When you think of the Sega CD, "Great Games" isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, most tend to associate the ill-fated CD-ROM drive for the Sega Genesis with the beginning of Sega's fall from grace. Indeed, the Sega CD was the first of three game platforms (32X and Saturn being the others) that ultimately failed to live up to its grand billing. As a result, Sega went from the market leader in the Genesis days to the financially troubled company it is today. However, the Sega CD did have a handful of memorable games that showed us what the console was truly capable of. Of those, Konami's Snatcher has firmly cemented itself among the best and most memorable games ever made.
June 6, 1996—the day of "The Catastrophe." Half the world's population is wiped out when an explosion at the Chernoton Research Facility in Moscow releases a secret biological weapon called Lucifer Alpha into the atmosphere. Cut to Neo Kobe City, December 2047—we're introduced to Gillian Seed, and his estranged wife, Jamie. We learn that they both suffer from severe amnesia as a result of spending 50 years in suspended animation somewhere in Russia. The specifics surrounding these events are kept under wraps from the government, and neither Gillian nor Jamie can recall anything prior to being picked up in the Siberian Neutral Zone, much less anything about their past together. Only the word "Snatcher" keeps popping up in Gillian's head. Gillian and Jamie separate after trying to resume their marriage—"Without any memories between the two of us, I'm afraid there was little left to base a good relationship on," Gillian later says. After undergoing extensive military training, he decides to become a JUNKER (Japanese Undercover Neuro-Kinetic Elimination Ranger—an anti-Snatcher task force) in an attempt to get his memory back.
That's just the premise to Snatcher—quite possibly the greatest game you've never played. However, you're forgiven if you haven't heard of it. Snatcher for Sega CD remains to this day the only version of the game ever released in North America—truly amazing considering the game's importance in the development of video games as popular entertainment. Snatcher was created by Konami's resident game brain, Hideo Kojima—the man now known the world over as the creator of Metal Gear Solid and the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 2. His first two games, Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, were both originally released for the MSX 8-bit computer. Snatcher would be yet another game from Kojima that would make its debut on an 8-bit personal computer that was virtually unknown in America—this time for the NEC PC-8801. That was in 1988. The Sega CD version of Snatcher didn't arrive in America until 1994, but Konami made this particular release significant by adding several Sega CD-exclusive features, not to mention elevating the production quality standard for all games that would follow it. Snatcher would later be tailored for the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation platforms in Japan as well. Why Konami America chose to release the game for the derelict Sega CD and not for the best-selling PlayStation is still puzzling to say the least.
Snatcher takes its name from the game's main antagonists—a race of mysterious, bio-roid killers who were created for the sole purpose of taking control of the world from the inside-out—essentially wiping out humanity by "snatching" individuals and assuming their identities. It's a ripe situation for a detective story—one of the many genres into which Snatcher fits nicely. Where do the Snatchers come from? What do they want? Those are just a couple of questions players must answer while playing in Gillian's shoes. When Gillian becomes the second "runner" at JUNKER headquarters, the Snatcher menace is quickly reaching a boiling point. The focus of an upcoming international summit is precisely the problem Gillian must face on his own. Before he can barely get comfortable in his trench coat, he finds himself the last hope in the battle against the Snatchers, as the only other runner on the force, veteran Jean-Jack Gibson, turns up with his head ripped free from his body, some undigested buffalo meat in his stomach, and a whole lot of unanswered questions. As JUNKER chief Benson Cunningham later puts it, "That was a pretty rough first assignment, Gillian."
The game is played through a menu-driven text-adventure format—the graphics mostly consisting of static frames of anime-style artwork to give the action a visual foundation. It's somewhat similar to the NES graphic adventure Shadowgate, only Snatcher takes place in a complete game world and is much more grounded in its story and its characters. You advance through the game by observing the scene in front of you and selecting commands like "LOOK," "INVESTIGATE" or "ASK" from the menu. It may not sound very revolutionary, but this very simple gameplay blends with the story perfectly, allowing it to branch out into unexpected twists and turns. Investigating one item or area usually leads to other things to examine and discover, just as asking certain questions will lead to more topics of conversation and startling revelations. Playing through the story always leads to a payoff. Case in point: A situation arises in Snatcher in which Gillian must find a girl whom he believes has suddenly gone missing. After scouring every possible location in Neo Kobe, the search ends up at his own apartment. Without spoiling the outcome, let's just say it concludes with a hilarious confrontation in Gillian's shower. The overall effect of all of this is that you feel as if you are writing the story as you play, and not merely plodding through scripted events as you might in a more conventional game.
