In the far future, two mega-corporations battle for supremacy, and one game company needs a gimmick for their new game. Our buddies at Psygnosis, responsible for the quirky Sentient, came up with a solution. The mega-corporations would battle it out inside the body of one of their CEOs, and Psygnosis would create “Fantastic Voyage: The Game.”
The result is MicroCosm, a pretty standard track shooter that takes place zipping around inside the human body. And instead of fighting disease or cancer – because that would just be silly, right? – you fight thousands of little nanomachines plugging away at your CEO’s brain. It seems like a terribly inefficient way to kill a man. There are little guard drones, some heavy “boss” drones, support structures, docking stations – it’s a little mechanized army in there. It would seem, if you could get close enough to stick the dude with a needle, you should simply poison him and be done with it. But then, of course, you wouldn’t have a game, or the “microcosm” of the title.
The concept works decently enough though, and is a vaguely unique idea as far as games go (this is the only “inside the body” game I’m aware of). There’s no functional difference between flying down an artery and flying down the tunnel of an alien base, but the body gives you the opportunity to fight in places that look different to what you’re used to. Don’t expect to do any learning from this game – I have no doubt the designers studied anatomy for this project, but the detail isn’t going to be enough for med students to exclaim “Look, the hypopericardioratoriumius!” as they pass it by. If you’re expecting some cartoon fighter ships overlaid on some CG footage of pink walls, you’ve got the right idea.
The name of the first game that did this video background deal escapes me, much to my personal shame, but you’ll be playing this through a behind-the-ship view identical to the appropriate sequences in Rebel Assault. The background movies will play independent of the cartoon ship action or your movements, though you will have to avoid the walls. Lucky for you, someone decided to strap a couple Arri 12k’s on the front of your ship, so none of your surroundings will ever look dark or hard to distinguish. Ever. You’ll thus spend the rest of the game twisting about, dodging incoming fire, and chasing down speedy enemy drones.
The PC version’s manual speaks to a number of things that do not appear to be present in the Sega CD version; most notably, branching pathways and mid-level recharge stations. The PC manual also instructs you specifically not to shoot the President’s white blood cells, but there’s nothing but enemies in this version. I find it hard to believe that the two versions should be that different, but upon reflection, it probably makes sense. The PC talks about some kind of Fractal Engine technology, which I presume is what would give it the ability to preload sections of these background movies, and drop them if that path isn’t taken. I would bet that the Sega CD simply didn’t have the memory or resources to pull that off. Especially considering that another “branching path” game, Sewer Shark, had one “the game continues” path and three “instant, tasty death” paths.
So to make it on the SCD, Psygnosis probably just picked one of the paths from the PC version and provided that stream of movies. I can further support this by the fact that you can SEE other tunnels going off in different directions; you just can’t go down them. Mind you, this is all speculation. I’m sure I can prove it if I can ever get the fucking PC version to run, instead of crying about memory protection faults. Anyway, in the absence of the proper information, I cannot consider “How The Game Is Supposed To Be” and must review only on the merits of “How My Version Plays.” And my version is pretty vanilla.
Controlling your craft as you rocket down your CEO’s tummy is regrettably imprecise. The game was designed for the PC, and PC means mouse. Mouse does not mean joypad. Joypad is what you get, without the joy. If you’ve ever tried to slip and slide around the screen through any of these other types of games, be it with a ship, cursor, whatever, then you know what to expect. Of curious annoyance is that most fire seems to drift toward the center of the screen, which is the only point where your fire is really accurate. So in the chase scenes for example, you have to line the boss up in the center of the screen for a second or less, and then jink around while all the laser balls hit your good aiming spot.
Fortunately, every weapon is indeed a variation of the ubiquitous “laser ball,” so you can lead the fire to your target like tracers. That’s the most frustrating part of the game, really. You have to focus on avoiding fire more than shooting things yourself; uncommonly so even for a track shooter. I actually went through a few levels where I just dodged fire instead of trying to line up enemies, and did better than I ever did trying to actively shoot them. Where’s the fun in that?
The visuals are only moderately impressive. I hate saying the same thing over and over about Sega CD video, but it’s not my fault that they all have the same problems. The system is really just a Genesis that can read CDs too, and is not capable of displaying enough colors to show the detail that is in the source video. As is always the case, you get pixelated and watery video. Watery in the sense that all the colors start bleeding into each other, which they do, and which results in a handful of different shades of (specific color) for (specific level). Pink for veins, orange for the lungs, red for bone — red for bone? Ah well, I’m no doctor.
Sound. Don’t expect any 20 minute epics here, though – each piece is about two minutes long, and uses synthesizers and Nu-future themes to the point that that Vangelis might as well be at the helm. It’s not exactly “music to shoot robots by” in my opinion, but it fills the time. It’s also unclear if Rick Wakeman and his keyboard actually contribute to this version. Research online says that his tracks were only licensed for the FM Towns version. The back of the Sega CD box and the credits both say that his songs are present. Since I don’t know what I’m listening for, I can’t say one way or the other.
I will give credit to the game’s introduction sequence. It’s low-budget for sure, and certainly some fun with greenscreen was had, and it meanders without plot for about three minutes too long, but I am cautiously impressed. “Cautiously” because I don’t know if the style they ended up with was really intentional, and I don’t want to give them rave credit for accidents. It could be that they simply had a terrible framerate despite all their efforts, or it could be that everything is dark to hide their mistakes. However, this “background is smooth but the characters are choppy” thing going on gives it an excellent comic-book feel. Add that to some high contrast and brilliant highlight images, and you’ve got Sin City before it came to the screen. The actual information conveyed during this sequence is admittedly meager, but darnit, it’s nice to look at.
The idea isn’t a terrible one, and the execution is somewhat sound, but it still feels like something is missing. I’m not talking about the features seemingly present in the PC but not here. The controls are a part of this – a pretty big part, and work against having the game be fun on its shooter merits alone. If you can struggle through it your first couple of tries (which is possible, considering the length) then you might enjoy the ride. Otherwise, certainly not worth any frustration in playing it, or in finding it.
Cool cinematics, plunging through the human body offers new sights.
Control issues and perspective issues make it just not much fun.