Review by Tachibana Ukyo
Reviewed: 12/11/02 | Updated: 07/13/03
June 6, 1991 – 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 2042 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 (Judgement Uninfected Naked Kind & Execute 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 . . .”
Best known for its highly sought-after English incarnation on the ill-fated Sega CD, the legacy of Konami’s cyberpunk adventure Snatcher extends back to 1988 and a popular 8-bit computer, the NEC PC8801. One of the first games developed by Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear), it was quickly ported to the better-known MSX2 computer and became a cult classic. Four years later, a new-and-improved incarnation of Snatcher made its console debut on NEC’s successful PC Engine, a system known in the West as the “TurboGrafx 16.” Utilizing the system’s upgraded Super CD-ROM card, our game in question was revamped with a graphic overhaul, the introduction of voice acting, and a brand new third act to serve as the definitive conclusion; this update was to represent Kojima’s true vision that had been stymied due to time and hardware constraints. Unfortunately the TurboGrafx was unable to gain a foothold in the western marketplace, thus this version of Snatcher was never released outside of Japan. That might have been the end of our story, yet amazingly Konami chose to translate it for English audiences and released a practically uncut edition in both the US and UK for the Sega CD/Mega CD hardware. Those familiar with the Sega CD port will find that this PC Engine CD is similar, but by no means identical.
Interested readers should note that this is a text-heavy game and furthermore employs a malicious number of different kanji! First-time players should consider Japanese fluency a requirement, although anyone who has finished the English version should be able to get by without too much difficulty. Familiarity with katakana would be highly useful as there are a few potentially problematic spots in the game requiring the player to input certain words in that alphabet.
Welcome to Neo Kobe City.
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.
Those who have previously played the Sega CD port will likely find a noticeable improvement in the depth of colors and shading, as the PC Engine can display many more colors on the screen at one time; 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 scheme, resulting in plenty of high quality 16-bit artwork. 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 – this is often a dark, violent game and was in fact somewhat censored (the irony!) when Konami decided to release a further upgrade for the PlayStation and Saturn in 1996. In terms of editing, this is the most complete and undiluted release of the game.
Snatcher was originally released on five floppy disks, limiting the music and sound to the computer’s hardware, but by moving to a CD format Konami was able to incorporate hours of quality voice acting into the game for the important scenes; as one might well expect, the Japanese dialogue is impeccable. Either version is excellent, though your preference will likely depend on the thickness of the language barrier; Gillian’s voice is deep and coarse, far more so than his English counterpart, and many of the other characters are similarly a decided contrast to the Sega CD cast, particularly the squeaky admonishments of his diminutive robotic buddy/computer/straight man Metal Gear (Mk II !). The enigmatic bounty hunter Randam Hajile is voiced by none other than the late Kaneto Shiozawa, a prolific seiyuu with whom you may be familiar from such roles as D (Vampire Hunter D), Ninja (the Japanese Metal Gear Solid) and Zato-1one (Guilty Gear) - I found his terminally calm, sinuous portrayal to be the highlight of either cast.
However as the disc is constantly accessed for these voices, the game’s musical score must be for the most part handled by the PC Engine’s sound chip; the only time the player can expect CD-quality audio is during a few non-interactive cinema scenes. As anyone familiar with the system would likely expect, this synth has a very rough feel to it, yet in a sense the gritty and brooding style of the score is enhanced by the uniquely coarse musical output of the PC Engine. The music is excellent in any case, consisting of many highly memorable compositions be they dark and sinister, momentarily peaceful, or tearing the system’s sound chip with ragged action themes.
Collectors may be interested to know that PC Engine Snatcher also includes a few of Japan's ubiquitous bonus goodies; the manual is a thick and lavish affair, complete with many pictures and diagrams in full-color and even including a brief “making-of” segment in the back. A second manual contains the same short manga included in the that of the Sega CD, but this one in full color and reading from right to left. The package further contains a sheet of four glossy stickers, depicting Gillian, Jamie, Randam, and the logo. Ah, extras. It almost makes up for the fact that the newly presented Act 3 is little more than a seemingly endless, non-interactive cinema scene. Seen it before? Feel free to get up and make a sandwich or something; the ending is sure to roll along without you.
Snatcher is well worth adding to your PC Engine collection. Unlike the Sega CD version, it is currently both fairly common and fairly inexpensive – roughly $15 to $20. Each port has its own unique strengths and idiosyncrasies that ultimately warrant hunting down the both of them; even if the English version tends to seen as the stronger and more accessible of the two, Hideo Kojima can produce a timeless game in any language. And if you don’t have any version of this game?
PLAY OR BE SNATCHED!
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