SNK’s history is flush with wild fantasies. The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection features multiple. There’s Athena in which the goddess conquers all manner of monsters and Crystalis, a uniquely textured tale with more to do with Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda than anyone at SNK would admit. Or, Prehistoric Isle where an Arthur Conan Doyle dinosaur story meets shooter.
But this compilation is a story of war games. The ’80s struck with post-Vietnam stories, a revisionist history started by the Rambo franchise. As the theme goes, America can still win the war they lost. Send in a super soldier. So, SNK did, and multiple times over. The Ikari Warriors trilogy stands out, with two men charging into jungles, assault rifles and rocket launchers firing, while facing impossible odds. It’s decorative pop art, colorful and despite the violence, strangely giddy at the thought of mowing down these foes. Then Ikari Warriors 2 (subtitled, without subtly, Victory Road), a bizarre, surrealist dream as the same soldiers war in an alien hellscape. Suddenly, Vietnamese turned into giant spiders and little goblins, offensive were the whole thing not so primitive.
By Ikari Warriors III the duo ditch guns and punch their way through treacherous lands and deep water. Feed the arcade machine money and America will win – the ultimate take on the country’s ferocious militaristic stance, and from an Asian perspective that isn’t wrong.
SNK didn’t stop. There’s P.O.W, where one or two soldiers escape a prison camp. What seems like a take on Steve McQueen’s The Great Escape soon reveals the more contemporary Vietnam setting. Enemies dress in dreary browns and the camouflaged vehicles exhibit colors suited to a jungle environment. One-punch knock-outs feature prominently, again suggesting the brash, muscular American can win with sheer strength. In 1985, SNK issued TNK III, where a super tank exits a boat decorated with a patriot star to trudge through a green jungle slaughtering green-clad soldiers. The better equipped forces win, so suggests TNK III. At SNK’s most absurd, there’s the included Guerilla War, featuring Che Guevara and Fidel Castro (!) mowing through government forces to enact their revolution. Forget the politics; Guerilla War is here to again set itself in a jungle where a war remains lost and victory is a matter of spraying ammo.
Eventually SNK capped everything off with NAM ’75 (not included in this compilation, sadly), where in the beginning, a soldier lies contemplatively in darkness, considering what a return to Vietnam means. It’s that rare vintage videogame to link a mental toll to war. Soon, it’s another mass of bullets and grenades, but at least SNK showed marginal maturity.
In fairness, SNK did issue Iron Tank, which took things to Normandy in World War II. The theme is handled no differently, but context matters. Iron Tank isn’t revising things to give Americans the fantasy of winning war; there’s no need in the case of fighting German troops. Ikari Warriors and its ilk exist in that realm of popular fantasy where some 20 years after Nam, American can go back, better, stronger, and refusing to admit defeat. That’s the American way, and SNK sold that delusion better than anyone.