Loaded is a twin stick shooter on a console with no sticks – a little sub-genre that has a somewhat inglorious history throughout the 8 and 16-bit eras. Rather than using the pad’s buttons in place of the second stick (a la Super Smash TV), you will indeed be trying to blast through some pretty lengthy mazes with only a lock/strafe modifier key to help you shoot in one direction. I’ve never thought these games controlled well, and overall, Loaded is no different.
However, it does have a pretty strong case for being the first true 3D implementation of this kind of game (the levels at least, as the characters and gunfire are still 2D sprites). That would put it as a faster, prettier successor to games like Gauntlet or the Amiga stalwart Alien Breed. It was also released in the first three months of the PlayStation’s arrival on US shores, which – for me at least – means it’s one of those early titles that form the PSX’s original reputation. And that original reputation was attitude.
Wrestling had its “attitude era,” and so did gaming – a decade before, and for much the same reasons. Sega’s decision to position the Genesis as the cool upgrade to Nintendo’s “kiddy” consoles seemed to kick it off, and a generation of gamers transitioning into their teens kept it going all through the 90s. Sony was more than happy to pick up and carry this torch in 1995, with ads like “More Powerful Than God,” the Toshinden Sonia ad, the Wipeout ad that was totally not an oxy overdose reference, and the general message that PlayStation was the next step for serious gamers and definitely adults.
Loaded fits right into this aesthetic. Riding a wave of post-Mortal Kombat gore obsession and teenage angst, the ads made the game sound like it was made for sociopaths. The back of the box hypes up how you’ll “slash and splatter” through the game; decorating the walls with enemy blood. The manual hypes up the “psychotic, pissed off, homicidal” anti-heroes. The easy difficulty is called “Fairies.” It seems super tryhard these days, and definitely hits different after all the real-life gun violence since its publication, but I should stress that, for the time, this kind of marketing was nothing uncommon. Youthful anger was “a phase” and overall harmless – seen as having the same importance a toddler’s tantrums – and was even something to play to with tongue-in-cheek ads.
Meanwhile, the manual informs us that F.U.B – the guy you’re ultimately out to kill – stands for “Fat Ugly Boy.” Because kids might be playing this, and the word “bastard” would just be inappropriate.
At the same time, Detective Comics Comics Inc. was fresh in the middle of a “we’re not for KIDS, we’re GRAPHIC NOVELS for ADULTS!” phase of their own through their Vertigo line. Presumably hired by Interplay, DC contributed some or all of the characters designs. Greg Staples (Judge Dredd) and Garth Ennis (at this point, deep into Preacher) provided concepts, artwork, and backstory for the manual, cover, and the rare collector’s comic. It is… about as 90s as can be. Handle the comic carefully so you don’t cut yourself on that edge.
To be clear, I’m sure I would have absolutely bought into all of this as a teen. Mine was a generation that grew up zooming in on Tupac autopsy photos on Rotten.com. I remember an iron stomach and a “fuck the world” attitude was the height of stoic machismo, and thirteen-year-old me practiced my own grim expression and thousand-yard stare. We had no Vietnam to “make us men,” so desensitizing through death videos and dark humor was prized as the next best thing. Laughing at gore, cursing, homophobia, and killing without a care were just cool adult things that cool adults did.
As was law in 1995, Loaded’s unofficial mascot is a psychotic clown. His name is Fwank, and his special launches homing, explosive teddy bears. Vox is the sole lady character, which means she’s fast but weak. Mamma is a 6 foot baby with an energy gun/bottle that shoots faster than the game engine can keep up with. Cap’N’Hands is a cybernetic pirate who looks like a skeleton and shoots twin pistols. Bounca is a big, slow dude with a rocket launcher and a bear trap for a jaw. Finally, there’s Butch, a burly dude with a flamethrower in a dress and heels who the collector’s comic describes as a “fucking transo bastard.” Progressive, Loaded is not.
For better or worse (probably better) these characters barely come across in game at all. They’re just tiny sprites walking in an overhead view, with no voice work, no unique cinematics, and no animations beyond the basic move and shoot. They’re rated for stats like speed and armor, but these values don’t come across in any meaningful way. Instead, they’re almost entirely defined by their unique weapon, which kicks off my major complaint about the game itself. Loaded feels repetitive, and it most directly comes down to using the same attack through the whole game.
Rather than letting you collect new ordinance to kill bad guys, you’re stuck with that character’s gun. It maybe encourages replay, but mostly meant I spent a lot of time playing through the first level trying to find the character with the gun I liked the most. Pickups raise your firepower slightly. The first two pickups change the weapon in tangible ways – making shots spread wider or go further. The rest just increase damage. There’s no indicator of how powerful your gun has become. You can continue to pickup up these powerups, but I have no clue if there’s ever a cutoff. Enemies fall in one hit after collecting just a few, so it hardly matters.
