The NEOGEO is generally characterized by, with only a few notable exceptions, fighting games and Metal Slug. Within a couple of years of its launch, the vast majority of the output on the console seemed to be mining (quite successfully) a few particular types of games. To be fair, such was the state of arcades by the mid-1990s. If you weren’t making a fighting game, a licensed beat-em-up, a shoot-em-up, or a puzzle game, you were rowing against the current.
That makes the existence of Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy ($3.99) a bit of a rarity. Developed internally at SNK by ex-IREM staffers, the game arrived in the summer of 1994 alongside The King of Fighters ’94. One of those games became near-legendary, carving its legacy into the very platform in an indelible way. The other was Top Hunter. A quirky little platformer/beat-em-up hybrid for one or two players, one could generously say that it paved the way for Metal Slug in some small way.
While there is no significant shared staff between tophunter and Metal Slug, there are some common elements. The visual style has that same sort of silly-but-gritty feel to it, and there are plenty of amusing enemy animations. You can find vehicles to ride on, and you’ll sometimes get your hands on a gun. Platforming is largely perfunctory, with jumping mostly being used to avoid attacks rather than navigating harrowing platforms. Stages are capped off with a boss fight, usually against some kind of large opponent. That’s about all of the shared aspects.
There are two key mechanics to Top Hunter. The first is your stretchy arms, which allow you to grab a variety of objects and either smash them or toss them. You can also use them to work various machines, switches, and so on. You’ll generally defeat foes by smacking them or throwing something at them, but you can make use of some traps and some special moves for a little variety. The other gimmick is that every stage has two planes, and you can hop between them as needed or desired. Sometimes traps or power-ups need to be accessed from the opposite plane, encouraging you to swap regularly.
I’ll be frank: there were a few platformers in this era that tried this kind of thing, and I don’t feel like any of them were substantially better for it. Probably the best of the bunch was Wario Land for the Virtual Boy, and there’s a reason for that. The 3D effect of the console helped solve a problem that seems to be inherent to this kind of design. Namely, it can be difficult at times to tell which plane a given object is on. In this game, it can make it hard to line up throws and even occasionally result in taking a hit you didn’t think was going to hit you. The art style here makes things a bit worse as little is done to distinguish the planes visually.
Well, it’s not a huge deal. A bigger problem with tophunter is that it too frequently lacks tension. This is an unusually easy game for an arcade platformer, and once you’ve got the hang of things you can go ridiculously far on each credit. The enemies just don’t pose much of a threat to your extremely versatile and powerful character. There also aren’t enough enemy types, so you’ll start seeing the same faces again and again. It’s amusing to mess around with everything and try defeating enemies in different ways, but ultimately tophunter is a little boring.
This boredom can be alleviated somewhat by bringing a friend along for some good old-fashioned co-op mayhem, but this is of course an ACA NEOGEO release for mobile. That means you’ll only be able to play multiplayer if you have some external controllers and don’t mind huddling around your mobile device of choice. I’d imagine for most people, that’s not going to be the typical play experience with this game. You’re most likely going to be playing solo, and that’s the less fun way to go about experiencing tophunter.
It does however benefit from the fact that we don’t get too many high-quality, premium games of this kind on mobile. I’d say it takes to touch controls even better than the Metal Slug games do since you don’t have to worry about precise aiming as much. I suppose as a solo experience, it takes to mobile better than some NEOGEO games do. And I do want to stress that the game isn’t a half-effort by any means. It’s quite gorgeous in that way NEOGEO games tended to be, and each of the four worlds have a distinct look to them. You get three levels in each world, plus a rather climactic final stage. If you play the included Japanese version, there are even some secret endings to find. It may not be thrills every minute, but it certainly brings value.
As this is part of the ACA NEOGEO line, the expected extras and options are all here. You can play with an external controller, you get both regional versions of the game, there are extra modes with their own online leaderboards, and you’ve got more options than you can shake a stick at. The emulation quality is good, and my only gripes about Hamster’s part in all of this are my usual ones about not having online multiplayer or the MVS version as an option. It’s a great package, and it’s a bit luxurious that I’m pretty much used to this level of quality in such a low-cost release.
I’m not the biggest fan of Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy, but it’s a decent enough romp that clearly had a lot of care put into it. A little too easy and repetitive at times, and I’m not sure its dual-plane system works as well as it should, but for a few bucks you’ll get your fun out of it. Add in the usual suite of features that comes with Hamster’s ACA NEOGEO line, and you have a pleasant distraction for a lazy weekend afternoon.