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Disnatches, Act One; Or: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Everybody loves skulls!

This week in the Dispatches, it’s time to revisit the next best old-fashioned adventure game you’ve never played, not to mention a forgotten cult classic from a superstar auteur. Is it an overrated piece of trash or an overlooked gem? Read on, pleasant dreamers, for our first part of three…

Lately it feels like all I’ve been doing is starting writing projects without ever finishing them. Actually, it’s quite an old habit of mine (I’ve still got that 600+ page novel I’m working on, and it’s only going to get longer before the next Bloomsday!), but now that I’ve pretty much fully committed myself to serialized installments of first-hand playthroughs here on the blog, I’ve become that much more aware of it, as my impulse is to write about pretty much any game I put my hands on, in real time, without any consideration as to when that playthrough will end. Sure, I finished God of War, but it took me eleven chapters to do so (has anybody here actually read all of them?). Another World might’ve been completed in two installments, but I only put up the first report after I’d sat with the game a good few months. I’ve woken up from Link’s Awakening, but I’ve still got Psychonauts sitting on my shelf to start hacking my way through, and besides which I’ll even eventually add a Gamecube production to the fire some time after it arrives in the mail (hint: it has something in common with one of Charles’ upcoming essays, the third he’s written so far). With all that, you’d think I’d impose harsher limitations upon myself, as it’s unlikely I’d be able to keep up with writing more than three Dispatches at once, much less that anyone would be willing to read them. Upon a chance online search, however, I discovered the means by which I could procure a game which had for far too long eluded my grasp, and now it sits squarely on my laptop’s desktop, and if all it does is prove my obsessions, then so be it!

Yes, pleasant dreamers, your faithful Dispatcher has finally come to the home front of a Hideo Kojima game, but this time it’s something a bit more timeworn and obscure than one of his Metal Gear titles, classic or contemporary. Instead of a game of hide-and-seek, it’s time for the point-and-click world of…

Grrr! Bad cyborg!

First produced for Japan’s MSX back in 1988, Hideo Kojima’s cult-classic Snatcher probably to this day remains one of the most widely talked about least-played games ever made. Fans of his MGS series are always quick to point out references both to Metal Gear in the obscure adventure game, and references to the obscure adventure game within Metal Gear. By now, such Snatcher artifacts as Junkers, mini-Metal Gears and “Find a House!” puzzles have become so second nature to self-professed Kojimians like myself it’s almost beside the point to seek out and play the actual game itself. For those willing to take the time and trouble to find a decent ROM and emulator, however, Kojima’s Snatcher stands as a minor piece, but a gem of its own kind nonetheless, a kind of sci-fi rhapsody that enjoys the same kind of free-spirited pop-cultural pastiche as the rest of his more mainstream work does. But for those who would tread where “all those cyberpunks” would dare, bear in mind this helpful caveat and warning:

Just because you’re playing Snatcher on a computer doesn’t mean you’re playing Snatcher for a computer.

See, over the years, Snatcher has had numerous ports. In 1992 it enjoyed a “director’s cut” retooling for the PC under the title Snatcher: CD-ROMantic that completed the three-act arc the MSX title had only been able to flesh out with a two-part cliffhanger. In 1994 a fully translated and voiced English version made its way to America on the Sega-CD as a light-gun game with some understandable content sanitizing here and there (as known to anyone who remembers characters like Meryl, E.E. or Elisa/Ursula, Kojima’s got something in common with Humbert Humbert every once in a while, and that’s something that doesn’t really mesh well with nude scenes on our shores). Finally, in 1996 it was ported to the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation over in Japan, in versions that have been pretty much universally derided and criticized, such to the point that fans have stated the only reason worth owning the PSX edition was to have Psycho Mantis mention it being on your memory card while playing Metal Gear Solid.

Deckard! I mean Gillian! Argh!

Now, the one I’m playing is the Sega-CD version, which looks to be the best version out right now, at least until the good people at Junker-HQ finish their translation of the PC edition (for those of you who can’t wait to see another example of the Lolita fetish everything anime seems to be fond of), and while it’s mostly been a positive experience so far, it hasn’t been without its drawbacks. If I’ve been parenthetically highlighting some of the censorship that’s occurred in this version, it hasn’t been to condemn or condone it exactly (oh, who am I kidding– who are you, Kojima-san? Roman Polanski?) but instead to draw a comparison. After all, in the grand scheme of things removing one nude scene and upping a character’s age from 14 to 18 is a far lesser disruption of the gameplay experience than is the shift that occurs from computer gaming to that of the console. Sure, this is an observation that’s been made plenty of times in regards to many an FPS, but there’s a crucial difference between what those games try to do on computers and what Snatcher tries to do, principally in attempting to remind you of the fact that you’re playing a computer game, in the first place.

Sadly, this much is true– in making the leap to the Sega-CD, the legendary “Find a House” challenge has been lost.