My second complaint goes to the controls. As mentioned, holding down L1 lets you lock in place and strafe. The X button fires. This lets you zig-zag down a hallway and blow away everyone up ahead, or slide into a door and hopefully get the drop on all inside. However, running in one direction while firing in others is basically impossible, and thus, you have to choose between shooting and evading. You can’t evade enemies designed to crowd you, so if you’re not shooting them before they reach you, well, there’s another life lost. There’s a lot of enemies in this game – you know, showing off the mighty power of the new PlayStation – plus some very long levels, but these one-way controls make it very hard for you to deal with them.
Enemy AI isn’t half bad. Paired with the controls, however, this becomes a surprising negative. Guards with guns will backpedal and try to get around to your side. Guys in straitjackets will bull rush you and never stay in one place. The worst are the rats in the 3rd and 4th levels, who are fast as hell and programmed to run up to you, circle around you while biting, then run away. Imagine ten of these little shits nipping away at your health, while you’re spinning around in totally ineffective circles and shooting at air.
Loaded has 15 levels, and is at its best in the early prison and later space port levels. These are populated by human enemies that go down quickly and feel appropriately paced. Enemy bullets are hard to see, and it’s difficult to notice that you’re taking damage, but the game is very manageable here. You feel powerful and in control. Loaded’s at its worst when it’s in the sewers, or the outside canyon levels. These all contain swarming critters who are hard to hit and highly damaging over time. Worse, they all respawn as soon as they’re off screen. Often paired with zombies, who soak up damage and also respawn, these levels become frantic dashes to the objectives before you get overwhelmed and dead. I lost most of my lives (and my patience) in these areas.
Two player co-op is included, and the best I can come up with is that it might help with the difficulty issues. It’s entirely possible that you’re just losing lives twice as fast, but it seems like one character’s weakness could be covered by another. Butch’s flamethrower takes care of creatures like the rats pretty handily, but has no real range. Pair him with somebody like Bounca, who can blow away armed baddies at a distance, and baby, now you’ve got a stew going.
It’s worth noting that I played on the average difficulty. You can increase your lives and continues to five without adjusting difficulty, and those critter levels ate up most of both. On my first play, I got to level 10 before being killed with no continues left. The easiest difficulty felt more like what the game intended, letting me feel more like an unstoppable badass without being completely mindless. Still, those rats and zombies are bastards, and some later-game mech units can shred you pretty quickly if you’re not careful. If you want a challenge, I guess it’s here, but those controls tend to frustrate more than empower.
Graphically, there’s some impressive work with dynamic lighting. Levels get very dark – sometimes in a “turn up the brightness on your television” way – but this showcases the flash of your guns or the impact of their projectiles on the walls. Color lighting is used frequently, for decoration and to highlight keycard doors. Other than your guns, there aren’t really any strobe effects or shadows, but for the time, getting away from pre-baked lighting while including color too was pretty impressive. They show off the PlayStation hardware in the same way the color additions to PlayStation Doom did.
That much-hyped gore pretty much comes down to having all defeated enemies make the same sound of an overripe fruit dropping from a great height, then turn into a persistent corpse (stain?) on the ground. These layer in ways that can make corridors look pretty pulpy, but that’s about it. The walls remain pristine and the single “splattered dead guy” 2D decal never changes. It is impressive that they stick around for the remainder of the level. You can switch your health indicator to a minimap with the Circle button, but really, these bloody breadcrumbs are the best way to tell where you’ve already been.
Performance struggles when there’s a lot of action or exploding objects on screen at once. You can use the L2 and R2 buttons to raise and lower the camera. The default view is pretty close in, and I thought the wider view of pulling the camera up was worth the tradeoff to framerate. The maximum zoom in seems useless, except to see how jagged the sprites can get, or count the ribs inside the bloody splat stain (four). Everything is also on a single, flat plane with designs based around 2D mazes – you’ll need to go to the sequel if you want to see more than that.
General consensus is that the best part about the first Loaded is the soundtrack. There are 30 tracks on the disc, though not all seem to be used. Only 2-9 are longer than a minute, and indeed, I noticed they started to repeat the same loop of tracks at level 8. There’s not as much variety here as you think, but the synthy sci-fi tunes feel appropriate to rampage to. The rock band Pop Will Eat Itself contributes here – I’m assuming on the tracks with lyrics, which would put their songs at two. These are some pretty loud, headbanging tunes, with lots of lyrics you can’t make out (“GetuppaGetup!”) while the drummer beats the cymbals like they own him money.
If you’re a skilled fan of these kinds of games, you’re probably going to get more out of this than I did. I spent most of my time wishing there a stick to map the gun to. If you’re a casual fan, the lower difficulties might be a better time instead of struggling with the controls and trying to keep your meager health protected. There’s really no humor or story here, so your sole reason for playing is the action. Which leaves Loaded as a sort of transition game. Titles like the first Resident Evil are about to come out, showing everyone what new kinds of games can be created with new hardware. And they’re almost all better than a middling top-down shooter.
Top-down shooting goes 3D. Lots of enemies on screen at once. Color and dynamic lights look striking.
Characters don’t have much gameplay difference and most weapons perform similarly. Begs for twin stick controls, but you’ll just have to make do. Long maze levels can start to drag.