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Old 04-26-2012, 02:00 PM   #1 (permalink)
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One Hour Retrospective: Jet Force Gemini

It's easy to forget that there was a time when the name Rare actually meant something substantial. Before their name became synonymous with Microsoft Avatars and Kinect Sports, the feisty British development house left their mark on the gaming world throughout the course of the '90s. Donkey Kong Country gave Mario's original nemesis his groove back, Diddy Kong Racing out-Mario Kart-ed Mario Kart, and GoldenEye 007 proved that first person shooters could dominate the console space. But while these games will forever be etched in our medium's history, it's Rare's oft-forgotten titles that possibly best encapsulate the studio's brash desire to break boundaries.

Jet Force Gemini was released on the Nintendo 64 at the end of 1999, just a month after the Dreamcast had launched. With our collective visions set on the dawn of the next generation, it was easy to miss the amazing titles that were being released right in front of us. Thankfully, anyone with an N64 knew that great games didn't come along every day, so we latched on to Rare's attempt at a full-on space opera with eager claws. But a lot has changed in 13 years, so is JFG the sci-fi masterpiece I remember, or has time been unkind to this relic of the past?

After spending a bit of time becoming reaquainted the game, I'd say that it's certainly a bit of both. It's immediately apparent that Rare swung for the fences in its aim to create as epic a space opera as our medium has seen. From the booming, John Williams-esque score to the opening cinematic featuring a sweeping shot of an asteroid belt that slowly transitions into the deck of our heroes' ship, JFG wears its influences like a badge of honor. Within the first few minutes, you'll spot references to Star Wars, Star Trek, Starship Troopers, Star Gate, and pretty much any property that begins with the word "Star." Rare's unique sense of humor can be spotted during the opening through small jokes like a pair of fuzzy dice that adorn the helm of the cockpit, and an overly dramatic series of zoom-ins on a screen that reads, "Danger!" They also embraced their inner-Chaplin by delivering exposition of your trio of protagonists through a healthy dose of silent pantomime. During the opening few minutes, our hero Juno is separated from his sister Vela and their dog Lupus, eventually crash-landing on a planet and is tasked with finding his lost comrades.

So if the entire presentation during the opening is fantastic, why did I mention that this game feels like a relic of the past? Well, the moment you land on the planet and are forced to control Juno, you'll have to forget everything you've learned about video games over the past 13 years. Some games have steep learning curves; playing Jet Force Gemini in 2012 has a dreadful unlearning curve. You have to willingly stop yourself from making any intuitive movements with the controller, and instead focus on trying to discern the way that Rare wanted you to play this game back in 1999. The analog stick is there to control your character as you would in any 3D platformer of the time, which is no problem at all. The struggle comes from using the four C-buttons to crouch, jump, and strafe. The first two work fairly well, but it's the latter that proves to be the source of an undeniable headache. It doesn't allow you to strafe in the conventional sense, but rather swings the targeting reticle to the side of the screen. It feels less like you're moving the character and more like you're controlling the world around them. It's hard to explain and even harder to get used to during a frantic battle.

As much as I adored the presentation and whimsy that the game had to offer, I simply could not wrap my head around the controls. I know I was able to press through them back in '99, and maybe my 12-year-old self was just a lot more open to nonsensical methods of movement, but I was getting destroyed by enemies in the first few areas of the game. I could only imagine how much worse it would be once the difficulty began to ramp up. While JFG does allow you to hold the R trigger and enter an aiming mode, the imprecise nature of the Nintendo 64's analog stick makes targeting specific enemies about as accurate as going to a firing range in the middle of a bender.

For the last 15 minutes, I decided to load a save that I had from way back when and play a bit of the middle of the game. At this point, I was able to select which of the three heroes I wanted to play as, and through some reason that my memory has deleted over the past decade, they all looked quite a bit different. Lupus, the pup who just resembled a regular beagle during the opening, now had tank treads and an assortment of cannons attached to him. I have no idea how this Cronenbergian transformation occurred, but that was the least of my worries as I entered an enemy outpost during the dead of night and was forced the battle through throngs of well-armed aphids. As I pressed through this Heinlein-inspired nightmare, I began to remember how deep this game eventually became. With three playable characters, a vast array of upgradable weapons and armor, and a mid-point non-ending that opened up the galaxy to your party and forced to rebuild your ship and rescue every member of a Mogwai-ish race, Rare created a game with an ever-growing rabbit hole of features.

Jet Force Gemini is a bittersweet reminder of the ingenuity that Rare was once capable of displaying on a regular basis. The company took the specs and limitations of the Nintendo 64 and reached far beyond them to create amazing successes and spectacular failures. I would love nothing more than to see JFG get a deserving downloadable rerelease much like Banjo-Kazooie that gives the muddied visuals a once-over and also adapts the control system to a more modern paradigm. But until that pipe-dream comes true, this hour I spent wrestling with my own nostalgia over Jet Force Gemini will have to suffice.

[Thanks to Giantbomb for being the only site I could find with decent images of the game.]
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