The humblest citizen of all the land,
when clad in the armor of a righteous course,
is stronger than all the hosts of error
-William Jennings Bryan
“The following is a contributor post by the Hopeful Sega Mage.”
While I’ve been away from writing for The Well-Red Mage, due to a change in role (no more handhelds sadly), something has come to my attention… Sega’s developers really watched a lot of films in the eighties. We’ve had games inspired by Conan The Barbarian (Golden Axe), Ghostbusters (Alien Storm), and then there’s ESWAT, a game featuring a policeman in robotic armour dealing with crime in a futuristic city… does that ring any bells?
ESWAT was originally released as an arcade game in 1989 under the name ESWAT: Cyber Police and it was followed by a reformulated (and not very good) Master System game. When it came to the Mega Drive version of ESWAT, the game was amended again, resulting in the third variant in three years. The game designer, Hiroaki Chino (whose other designing credits include Streets of Rage and Sonic CD) added more platforming to the Mega Drive version of ESWAT, plus the use of a jetpack.
Fundamentally though, all versions of ESWAT are the same. You control a police officer named Duke Orda in the Japanese versions of the game as he starts with the Liberty Police Force. After you clear two levels of criminals, Duke is promoted to the ESWAT (Enhanced Special Weapons and Tactics) division and given his own power armour to take on E.Y.E., an evil robot looking to take over the city of Liberty by manufacturing it’s own power armour clad minions.
While the arcade version of ESWAT was clearly inspired by Shinobi and Rolling Thunder, where you can switch vertical plains while fending off enemies, the Mega Drive is based around some action-based puzzle solving and flight using the jetpack. Duke can only take two hits initially, but once he gets the power armour, he can take more enemy fire. Unfortunately, the power armour makes Duke a bigger target so he will end up taking more bullets. Still, all job promotions have their negatives, right?
With Robocop not showing up on the Mega Drive until 1994 (in Robocop vs Terminator) and no other outstanding cyborg-based action platformers on the Mega Drive, does ESWAT fill the gap left by Robocop?
The 8-bit Review
The graphics for ESWAT aren’t anything special; they are pretty much what you would expect for a 1990 Mega Drive game. However, like Sega’s other arcade ports before it, ESWAT’s visuals are a more than serviceable interpretation of the arcade game, enough to sell to the home consumer that they could own an arcade quality game in their home. This was a big part of Sega’s strategy in the late 80’s/early 90’s in the quest to beat Nintendo and it’s an important factor in judging most early Mega Drive games.
There are some highlights, though. Some of the bosses are great – huge, detailed sprites that are quite impressive for the time period. The backgrounds also grabbed my attention, too. They make some good use out of sparse design and really set the scene for the levels. I’ll also give ESWAT credit for being a fairly smooth game – I only encountered slowdown by flying into a dozen firing enemies in the sewers of Level 6, something I would have never seen if not for my own stupidity!
Much like it’s visuals, ESWAT’s audio doesn’t grab you at first. However there are some really cool, driving Mega Drive techno songs here. My pick was BGM3, a more laid back, bass-led song that’s equal parts creepy and chilled. Generally, I found ESWAT’s soundtrack to be a great background accompaniment to the game, but there was nothing here in the league of great Sega soundtracks, such as Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, or Sonic The Hedgehog.
In terms of effects there is the usual Mega Drive arcade game sound effects and a couple of snippets of fairly rudimentary speech. Nothing too exciting, but nothing that would distract you from the game either.
I did warm to ESWAT as I was playing it. It’s a game that offers something different with each level and keeps the player on their toes. At first, I just assumed it was a run of the mill “walk right, shoot everyone” game, but each level after the first has it’s own unique quirk. Whether it’s navigating the lifts in the prison colony in Stage 2 or working through the tunnels of the goo-infested laboratory of Level 4, some thought has gone into the level design of ESWAT and I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out what steps I needed to take to advance. I was surprised at how cerebral ESWAT is – the Mega Drive version is much more intelligent than what I’ve seen of the arcade original.
