I remember reading about X-Kaliber 2097 in Nintendo Power when I was in middle school. I remember learning that it would be one of the first games to feature a soundtrack by an ACTUAL recording artist. I remember slotting it into the third tier of my birthday wishlist, just in case my mom couldn’t find the games I actually wanted that year. So when I saw a refurbished and cleaned copy at a flea market nearly 20 years later for only FIVE DOLLARS, I thought, “hey, why not? I remember thinking this would be cool.”
I thought wrong.
[Please be advised that this article contains heavy spoilers for X-Kaliber 2097. If you are the type of person that cares about spoilers for a C-tier action game from 1994, however, you should probably seek professional help]
Criticizing the plot of a side-scrolling action game from early 1994 is a little unfair, but X-Kaliber feels like it was written by a Compuserve chatroom full of home-schooled anime fans.
The intro really sets the pace – Let’s take a trip to the greatest of all generic sci-fi locations, Neo N.Y. What happened to Old N.Y.? I dunno, but it must have been bad, as LIFE HAS GROUND TO A STANDSTILL AND THERE ARE NO MORE JOBS TO GO TO (Seriously, watch the intro). People are just going around doing what they are told or nothing at all. It sounds a lot like present day Detroit.
ANYWAY, Neo N.Y. is ruled by a guy in a purple suit named Raptor, who apparently works for a “global mob.” In order to “enforce order,” he has unleashed his private army of “Morphs” on the city. One wonders why you need to enforce order when people are doing “what they are told or nothing at all.” Sounds like things are pretty orderly already.
There are only two people that stand in Raptor’s way: A man named Slash (the player character), and his partner Alix. Raptor and Alix are repeatedly referred to as “agents,” so presumably they work for some kind of “agency.” Despite this, there are only two people that stand in Raptor’s way. Maybe that’s like how me and my friend Rob formed a gang that had no other members.
Despite this numbers disadvantage, all is not lost! Raptor has the X-Kailber, a magic sword that can rip through steel like rancid butter, yet can’t kill an enemy in less than two hits. Slash and his sword scare Raptor so much, that he and his subordinate, Kane, formulate a plan to draw Raptor out by kidnapping Alix. Once Slash shows up, they figure that they’ll defeat him, grab X-Kailber, and get back to imposing order.
As you’d expect from a guy with such a rad name, Slash is having none of this. The player leads him on a rescue mission through Neo N.Y., using the titular X-Kaliber to systematically chop down Raptor’s subordinates (who have awesome names like “Chainsaw,” and “Dr. Blast”) one by one.
So, Slash, uh, slashes his ways through the requisite 16-bit skyscrapers, sewers, nightclubs, and laboratories, all the way to Raptor, only to find all along, that his arch-nemesis, whom he has apparently never met before, is his older brother! This shocking revelation really doesn’t seem to phase Slash all that much, but just as he is about to cut his estranged sibling to ribbons, Raptor lets him in on the shocking truth: Raptor’s entire operation is nothing but a puppet regime, propped up by gangster from another dimension named Krux. Of course, Krux has also kidnapped Alix.
Slash, again, is having none of this. He walks right across the dimensional border, hell bent on rescuing his partner and destroying the looming threat of inter-dimensional organized crime. One would think that you’d aim a little higher than being a “gangster” if you could freely travel across different planes of existence; but I digress. After fighting through the beautiful countryside of Krux’s dimension, which, quite frankly, looks like a sea of floating turds, Slash encounters a gangster named Spuke, who drops another shocking plot revelation on us:
My God! Slash somehow acquired X-Kaliber from the inter-dimensional gangsters? How did he manage to do this without learning about the fact that they were propping up the oppressive global mob that’s been depriving people of jobs and imposing order? Did the gangsters maybe just drop it somewhere, leaving Slash to absent-mindedly pick it up off the streets of Neo Hell’s Kitchen? We’ll never know. I’ll post a link to my X-Kaliber 2097 Fanfic Kickstarter a little later down the road, and with any luck, we’ll be able to resolve this as a community.
