I love it when I’m writing about something totally unplanned and off the cuff and not on any of the various lists I usually pull these things out of because it generally means something I’d never heard of before has come out of nowhere and made an instant big impact! And while it doesn’t happen often, it did also happen with Toaplan’s top-down arcade racer Rally Bike pretty recently as I write, and now here we are again with SNK’s Prehistoric Isle 2!
That’s not to say I’m not familiar with its predecessor, Prehistoric Isle, though, or at least the bits I can actually see because it’s not exactly colourblind-friendly at times! So while it promised arcade operators “brontosaurus-sized earnings with a price from the past” when it launched back in 1989, those earnings from me would have been more microraptor than brontosaurus! Not that I ever laid my dodgy eyes on it at the time, and my first time playing it was much later, when it was released as part of the SNK 40thAnniversary Collection on Nintendo Switch, conveniently a week before my slightly more than 40th birthday back in 2018.
We’ll come back to Prehistoric Isle in a minute, but this is such a compilation done right that I’ve never reviewed before so I want to have a quick look at the package then devote a quick sentence or two to each of the 23 other games included off the bat or as free DLC, and their arcade or console ports as applicable, as well as their regional variants. Phew! They’re all selectable in a vertical carousel, with the game’s logo taking up the right half of the screen and artwork on the left, which will turn into a video preview if you leave it a few seconds. Very slick! As is the ability to change region with a click of X, and as any arcade game fan will know, it’s always worth a shot at the Japanese version! Another click and you get to choose the arcade or console version if that particular game offers the choice, or otherwise you can start a new game, continue from an existing save state or watch an expert play-through, which is fantastic for stuff like Ikari Warriors where you’ll often end up wondering how the hell you’re supposed to negotiate some wall of bullets or other! There’s full video controls too for going back and forth, but what’s most impressive is that you can pause playback and just pick up gameplay from that point any time! And as well as save states, you’ve got a rewind function mapped to a shoulder button, a load of display options, filters, borders, customisable controls, DIP switch settings and, when you’re done, quit with or without saving. You really couldn’t ask for more!
You’re getting way more than just a bunch of games though! Click Museum on the title screen and you’ve got a ton of extra content, including a full list of game soundtracks, each with their own track-by-track media player, and two exhaustive sets of image galleries… First up, there’s SNK Complete Works 1978-1990, which is an interactive timeline spanning SNK’s golden age. Every year has a list of the games that came out then, and clicking each one is giving you an entire slideshow, complete with dynamic zooming and text narration, taking you through the game’s history, gameplay and trivia, like why Athena starts the game wearing only a bikini! Finally, there’s Bonus Features, which is more slideshows covering both Japanese and Western arcade cabinet and console game advertising, concept art, old newsletters and a bunch of vintage Japanese arcade guide books. This thing is just incredible before we’ve got anywhere near the games!
Right, 24 games! Here goes… Alpha Mission: 1985 vertical shoot ‘em up that plays like Xevious and as such is fun but not a whole lot to it. Athena: Top three favourite ZX Spectrum loading screen, and a crazy-hard hack and slash platformer hidden behind cute bikini-clad graphics! Beast Busters: Great-looking 1989 Operation Wolf-style rail-shooter but with aliens; Michael Jackson used to cart this cabinet around the world with him, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I like it too! Bermuda Triangle: Pretty accessible speech-heavy 1987 vertical shooter with twin-stick elements and a few neat ideas, but while it’s mostly fun it’s got that Prehistoric Isle colourblind thing going on, which I always take as a guilt-free rewind, but it’s frustrating all the same! Chopper: Another vertical shooter, this time in a helicopter from 1988, and while it’s not the best of that specific variety, it’s alright if a little heavy on those greens and browns and invisible bullets again.
Chrystalis: Another reason to go with the Japanese version of these things because it’s called the way cooler God Slayer there, although this was a 1990 NES action RPG so is a bit heavy on the text for Japanese, but does have a fantastic soundtrack either way! Fantasy: All the way back to 1981, and apparently the first arcade game to have a continue feature! The gameplay is deceptively ambitious too, with all kinds of styles to get to grips with across its eight levels, as well as some great early speech to enjoy. Guerilla War: A run and gun follow-up of sorts to Ikari Warriors which feels a bit more like Commando thanks to the Cuban setting; not that Commando was in Cuba, but anyway, it’s a lot of fun! Ikari Warriors: And now the 1986 original, and it’s even more fun vintage run and gun (unless you decide to play the NES version that’s also included, which is a bit crap). Ikari Warriors II – Victory Road: It’s still only 1986 but the boys are back already and in space shooting aliens in this bonkers follow-up, where the packed-in NES version is marginally less crap too thanks to its unique power-up system… But stick with the arcade version! Ikari III – The Rescue: I’d also stick with that game over this 1989 third entry in the series; it’s all close-up on big Rambo sprites now, and it’s just too close-up for my liking.
