One can draw many parallels – and just as many differences – between the Sega CD and one of the most sought-after, most noteworthy games produced for said Genesis add-on, Konami’s 1994 ‘cyberpunk’ adventure, Snatcher. Like its host console’s tenure of some two short years, Snatcher’s duration is short and quite notably incomplete; but where its parent peripheral’s hold was shaky and fated for obscurity, the game’s hold to this day on players’ minds – and wallets – is far more gripping (just check Ebay for proof of that). And like the CD-ROM system’s library, Snatcher is a mixed bag of sights, sounds, ideas, and gameplay experience; but, as cannot be said of the aforementioned library, it’s also nigh-unanimously loved and lauded by those in the know. While many say that Snatcher, with the illusion of freedom granted by total stylistic immersion in a fairly point-and-click world, is easily the system’s best offering and a pivotal development to the industry, others, citing the same PC-game style and interface as redundant and limiting, call it overrated.
This review is an attempt to give you the truest version of all these truisms.
Snatcher was the brainchild of Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear fame, and first appeared on the PC88 in 1988 (a NEC system). Since that time, it has been ported to equally-defunct MSX Home Computer, NEC PC Engine (Turbo Duo CD to us), Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn, and, of course, the Sega CD, which remains the sole English version available. Its release was no doubt not a wide and prosperous one, for it fell on the cusp of the 32-bit console generation, but it has since earned a place in the most-wanted books of many a gamer.
As said before, Snatcher is a ‘cyberpunk’ adventure, a genre with its roots in such rabidly-loved films as Blade Runner. What does cyberpunk mean, exactly? The basic formula goes like this: in the not-so-distant future, a time of flying cars, man-made mecha-cities, and advanced technological commodities, the threat to humanity from its own creations outweighs our own danger toward ourselves. In the case of Snatcher, the year is 2047, the place, Neo Kobe, Japan, and the menace comes from the titular identity-swiping robots, complete duplicates of existing persons, bent on replacing very important people in society (that’s the actual criteria – must be a V.I.P. to be snatch-worthy). A specialized, exclusive unit of the police force, known as JUNKER, has been formed to combat this menace, and as amnesiac agent Gillian Seed, you’ve got to snoop around, gather clues, and crack the string of whodunnits wide open – and hopefully gain back all the memories you lost three years prior that landed you in the job to begin with. Throughout the course of Snatcher, you’ll interview informants and confidants, question and be questioned, decipher clues and decrypt codes, and meet a bevy of colorful characters – all of whom are suspect, even yourself.
Now, to all those who have seen Blade Runner: if this sounds familiar, it’s because it most blatantly is. As should be obvious to you from the get-go, EVERYTHING in Snatcher pays such deliberate homage to that celluloid – and borrows so generously from a handful of others, such as The Terminator and the like-entitled Invasion of the Body Snatchers – that the originality of the game would come into great doubt, if it weren’t for the originality of the presentation. Instead, thanks to the expertly-woven murder mystery concocted by Kojima, the development of the characters, and the solid delivery and progression of storyline which forms the grand appeal of Snatcher, the player is never made terribly aware of the influence of the source material. What we’re treated to is a brilliant, never-before-seen and never-since-duplicated package – a clever and new-feeling take on a fruit basket of fan-favorite ideas, but as a video game in general, I would gauge it about three parts sour grapes to seven parts sweet delights.
Why lower than most reviews? Well, Snatcher has a good foundation as a detective story, but gameplay in a strictly menu-driven world comes down to a whole lotta watching, listening, and reading – more like an interactive novel than a game at times. Which it does very well – Snatcher is full of exceptional, emotionally-charged voice acting (a trait which, even in over ten years time, barely any other game outside of Kojima’s own productions has bothered to learn from or at least imitate), colorful, and oft-graphic, anime-influenced visuals with the occasional real-time animation that more than satisfies when compared to full-motion video of the time, and a suave, jazzy soundtrack that makes the most of the Genny’s FM chip, even utilizing the Sega CD-specific Roland Sound System for a multi-layered effect. With its gritty, gory nature, crude (and hilarious) sexual humor and visual offerings for the male audience, and abundant underworld overtones, one must wonder how the game garnered a mere T for Teen rating. And let me be the first to tell you, it’s a real mistake – you should be at least 15-16 years old for this ride.
Although the writing and acting just smacks of talent and high production values, the bulk of Snatcher still boils down to navigating through static scenery, sometimes having to perform your array of commands – Look, Investigate, Ask, Talk, Show Possessions, etc – multiple times on the same objects and people to produce the desired effect, and reading the copious amount of text that results from your actions. However, with a story this good in a video game, this is more of a privilege than the chore that a poor translation would have provided, and when you get a scene of dialogue (not all that uncommon), you’re in for a real treat. The best scenes stem from the bickering banter between Seed and his Navigator, Metal Gear mark II, and with his estranged wife Jamie – one exchange will have you reeling with laughter, then a moment later, another will shatter the comedic atmosphere, paralyze your mind and make your heart skip a beat or two.
What’s more the treat is what forms the action-oriented portion of the game – the rare shooting sequences! Suddenly and usually without warning, a sequence in which Gillian will have to draw his standard-issue Blaster, aim in a 3×3 grid, and fire will occur (but always use your judgment before you shoot – that’s the JUNKER way!) If you’ve ever played the bonus game in Konami’s earlier title Sunset Riders (SNES/Gen/Arcade), it’s basically the same concept – with center as your neutral starting point, targets will appear on-screen, and you must hold the proper direction and fire on them before they do so at you and deplete your life gauge. The realism is heightened for those who have Konami’s Justifier lightgun that came with the game Lethal Enforcers (though I suppose Sega’s own Menacer would work), but it was altogether an underused facet of the gameplay. They really ought to have included more of them, but if you’re really hankerin’ to whip out the pistol, you can always pay a visit to the Shooting Range at JUNKER HQ for some target practice.
The BIGGEST beef you might have with Snatcher that hasn’t been told a thousand times over might well be the ending. If you’re averse to hearing even the most general and spoiler-free commentary, I kindly suggest you scroll down past this paragraph (or if you’re mean, you can just leave, you big meanie). Otherwise, consider yourself warned – the game is sorely incomplete, more of a first chapter to at least a two- or three-part story that will likely never see fruition. The last of the ending segments also see a collapse in the balance of story versus actual gameplay into a morass of long, less interestingly-revealed events, nearly falling victim to most anime’s greatest pitfall – lack of sensible pacing. This ticked me off royal, and having the wheels set in motion for a greater leg of the journey only did so further. The sappiness some of the final events is then cut startlingly short by a rather serious observation – including the phrase, ‘the conflict has just begun’. Who ends a game like that unless they mean to continue it, honestly?!
+ Pros: Casts an absorbing spell of intrigue, drama, romance and suspense, with a pinch of film-noiresque, gun-slinging action.
– Cons: Action is mostly absent from this near-text-based romp, and the length, although substantial for an adventure game, is piddling on the CD medium – you won’t want it to end.
Overall: So if you play, be prepared – at somewhere between 6-10 hours, and the latter part of that estimate is assuming you run into trouble that doesn’t get resolved right away by a walkthrough, Snatcher is altogether too short. While the atmosphere achieves cinematic proportions in this game like it has in few others, it is just as soon taken away, and you’ll be left with the worst feeling of betrayal since Shenmue 2 – or to be chronologically correct, the other way around. In any case, if you’d like some good mental exercise, some truly involving character interaction, and excitement aplenty (barring the confused wandering in which you’re sure to partake at one point or another), Snatcher will be your very good friend for one very good, solid play-through.
Written by Katie Montminy.
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