Watch your step, for you’ve just entered the Graveyard. Inside, we’ll be digging up games that have long been without a pulse. You’ll see both good and bad souls unearthed every month as we search through the more… forgotten…parts of history.
Data East was known for creating memorable arcade games that may not have always been the highest-quality, but had a lot of charm. Burgertime was top-notch, while Bad Dudes was solid but saved by a completely goofy premise of being a bad enough dude to save President Ronnie. As the mid-’90s rolled in, the company found itself in a tough spot with the rise of higher-end games and their bread and butter being in games that weren’t made to wow people, but that did change with the Neo Geo. That hardware allowed them to craft a game that could be fast-paced like their prior games, but take advantage of the most impressive sprite-pushing hardware of its day. Enter Spinmaster, a low-key fantastic action-platformer that stands atop Data East’s quality lineup while not being something that’s usually brought up.
The game’s appearance on MVS and AES hardware leads it to looking more like something SNK crafted, despite feeling like Joe and Mac/Caveman Ninja with a far more robust setting. It very much feels like Data East’s 2D action-platforming magnum opus of sorts, using faster-paced gameplay than anything in their library at the time while revamping character designs used in Dashin’ Desperadoes for the main characters. The core weapon is a yo-yo of all things, which helps give the game its memorable hook as there haven’t been many games that had yo-yos as a primary weapon. Like any good shooting game in arcades at the time, however, your starter weapon only told part of the story in how you took out foes.
Spinmaster lets players use things like crystal shards to deal massive damage either up or side-to-side, while other variants like the green ninja stars enabled for downward attacks right alongside up and left to right attacks. Fireballs showcased more visual flair and also took foes out quickly, while bombs were much slower, but also more impactful and can be counted on to tear through larger swarms of enemies or deal massive damage to bosses quickly. Each weapon has the same animation windup time for the player, with only the actual animation of the weapon moving from their body changing, making it easy to time attacks even when the action gets frantic.
As an arcade-first action-platformer, a lot gets thrown at the player even early on. Enemies come and go all around you and there isn’t a moment when you aren’t throwing some kind of weapon at an enemy. Platforming sections are thrown in to some degree, but the bulk of the time spent in the game will be taking out foes. Faster-paced areas like the second stage’s mine cart area offer a blend of fast platforming that thankfully avoids becoming a Donkey Kong Country-esque tale of frustration since the mine cart is just an illusion for all intents and purposes. It’s always under the player and there’s no threat of losing it, but because there’s so much jumping, the player does quickly lose sight of enemies. It’s a thrilling stage and something that manages to combine a rapid-fire pace with a design that’s also player-friendly by making the platforming portion of it essentially free of consequences.
The variety in stages is impressive, with players going through an outdoor airport setting, an Indiana Jones-esque temple and a more gaming-style castle setting with lush backgrounds accompanying everything. Collapsing platforms ensure that the player doesn’t get too careful with their surroundings and stages like a boat section help add things like waterfalls and bombs flying from all directions to the mix. It feels like a Joe and Mac game with a visual polish more on par with a Metal Slug game, but with smoother artwork for the main characters and fewer visible pixels being shown due to the high detail level. The mid-game prehistoric stages even help add to the Joe and Mac feel, while underground tunnel sections feel claustrophobic with little room to move and enemies still flying about everywhere.
With lush pixel art that extends to making both the playable characters and enemies expressive and throwing in a ton of details on the environments, Spinmaster is a gorgeous game. In an era where replicating the early ’90s look has been popular, it’s amazing that so few companies have tried to replicate the high level of detail seen in Neo Geo-powered games. Every game that took advantage of the hardware delivered something that has aged wonderfully roughly thirty years after the hardware was created. It allowed Data East to create something that went far beyond anything they’d done before and showed that they could put the hardware through its paces with how quick the action is and how it never slows down for a second.
Spinmaster has a lot going for it, but its sound design is easily its weakest point. While the sound effects themselves are fantastic, with each weapon offering its own sound effects, the soundtrack falls short. It’s got a fast tempo to it and isn’t bad, it just doesn’t stick with you in any way. Music plays for the stage, it ends and you just forget it. There’s nothing that warrants humming the tune after a stage. Weapon effects and small touches like boss quips help show how much work went into the audio, but it doesn’t form a memorable combination. It’s still fun to hear in the game itself though and helps pass the time well enough.
Spinmaster is the kind of game that I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of in the modern age of spiritual successors. It’s a bright, vibrant adventure with fast action and there aren’t a lot of games out there like it that weren’t made in the ’90s. It’s a ton of fun and something that’s well-worth playing for someone wanting a quick game to complete that takes you across a wide variety of environments. Spinmaster was released on the Wii’s virtual console in 2010 can be enjoyed now via the Anstream Arcade service or on Switch, PS4, and Xbox as ACA Spin Master.