What makes Snatcher such a joy to play is how the game makes you buy into its world without any doubts. It fools you into a false sense of complete freedom when in fact you are very restricted gameplay-wise. In the game, Gillian can travel to different locations all around Neo Kobe—whether it be a congested shopping center adorned with neon advertising and Christmas music to an animal hospital in the city's slums. At an exotic dance club called Outer Heaven (where have we heard that name before?), you can question practically everyone in the place, including the dancer, Isabella Velvet. You can even order drinks and entrees. Each location in the game is filled with so many details and so much atmosphere that it quickly overwhelms you. The game's world is so rich that you wouldn't be able to sample more of it even if you wanted to—your plate's already full.
Another way the game surrounds you with life is by connecting you to a simulated network of information via the videophone and psuedo-database features. Gillian can call a host of different phone numbers using his videophone—ranging from serious inquires with suspects to gags like the "Love Line." You can call the local fire and police departments, you can call Jamie at home while she's still in bed—hell, even the developers of the game have their own videophone numbers (they're secret though). You can also access the developers' individual profiles through JORDAN (Junker Online Regional Data Access Network)—a computer system Gillian can use to help with his investigation. It acts as sort of an Internet simulation by which you can call up all sorts of information about the history, people and places of Neo Kobe—an idea that many games nowadays are imitating. With so much available at the touch of a button, Snatcher throws up the illusion that you can call anyone or do anything within its world—a prospect that gamers can only fantasize about usually.
The great thing about Snatcher is that it's more than a video game—it's an interactive graphic novel. Despite the heavy influence of modern cinema in the game, Snatcher does not try to be an interactive movie like many of the games that were released for Sega CD. Pictures and text are combined to tell a story in the same way a comic book would, but Snatcher is able to push the concept further by taking advantage of the
many opportunities video games—or in this case, the Sega CD—afford. For instance, animation and voice is extensively employed in the game to give the characters and their world more texture and personality. During gameplay, characters speak through scrolling text at the bottom of the screen, but when the game takes a break to develop the story, the characters converse with each other through voice and animated talking heads. The realistic tones of voice and the exaggerated facial expressions allow the player to get a better grasp on the characters' true motivations—something that's just not possible in other media, not to mention the game consoles of the time that lacked Sega CD's technology. This way of storytelling also leaves plenty of room for humor, which Snatcher overflows with at times. Never in my life have I laughed so hard at characters sneezing—something that happens in Snatcher due to SNOW-9, a pollen that just happens to be present whenever Snatchers are around. It's funny not because it's a sneeze, but because of how it reveals things about the characters and the story.
Snatcher may be the only game to truly deliver on the idea of interactive storytelling. It also avoids all of the trappings that many story-heavy games have since fallen into. The writing and adaptation from the original Japanese is so good that you don't even think about what an achievement it is for the video-game industry. With so much reading required in the game, it's amazing how gripping the story remains throughout. Credit must be given to the game's supervisor, Jeremy Blaustein and translator, Scott T. Hards for making it seem as if Snatcher was originally developed for an American audience. The character voice-overs are at least as good as any animated film. A veritable cast of no-names turn in incredibly convincing performances—certainly going above and beyond anything the industry had previously seen—predating the standard set by Kojima's own Metal Gear Solid by more than four years.
Snatcher is basically a science-fiction detective story, and what I enjoyed most about the story is that it gets both the "science" and "fiction" parts right. When the game explains why the artificial skin the Snatchers use for cover can't hold up in sunlight, we understand it and believe it. When a skin tissue sample is taken from underneath the fingernails of a corpse, we're totally convinced by the analysis. There are also many other unnecessary tidbits of information, such as the technology behind the toilet in Gillian's apartment, if that's any indication of the detail to which the creators of Snatcher were committed.
