Hagane (pronounced the Japanese way - HA-GA-NAY - it means "steel") is a SNES game that doesn't feel like a SNES game. I guess that could come across as prejudiced, but the system suffered from a dearth of arcade action games that proliferated on the Genesis and Turbografx-16. It's published by Hudson and produced by Red, a company that usually didn't develop for the SNES, which may have had some part in it. It was actually developed by CAProduction, who later went on to work on a few other cult titles, like Sapphire for the PC Engine and Bulk Slash for the Saturn. Hagane, too, is something of a sleeper hit, the kind that would've been truly great if only more care had been put into it.
Hagane borrows a lot from Shinobi III for the Genesis. Like Sega's classic, it mixes elements of traditional Japanese ninja and samurai with a near futuristic setting, filled with robots wielding magic and all kinds of craziness like that. Your main character - who looks to be robo-strutting through each stage - is a machination that, as far as I can tell, is powered by Japanese mysticism. When he dies, instead of fading away into a mess of blood like Richter Belmont from Dracula X, he tumbles backwards and explodes. Your recurring nemesis is a warrior that seems like a combination between Genjuro from Samurai Shodown and the Terminator. Somewhere in one of the levels is a floating sentry bot with a white fox mask on it. A lot of these designs elements are pretty cool, as the sprites are very well detailed and the bosses look amazing. But the overall feel of Hagane is very muted, dark, and kinda boring - acceptable for an early SNES title, maybe, but it could've used more flash given that this was a later release. It doesn't help that the music is also forgettable at best and obnoxious at worst, again more reminiscent of first gen SNES titles before anyone figured out how to use the sound chip properly.
The gameplay also graciously pays tribute to Shinobi III, mixed with the swordplay of Capcom's Strider and weaponry of Irem's Ninja Spirit. You're equipped with four different weapons that you can change at any time - a sword, shurikens, bombs, and a chain. You also have a screen clearing magical spell to help during the hairier moments. Most of the time, you'll be charging through the stages, swinging your sword like Strider Hiryu, but occasionally you'll need to switch to bombs and shurikens. These are both in limited quantities, but the enemies are pretty gracious in leaving them behind when killed, so you don't need to use them sparingly. Your chain is unfortunately underutilized - you can swing it upward, technically making it more versatile than your other weapons. However, it's too slow and weak to do much damage, and while it will let you grapple onto most ceilings, there are only a few occasions throughout the entire game where you'll ever need to do this.
This points to one of Hagane's bigger problems - there are some cool mechanics to play with, but no real functional place to use them. You can use the L and R shoulder buttons to do cool somersaults in either direction, to execute a whole number of cool attacks, including charge attacks, flying jump kicks, and a cool maneuver where you punch the ground and make flames fly out. All of these look and feel really cool - but the problem is, you're only invulnerable during certain parts of these moves, so it's easy to get arbitrarily knocked out of them. Since you need to flip up to three times for certain moves, it's almost to impossible to actually land these attacks with any accuracy. And once you've executed them, you're left vulnerable again, ready to take a cheap hit. Despite all of these moves - which you can use as often as you want - they're really too risky and difficult to pull off efficiently, so they're not really worth much of anything. Additionally, you have a jump kick attack to quickly attack bad guys from above - but it only hits straight downward and not at an angle, making it nearly useless. In fact, most of the time you'll end up doing a jump kick when you don't mean to, and end up flinging yourself into danger.
Frustratingly, some areas actually seemed designed to highlight the some of the more aggravating control functions. In order to execute the somersault jump in order to clear some of the longer jumps - your ninja's standard jumping skills are otherwise pretty weak - you need to press jump and then hit jump again in mid-air. The problem is, you need to hit the second jump before the apex of your leap, otherwise the somersault won't work. For many of the more irritating jumps, this can lead right to an ugly death. Ironically, this is the same problem that affected the 16-bit Shinobi games, although the controls feel even touchier here, especially since it's way too easy to overshoot platforms when jumping.
Even when it's not tossing annoying platforming challenges at you, Hagane can be pretty difficult. Enemies pop up everywhere, and you absolutely need to be on your toes at all times. You walk quickly, and the screen scrolls even quicker, so it takes a little while to get used to the pacing. Even the measliest of foes take multiple hits to destroy, so even the morons that charge blindly forward can be deadly if you don't swing your sword fast enough. The screen can get pretty busy too, because it tends to throw at lot out at once. Once you get used to its pacing, though, it becomes much easier to handle. Although the enemy placement is somewhat haphazard, and sometimes a bit unfair, it's rarely unmanageable if you're skilled with action games. The copious amount of health power-ups and screen-cleaning magic spells help to even out things too. It's still a bit unforgiving though. By default, you can only take three hits, although you can expand your life bar to five with certain power-ups. However, this all disappears when you die. Most levels don't even have checkpoints either, and running out of lives will force you to start at the beginning of the chapter. At least the stages themselves are pretty short.
Despite some of the sloppy game design, Hagane is just as inventive as its spiritual predecessors when it comes to cool setpieces. There are tons of boss fights - several mini-bosses, and a major one at the end of each level. In one stage, you hop on a hovercraft and maneuver through an exploding ship, which rotates around you in the only use of Mode 7 throughout the entire game. The area ends with a battle against a flying girl who transforms into some kind of wolf, who later grows a huge Medusa-like tail. Unfortunately, even some of these elements are poorly designed. One of the final areas is an upward vertically scrolling arena, with spikes that follow you up as you ascend, Castlevania III-style. But they don't crawl up slowly - no, they pounce upward, almost erratically, crushing your hapless ninja unless you get all of the jumps perfectly.
Despite feeling like it's full of lost potential, Hagane is still a pretty damn fun game. In the hands of a more skilled developer, the enemy placement would be more cohesive, the level designs less aggravating, and the extra skills wouldn't have seemed as useless. And this is what separates a classic like Super Castlevania IV from a cult classic like Hagane - it wasn't that it was at the wrong place at the wrong time, it just lacks the polish that would elevate it beyond "pretty good". Still, as long as you've got a sense of patience for its idiosyncracies, it's definitely worthwhile as a forgotten SNES almost-treasure.