Some time ago, I was hanging out in a FuncoLand (now a soulless GameStop) with the J Man. While I browsed the used section he explained to me that he would soon be expanding the scope of JGR with the addition of Sega CD reviews. In his research for this project, he had recalled a lost gem, a diamond in the rough, if you will. This game had mesmerized him in his youth and its power still held true today. In fact, he was sure I would love it as well. It was something of an adventure game, which is my weakness. It was set in the future and involved robots, another two direct hits. And it combined these ingredients with the trappings of a 1940s detective novel. I had to admit, I was interested.
“If I burn you a copy and point you toward an emulator,” he said to me in a rare use of quotation marks in a JGR review, “will you give it a whirl and possibly a review?” I glanced away from the box art of Mary-Kate & Ashley: Magical Mystery Mall long enough to lock eyes with my respected colleague and reply “Absolutely.”
“Absolutely” is a codeword between the J Man and I that has slowly come to mean “In about five years I’ll see what I can do.” All through college I kept that CD-R in my game case. New games went in and old ones came out, but that Sega CD curiosity remained, mocking my laziness as well as my slipshod attitude toward promises. Removing it would have been admitting defeat. Actually playing it would have been a hassle. Partially because I still needed to download and configure the emulator he’d recommended. But mostly because I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into. This was a little known cult classic for a system that nobody bought. It was a game from another country that relied on story, always a risky proposition. No matter how many times the J Man asked if I was going to get around to it, my apathetic attitude prevailed. Finally, the stars aligned. A time when I had no new games to distract me magically coincided with a time when I needed to write a review. And there was that disc. Smiling at me.
Like any of my anecdotes, this one ends with more proof that I’m a moron. In my defense, some games are hard to pitch. “Italian plumber beats up turtles” or “blue hedgehog runs a lot” might not persuade you to play if you hadn’t seen how fun those concepts could actually be. This is one of these games, but let me try to encapsulate how wrong I was not to get excited about it five years ago. Sit back and prepare for the only five words you should need to hear to understand why Snatcher is probably the best title to ever grace the Sega CD: “Hideo Kojima does Blade Runner”.
Defined most accurately as an adventure game, Snatcher is a gritty cyberpunk detective tale that takes place a little over fifty years into the future. In the early 1990s (which was the game’s past and the player’s future, but is now the actual past) an experimental chemical weapon was accidentally released in Russia, killing half of the Earth’s population. Now, in the future, a mysterious race of androids has appeared on the Japanese island of Neo Kobe City. These robots appear to murder humans, take on their appearance, and replace them in society. Suspicion abounds that whatever these “Snatchers” are, they are somehow related to the chemical accident now known as the Catastrophe.
You star as Gillian Seed, a special agent recently assigned to J.U.N.K.E.R., the organization dedicated to tracking and terminating Snatchers as well as figuring out where they came from and what they want. You’ve also got problems of your own, mainly the amnesia you’ve experienced ever since you and your wife Jamie were rescued in Siberia a few years prior. Jamie can’t remember anything either and without any shared memories, your marriage is falling apart. I only wish I could reveal more, but seeing how events develop for yourself is the main draw here.
Compared to its FMV brethren in the Sega CD library, this game is downright minimalist. Each area of Snatcher consists of a mostly static image of your location and a list of possible actions such as Look, Move, Talk, etc. This puts it squarely in the adventure game category. However, due to the lack of a mouse and the fact that investigating your environment is as simple as selecting “Investigate”, you aren’t as connected to the game world as in a typical adventure. A handful of action sequences let you gun down the Snatcher menace, but most of your time is spent scrolling through text options. The amazing thing is that within the first hour of watching the story unfold you’ll be too wrapped up in the mystery to care.
The credit goes straight to Kojima’s compelling story. The Metal Gear creator borrows merrily from several popular sci-fi conventions with liberal doses of crime, action, and romance. The constant suspicion surrounding who you can trust and who’s a Snatcher, combined with the emotional baggage you’re character is saddled with create a very effective tension that keeps the game interesting right through to the end. The subject matter is notably adult. Gruesome crime scenes and disgusting slums demonstrate that this game isn’t afraid to get dark. Expect a dose of sexual content as well, even though the nudity of the original Japanese version has been removed.
Like any Japanese game that comes to the States, Snatcher’s story might have been ruined by a poor English translation. Major praise goes to the localization team that translated, streamlined, and colloquialized the text. You will truly feel like you’re playing an unusually well-written American game that just happens to be set in Japan. Only rarely (when a character unnecessarily exclaims another character’s name multiple times or when someone worries a little too much about saving face) will you be reminded of the game’s origins.
This westernization is most evident in the removal of any nudity or mention of porn (which you can hear, though not actually watch, in one scene of the Japanese version). The sexy model character, Katrina Gibson, was also overhauled to conform to our puritanical mores. Her age was upgraded to eighteen years old as opposed to fourteen in the original, to avoid casting you as a pedophile. The option to nab her panties has also been thankfully omitted. It’s worth noting that this is the only version of the game to make it to America. While Snatcher did huge business in Japan, warranting multiple console releases, a goofy RPG remake for the MSX2, and a spiritual sequel in the form of Policenauts, it never caught on in the U.S.