Besides all of the neat technical jargon, Snatcher is filled with just plain good writing—especially when it concerns the relationships between the game's large cast of characters—and the story never misses an opportunity for humor. Comic relief comes mainly from Gillian's interactions with Napoleon, a dwarfish Chinese informant, and Metal Gear, Gillian's "navigator"—a pint-sized robotic partner assigned to him by the JUNKER force. The first time Gillian uses the videophone to contact Napoleon is classic—Napoleon's tired mug appears on the display, and upon seeing Gillian he appropriately moans in a disgusted tone, "Ugh, who the hell are you?" He then refuses to talk until Gillian provides him with the correct answer to a question. Right then you have a complete understanding as to the type of guy Napoleon is.
The most important of the game's subplots is of course the mystery surrounding Gillian's past with his wife and their present struggle to rebuild their lives together. Through the many conversations Gillian and Jamie have concerning their relationship, you understand that they genuinely care for each other, but they just can't sort out what's keeping them apart. It's rare to see subject matter like this treated with such maturity in a game. Sure, there are points in which things get a little cheesy, but the writing consistently nails that comic-book tone even in the awkward moments. We all know how comic books can look in the face of high literature—but it isn't bad writing, it's comic book writing—and Snatcher maintains that unique quality from beginning to end.
Snatcher isn't all menus and text when it comes to gameplay. In the scenes in which Gillian comes face-to-face with the enemy, the game switches to a shooting action mode. To really pump up the Snatcher-blasting, the Sega CD version of Snatcher was made compatible with Konami's Justifier light gun, the accessory that came with an earlier Sega CD game, Lethal Enforcers. Using the light gun in place of the controller during the shooting sequences obviously allows for greater interactivity and better action, but it's also invaluable in putting the player in Gillian's shoes. Granted, the gameplay during the shooting events doesn't amount to much more than Hogan's Alley on the NES, but there's a genuine tension in the moment you draw your weapon, followed by an extreme adrenaline rush during all the frantic shooting. Holding that gun in your hands, you actually feel like you're playing the part of Gillian. Because it's so easy to quickly become attached to the lead character, you obviously don't want any harm to come to him, so you simply do all you can to blast as many enemies as possible.
The production on Snatcher needed to be far above the industry standards in order for the story and the characters to have the same impact. For Konami to make such an effort on a platform like the Sega CD was ballsy, not to mention much appreciated. Konami even took the extra care to exploit the Sega CD's audio capabilities by using Roland Sound Space in some parts of the game—giving the sound a multi-dimensional quality and the action more visceral and realistic punch.
Hideo Kojima has made no secret of the fact that he is deeply influenced by motion pictures (check the GameCritics.com interview with him for further proof). Snatcher is the first game in which his love for movies really shines through. Like most of his games, Snatcher's opening and ending credits are cinematic in every sense of the word. Kojima also stole—or, ahem, rather was inspired by—many ideas and designs from established films of the science fiction and film noir genres. Snatcher contains obvious references to Akira and The Terminator, but it's Blade Runner that must have had a truly profound impact on Kojima's creative juices. The film's influence can be seen all throughout Snatcher, but both the game and the movie are virtually identical in how they introduce us to their respective cities. In fact, it wouldn't be all that difficult to write an entirely separate feature on the similarities between Blade Runner and Snatcher.
However, more striking than its affection for cinema is how Snatcher carries on repeated themes and ideas for which Kojima's games have become famous—in some case even anticipating devices he would use in future projects. There are obvious things like the name and design of Gillian's navigator, Metal Gear, who looks just like a miniature version of the nuclear weapon in Kojima's first game, Metal Gear. The extensive use of videophone conversations and the many characters that can be called is another idea Kojima refined in Snatcher that would be used to full dramatic effect years later in Metal Gear Solid. However, I find the reoccurring themes of deception, greed, jealousy, international conflict, impending disaster brought on by human beings, and lost love to be the most interesting and compelling reasons to put Snatcher not only at the focus of Kojima's growing gameography, but also as an example of video-game entertainment at its finest.
