Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy was released by SNK for the Neo Geo arcade and home hardware platforms in 1994. The title is a side scrolling action game and a breath of fresh air in comparison to the flood of fighter games usually associated with the platform.
In Top Hunter, you control Roddy (and a second player can control Cathy), two bounty hunters set out to destroy a colony of space pirates. When you first fire up Top Hunter you get to select between four different planets, Forest, Ice, Wind, and Fire. Each of the worlds has 3 levels, and end with a boss. The third level of each world features a unique giant boss that concludes the world.
After defeating all 4 worlds, a fifth world opens up which takes you through a single level of Captain Klapton's ship. After making it through the level, you must defeat a remixed version of all 4 of the previous bosses, and then another unique boss battle with Captain Klapton himself.
The level design in Top Hunter is excellent. The main gimmick of Top Hunter is there are two planes of play, a foreground and background, for you to play in. You can jump back and forth to avoid obstacles and jump back to sneak behind enemy fire. Some levels feature puzzles which you have to utilize both planes to progress.
Your main weapon in Top Hunter is your fist. Tapping the A button will result in a normal short range punch, and holding the A button will result in an extended punch, Inspector Gadget style. Your extended fists can also be used to grab items as well as flick switches and pull levers. Occasionally an enemy will drop a gun which you can pick and shoot for a short while. Lastly, 2 years prior to Metal Slug mind you, and get to commandeer mechs for additional punching power.
There are some special moves in Top Hunter as well, such as fire balls and sliding kicks which can be achieved by various quarter circle joystick turns, similar to most 2D fighters of the era. However, when there are a dozen enemies on the screen, it's often hard to pull them off. Thankfully, they are not required to complete the levels.
The controls in Top Hunter are responsive. The A button punches, the B button jumps, and the C button makes your character jump to the other plane. At first it can be confusing differentiating between jumping, and jumping to the opposite plane, but with a little practice it becomes second nature. The most unique element of Top Hunter, the plane switching, is also it's only flaw. It can be very difficult to tell if enemies and object are in the foreground or the background.
Graphically, Top Hunter is a feast for the eyes. The most impressive thing is the animation. Not just the walking, jumping, and punching animations of Roddy and Cathy themselves, but all the extra animations that occur throughout the game. When you get squished by an object, your characters gets flattened, and then floats to the ground like a leaf. Top Hunter is littered with unique animations for all sorts of situations.
The backgrounds are impressive as well, full of motion, and lots of scrolling. The fire level features flowing lava which is more detailed than the main elements of the level itself. Some of the enemies are absolutely massive, including a giant abdominal snowman complete with a wagging tail. The two different planes are usually distinguished with slightly different color palettes, pushing the title past the other 16-bit systems of the time.
The only flaw from a graphical stand point is slowdown. Whenever too many enemies are on the screen, the action slows to a crawl. The slowdown is frequent and impacts the game play at times. Nothing is worse than trying to punch enemies on two different planes from all directions while trying to activate a switch, and having everything slow down to the point you are not sure what's going on.
Top Hunter for the Neo Geo CD features a unique sound track that takes advantage of the CD medium. The tracks fit the 5 different worlds well and helps give each world it's own look and feel. As you encounter new sections of the levels, sub bosses, and final bosses, the music changes to let you know you've reached a new area. The sound effects are top notch as well, with every single action you make having it's own noise.
Where Top Hunter truly shines is the 2 player mode. The two different planes just screams co-op. I've played through Top Hunter twice with a second player, and will probably never play through alone again. The game was meant for two players. Often times there are switches on the the foreground and background, and having a friend there to do half the work helps immensely. Not only that that, it's easier to take on the bosses as they jump back and forth.
Some critics find Top Hunter all flash and no substance. I disagree whole heartily. The smooth controls, unique game play, and excellent two player cooperative mode add up to a truly great gaming experience. The excellent graphics and sound are just the icing on the cake.
Overall, Top Hunter is a great game. The graphics are outstanding, the music takes advantage of the CD medium, and the controls are excellent. The only flaws are the slowdown, and sometimes confusing game play as you struggle to figure out which plane enemies are on. Still, playing through Top Hunter with a friend is an absolute blast. This game is one of the cheapest and easiest to obtain Neo Geo CD titles. A must own.
Graphics 9/10 - Gorgeous, with some slow down
Sound 7/10 - Better than average
Game play 8/10 - Unique plane switching game play, occasionally confusing
Overall 8/10 - In a sea of fighting game, Top Hunter is a refreshing change