Are we even half way yet? Blimey, wish I’d never started this! Anyway… Iron Tank – The Invasion of Normandy: This one from 1989 is like the tank bits in Ikari Warriors, although it feels more like when you’re on the ground in Xenon; it’s fine but not outstanding. Munch Mobile: The Japanese version of this 1983 top-down driving and grabbing oddity is called Joyful Road, which is loads better than Munch Mobile; either way, it’s cute, it’s weird and once you get to grips with it is as addictive as it is infuriating! Ozma Wars: The earliest game in the package, hailing from 1979, and it’s a decent take on that Galaxian thing that was all the rage back then! Paddle Mania: Part tennis, part Pong and part Windjammers, so I’m sure you get the general idea, but it just doesn’t work for me on Switch Joy-Cons where it was probably great on whatever weird arcade control scheme it originally employed back in 1988. P.O.W. – Prisoners of War: Big fan of this side-scrolling 1988 beat ‘em up, which is a violent military take on something like Double Dragon and is very cool as a result! I’ll come back to Prehistoric Isle, so next is Psycho Soldier: This is actually a 1987 sequel to Athena, apparently featuring one of her distant descendants, though that’s about the only tenuous link in this fantastically original side-scrolling action platformer with one of the most bizarre vocal soundtracks you’ll ever come across!
SAR – Search and Rescue: This top-down sci-fi run and gun feels like a direct inspiration to Konami’s Aliens from the following year in 1990, full of unexpectedly vibrant colour and squelchy explosions, and is very, very good! Sasuke vs Commander: “Sasuke protect my life from ninja” is all the on-screen encouragement you need for this brutal but strangely addictive 1980 take on Galaxians, like Satan’s Hollow but set in Feudal Japan rather than hell! Street Smart: Weird mix of martial arts fighter and beat ‘em up that results in a faster-paced take on something like Pit Fighter (albeit a year earlier in 1989) but with a better move set. Time Soldiers: I’ve never clicked with this time travelling run and gun from 1987; it’s more of the Ikari Warriors formula but it’s always felt a bit stodgy to me, though the variety offered from the different eras isn’t bad. TNK II: Also known as T.A.N.K. it’s another tank shooter which I think looked a bit dated even when it appeared in 1985, but provides some decent action, and is actually the first appearance of Ikari Warriors’ Ralf Jones too. Vanguard: A 1981 vertical and horizontal and diagonal shoot ‘em up that has you firing stuff in all directions too as you fly through Scramble-esque tunnels that could only be improved if they’d included the fantastic Atari 2600 port here too! World Wars: SNK might not have been the greatest at vertically-scrolling shooters, but they tried! This 1987 attempt also has you shooting in all directions, and it’s fine, but like all of the examples of the genre here, there’s just nothing particularly exciting about it.
And with that, we made it to the end, so time to set the scene for Prehistoric Isle II with a far quicker recap of Prehistoric Isle than I might have originally intended! It’s a mostly horizontally scrolling shoot ‘em up released into arcades by SNK in 1989, and as far as I’m aware it stayed arcade-exclusive too – shame because it would have looked great on my Atari ST! The story is that it’s 1930 and the US Government has sent you to the Bahamas to investigate several years’ worth of ships mysteriously disappearing in the area. While there, you happen upon a previously unknown landmass that you’ve nicknamed Greenhell Isle, and that’s before you even realise it’s full of dinosaurs that missed the call about becoming extinct and are out for your blood! That translates to five stages for you to effectively enforce extinction, shooting your way through tropical rain-forests, above the clouds, through rocky river valleys, into the sea and finally underground, taking on a full menagerie of well-known dinosaurs as you go, as well as various Neanderthals and, er, wasps. As much as I struggle with the first stage for its mass of browns on greens and the like, in general this is a great-looking game, even if it never really surpasses that detailed and atmospheric initial jungle scene, with its creative parallax effects and frequent changes of direction. The soundtrack is great throughout though, and there’s some really wonderful bosses to overcome, obviously culminating in a big scrap with an absolutely enormous tyrannosaurus rex! It is by no means an easy game, but its attack patterns aren’t particularly sophisticated and you will eventually see the end with a bit of perseverance and a handful of continues. And, in my case at least, once you’ve learnt where the bullets are even if you can’t see them, you’ll have a great time doing so too!