Special thanks to Jacob "Carp" Paul at The Snatcher Sanctuary for his support.
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"I fondly remember the first time I played Snatcher. It was 1994, I believe, and I almost didn't even buy the game. I heard a lot of positive buzz about the title; nearly every video-game magazine I read at the time raved about it, but I wasn't quite sure if it was the game for me. I did finally decide to give it a shot. I got a ride to the local mall, and I coughed up the 40 bucks. Good Lord, I'm glad I did.
"I got home that night and tried it out, and I almost immediately knew that I made the right decision. Right off the bat, I was impressed with the music, and the introduction sequence seemed to lay the groundwork of an interesting story. I was especially surprised by the voice acting. It was, and still is, some of the best I've ever heard in a video game.
"As things progressed, I knew this game was something special. It was mature. The game's stars, Gillian and Jamie Seed, were a couple dealing with martial problems. It dealt with drinking, drug use, homelessness, and other serious issues. And while many games at the time (most notably Mortal Kombat) had a tendency to use graphic violence as a marketing ploy, the few instances of graphic violence and death seen in Snatcher were treated very seriously. Characters are shown fighting to deal with the loss, in a touch I wish more games would try to duplicate.
"The plot was very engrossing, with one plot twist after another, all leading up to one of the better endings ever seen in a game. The characters are all very likable, and really begin to grow on the player. I know I'm not the only one who can never forget the beautiful and intelligent Mika Slayton, the money grubbing informant Napoleon, or the mysterious (not to mention bad-ass) Random Hajile.
"To this day, Snatcher remains my favorite game. Every time I play it, I'm still impressed, and occasionally I find something new. It was one of the few true gems on the Sega CD system; a game that unfortunately went ignored by many, due to the platform for which it was released. If you can, find yourself a copy of it. It will be difficult, but it is most definitely worth it."
Jacob "Carp" Paul
The Snatcher Sanctuary
"My relationship with Snatcher began several years ago when my brother and I had managed to borrow a friend's Sega CD and we decided to head on down to the local rental shop and see if anything new had come in that week, Sega CD or otherwise. Long story short, after the votes were in we rented Snatcher mostly because it had an interesting premise and we both thought the art on the case wasn't too bad. We were also both huge Konami fans as well, and prior to the 32-bit era anything with Konami's name on it was guaranteed to be at least "excellent" or better, so that was another thing in its favor.
"We got home, ran into my brother's room and popped the disc in. Almost immediately, we were both intensely captivated. Snatcher was like nothing we had ever played before, and to this day I don't think that there's been a title which has really matched it on any console, though some of Hideo Kojima's other work comes reasonably close. The main character, Gillian Seed, was accessible and likable from the start, with the story having all the elements needed for the game to become an instant classic. Science fiction, hardboiled detective noir, romance, comedy, intrigue—the game had everything, and it was masterfully interlaced through the rock-solid storytelling. It was intelligently written, and coupled with the top-notch voices, the cast of characters became unbelievably human and more real than any game I had played prior to it. The story of Gillian Seed had struck chords deep within us, and we could hardly believe just how damn GOOD the thing was. There's one scene in particular involving a runaway car that crystallizes the perfection of the game, and without ruining it, let it be said that it needs to be experienced by every gamer worthy of the name.
"We didn't do ANYTHING else for the next two days, and when we watched the last credit roll after the unbelievable 40-plus-minute ending we both sat back and knew that it would be a very long time indeed before any game would be able to even begin to approach the sheer magnitude of quality and cool that Snatcher possesses.
