The world is in danger, and only one man can save it. Unfortunately he was busy, so we got a cat to do it instead in Konami's 1987 arcade maul-em-up Black Panther!
That's right, the title isn't a metaphor or anything. The playable character in Black Panther is a member of the Panthera genus of big cats. Or course, in one sense there's no such thing as a black panther - they're either leopards or jaguars that happen to be black, depending on the continent. Someone with more zoological insight than me might be able to decide whether today's game features a leopard or a jaguar, but all I know is that being a cat it's unlikely it'll be carrying a machine gun. C'mon, Konami, I'm begging you to prove me wrong.
Here's the Earth, undergoing an unspecified catastrophe caused by an unnamed assailant. Black Panther is not a game that's big on explaining itself, Konami apparently having decided that "you play as a jungle cat and fight robots" would be a sufficient draw. The land turns red, the seas turn yellow and it's time to get into the action.
Here we are, then. Seems like we're a little late to the whole "save the Earth" party, what with all the ruined buildings and killer robots, but I'm here now so I might as well show willing. Black Panther is a run-n-gun game only without the guns, with your panther careening from left to right and defeating the enemies in its path. Will there be a boss at the end of each stage? I'd say it's a distinct fuckin' possibility, skip.
To eliminate your foes, you have two options: you can either press attack to swipe at them with your panther claws, or jump on them with your panther claws but from above. Immediately a problem arises: all your attacks are very short range. Okay, so technically the jump is long range because you can cover quite a bit of distance, but you know what I mean: you have to land on the enemies just right or you'll take damage. I personally found it best to split the different and press the attack and jump buttons at the same time. That way, when I messed up a jump - which was a very frequent occurrence - and landed right in front of a robot without actually hurting it, I was already slashing my claws at it rather than standing in place and looking as sheepish as it's possible for a mighty hunter of the forests to look.
It doesn't show in the panther's attacks or movements or ability to deal with killer robots, but I'm beginning to suspect that our feline hero is not just any ordinary big cat. For starters, each stage opens with the panther appearing in a lightning strike like it was the Almighty Thor. Also, when you come back to life after dying, our hero is reborn via beams of ethereal light. Did God mean to send down an angel but accidentally hit the wrong button on the Interventionist-Deity-O-Tron? Or maybe God hates this one particular panther so much that he's condemned it to an eternity of being killed by murderous robots. Somewhere, Zeus looks at Prometheus and thinks to himself "Killer robots? Shit, why didn't I think of that?"
On we go, dashing forwards and occasionally leaping onto platforms so we might avoid the deadly menace of the giant scotch eggs, for their breadcrumb coating is fatal to the touch. Fortunately it's not instantly fatal, and Black Panther is generous enough to give players a health bar. Weirdly, your health starts at fifty but can be increased - in the unlikely event that you can collect some health refills without taking a bunch of damage - to up to a total of 100 points.
I have no idea what is going on. It's something to do with Attack Power and, if panthers can get sunburn, also sunburn.
The second half of the stage is mostly made up of a chase section where a robot in a blue box - you can see him at the top-right of the screen - dashes away and drops enemies into your path while you pursue him. This involves quite a lot of running along the perfectly flat stage and making sure to stop and claw at the enemies in front of you, because if you jump over them they suddenly get a lot faster and try to insert themselves right up your backside as quickly as they can. Even the arrival of robot skulls doesn't do much to enliven a rather monotonous passage of gameplay. I can't believe I just wrote that, normally the phrase "robot skulls" will get me, if not to the edge of my seat, then at least out of my usual "I just had fifty percent of my bones removed" slouch and to somewhere near the middle of my seat.
I caught up to the robot in the box and destroyed it, and my reward was yet more blue robots that look like plumbing supplies from an alien spaceship, more aggressively yellow landscapes and ruined skyscrapers that suggest the apocalypse came in the form of a weapon that turns buildings into tiny bales of hay, and a new thing: a set of silver balls that move in and out of the wall, hurting you if you touch them. I'll say this for Black Panther, it's taking it's own unique path when it comes to enemy design.
Speaking of enemies, here's the first stage's boss. It's a, well, it's one of those, erm, you know, one of those things. Yeah. See, this is why you should always check your trash compactors before turning them on in case there are cyber-snakes hibernating inside.
It's a common joke about videogame bosses that maybe they should do something to cover up or disguise their massive glowing weak points before they go into battle, but in this case it goes even deeper - this boss should get to a doctor and have the pulsating red pimple on its head checked out. I didn't even know robots could get pustules, but here we are. I feel sorry for the panther, because he's got to jump on that lump until it bursts and the boss is defeated. I hope the God that keeps resurrecting the panther also has the power to generate hand sanitizer.
Oh good, a sewer level. I suppose I can't complain too much, back in 1987 sewer levels weren't quite as overdone as they are now, and the panther doesn't seem to have a problem with water despite being a cat. The pink things you can see sticking out of the panther in the screenshot above are its fully-extended claws, which gives you an idea about just how short your short-range attacks are. I'm also about to run face-first into a deadly puddle of baked beans.
Just like in the previous stage, about half-way through there's another section of platforms and scotch eggs - except this time I've figured out how it works. Instead of the yellow orbs that increase your health when collected, these orange orbs give you one use each of a special attack when collected. They keep respawning, too, so if you want to you can risk having your health chipped away by the rolling snack food and spend some time collecting a supply of special attacks before taking on the second half of the stage.
I managed to collect a fair amount of Attack Power, which makes my claws do more damage until I run out of them. It doesn't make the gameplay any more interesting but it does make it faster, and because Black Panther is not very good the ability to run forward and casually swat the enemies aside is a welcome change.
