“Steel Fox: An all-female special squad, highly trained in counter-terrorist combat. Assisting them is the independent, state-unbound corporation Neo Logic, which produces assault suits (mecha) which can be navigated by a skillful pilot. The young female pilot Rei from the Steel Fox is sent on a decisive mission, codenamed ‘Night Slave’: an assault on the terrorist organization ‘Slave Dog’.”
Night Slave is a PC-98 Mecha Action game based off Assault Suits Valken that was created by the obscure and now defunct “Melody.” Despite being a PC-98 game (which usually suffer the fate of being doomed to obscurity without the Touhou brand name), it has turned into a cult classic of retro Mecha gaming.
For the most part, the PC-98 was not known for its powerful system capable of running action games smoothly. Most of its offerings tend to be turn-based RPGs or Visual Novels, which uses the system power to instead deliver huge, well-detailed artwork rather than gameplay concerns.
This is surprisingly not the case with Night Slave, which runs surprisingly smooth for a game on its console. I suppose this isn’t exactly unprecedented. After all, games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had beautiful, smooth 2D spriting despite being on a console that was supposed to possess “weaker” capabilities in that department.
For the most part, Night Slave plays like an Assault Suit Valken (a.k.a Cybernator in the US) clone, joining the ranks of games such as Gigantic Army or Front Mission: Gun Hazard. If you have played any of those games, the gameplay style should feel familiar to you.
Mecha games tend to have rather interesting physics to them. It might seem counter-intuitive, but unlike games starring a humanoid protagonist, a mech cannot utilize extremely mobility in the same way Mario can. Concepts like acceleration, boosted jumps need to be just “right” for the player to feel like he’s piloting a mech rather than a human-shaped robot (although I suppose that is what a mech is.) Like its predecessor, Night Slave nails its physics well.
What gives Night Slave its uniqueness are the weapons and upgrades system. As you complete stages, you’ll unlock weapons like mines, lasers or missiles that you can choose to customize your mech after every stage, thus offering replay value as you try to work out the optimal loadout for the stage. And in a mechanic taken from Gradius, you’ll find power-ups that will fill up a bar at the bottom of the screen (helpfully in English for non-Japanese speakers.)
Depending on how many of them you collect, you can either expend them for a short-term but powerful effect such as restoration of health/shield/bombs or use them to permanently upgrade your weapons for the rest of the game. The tension caused by this forms an interesting dynamic and resource management that adds an additional layer to the action nature of the game.
And boy is there a variety spread throughout the stages of the game! One minute you’re fighting on top of a ocean ship, the next you’re in a jungle, in yet another you’re sweeping an underground lab where the suspiciously familiar alien experiments have broken out and then you’re blasting off into space taking out rapidly approaching enemies.
All set to some rather rocking tunes, if I may say so myself.
So let’s talk about the plot, shall we? The game has been recommended as one that’s perfectly fine for non-Japanese speakers to play due to its action nature. Indeed, the game creators has helpfully included an option to automatically skip all cutscenes and hop into the action parts instantly.
That being said, if you can read Japanese, you should take the time to read it, because the plot’s actually rather competent. Unlike many of AS Valken’s clones, the plot isn’t just limited to simply a few lines of conversation at the start of each mission. The Visual Novel plot scenes between each mission actually takes quite some time to read through and can’t really be categorized under “throwaway” plot as many action games are. It’s not a super philosophical plot that will make you reconsider your views on life and death, but it’s entertaining, constantly throwing you some curve balls to shake things and will overall keep your attention throughout the game.
It certainly has some flaws, as its treatment of lesbian characters isn’t particularly super progressive (though I’m not sure why you would expect that from a piece of media featuring giant robots made in 1996), and the sex scenes are rather gratuitous, but unless you’re one of those new-fangled super sensitive people on the interwebs, it probably shouldn’t bother you that much.
(Incidentally, such characters are pretty darn rare numerically speaking in the field of Japanese media, especially in the realms of Japanese mecha, the number of female protagonists quite possibly doesn’t break double digits)
As a general rule, the English-speaking VN community doesn’t particularly dwell on its past very often. Like old RPGs, interface issues tend to make playing a chore for those used to modern conveniences such as text skip features. Due to technical limitations, most old VNs aren’t particularly aiming to provide a mind-blowing philosophical storyline either.
With the added requirement of needing to know Japanese to fully enjoy 99% of the PC-98’s library and the accepted belief that most of its library is pr0n, so it remains that most of the PC-98’s library will go silently unnoticed…
But at the very least, this game has gotten recognition enough, including being referenced on the Wikipedia page for Eastern Developed RPGs for some reason.
For the record, I believe that if you’re looking to jump into Japanese retro-gaming, going far beyond the time of the NES, this is quite possibly one of the best games to do so. A hidden gem in the PC-98 library, it’s a treat to play for those into the mecha genre.