Friday 19 July 2019

Mega Driver Review - VectorMan (Game 180)

Nintendo enjoyed much success with 'Donkey Kong Country' but sadly Sega's response, while visually exciting and technically impressive went nearly un-noticed.

Developed by BlueSky Softeware
Published by Sega
Released in 1995

There’s a saying I often use when trying to explain why I favour old retro games over new modern ones. “If I’ve not played an old game before, it’s new to me”! Of course I do still play modern games, my love for the ‘Kingdom Hearts’ and ‘Tomb Raider’ series doesn’t seem to be fading and I consider ‘Breath of the Wild’ to be one of the greatest ‘Zelda’ games ever made. But despite my appreciation of new Current Gen games, I’ve realised that many games I’ve enjoyed recently have been modern games that are essentially trying to be old games. ‘Octopass Traveller’ is inspired by ‘Chroro Trigger’ and ‘Final FantasyVI’. ‘Horizon Chase’ is a homage to ‘Outrun’ and the ‘Lotus’ series. ‘Thimbleweed Park’ and ‘Darkside Detective’ are both made to resemble classic LucasArts favourites. So, if even the most popular new games are trying to look, play and feel like old games, without prior knowledge is it possible to know what is old, and what’s simply trying to be old. 

‘VectorMan’ is a truly incredible game with a timeless quality. As a game that slipped under my radar, you could have quite easily convinced me that you were sitting me down in front of a Kickstarter funded tribute to nineties action games released in 2019. I played the game for the first time on a Switch based Mega Drive compilation, but if you’d told me you downloaded it from the new releases section of the eShop I would have fallen for the ruse. 

It doesn’t have contemporary polygon characters inhabiting 2.5D environments with real time lighting effects and particle physics of course. But considering how attractive ‘VectorMan’ is, it doesn’t look like a game that was possible on the Mega Drive either. Before working on ‘VectorMan’ developer BlueSky created the awful ‘The Little Mermaid’, started on ‘Aladdin’ before finding their feet with ‘Shadow Run’ and the Sega bank rolled ‘Jurassic Park’. This 16bit film adaptation is known for two things; the ability to play as a dinosaur and the inclusion of pre-rendered 3D looking sprites. Many attribute Nintendo’s success with ‘Donkey Kong Country’ to be down to its look. Even Miyamoto once said “players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good”, a sentiment he has later retracted of course. Sega were keen to offer a game with equally stunning visuals, infused with the typical edginess the console was known for. BlueSky were in the position to deliver this “ we had already worked on several Genesis games before starting on ‘VectorMan’, so we had most of the tools and processes in place to get a high quality game done in a reasonable time frame” recalls designer Rich Karpp. “It was mostly a matter of refining our existing processes.” The end result really pushes the ageing Mega Drive as far as it could go. Mean Machines even said the game is “an excellent showcase for the best in Mega Drive graphics.”

Despite the title, ‘VectorMan’ doesn’t use vector graphics at all, nor does it depend on pre-rendered 3D graphics that have been converted into 2D sprites. Instead, ‘VectorMan’ features a then ground-breaking programming technique known as Vector Piece Animation, in which the main character’s body is made up of twenty three individual sprites that are programmed to move in unison. “Basically, the vector-piece technology was going to be used for another game we were working on” Karpp said to Game Zero magazine in 1995. “It's based on some older Amiga computer demos that used spheres to plot the vertices of polygons.” Infact the whole game seems to have touches that were inspired by the Amiga “Rave Demo” scene. From the 3D spherical title card and the rippling text of the options screen. To the cascading waterfalls in levels, the way VectorMan darkens in shadow while brightening when firing, to the impressive conveyor belt and on-rails sections with their subtle 3D moving camera. There’s lots of attention to detail and lots of evidence of programmers, designers and graphics artists having the opportunity to experiment and take risks. But even with this buffet of visual flourishes ‘VectorMan’ still feels cohesive and jaw dropping. “We did try to use all the unique effects we could think of, so the levels wouldn’t get too repetitive, and I think we came up with some interesting stuff” boasts Rich Karpp. 

Guarding the inventive environments are a number of different enemies. Alongside mechanical foes of a similar size and shape to VectorMan are re-spawning bugs, shooting turrets and various sludge monsters.  “The enemies were all balls to begin with. But balls are, essentially, a friendly shape so the enemies created out of nothing but spherical shapes didn't look very threatening” says the game’s animator Marty Davis.  “As we progressed, we tried to play up the dangerous elements of the enemies and their appearance changed accordingly”. The visuals certainly wowed critics. “‘VectorMan’ totally blew me away with some of the most detailed graphics [...] I’ve ever seen on the Genesis” one EGM journalist said at the time. “The animations of the characters in this game are fabulous [...] ‘VectorMan’ is everything you could ask for in an action game.”

But, it’s not just a game that only looks pretty. The incredible visuals haven’t come at the cost of gameplay.  ‘VectorMan’ plays in a similar way to run and gun games like ‘SuperProbotector’ or ‘Turrican’; a side-scrolling shooter with multi-directional aiming. Before a timer runs out, the player must navigate through a level from left to right and escape through an exit, that’s possibly guarded by a boss. There are multiple routes through a level and exploring hard-to-reach areas, usually means finding TVs which can be destroyed earning power-ups. Three specific levels mix up the formulae when the perspective changes to a top-down view, in a manner similar to ‘Super Contra 3:The Alien Wars’. While visually impressive the overhead sections weren’t favourably received by critics though, and it seems variety in gameplay was not needed when the normal stages are so enjoyable. 

