You know how some games are known as run-and-gun games? Well, today I'm looking at a game that's all about running and gunning, assuming you take "gunning" to be a synonym for "shooting." Sometimes there's driving and floating, too. Oh, and the painful sting of loneliness if the title's anything to go by. It's KID's 1991 NES title Isolated Warrior!
Well, that's certainly a descriptive name. Summons up all kinds of images of one man's desperate struggle against overwhelming odds and that. Granted, it could apply to almost any videogame about fighting, but that just shows that KID and their publisher Vap had the courage to opt for such a utilitarian yet accurate title. Honestly, I thought "Isolated Warrior" was going to turn out to be a mistranslation of the original Japanese title and it should have been more accurately rendered as something like "Lone Soldier," but it turns out the orginal title was something like "Max Warrior: Planet of Martial Law."
And here is the Max Warrior - Max Maverick, a slender warrior with flowing golden hair and a drainpipe for an arm. Max Maverick fights alien creatures that have invaded his planet - in this story, at least. In his other stories, he sets up a Direct Debit to pay his utility bills and makes his weekly telephone call to his mother, Mrs. Maverick.
As mentioned, Max is fighting aliens that have invaded your planet. Hope you didn't want any more plot than that, otherwise NES games in general are going to be terribly disappointing for you. You're thrown straight into the action, and the action takes the form of constantly walking forward along the isometrically laid-out world and blasting any enemies that appear.
Well, that's pretty much everything there is to say about Isolated Warrior. See you next time!
No, not really, I'm still here, although that is most of Isolated Warrior's gameplay. You walk forward automatically, because if Max Maverick is nothing if not determined. You can fire forwards, and you can jump.
Jumping's handy, because the roads of the future are riven with bottomless pits. You can jump over bullets, too. And the enemies that split in half, pass an electric current between those two halves and then charge at you. Yeah, you'll probably be doing quite a bit of jumping.
Not as much jumping as shooting, naturally, and as the first mid-boss attacks you'll get a chance to practise that shooting without the distraction of Max's relentless forward movement. You actually have two guns to choose from - a narrow, forward-firing laser and a spread shot with a wider pattern. You can switch between the two weapons by pressing select, but mostly the power and precision of the narrow laser will be the preferable death-dealing choice, because the spread gun simply doesn't hit hard enough to clear your path.
This first boss also provides an early crystallisation of Isolated Warrior's ethos when it comes to enemy design, and that is to make the player look at the monster in front of them and say "what the hell is that thing supposed to be?" In this case, my best guess is a legless tree-demon with a torso that vaguely resembles a screaming face, intent on destroying Max by filling the playing area with Brussels sprouts. As you can probably imagine, this is not a tactic likely to stop a man called Max Maverick, and so the first mid-boss falls beneath a hail of laser rifle fire.
Holes are much more deadly. Fall in a hole, lose a life. The jumping mechanic isn't exactly endowed with surgical precision, and the edges of the pits are fuzzy and loosely defined. You'll fall in plenty of holes where you could have sworn Max was on a safe footing before you get used to their quirks.
Beyond the terrors of Awkward Platforming Valley lurks the first proper boss. It's a... worm-thing? Very bitey, should be kept away from small children. If Snapping Turtles could fire slow-moving energy blasts from their mouths I would say without hesitation that this is a Snapping Turtle. A Snapping Turtle from space, who has made his home amongst a field of warts. Look, they don't pay me to give biological field notes, I'm just here to shoot the damn things, and this boss is even easier than the last one. Just shoot him in the mouth, and watch out when you kill him because in a fit of pique the boss' final action is to explode and fire the segments of his body at you. What a dick.
The between-stage scene reveals that Max is no ordinary grunt - he was promoted to Captain for his gallantry during the Zargalox-Human Wars, and for having a totally radical hairdo. He is now the only survivor of the Special Force, making him a truly isolated warrior and also leaving the path open for many further promotions in the near future.
