This gem appeared in the arcades in 1990. Designed by a company called V-System in Japan, the game was distributed in the United States by the American Sammy Corporation in California which was a subsidiary of the pachinko mega-manufacturer, Sammy Corporation, based in Tokyo.
V-System doesn’t have a lot of games to its history. From what I’ve been able to gather, it barely survived more than four years in the arcade industry having started in 1986 with the Mahjong title, Ojanko Club. Spinal Breakers seems that it would be the last arcade offering from the company before they apparently dropped off of the face of the Earth.
Spinal Breakers is a scrolling, third-person gallery-type shooter. Think Taito’s Operation Wolf in ’87 crossed with TAD Corporation’s Cabal from ’88. Like Operation Wolf, the screen scrolled slowly (in this case, from left to right) progressing the level and introducing new enemies. Like Cabal, there was a guy onscreen viewed from behind that the player controlled along with the aiming reticle for his weapon. Two players could co-op through the whole game together, too.
Story-wise, Spinal Breakers is amazingly weird. Not PuLiRuLa weird, but even the SyFy channel would probably have passed on this one.
It goes something like this: In the future, humanity creates Hildroids which are artificial organisms created to do all sorts of dangerous tasks. Suddenly, a nuclear war breaks out and the Hildroids are affected by the radiation, turning on their human makers. The survivors flee to a giant space station, but the Earth’s axis has also been adversely affected by the war causing different periods of Earth’s history to surface with the Hildroids taking over.
Captain Waffle on the station wakes up from his “frozen sleep” as the Hildroids begin assimilating these moments in history and it seems that the next shift in the Earth’s axis will make these changes permanent, changing time itself. So the Cap has to head down to the surface and wipe them out before they wreck humanity. Later, the player finds out that the Hildroids may have infiltrated the nuclear missile bases and were the cause of it, something that Waffle will try to prevent in this strange mish mash of history. I told you it was weird.
As a result, the player will be shooting their way through seven stages starting in 1940’s Germany during WW2 and a climax in the United States at a missile base. There are even different endings, three of them, which seems to depend on whether you actually run out of time at any point or add credits to boost your health during the game. Managing to avoid all of that apparently gets you the “best” ending where Waffle and family return to an Earth where nuclear war never happened thanks to his efforts in saving history.
Not only did players need to focus on aiming at enemies using the reticle, they had to get Waffle to roll and dodge out of the way of enemy fire at the same time. The only way they could move Waffle was by moving the reticle (which he followed, albeit slowly) and using the dodge button as he slowly walked to the right along with the screen scroll.
Spinal Breakers (there’s no real explanation for why it’s called Spinal Breakers) wasn’t bashful about the gore. Enemies could spew green blood and shooting corpses could also reveal clips of ammo that could temporarily turn Waffle’s gun into a shotgun or add extra grenades for the launcher. The animation work also has a few bright spots — Waffle’s sidestepping cycle, as slow and deliberate as it is, was surprisingly detailed. Enemies crumble to the ground (and so does Waffle when he dies) and there’s a fair amount of detail for the backdrops and the bosses.
The downside is that the enemies are pretty repetitive, not very detailed outside of their death animations, and the stages were nothing to write home about. Sound-wise, the game’s effects were pretty good though the soundtrack wasn’t very memorable. The “cuts” in between each stage did their best to string the story along, but aside from a few great shots of Waffle’s family hoping for the best, didn’t do much more other than demonstrate a few bits of odd grammar.
Difficulty-wise, bullet spam from many directions can make it rough to keep from getting hit and rolling doesn’t make you immune to hits. One of the last bosses repeatedly fires off a string of fireballs making it tough to shoot back with other than tiny spurts, challenging players to stay focused long enough to beat it. Spinal Breakers’ challenge can also make it hard to maintain a high score — continuing resets your score to zero despite picking Waffle up right at the point of death.
Like a lot of classic arcade games, Spinal Breakers never found its way out of the arcade. None of V-System’s games apparently made it out of the arcade. While it wasn’t the greatest game, it had its moments especially when you can co-op through the game with a partner. Design-wise, some of its elements would be echoed later on in titles like Konami’s G.I. Joe in 1992 exchanging the side scroll for a fast moving, vertical run ‘n gun instead. Spinal Breakers may not be perfect, but that story stands out as one of the weirdest to find its way into the arcade.