"Today, despite all the titles that have come after it, my brother and I have nothing but the highest regard for Snatcher, and it has earned a permanent spot at the top of my "best ever" list. To this day we can both quote pieces of dialogue from the game at the drop of a hat. My computer's sound effects are all clips from the game itself. I have the import soundtrack and listen to the unforgettable tunes occasionally, and I buy anything even remotely connected with the game. Hearing the words "Snow-9" will make me sneeze instantly. Snatcher has built up quite a following for good reason, and as devoted as I may seem, I think my brother has undoubtedly one-upped me since his firstborn son is actually named Gillian in honor of.
"To tell the truth, I'm slightly jealous that he had the opportunity to pay homage to the game in such a lasting way before I did, though now that the name Gillian has already been used in our family it's going to be an uphill battle convincing my girlfriend that "Metal," "Random" or "Jean-Jack" are appropriate names for our future children."
"Reading your article on Snatcher brought nothing but those fuzzy feelings you get when you've found something special. Made me remember the first time I played the game. My Sega CD had broke (those first models where awful). I talked a friend into buying it simply on reading a good article about the game in EGM (no really, now and then they would have one of those—surprised the hell out of me), and he did. We booted the thing up, and right from the beginning I knew it was something precious. Having been weened on sub-par Sega CD games for a while now, the sheer production quality—not to mention the voices—smacked me up and never let me breathe again.
"What I think made it seem so great was the way the producers handled the Snatchers themselves. Unlike other things we had seen before in movies of beings replacing us, they where quiet, decepive, and most of all, played our emotions. They weren't simply something that replaced somebody and gained an identity, they where somebody to begin with. Through events in the game, on some level, you can almost respect them. But from that, and the infamous "un-edited" code (first heard in EGM—can't get it right all the time), Snatcher just brought so much to the table. It was far ahead of its time. I would love to go on more, but I'd need a long time just to say how great it was. I'm still an owner of the game, hoping either one day through emulation, or a chance encounter in a pawn shop, I can boot it up and have a few plates of buffalo in Outer Heaven once more."
"I remember Snatcher well. It was the winter of '95, not long after I played Final Fantasy VI for the first time, that I came across this bizarre little opus by a guy named Hideo Kojima. We used to make fun of my younger brother for owning a Sega CD, but when one of his friends came over with this game it really got my attention. It was by Konami, one of my favorite companies, who were famous for being one of the more in-joke-heavy developers at the time. I remember thinking that Snatcher was some kind of "spot the Konami references" marathon gag at first. This, of course, I loved. How can you not love a game where the protagonist bitches about not being able to jump off stairs in Castlevania, has a robot side-kick named Metal Gear, and takes shameless pot-shots at U.S. senators for chastising violence in Lethal Enforcers? And as if the game-savvy geek appeal weren't enough, there were the movie references. If you wanted to see some dude who thinks he's Harrison Ford team up with Sting to fight Terminators from They Live!—this was the game for you. Hell, it was the game for me. What I didn't expect, however, was how the game would take all these silly little winks and nudges and subtly twist them into something that was much, much more; something that was, in all honesty, a fairly personal work by a serious game designer. Not that it was anything terribly profound, original, or even consistently well-told, but there was something there under the surface; some wonderfully audacious geek who was skillful enough to take what was virtually an encyclopedia of plagiaristic excess and soak it in enough heart and soul that by the end we totally bought it. That's Hideo Kojima's greatest strength, I think. He's a complete dork; but, by God, he believes in everything he does. Cornball honesty like that is very refreshing to me."
Matthew "Sajon" Weise
"I can remember so well the day my mum bought me Snatcher for Christmas. It was after I saw the game in an old Sega magazine in '95. When I saw it in the magazine I thought, "Wow! That looks rather good." But when I actually played it, I was in a world that I couldn't leave or get me out of my room for days. On top of this, we had really cold whether in the UK when I got the game, so leaving the house wasn't much of an option. And I was able to get caught up completely in the game—the cold winter, the cyber-punk atmosphere and the character of Gillian. He was a man I just wanted to be—with a commanding trench coat and a gun to boot. I played the game solidly for days feeling mesmerized by its often in-depth police (junker) work. What made the game simply the best I have ever played, was the complete sense of achievement at the end, when the story truly unfolds and the harmonious music that goes with it. Ahhh. A true classic."