Here’s how it goes: At a certain early point in the game, our hero, Gillian Seed, finds himself in front of a computer terminal. He has only one hint to go on, a scrap of paper found in the hand of a newly departed fellow Junker, an elite corps of detectives dedicated to hunting down the titular cybernetic scourge of Snatchers, a race of lethal cyborgs seemingly created by mad scientists who’d watched Blade Runner, Terminator and Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few too many times. Upon that scrap of paper are the words “Find a House!”, and the only way to move forward in the game is not to look throughout the game’s environments and settings, but instead to simply press the “Home” key on the player’s MSX/PC computer. As a piece of Kojima’s par-for-the-course 4th wall playfulness, it’s earned a fair deal of reputation, enough for eager fans to spot a reference to it in one of the premiere MGS4 trailers. You’d expect that such a signature motif from a well-known designer would be faithfully replicated in the most widely played Western version of the game, but if you seriously believed to find it intact on the Sega-CD, or any console from that time period for that matter, you’d be sorely mistaken thanks to one big difference between consoles then and consoles now:

Oh, the irony.

They didn’t have “Home” buttons.

Hard to believe in a day when even the Wiimote has a little picture of a house right on its face (maybe Kojima and Suda51 will reproduce this scene in the long-rumored Project S, whatever it turns out to be), but about the most open-ended of control functions any given game system back then was likely to have would’ve been a “Reset” button. Therefore, this particular puzzle wouldn’t fit, just in the same way that when they finally port MGS to the PSP the controller-port madness of the Psycho Mantis battle won’t fit either (fortunately, it does have a “Home” button on its side). Because of that, “Find a House!” becomes “Search the House,” a fairly anti-climactic stand-in that retains the narrative drive while sacrificing the post-modern fun. Considering that, even intended for Sega gamepads, much of the game’s input takes place on a keyboard facsimile where players spell out names at various points it’s surprising they didn’t simply think to place a “Home” key on the screen for this puzzle, though I can imagine figuring out the correct font size would’ve been a little tricky, especially for those making an English version of a game next to nobody was going to play in America anyway. Still, as bad as that loss was, it’s nothing compared to the biggest problem the Sega-CD version has, or at least when you’re playing on a PC emulation, and that has to be the light-gun shooting sections. Why is that, you ask? Very simple:

This image would've looked so much more ironic if you could've seen it with the window from my emulator...

MY LAPTOP DOES NOT HAVE A LIGHT-GUN.

Nobody’s does. The same goes for desk-tops, for that matter. Computers are not designed with peripherals like Zappers in mind. I’m not sure what in the original MSX/PC versions of the game the Sega-CD’s light-gun portions seem to be making up for, but I can only guess their control wouldn’t be quite so clunky as an emulation’s approximation of light-gun/gamepad combat controls for a PC’s arrow keys. Once again, thanks to the transition from computer to console an element of Snatcher‘s design is fairly wrecked, as the shooting range portions are neither easy or fun (at least not as fun as MGS’s combat, which I write with the knowingest of winks.)

Now, the fault here isn’t with Kojima, of course, nor do I expect it’s with dedicated people like Jeremy Blaustein who spearheaded the effort to bring the game to the Sega-CD in the first place. No, instead it’s simply with the lack of effort Konami has taken to make this game as available as possible in newly updated versions. It’s terribly ironic that I’m now playing a Sega-CD emulation of a PC game on a PC without any of the features that would’ve made that experience make sense, and if game companies only showed the same kind of initiative and drive they had for smaller gems like this as they did for their more mainstream titles, the library of gaming canon would be far wider and deeper in material and matter. I’d rather see Snatcher come to any recent system in almost any form ported to almost any system than have to see unexceptional stuff like Zone of the Enders, Boktai or Metal Gear Ac!d see the light of day. The same goes for Policenauts, which never even had the luck of making it over to our shores in an unfortunately streamlined Sega-CD style port, a situation which may only be rectified thanks, again, to the good folk at Junker-HQ (who probably won’t have to wiggle their way around any Nabakovian dilemmas this time around.) That way we may finally be able to experience games like these in the way they were meant to be played, and not just the only way they can be played. It’s as though I were being introduced to The Maltese Falcon in its colorized version, updated without the late John Huston’s permission by Ted Turner, instead of its glorious black & white– sure, a Snatcher by any other name still smells as sweet (just like Joel Cairo’s business cards), but until you get the original it’s not quite the stuff that dreams are made of.

Now, I’ll be wrapping this one up for now. Next time we’ll get the second act in our thrilling adventures, in which I’ll actually get into the nitty-gritty of the gameplay itself and explain the difference between a point-and-click and a click-and-click. Until then, pleasant dreamers, remember to tune in, same Dispatch time, same Dispatch channel!

Okay, which one of us is the designated driver?

Note: All images snatched from articles on Snatcher from www.cyberpunkreview.com, www.racketboy.com as well as one more from Flickr, apparently.

3 Comments

  1. frank wrote:

    I liked Zone of Enders (2), Boktai, and AC!D, so there.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 7:30 am | Permalink
  2. Charles wrote:

    I never played Boktai. That’s the one where you have to play in the daylight, right? Was that really rewarding, or just a gimmick?

    Wednesday, June 27, 2007 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  3. frank wrote:

    Both.

    Thursday, June 28, 2007 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

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