Nowadays, Natsume is really only good for one thing - Harvest Moon games. Although they possess a cult following, Harvest Moon only tends to attract a certain type of gamer, the kind that prefer their games slow and relaxing. It's hard to imagine that during the NES era, Natsume pumped out a number of excellent action titles. While many of them were derivative of other, more popular games, most of their works were solid, challenging, and quite a bit of fun. Most of their games were darker than the typical Capcom or Konami fare, and although they may not be as graphically enticing, they showed off some interesting concepts, particularly in boss battles. Here is a look at their NES action library: the shooters Abadox and S.C.A.T., and the action-platformers Shadow of the Ninja, Shatterhand, and Chōjin Sentai Jetman. (They also made an excellent RPG called Chaos World, although that's not focused on in this article.)
If you're going to rip off anything, you may as well rip off the best. Much like Life Force, a planet sized monster is wreaking havoc in the galaxy, and only by flying through its innards can you hope to destroy it. You needn't play past the first level to see the obvious influence, where you enter through through the mouth and dodge spiky teeth that protrude from the gums. The first boss has long, googly eyed tentacles. There are vertically scrolling stages throughout the game, although they scroll downward rather than upward, for an interesting change of pace. There's even an escape sequence at the end where the speed kicks up and you need to zig-zag through a series of walls, lest you smash into them headfirst.
But for being a rip-off, it's a damn good one. Most of the boss designs are terribly frightening, at least for an 8-bit Nintendo game, and there's a more consistent organic feel to the levels (as opposed to Life Force, which was a bit haphazard - just what was with that Egyptian head anyway?) Since you control a little spaceman rather than a spaceship (think Section Z), you're kind of a big target, and one hit will send you back to previous checkpoint. The power-up system is a bit simplistic, as you simply grab whatever speed-ups or weapon upgrades that come along, although you can also grab orbs that rotate around your character. There's no two-player mode either, but otherwise Abadox takes a place amongst some of the better shooters on the NES. Abadox remained unchanged among the various territories, although it was published by toy manufacturer Milton Bradley in America.
Shadow of the Ninja / Blue Shadow / Yami no Shigotonin KAGE (闇の仕事人 KAGE) - NES, Wii Virtual Console (1990)
Shadow of the Ninja aims to be a two-player version of Ninja Gaiden, although it plays a little bit differently. Players can either take the role of blue ninja Hayate or red ninja Kaede to defeat the evil Emperor Garuda in the futuristic wasteland of America. In additional to your standards swords, your ninjas can also wield sickles, which have farther reach but can't hit enemies up close. Shurikens and bombs can also be found in limited quantities, and you can use ninja magic to damage all of the enemies on the screen, at the expensive of some health (hold down the "B" button to activate this - I don't think it's even explained in the manual.) Unfortunately, most enemies take several hits to kill, which can results in lots of cheap hits if you're not careful. The gameplay is fairly straightforward - although you can't bounce of walls, you can grapple onto certain ceilings and climb on them, which was later borrowed for Ninja Gaiden III. Despite the ridiculous difficulty of the later sections, it's a fairly decent game with some cool music and decent sound effects (especially the little "HA!" shouting noise every time you attack - digitized samples in NES games were pretty astounding back in the day.) Add in the two-player mode and you've got another game to play with a friend after you've beaten the hell of both Contra games.
Shadow of the Ninja is known as Kage in Japan (which, appropriately, means "shadow") and was renamed Blue Shadow when it was released in Europe by Taito. For some reason, Europe had a grudge against ninjas and refused to allow them in the title of any video game - hence the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles becoming Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, and Ninja Gaiden becoming Shadow Warriors. Oddly enough, they still refer to the characters as ninjas in the intro, just like the American version.
Natsume was going to release a junior rendition of Shadow of the Ninja for the Game Boy. However, Tecmo picked up on this, bought the game, changed the main character to Ryu, and voila - this was Ninja Gaiden Shadow. The gameplay is still much closer to Shadow of the Ninja, since you can't bounce off walls but you can grapple onto pipes. The pace is quite a bit slower than both games, and you only attack with your sword, although you do have a fire wheel attack from Ninja Gaiden to use. Some of the music is recycled, and the intro is almost exactly the same as the NES game, right up to the references to the evil emperor Garuda. It's still an excellent game, and well worth investigating for fans of both titles.
