Cannon Dancer – Osman review

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. No, really, it isn’t. This latest release from ININ Games is a little-known 2D arcade game from 1996; one that few will have heard of and even fewer will have played, never gaining a home conversion. By 1996 the Mega Drive and SNES were showing their age, while the PSone and Saturn were too new – with most eyes looking upon a more enticing 3D landscape. Indeed, this isn’t something intended to fill you with gooey nostalgia but rather showcase a hidden gem. A small slice of gaming history that most will be oblivious to.

It’s also doubtful whether the formats of the era would be able to do Cannon Dancer justice, except perhaps the SEGA Saturn – and even then, it would have likely required the RAM pack. Visually, it’s the pinnacle of pixel art prowess, even putting many of today’s ‘modern retro’ games to shame.

What we have here is an action platformer with a neo-middle Eastern setting, released in 1996 by Mitchell Corporation and developed by ex-Capcom staff. The Capcom influences soon make themselves known, sharing many similarities with the seminal Strider, including an acrobatic hero able to grab the underside of platforms and scale walls. Osman, as he’s known, attacks with a long-range kick and can also slide, throw enemies, and perform a heavy-hitting superplex – with around a dozen Trophies/achievements linked to superplexing each boss. A task not as easy as it may sound.

Set over five short stages, which scroll both horizontally and vertically, Cannon Dancer can be described as a ‘boss rush platformer’ which in turn draws comparisons with Treasure’s Alien Solider. There’s a lot of variety too despite the brevity (being an arcade game, it can be finished in around 20 minutes) including a chase sequence, a stage set on a vessel at sea, and a handful of areas where Osman gets to bounce around like a certain blue hedgehog. Mostly, though, you’re going to be battling bosses – with each stage punctuated by two or three.

One of these, a mechanical beast with a human skull, is reoccurring. Others are unique, including a battle in a multi-platformed area where a mech is assembled in the background, occasionally springing into the foreground. Another gives the chance to choose your battle arena by leaping into a group of spinning orbs, providing a degree of replay value outside of score chasing and a low credit run. It’s difficult to say whether a one credit run is possible as the fifth, and final, stage was clearly intended to drain player’s credits, featuring slyly positioned platforms, precariously placed enemies, and two consecutive mini-boss battles. Even with infinite credits it’s a struggle.

Still, there’s plenty of scope to practice and improve. An entire mode, no less. Standard Mode features save states, a rewind tool, cheats, and infinite continues. Achievements/Trophies can’t be gained here, alas. These are reserved for the Challenge Mode, which grants two perks. These include extra credits, a double jump, and invincibility when jumping, sliding, or attacking. You may even have to experiment to find a beneficial pairing. The options menu, meanwhile, features a choice of screen sizes, filters, and wallpapers. If you’ve played a previous Ratalaika retro re-release (Turrican, Gynoug, Gley Lancer, et al) you’ll notice similarities with the presentation.   

With its breakneck pace, smattering of gore, whimsically nonsensical story, and responsive controls – allowing for some daring manoeuvres – Cannon Dancer proves to be vastly compelling. ININ Games couldn’t have picked a better game from their archives to award a second chance to.

There is a problem to address, however, and it’s an unfortunate one. Cannon Dancer is set to cost £24.99 on the digital services, which a lot for a single arcade game (well, two – both the US and Japanese versions are present.) While it’s true that the developers have dived into the code to add cheats and a few enhancements, the price tag is still hard to justify. Especially when Clockwork Aquario, from the same publisher, required additional work to replace missing/corrupt sprites. We can only assume the steep price is to keep it in line with the Strictly Limited physical release, making this the convertible sports car of the world of retro re-releases. Flashy, expensive, but oddly desirable.

ININ Games’ Cannon Dancer – Osman is out April 13th on PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.