For our younger readers out there, it’s a bit hard to explain just how hot mutants were in the 1990s. Between Marvel’s X-Men hitting soaring heights and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles slicing and dicing their way into the hearts of kids everywhere, there was no better time to have genetic anomalies. It seemed like every company with mutant characters were pushing them forward, and every company without them was making their own. Just the word ‘mutant’ itself was enough to draw attention. So it was perhaps no surprise when SNK introduced Mutation Nation ($3.99) in 1992 for its NEGOGEO system. A beat-em-up filled to the brim with mutants to battle? Sure, why not?
I’ve talked a bit before about how SNK did a bit of hunting around to try to find a popular beat-em-up brand to call their own on the NEOGEO before hitting it big with fighting games, after which point it didn’t really matter anymore. Mutation Nation may not have been its most successful attempt (the Sengoku trilogy would probably take that title), but it turned out better than most. Review scores were friendly back in the day and it still tends to be well thought of even now, and it certainly pulled in its share of coins for a while. And rightfully so, in my opinion. It’s a well-made example of the genre with a couple of solid hooks.
The story isn’t terribly clear, as in most arcade games of the era. Some mad scientist did some genetic experiments that went out of control and ended up mutating normal citizens, turning them into bloodthirsty monsters. A couple of young men named Ricky and Johnny come back to town after a long absence and take it on themselves to stop the mutant menace with their hands and feet. While they aren’t mutants, they both know how to carry themselves in a fight. They can also make use of a range of special attacks by collecting power-ups along the way. Their journey will take them through six decent-sized stages filled with some truly wild creatures, with boss fights in particular going way over the top. That’s really it. Even the ending doesn’t offer much in the way of details.
But hey, it’s an arcade beat-em-up from 1992. You’re not here expecting Chaucer. You’re looking to bash some heads in, and that’s what Mutation Nation is good at offering. You might have to search around a bit to find the head, but that’s another matter. Strangely, what makes this game work so well is that it plays things relatively straight. You’ve got an attack button and a jump button. The attack button busts out strings of attacks, the jump button sends you a sensible distance into the air, and pressing the two together does a special move. No energy cost there, but it’s also not as powerful as similar special attacks in other brawlers.
You have some cooler tricks up your sleeves (metaphorically that is; Johnny doesn’t believe in sleeves) however. Pick up the items strewn about the streets and you’ll see a letter and some numbers appear in the status area. Simply hold the attack button until your POW meter fills and release to launch one of a few different super moves (the letter determines which), dealing some serious damage across a wide area. And that’s your arsenal, apart from a simple grapple attack that I forgot to mention before. Just pretend I told you that in the last paragraph where it would have fit better thematically.
The small list of moves ends up working quite well for the game, largely coming down to the fact that the basic attack combo is both effective and enjoyable to unleash. It sure doesn’t hurt that jump kicks work better here than in most SNK beat-em-ups. The super moves add a pinch of variety, and the pick-ups needed to use them are plentiful enough that you can make fairly regular use of them without worrying that you’ve wasted them. Your hits connect with a nice solid feel, and I think I’ve mentioned before how instrumental I feel that is in making for a good game in this genre.
But what really makes Mutation Nation stand out from the pack, to the limited extent that it does, is its colorful cast of enemies. They’ll often mutate mid-fight, and the designs are creative and gnarly in all the right ways. It adds a great deal of variety to the game, avoiding the standard street brawler trope of your foes just being a series of different people in weird clothes. Part of the fun is in seeing what bizarre creations will crawl out in front of you next, and like I said earlier, the boss battles really show off some interesting ideas.
While the game is light on graphical gimmicks, Mutation Nation actually makes good use of the NEOGEO’s technical capabilities. The characters are large and detailed, and the backgrounds look great. The animations of the monsters, particularly when they mutate, are really cool. The main characters also animate well, and their now extremely dated 1990s designs carry a lot of charm. The music leans hard into rock, occasionally dipping into the zone I tend to refer to as butt-rock, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. For a beat-em-up released in 1992, the presentation is really quite good. It’s naturally been considerably surpassed by other games over the years, but it holds up well.
Now we head to the part of the review specific to this ACA NEOGEO version. To likely no one’s surprise, there’s little to talk about here that we haven’t talked about before. The touch controls work well with the simple two-button action, and you can use an external controller if you’ve got one and prefer to play it that way. If you have two (and only if you have two) controllers you can also indulge in the enjoyable two-player mode. You get the usual options here, including both Japanese and overseas versions of the game, a Caravan Mode and a Score Attack mode, and lots of settings to tweak. The usual visual, audio, control, and difficulty stuff. Hamster is nothing if not consistent in how it puts these things together.
So yes, the usual complaint about how I wish we could do some online multiplayer, but otherwise I don’t have a lot to complain about with Mutation Nation. It’s a really fun beat-em-up that holds up well and plays nicely on mobile. Perhaps not the most original of games in terms of mechanics, but it does what it does well and gives you a lot of entertaining sights and sounds along the way. Until Sengoku 3 is added to the ACA NEOGEO mobile line-up, I can’t imagine I’ll score another NEOGEO brawler higher than this one. Well worth the meager asking price, that’s for sure.