Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Rez (United Game Artists)

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Rez was one of those games I hear way too many people recommend without mentioning what the game is about.  In my mind, it’s an on-rails shooter version of the virtual reality world I so desperately wanted to play in the movie The Lawnmower Man.  In truth it’s a bit more like a visual representation of William Gibson’s famous novel Neuromancer with a different plotline.  Either way the significance of this title, and it’s predecessor Child of Eden (which came out later), has aesthetic value that is a treat for both the eyes and the ears.

Scene from The Lawnmower Man

Conceptually the game entails you as a hacker entering the virtual world of a computer known as the K-Project, which I think of as the Internet.  An AI controls the goings on of the K-Project, her name is Eden, and she has become overwhelmed with the amount of data stored within.  Her solution to the problem is to shut down the K-Project and thus basically shutting down global communications.  Your job as a hacker in the system is to prevent her from doing this through five levels that have everything from small, simple enemies to big bosses with many destruction points.  I have always been a huge fan of cyberpunk, my youth spent watching movies like Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, and of course The Matrix while authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling spoke of things to come when man meets technology.  Even the mention of what Rez was all about prompted me to quickly pick up a copy, although for the life of me I can’t imagine why I opted to import the Dreamcast version over the HD remake on Xbox Live.

While the plot of Rez is easy to comprehend, it’s not so easy to follow as you’re going along in the game.  Fortunately the draw of this title doesn’t lie in the story or even the gameplay, the two biggest staples of my favorite games, but rather the audio/visual experience that it presents.  Developed by United Game Artists, a division of Sega that contained many former Team Andromeda members (the team was broken up after creating the Panzer Dragoon series), there is a clear focus on unique gorgeous graphics mixing with the electronica movement I fell deep into during the mid-late 90s.

After recently completing the game I noticed that the team thanks artist Wassily Kandinsky, an early 20th century Russian painter.  Looking over his pieces, I was surprised to see he begins his career quite traditional but eventually finds himself in very abstract places.  His return to Russia in 1914 and subsequent painting of the expressionist work Composition VII is a vivid world of swirls and colors.  He would later teach classes at the Bauhaus on color and geometry integration into art and finish his career with heavy cubist paintings.  And here I just thought they copied virtual reality simulations from the early 90s.

Kandinsky’s Composition VII

Even if Kandinsky is the inspiration, the whole game feels like the world we see in the movie Hackers – large complex box shapes in CGI cityscapes cascade across the screen where a silent floating protagonist blows up enemies.  Instead of the traditional floating and exploding sounds of shmups we are instead greeted with instrumental tracks and electronic noises with every action we make.  This is complemented by the techno track that graces each level and whether or not they were produced for the game, tend to build as the action commences.  It really is a great experience, especially if your sound system is up to snuff.  Even the game, Rez, is based on the song by the same name from the electronica artist Underwold.  On a personal note I love his work, although the mainstream probably only knows the artist by his Trainspotting sountrack hit Born Slippy.

Needless to say, Rez had plenty of thought and design decisions that went into its creation.  If any game deserved digital forms of the development process or design docs, this is it (hint, hint Q Entertainment).  Even more impressive is that every version of this game you can find is gorgeous.  It was developed first on the Sega Dreamcast, but for one reason or another only saw a Japanese release in holiday 2001 and in Europe early 2002.  I imported this on my modded Dreamcast and with the VGA box it looks dazzling on a huge 36″ monitor, especially when coupled with a 3-speaker setup and a strong subwoofer.  Around the same time it was also released on the PS2, and in January 2002 – the same time other regions had it for Dreamcast – we did receive a port.  I haven’t seen this one myself, but I hear it looks very impressive and from a sound standpoint makes better use of the PS2’s digital port.  Even today it’s not that hard to find and definitely not that expensive.

Going HD and the Prequel Sequel

Rez producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi (also known for his game designs in Lumines and Space Channel 5) admitted he always wanted a high-definition widescreen version of the game with full surround sound.  Unfortunately that technology didn’t come around for a few years, at which point he was able to secure the license back from Sega (it was work for hire so Sega kept the rights) and released Rez HD on Xbox Live in early 2008.  This is the version that most people I know have played and at 800 pts ($10) it’s a steal.  Rez HD is identical to the original with updated visuals and sound effects and is, to this date, listed in the top 20 XBLA titles of all times.  It can also be found on an XBLA compilation disc that also contains Lumines Live! and Every Extend Extra Extreme.

Mizuguchi got to delve back into his sensory overloaded franchise again with Child of Eden on the Xbox 360 and PS3.  This time around his title would have the gorgeous polished HD graphics and dynamic surround sound right out of the box (and on both consoles) along with the integration of motion controls with the respective Kinect and Move units.  Touted as one of the best examples of motion controls, Child of Eden looked like it could be a commercial success.  It takes place before Rez and tells the story of a virus attacking Project Lumi, which if completed would later become the AI Eden from Rez.  Unfortunately, like Rez, the game is considerably short and most gamers experienced the original as a $10 download whereas Child was a $60 retail release.  I have to admit, even I was surprised with the price tag and did wait until the game got to the more manageable $30 range before picking it up.  Despite being able to complete the game in 2 hours, it has plenty of dynamic replay value and is a great Saturday afternoon game when I get too stressed out.  As you may expect, the title only sold around 34,000 copies on both consoles so calling it a commercial failure is an understatement, but I still blame marketing and pricing.  At this point it’s probably $15-$20 and worth a play if you get the chance – don’t worry, the motion controls are entirely optional and not necessary.

Come back tomorrow when we continue our shmup coverage with the most addictive mini game ever to grace a racing title (and the catalyst for the popularity of the twin stick shmup): Geometry Wars.

Written by Fred Rojas

March 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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