SNATCHER / Konami / Sega CD

It's odd that a sequel to Snatcher was never developed, as the game's ending hints very strongly in that direction. Yeah, the game didn't exactly tear up the sales charts in the West - the Sega CD port sold maybe a few thousand copies at most - but in Japan the game has been consistently pretty popular, enough so to merit multiple ports over the years and an absolute blizzard of soundtrack arrangements.

The simple explanation for that may well be the correct one - Hideo Kojima just wanted to focus all his time and energy on his bloated opus Metal Gear Solid, which we're still attempting to wade to the end of here in 2008. I think there's another strong possibilty, however - Konami realized that they were probably very lucky not to be sued for copyright infringement and didn't want to push their luck a second time.

Now, Japanese game developers regularly and rampantly raided Western cinema for ideas and characters, particularly in the 1980s when Snatcher was originally developed (for the MSX computer system). When the games were released only in the Pacific, it was obviously no big deal; even when they made their way to the U.S. such intellectual property pilferings still usually slid under the radar, due to gaming generally being the province of only young children and a niche hobby of nerds at the time. Hell, I'd imagine that a lot of these companies were notified about video game ripoffs, and simply decided not to even bother taking legal action as they likely wouldn't get very much of a settlement out of these burgeoning game companies anyway. Gaming has become much more mainstream and much, much, much bigger business since then, however, and were a game with all the "borrowed" elements of Snatcher released again I wonder if it would be able to skate by without a legal challenge.

The game's most obvious source of "inspiration" is Blade Runner, from which it lifts it's opening shots nearly scene-for-scene. It liberally borrows character designs and plenty of other elements, and there's even a scene in a taxi that's a clear "homage" (you know what that's French for) to a scene from Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. And of course, there's the titular Snatchers - the concept of Invasion of the Body fused with the design of the Terminator. How it got away with all this legally is beyond me, but it gets away with it from a writing perspective by fusing these elements into an original story with strong characters and a very detailed and developed cyberpunk universe.

So, around the year 2010, some goof set off something called "The Catastrophe", which resulted in a deadly virus called Lucifer-Alpha being spread throughout Eurasia and killing off 1/3 of the world's population almost overnight. Soon afterwards these mysterious Snatcher robots were discovered taking the place of VIPs in Japan. They kill their victims and dispose of the body in secret, then take the victim's place in society using highly advanced artificial intelligence and biological systems that make them look and act just like the human they "snatched".

By 2050 this whole Snatcher thing seems to be getting out of hand, and the populace lives in a state of paranoia about them. They seem to be concentrated in the city of Neo Kobe, a giant melting pot of various ethnicities (and a bit of a squalid dystopian dump). Thus, the JUNKER special police unit is created and headquartered in this city, with their sole job being the rooting out and disposing of Snatchers.

You play as Gillian Seed, our resident Harrison Ford lookalike. He and his wife Jamie were pulled out of the wreckage of Siberia, seemingly the epicenter of the whole Catastrophe thing. They were found in cryogenic sleep, and apparently have no memory of their past or who they are. Gillian apparently has some military training, however, and the one word that keeps popping up in his mind is "Snatcher", so he joins the JUNKER force in the hopes of learning more about his past.

The game opens with Gillian's first day on the job as a JUNKER, and after a brief period where you learn the basics of the game's story and how to use everything at headquarters, you're rather quickly thrown into the action when fellow agent Jean-Jack Gibson corners a suspected Snatcher and calls in for backup.

Snatcher is basically a "visual novel", and shares the common strengths and weaknesses of that genre. Like the best of visual novels, it is focused on story, characters and dialogue, and well written (and very well localized). The downside is that the detailed story and environmental immersion comes at the price of interactivity. The bulk of the game is clicking through menus and reading text, with only a handful of breaks here and there for a "shooting sequence". The only time you can die is during these shooting sequences; during the adventure, about the worst thing you can do to yourself is make a boneheaded blunder that makes a fool out of you and locks a particular location off for a few minutes.