Of course, one of the benefits of being an isolated warrior is that you get to use a jetpack. Those things are really single-occupancy only.
This is stage two, which consists mostly of a jetpack flight along the canals of whatever planet this is supposed to be. I don't think it's Earth; we don't have gorges lined with huge, grape-like protusions down here (they're just lined with hikers and tourists). Jetpacking is a lot like walking, except it's slightly faster so you need to be on your toes that bit more. The enemies have also really knuckled down and improved their planet-invading skills, because they're much tougher - and more numerous - than they were on stage one.
Speaking of enemies, it's time for another round of "What the Hell is That?" Come on, you can play along at home! Here's stage two's most inscrutable enemy - but what the hell is it?
If you said "demonic urinal," congratulations, take fifteen points. I would have also accepted a shrug of the shoulders and "I dunno, a bone or something?"
Don't worry if you're frustrated by your inability to discern the true forms of the enemies, because the boss of stage two is much easier to describe:
It's a castle with the face of a weary old man and rocket launchers instead of hands, the shoulders and midriff protected by yet more grumpy faces. Hey, I said it was easy to describe, not that the description would make any sense.
Frankly, I think this boss is great, He's certainly memorable, and a real step up from Isolated Warrior's previous obtuse but not especially interesting foes. This guy's definitely interesting. I'm interested in him. I want to know why the aliens dropped him in the sea, I want to know what his legs look like, I want to know why he fires a constant barrage of meatballs at the player, I want to know why his central head looks so downbeat. Actually, scratch that last one. I'm the Isolated Warrior, I can't do with being drawn into the emotional lives of others. I'm sorry, Mr. Castleman, but I'm going to have to shoot you now.
I should say it's a familiar sight - judging by that hair, Max is seeing a giant illusion of his own head.
Stage three, then, and the sinister Swiss tendrils of H.R. Giger have found their way into yet another videogame's design sensibilities. Ribbed walls, bone growths, it's all here. That round green thing on the right in particular looks like an upside-down egg from the Alien series.
I don't know why Max ditched the jetpack. Perhaps it ran out of fuel, or maybe he just wanted to feel the alien slime - slime that looks a lot like olives floating in a rich tomato sauce - squishing between his toes, but whatever the reason it means I lost a lot of health through walking in the wrong place. Given that Isolated Warrior works on a Gradius-style power-up system where death results in your weapons being reset to their piddling peashootery starting forms, that is very unfortunate indeed. The game is at least fairly generous with the pick-ups to improve your weaponry. Collecting laser power-ups upgrades it from a single bolt to two bolts and one that fires behind you, and then three bolts and two backwards-lauching blasts, where as the wide weapon simply adds more projectiles to the spread until you've got a nice wide arc of attacks that aren't really powerful enough to be of much use.
It's a big problem when you die while fighting a boss, because there's no way to regain your weapon power-ups. Vagina-mouthed fish-skull here isn't going to take pity on poor ol' Max and chuck him a few upgrades, not when Max wandered into the boss's chamber and immediately started zapping his exposed brain with laser bolts.
So far Isolated Warrior has been an average and occasionally frustrating experience, but it's just about surviving on the sheer charm of its boss monsters. They're... well, they're alien, which is nice. Better than a horde of bland robots or straight-up Giger wannabes, and I think this guy might be my favourite of the lot. Shame I had to shoot him to death, really.
The brain was an illusion! An illusion that could kill, like a mirage or the Voodoo Casket of Unendurable Torment (WARNING: Voodoo Casket of Unendurable Torment should only be attempted by fully qualified and licensed magicians)!
Now Max has a motorbike, and I can already tell what question is bursting free of your lips at this very moment - can you pop a wheelie on this thing? You're a super-soldier called Max Maverick, and you're gunning down aliens from atop a space-hog. Of course you can do a wheelie. The developers were forced to include it after the playtesters of the early versions barricaded them in their offices and refused to give them food or water until they had given Max and his motorcycle the ability to unleash kickin' awesome wheelies at the drop of a hat. What's even better is that while you're wheelieing, you can kill enemies by driving into them. I know, that's pretty fantastic, right? It almost makes up for the rest of the stage.
