I think it’s safe to say that when Metal Slug launched in 1996 it put recently minted developer Nazca Corporation on the map in a big way. It wasn’t their first effort as a team though, more like their major label debut. And like your favorite band’s major label debut, it was an effort produced after years of honing their craft. In their case, that was with games developed for Irem like Undercover Cops, GunForce II, and In the Hunt.
When it debuted in arcades in April 1993, In the Hunt (known as Undersea War in Japan), exhibited the distinctive art style and stunning animations this team was already known for and, as with their entire body of work, it was dang challenging! I didn’t burn through as many credits to beat it in comparison to any of the Metal Slug games, but it still would have cost a pretty penny to reach the end in its native arcade setting.
I played the PlayStation version, which first released in Japan in November 1995. It appears Tuji Jimusho, a small developer previously focused on erotic games , ported this version with Xing Entertainment serving as the game’s publisher in Japan; Kokopeli Digital Studios (a division of THQ) brought it stateside in March 1996. Contemporary home conversions were also released for the Saturn and PC, although modern ports of the original arcade game through HAMSTER’s Arcade Archives series are probably the best way to play it nowadays.
That said, the PlayStation and Saturn versions each have unique arranged soundtracks. The original arcade recordings consist of low, bass heavy, aggressive tracks that sound like they’re coming out of a submerged Genesis, which is fitting considering the subject matter. The Saturn arrangements keep this feeling but with a crisper sound, whereas the PlayStation arrangements may as well be entirely new songs. Take the theme of the first stage for instance; the arcade original gets down to business with an oppressive drum machine that never lets up while the arrangement’s jubilant synthesizer melody is downright whimsical.
On the surface , In the Hunt appears to be a pretty typical shoot ‘em up. However, piloting a submarine instead of say, a spaceship, allowed the game to have a few unique traits. Perhaps more so than the typical space shooter, special consideration had to be paid to my surroundings. The majority of opposition I encountered lay ahead of me in the form of enemy submarines, but what happened above the water’s surface, and even below me, was just as life-threatening. Airplanes and boats dropped depth charges from above while naval mines and seabed gun turrets slowed my forward progress.
Unlike most shoot ‘em ups, which tend to feature auto-scrolling stages, my control of the submarine caused a stage to progress. This was helpful in navigating the enemy threats and occasional narrow passage, but I wasn’t free to lollygag since there was a timer; although like with Metal Slug, it ticked down at a very gracious pace. In the Hunt was different from most shoot ‘em ups in another way, too: the sluggish responsiveness of my vessel. Even though I set the game’s pace, it wasn’t as if the submarines were zipping across the screen. Often, it would be crucial to outright halt my assault on the D.A.S. (you know, the Dark Anarchy Society) and just unload my never-ending supply of ammunition at whatever roadblock (seablock?) was ahead of me.
Whether I was commanding the U.S. (Underwater Ship) Crimson Fire or a partner was manning the helm of the U.S. Azure Scourge, our submarines’ offensive capabilities were twofold. Torpedoes were shot ahead from the launch tubes, and could be upgraded into one of three enhanced equivalents by collecting a rotating power-up. I thought the choice to pick the Hyper Torpedo, which burst into clusters was easy, considering the Supersonic Wave Torpedo and Cracker seemed like barely modified versions of the default torpedo.
Additionally, vertical attacks, going above and below the submarine simultaneously, came out of dual launch hatches. Slow-dropping depth charges wrecked whatever was below, while floating mines or missiles were launched depending on whether I’d breached the surface or not. Breaching the surface allowed me to take out airborne, ground-based, and even some boats with ease, especially when I obtained the homing missile power-up. Alternatively, with the machine gun power-up, I could aim my turrets at specific targets by moving forwards or backwards.
The game’s six stages, each averaging about five minutes in length consisted of memorable set pieces and boss battles, with the exception of the understandably basic first stage. In Sunken Town, the game’s second stage, I had to blast through underwater skyscrapers and highway overpasses, and weave in between launching missiles before facing off against a pair of over-engineered nautilus inspired vessels in the midst of a sports coliseum. I was in shallow water in the Channel, which had me attacking from the water’s surface the majority of the time while the fourth stage, Deep Dark Sea had me feeling like Deryck Whibley as I descended deeper into dark caverns, even doing battle against a Darius like fish creature.
As far as bosses go though, the penultimate stage, Seabed Ruins, offered the crème de la crème. I ascended the entire stage, blasting a path through the foundations of a massive structure as an enormous supernatural guardian effortlessly rose through what I barely chipped away at. At the uppermost limit, I had to pound the ceiling with floating mines to dislodge massive chunks, then dodge out of the way and let them land on the guardian. Destroying a massive missile piece by piece as it rocketed out of the D.A.S.’s headquarters in the final stage was a little underwhelming in comparison, and that’s saying something!
Despite similarities with its brethren In the Hunt is a unique shoot ‘em up with great moments and a feel all its own.