If you’re a regular reader of the site, you’ve probably seen us kick around the idea of reviewing games for the CD-i, one of the most infamous consoles in gaming, known for making dreadfully bad games with Nintendo-licensed characters. Well, since we
desperately needed material to pad the Halloween special are all about giving the fans what they want, we figured now would be as good a time as any to delve into the CD-i lineup, as well as kick off our BRAND NEW EXTRAS SECTION with a bizarre little game called Mystic Midway: Phantom Express.
Now, I feel I need to explain a little bit about the console before discussing the game. The CD-i (Compact Disc Interactive) was designed by Philips as a sort of do-everything home entertainment console; think what a PlayStation 4 would be with 1994 technology, and you’d have a pretty rough idea of what we’re looking at here. It played audio CD’s, Digital Video movies, photo CD’s, and had a halfway decent selection of games and educational software (IIRC, it shipped with Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia). It also featured a wireless remote controller in an era where that was still a big deal, with a thumbstick, two sets of action buttons, and playback controls similar to a DVD remote. Unfortunately, it was sunk by its mammoth size (it was bigger than an original XBox), high prices (I believe we paid 500 quid for one in ’94), and the fact that most of the games just weren’t very good.
As for Phantom Express, it’s actually a sequel of sorts to another Mystic Midway game called Rest in Pieces, which was essentially a carnival shooting gallery with a bit of a campy, Halloweenish theme about it. Phantom Express is a rail-shooter, where you ride a rollercoaster through the various stages of your life, shooting at the images of your tortured existence, hoping to reach the target score to advance to the next stage, all the while being berated by your parents, your teachers, your boss, your spouse, and eventually, even your own children…apparently a lot of people are quite glad you’re dead.
Now, this sounds like a very…bizarre premise, to say the least, and it certainly is, but it stays campy without being outright depressing, thanks in large part to the M.C./Carnival Barker of this whole affair, Dr. Dearth. Played by Randy Polk, Dr. Dearth’s weird psycho asshole charisma singlehandedly carried this game to something respectable, as he appears before each level to taunt you and serve as the closest thing to an antagonist, and when you can stick out as a villain despite only having green screen scenes with the production value of my 7th grade technology class and you’re limited to PG insults like “peabrain” and “dorkwad”, you’ve REALLY done something special. Hell, watching him mock you in your old age before pulling the lever with his cane to start the level might be worth the price of admission alone.
It’s a good thing, too, because the rest of the game really isn’t terribly special or innovative. Things pop up on screen, move the cursor, and click before it goes away, lather, rinse, repeat. There’s three modes here, a 1 player mode, 2 player cooperative, where you team up to try to beat the target score, and a 2 player competitive where you and a buddy can proceed to bogart each other out of points and end up fighting. There is a bit of a glitch, however, that allows you to play 2 player modes by yourself with one controller, but the second cursor will just mimic your movements in an exaggerated fashion.
There’s also three difficulty levels to select from, which basically decides how fast the targets move and how high of a score you need to clear each level. Fail to clear a level three times, and the game’s over. Either way, you’ll probably need all the help you can get, because unless you have a freakish memory or incredible reflexes, this game can get tough, even at the easier difficulties. Targets fly by in weird patterns, some simply crossing the screen, some popping up and ducking back like the Toasty! guy, some fly like the bats from Castlevania, in a weird wave pattern, and others even shrink and stretch in what I assume to be a mind-bending effect, not to mention some targets, like the rice being thrown at your wedding or your pills in old age, are borderline microscopic.
The actual artwork was quite good, I thought, and it’s nice to know that some effort was put in somewhere. The whole game has a bizarre half-stream-of-consciousness/half-psychedelic vibe to it in general that works very well. The rollercoaster effect is done surprisingly effectively, switching from the open air with rolls and loops and bends to the sad realities of the shooting sections rather seamlessly. Framerate is pretty smooth here, and I never noticed any slowdown playing through it again, which I found friggin’ amazing given how old the hardware was, and there were no graphical glitches or bugs either, which was also pretty shocking to me, given the technology at the time. Sound is another highlight, especially the voices of those taunting you in the levels, although this is a game where you’ll be laying on the trigger, so it might be hard to appreciate the other sounds when you’re being bombarded with the same gunfire noise eleventy billion times per stage. The whole presentation definitely deserves a lot of credit, and it really demonstrates the strengths of the CD-i, being able to utilize high-quality graphics and sound, without falling into the Sega CD trap of cannibalizing the picture with muddy shadows and obvious scanlines.
This being an arcade rail-shooter, the only real replay value is in trying to set the high score, and point inflation is present; targets are only worth 50 points or so in infancy and by the time you’re on your deathbed, they’re worth 350-400 or so, and the target score increases incrementally. At the end of the game, there’s also a bonus round of sorts where you whip through one tunnel from each of the stages, but alas, you never get to square off with Dr. Dearth himself in a boss battle or anything of that sort. In fact, it seems like a novelty game that would be more enjoyable with a group of friends all sitting around and enjoying the jokes and cracking wise than something you’d sit by yourself and rip through in a half-hour or so…like I did.
I know it sounds like I don’t have a lot of good to say about Mystic Midway: Phantom Express, but frankly, this was probably in the upper echelon of CD-i titles, if you can believe it. It has simple gameplay mechanics, and it won’t hold your attention for terribly long, but it plays to its strengths (Dr. Dearth’s Trash Talk Imaginarium) and tries to hide its weaknesses as best it can. If by some miracle you happen upon a working CD-i, I’d recommend giving MM:PE a playthrough, and once is really all you need, and hey, if this is what the afterlife is really like, at least I’m good and practiced for it.
Dr. Dearth is the man. Is the man, was the man, is the man. Also surprisingly decent graphics and sound.
The narrator should never be the most over feature in a game. Virtually no replay value.