Oh, and in one of the very few pieces of - and I use the term extremely loosely - "world building" in Black Panther, you can see that a sign in background makes reference to "N. Tokio." I'm going to assume that means Neo Tokyo. It's almost always Neo Tokyo, isn't it? Black Panther must take place just after Neo Tokyo was about to explode.
The boss of this stage is... whatever the hell this thing is supposed to be. A head of some kind. It's got eyes, a nose, a mouth. Yep, it's definitely a face of some kind. Why it's here and what it's made out of I couldn't possibly tell you. My best guesses are "because the evil alien-robot overlords got fed up of looking at it and ditched it in the sewers" and "ugly rocks." I may not know much about what's going on in Black Panther but I can say with some certainty that it's a very ugly game. The panther itself is fine and has a nice, smooth running animation, but everything else is a crude and rough-hewn mess of clashing colours and enemy design that manages to be boring and indecipherable at the same time.
Fortunately, the colour palette in stage three is a little less punishing, and the panther has adapted well to being outside its usual environment as it leaps between the platforms of the ruined highway.
Or, you know, leaps head-first into a concrete structure. One semi-interesting thing, because "semi-interesting" is the peak of how interesting Black Panther gets, is that if you manage to collect enough orbs to reach 100 health you generate a forcefield of spinning balls that can be launched in eight direction by pressing the attack button. It's a good job you're not playing as a dog, there'd be a lot of wasted time while it fetched the balls back.
Another section of orb-gathering waits in the middle of the stage, and I have come to the realization that every stage in Black Panther is essentially identical: they start with a flat, dull section that takes the concept of level design to dizzying new lows, then there's the same area that lets you collect a few power-ups, followed by a chase sequence with a robot that drops other, more expendable robots into your path and then a boss fight. There are only four stages in the game, so Konami must've really put the extra effort in to make this game feel as repetitive as it does.
Looks like I was wrong when I said the panther wouldn't be getting a gun!
Except I wasn't, because "a gun" and "the ability to spit tomatoes at people" are not the same thing. Don't get me wrong, becoming a one-cat attack of the killer tomatoes is useful and the range it adds to your attacks is more welcome than an earplug salesman at the 2025 Limp Bizkit reunion tour, but it's not a gun.
Oh, and while I'm complaining here's another thing that, like so much of Black Panther, was enough of a rankling irritation to make me wish I'd never bother playing the bloody game: you spend most of the game jumping, because it's faster than walking, you can hurt enemies by jumping on them and despite being some kind of Jesus-panther beamed down from Heaven above, the panther cannot walk on air. Unfortunately, after a few jumps you end up right against the edge of the screen, meaning you can't see the enemies that are coming your way and you end up taking unnecessary damage as a result unless you stop, jump back towards the middle of the screen and start the scrolling from a more reasonable position. I think that falls comfortable under the heading of "pain in the arse."
The next boss is another face, albeit one that's a little more difficult to parse than the previous boss. Like the other bosses it's still basically a cube and its weak point is its eye - which makes sense, I think most things have a vulnerability to big cats scratching their eyes out. However, the thing sticking out of the front, which I think is supposed to be a xenomorph-style second mouth, appears to be coming out of the boss' nose. Whether or not this is supposed to be the previous boss, returning scarred and battle-damaged after our last encounter, or a whole new robot that's going through the mechanical equivalent of hastily wrapping a towel around yourself when the doorbell rings and you're in the shower, the fight is the same as the last one and certainly not any more interesting.
On to the final stage, and this screenshot illustrates Black Panther's rather loose definition of level design quite well: a flat plane broken up by the odd generic block, liberally doused with a random assortment of enemies placed without thought or reason like sprinkles of shit on a cupcake you found in a dustbin.
The final area is a tech-base packed with flamethrowers and retracting spikes, and once you're in there the reason for a panther being sent on this mission rather than someone with opposable thumbs or a gun that doesn't use vegetables as ammunition becomes clear - the panther's sleek frame makes it easier to pass under the various traps. Any human over four feet tall who tried it would never make it through, so it was a choice between either a panther or a child and the panther is less likely to get distracted by a picture of, I dunno, a Minion or whatever it is kids like these days.
If you were expecting the final boss to be anything other than a roughly cube-shape robot skull then maybe you should seek help for your brain problems, because a metal skull-box is exactly what we've got. The big difference is that this one moves up and down while shooting lasers from its weak point, making it almost impossible to land a clean hit on the bloody thing. It was at this point, and with no hesitation or shame, that I started using cheats. You're forced back to the start of the fight if you die rather than carrying on exactly where you left off, and there was no way I was wasting valuable sleeping time fighting this thing more than twice. Thus, cheating. This meant I had a permanent force-field, and I could stand near the boss and wait for its motion to carry it into my, ahem, spinning balls. The boss seemed as happy with this solution as I was and proceeded to bounce into my attacks until it ran out of health and exploded. Again, I have precisely zero shame about finishing the game this way.
You most assuredly will not see me again, Black Panther.
The world is saved, the Earth returns to its original colour palette and the player is left with the stern admonishment that "we must gaze it." What does that mean? I have no idea, but it makes about as much sense as anything else in Black Panther so at least the game's consistent.
How best to sum up Black Panther? It's not quite abysmal enough for me to really call it unplayable dreck, but it's also far too tedious to be described as "flawed but interesting" so in the end I'll have to settle on it being bad. It's just a bad game. Boring, repetitive, low-effort and with the faint feeling that it's not quite finished. It's somehow less than the sum of its parts and those parts weren't very good to start with, and it has to go down as one of Konami poorest offerings from this period. I know not every game they released could be a Castlevania or a Gradius, but when you've set the bar that high a game like Black Panther feels like trying to jump over the bar, missing completely and having the bar whack you in the testicles.