S.O.S. / Vic Tokai / SNES

Human Entertainment is an interesting developer, somewhat like Quintet in that they had a sort of niche in putting out darker-than-average games for the SNES with unusual themes. Their most well-known work here in the U.S. is horror game Clock Tower (though in Japan I'd suspect it's probably the Fire Pro Wrestling games). Despite being kind of a cult favorite, they were big enough in Japan to operate a game design school in the mid-90s called "Human Creative School", which offered up a two-year program in game design. Students of the school actually ended up getting a few of their games published under the Human label, and S.O.S. was one such game.

The game has a great premise, surprisingly unexplored prior to this in gaming - the objective is to escape a Titanic-like luxury freighter that has capsized in a storm and is slowly filling with water. You can choose to play as one of four characters - a young architect, a doctor, a counselor or a member of the ship's crew. Each has their own advantage - the doctor can heal wounded passengers, the counselor is better at talking to those who are hysterical, the crewman begins with a map of the ship, and I think the deal with the architect is that he moves faster and jumps higher than the others. Aside from navigating through the overturned ship and dodging obstacles such as fires, falling furniture and water pouring in, you also will encounter others along the way whom you can convince to follow you as you try to find a way out.

The game's "killer hook" is that is uses Mode 7 to periodically rotate the ship as it is buffeted by the waves. As the ship leans from side to side, certain areas that weren't previously accessible can be reached, but old areas might also be cut off.

You get an hour of real-time to find a way out. There's no way to die, but taking damage causes you to roar hilariously and then pass out, losing five minutes of game time in the process. And though you are not able to die, the people who follow you can, and if they fall too far or hit a lethal obstacle, it's all over for them.

           You can do it, Grandma!

Your guy has the ability to jump, and not much else. You can talk to other people that you come across, and tap the R button to call for anyone who is following you, but that's about it. The game plays like a slightly more slipshod version of Prince of Persia, as you catch ledges with the tips of your fingers.

Fortunately, both the playable characters and all the passengers that follow them seem to have the ups of a young Jordan, old grannies included. Unfortunately, they get confused very easily. That's the real deal-breaker of the game right there; the AI is pretty atrocious, often getting caught up on a doorway or ledge that they should easily be able to traverse, and often getting irrevocably stuck with no recourse for you but to continue on without them, or restart the game (there are no saves or continues).

You may feel a slight twinge of guilt when you let that poor sap who's been following you plunge to their death down a shaft, because the characters all have personalities and even the most minor survivors have a bit of a backstory. When you encounter them, many of the passengers are either hysteric or refuse to move for some reason, and you often have to spend precious time talking with them to convince them to follow you to safety. For bonus morbidness, only seven people can follow you at a time, and ultimately you can only escape with three, so you might just have to say "tough luck" to Grandma or that little boy clutching the teddy bear and leave them to their watery fate (there are far more than seven survivors scattered throughout the ship).

The game is a seriously mixed bag. On the one hand, it has a great premise, and great atmosphere. There's even a bit of story to it, and all the passengers with their unique personalities, stories and ways of reacting to the disaster add a level of depth and drama to it not usually present in SNES gaming. The music is also fantastic - there aren't very many pieces, but what's here is perfectly suited to the game and really well done. On the other hand, the gameplay is slippery and often very frustrating - you'll be ready to roar yourself the third or fourth time you get hit in the face with Chair Meteo out of nowhere, or when your character drops when you expect him to jump instead. There are multiple endings for each character depending on who you save, which adds quite a bit of replayability, but this is a double-edged sword as the horrendous AI makes it much harder than it should be to actually get people out safely. Also, there's a nearly game-killing bug in the final area just before you escape, where there is a large pit that you can jump across, but your followers can't. There is no earthly way to traverse it except to exploit yet another glitch in the game, where you intentionally get your character wounded at a certain point so that all the others magically teleport next to him. That kind of thing is inexcusable in a commercial release, even the most cursory QA playthrough should have caught it.

So it's definitely interesting, and easily worth a look just as a unique curiosity piece, but ultimately it'll probably end up being just too frustrating and clunky to bother getting all the way through.

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