BY KONAMI, 1994
25 WORDS OR LESS:
Neo Kobe sleuth Gillian Seed tries to find answers behind the mechanical killers known as Snatchers and the truth regarding his cloudy past.
I ain’t got no body
To some, Hideo Kojima is the game designer that shouldn’t be. To others, he’s right where he belongs. His love of film causes him to place unnatural emphasis on story, character, mood and messages to degrees that are not really seen elsewhere, even today. In the minds of his critics, this results in hollow stories padded with existentialism and artificial gameplay that breaks up the action in candy bar-like pieces. And if you’re a fan of his, those same criticisms may be what sets your heart afire in the first place.
Like it or not, it’s all those elements that drive Snatcher, Kojima’s first "big deal" title. Released in the late ’80s after the onset of the cyberpunk subgenre, Snatcher indeed has all the trappings of the style, and the mark of a group of Japanese nerds paying their respects. It’s simple, then, to see why the game so deftly rips chunks out of the film Blade Runner (for starters) — the troubled hero and his brown trenchcoat, the antagonizing body stealers, the tech-fueled future complete with flying cars — it’s hard to ignore the similarity, but it’s understandable that Kojima’s team just wanted to make a computer game, tell a story and earn their pay, probably with the thought that the game would never leave Japan. And as a lover of the movies, Kojima always finds something to be inspired by.
Snatcher is the story of Gillian Seed, a friendly enough guy in his 30s with one big crutch: he’s living with no recollection of his past in Neo Kobe, a vast metropolis in the year 2047. Gillian and his wife Jamie were discovered in cryogenic tubes just a little while prior, and now find themselves in Neo Kobe trying to rebuild their lives and memories. At the time, the city is being terrorized by mechanical "bioroids" known as Snatchers. Snatchers kill humans, take over their bodies and move on to kill more, becoming like Terminators but with less heavy weaponry.
As Gillian says to Jamie, "’Snatcher’ is the only word that keeps coming back," so a connection is naturally presumed. Gillian gets as close as he can to the Snatchers by becoming a JUNKER, part of a very tiny government-sanctioned organization (he becomes their 5th employee) formed to find out more about the Snatchers and eradicate them. Despite the inherent danger in his job, Gillian hopes this is what will solve the puzzle. But even if he’s successful, he still has his strained relationship with Jamie, so Gillian’s mission becomes twofold: destroy the Snatchers and renew his love of his wife. However, the latter isn’t presented as a main concern; this is a detective game after all. Gillian is forced to contact Jamie only to gather information, and it’s up to the player whether or not to deviate the conversation in order to try and make progress with her.
Snatcher is played like a typical graphical adventure, with a series of menu commands presented to the player at all times and a usually clear route from point A to B. That route is to simply look, and look, and look: Whenever searching for or talking to someone, the two commands that become your best friends are “Look” and “Investigate.” Select them enough times and no doubt a context-sensitive command will appear next. Then maybe you’ll have to “Move” into the next room, notice some other things, rinse, and repeat. This formula was kind of antiquated, even in the game’s prime, and any attempts at nonlinearity are usually found in the game’s secrets and side conversations.
There are bouts of more game-like action in the shooting sequences, where a grid of squares are laid over a field of enemies, forcing you to fire at them in this shooting gallery-like manner. Like the adventuring part of the game, these sequences are also short and empty and do little to enhance the game, especially for those who aren’t adventure gamers in the first place. Konami tried to jazz things up for the Sega CD version by adding support for its Justifier light gun, which adds some challenge, but still not enough to make a difference.
At JUNKER HQ, Gillian is introduced to his partner, the robot navigator Metal Gear. An obvious nod to Kojima’s earlier game, the squat robot even resembles the original robot boss from the game. “Metal” — as Gillian calls him — is as much Gillian’s guide and info-giver as he is the straight man in the duo’s partnership — an easy task for a robot, of course. Frequently he heads Gillian off when his line of questioning takes a turn for the lecherous, or cools him down when he gets hotheaded.
