I can’t say I have the best relationship with Hideo Kojima. On one hand, I respect him as a creative force. On the other hand, he’s an excruciatingly awful storyteller. The Metal Gear series can, at the best of times, be an entertaining experience, but then it stops, lurches in your direction, and vomits exposition directly on your shoes. And all you can do is pretend everything is okay, while it continues to puke for 90 continuous minutes.
Yet, while Metal Gear may be the games that Kojima is best known for, they aren’t the only titles he’s worked on. Back in 1988, he helped develop Snatcher for the PC-88 and MSX computer systems, both of which were mainly Japanese computers. It was localized in English only once on the Sega CD. That little fact is important, because it means the Sega CD version is ridiculously expensive to acquire these days, and the fact that modern Konami absolutely hates its customers, it will likely remain the only way to legitimately play it.
So, I’ve had this ridiculously expensive game sitting on my shelf for years now, let’s pop it in and take a look.
THE ADVENTURES OF BLADE RUNNER
The fact that Snatcher is a visual novel certainly didn’t help its chances in the West. At the time of release, the genre was sharing space with RPG’s as a style that was extremely popular in Japan, but just wasn’t catching on across the pond.
The story comes across like what would happen if Blade Runner was followed up by a Saturday Morning cartoon. You play as a Junker, which is a… well, it’s a blade runner. You play as a blade runner. There’s a bunch of robots that look like humans, and your job is to track them down and eliminate them. That’s what a blade runner does, but okay, I guess you’re a Junker here.
Snatcher isn’t so much its own story as it is the amalgamation of a bunch of existing properties that have been over-thought, then mashed into one another. The world exists in a post-catastrophe state, where 50 years ago, half of humanity was wiped out by a bioengineered virus. You play as Gillian Seed, an amnesiac whose memory only goes back three years to when he was found in Russia. You’re the latest member of the Junker team in Neo Kobe, having signed up to see how his missing memories relate to the recent Snatcher threat.
Snatchers are T-800s who bodysnatch, effectively. They murder their target, then take their place as duplicates. This has caused a panic among the residents of Neo Kobe, as they worry who will be next, and who has already been replaced. To even the playing field, the Snatchers only seem to work at night, and mainly during the winter. As Gillian, you have to figure out what’s going on and put a stop to the threat.
IN THE SKINS OF OTHERS
There’s three modes of play in Snatcher. The first is investigation, where you navigate menus to select actions like “Look,” “Use,” “Investigate;” you know, typical adventure game stuff. The second is target shooting, where enemies appear on a 3×3 grid, and you aim at it with either a Konami Justifier light gun, or the d-pad. Then finally, there’s the mode where you just watch while the characters talk or the villains endlessly monologue.
If it sounds like I’m down on the story, don’t worry, I’m not on the gameplay. Yes, it’s your basic adventure game/visual novel setup, but it works well as an investigation style game. You talk to characters, look up information on them, and investigate scenes. The first act (of three) is the best for this, since it gives you a degree of freedom to carry out your investigation.
You can also awkwardly hit on women, which I never really did. I was, however, very curious if you could go on dates with them, but from the looks of things, you can’t. You do have the opportunity to be uncomfortably perverted. Gillion is an absolute lecher and that gives you license to ask for the phone number of every babe you come across. Even though I opted not to give into Gillion’s impulses, I thought it was an endearing character trait.
INVASION OF THE SNATCHERS
The game’s graphics are pretty outstanding to the point where I have difficulty believing they’re being played off a Sega Genesis. There’s not a lot of motion, but the bright colours and detailed scenes are impressive. The cyberpunk aesthetic is well realized, as well, with some absolutely awesome cityscapes. There are also some gruesome scenes, though I’m sad to say that the Sega CD version edits out the nudity. Drat.
There’s also a lot of great music, as well. It sounds so late-80’s/early-90’s, with an anomalous amount of saxophone. There are a lot of different tracks, seemingly changing out every time a scene transitions. With so many songs, it’s not surprising that a few of them are terrible, but overall it’s not bad.
Likewise, the voice acting is pretty solid. Most of the actors deliver pretty well for a game of such vintage, though there is the odd line that you’re left wondering if it was done in a single take. Overall, however, it’s pretty sterling.
I’M GOING TO KILL YOU, BUT FIRST, LET ME GLOAT ABOUT MY PLAN
As a visual novel, most of my ire is going to be aimed at the story, but before I do, let me just say that I didn’t hate Snatcher’s story. As bafflingly stupid as it is, it’s pretty well paced, has a decent amount of suspense, and the characters are generally likeable. Except for your helper robot, Metal Gear Mk II, who feels like one of those marketable sidekick characters, and I think the game would have been better off without it. To put it another way, it’s Jar-Jar Binks. Metal Gear Mk II is Jar-Jar Binks.
Anyway, the issue isn’t so much the story, as derivative as it is, it’s the delivery. It’s full of icebox logic, and comic-book like tropes. That’s still pretty good for something written in 1988, but where it really lets itself down is, as with any Hideo Kojima story, its bloated exposition.
Listen, do you remember the part in The Terminator where Kyle Reese went into intricate detail about the artificial skin covering the T-800 and how it was developed? No, of course you don’t, because the scriptwriter was smart enough to leave that crap out.
In Snatcher, something like 80% of the plot is explained via villain monologues. A dude will have you dead to rights, and rather than just finishing you off and getting on with his plans, he natters on for 15 minutes about his goals. Yes, I get it, the biggest weakness of the current Snatchers are their skin’s weakness to UV light. Yes, I get that they get cancer. Okay, you’ve developed a new skin that will fix this problem. Fine, okay, stop. But they don’t. The penultimate cutscene is absolutely colossal, and I’d swear that jerk brings up their stupid skin, like, 5 times.
It really feels like Hideo Kojima is trying to show off how smart he is. Okay, guy, you did your research. Gold star. However, that crap belongs in the background, not force fed to the player.
Also, you know how Blade Runner’s antagonist had almost sympathizable motivation for what he was doing. Y’know, the guy just wasn’t fond of being a slave, so he ran away? Snatcher’s bad guy basically doesn’t have an end game. Gillian’s like, “Why are you doing this?” and the dude basically says, “I don’t know. World domination, I guess.”
A BOOK BY ITS COVER
So, I don’t know, I’m not sure how I feel about Snatcher. I know that this doesn’t feel like Metal Gear Solid, where I walked away feeling like the game was just wasting my time. It’s still a stupid narrative, and it has a habit of descending into pretentious exposition, and when the game is so starkly plot-centric, that’s something that should be unforgivable, but…
I guess the question I should ask myself in this case is: would I replay it? And, yeah, I think I would. I’d probably get up and get a snack during the last act instead of listening to a bunch of crap about skin, but I can see myself doing this all over again. It’s stylish, looks great on the Sega Genesis, and it’s fun to try and solve the mystery. Even though the mystery has been solved, I’m interesting to see what happens if I solve it faster, or if I undo some of the mistakes I made. It’s just a cool game, even if its storytelling is like someone shuffled the pages of a manga with a bunch of medical brochures.
This review was conducted on a model 2 Sega CD using an original disk copy of the game. It was an extremely generous birthday gift. The author isn’t made of money. Thanks, dad.