Monday, September 11, 2023

Obscusion B-Side: Prowling the Official Atari Jaguar Catalog: 1995 (Part 3)

"With the Jag now having actual major competition on the North America market in the form of the Sega Saturn, even with the console experiencing its own rough (& unintended) start, Atari needs more games like this bunch if it wants any chance at being able to stand next to Sega & Sony (as well as Nintendo, though its next console it still a year away) as a legitimate competitor, even if only to a limited extent."

It's July of 1995, and the North American video game market is in a bit of flux. While the Sega Genesis & Super Nintendo are still strong sellers, with the SNES on the verge of finally surpassing the Genesis in yearly sales come the Holiday season (for a multitude of reasons), Sega of America's early launch of the 32-bit Saturn (a decision forced by Sega of Japan, though it was due to SoA's own financial mistakes costing the entire company dearly) hasn't really managed to make much of any impact because of a slow & staggered roll-out nationwide, alongside a slow trickle of new releases due to the surprise launch screwing over SoA's development & publishing partners' initial plans; meanwhile, the Sony PlayStation is still set for a September launch. This gives the Atari Jaguar a little bit of a theoretical opportunity, but in the two months following our last title covered (Super Burnout) there will only be five games released for the Jag. For comparison, even the 3DO saw nine games during that same time period, nearly twice as many, and that console wasn't doing too much better by mid-1995. Still, the prior five games covered last time were all good games, with some even being great games, so let's see if the Jag can continue that momentum right up until the launch of the PlayStation.

Something that the Jaguar has had a bit of a dearth of are puzzle games, with launch title Evolution: Dino Dudes (a.k.a. The Humans) being the sole example of the genre on the console up to this point, and even then that was more of a puzzle-platformer. In terms of "pure" puzzle games there would only be two released on the Jag, with the first one being FlipOut!, released on July 7, just two days after Super Burnout; it'd also receive an MS-DOS port in 1996, but only in Europe. One of the very first games ever developed by Gorilla Systems, a studio that would be known mainly for developing licensed IP titles (Barbie, Disney, etc.) & porting games to other hardware, FlipOut! is a tile-matching puzzle game that actually saw video game journalist Michael Price from Electronic Gaming Monthly work as a tester on the game, playing prototype builds & giving feedback & suggestions that he felt would help improve the game, which he'd later admit was developed on a low budget. Interestingly enough, Atari didn't actually publicly reveal FlipOut! until E3, just two months prior to release, so one has to wonder if the game was simply developed in secret until it was ready... or if Atari Coporation simply decided to toss it out ASAP just so there'd be two new games for the Jag in July, as the next game wouldn't come out until August. Guess there's only one way to find out...

FlipOut! is a bizarre game when it comes to presentation, as it focuses around weird little aliens going to nine different places as part of a "Great Tile Flipping Festival", including both other planets as well as Earth locations like Yellowstone National Park & Mount Rushmore, but the actual gameplay concept is simple enough. In short, your goal for any of the stages in the game is to match a number of things to their corresponding location of matching color by way of flipping them from their current location to a new one, swapping it with something that's already in the target location. However, there's always one more thing than the amount of locations you have, and you can't have two things occupying the same location, so each stage is a non-stop barrage of flipping things around until you have everything in their proper location & the extra trouble thing in mid-air, which ends the stage. I say "things", though, simply because every place you visit has its own set of things to flip, or at least location to occupy, whether it's tiles on a multi-colored mat, aliens on multi-colored water geysers, segments of the four presidents making up Mount Rushmore's iconic faces, etc.; that said, the game also often uses pairs of colors of slightly different shading, which can get confusing. Also potentially tripping things up are aliens that make trouble, whether they temporarily eat a tile & make it unusable until they've been flipped around enough times, graying out one of the presidents' face sections & making it unmovable, and other things like that. Admittedly, this results in FlipOut! being an interesting little puzzle game, as its constantly moving action due to the extra thing in each stage keeps things kinetic & forces you to multitask, while the hazard aliens' antics add a bit of improvisational work at times to adjust to something you weren't expecting; you can even save during the campaign, which is neat. However, the game does admittedly move at a bit of slow pace, and by that I mean a slower frame rate, which makes the game feel like it's moving in molasses a little bit & can occasionally result in an unregistered button press when you're trying to move fast. Overall, FlipOut! certainly isn't a bad game by any means & with so few puzzle games on the Jag it kind of becomes the best by default so far, but that doesn't mean that it's anywhere near one of the best games on the system; it's somewhere in the middle, to be fair.