The game is worth the price of admission alone for the visual design. Well, there's actually a few elements that are worth seeing on their own, but this is my particular favorite. The look and ambience of a futuristic, dystopian cyberpunk city has never been better captured in anything short of the original Blade Runner; in some ways, Snatcher might actually do it a little better, as it lets you see more of the city and the people who live in it than Blade Runner does. Sure, it does lift elements from Blade Runner, but damn it looks good. And it's all the more impressive when you consider the 64-color palette of the Sega CD is what was used.

As mentioned the writing and localization are also very good, and there's a tremendous level of unneccessary supporting detail that ends up being fascinating to pick through. You can easily spend upwards of an hour with the JORDAN computer at headquarters alone, just reading about the political and social details of the city of Neo Kobe and what's been happening to the world since our time. Again, a lot of this stuff is cribbed from various other sources, but it's no less interesting for it.

The soundtrack is also fantastic - as a Konami Kukeiha Club fan and connossieur, I really feel that this is possibly their best overall effort (short of perhaps only Dracula X, and that's very much debatable). While the game uses Redbook audio here and there, most of the audio is wrung out of the Genesis' rather shabby sound chip, but they do a tremendous job of working with it's strengths to add to the game's gritty, futuristic and dark vibe.

Now, the game isn't all sunshine and roses, of course. We are dealing with Hideo Kojima after all, and many of his trademark excesses as a writer rear their heads here. You've got the usual long-winded death speeches, and bad guys pausing their action for upwards of three to five minutes while the main characters have a conversation amongst themselves. But then you also have his strengths, such as cleverly breaking the "fourth wall" in a way that's engaging yet doesn't ruin your immersion in the story.

The gameplay is mostly good, by "visual novel" standards - you don't have to do a huge amount of excess or illogical clicking through the menus to advance the action. That's not to say there aren't frustrating points, however - there is a part towards the end of the game, for example, where you must open three doors yet there are only two corresponding switches. It's patently obvious how to open the third door right off the bat, but the game won't let you actually do it until you've clicked on every little possible thing in the two other (mostly useless) rooms and then again on damn near everything in the room with the switches multiple times. There's a few bits like that, but on the whole I have to say it was a lot less prone to be tedious and maddening than the average "visual novel".

And one final flaw is the voice acting. It's typical of 1990s video gaming - that is to say, hammy and low-grade. There's only a cast of about four or five people who provide all the voices for all the characters in the game, and I guarantee you've never heard of any of them before. As the game has a sense of humor throughout, however, it comes off better than it would with a wholly dramatic game. The only real downer is the Snatchers, who turn out to be the most talkative evil robots EVAR. Personally I felt they were much more menacing as a silent presence that could pop out of nowhere, but when you finally cross paths with them they turn out to be stereotypical Dr. Evil villains that have to rattle off their whole plans of global domination to you in great detail for no good reason whatsover (and complete with studied maniacal Evil Cackles). Their long-windedness combined with the over-the-top acting makes them a lot harder to take seriously than they should be. On the whole, though, it's not that great a detriment to the game, as voice acting is only used in certain key scenes - not all the way through the game. And as bad as it gets, it never descends to the "Docta Wight" / "Jill Sandwiches" level.

So on the whole, yeah, it's worth your time. Especially if you are a cyberpunk fan, as there are precious few pieces of media that represent the genre as well as this one does. It's wholly linear, but there are copious Easter Eggs and I actually find the game to be entertaining enough that, much like with Blade Runner, it's worth pulling out for a go every two or three years even though I know exactly what is going to happen. Give it a look using the GENS emulator if you haven't yet; the game can be had for a free (118 MB) download from Home of the Underdogs (probably on many other ROM sites by now as well).

Links :

* Download from Home of the Underdogs
* Scans of an old strategy guide (major spoilers)
* The Kremlin
* The Junker HQ
* Podcast interview from localizer and former Konami employee Jeremy Blaustein, where he gets bitter as hell and totally blows Kojima up
* MP3s at Galbadia Hotel
* Snatcher Pilot Disk, a Nintendo DS homebrew ROM of the first chapter of Snatcher
* Snatcher MOD for Crysis Wars

Videos :

Gameplay Video

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