I will admit that the sight of a discount bin usually strips me of my pride. That's when I will roll up my sleeves and dig unabashedly through scores of disposable releases in the hopes of snagging a juicy sleeper or an aged hit that I missed out on. Long forgotten FPSs usually line the walls of these veritable dumpsters, along with Madden, FIFA, and WWE games from years past. However, I've also noticed that there are several titles, most of which were marketed as budget games, that tend to frequent these chasms of crap. One of them might strike a nostalgic chord with some gamers, especially those who owned a Genesis and/or one of NEC's creations: a scrolling shooter entitled Saint.
Thematically, Saint is not your standard space ace-style shooter. Rather, the game draws from the classic Chinese novel "Journey to the West," placing you in control of the character Songoku (also known as Sun Wukong). Each stage begins with a cutscene in which Songoku discovers an immense floating fortress, and thereby develops an urge to murder the castle's proprietor. What ensues promises to be a terrific throwback to old school shooters, rife with claustrophobic scenarios, hours spent in bullet hell, and face-crushing challenges.
Presentation-wise, Saint mostly succeeds in its quest to fondly remember the past. The visuals are a fitting throwback to 16-bit shooters (albeit with more advanced imagery), sporting a variety of colorful, simple sprites and a lively art style. Enemies and surroundings borrow from Buddhism and Hinduism, featuring a variety of monks and priests, not to mention massive stone deities and structures decked out with culturally relevant details. The only problem is that most of the environments outside of boss stages--which is almost the entire game--are vapid and repetitive. For the most part, stages focus on a single basic background, such as cloud cover or a vast jungle. They're a far cry from the gorgeous and sometimes intricate environs displayed in many ancient shmups, especially those exclusive to Japan.
You might hope that Saint's mechanics make up for the lackluster environments, but the game is nowhere near as pleasing as the shooters of yore. For starters, the protagonist's sprite is large and awkwardly shaped, making it needlessly difficult to deal with the barrages of projectiles, suicidal villains, and multi-hit foes that each level throws at you. Such challenges would be welcome in a well made scrolling shooter, where you usually had just enough resources to surmount every obstacle, sometimes by the skin of your teeth. That's how difficult games are supposed to roll. With Saint, there are far too many occasions in which you cannot reasonably weave around swarms of bullets or properly deal with closed in setups. That's when a game crosses the line from "challenging" into the realm of "cheap."
It seems as though the developers at Opera House realized this misstep and tacked on a health bar, five lives per credit, saving between stages, and infinite continues as compensation. In other words, you don't need skill to survive in Saint. Rather, all you need to do is avoid dying more than five times before reaching a stage's conclusion, providing only a modicum of effort while constantly blasting your opponents, and you're in like Flynn.
I would prattle about Saint's specialty firepower and how it could have bolstered the experience, except that the game is damaged beyond repair. Sure, there's some decent add-on weaponry available, like a spread shot, but power ups perish the instant you lose a life. Worse, there are only two opportunities per stage to purchase unique arsenal (not counting shot upgrades, which appear throughout the level), so the game gives you little time to experiment with its multifarious munitions.
It might sound like I have enough material to wrap up this review, but in actuality I've only covered about one-third of the game's stages in the above paragraphs. As it turns out, each world is divided into three parts: a sidescrolling segment, a rail shooter stage, and a boss battle. In other words, my criticisms above are only the tip of the iceberg...
Where I merely dislike the sidescrolling levels, I abhor Saint's rail stages. In screenshots, they may appear to be endearing head nods to Space Harrier, in which the camera rests behind Songoku as he soars to his opponent's abode. Sadly, though, this is where the bulk of the game's technical errors crop up. Projectiles and adversaries are nearly unavoidable, as it's difficult to tell whether or not they're close enough to collide with you. Eradicating foes is also tough, as you need to place yourself in the line of fire in order to dispatch them. You'll likely find yourself committing more to self-preservation by avoiding combat, rather than engaging in battle.
Worse yet, these stages are horribly repetitive. Every one of them involves swarms of the same enemies flying towards you, then scampering off. Repeat this process ad nauseam, and the aforementioned act of pacifism, for three to five minutes and you have Saint's rail segments in a nutshell.
You would imagine that the already-broken Saint would utterly disintegrate once you meet a boss, but honestly the game's boss fights are its best feature. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying the bosses are brilliant. Rather, Saint's boss encounters are to the rest of the game what a light poke in the ribs is to various forms of brutal execution. Some of the bosses present stiff competition, expelling a multitude of fireballs whilst executing devastating melee maneuvers. The only hangup is that you can actually shift directions during these segments, which causes the screen to scroll in the opposite direction. While that might sound like a neat feature, it's actually quite damning. For one thing, it means you can't fire at your adversary while moving backwards. Instead, you either have to fly towards him or hold still.
The latter of those two strategies can actually be too helpful against certain villains. The second boss, for instance, can be easily defeated by holding still in a certain area in front of him--a zone in which very few bullets pass--while constantly hammering the fire button. The funny thing about this strategy is that I didn't discover it on the internet or invent it after numerous attempts to fell the combatant. Rather, I actually noticed it almost right away, as the projectile-free region was all too apparent.
There's a reason why you'll sometimes spot dozens of copies of Saint in a clearance or value dump bin, or even listed on Amazon for less than two dollars (and for a brand new copy, no less). It's not only because publisher UFO released it at a super low price, but because the shooter is genuinely terrible. It may showcase loveable 2D visuals and a hilariously bad storyline, but everything else--from the game's cheap difficult rating to its faulty rail segments--is broken. Saint once again reaffirms the point that a low price doesn't magically improve a bad game.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.