I say almost, because a lot of level four sees you negotiating your rocket-cycle between, around and over the instant-death holes that litter the abandoned highways of the far future, and no amount of tubular stunts can make up for the frustration of dying repeatedly on a high-speed, forced-scrolling platforming section. Well, I suppose it could be worse - you could have to fight the boss at the same time.
Which you totally do. Yes, that little purple robot is the stage four boss and yes, I'm all-too aware that it is a major disappointment. What are this boss's attacks? I have no idea, because for the duration of this fight I clamped my thumb down on the fire button and channelled all my mental acuity into the arduous task of not falling into all the bloody holes. I think he might drop mines or something? Yeah, that sounds about right.
Then Max rides his motorcycle into space. The developer's eight-year-old son will be getting a co-writer's credit on this one, I see.
Stage five takes place on the alien's space station, which is a relatively uninteresting series of maroon metal slabs that feels a bit of a let-down after the technicolour organic squishiness of the earlier levels.
On the positive side, I discovered that Max has access to a third weapon in the form of bombs. If you press jump again while jumping, Max drops a bomb that explodes in a ring of fire, or at least it does when you've powered it up. At level one it farts out a paltry single flame, so try not to use your bombs until you've boosted their power a bit. You'll just be embarrassed by the aliens' sniggering at your pathetic weaponry otherwise.
This is a fairly dull stage, but before we get to the boss I should mention that it does include ninjas. There they are now, the blue chaps on the left. I think these ninjas have also tired of Isolated Warrior, because they don't seem to be very into their jobs - they hang on the wall, and when Max wanders nearby they half-heartedly fall to the floor and then explode. They don't launch themselves at you in a whirlwind of shadow-cloaked steel, they really don't try to attack you at all: they just drop to the ground and explode. I know I should be thankful for small mercies, and the fact that these ninjas don't really have the stomach for a fight is definitely merciful, but it does make me wonder just how much of a threat this alien race really is if their ninjas have all the get-up-and-go of a Media Studies student on a Sunday morning.
At least the boss is more menacing, but even then he takes a more laid-back approach to Max's destruction than most. Maybe it's because he's got no body to impress. Because he's just a head, you see. A head bolted to the floor. Actually, maybe this entire space station is his body and his head sticks up... inside... his body? Just shoot the damn thing already, Max. Obviously it's slightly more difficult than that, because for some reason the screen is constantly moving back and forth, and I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be Max walking up and down the corridor in front of the boss, or the whole area moving around Max. Surely it must be the latter. Max hasn't felt the need to moonwalk about the place in any previous boss battles.
The boss destroyed, Max can move on to the final stage after you've watched the latest cutscene. The leader of the aliens, a being composed primarily of shoulderpads, commands his minions to destroy Max's ship immediately. You know those aliens are just waiting for the vidi-screen to disconnect so they can start muttering things like "what does he think we've been trying to do? It's all well and good for him to sit on the Golden Throne of Supreme Overlordship and tell us how to do our jobs, but will he come down here and help us out? Noooo, he has to wait until the human hero has reached the centre of his command post before he'll use his ultimate techniques." The desire to complain about your boss is an intergalactic constant.
It's time for the final showdown. It's on a spaceship. A big, blue spaceship, with lots of holes to fall into. What kind of spaceship is full of holes? A shit one, that's what kind.
I've lost interest. There it goes, floating through the airlock of boredom into the harsh vacuum of interstellar space. Bye bye, interest. Isolated Warrior is an odd one - the weirdness of the enemy and early area designs are arresting, the music is decent and generally I really enjoy a bit of no-nonsense, gung-ho shooting action... but something about Isolated Warrior just grates on me, and I can't really say what it is. It's probably a bunch of things - the inconsistent collision detection, the loss of all your power-ups upon death, the fact that due to the isometric view any enemy that moves right into the top-left corner can't be hit. It's one of those games that doesn't quite click for me, but I wouldn't be surprised if it has its fans.
