Original version: スナッチャー, released on 1988/11/26 for PC-8801
Recommended version: Snatcher, released in January 1995 for Sega CD
What happens when film buff Kojima Hideo has a chance to make a game that’s not Metal Gear? Well, in this case, a science fiction cyberpunk thriller influenced by “Blade Runner,” “The Terminator,” and “Akira,” among others. Kojima being his usual self, the game’s development took twice as long as that of the average game, even after the higher-ups ordered Kojima to cut about half the story. What resulted was a highly intriguing and atmospheric experience that was hindered by its limitations. Let’s take a look at this curious game.
From the very start, Kojima meant for Snatcher to have a cinematic feel. The entire game is presented through (mostly) still images and a menu interface.
Snatcher’s gameplay style is similar to a graphical adventure, but from a Japanese perspective. Japanese gamers were accustomed to visual novels, and Snatcher’s menu is programmed with that expectation. Rather than simply taking an item, for example, you must investigate an item, perhaps several times in a row, and might even need to select a second or third option from the menu before Gillian finally adds it to his inventory. To enter the abandoned factory in the first mission, you have to LOOK at it three times in a row. Western gamers may feel aggravation at this different way of doing things, but if you’re expecting it then it’s not so bad.
The premise of Snatcher is that androids called snatchers murder humans and then replace them. Each snatcher copies its victim’s appearance perfectly, such that no one can tell something happened. The protagonist Gillian Seed joins the special task force, JUNKER, which hunts down and exterminates snatchers. Along the way he hopes to regain the memory of his past, for Gillian is amnesiac (in 1988 it was not yet cliché for a protagonist to have amnesia). He is assisted by the other members of JUNKER as well as a robot sidekick named–it can’t be!–Metal Gear!
Your robot helper assists you every step of the way, analyzing the environment and pieces of evidence, and offering suggestions. You can’t directly control Metal Gear except for things like storage and retrieval, but it follows you everywhere. You are in control of Gillian Seed and you run the investigation. You decide where to go next and what to do. Of course, you also lead his personal life, and you are responsible for his behavior. In many areas of the game you’re able to make Gillian behave like a sexual deviant, and the game has received some criticism for that. But it’s not mandatory–you choose to act however you wish. If you make Gillian a pervert, then that’s your own fault.
As mentioned before the gameplay of Snatcher is menu-driven and often is not straightforward. It’s possible for playing the game to eventually devolve into bumbling through the menus and repeatedly attempting every option until something happens to advance the plot, although this generally doesn’t happen unless you weren’t paying attention earlier. And to be fair, confining actions to the menu means that there’s no pixel-hunting or inventory puzzles that so wearisomely plague other adventure games. Still, the main strength of Snatcher lies not in its gameplay, but in its story and its visuals.
Snatcher is saturated with ambience. From the very start of the game you can feel the rich cyberpunk tone. Neo Kobe is bright, colorful, and welcoming while also being dark, dirty, and dangerous. The killer theme music bursts with life and gets you motivated to jump into this futuristic detective drama.
The world of Snatcher is highly advanced technologically but for the most part is grounded in reality. And every frame adheres to a consistent motif and philosophy. As was the case with most PC-8801 games, the backgrounds are highly detailed and have a distinct visual flair. The following video demonstrates the visual uniqueness of the similar PC-98 machine very well, if you can overlook the vulgarity.
Snatcher was ported to several systems. The Sega CD port is generally accepted as the definitive version. Not only does it include (sometimes cheesy) voice acting and enhanced graphics, it also contains the previously unseen Act III, which had to be cut originally. The third act unfortunately doesn’t contain much gameplay, being mostly a collection of long cutscenes with long-winded exposition. But hey, what else could you expect from Kojima? The Sega CD version is available only in English. It’s usually the case (especially with older games) that much of a game’s meaning is lost in translation, but the English translation of Snatcher is pretty good, and even most purists concede that the Sega CD version is preferable.
This version also strikes the right balance when it comes to censorship. Unnecessary nudity is removed in the Sega CD version as well as the Sega Saturn and PlayStation versions (see an example here). This censorship doesn’t affect the story or the world in any way, so it’s no great loss. On the other hand, at one point early in the game a decapitated corpse is shown, and the Sega CD version is the only version that shows the whole corpse (even the original Japanese version sanitizes it a bit). Because the brutality of the murder shows that your foes are not to be trifled with, the death needs to be visibly disturbing, and in this respect, the Sega CD version wins out. Here’s the first mission of the game, in which Gillian responds to a distress call by a fellow JUNKER in an abandoned factory.
Unfortunately, Snatcher sold pretty poorly in the West, and Konami never considered it worthwhile to release an updated version. If a new version were released that had more enjoyable gameplay, either by revamping the menu system, it’s not at all unlikely that I would bump it up to “true classic” status. As it is, though, Snatcher is a brilliant, atmospheric thriller with an immersive world and tedious menu screens. But I don’t regret playing it, and I don’t think that you would either.
Snatcher is exceedingly rare to find a copy of. Its commercial failure and critical success make it highly sought after. The Amazon page is here. If you happen to have a physical copy, you can download a backup rom here.
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