Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review: Sin & Punishment (WiiVC/N64)

10 years ago cult-favorite developer Treasure put out Sin & Punishment, an English voice acted on-rails shooter, for the Nintendo 64, but only made it available in Japan. It's the N64 game that I came closest to importing purely on the basis of how it looked and what I had read about how it played. There's a grandiose anime-inspired, more mature (for N64) storyline with StarFox-like action, but you control a person instead of a plane. It was a game that looked extremely desirable in tiny screenshots on the back pages of EGM magazines. Now that Sin & Punishment has finally come stateside on the Wii's Virtual Console service, it was time to see if I was actually missing out.

For starters, let's get the unmet lofty expectations out of the way. S&P does not belong in the pantheon of all-time great N64 games, but it is still an incredibly stylish and unique product that has moments of absolute brilliance. Visually the game has a low polygon count for its characters, but not unexpectedly so, given its turn-of-the-millennium release. That said, the character models are rather grotesque, but in a way I find undeniably appealing. Everything has sharp, pointy angles, rigid joints and muddy textures. It seems like Treasure was trying to pull off something ambitious and cinematic with the designs, but I'd argue the game's all the better for these shortcomings as the characters literally look uncomfortable in their own skins.

This individualized discomfort seems to be one of the key elements of the story, but the character models alone do a better job of conveying this than any part of the formal plot in S&P. You control a guy who occasionally transforms into a giant mech-like monster and a girl who fights through an alternate future dream world and ultimately against the evil plot of their supposed-friend who I think they originally shared a common enemy with. So the story here, told mainly in non-interactive cutscenes, is nonsense that can be casually watched for awkward laughs, but thankfully skipped at will. As for the English voice acting, it's on par with some of the worst out there. All of these sloppy elements combine to create a broad feeling of camp that may have been awkward had this game actually been played in the US 10 years ago. S&P's overall presentation has aged both extremely poorly and extremely well, if that makes sense.

The design elements of S&P are worth noting, but are overall somewhat inconsequential to what this game is about. Like other games from Treasure, particularly those from the shooter genre, S&P leans heavily toward the hardcore sect. You control a character that, at times, must strafe, double jump, target, and shoot and/or sword slash at the same time, with each of those actions mapped to separate buttons. The control scheme has a sharp learning curve that requires significant practice to even handle properly, much less master. None of the three control setups offered are ideal on the Gamecube controller that I used to play the game, but hopefully the Classic Controller is more intuitively functional. S&P isn't a game that gives you much time to feel this stuff out either (though there is a tutorial mode) as you're quickly thrust into barrages of unrelenting enemy fodder at the game's outset that never let up. Still, it only takes about an hour to get through everything, so learning takes place on successive playthroughs more than over the course of one. As a side note, I would personally prefer a more movement-sensitive targeting cursor, as the sluggish one you're given makes parts of the game frustrating that could have been simply challenging. If it's not already clear, I recommend playing this game on Easy difficulty before engaging with Normal.

The strength of Treasure's game is its epic set-pieces. The ocean fleet chapter is particularly thrilling. The protagonist stands atop a floating platform that dramatically sweeps past armed frigates, waves of jet fighters, and countless energy blasts. Players would do well to get into pattern-memorization mode in such levels if they hope to get through with the least damage and highest score. After the sea battle the scene shifts to the sky where you must then take out a giant satellite fortress. Once destroying that, a huge asteroid mass hurtles towards your transformed mechanized monster friend and it's up you to tail the rock and detonate it before impact. There are quite a few tricky moments in this chapter, but in general it makes for an intense ride. Speaking of epic, the final boss fight is against some kind of evil clone Earth, and feels like an updated take on Space Invaders. When Sin & Punishment puts you in these larger-than-life scenarios, it's easy to get wrapped up in the excitement and discard the half-hazard story behind the action.

As with many elusive products, Sin & Punishment seems to be viewed by many critics through rose-colored glasses, glossing over the game's faults in favor of hardcore allegiances. To be fair, it does appeal to those tastes, but all in all it didn't live up to the expectations I've harbored for this game over the past decade. Perhaps the best news to come out of the Virtual Console version of S&P is that Nintendo plans for an international release of Sin & Punishment 2 for Wii this year. I have to imagine this sequel will control much more naturally given the light-gun style aiming that will be implemented into the Wiimote controls. The original Sin & Punishment still remains a stylistically unique, frantic shooting experience, but one would do well to keep their expectations in check before getting all huffy towards Nintendo for depriving US and European gamers of it for so many years.

:screenshots from Giant Bomb and IGN:

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