As mentioned earlier, Super Burnout & FlipOut! would be the Jaguar's only new releases for July 1995, which wasn't great but it's not like the Saturn was really doing much better, to be perfectly honest. Speaking of the Saturn, Sega's new console would see its European launch on July 8 (one that was similarly as trickled with new releases as North America), while over in Japan later that same month Nintendo would launch the infamous Virtual Boy on July 21, a system so poorly marketed, released, & supported that even the Jag looked good in comparison at first... but the Virtual Boy would wind up selling ~3.4x more units than the Jaguar, despite only being officially supported for a literal year, tops!

Video games based on popular and/or new movies were still a really big thing in the 90s, but the Jaguar was always a low priority for them, with the console only ever seeing four (seven, if you include sports games with real names & brands, technically). Of those, we've seen the natural high of Alien vs. Predator rather early on, the middling average with Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, & drizzling ****s with Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls, and now we've reached the last Jaguar game to be based on a licensed IP, White Men Can't Jump. Released on August 1, 1995, this basketball game loosely based on the 1992 film starring Wesley Snipes & Woody Harrelson was actually the debut work for developer High Voltage Software, a company that would have a relatively strong presence in the this latter half of the Jag's life (developing five titles, one of which for the Jaguar CD, as well as some unreleased titles!) before going to develop the likes of Hunter: The Reckoning, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, The Conduit 1 & 2, & even the initial release of Zone of the Enders HD Collection; today, the studio is owned by gaming service company Keywords Studios, serving as one of its various developers. Meanwhile, the game was produced by Trimark Interactive, the short-lived gaming division of the now defunct Trimark Pictures, with this game being its penultimate release; Trimark's final game would be FMV rail shooter The Hive for Windows & PS1. As for White Men Can't Jump on the Jaguar, it's notable for two things: Being the game that introduced the Team Tap, which allowed four controllers to be hooked up (& would only ever be compatible with one other game, also basketball related)… and being considered one of the worst games of all time today, though back in the day the reception was more mixed. Considering some of the crap I've had to go through during this Jaguar journey so far, let's see how bad it actually is.

In terms of content, White Men Can't Jump a game of half-court basketball, which has its own rules, but is pretty barebones. Your only game modes are "VS. Mode" (a one-off game) & "Tournament", though in the Options you can choose between things like how scoring works (1 & 2 pointers vs. 2 & 3 pointers), choose between "Standard Play" vs. "Make it/Take It", & whether the ball changes hands on a fall; you can also choose a combination of if a game is timed (up to 15 minutes), score based (up to 21), or both. In terms of teams, you can pick from 15 pairs, each of which have their stats for shooting, "NRG" (i.e. energy/health), & speed, & select from four different venues (city, suburbia, park, or beach). As for the gameplay itself, it's more or less your standard arcade-style basketball game of the time & uses a three-button layout for passing/blocking, shooting/jumping, & a speed boost. Being half-court basketball you have certain rules to follow, namely walking the ball outside the three-point line after points have been made, but beyond that this game very much wants to feel like a variant of NBA Jam. Unfortunately, WMCJ is nowhere near NBA Jam's level, but at the same time I can't say that this is a terrible game, and it's status as one of the worst games of all time is very hyperbolic. Yes, the camera angle is often not all that great & is way too low, the constant string of messages that appear on screen is really dumb (though they can be turned off), the frame rate can be a bit rocky (even I can tell that it doesn't even consistently hit 30 fps), and I could never figure out how to do a slam dunk... but it's certainly not unplayable. The game of half-court basketball that White Men Can't Jump delivers is decent enough, though a little rough, but I imagine a four player game of this could have been an OK time back in the day, especially for Jag owners. Again, this game is nowhere near NBA Jam's level (& Jam itself would eventually appear on Jag, making this game more or less pointless in the end), but White Men Can't Jump on the Atari Jaguar is really more "meh" than "one of the worst games of all time".