Spuke is no match for Slash’s magic sword, and Slash moves on to face Krux, who looks suspiciously looks a lot like Satan, or at bare minimum, a Venom album cover:
After several continues, Slash quickly realizes that Krux’s weakness is jumping sword thrusts to the head, and he defeats the great inter-dimensional crime lord once and for all. Slash rescues Alix, and order is uh… renewed? I’m not exactly sure what happens, but a brief post-battle cut-scene advises us that the people of Neo N.Y. are inspired by the example set by Alix and Slash, and begin to live a life that is filled with parks to visit and jobs to go to. And thus, the world is saved.
In 1994, action games weren’t typically known as narrative powerhouses, nor did they typically attempt to be. X-Kaliber 2097, however, aspires to more, and fails miserably. Double Dragon, one of the forefathers of the genre, had the simplest of plots: Some guy punched your girlfriend and walked off with her; go get her back. At its core, X-Kaliber has the same plot: Your partner/girlfriend has been captured, and now you must rescue her. X-Kaliber, however, pads out its narrative with more ridiculous cliches and plot twists than its small frame can handle. When you’re going to be telling a story in less than 500 words of dialogue, less is more, and X-Kaliber 2097 is about 20 gallons of plot in a 5 gallon jug. A story that should have been nothing more than window dressing becomes a notable flaw.
In Japan, this game was released as Sword Maniac. Sword Maniac apparently had an entirely different plot, but with a title that awesome, they could have dispensed with a plot entirely. It practically writes itself: Maniac with sword runs through post-apocalyptic New York and fights Satan. That’s a story I can get behind.
Plot aside, X-Kaliber is about what you would expect from a mid-tier action game released in 1994. Graphics are competent, though mostly unspectacular. There are nice little graphical flourishes here and there – spotlights that follow the player during a boss fight, multiple scrolling layers in backgrounds, beautiful 16-bit cityscapes – but nothing X-Kaliber attempts is going to blow your mind, but it’s not unpleasant to look at.
At the time of the game’s release, much was made of the fact that it featured the music of techno/industrial group Psykosonik. Gamers of the era may remember Psykosonik for their contributions to the soundtrack for the first Mortal Kombat film. Internet research reveals that X-Kaliber’s soundtrack features chiptune versions of several songs from Pykosonik’s first album. As a result, the game’s soundtrack is above-average, if not spectacular. Despite this, you can’t help but feel like the sound designers may have been pushing the SNES a little too hard – as good as that sound chip was, it wasn’t going to emulate the sounds of a professionally produced contemporary techno outfit.
The gameplay is simple and straightfoward. Slash has four basic attacks: a standard slash, an overhead swipe, a stab, and ranged fireball, which travels the length of the scree but leaves the player vulnerable for an extended period of time. Most, if not all, enemy attacks can be blocked by holding down the X button to assume a defensive stance, but in my playthrough, I found little reason to bother with defense: most enemies stick to fairly avoidable patterns. Bosses are an exercise in exploitation: defeating them is not a matter of mastering any of Slash’s techniques or memorizing attack patterns, but figuring out the one single tactic they haven’t been programmed to deal with (tip: it usually involves jumping and slashing or repeatedly holding out your sword and hoping they walk into it). All in all, the experience is wholly unremarkable.
X-Kaliber feels like it could have benefited from stronger direction. While it has flashes of graphical brilliance, and its soundtrack is well-composed, if not well-executed, the game never rises above the level of “competent.” The occasional song or anime style cut-scene will raise an eyebrow, but the whole package never comes together, and ultimately, the only truly memorable thing about the game is its painfully overwrought plot.
X-Kaliber couldn’t live up to its hype as a new release in 1994, and it failed to intrigue me as a historical curiosity in in 2014. Was it worth five clams? Probably. Could I recommend that you spend any of your precious time playing it? Probably not.