Review by bluberry

Reviewed: 08/21/04

Not to be confused with Ralph Nader.

Although ostrich riding sims such as Metal Slug 3 come close, nothing beats giant robot games. Some (read: Steel Battalion) emphasize simulation aspects, while games such as Armored Core cater to customization. The value in creating anything from a four story walking tank to an SUV that functions as a cheese grater can't be denied. My favorites, though, are the ones that exist for the sole purpose of you blowing [doodie] up. Without a doubt, the Assault Suits series belongs to that third group, and Cybernator (Assault Suits Valken) surpasses its predecessor Target Earth (Assault Suits Leynos) in almost every way possible. Except difficulty, thank God.

The most unique hook to Cybernator is that it contains three different styles of play. A good portion of the time, you'll be in areas bound by the laws of gravity, in which you must dash around and hover in attempts to outwit your foes. Unsurprisingly, these sections make up the majority of the game. Other times, you'll be in zero-g zones where your assault suit is free to float about the countryside, giving you chances to explore more drastic landscapes. Lastly, there are a few segments of "forced movement" that resemble something out of Gradius. These exist for the sole purpose of setting up some awesome action sequences, like weaving about a sky rife with bullets or blasting through an asteroid field.

Regardless of current playing mode, though, Cybernator is packed full of nuances that serve the experience well. Most importantly, your mech has a shield: by holding the right trigger when both feet are on terra firma, you become almost invincible. In addition to acting as a nice fallback when you feel outnumbered, it tends to change the way you think about ground combat. Sharp timing of your counterattacks between blocks becomes a crucial element of gameplay. Thankfully, offense is made easy for you by the addition of an aiming-lock function similar to Contra: Shattered Soldier's. You'll eventually begin to wonder how you ever scraped by in games that don't let you shuffle backwards.

There's also a moderate arsenal of weaponry. Right off the bat, your robot can fire a Vulcan cannon and smash things with its manly fists. Additionally, you'll encounter classics like the laser, discover the sheer awesomeitude of the napalm launcher, and completely ignore the worthless missiles. None of them are flat out "better" than the others, though. Different situations will require different firepower. Said firepower is kept in check, though: each weapon has an ammo gauge that gradually depletes as you unleash it. Missiles expire slowly but permanently, while the Vulcan needs to be emptied and then reloaded. It's a nice system that rewards accuracy while not inducing baby-punching frustration in crack shots.

Of course, you can't have an impressive lot of weapons without an impressive lot of enemies, and Cybernator has those in spades. From simple gun turrets intelligent enough to lead their shots to hopping spider robots that spew ammo in your general direction, every enemy is a challenge to defeat. There's also hordes of standard enemy mechs, who sometimes make you reflect on just how cheap your laser cannon can be. Thankfully, NCS didn't hold back on enemy counts. The last segment of the game pits you against dozens of flying enemy mechs as you race down an underground tunnel, complete with gun turrets and blast doors. Hell, there are even two-pixel tall people who go flying when you shoot them. Obviously, they didn't eat their Wheaties.

None of that hoopla would matter if Cybernator didn't have great levels, but fortunately, that's where the game truly excels. First off, the physical design is excellent. Fast paced missions, such as your final blitz on the enemy city, have nothing fancy to get in the way of your gratuitous smashing, whereas the battleship Arc Nova is layered with hidden paths, health recoveries, and weapon powerups. The enemy placement is also superb, always keeping you on your toes while never being unfair. It's a lot better than, say, Super Castlevania IV's. Your missions will also challenge you, whether you're racing through a snowy mountain range to blow up a dozen anti-aircraft guns or if you're delving into a small warzone to prevent a shuttle from taking off.

But that's where NCS's creation differs from other games. Instead of a cutscene taking over, Cybernator gives you the chance to blaze through the sky and chase the shuttle, while eliminating its engines and sentries. Best of all, that's hardly an isolated incident. Valken takes memorable scenes and crams them down your throat, and they range from amazing feats like plummeting to Earth as you slowly incinerate to more reserved moments such as exploring an eerie, dangerous cavern. It all has to take a nosedive somewhere, though, and that's where the bosses come in. Aside from a plane that tries to distract you from your objective in mission six, they're a pretty damn poor lot. For instance, take the level three boss. Although cool in theory - a timed duel - your foe is so insipidly easy that the battle is nothing but an annoyance.

Cybernator's presentation also doesn't do much to excite. Don't get me wrong, it's very nice in a technical way. Explosions are convincing, and you practically feel your weapons tear through your opponents. Not only can you see Earth and the stars when you're moving through space, the icy mountains down on the planet are some of the best on SNES. What's the problem, then? It lacks soul. Whether it be the joystick style cannons, the "four sticks on a plate" anti-aircraft guns, or even your armor plated mech, there's not a shred of imagination to be found. The audio suffers similarly: while competent, the sound effects fail to inspire, and while the music is enjoyable and catchy, it's hardly memorable. It's also way too upbeat for a gritty space war type story.

Wait, story? Yeah, Cybernator has one, and it's actually not that bad. The tale revolves around the Axis and Federation, both sides fighting over Earth's now limited fossil fuels. With names like that, you're obviously with the Federation. There's a big problem, though: Konami decided to butcher the narrative for our side of the pond. Assuming, of course, that everyone on the internet is American, which is true. Important scenes were cut without so much as a reference, and a lot of chit-chat that built the characters is conspicuously absent. The little portraits of the speakers that are in the Japanese release also end up MIA, making the story unnecessarily hard to follow.

Cybernator overcomes its somewhat crippling lack of imagination, though, and manages to come out on top as an amazing experience. To paraphrase that guy who's working on Halo 2: Cybernator is a lot like Target Earth, only it's Target Earth on fire, going 130 miles per hour through a hospital zone, and being chased by helicopters and ninjas... and the ninjas are all on fire, too. If you like crazy mech action games, or even just crazy action games, or if you're just insane, you owe it to yourself to check out this game.


Suggestion: If you plan on ROMulating it, get Assault Suits Valken instead and then track down the fan-made translation. It's much better. Really.

Rating: 8

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