Our world can be a terrifyingly uncertain place. Saving it from aliens, though? That’s simple. With this in mind, let’s escape to 2092 and join the heroic SIA (Special Interception Air force) as they defend Earth from the invading Zeograd Army in Soldier Blade for the TurboGrafx-16.
Developed and published by Hudson Soft in 1992, Soldier Blade caps off a de facto trilogy of 16-bit Star Soldier sequels that began with 1990’s Super Star Soldier and continued the following year with the deceptively named Final Soldier. It boasts quite the sterling reputation, with some fans proclaiming it the finest vertical shooter available on a platform teeming with them. I don’t think I have the experience under my belt yet to confirm or deny that. I can say that it’s my personal favorite Soldier title by a good margin, however. It’s no quantum leap over its predecessors, but it is the best looking, best sounding, and best balanced of the three.
These games aren’t known for their complexity or innovation. No frills arcade style shooting is the order of the day, and Soldier Blade stays true to form throughout its seven moderate length stages. There’s a streamlined power-up system in effect that revolves around three shot types: Red bullets (the default), blue lasers, and green energy waves. Collecting an icon of the corresponding color will switch you to that type and snagging multiples of the same color in a row will raise your current weapon’s level, to a maximum of three. Keeping your level up is key, since it pulls double duty as your health. As long as it’s sitting at two or better, taking a hit will downgrade your firepower one step instead of killing you outright.
An interesting new wrinkle is the way Soldier Blade handles its bombs and option drones. Final Soldier combined these two functions into a single item. Soldier Blades takes this a step further by implementing a sort of grand unified power-up scheme. The last three weapon icons you’ve collected are kept in stock as bombs. The most recently acquired one also trails your ship and functions as an option. When needed, you can sacrifice your active option to trigger a powerful bomb attack. Unlike in Final Soldier, the type of attack produced isn’t always the same. Rather, it’s tied to the color of the option sacrificed. Green is a massive homing orb, for example, and blue a gigantic sustained laser blast. Additionally, expending an option in this way has the potential to alter your primary shot, which will automatically be set to match the color of the next one in the rotation. In essence, there’s only one type of pickup in Soldier Blade and it governs all aspects of your offense and defense. Elegant!
Above all, what elevates Soldier Blade above the previous two Star Soldiers for me is the goldilocks quality of its difficulty balancing. Super Star Soldier felt like more of an ordeal than a game at times, even with the unlimited continues common to the series. The terminally laid-back Final Soldier embraced the opposite extreme. Soldier Blade gets it just right. I’m never frustrated or bored at any point during a playthrough.
Beyond that, all the elements at play here, familiar as they are, have an extra layer of refinement to them. Boss encounters are deeper and more dynamic, with each mechanical monstrosity having several distinct parts that need to be taken out over the course of the fight. I especially love how the last boss shows up as early as the first level to take a few potshots at you before retreating. Lord knows it’s rare for a shooter of this vintage to put any kind of effort into establishing an antagonist like that, but Soldier Blade goes the extra mile. The same can be said for the graphics and music. Sprites are detailed and colorful, backgrounds showcase some superb parallax scrolling effects, and the soundtrack rocks so hard that I had to make a concerted effort not to focus too much on it as I was playing lest I crash and burn.
My only real gripe with Soldier Blade’s gameplay is that your main weapons don’t really perform that differently under normal conditions. Whether you’re using the bullets, lasers, or energy waves, your shot pattern starts out narrow and then gradually expands to cover a wider forward arc. Thus, they’re largely interchangeable. The only noteworthy exception is the bullets, which also fire behind you when upgraded. I would have preferred more variety. Better yet, they could have kept Final Soldier’s awesome weapon edit mode. Oh, well. As it is, the selection is at least adequate.
Soldier Blade doesn’t revolutionize the genre, nor does it need to. It’s a brilliantly polished gem of an overhead shooter: Fast, smooth, addicting, and one hell of a looker. Hudson Soft seemingly learned all the right lessons from past installments, resulting in a quintessential Star Soldier experience slick and well-paced enough to entertain veterans without scaring off newcomers. Perfect for any time you’d rather be struggling against another planet’s monsters for a change.