With these ACA series releases Hamster has ensured that those seeking a retro-gaming fix on Switch have had a steady stream of Neo Geo titles to choose from. As standard, each one comes with useful options to tweak difficulty, remap buttons or play the Japanese version of the game (titled Operation Ragnarok, in this particular instance), but it’s the 1-credit Hi-Score and 5-minute Caravan modes that work particularly well with shmups as you hope to increase your score to move up the online leaderboards, trying to find the perfect balance of blowing stuff up and self-preservation. Zed Blade is the latest scrolling shooter to arrive on the eShop, armed with an interesting choice of soundtrack and a few options to consider as you go chasing those high scores.
There are three ships to pick from, of differing abilities. The superbly named Uncle Beard is the slowest of the bunch, but comes armed with an extra bomb. Ms. Charlotte is the good all-rounder whilst Swift Arnold is unsurprisingly the quickest of the trio. Having selected your ship you are then given three options for forward and rear weapons and three choices of missile as well; all three can be powered up as you play. Find a combination that works for you then blast your way through eight stages of enemy attackers.
To accompany the onscreen action, developer NMK opted to use electronic dance music for the soundtrack. Perhaps the hostile forces are music critics and this is the reason they launched their attack? Repetitive beats with some electronic beeps, bloops, yells and countdowns thrown in are likely to annoy anyone passing close by your Switch, but the tunes actually work well for the game; the energetic nature complimenting the frantic gameplay.
There's some variety to the tracks too, at times getting a little more intense or adding an element of mystery. Sound effects from the various weapons firing and things exploding also add to the atmosphere, sometimes feeling like part of the music. The final level in the game features a pained, song-like howling throughout. There’s the usual rave happening in the background, but the howls give a haunted feel that fits the scene wonderfully.
The game sees you travelling across the solar system and to other planets, allowing for a variety of backdrops as you play - but a lot of it takes place in space, which can get a bit samey. While Zed Blade isn't as detailed as some Neo Geo titles there's some good use of parallax and a wide variety of colours on display – although things can look quite garish sometimes.
The swarm of opposition you encounter feature a wide variety of craft to avoid and destroy. So wide is this variety it sometimes feels like you are fighting forces from at least two different games. Shapes appear onscreen to morph into relatively traditional-looking fighter planes and you’ll also come across tanks and attack helicopters. Other times, foes have a mechanical, insect-like appearance and there are battle suits that wouldn't look out of place in Macross (interestingly, NMK had produced a vertical shooter based on the Macross: Do You Remember Love? theatrical feature a couple of years prior to this game). Alas, you cannot call on Lynn Minmay to belt out some J-Pop and put an end to all the fighting, so you’ll just have to try and blow everything up instead.
This task is not that easy as the game requires quick reflexes to weave around the screen, and as your ship is quite large there’s little room for error. Sure, the game begins with you able to gently slide out of the way of bullets, but it’s not long before you’ll find yourself constantly on the move, trying to avoid incoming projectiles. As you move forwards, backwards and generally snake around the screen, bullets, ships and explosions can make things cluttered and the action becomes hard to keep track of. If there’s a lot happening onscreen you are also treated to some authentic slowdown.
The slowdown is most noticeable during the game’s visit to Jupiter where multiple large worm characters crawl about the screen. The slowdown can be quite useful, giving you a moment to plan your course of action, but at times a “be less accurate” option in these ACA releases would be welcome. The stage is a fun one however, with a simple but effective storm cloud backdrop and some great music; a chilled breezy track, like a kind of offworld Out Run.
As challenging as Zed Blade can be, unlimited continues mean you just need to set aside a half-hour to see all the sights it has to offer. The real challenge comes from trying to improve your highscores. In arcade mode you’ll want to stay alive for as long as possible as using a continue results in a score-reset, and in all modes you’ll need to be aware of other ways to add to your points tally.
As you’d expect, destroying the various craft trying to shoot you down increases your score, but you can also blast away at some scenery for additional points. Your choice of character is a factor here as the slower your pick, the more points are given for targeting these areas. The scenery doesn’t explode and not all of it can be shot at, but once you’ve figured out what you can get points from, blasting away at the scenery between waves of attacks is a good way to build that score.
Similarly, the large boss characters you encounter (and some other large enemies) may have a small weak spot you need to target in order to bring about their destruction, but you also get points for hitting the invulnerable spots. If you can stay out of the way of their attacks this too is a good way to get that better score you were aiming for.
Trying to find different ways to increase your score keeps you busy with the game as you hope to gain a higher place on the leaderboards, but for more straightfoward competition you can ask a friend to play through the arcade mode with you in two player. Blasting through the game with help is an enjoyable way to play, as you work your way through whilst trying to outscore each other. It should hopefully stop them complaining about the music, too.
Zed Blade might not be the most famous of Neo Geo shooters but with three craft to pick from and a number of customisation options, it has variety and point-scoring options aplenty. Of course, none of that would matter if the game wasn't entertaining, but luckily NMK has crafted a fun shooter. The music seems an unusual choice at first, but proves to be a good fit with the frantic play style required for the game. It's not without fault however, and the action is sometimes easy to lose track of when the screen gets cluttered and there are moments of noticeable slowdown. Your ship is also quite large considering all the activity onscreen, leading to some moments of frustration when you're unsuccessful in navigating high concentrations of bullets. Zed Blade remains enjoyable however, and should keep highscore chasers occupied for some time.