ESWAT plays well too – I’m willing to admit that the struggle to change weapon is down to my lack of ability rather than the game’s controls! The exoskeleton is slow, sure, but much like Simon Belmont in Castlevania, the game is fair with your weaknesses and never changes its rules to hinder you. For example, the exoskeleton is unable to duck under most enemies’ bullets as it’s too cumbersome. As most players would initially try to duck, they’ll lose a lot lives until they figure out how to effectively use the jet pack.
If I have an issue with ESWAT’s gameplay, it’s the difficulty spikes. I personally found ESWAT’s difficulty to be inconsistent throughout the game – for example, Level 5 was probably the hardest level in the game, forcing the player to play through a long jet pack section in order to get to the boss. Meanwhile Level 8, the final level, was actually one of the easiest levels in the game and a bit of an anti-climax. To me, it felt like a bit of a shame for such a well-thought out game to suffer when it comes to the pacing of the action.
The story of ESWAT is pretty basic; it’s not too derivative of Robocop but it doesn’t really stand out either. There isn’t much detail during the game, either – there are screens before every level confirming the villain and showing Duke (initially in officer uniform then Exoskeleton) but there isn’t really anything you can get your teeth into, bar some text during the attract sequence. It’s a shame really – a bit more information on Duke and a bit more investment into the story and the enemy would have really helped ESWAT.
ESWAT isn’t terribly unique in itself – it certainly owes a debt to the aforementioned Shinobi and Rolling Thunder. However, ESWAT does mix these influences together very well – to say it is a rip off of either game is unfair. ESWAT has lots of it’s own character under it’s hood. Based on what I’ve seen of the Robocop games, I’d say ESWAT has more character than any of them and certainly doesn’t take anything bar it’s basic premise from Robocop. If anything, maybe Robocop 3 stole the jetpack from ESWAT?
I do like the exoskeleton… it may be a bullet magnet but being able to use a jetpack and select your weapon do add to the game. Maybe it would have added more to the game if you could or were forced to switch between regular police uniform and the exoskeleton.
I had to think about this category as ESWAT does see-saw a bit. It offers a decent challenge and it is quite interesting to see what each level will offer. However, ESWAT has no multiplayer and it isn’t a long game – I reckon with practice and memorization, a good player could beat it in forty-five minutes. Plus, as enjoyable as ESWAT can be, I’ve no desire to go through its difficulty spikes again. It’s off-putting to think about the struggles of Level 5, which sits almost right in the middle of the game. Knowing that the game’s last level is a wash out doesn’t inspire me either – a game should always build to its climax and leave the player satisfied upon completion… not with the feeling of “Is that it?” Think Castlevania… the trip to Dracula gets progressively harder until you reach the final battle with the Count himself.
On the flipside, I could see myself loading up ESWAT again, to challenge myself. It offers a solid challenge, enough to scratch my gaming itch without wanting to make me cry *coughRevengeofShinobicough*. In fact, ESWAT would serve as good practice for a Shinobi or Rolling Thunder game – not as tough as those two games, but it offers enough challenge to build some confidence up!
ESWAT is fairly easy to pick up and play, though it’s more demanding than other Sega arcade games. Most seasoned players will be fine with ESWAT, though it might take a bit of practice if you’re not familiar with how it plays. I personally had to acquit myself with the jetpack – being able to fly up and across the screen can take some getting use to!
ESWAT is fairly easy to get hold of, too. It’s one of those Sega games that is ported to every new generation some way or another (it’s on Steam and the various Sega compilations for PSP and Xbox 360/PS3). The original Mega Drive game shouldn’t be too hard to find, either. it’s not a common game like Sonic, but it’s certainly not a rarity to see it in the gaming wild.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I really liked ESWAT the more I played it. Immediately, it’s not a game that blows you away. If anything, it’s a pleasant surprise – I found myself really enthused when presented with the new weapons and given a new level to explore. I don’t think it’s a classic – it’s inconsistent difficulty, lack of narrative, and workmanlike graphics hold ESWAT back. However, you could certainly do worse than play it if on a Sega kick. Given its availability as a Sega reissue/compilation regular, it’s definitely worth your time after you’ve played Sonic, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe and the like.
Aggregated Score: 6.1
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Categories: Game Review