Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!

#74 – Sqoon

Who needs a yellow submarine when you can pilot a pink one?

One of the busiest title screens ever.

To Beat: Finish Phase 8
What I Did: Completed two loops
Played: 2/19/18 – 2/23/18
Difficulty: 6/10
My Difficulty: 6/10
My Video: Sqoon Longplay

This is not the first case in this project where I play a game that is linked to something else that I recently finished. However, this particular connection might be the most esoteric. What could Chubby Cherub and Sqoon have in common? After all, they are in different genres and created by different developers. I mentioned in my Chubby Cherub review that it is one of the few NES games that is exclusively in the 5-screw form factor, and Sqoon is another one. There’s only a handful of games like that, and here we have two of them nearly back to back. I find these nearby relationships fascinating even if it is purely meaningless. Allow me then to make another comparison. Even though Chubby Cherub is an early platformer and Sqoon is an early shoot-em-up, both games have some interesting ideas for their respective genres that don’t resurface very often.

Sqoon, pronounced “skoon,” is an original Famicom game released in Japan in June 1986. It was developed by Home Data and published by Irem. The NES version came out in North America in September 1987. It was not released elsewhere. Most of Home Data’s games stayed in Japan and therefore they are not well known outside of their home country. They made several Mahjong games as well as a baseball series named Koshien. Irem has a surprisingly small presence on NES, publishing only four games on the console.

Sqoon is a side-scrolling underwater shoot-em-up with a deeper back story than I expected. The inhabitants of Neptune, aptly named the Neptunians, are facing a planetary crisis. They are an underwater race, but meteorites are destroying their land and they are losing their food, Man-ham livestock. That’s their name for humans, I suppose. (I know it’s weird but it’s in the manual!) They hatched a plan to invade Earth where they will be able to find plenty of food. When they arrived, they melted the ice caps and flooded the world. Earth’s only hope for survival is the pirate Narikeen and his trusty submarine named Sqoon. A desperate plea was just barely enough to entice Narikeen to defeat all the Neptunians and save the Earth.

The shrill warning noises add to the story for sure.

To beat the game, you must pilot the submarine through eight phases. Each one represents a location on Earth that you must secure from the Neptunians. You begin in New York and kind of circumnavigate the globe, ending at the North Pole. Unfortunately, Sqoon doesn’t have an ending, but if you can complete all eight phases and loop back to the beginning, that is good enough.

Sqoon has simple controls. You use the D-pad to move in all eight directions. You are limited to traveling underwater only, but this takes up most of the screen so you have a lot of room to work with. The A button fires your missiles. This is the default, straight-shooting weapon, and you can have several missiles on screen at once. The B button fires your ice ball gun. This shot arcs downward and is useful for taking out ground targets. You have unlimited shots of both weapons and you will be doing a whole lot of button mashing in Sqoon. The ice ball gun is a little harder to use and you can only have one ice ball on screen at a time, but some enemies can only be destroyed by it. The Start button pauses the action. When paused, the game plays a different song instead of silence like in most other games.

The primary mechanic to Sqoon is the fuel system. You begin with 60 units of fuel as indicated on the lower left of the screen. Fuel is consumed quickly, but there are a couple of ways to refuel. The main method is to get a fuel drop from the motorized island that can appear on the surface. You have to exchange either nine humans or one human plus a piece of gold to get a drop. There are pods on the ocean floor that hold humans and you can release them if you strike it with an ice ball. The people will spread out and you can collect them into your submarine. An indicator will briefly appear next to your sub showing how many people you have inside. Gold comes from the recurring crab also on the ocean floor. Bop him with an ice ball, and he will jump backward and turn into a gold piece. You can then grab it but you must be quick. He will turn back into a crab if you leave him alone too long and he is deadly to the touch. Once you meet either requirement, the island will appear above you. Navigate to the surface and mash the B button to drop off gold or people and get your reward. The other way to refuel is to take a death, either by colliding with an enemy or running out of fuel. Naturally, you want to avoid this if you want to get far in this game.

Save the helpless people!

By taking nine people to the motorized island, your fuel drop also doubles as a weapon powerup for your missiles. The default missile is the horizon missile. Grab one weapon powerup to turn that into the Bow-wow missile, and grab another one to turn that into the Adenoid missile. The horizon missile is consumed whenever it hits an enemy. The Bow-wow missile has the same straight trajectory but a single missile can defeat many enemies in a row. The Adenoid missile is a narrow three-way shot that has piercing bullets like the Bow-wow missile. The one bad thing with the Adenoid missile is that you can only fire one shot at a time, though it is powerful enough to still be useful under that limitation. If you lose a life, you go back one weapon, as well as lose any people you have saved up to that point.

There are a bunch of different underwater enemies in this game. There are fish, snails, shrimp, shells, and frogs, just to name a few. Despite the graphical variety, they use just a few distinct movement patterns. The most common movement is a loop-de-loop. It’s really an annoying pattern to deal with, but since you see it so often you eventually get used to it. Other patterns are more typical like a zig-zag or coming at you in a straight line. A few enemy types stand out. Sharks are non-lethal to Sqoon, but they will eat people floating around. Tall, pointy shells emerge from the ground and move straight up. These are indestructible and just get in the way. There are also minefields of little bobbing mines that you can take out with the ice ball gun for 1000 points each.

