One of the rarest, most expensive, most sought-after shooters ever made for the Neo Geo, Ironclad has been a collector’s treasure for years — and now you can have it for just ten bucks. This side-scrolling shoot-’em-up from the mid-’90s only ever made it to market in Neo Geo CD form (which was uncommon) and also was never released outside of Japan — but, if you spun up a Japanese disc in an American system, the whole thing would be in English anyhow. So Neo Geo aficionados here in the States have been tracking down copies of this one for a decade and a half, paying hundreds of dollars for the chance to experience it.
I hope they’re not too mad now.
As with several other lesser-known or hard-to-find hits of yesteryear, the Wii’s Virtual Console is now making Ironclad accessible to the masses — for the slightly increased asking price of 1000 Wii Points, true, but the extra buck for the Import banner is worth it. This is an impressive, engaging shooter with some unique ideas, and an advanced visual flair that helps set it apart from the same-genre competition already in the Wii Shop. You can tell that this is a later generation Neo Geo game (from 1996), as opposed to some of the first-run, early ’90s Neo Geo fare like Fatal Fury.
Still shots don’t do much justice to Ironclad’s manic action and dynamic, scrolling backgrounds.There are three aspects of Ironclad’s gameplay that interest me most — its ship dynamics, its challenge factor and its replayability. So let’s break those down.
Ironclad’s ship dynamics seem chiefly inspired by Irem’s R-Type series, in that your primary flying fighter is joined at all times by a separate, floating pod. You can attach the pod to your fighter for a bit of increased defense, and you can hold down the fire button to charge up a massive rushing attack — then, when you release the button, the blast will detach the pod and send it sailing out into the middle of the enemy’s forces with an impressive display of pyrotechnics.
You can then choose to call back the pod with another button to repeat the same process, or you can just let it hover out there on its own — separated from your main vessel, it’s act as an autonomous, floating ally shooting out its own, separate lasers and missiles.
Ironclad’s challenge factor feels wonderfully balanced, as it seems to fall right in between the two extremes of side-scrolling shooters — it’s not painfully simple, and it’s not brutally hard. The fast-paced style of its presentation puts its overall feel more in-line with more modern bullet hell designs, as there will frequently be a ton of things happening on the screen, multiple bosses assaulting you at once and even character dialogue displayed during gameplay, layered over the action. But even with all that going on, you probably won’t die over and over again like some of the more frustrating competing designs elsewhere in the shooter genre.
It helps that your ship can take multiple hits before crashing, and that you can choose from four different difficulty settings before starting your quest.
And, lastly, Ironclad’s replay ability — which is a lot like Star Fox. You get to pick from two different stages to continue to after you clear each level, giving you multiple paths to travel in getting to the end of the game — and multiple endings to see, once you get there. That’s a real rarity in this type of game, and, if that weren’t enough, there are also three different playable ships to choose from, and two-player co-op is supported. A great deal of depth, all around.
Ironclad isn’t perfect, of course, as there are a few negatives to level against it — managing control of the floating pod can be cumbersome at times, for one, and its design isn’t ever wholly original in any really shocking way (two of those highlights above were also highlights of R-Type and Star Fox, after all). It also may be difficult to justify spending a full ten dollars to own it without an established knowledge of its existence or appreciation of its rarity — ten dollars is an incredible value compared to tracking down a physical copy of this game, but it’s also a few bucks more expensive than some other, superior shooters already available in the Wii Shop. So you could go either way.
But if you do choose to take the chance and invest the cash for this truly rare Import release, you’ll be rewarded — it’s an impressive shooter the likes of which I hope we see more of here in the Virtual Console’s later years.