Amazingly, despite a sequel being teased if you did get to the end credits, it was another ten years before it actually arrived, finally appearing for the Neo Geo MVS arcade board in September 1999. But as I alluded to earlier, they could have taken the same again twice over for all I knew, because I had no idea of its existence until the start of 2022! I actually came by it thanks to my friend and creator of Re-Xevious (that we reviewed elsewhere here recently), Rozz Bozzy, who sets a group of us weekly weekend score challenges on Twitter for any game on any system of his choosing every Friday night. Off the top of my head, recently we’ve had the aforementioned Aliens, and we’ve had Combat School, MUSHA, Rainbow Islands, Juno First, Elevator Action Returns, Rolling Thunder, DoDonPachi… Could be literally anything, which means it could also be Prehistoric Isle 2! And as I also alluded to earlier, it was proper love at first sight – I just clicked with Prehistoric Isle 2 in a literal instant!
It’s still a horizontally-scrolling shoot ‘em up, but now we’re in the future in helicopters, and the only jungle we initially have to contend with is an urban one! There’s still dinosaurs though, and this time they’re arrived mob-handed to take over the city. As an avid Nintendo Switch shooter enthusiast, I’m not sure how I missed this before, but for lack of any other insights into the story anywhere else, let me quote the wonderful blurb on its eShop page (where I’ve just spent £6.29 buying it to alleviate my ever-present MAME-guilt!)…
“PREHISTORIC ISLE 2” is a shooting game released by SNK in 1999. Various types of dinosaurs which are large, small, or even those with wings have emerged! Your mission is to eliminate these primeval beasts from the city. Help all the trapped citizens escape! Enjoy a variety of stages and colorful settings!
Those stages total six this time, and there is indeed plenty of variety once again as you massacre thousands of animals above and below the city streets, over the sea, through desert ruins, above a forest canopy and then down into swampland before some industrialised volcanic caverns and a final level that is simply all boss! And unlike the first game, which was visually mostly all about that first stage, the love is spread right throughout this one, except for that last one, maybe, which is a Darius-style gargantuan boss that you’re moving around against a totally black background for the majority of it, but I guess its size makes up for it! Before that, though, it’s all pre-rendered 3D that reminded me a lot of another Neo Geo shooter I’ve played a bit of recently, Blazing Star (which I think came from the same developer, Yumekobo and was also published by SNK a year previously in 1998). This makes for some absolutely stunning vistas, particularly those involving dramatic lighting, like where the sun is setting behind the distant sand dunes in the second stage, or its rays piercing the clouds above the density of the trees in the third, reflecting their green right back up at them. You could argue you’ve seen most of it before by this point, but it’s got enough of its own to still surprise now and then, and it’s done no harm by its regular extravagant use of colour or when all goes pseudo-3D for some of the stage transitions – think a few seconds of Thunder Blade with nothing trying to kill you!
Its greatest joy is in some of the enemy sprites though, which more often than not seem to be pre-rendered like the backgrounds, but then somehow flattened into 2D! Regardless, it works, and the resulting detail and colour can be staggering, even though a few of the bigger ones could maybe use a couple more frames of animation. All the same, there’s loads and loads of really neat touches, like when you’re being charged at and suddenly this huge reptile will skid to a halt as it tries to turn. Considering the amount of enemies you get on screen – especially on a couple of occasions where it really goes nuts with this – everything moves at a hell of a pace; there was minor slowdown in a couple of places, but honestly it was welcome and possibly even intentional! And you’ve got every dinosaur under the sun to shoot at, and some of them are made up of every colour under the sun too, like some ferocious prehistoric rainbow! I just can’t get enough of how this all comes together, and my only real gripe is something minor but now I’ve noticed it I can’t unsee it… There’s a few bonus set-pieces where you need to defend a load of regular humans being rescued by another helicopter – a bit like Choplifter – and the screen will stop scrolling while you shoot at tons of enemies trying to get at them. Once the target number (say thirty or so) is in the helicopter, it flies off, you pick up any stragglers – a bit like Defender – and you continue on your way, but with them hanging on a rope (together with any others you rescue along the way) until the bigger helicopter returns to take them off your hands just before the end of level boss. The problem is that there’s only a couple of versions of the human, and with ZX Spectrum levels of animation (with all due respect!), completely detached from whatever it is they’re supposed to be scrambling over to get to the helicopter. Not great, but the rest is so we’ll forgive it that!
