I am the walrus. I am REALLY the walrus.
I play a lot of games. I play sports games, platform games, adventure games, puzzle games, shooting games, action games, and every other kind of game. I'm a veritable bastion of gaming madness. Show me a game and I'll show you a game I've played.
And in playing so many games, I occasionally get bored. How many times can you save the Earth from alien scum? How many touchdowns can you possibly score? How many laps can you race, how many princesses can you save, hell - how many games can you dominate before you begin to wonder if this monstrous waste of time is really worth it after all?
With these grim thoughts racing through my head, I ripped apart the packaging of yet another N64 game, with nary the raise of an eyebrow. I popped in the game, assumed the position, and prepared myself for another leap into the pool of mundane gaming that so often pervades my life as a reviewer.
Then I watched the intro. After a few seconds, I uttered the words that every reviewer on the planet lives to utter....
"What the hell is this?"
Welcome to Space Station Silicon Valley, the downright weirdest game you'll see for the N64, not to mention just about any other gaming platform. Equal parts action, platform, and puzzler, this baby breaks through the mire and shows what some truly original game design (and a lot of heavy drug use) can amount to.
It's my job to attempt to describe this game, a task that frightens even a veteran goober like myself. So keep in mind, dear reader, that what I describe may or may not paint a clear picture of this puppy.
It seems that Space Station Silicon Valley, an experimental eco-system supporting artificial life launched into orbit in the year 2001, has disappeared. After 1000 years, it reappears, but every group of brave adventurers sent to investigate the station vanishes. So in an effort to cut down on all of this vanishing, the Earth sends in the dependable (and expendable) Dan Danger and his trusty sidekick Evo the self-evolving robot to find out what really happened. Unfortunately, an asteroid interrupts our heroes' attempt to land on SSSV safely, and the duo crashes. Thankfully, no one dies, though Evo falls apart a bit. You take over as Evo's brain, an electronic chip.
I can hear you collectively screaming, "Huh?" Don't worry - it gets better.
To survive as an electronic chip brain, you have to find organisms to act as hosts. Luckily, SSSV is filled to the brim with all sorts of robotic life forms - remember, this is a full eco-system. So you hop into one of the robot animals, assume its powers, and attempt to discover just what in the hell is going on.
The gameplay is a wicked mix of action, puzzle, and platform based adventure. Dan (your boss) is stuck in your downed spacecraft, and proceeds to issue missions (zones) for you to carry out. These cover a range of objectives, and each mission's individual objectives must be met in order to complete the zone.
The Station is broken up into four regional environments - Euro Eden, Arctic Kingdom, Jungle Safari, and the Desert Adventure. As you complete zones in one area, other zones open up in other regions. While the game is pretty linear, you usually have a choice of which zones to attempt.
Most of the time, you start a level as an animal from the previous level. To switch to a different one, you have to 'disable' it. Each animal has different abilities, and it's up to you to figure out which one is best suited for which tasks. You might need to use a penguin to disable a husky, then use the husky to leap over a gap to turn on a machine, then use the husky to disable a polar bear and use the bear to bust open a block of ice to reach an item. Whew.
There is a distinct interplay between the animals on the station. If you're a sheep, you'll find that other sheep leave you alone but dogs will chase you. If you're a ram, other sheep will follow you around. The number of different robotic animals is tremendous; at least one new animal per level, and there are at least 30 levels.
This game is unlike anything I've ever seen. On one level, you play as a dog and have to round up a flock of sheep, then find a wind-up mouse and leap to the teleporter to end the level. On another, you have to use a "heli-bunny" to find a bunch of severed heads. Whoever thought up this game was surely smokin' some wacky tobaccy...
The graphics are great. Smooth textures, a wide color palette, vibrant explosions, nifty water effects and a steady frame rate deliver some nice eye candy. You won't find many polygonal errors. They also thought of the little things, like animals blinking, breathing, and leaving footprints.
And the sound...hehehe. This is some of the best sound yet on the N64. The music tracks differ for each level, and they're all cute little MIDI tunes that actually work. Animal noises sound good, from the 'baaa' of the sheep to the 'contagious laughter' of the hyena.
Perhaps the most surprising thing (and that's saying A LOT) is the attention to detail. Most 'weird' games that defy description fail because the artistic vision precedes the gameplay (a perfect example - Tail of the Sun). Thankfully, SSSV keeps the emphasis on gameplay, even in the midst of such a freaky idea. The physics modeling is very good; gliding on snow, flying in the air, climbing hills - it all feels pretty accurate.
But with all this innovation comes a few downers. For one, the camera isn't very smart. You'll often find yourself pounding on the 'switch camera angle' buttons to get the view you want. Getting trapped behind a tree is commonplace. The camera issues lead to occasional control problems as well.
Another irritating feature is that you can't save your game in the middle of a level. While you have an infinite number of lives, it gets annoying almost meeting your objectives, only to die and have to do it all over again.
But these gripes aren't enough to warrant a bad grade. Frankly, many of you won't know what to make of Space Station Silicon Valley. It's truly bizarre, and for most of you I'd recommend renting it first. But for me, innovation is never a bad thing, particularly when it's done well. In an industry overflowing with companies trying to cash in on the recent gaming boom by releasing copycat games, Space Station Silicon Valley is a breath of incredibly fresh air.
Hats off to Take 2 and developer DMA for taking a risk - we need to see more games like this, though there will never be another quite like it.