This lousy game may have kicked my ass eight ways from Sunday, but that is still one stunning end screen.
I was pouring through the vendor booths at last June’s Seattle Retro Gaming Expo when I came across a boxed copy of Natsume’s 1990 Famicom shooter Final Mission being sold by none other than local convention mainstay and YouTube personality John Riggs. Looking at the screenshots on the back of the box, I recognized it right away as none other than S.C.A.T.: Special Cybernetic Attack Team! I remembered quite enjoying this one back around the time of its 1991 North American NES release and the price was right indeed, so I happily snatched it up. I thought I was setting myself up for a pleasant stroll down memory lane. Alas, what I actually received was a swift kick to the gaming gonads.
And yes, they actually called this one S.C.A.T. over here for some reason. As in animal feces. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at that localization meeting. They must have known how childishly absurd this title was, since the 1992 PAL release went by Action in New York.
Final Mission is essentially Natsume’s take on the “flying man” side-scrolling shooters that Capcom popularized over the late ’80s with their loose trilogy of Section Z, Side Arms, and Forgotten Worlds. Instead of controlling a spaceship or other vehicle that always faces (and shoots) in the fixed direction it’s travelling, players assume the role of an airborne commando with a rifle that can also turn around and fire backward as needed. The arcade version of Forgotten Worlds went so far as to incorporate a rotary dial control that added full 360 degree aiming to the mix. This sort of functionality is out of the question on the Famicom, of course, but Natsume did equip the heroes of Final Mission with a pair of orbiting satellite guns that can be locked into position as needed, allowing for a similar degree of versatility at the expense of a little added complexity.
The story centers on…wait for it…evil aliens attacking the Earth and two super soldier types named Sergei and Frederick being the only dudes bad enough to strap on rocket packs and take the fight to the enemy. Being a straightforward shooter, the plot wasn’t anywhere near top priority here, although the cut scenes supporting it are home to by far the best graphics the game has to offer. Seeing the aliens obliterate New York City Independence Day style in the opening is as spectacular as it is discomforting in hindsight. On a lighter note, the heroes in S.C.A.T. were changed to Arnold and Sigourney, complete with new character portraits clearly modeled on their Hollywood inspirations. How I pine for the days when video games were still considered silly children’s toys and were small enough potatoes that designers could conceivably get away with this sort of thing. Remember when Spiderman, Batman, and Godzilla all made unauthorized cameos in Revenge of Shinobi? Good times.
Not that it really matters, I thought. I came here for that familiar action. Diving in, however, I quickly discovered that Final Mission is not the same breezy thrill ride that S.C.A.T. is. No, this original iteration of the game is a brutal taskmaster packing more than twice the challenge factor of its non-Japanese counterparts. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult Famicom or NES games I’ve ever played! Your characters start out with a mere three units of health, half as much as in S.C.A.T., and the health restoring power-ups that appeared in each one of S.C.A.T.’s stages don’t exist anywhere in this version. Final Mission’s protagonists suffer on the offensive front, too. All weapons seem to deal less damage and taking even a single hit will cause you to lose any equipped special weapon and be downgraded to the pathetic default pea-shooter. Oh, and I hope you have strong thumbs because only one special weapon (the laser) has any kind of auto-fire capability in Final Mission, whereas all guns benefited from this kindness in S.C.A.T. With each of the game’s five levels being exceptionally long by genre standards and lacking any sort of checkpoints, scraping through one under these conditions always feels like a miracle. At least you have unlimited continues that start you back at the beginning of the current stage. Final Mission would verge on being legitimately unplayable without them.
Still, I’ve made it through a lot of shooters over the past couple years, including some fairly challenging ones. So what if Final Mission wasn’t the low-pressure nostalgia trip I was hoping for? Fair enough. I was still hanging in there and enjoying it alright for the ultra-hardcore experience it is. Until level four, that is, when any goodwill it had built up with me was abruptly and irreparably dashed. Never in all my years has a single horrible stage so completely soured me on a game. Most of this level consists of a lengthy trip up the aliens’ space elevator on the way to the climactic assault on their orbiting home base. What this means for the player is around four solid minutes of being swarmed from all sides in front of a very busy, very fast-scrolling background. Throughout this ordeal there’s frequently so many enemies and obstacles filling the screen at once that heavy sprite flicker kicks in, hiding some hazardous projectiles from view completely and combining with the rushing background to form a hellish vortex of headache-inducing visual chaos. I mean it, too. My head was throbbing after just a few minutes of staring at this mess and that agony, combined with the hardware-pushing glitchiness of it all, kept me stuck here for the better part of two hours losing countless lives and power-ups to barely visible bullets. By the time I finally clawed my way to the top and overcame the level’s marathon three phase boss battle, I had long since resolved to never touch Final Mission again. The design of this stage is so bad it borders on the abusive and I would have quit long before actually seeing it through if being a stubborn bastard didn’t have its drawbacks. In case you were wondering, this same level does exist in S.C.A.T., but with extra health, more powerful weapons, and fewer enemies to contend with, the player is much more likely to make it through either on or not long after their first try.
The fifth and final level mercifully backs off on the eye-straining visuals and veers back into saner territory. It remains utterly savage, of course, just not for all the wrong reasons. By that point, however, it was far too late to win me back. I genuinely wanted to like Final Mission. It looks good, the heavy rock and funk-infused score is Contra composer Kiyohiro Sada’s personal favorite out of all his works, and most levels feature a nice mix of vertical and horizontal scrolling sections with seamless transitions between the two. It even allows for two-player simultaneous play. If it wasn’t for that one intolerable elevator stage, it would be an easy recommendation to experienced shooter fans looking to test their limits on the Famicom. As it stands, though, S.C.A.T. is where it’s at.
Just don’t quote me on that out-of-context. Please.