Voices in video games are something we take as a given now, but they were much more of a special thing back when storage space was a carefully-managed commodity. The voice clips in games like Altered Beast may seem hokey today, but their clarity and frequency was impressive at the time (if, yes, still pretty hokey in their delivery). Thus, Psycho Soldier, released for arcades in 1986 by SNK, is of some historical significance for being one of the first video games to feature a fully voiced song that plays during gameplay:
The in-game version of the song is only a minute long, and is somewhat standard pop idol fare for the time. Still, it’s got a catchy melody, and you gotta love that FM synth. I find myself singing “fire! Fire! Psycho Soldier~” hours after listening to it. The Japanese version of the song was performed by pop idol Kaori Shimizu. A longer, far less compressed version of the song was packaged on a cassette along with the Famicom version of the game’s prequel, Athena.
This version is obviously much more robust overall than the one they had to squeeze onto the arcade board: the percussion is much more prominent and really carries the energy of the song, and the addition of peppy synth orchestra hits adds a lot of enthusiasm. The quality of the vocals is naturally greater as well, but it is nonetheless impressive what SNK was able to make an arcade machine do in 1986; the cute singing must have done a lot to help Psycho Soldier stand out against the blaring audio of every other machine in the arcades.
Psycho Soldier is about Athena Asamiya, a Japanese schoolgirl/pop star with psychic powers who is a descendant of the goddess Athena, the titular protagonist of an earlier SNK arcade game (with only the loosest connection to the actual ancient Greek deity). It’s a fairly straightforward side-scrolling action game that has you jumping between planes, collecting powerups, and shooting psychic fireballs at enemies. The visual style of the game is surprisingly dark given the cute protagonist and upbeat theme song; the first stage is set in a ruined city and the setting eventually moves into pulsating alien nests ala Contra. Inasmuch as the small sprites can convey, the enemies are unsettling alien creatures as well. The aesthetic of “cute girl fights grotesque demons or aliens” was pretty popular in Japanese games and anime at the time – see the Valis series for another example – and I’m usually a fan of it. The only bummer here is that the theme song phases out fairly quickly, replaced by somewhat dour synth. Also a bummer: the English version of the theme:
Definitely from a time before localization was given much importance, or money. My favorite part has to be “you better hide if you are bad! She’ll get you! >:3” Like most of SNK’s properties, Athena and Psycho Soldier live on primarily through the King of Fighters fighting games, wherein Athena, the player 2 character Sie Kensou, and their drunken master Chin are mainstays. Athena also shows up in a smattering of KoF spinoffs including mobile games and visual novels, and even starred in a bizarre PS1 adventure game called Athena: Awakening from an Ordinary Life. Psycho Soldier is available on PSN for just a few bucks, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s a necessary piece of gaming history, it is a fun little game and worthwhile for the novelty of seeing the primordial technological ancestor to memorable in-game vocal tracks like Escape from the City and Snake Eater.