SNK History: About a Blob

Our story begins with Athena, perhaps the most detested game that SNK released on the Nintendo Entertainment System. While most of SNK’s early 8-bit titles were terrible, Athena elicits a certain stab of hatred that Alpha Mission and Ikari Warriors just don’t generate. And it mostly deserves it.

Released in 1987, this misguided Athena awkwardly sculpts an arcade title into an NES game. The original arcade Athena was never particularly good, but the NES version suffers under truly baffling priorities. Instead of scaling back the game or turning it into an action-RPG (as Tecmo did with Rygar), the programmers of Athena tried to imitate its progenitor in ways that didn’t matter. So the NES game replicates the arcade game’s intro, level graphics, and box-wipe transitions. And it has nothing resembling coherent, enjoyable gameplay.

As you endure the unpredictable controls and grating soundtrack of Athena’s first level, you might notice the small blobs that emerge from trees. The Japanese version of the game dubs them “nuupah,” and the American manual calls them “goobers.” They’re easily dispatched, or rather they would be if the game’s hit detection weren’t so terrible.

Let's turn to Crystalis, which stands at the other end of SNK’s library. Unlike Athena and Ikari Warriors, Crystalis was built from scratch for the NES, and the effort produced one of the console's finest. An energetic action-RPG in the Zelda vein, Crystalis features a broad, Nausicaรค-inspired world ushered in by an apocalypse. Its hero wields a variety of spells and swords, plus other abilities far ahead of the NES era: chargeable magic, shape-shifting, and jumping. Far too many action-RPGs still lack in the jumping department.

There’s also an Athena cameo or two in Crystalis. The goddess heroine was rapidly becoming SNK’s first mascot by 1990, so Athena (as “Asina”) and her Psycho Solider sidekick Kensou show up to advise the hero of Crystalis. And this isn’t the only link between SNK’s best and worst NES games.