Your weapons can be upgraded as you progress, and power ups offer things like rapid fire or guns that can shot through multiple enemies or pass through walls. VectorMan himself can also evolve into different forms to better deal with an environmental situation. Morph icons transform the player’s character into a drill (that allows VectorMan to break through floors), a jet (meaning he can fly), a fish (means he swims faster), and also a bomb that’ll wipe out all on screen enemies. GamePro felt the gameplay of ‘VectorMan’ was strong enough for the magazine to bestow a perfect score. “[A] few inconsistencies don't even make a dent in this otherwise awesome game. If you're looking for fast action, fantastic scenery and rewarding gameplay, ‘VectorMan’ has the balls you're looking for.” 

There’s a wonderful balance to the game, as while the action is constant the challenge is perfectly incremental. Foes put up a fight but defeating them generates enough health restoration so that you’re ready for the next battle. The end of stage bosses initially seem impossibly imposing, yet after a few attempts the attack patterns become clear and taking them down feels immensely satisfying. You will fail, while playing ‘VectorMan’ you will die. But even in defeat you’ll likely feel you’re progressing, learning the layout of the vast intricate levels or getting one step closer to mastering the perfect strategy to beat an end of level boss. I only really struggled and got frustrated when battling against the game’s final big-boss, since he seemed to a bullet sponge and with no damage meter it’s hard to know how close to death bosses are. An imposing challenge at the finale hardly seems a fair thing to criticise though, and should you find yourself unable to progress in the game there’s various difficulty levels selectable in the options screen. 

Action games like this usually have a very similar narrative; a super villain is taking over the world and by killing everything in sight you'll somehow stop him. But impressively BlueSky went to some length to explain why there were no humans left on Earth and why the planet was in the grasp of a robotic overlord. Pre-dating the Pixar ‘Wall E’ film by over a decade, ‘VectorMan’ presents a world where human waste has made Earth uninhabitable. Mankind has abandoned the planet, leaving robotic orbots to clean up the mess they’ve made and make it possible to return. This already bleak vision for the future is made worse when a careless maintenance droid accidentally replaces another orbot‘s head with a salvaged atomic bomb.  This of course gives him aspirations for global domination, adopting the appropriate and surprisingly literal name of WarHead. His first plan of action is to demand all orbots on Earth stop cleaning and start making weapons to use on any returning humans. As VectorMan’s day job is to throw waste into the sun, he was away from Earth when the “destroy all humans” order was given.  As such he is the only orbot left to defend earth. Thankfully he’s also armed to the teeth, which is a surprise given that he’s essentially an intergalactic bin-lorry driver.  It’s a wonderfully quirky and absurd story. However, it’s one that carries a message which would have resonated with a 90’s audienceused to TV shows like ‘Captain Planet’. “I’m happy we used an environmental theme in the story because it’s easy for everyone to relate to: the cleanliness of the environment is something that affects everyone and no one wants the earth to become unliveable” remembers Rich Karpp. “Since we didn’t have a lot of story setup in the game, it was easy for us to quickly communicate why there would be an earth with no humans on it.”

In a world of robots, mechanisation and explosions there was really only one way for the music to go. The game’s composer Jon Holland describes ‘VectorMan's soundtrack as ‘Music filled with gun noises! [But] I tried to get close to a dance feel for much of the time.” It’s an abrasive genre of music that works really well with the Mega Drives Yamaha YM2612 sound chip. Sounding a lot like Bitmap Brothers Amiga music, the game’s soundtrack is superb, creating a sense of desolate disorder while still remaining driving enough for the fast paced and rapid gameplay. 

With visuals that pushed the machine and a soundtrack that is worth listening to even when you’re not playing the game, it’s obvious that ‘VectorMan’ deserves more attention than it got upon release. Accordingly there’s justice that it’s getting included on so many compilations, as it’s a game that was cruelly overlooked, mainly due to being released so late in the Mega Drives life. Reviewers even implored readers not to rush to newer consoles and to take a second look at the content available on their existing hardware. “About to get rid of that Genesis in favor of a next-generation system? Don't act too rashly, kid” pleaded Video Games and Computer Entertainment.
”You just might miss one of the coolest 16-bit games to be released this year --- a thoroughly fun cart by the name of ‘VectorMan’”.  Electric Playground even felt that this 2D platform game on an aging machine eclipsed many games being released on the newer hardware. “‘VectorMan’ has got to be one of the slickest games ever released, for any system”. A sequel followed which received equal critical acclaim but even less commercial success. Audience’s had moved onto newer systems by then, and it’s a shame ’VectorMan 2’ couldn’t have enjoyed a simultaneous release on new and old hardware in the way some games do today. In later years various videos have surfaced for a 3D reimagining entitled ‘VectorMan Ultra’, but these didn’t come to fruition. From what we can see though, it’s ‘VectorMan’ only in name, featuring a protagonist that isn’t made of orbs and doesn’t morph, two key features of the first game.

In many ways ’VectorMan’ was ahead of its time, which is perhaps why it would pass so convincingly today  as a new game made to look old.

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