Actually, those bits can be some of the most challenging in the game, where individual enemies aren’t necessarily too much of a problem to your firepower, but when the screen is full of them… This is probably a good time to go back to me saying how I clicked with the game a while ago – what I meant by that was the process of tuning in to a shoot ‘em up in particular when you’re trying to get serious about it. For context, back in February 2022 I spent about a month getting reasonably good at prototype bullet-hell shooter Batsugun from Toaplan in 1993 – nothing extreme like one-credit clears, but to the point that I was happy seeing the end after as many continues as I might have had coins in my pocket to pay for them at the time, which is my regular criteria for “finishing” one of these! As I write, I’ve been doing the same with Cave’s 2004 Mushihimesama for a bit longer so far, but I’m reaching a similar point – you learn the ins and outs of your ship, its hit-box, its movement, its weapons and power ups until you can focus on where you’re going and not where you are now; then you do the same for the enemies, where they’re coming from and eventually how to manage them so their bullets are not where you want to be; and then you practice until you’re not reacting most of the time. Relatively speaking it’s a level of mastery – that point at which you’re instinctively sweeping across the screen in the face of a total mess of enemies to take out the huge turret waiting just off screen before it can unleash a single shot of its planned hell on you, or simply picking your way through a ridiculous curtain of bullets and looking like you know what you’re doing for a few seconds – long enough at least to record a video and post it online!
Anyway, the point is that this usually comes after many hours of play, but for Prehistoric Isle 2 it was a few goes, and while I was obviously learning it and getting better over the course of the week or so it took me to “finish” it, I had a pretty good intuition for what was coming, where from and where I needed to be surprisingly quickly here. Now, I’m not brilliant at this stuff, but it didn’t hurt that this isn’t the hardest shooter ever either! The defending the humans bit in stage two was my first real stumbling block, but that was mostly shock about the onslaught that was suddenly on the screen; it’s always the same onslaught though, and once you’ve got it once you’ve got it for good – which was the case for the rest of these bits after that too. The second half of stage two, from just after that, is probably as tough as it gets for a while, possibly until the last stage proper in the underground caverns, where these four wonderfully coloured elemental bird things attack in sequence and if you don’t go for them in the right order you’re in for a long old slog! The end level boss there – a fire breathing black dinosaur – took some doing too; thank goodness for save states so you can get these things down, though as was my experience with Batsugun, no matter how much I practice a boss like this, there’s still an element of panic when you’re doing it for real! Apart from that, the bosses look way cooler than they are challenging – big lumps with simple patterns that you’ll work out in no time. And you’ve probably powered-up your gun to a decent level by now anyway, as well as saved up a few smart-bombs too if you’re desperate. The final boss – this huge octopus – is then pretty straightforward once you get past the initial intimidation, and in contrast to its predecessor you are then rewarded with a finish that doesn’t take the wind out of your sails at your moment of triumph!
The game does a great job of making you feel right on the edge of control, and there’s loads of situations where you’ll be wondering how the hell you just made it through that bit, and that’s a great feeling. The sound design is a huge contributor to this too, with the tension caused by the sheer density of the sound of bullets and missiles and dinosaurs’ relentless roaring offset by the epic soundtrack, which veers from Indiana Jones to Castlevania and back again from stage to stage. It’s all rich electronic orchestration, with the drone and the stab of strings and the drama of the brass, punctuated by marching-band rhythms cheering you on, perfectly narrating the carnage taking place all over the screen!
It all adds up to a stunner in my opinion, which hasn’t changed since about twenty seconds in to my very first game! If only I’d realised it at the time I could have written down precisely why, but as I didn’t I’ve just fired it up again and tried to only focus on those first few seconds to try and recapture it a bit… Didn’t really work, but I think what it’s doing is capturing the essence of everything you’re going to experience right at the outset – right from character selection, you’re immediately flung into a high-speed 3D thrill-ride through a load of skyscrapers and then it’s suddenly 2D and you’re in the thick of it, with a huge dinosaur terrifyingly teasing you and just enough time to work out which button is fire before two huge colour-swept birds rip an entire building to shreds and you try to catch the human falling out of its explosion as you’re guided down into a crater in the street and the screen instantly fills with all kinds of danger! It’s this huge concentration of vibrant exhilaration that might well be what properly got me! Will it get anyone else the same way though? Well, from looking at a few reviews just now, the answer is either yes it will, or not exactly, but they will find it competently average! And for all of my praise and being on its wavelength it’s certainly not my favourite horizontal shooter ever (Deathsmiles!) or even in the top five (Thunder Force AC, G-Darius, Progear, P-47), but I reckon it’s got the chops to make my top ten sometime soon though! It might not have been long, but for as long as it’s been it’s always been loads of fun to me at least!