Up next is an early example of a "cinematic platformer", and to some it's probably still one of the best: Flashback: The Quest for Identity. Designed by Paul Cuisset over at Delphine Software International, the same developer that had previously made √Čric Chahi's Another World/Out of this World, Flashback was originally developed with the Sega Genesis in mind, but wound up releasing first on Amiga computers in 1992. Over the next few years, Flashback would become one of those games that was ported to just about anything that could play it, including the Genesis, SNES, MS-DOS, & Acorn Archimedes in 1993 on cartridge or floppy disk, while CD-ROM versions would come out on Sega CD, 3DO, MS-DOS, Apple Macintosh, FM Towns, & even the CD-i throughout 1994 & 1995! In that regard, the Atari Jaguar port that saw release on August 9, 1995 by U.S. Gold (the first of only two Jag games released by the publisher) is definitely a bit of an odd duck, as it wound up being the final contemporary port of the game (it came out literally weeks prior to the release of the sequel, Fade to Black, for MS-DOS), yet it came after the enhanced CD-ROM versions, even including the same title screen as those versions, despite the game itself naturally being based on the older cartridge versions. Still, there's no denying that Flashback is considered an all-time classic today, with it receiving both a full-on remake in 2013 (of mixed quality, admittedly) & a brand new sequel planned for release later this year; it's also been re-released on all current consoles & hardware. So does the Jaguar port of Flashback at least act as a good "final" port of the era it originally came out in?

I'll make no bones about it: Flashback is a game that I have a massive amount of respect & appreciation for... but it's heavy reliance on trail-&-error-based gameplay, with very few checkpoints within its sprawling stages (there's literally only one in the first stage, and it's halfway through), makes it really hard to get into via one of its OG versions. In comparison, other cinematic platformers of its time, like Prince of Persia & Another World, are based around shorter stages or "scenes" that also require trial-&-error to figure out, but overall don't take as much time to get through (& in PoP's case has a literal timer for the entire game), so you at least feel like you're still making progress, bit by bit. However, I have absolutely no problem with Flashback's generally slower-paced gameplay, focus on figuring out solutions to situations before simply going straight to shooting your gun, & general overall feel, and in those regards the Jaguar port feels like Flashback, 100%. Despite being ported over by Tiertex, which was known for its generally subpar quality, this is one of their rare good releases, delivering a very solid port of a well beloved game, which isn't surprising since Tiertex had already previously ported Flashback to the 3DO, CD-i & SNES; by this point, the staff knew the game in & out. In fact, the Jaguar version seems to actually take some sort of advantage of the beefier hardware than the likes of the Genesis & SNES, as it seems to be the cartridge version with the least slowdown (the intro cinematic alone only really chugs in one section, and even then it's still not that bad), so while Cuisset himself feels that the Genesis version of Flashback is the best one of all, since that was the intended hardware, there could be an argument made that the Jaguar version might actually be one of the best overall versions. Unfortunately, Flashback on the Jag kind of always seemed like a port that was either too late to the party to really matter (again, Fade to Black was on the verge of release by this point), or has since been replaced by other, more convenient versions, like the ones on modern hardware (just make sure to turn off the smudgy visual filters first). I mean, when even the CD-i got a port beforehand you know priorities are all out of whack; had the Jag port come out a year prior, it likely would have meant more.

Five days after Flashback's release on the Jag, Nintendo would release the Virtual Boy in North America on August 14, the only other region to actually receive the console. Despite its absolute failure in either region, Nintendo of America would actually support the VB for longer than Nintendo of Japan did, as it wouldn't get discontinued until a whole year later in August of 1996, whereas Japan gave up on it before 1995 even came to a close, on December 22; yes, the Virtual Boy only lasted five whole months in Japan. So while the Jaguar wound up seeing longer overall support than the Virtual Boy... the Virtual Boy still sold better, which I'm sure didn't please Atari Corporation at all.

To be perfectly honest, I was absolutely looking forward to the day I finally reached this point in Prowling the Official Atari Jaguar Catalog, because this is easily my personal favorite game on the Jag, bar none. Originally founded in March of 1986, Ubi Soft Entertainment (back when the name was two words, meaning "Ubiquitous Software") first started off as small little studio, developing PC games like Zombi & Unreal (no, not that one) & acting as the European publisher for various other companies' games, something that the company would do for the majority of its first decade of life. In 1992, though, the Guillemot Brothers (the founders of Ubi Soft) were approached by some of the studio's devs with an idea thought up by animator Michel Ancel. The Guillemots liked the concept so much that they wound up founding a new development studio outside of Montpellier, France called Ubi Pictures (now Ubisoft Montpellier), and over the course of the next few years the game would become Rayman. Originally designed with the Atari ST in mind, Ancel later moved things over to the SNES-CD, and when it become obvious that add-on would never see release Ancel then decided to move development over to the Atari Jaguar. In fact, it's sometimes rumored that development on Rayman was actually mostly (if not fully) completed around late 1994 or so, but due to the Jag's poor sales Ubisoft decided to hold off on releasing it until late 1995, so that it could also see release as a launch title for the PlayStation in North America as a way to "beat" Japanese devs by having a platformer at launch that wasn't simply a port of a game that previously saw release. In the end, the Jaguar version technically came out first in Europe on September 1, while the PS1 version came out first in North America on September 7; Rayman was also the last Jaguar game to ever see release in Japan via Messe Sanoh. This rumor does hold some weight when you compare the Jag & PS1 versions of Rayman, as the PS1 version (like all later versions) features a bit more to it than the Jaguar version, including modified stage layouts, extra graphical details, completely redone music, & even some altered game mechanics, so is there even any reason to play Rayman on the Jaguar today?