The story is entirely linear. Nothing you do can alter any major plot points. But even though Snatcher is essentially an interactive novel, the developers were able to conversely provide a real sense of freedom and choice. You never have to call your wife and chat about your relationship problems. Sitting down at the J.U.N.K.E.R. database computer and reading the EXTENSIVE history of the future is likewise unnecessary, as is attempting to pick up women on the city streets in the middle of the night. And you most definitely do not have to get drunk right before you report to the chief. But all this and more is possible and damn fun.
It’s in these choices that you’ll discover tons and tons of cool hidden detail, in-jokes, and secrets. Characters notice if you start to loiter or snoop around. They don’t like being asked too many questions or being felt up with the “Investigate” option. Neo Kobe City feels as rich and explorable as a Grand Theft Auto city thanks to all the people and sights you can interact with and investigate, even though most of this described rather than seen. You can go on completely unnecessary tangents including getting ripped off by a street vendor while trying to buy pizza that floats in soup for you and your robot sidekick. You can sit and watch the digital billboards refresh with new advertisements as you wait for your informant to arrive. You can even double check that that couple buying Christmas presents aren’t Snatchers, just to make sure.
Nods to Konami litter the game. They’ve got a neon ad in the plaza. You can spot their logo in a black market bazaar. The club “Outer Heaven” (a Metal Gear reference) includes such patrons as Simon Belmont and the Contra guys watching a go-go dancer. You can use your videophone to call Konami directly and get a message thanking you for playing the game. Best of all, the robot partner who assists you throughout the game is named Metal Gear and looks just like a mini-version of the dreaded nuke-launching mech in that game. There are so many inside references in Snatcher that I thought I was playing an Al Lowe title.
And I might as well have been because this game’s masterful dramatic story is complimented by some great humor. Most of it comes from the back and forth banter between you and Metal Gear as you conduct your investigation. Gillian and Metal take turns being the straight man as they argue over Gillian’s love life and Metal’s usefulness, among other topics. Persistently trying various options can also lead to funny scenes. Ask the dancer for her phone number enough times and she’ll eventually give in. But calling the number she provides won’t go as Gillian expects. You can call various other numbers you find for more amusement, including that of the English translator who has to explain to Gillian that he’s not speaking Japanese. Finally, as the J Man loves to point out, this is the only game where “PRAY TO GOD” is a choice that opens up new options on the menu.
All of this amounts to a very fulfilling experience, but since Snatcher is still more of an interactive novel than a game, it’s admittedly not much of a challenge for serious gamers, especially adventure gamers. As long as you explore every room and try every option multiple times until you stop getting new information, you really can’t miss anything. There are very few actual puzzles in the game, though you will occasionally have to type in an answer to a question rather than selecting it from a list. But Snatcher is entirely about the story. There are certainly enough gameplay elements to keep you invested in that story, but don’t expect Myst.
Control consists almost entirely of selecting actions from a list, but you will get to pull out your blaster and waste some Snatcher scum on occasion. These sequences are satisfying, but you’ll do well to use a gamepad rather than the keyboard as you’ll want quick access to the four diagonal quadrants of the screen for aiming. Even using a controller with an analog stick, I still found aiming diagonally to be a pain, but I’m willing to believe this was my controller’s fault and not that of the game. J.U.N.K.E.R. HQ comes equipped with a shooting range to hone your skill if you’re having trouble.
If by some chance you’re lucky enough to be playing this on an actual factual Sega CD and you’ve also got your hands on the Konami Justifier light gun that came with Lethal Enforcers, then you can use it for the shooting sequences instead of the controller. My only other issue with the control is that menus remember which main option you selected last, but not which sub-menu option. Since you have to consistently re-investigate an area to thoroughly check it out, this would have saved a lot of time.
The game has limited animation, even in cut scenes, but environments and characters look great and are often shown in neat cinematic angles. Rooms are nice and detailed, unlike games where only the necessary objects are drawn. While most dialogue is simple text, important scenes employ voice acting and it’s some of the best game acting of its time. Gillian’s actor uses just the right mixture of hardened hero and loveable schlub. Women sound sexy, bosses sound cranky, villains sound nefarious, and they’re all lip-synced convincingly. Most importantly, when they’ve got to say an obviously cornball line, they bite the bullet and commit to it so much that it comes off as natural. It works quite well and serves to further immerse you in this world. Unfortunately, music is more of a mixed bag. Some tunes are great, but others are a bit generic and it’s these ones that seem to appear most often as the game’s limited track list gets repeatedly reused. Still, this is a very minor complaint in an otherwise great game.
I could write and write and never say enough about Snatcher. Kojima is known for unconventional gameplay and he delivers in spades here. I only wish I could drop a few more hints about the plot to really hook you, but you’ll have to trust me. This is a fantastic experience that isn’t quite like anything I’ve played before. And because it throws you into the thick of things pretty quickly, it will only take a few minutes of your time to convince you too. Gamers of every type owe it to themselves to give this one a spin.
“A gripping sci-fi thrill ride that grabs you by the short hairs and doesn’t let go!” raves Static_A_Matic, Just Games Retro Weekly
Some hesitate to define this as a game since it’s really more of a digital novel with hidden chapters, but this doesn’t affect the quality.
RANDOM: Doesn’t look like I’m going to have the chance to call in that debt you owe me.
GILLIAN: Don’t worry. I’ll pay it back to the Snatchers. With INTEREST.