Halloween has really spoiled me. Filling my Octobers with appropriately ghoulish games is the easiest thing. There’s such an abundance of worthwhile candidates, in fact, that I usually don’t know where to begin. On the other hand, quality vintage Christmas games are all but nonexistent. Sure, some publishers were known to put out pared-down holiday-themed demos of their regular retail titles for promotional purposes. Think Christmas Lemmings or Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams. When it came to true standalone works, however, Elf Bowling and similar shovelware trash was the rule. Something like the mediocre Santa Claus platformer Daze Before Christmas was about as good as it got, despite being only marginally more entertaining than a head start on your next tax return.
I do get it. The archetypal video game is rooted in epic conflict, not peace on Earth and good will toward men. Fair enough. It just means I’m going to have to cheat a little. Hence, I’m resorting to Die Hard rules with 1992’s Power Blade 2, a stock NES action-platformer than just happens to be set on Christmas Eve. Yippee-ki-yay.
As you’d expect, Power Blade 2 (or Captain Saver, as it’s known in Japan) is the sequel to the previous year’s Power Blade. Nova, the 22nd century’s premier boomerang chucking muscleman, returns. This time, he’s going up against the Delta Foundation, a shady corporation that’s blackmailing the U.S. government with a newly-developed super cyborg. They’re threatening to sell this technology to the nation’s enemies if Uncle Sam doesn’t shell out by New Year’s. Nova’s boss has a better idea: Sending him on a clandestine mission to eliminate the Delta Foundation by infiltrating and torching all of their heavily guarded research facilities. On Christmas Eve. I guess that makes Nova a bit like Santa, except the bad kids get large scale industrial sabotage in place of coal.
Power Blade 2 is a frustrating case for me. I love the original and the majority of its mechanics were faithfully carried forward, including Nova’s tight movement controls, his ability to attack in eight directions, the cool metal armor that grants extra powers, the stage select feature, and the overall excellent graphics and sound. What’s missing is the wide open level design. Instead of having you explore each area in search of both the boss’ hideout and the key to open it, Power Blade 2’s six stages are presented as a linear series of cramped corridors. While there’s nothing strictly wrong with that latter style, it does forgo most of what set Power Blade apart from Mega Man, Shatterhand, and countless other sci-fi side-scrollers on the system.
I wish I could say this conventional approach was a trade-off of sorts, but there’s honestly nothing that special about Power Blade 2’s levels. They’re alright, if a tad too reliant on slow auto-scrolling and one-hit death hazards. Fundamentally, though, they’re nothing I haven’t seen done before, and often better, in that same teeming mass of 8-bit releases I mentioned above. A net loss all-around.
Fortunately, there is an upside. The single temporary armor suit item from Power Blade has been greatly expanded upon here in the form of four different suits that act as permanent additions to Nova’s inventory. The Newt Suit lets him climb along ceilings and walls, the Wet Suit improves his underwater mobility, the Rocket Suit grants flight, and the Patriot Suit comes with a pair of orbiting shield satellites that automatically position themselves to block enemy projectiles. These perks don’t come free. You must earn the suits by defeating mecha-dragon mini-bosses stationed in the first four stages and their usage thereafter is tied to a battery power gauge. Still, these suckers are all highly useful and fun to boot, even if they don’t make up for the rote level design.
A final noteworthy change is the increased difficulty, which I can see alienating some fans. Power Blade was rather forgiving by NES standards. Nova could withstand a lot of punishment and instant death scenarios were uncommon. Power Blade 2 ups the ante considerably with its deadlier environments and more cunning enemy placement. At least the passwords and unlimited continues remain to take some of that edge off.
Although I have a hard time viewing Power Blade 2 as anything other than a downgrade, that doesn’t mean I regret the time I spent with it. It is a Natsume/Taito co-production, after all. Competent by most any measure, it merely lacks the strong creative identity of its predecessor. It’s a less interesting, less approachable, less “Power Bladey” take on Power Blade. Not even Kinuyo Yamashita’s musical score is quite on par with the one she contributed to the last game. Adding insult to injury, it’s a rare and expensive cartridge. An authentic copy will run you upwards of $400 as of this writing.
Underwhelming and overpriced as it is, there’s one thing no one can take away from Power Blade 2: It’s the absolute best Christmas game on the NES. When Nova destroyed the evil mastermind behind the Delta Foundation and rode off into the sunrise on his hoverbike to the tune of Silent Night as snowflakes began to fall, I practically fell over laughing. Now that’s what I call the reason for the season!