Rayman is, without a doubt, one of the finest 2D platformers of its era, & it can even be argued that it's one of the finest 2D platformers ever made. The gameplay starts off simple, but as you progress your way through the stages (batched together into a smaller number of areas, which themselves are bunched together into a smaller number of various environments), Rayman will earn new abilities, like throwing his floating fist, using his hair as helicopter blades to float for a limited time, the ability to grab rings (& 1 Ups) for stage traversal, & finally running. Ancel & his team made sure that this advancement in Rayman's abilities across the first three environments feels natural, and once you get running you'll want to go right back to earlier areas, namely so that you can open up the Electoon cages you couldn't get to last time, as opening up all of the cages is needed to access the final environment. Considering that the Jaguar was the console that this final version of Rayman was designed around, it's no surprise that the console plays the game excellently, though there are rare moments where the frame rate will chug for a few seconds if the screen is just inundated with foes (which is rare), and the controls are simple but extremely effective & responsive; Rayman even keeps his ability to taunt after getting the ability to run, which wasn't guaranteed in all versions. As for how the Jag version differs from the PS1 & later versions, the biggest difference is in the music, which naturally can't be redbook audio like the CD versions that it was (supposedly) delayed for. Without a doubt, Jag Rayman's music isn't anywhere as good as the CD versions', but it's still a solid (if simple) score, with some of the same catchy songs in new/original renditions; there are also no voiced lines, as few as they were in the CD versions. Visually the game looks very much like the CD versions, though there are some differences in backgrounds & some missing animations on Rayman (he doesn't dance with the bosses after beating them, for example), but overall this is easily the most amazing looking 2D game released on cartridge at the time of release. This truly made the Jaguar feel like the "next-gen" console it was intended to be, and had Rayman possibly seen release as a (timed) Jag-exclusive in either late 1994 or early 1995 then it's possible that it could have sold the console to some extent, but by September of 1995 this version really felt more like a consolation prize for those who still owned a Jaguar, while the PS1 version was the actual "main" release; can't fault Ubi Soft for seemingly being hesitant, though, & Atari Corp should have made a deal with them.

Today, Rayman is a game with a multitude of versions to choose from (PS1, Saturn, MS-DOS, GBA, DSiWare, mobile), all of which are very similar to each other, minus some minor differences. However, Rayman for the Atari Jaguar, the "original" version, remains a somewhat unique version of the game to play. While the stages are overall the same, some Electoon cages are easier to come across, the music is a unique take on the iconic score, and it was the only cartridge-based version of the game until the GBA port in 2001; stages even all begin with "ACTION" on screen, which was removed from all later versions. In the long run, though, it's still a version only really meant to be played today by hardcore fans of this original game, one that launched Ubi Soft into the eventual behemoth it currently is now, but it's quality (& notorious difficulty) shines just as brightly as the more well known versions.

At the very least, you can't deny that
this is one awesome character select screen.

We end this part of the series with the Jag's fourth & penultimate fighting game, Ultra Vortek. Released on September 5 & originally titled "Ultra Vortex", Ultra Vortek was developed by Beyond Games, a studio that had previously only made 1993's BattleWheels for the Atari Lynx, a game that impressed Atari Corporation so much that it brought the studio on as one of the earliest third-party devs to work on the Jaguar; Beyond Games would go out of business after 2002, but staff would later found Smart Bomb Interactive, now WildWorks. While the initial plan was to make a new BattleWheels, it was Atari that asked for Beyond to make a fighting game, and the studio eventually decided to go with digitized actors in place of traditional sprite work, ala Mortal Kombat, though some characters were made using pre-rendered 3D models & even stop-motion. Originally intended to be released in December 1994, Ultra Vortek went through many delays, partly due to the game eventually being intended to act as the launch title for the Jaguar Voice Modem, a device that would answer phone calls, store up to 18 phone numbers, & even allow direct-dial online play between two Jaguars, similar to the later Sega Saturn Net Link, which came out in late 1996. Unfortunately, the Voice Modem never went into mass production, as only around 100 units ever got produced, & Ultra Vortek wound up being the only game to ever support it (simply press 9-1-1 on the keypad at the title screen); astonishingly enough, this wouldn't be the only Jaguar game to support an unreleased peripheral. Beyond Games also started work on an Atari Lynx version, as Atari Corp was hoping to relaunch the Lynx if the Jaguar did well, but never got completed; Songbird Productions would eventually buy the rights to that version, renaming it Ultravore. Sadly, fighting games have been a massive let down for the Jag up to this point (& the only remaining one won't be much different), so can Ultra Vortek at least be the Jag's best fighting game, even if that's not exactly a hard thing to do?

