Neo Geo AES / Neo Geo CD
Did you ever play a great game as a child that you couldn’t remember the name of years later? Like an impromptu friend made on the playground, one whose name you never learned, and as days turned into weeks, more than likely never would, tracking down near forgotten games can be a challenging workout to put your brain through. You know how they play, you know how they look… but the official titles of such fond memories remain ever elusive, keeping you at arm’s length from reliving those magical moments. Yet once finally discovered later in life, these seemingly forgotten relics of yesteryear take on an even more substantial role in your relationship with the gaming medium. Like rekindling camaraderie between two lost companions, playing your bygone game becomes something so much more than just enjoying a few levels or trying to hit a new high-score. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a handful of these experiences in my life. Long lost titles such as Jersey Devil, Nights into Dreams… and Ninja: Shadow of Darkness are but a few examples of amazing childhood encounters that made their ways back into my library, all too many years after I had initially met them. Another one of those special games is Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy. The quirky precursor to the Metal Slug series, Top Hunter is the quintessential example of a game that I simply can’t remember the details of playing. When or where, the facts avoid me, but upon seeing miscellaneous screenshots of the game on the Internet or in magazines, I knew I had played it, and I knew it was awesome. Flash-forward a few more odd years and Top Hunter is finally home in my collection where it belongs, providing euphoric feelings of happiness and nostalgia with every play through. But what was it about Roddy and Cathy’s battle with the Space Pirates that made the game so incredible? Let’s take a closer look at an exceptional game that zapped me for life with the 100 Mega Shock.
Being a side-scrolling arcade platformer from the mid-nineties, Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy didn’t make a ton of waves upon release. In a time when games of a similar platforming nature such as Bubsy and James Pond were oversaturating the market that Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog painstakingly helped to perfect, there were already plenty of running and jumping heroes taking up shelf space at retail. But part of what set Top Hunter apart from its contemporaries was the console that it launched for. In June of 1994, the Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System was still a heavy piece of hardware to behold. The Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation both had yet to launch (though they would later that year), leaving the Bigger, Badder, Better console on the market a few more months to reign supreme over its graphically decrepit competition (the Atari Jaguar had emerged in 1993 but… things weren’t going so well). One of the first and few titles to be dubbed with the “100 Mega Shock” mantra (due to the cartridge coming in at an almost unheard of 112 mebibits), placing a freshly minted juggernaut like Top Hunter up against your casual Saturday night with Contra III made the Alien Wars look like child’s play. Visually stunning with an unprecedented attention to detail, Roddy & Cathy’s journey to different planets looked like a work of art thanks to the impressive capabilities of the Neo Geo.
Occupying the prestigious roles of being the galaxy’s top bounty hunters, Roddy & Cathy are on a mission to defeat and capture the Space Pirates, a group of villains hell-bent on galactic domination as they occupy four noteworthy planets: Forest, Ice, Wind, and Fire. Each of the planets make up the game’s levels and it’s up to the Top Hunters to traverse the cosmos in an effort to free the tyrannized worlds while taking down the Pirates’ four commanders: Sly, Misty, Dr. Burn and Mr. Bigman. All of the planets are immaculately detailed, packed with plenty of enemies and interesting switches to play around with. These switches can be grabbed to reveal anything from bonus time and points, to booby traps that can cause Roddy or Cathy to take damage. Each level is progressed through by hopping between the background and the foreground, a really unique feature for the time that adds depth and replayability to each of the worlds. Speaking of replay value, each of the four worlds’ layouts actually change depending on which planet is visited first. For instance, if the Fire world is completed first, then the Ice world’s layout will be dissimilar upon comparison to if it had it been visited before the Fire world’s – and so on. Little touches like these go a long way and only help to make games that much more fun. Each of the four worlds are separated into three sections, complete with mid-bosses and end-of-level bosses to test your skill. The battles themselves can range anywhere from enjoyable to downright gnarly in their difficulty, but they’re all vincible with enough practice. There are also special stages to be discovered within the levels that have the heroes shredding atop rocket fuelled hover boards. These make for fast fun and offer up an opportunity to nab some serious bonus points.
For the most part, Top Hunter operates in an action-platforming manner as enemies can be dispatched by way of kicks, punches and jumps on the head (enemies, along with various items, can also be picked up and thrown.) Additionally, Roddy and Cathy can also pull off special moves by executing certain combinations of the joystick along with the attack and jump buttons, giving the game a light peppering of beat ‘em up action similar to the likes of Capcom‘s Final Fight. Top Hunter’s gameplay system is easy to learn and remember, further making it one of my favourite games to pop in for a quick romp – but the action is so awesome that I almost always end up sticking around to complete the entire adventure. My only gripe with the game is that you’re unable to select between playing as Roddy or Cathy. Roddy is always automatically designated to player one, whereas Cathy is player two. The choice between the heroes would’ve been nice, but it’s a small nitpick, really.
The game’s soundtrack is exceptional in its quality – packed from start to finish with catchy tunes that will stay with you long after you flip the power switch. Each and every world visited comes with its own album of songs that change throughout the progression of the stages, giving some of the more puzzling or difficult sections of the game an injection of authenticity. I’m impartial to the music churning out of the Ice world as it just seems to fit the frigid theme of the planet perfectly.
I love playing this game on either a Neo Geo AES or CD console as both versions run flawlessly. Throughout my bounty hunting escapades with both copies of the game, I discovered two differences that set Top Hunter’s CD release apart from its cartridge brethren. First off is the substantial upgrade to the game’s soundtrack. I was blown away by how good the music sounded while spinning the disc-based version of Roddy and Cathy’s escapades. Not only have the songs been touched up, but some of them have been completely reworked with additional instrumentation, making the game sound that much sharper. Secondly, the sorely needed option of having unlimited continues (a gratuity that every Neo Geo home console release should have been gifted) has been turned on in the CD port, effectively making some of the game’s less flexible segments a little easier to digest than they are on cartridge (which only offers a limited amount of lives). I’ve always managed to get through the game while playing it on my AES console, but only with some heavy assistance from my memory card.
With a stellar soundtrack, incredible visuals and near-perfect gameplay, Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy is not only one of my favourite Neo Geo games – it’s one of my favourite games, period. Beaming with allure and exceptional quality, this title is a true gem that should be experienced by fans of video games in general.