S.C.A.T.: Special Cybernetic Attack Team / Action in New York / Final Mission (ファイナルミッション) - NES, Wii Virtual Console (1990)
S.C.A.T. pays homage to Capcom's arcade classic Forgotten Worlds, featuring two flying soldiers and simultaneous gameplay. Although you can only fire forward and backward, you have little orbs that can be positioned to shoot in any direction. Although there are only four stages, each level is fairly long, although they have a tendency to feel a bit drawn out. The third stage is one big, long vertical trip up an elevator shaft - while the sense of speed is cool, it's just the same green background repeating over and over for five minutes. In spite of some missteps, the final stage is a huge battleship a la R-Type, which is pretty impressive for the NES. Although you can sustain a number of hits before dying and starting the level over, your character is a huge target, and the screen is often filled with projectiles. Despite some occasional frustration, there are a few noteworthy details - your characters portraits make them resemble Arnold Scwarzenegger and Signourney Weaver, and the opening voice clip sets the stage for an exciting game ("You must destroy them! The Earth is counting on you! Good luck!") Just don't mind the silly name.
The American version was published by Natsume, while it was released under the title Action in New York by Infogrames in Europe. The Japanese version, Final Mission, has quite a number of differences. First off, it's much harder - instead of beginning with six life bars, you only have three. The orbs control differently as well - you can either command them to be stationary, or they rotate in the direction you're moving in, instead of cycling automatically. The map screen and character select are gone altogether, and the voice in the beginning is completely unintelligible. It definitely seems like we got the good end of the deal on this one. Also, although technically unrelated, The 2008 Xbox 360 shooter Omega Five, also developed by Natsume, bears a slight reseblance to S.C.A.T.
Shatterhand is one of the only Natsume action titles that doesn't seem to rip off of another game... and it's no coincidence that it's probably the best. As the name (and goofy box artwork suggests), you play as a dude named Shatterhand, a total badass with fists of steal. Punch an enemy and you'll send them flying. Walls can be destroyed with your bands, and bullets bounce right off your knuckles, provided you can time your attacks right. Killing enemies yields gold, which allows you to purchase health refills and attack power-ups. You also find little Greek letters throughout the stages - collect three and you'll be joined by a robot companion, who gleefully hovers above Shatterhand and helps dish out damage. There are eight robots in total, and its abilities are chosen by the combination of letters you grab. One of them wields a sword, another one tosses boomerangs, and still others attack with sparks that travel along walls and ceilings. Robots can take damage just like you can, and eventually explode if you put them in harm's way. It's a really cool idea, even if it's tough to remember which letters correspond with which robots.
The levels are your standard NES game fare - a forest, a factory, a burning city - and you can tackle them in any order. Unfortunately, the boss battles tend to highlight Shatterhand's biggest flaw - most of your foes are quite agile, and it's rather to hard to hit them with only your fists. If you get stuck in a fight without the proper robot, you're pretty much up the creek. Otherwise, Shatterhand is an excellent game, and a sorely overlooked, shoulda-been classic.
In Japan, this game was actually a licensed title based on a TV show called Tokkyū Shirei Soruburein. Apparently it was a reasonably popular sentai show. The intro and main character sprites are different, and you collect power chips instead of gold in order to get power-ups, but otherwise, they're pretty much the same.
Based off a popular sentai TV show - you know, like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Voltron - Chōjin Sentai Jetman is the only set of Natsume action games not released in America. In all fairness, that's actually kind of okay, because it's one of their weaker titles.
In each level, you can choose from one of five sentai heroes. Two of them wield swords, two of them wield guns, and the fifth wields a weapon called a Wing Gauntlet, which is basically a really powerful punching attack. The game actually plays a lot like Shatterhand, although it's missing a lot of the cool weapons and attacks. The levels are actually quite straightforward and a bit boring, and the only special move available is an attack that clears the screen of enemies.
At least the boss battles are pretty cool. Whenever you reach the end of a level, you hop in your giant robot - complete with an awesome cinema scene - and engage in a one-on-one duel with your foe. You can pummel them with your fists, block incoming attacks by pushing down, or charge up your power meter to execute super attacks. They seem a bit clunky at first, but once you get down the enemy patterns, these segments actually get kinda fun. Once you deplete your opponent's health, you transform into a flaming bird and completely obliterate them. So even though it's not as challenging nor as innovative as Natsume's other titles, it's still a well-made game with some excellent music and decent visuals.