Within a few steps into the world of Assault Suits Valken Declassified, it is immediately apparent that something distinct is going on. That’s because the steps themselves feel different.
Compared to traditional run ‘n’ guns such as Metal Slug, for example, the movement in the Assault Suits Valken remaster is considerably more deliberate, physical and powerful. And so it should be. This is a game about piloting a towering mecha in a conflict that spills into space as humanity wars over Earth’s few remaining fossil fuels.
As such, rather than jittering about its stages with the pace and energy of a prolific Nintendo plumber, your mecha stomps, barges and pounds – and all those actions feel strikingly physical. Powered by boosters, the jumps become soars, but the sense of weight is always present, and the landings shudderingly impactful. To so successfully convey such a distinct sense of physicality and raw strength in a 2D game with arcade leanings is a remarkable feat, and sits at the very heart of what makes Assault Suits Valken Declassified such a rewarding play.
In fact, it’s not truly a purebred run ‘n’ gun. Fans of the Assault Suits series will rightly insist they are ‘mecha action games’. In the case of the brilliantly sharp, atmospheric, even cinematic Valken, you’ll find scrolling-shooter and arena shmup sections, and plenty of striking set pieces that tiptoe over the edge of the traditional platformer genre framework. And as much as the focus is on moving through levels taking down enemies and their infrastructure with various ranged weapons (and an eternally reliable punch ability), it’s also a title that very much wants you to linger on the narrative, setting and scripting.
Before pulling any more of the panelling off Assault Suits Valken Declassified and peering into its guts, a quick bit of historical context. Originally developed by Masaya and released as a SNES exclusive across 1992 and 1993, Assault Suits Valken stood as an improved follow-up to – and prequel of – its forebear, Assault Suits Leynos. Assault Suits Valken came to the West as Cybernator, albeit with considerable censorship and localising edits. Over time Leynos and Valken have enjoyed a scattering of ports, but each has been rather straightforward, or even a little flat.
Now, however, Rainmaker Productions and porting house M2 – famed for its exquisite ShotTriggers shmup modernisation series – have endeavoured to bring today’s gamers the Assault Suits Valken release we’ve always deserved.
As for the game itself, Assault Suits Valken Declassified comes as an eShop exclusive for now. As an overall package, it doesn't quite bring the spread of rearranged modes and meticulous additional features that ShotTriggers releases like ESP Ra.De. Psi serve up. And yet you do get a deeply engaging and carefully realised port of the full Japanese original, with a fresh translation, and an impressive selection of archival extras.
There’s only a scattering of basic display customisations in the realm of scanline and CRT barrel settings, but what you do get is a very polished port that looks and moves great on modern screens (although the scanlines don't translate well in screengrabs, so bear that in mind as you peruse the docked shots throughout this review — they look great on the big screen itself). And as it was with the original version of Assault Suits Valken, Declassified delivers a very good game indeed, with lashings of irresistible style seemingly informed by '80s sci-fi action cinema and anime. It’s all spun together to form a world defined by the power of industrial military complexes, humanity’s flight into space, and global conflict. It's a rather irresistible place to spend time.
The emphasis is almost always on combat – with plenty of exploration evocative of Castlevania and its ilk stitching things together. It’s packed with interesting, varied level design, and those aforementioned sections that inherit many conventions from other related genres. The result, for players, is that there’s always new ways to strategise and play with the basic multidirectional shooter mechanic.
The pacing across seven reasonably large stages feels sharp and momentous, even with the mecha’s near-lumbering physicality – although some may find that distinct presence a little too hulking. New sections constantly demand new approaches, keeping it interesting. The difficulty is up there, and at times you’ll need persistence and resilience to defeat. It wants to make you work to progress. Fortunately, though, Assault Suits Valken Declassified isn’t too much undermined by one of its fundamental modernisations; namely save states. They can feel so close to cheating that they can undermine a straight-up arcade shmup, but here save states feel like a great way to actually progress and improve if you aren’t blessed with countless hours to invest.
The inclusion of original and rearranged music pumps more tone, energy and vibrancy into the experience, and visually it’s a gorgeous work. From the menacing interiors of a vast enemy ship to beautiful sweeping rural backdrops or moments where the entire colour palette shifts to a sweep of fiery oranges and reds, Valken keeps throwing up plenty to catch the eye.
Alas, there is a shortcoming amongst all this quality. Too often the screen becomes cluttered by scenery, enemies, explosions and ordnance to the point it can be hard to read. At times it’s a little hard to know what exactly damaged you, why something hit you but didn’t cause harm, or generally track hazards and collision. Over time it can feel less overwhelming, and some might argue it replicates the sense of sitting inside a mecha that’s the target of an entire energy force. Too often, though, the disconnect with what exactly was happening on screen triggered a sense of being distanced from the game, dampening the sense of immersion.
It’s worth noting those moments are occasional rather than defining; a disappointing sporadic element of an otherwise superb game, rather than anything like undermining.
Away from the game itself, the archives – largely handled by Rainmaker Productions – include a pre-recorded superplay by a world-level player, a jukebox for both included musical scores, a surprisingly charming recorded interview with original designer Satoshi Nakai, a remarkable spread of concept and production art that assert just how much effort was put into character and worldbuilding, the original SNES manual, new artwork by Valken character designer Satoshi Urushihara, and a translated recreation of the original 80-page guide book. So quite a lot and then some, and brilliantly presented. We’d have loved to have seen some ShotTriggers-type arrangements; one of M2’s refined ‘super Easy’ modes, perhaps, or another that throws in entirely new mechanics.
And yet we still have a very good port of a very good game that never made it to the West in its original, best form. The quality of life improvements are a welcome edition, and the archives a delightful treat that seem presented and compiled with authentic affection for what Assault Suits Valken is.
It might not be perfect, but if you have any affection for mecha and anime culture, classic action gaming, or shooters and run ‘n’ guns, Assault Suits Valken Declassified is very much worth strapping yourself into. The odd quirk aside, it's a very well-thought-through creation, defined by tight controls and movement, tidy level design, and a bounty of ideas. And then there's all those lovely archive materials. Tread carefully, though. This mecha is a beast.