Review by Tachibana Ukyo

Reviewed: 12/10/02 | Updated: 07/13/03

Master of Puppets Among the Disease

June 6, 1996 – The Catastrophe.

This is the name attributed to the terrible disaster that irrevocably changes the face of the world. Lucifer Alpha, a deadly biological weapon secretly under development in Russia, is accidentally released in an explosion at the government lab in Chernoton and escapes into the atmosphere. Carried on the trade winds, it decimates Eastern Europe and Eurasia, wiping out half of the world’s population in a single stroke. But this tragedy is merely the beginning . . .

50 years later –

It’s 2047 and the winds carry a new horror; a nightmarish cybernetic android is discovered among the wreckage of a crashed airliner. More of these “bioroids” are soon spotted throughout the Japanese island of Neo Kobe City, inspiring terror and panic. Employing an artificial skin, they murder influential humans in order to assume their place in society. No one knows the origin or purpose of these deadly machines, and no one can be sure who is human and who is a silicon assassin. Are they too a nation’s secret biological weapons, or are they from another world entirely? As to date the bioroids have been found only in Neo Kobe, the city is sealed off from the rest of the world in order to prevent a global epidemic. Stealing human bodies in order to replace them, the bioroids are dubbed “snatchers.”

Gillian Seed is the newest member of an elite police force known as JUNKER (Japanese Undercover Neuro-Kinetic Elimination Rangers.) Currently suffering from amnesia, he and his estranged wife Jamie were picked up by the military after being found wandering in the Siberian Neutral Zone - the barren waste that was once the original site of The Catastrophe. Having undergone special forces training, he is ordered to report to Neo Kobe City and face the one word that continues to fester in his memory like a disease –
“Snatcher, Snatcher, Snatcher . . .”

Highly regarded as one of the brightest jewels in the ill-fated Sega CD’s lineup, the legacy of Konami’s cyberpunk adventure Snatcher actually extends back to 1988 and the NEC PC8801, an 8-bit computer that was quite popular in Japan for many years. One of the first games developed by Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear fame, it was also ported to the better-known MSX2 computer and quickly became a cult classic. Four years later, Snatcher made its console debut as a Super CD remake for NEC’s PC Engine. Featuring a graphic overhaul, the introduction of voice acting, and a shiny new third act to serve as a definitive conclusion, this update represented Kojima’s true vision that had been stymied due to time and hardware constraints. Unfortunately the PC Engine (renamed the “TurboGrafx 16” in the US) was unable to gain a foothold in the western marketplace, and it seemed likely that this title was simply another of the system’s gems that were destined to forever remain in Japan . . . yet amazingly Konami elected to translate a new edition for English audiences and released it, uncut, in both the US and UK for the Sega CD/Mega CD hardware.

Thriving on its unique atmosphere, Snatcher is a “digital comic,” in essence an interactive manga with a bit of animation and plenty of sound. Our hero carries out his investigation of the Snatcher menace by utilizing a list of commands to interact with the many characters and objects on each screen, not unlike the graphic adventures commonly found on the PC. Thus you can “look” at a potential clue, “investigate” it for a closer look, or “hit on” that attractive woman standing in front of you. As one would expect from a Hideo Kojima game, the game is driven by a gripping, exhaustively detailed plot that dogs its player every step of the way; the wealth of extraneous information included solely to bring the setting alive for the player is simply staggering. Of course Neo Kobe is a pretty rough place, so don’t drop your guard for a second – hostile encounters with possible Snatchers and assorted lowlifes require Mr. Junker to draw his Blaster for fast-paced shooting scenes - send those bioroids back to the scrap heap or its Game Over.

Neither frantic shoot ‘em up nor complex RPG, this is a game that instead relies purely on its storytelling to grab the player’s attention. A cyberpunk world unlike anything you’ve ever seen, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, it may not be overly difficult to solve the puzzles, shoot the Snatchers and eventually reach the end, but the real entertainment comes from being an active participant in the ever deepening conspiracy. It must be noted that this is a game you don’t so much play as make decisions and watch the outcome, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a bona-fide classic.

One of the most notable features of the CD updates are their improved graphics, and the color palette has indeed been increased from the original PC-88 scheme, resulting in high quality 16-bit artwork. Unfortunately the color limitations of the Genesis (and subsequently the Sega CD) result in the game’s visuals falling a bit short of those on the PC Engine; that being said, the graphics are . . . well, graphic. These visuals are often quite explicit, taking us on a journey of decapitated corpses and maggot-ridden flesh, a night on the town in the decaying slums or watching an exotic dancer prance about on stage at the local nightclub over the course of the investigation. Decapitated corpses, rotting flesh, exotic dancers, wenches wrapped in nothing more than damp towels - it’s amazing what Konami was able to get away with, particularly with no more than a mild “Teen” rating.

. . . actually, remember when I told you that the Sega CD version was uncut? I lied. Here is a list of graphics censored for the English version: some twitching intestines no longer twitch and an exposed nipple has been covered up. Thank you, that will be all. There are a few other changes and edits, mostly involving the Japanese obsession with underage girls (adding said girl’s underwear to one’s inventory and other assorted acts of perversion), but Sega CD Snatcher remains refreshingly mature in tone.

Originally released on floppy disks that limited the music and sound effects to the computer’s hardware, in this case Konami used the CD format to add hours of quality voice acting for all of the important scenes. I prefer the Japanese cast (Gillian is a bit too nasal for my tastes), but this acting is excellent even by today’s standards; for 1994 it is positively a godsend. However as the disc is constantly accessed for the voices, the game’s musical score must be handled by the Genesis’ Yamaha FM sound chip; the only time the player can expect breathtaking CD-quality audio is during a few non-interactive cinema scenes. The composition of the music is nonetheless extremely well done and highly memorable, and if anything is superior to the PC Engine’s own synth.

Hoping to improve the game’s accessibility to a western audience, Konami took the time to include a small number of refinements over their earlier port. The opening cinema has been extended and now includes part of the short manga found in the instruction manual, an extension that no other version includes. The concluding Act 3 and the ending are now more interactive, whereas when they were first introduced on PC Engine they allowed the player little more than to sit quietly and watch the events proceed. This is also the first version to allow the use of a light gun for the shooting scenes, providing you have the Konami Justifier that was packaged with either the Genesis or Sega CD version of Lethal Enforcers. All in all, this revision of Snatcher is perhaps the greatest, it is the only one available in English, and it is the only port never to be released in Japan – ha!

Ah, but well-deserved recognition was not to be. For all of Konami’s efforts, this lone English port of Snatcher was not quite as successful as they had hoped. Perhaps it was the graphic nature of the game that turned off potential customers, though more likely it was the mainstream failure of the Sega CD unit itself. Despite its supposed rarity, the game is quite common today on auction sites such as eBay, however due to its more recent popularity a single copy will seldom sell for less than $70. Is it worth it? Well . . . it may appear expensive for an older title, but anyone interested in an excellent graphic adventure or merely an unforgettable mature storyline is unlikely to be disappointed.

Those who are well-versed in Japanese and interested in similar entertainment should certainly investigate SD Snatcher for the MSX2, an alternate-universe RPG presented in the super-deformed anime style, as well as the obligatory Policenauts, another Kojima-designed digital comic considered by many to be a spiritual sequel. It is unfortunate that Konami’s failure with the Sega CD undoubtedly weighed heavily on their minds when they canceled the English version of Policenauts for the Sega Saturn.

But there will always be the original cyberpunk adventure, eh Junker Boy?

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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