Review – Cyber Citizen Shockman (Xbox One)
There comes a point in gaming, especially with Japanese games, where I can’t tell if something is earnest or parody. There’s so much of game development in the East that feels like taking the piss that you get confused just how sincere the tropes and development are. For example, the entire anime Golden Boy is an honest-to-goodness take on the romantic comedy genre, but with a protagonist who is simultaneously perverted and oblivious without the two ideas overlapping. Instead of this being a six minute short that was in an adult animation block at midnight, this OVA series is remembered fondly and even celebrated amongst die hard anime enthusiasts from the 90s.
In that same vein, the West now has access to the Turbografx-16 jaunt that is Cyber Citizen Shockman. Originally released in 1989, this game is one of those curious cult hits that never seemed to find the right time to venture outside of Japan. It’s had several re-releases, including the Virtual Console for both Wii and Wii U. It feels like it should be right over the plate for international audiences. A sidescrolling action game with multiple routes, two different characters that can be played at the same time and some decent voice acting. The pixel art is solid, the soundtrack is chippy but enjoyable and the concept is honestly amazing.
As our backdrop for Cyber Citizen Shockman, we are introduced to a boy and a girl, Tasuke and Capiko. With zero preamble, both are randomly abducted by a mad doctor, who converts them into cyborgs in order to take down the Evul Group, an aptly named organization. The doctor promises to put them back into human bodies if they get everything squared away in eighteen days, which is such an arbitrary timeline. Also, he realizes they’ll get damaged along the way, so he can repair them…for a price. Look, he’s just a kidnapper and God-complex madman, he isn’t made of money. Thankfully, every enemy will drop something either cash-equivolent or a helpful power-up, so get into it: you gotta make bank in order to defeat the Big Bad.
So now we’ve got the zany setup, the cast of characters and a pretty straightforward goal. Your next step in Cyber Citizen Shockman: finding out where the line is between challenge and enjoyment. It’s clear that the porting team, Shinyuden, saw the challenges of a late 80s platformer coming over to first time fans over thirty years later. As a result, there are some great goodies that Masaya Games (the original devs) provided, including concept sketches and the original manual scans to check out. But there are also a set of cheats to implement, and I’m mentioning them because every promotional piece about Cyber Citizen Shockman does as well. The two cheats, unlimited money and invincibility, completely change the game in an instant.
This is because the game is hard, but not by design. The controls are floaty and the step movement is very off putting: it feels like the main character needs to get a running start to just walk. Hit boxes are a bit irregular, and the best strategy is to mash the attack button constantly when in the presence of normal enemies. There are multiple instances where you’ll need to land on very small platforms surrounded by very angry enemies or very pointy hazards and the fact remains that you’re setting yourself up to fail even as you try your best.
As for bosses, you need to take your chances and figure out the when and why of things in regards to invincibility refraction. That is, the bosses can and will get into endless hit patterns that result in your death unless you’re willing to go toe-to-toe and brutalize them Baki the Grappler-style until one of you is dead. This isn’t some Dark Souls schtick where you’re dodging constantly. This is just a bloodbath (a bloodless one at that) to see who drops first, with the exception of the final boss that’s “hit, jump, walk, hit jump, walk” until the credits roll. It’s not innovative, and the boss designs are alright, and you’ll see them very quickly because the stages (with the exception of the final area) are almost incredulously short.
As for stage variety, you don’t see a whole lot of different palettes, monsters or textures within this world. While things like the addition of the outdoor sinks really capture a Japanese park, you marvel less and less when you realize at least three stages take place in a park. The indoor science lab/death factory schtick is really overplayed, so nothing exceptionally new or creative is coming out in this department. It’s hard to really put your finger on where your reaction lines, because, yes, this game probably did some of these tropes first and I applaud that. But it’s also 2023, and we just had insane giants like Starfield and Baldur’s Gate 3 show how expansive a modern game can be…so it’s hard to really slot back into something that was constructed during such a limited time.
This is one of those titles that exists and you either need to be in the perfect mindset or have extreme nostalgia for the game, and, given that no one I’ve talked to has ever heard of Cyber Citizen Shockman, it has to be the first. When you turn off the cheats, you see how the game is supposed to be played. The branching pathways give you chances to find power ups, but none of them actually affect the gameplay other than having some last-second healing factors.
The accumulation of wealth is definitely meant to be saved for healing between levels in order to reach the end in one piece. Dying on a stage means starting over again from the beginning. Not of the stage, of your entire run, and needing to pick up from there with a little cash on hand. This plays into the eighteen days nonsense, so there’s theoretical pressure to get to the final boss without dying too much.
However, if you have the cheats on, you can finish the whole game in about fifteen minutes, at which point you really see the bones of Cyber Citizen Shockman. This is a class piece that apes ideas from Mega Man, adds in some decent humor and character design, and ascribes replay value to getting players to memorize split second choices. The way that enemies, projectiles and hazards dogpile, particularly towards the end, showcases that the vision of this game was to get players to repeat themselves out of necessity. If the controls were tighter or the hit boxes more defined, this whole thing could be an enjoyable hour or so that you’d word-of-mouth to friends. The pathways are novel and the dual characters are interesting, but the gameplay is just terrible.
It’s clear to see why Cyber Citizen Shockman never exited Japan, but still created enough of a following to merit a sequel (which was also localized). It looks exceptional for its time and it perfectly captures the “just one more try” rage that comes from arcade style gameplay. I would absolutely recommend it to gaming historians who want to see examples of solid pixel art and design during the coin-operated heyday. It’s punishing at times, so hardcore gamers can go off on a lark to try and accomplish it without turning on the cheats. But as an individual set piece, I can’t say I’d want to play it again. Such an obtuse title not being part of my regular rotation should hardly come as a shock, man.
Excellent sprite and color design in terms of characters and enemies. Loved the anime splash screens and avatar portraits. Landscapes were too repetitive and the overworld map feels bland, without any real purpose.
Floaty jumps and even staggered walking makes for difficult controls. Sword swings have variable hit boxes and the life drops are few and far between. Monetization of healing creates stress and frustration, especially when you can’t afford it. Heavily promoted cheat codes completely defang the entire game.
Chippy, blippy, and poppy, it’s a solid video game soundtrack from the 80s that gets you bopping along with the game and exploration that comes with it. Having said that, I couldn’t pick a single track out of a lineup of three other chiptune songs.
I sincerely appreciate what the preservation of this title means to so many, and it’s not a bad game, it just hasn’t aged well and doesn’t feel like it has a incoming demographic. As a longtime retro player, this just doesn’t speak to me.
Final Verdict: 6.0
Cyber Citizen Shockman is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch. The original game was released on PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16 in the West).
Reviewed on Xbox One.
A copy of Cyber Citizen Shockman was provided by the publisher.