to enter them, and jump again to exit them. Holding the A button will charge your vehicle's shot, but if you are hit while it is charging, then the charge will begin again, making this technique less beneficial than it could be otherwise. Lastly, while in a vehicle you can perform a technique called a "Shock Attack" by pushing both the A and B buttons at once. Otherwise the vehicles control identically to your character, except without a melee attack.
Shock Troopers: 2nd Squad has a different scoring system from its predecessor. After each enemy that you kill with your melee attack, a point multiplier will go up. As long as you keep attacking with your melee weapon only, and do not get hit, it will progressively move through a pattern of x2, x3, x4, x6, and x8, at which point it maxes out. Interrupting the pattern by getting hit or attacking with any other weapon will reset it to x2. Bombing multiple enemies with the same bomb will cause the same multiplier to go up and follow the exact same pattern, but only for that individual bomb. Your next bomb will reset the multiplier to x2. Killing multiple enemies with the same shot from a vehicle will give you the same multiplier for each. How high exactly the multiplier goes is determined by how high you charged the vehicle's shot, but it can only go up to x6. You are also rewarded a rank after finishing the game, but I have absolutely no clue what exactly determines your ranking.
The plot of the game is simply that there is a organization called Dio Corporation that is trying to do something not so nice, and you have to stop them. The fifth and final level leads to a confrontation with the enemy's leader in a large office room decorated with several suits of armor where he is seated behind a desk. He laughs and escapes down some kind of trap door, and the view then changes to a scene from inside a missile silo below the compound. The enemy leader confronts a eye-patch wearing man who, after a brief exchange of words, proceeds to shoot him in the chest, killing him. After this a fight against the real final boss begins with him on a giant spinning thing in front of the HUGE missile in the background. After he is defeated, he will practically explode in a fountain of blood and then plummet to his death. The missile will collapse as well and the world will be saved.
2nd Squad's graphics have been given a complete overhaul from those of Shock Troopers. First of all, just about everything has a computer rendered, vaguely inspired by Donkey Kong Country and similar to Blazing Star and Pulstar, two other shooters for the Neo Geo. They look alright, but they're also a bit dated looking in comparisons to the original's more traditional pixel artwork. The boss designs though, have significantly improved. Shock Troopers: 2nd Squad has HUGE machinery as bosses, like in Metal Slug. Each consists of multiple segments that need to be destroyed piece by piece, and a few don't even fit entirely on screen.
Shock Troopers: 2nd Squad is often viewed as a disappointing follow up the original. Just like with Gunstar Super Heroes, Shock Troopers: 2nd Squad really only makes the mistake of sharing its name with a superior game. If judged by itself, it is really a great game and if it had been released as a stand alone with a different name, it would be recognized as such, rather than as an inferior sequel. The biggest reason for its reputation is obviously that so much has been removed from its predecessor, but at least it did introduce vehicles to the series and give the characters more variation from each other. Even if you ignore everything that was removed, there is slight slowdown when the screen gets filled with enemies and bullets. Its slowdown really isn't bad enough to be a problem or anything, but it obviously does little to make it better than the original.