The most direct comparison one can make to Ultra Vortek when it comes to fighting games on the Jag is Kasumi Ninja, and in that regard Ultra Vortek is the better game, by leagues & miles. While there is still a little bit of stiffness to the controls, Beyond Games' title simply plays better with a more intuitive control scheme (three attack buttons & more traditional inputs for special moves), the characters are honestly more interesting than Hand Made Software's roster (& you even get access to everyone except for the boss, The Guardian, right away!), and overall there is just more polish to Ultra Vortek than what was seen in Kasumi Ninja. However, Ultra Vortek's biggest problem is that it very much still copied the style & feel of the original Mortal Kombat, which by this point was three years old (& Vortek came out in between MK3 & Ultimate MK3's releases in arcades), and that instantly limits how much you can really get out of the combat; remember, MK3 was at one point announced for the Jag. There isn't really much you can do in terms of combos, there's no chip damage when blocking, hit & block stun don't last enough to feel relevant, and getting hit while in the air is wildly inconsistent, as I saw numerous times where someone (either me or the CPU) got hit in mid-air, only for the character to simply act like nothing had happened. The "Annhilations" are also nothing more than decent, though there are "Poopalities", where your opponent gets turned into literal feces, so I guess that's something? Simply put, come the last quarter of 1995 the fighting game genre had evolved by leaps & bounds, and it doesn't seem like Beyond Games were able to keep up, in that regard. However, I can't exactly say that Ultra Vortek is a bad fighting game, as I do feel that there was some potential within that simply wasn't fully realized here, and maybe if Beyond had been able to give it a second chance a sequel could have been more than decent; I mean, Beyond owned the rights to the game, not Atari.

Also... the character Lucius (who's essentially a fusion of Raiden & Nightwolf) is just utterly overpowered, as his Hawk Attack & Teleport specials are both insanely easy to pull off, and completely invincible when in the middle of. Had an "Ultra Vortek 2" ever been made, I imagine Lucius would have been heavily toned down, because he's kind of busted here.

Got to love how White Men Can't Jump's cover still lists "1 or 2 Players",
despite it being the game that literally introduced 4 player support.

While the chances of this next batch of releases for the Atari Jaguar actually matching up to the sheer quality we had last time were slim, what we got in this third part of 1995 actually wasn't terrible, on the whole. While titles like Flashback & Rayman are legit classics, and are both very well done on the Jag, FlipOut! honestly isn't a bad little puzzle game (though the low frame rate hurts it), White Men Can't Jump honestly isn't anywhere near as bad as its reputation precedes it (though it's admittedly nothing more than "meh", overall), & Ultra Vortek is a game that was simply too late to the party, in terms of mechanics, but certainly had potential to be better; it may very well be the Jag's best fighting game, by default. Regardless, Atari Corporation still couldn't really take advantage of the opening that Sega's poor launch of the Saturn had given them, effectively pulling a Shaq or Wilt Chamberlain & throwing bricks when given free throws (fitting metaphor, for this part). Now it's Sony's time to enter the North American video game market as a first-party hardware provider... and things will never (EVER!) be the same a-gain.

Next Time: The Sony PlayStation has arrived in North America... and the Atari Jaguar is not E for what it brings to the table, even with the Jaguar CD finally "good" to go. Not just that, but behind the scenes Atari Corporation is ready to effectively throw in the towel for their "64-bit" console, though games are still ready to ship. Will these games at least keep Jag owners pleased, even if the chances of there being new owners are now pretty much zilch?

*All in-game screens sourced from AtariAge*

FlipOut! © 1995 Gorilla Systems Corporation
White Men Can't Jump © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (now 20th Century Studios, Inc.)
Flashback © 1993 1994 Paul Cuisset
Rayman © 1995 Ubisoft Entertainment, Inc.
Ultra Vortek © 1995 Beyond Games, Inc.

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