Okay, here's the final boss. Yep, the final boss. The final boss of Final Fantasy I, in fact.
I thought he looked familiar. The aliens are being lead by Chaos, and now Max Maverick has to finish what the Warriors of Light started. Imagine a Final Fantasy game that set you back to level one every time you died: that's been pretty much what my time with Isolated Warrior has felt like.
I was surprised by how easy the final boss was, given that Isolated Warrior had been giving my backside a firm kicking in the later stages. I even managed to defeat this guy with the unpowered weapons, because I did die the first time I fought him. Here's a tip: don't walk up to him. The back half of the stage is a hole, and you will fall in and die. Still, as long as you do a lot of jumping to avoid the beams of electricity he launches and you keep your aim focused on the glowing orb in his chest, you shouldn't have much problem emerging as the victor. Congratulations!
"Yeah, I could totally have escaped the planet, easily, but I didn't because I'm a cool guy like that."
That's your ending. Max walks forward while boasting. Well, I'll let him off one that front. He did just save the world, and he was isolated while he did it. "The incident will remain a haunting memory," says Max, and the game ends. But wait, what's this?
A super-secret bonus level awaits, if only you can decipher this cryptic text. "Finish all 6 stages before the game is over"? I couldn't crack the code, so I looked it up and apparently "before the game is over" means "complete the entire game without losing a single life." Highly-skilled players only, indeed. Right, back to the start, then.
Yes, I went through the whole game again just to show you the true final stage. It was a painful, seemingly-impossible battle that I thought was beyond my grasp, but in the end, after countless hours of practise, I managed to defeat the boss of stage six with losing a single life.
No, not really. I cheated. I cheated big time. I cheated harder than Lance Armstrong and Chinese football combined. Invincibility, permanently upgraded weapons, infinite bombs. All hail to the Game Genie.
I can't honestly say that getting to stage seven is worth it, not given the ridiculous conditions for gaining access to it, but it does at least look cool. A city burns below you as you jetpack toward the real final boss, who has his own spaceship.
Once again, it is a spaceship full of holes. More of those devil urinals, too. For a super-secret stage with such bonkers requirements for entry, it was not as insanely difficult I expected. It was hard, don't get me wrong - the entire game is hard in that familiar NES-difficult way - but I expected a lot more bullshit than this. Of course, I am cheating. And it feels good.
Now appearing on the Jumbotron - King Shoulderpads the Third, Lord of Spikes. Well, let's get this over with. Let's just step though this door...
...and into the vast blackness of space. Maybe you should have a warning sign over that door, a little note. Caution: Space Helmet Area Ahead or something. Health and Safety will be furious.
Right then, here we are at the final boss fight. It's that guy with the shoulderpads. I know, shocking, right? I can't really give you an accurate picture of the difficulty of this encounter, what with the invincibility and all, but if you've managed to get through the whole game without dying to get here, then I imagine you won't have much trouble with the boss. His main attack is a three-way burst of energy, so once you know to move between them you've got most of the fight sewn up. The rest is just shooting the boss a whole bunch.
Your reward for completing the extra stage? One bonus picture. Of a book. I'm sure the memoirs of Max Maverick would be a bestseller, but I can't help but feel let down. I guess it's true that cheaters never prosper. One shot of a book on a table cannot be described as prospering.
That's it for Isolated Warrior, and it's a tough one to sum up. I've grumbled about it, but it's not really a bad little game. It's simple, but that's hardly a fatal flaw for a NES game, and it is visually interesting, particularly some of the early bosses that have very nice designs. I just didn't enjoy it that much, perhaps having become pampered by modern games and their disinclination to strip you of all your hard-won power-ups when you die. Maybe it just caught me on a bad day, and you might well enjoy it if you give it a shot, but for me I think Isolated Warrior shall remain isolated no more: it'll have plenty of company in the "Games I Never Want to Play Again" pile.