The levels themselves are quite plain. Each Phase begins with a cityscape in the back. It’s not super nice looking but pretty well detailed for such an early title. You will regularly pass by factories. These are large structures that have a lot of moving parts to them. Those parts can be destroyed with a direct hit of your ice ball gun. They also have at least one pod that releases humans. Near the end of the phase, you pass through a minefield as mentioned above. Then, unless you are in Phase 1, you reach the enemy base. Here the scrolling stops for a little while and you have to fend off swarms of enemies. It’s not mandatory to take out parts of the base but I always do. Other than these events, the rest of the levels are just plain backgrounds and are only distinguished by enemy patterns and the layout of the occasional ground factories.

The cities are about the only background decoration.

The very first enemy in each stage is a special one. It’s a sea slug sitting on the ocean floor. You can hit it with an ice ball for 200 points, but it doesn’t die. You have to hit it on the back of the slug for this to work, but if you hit it exactly ten times it will transform into a necklace. Grab this necklace to get an extra life. If you hit the necklace with the ice ball gun it turns back into the slug. It’s nice to find this extra life every stage. There are also extra lives of various shapes that you can find in the game. Usually they are near the city at the start of the phase but sometimes appear elsewhere. What is special about the necklace is that you can trigger a weird event with it. If you have the necklace and can defeat an entire factory without dying, it turns the whole background to one solid, bright color. Play continues as normal except you don’t use any fuel during this time. It all feels like a glitch but it appears to be intentional. The screen eventually goes back to normal and you start consuming fuel again.

This was my first time beating Sqoon. I had played it once before in 2015 as part of the Nintendo Age contest. Looking back, I must not have had time to play that week because I didn’t get past Phase 2. Sqoon is an uncommon cart, but I have had two copies. I bought one at a nearby game store for either $10 or $12 sometime in 2014, and then I bought another copy online for around $30 in early 2015. Sqoon has an unusually fragile label. I picked up the second copy sight unseen in hope of a label upgrade and it wasn’t any better. The one I kept has a large rip in one of the corners. Either way, it was a good value buy. Sqoon has similar selling characteristics as Chubby Cherub. A loose cart sells for around $75 now, but the box and manual are even more hard to come by and are much more expensive. While values can be fluid, expect to pay $250 or higher for a complete copy. If I really want a label upgrade down the road, then I’ll have to pay for it.

These shelled enemies are awful.

It took me just a few days to beat Sqoon. It’s a tough game, but it seems like it gets easier more quickly than other games like this. The hurdles are coping with the enemy patterns, acquiring the items, and constantly staying refueled. A lot of enemies can simply be avoided, and once you get the hang of adding fuel you will always be prepared for your next drop well ahead of time. The middle levels seem to pose the biggest threat. There is a shelled enemy that shows up here which takes many hits to beat and has that curly movement pattern. There are enough extra lives in the game to keep afloat (sorry) and I can survive a few deaths in the harder sections and still be okay. The fuel recovery loop clicked with me at the same time I figured out the secret to getting the pendant from the slug.

Once you get the hang of the game, seeing it through to the end is a slog. It’s a slow scrolling game and some of the levels drag on a lot longer than they should. There’s not much variety throughout the game. It’s fun for a little while, but it grows old. The only other thing out of the ordinary in Sqoon appears at the end of the seventh phase. After passing the base, the screen switches over to a message from the Neptunians indicating that reinforcements are on their way. It’s jarring when it shows up so unexpectedly, but then you don’t get any other message when you finish the final phase.

When I first beat the game, I wasn’t recording anything. I left my NES on throughout the day and chipped away at the game. I played through the second loop, which only consisted of a few minor graphical changes. I took a peek at the NES Ending FAQ and the author indicated you get a special message near the end of the third loop. I completed that, but I didn’t see anything different. I went as far as to examine the ROM on my computer and look for text to see there were any other messages in-game. I was able to locate all the main text within the game, but nothing else. Perhaps this secret message is embedded into the background tiles somehow, instead of using the normal letter tiles that are used for all other text. I couldn’t find any other evidence online of anything in Sqoon past the second loop. In my opinion, completing one loop of Sqoon is good enough. I played through two loops in my longplay video just to show off the minor differences.

You want to collect the necklace at every opportunity.

There’s one more bit of trivia about the Famicom version of Sqoon. Famicom carts are interesting in that they come in various shapes, sizes, and colors. One notable trait of Irem’s early games is the inclusion of a red LED light on the front of the cart that lights up when the game is turned on. The Famicom is a top-loading console and lacks any power light like the NES has, so this was a neat little feature. I assume it became too expensive to include the LED on the carts, so later printings of Irem’s games do not have the LED. The non-LED Sqoon variant is harder to come by and therefore more valuable to collectors. I bet you thought I couldn’t come up with anything more obscure than NES cart variants.

Sqoon is a pretty good NES game for its time. It has many enemies with complicated patterns, and some interesting mechanics that don’t appear often in shooters. The graphics aren’t great by today’s standards, but they are suitable and have some nice detail under the early limitations of NES carts. The music is nice. The gameplay does suffer a bit in its hit detection with the ice balls, but it is something you can compensate for with some experience. I’d say it is one of the weaker NES shooters overall. It’s okay to pass on it, especially if you insist on having an expensive hard copy.

#74 – Sqoon

Posted In: Finished

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