Metal also provides Gillian with useful historical and scientific information, which reflects well on the developers’ goal to create a plausible back story and believable science expected of any futurist work. For example, when there’s a problem figuring out the identities of a few snatched corpses later in the game, Metal launches into an analytical reconstruction of each body, his dialogue filled with technobabble. Other aspects, like the artificial pollen SNOW-9 that gives away the presence of Snatchers, or the exact way a human is snatched go a long way in making the game’s world come alive.
Gillian’s first assignment is to assist fellow JUNKER Jean-Jack Gibson when he calls in a possible Snatcher at an old warehouse. IGillian hops into action and heads down to meet Jean, only to discover he’s been brutally killed. For the bulk of the act, Gillian tracks down Jean’s killer, risking his neck but also meeting many of the people that will help him later on, like the informant Napoleon and Gibson’s daughter Katrina. Using information researched by Gibson, Gillian discovers the Snatchers’ weak point — a cancerous artificial skin that needs sunblock year-round — and uses it to find his suspect. A tense bust of a mop-headed surfer yields nothing, so our hero moves onto the next possible suspect, a well-to-do guy named Freddy Nielsen. After an episode where his wife reveals herself as a Snatcher, it’s obvious the Nielsens killed Gibson. Gillian has a second encounter, this time with Freddy, and is almost ready to kick the bucket when he’s saved at the last minute by a suave bounty hunter named Random Hajile, who’s been on Gillian’s tail this entire time. How convenient!
This leads to Act 2, where Gillian (joined by Random) now focuses on locating the Snatchers’ lair and getting rid of them once and for all. He mostly succeeds, but the Snatchers have been wise to his advances, and make repeated attempts to off the JUNKER. When that fails, and when a trusted acquaintance of Gillian’s is revealed to be a Snatcher, the hunt intensifies on both sides. Gillian eventually learns all about the Snatchers’ conquest for world domination and goes on to eliminate the higher-ranking Snatchers. The only option now is to head into the heart of the operation and see who’s really behind the madness.
It’s during Snatcher’s third and final act where all the questions are answered and the least action is. Oddly, for a part of the game that explains so much, Act 3 was not in the original MSX version, leaving players at the cliffhanger of Act 2. This was rectified for all later versions, and while the climax does do a good job of fleshing things out, it also sets a standard for Kojima’s later titles, as it drags on for close to an hour. Little actually happens to Gillian save for a laughable series of back-to-back shooting sequences — the rest of the time is spent listening to the evil mastermind Elijah Modnar drone on and on about the past, which may be normal for the withered old man he is, but it doesn’t do much for the audience. When the game finally ends and the predictable hints of a sequel fade away, there’s relief, but also wondering if it would have been that bad to end at Act 2 after all
For all the acclaim Snatcher garnered when it first came out, the praise for its surprisingly good voice acting still holds up today. In a time when “multimedia” was the rage and badly-dressed actors paraded around in FMV stinkers, to have a game with professional (or professional-sounding) voice actors was something of a first. Jeff Lupetin’s performance as Gillian doesn’t exactly convey a troubled gun-toting hero at first, but when the nuances of the character come out, it quickly works. There are little problems with the rest of the cast (though Mika sounds a little beyond her 23 years) — they sound far from robotic, nicely conveying the emotions in the material and help establish Snatcher as a key precursor to Metal Gear Solid in terms of its acting.
It’s impossible to trace Hideo Kojima’s career without passing up Snatcher, because it was without doubt the catalyst in shaping how the director ended up. However, it’s far from a hallmark. It’s an ornate and well-acted (albeit completely unoriginal) tale for sure, but it happens to have been wrapped up in a gameplay style that refuses to let go of linearity and rarely gives the player a chance to exercise their brain. Still, Snatcher is one of the better Sega CD games ,and is worth finding for fans of Kojima or adventure games in general, if only to gain some insight and giggle at the self-referential humor, but there’s little here that hasn’t been done better in his later games. Yet as Gillian finds out, the past can teach us more than we may think. —Ray Barnholt