Powerslave (1996, Lobotomy Software for Sega Saturn)

Powerslave is a towering masterpiece, a thrilling spectacle of action, adventure and atmosphere that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. It is a visual showcase for the Sega Saturn’s 3D polygon powers, just as these new immersive worlds were beginning to overwhelm the gaming world, led by Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider and Quake. It is endlessly challenging in its quest, loaded with monsters to battle, worlds to explore and secrets to unlock. It includes a bonus mini-game that became a cult favorite in its own right. And it beat a certain beloved Nintendo franchise title to the punch by eight years.

That it was all but ignored in the West and especially the United States is nothing less than criminal. Most of the major gaming magzines ignored it entirely. Gamespot’s Jeff Gerstmann wrote an infamous review that dismissed Powerslave as “Doom with a plot (sort of), a few camels, and the proverbial mother lode of jumping spiders. Yawn.” Only Richard Ledbetter, editor of UK’s Sega Saturn Magazine, championed this title at every opportunity, for which Lobotomy Software, the developers, were eternally grateful.

Powerslave (known as Exhumed in the UK and Seireki 1999: Pharaoh no Fukkatsu in Japan) puts you in the shoes of a mercenary who is dropped into the heart of Egypt, where you discover the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses. His ghost appears and instructs you to seek out his exhumed body and a number of holy relics which were stolen by a hostile alien force, then sets you on your quest to the neighboring villages, ruins and catacombs. You are first armed with a sword but quickly find a pistol, and during your journeys will discover a machine gun, bombs, flamethrowers and other power-ups. These weapons become part of your permanent arsenal, meaning that if you perish, you will respawn with the same weapons intact. This is a welcome change of pace from similar first-person shooters of its era.

The stages at first appear in a linear fashion, but you will immediately notice certain areas and platforms that you cannot reach, such as health and weapons upgrades. Some areas also include deep waterways that cannot be crossed. Every Super Mario veteran knows that something must lie on the other side, and surely enough, your character receives wardrobe upgrades that allow you to jump higher, float to the ground and breathe underwater. It is at this point that you realize the game world is non-linear and considerably more complex than you first realized. “Doom with spiders” this is not. When I discovered the magic sandals, I had already ventured through my third stage, uncovering a number of keys to specific doors, battled spiders, birds, mummies and Egyptian bird-men who hurled blue fireballs at me. Now I was able to take a giant leap across a large chasm in a previous stage, and I found myself jumping everywhere in search of new hidden platforms.

The level designs are nothing short of breathtaking, especially by 1996 standards. How quickly we forget that Quake was hailed as a technical marvel with its fully realized 3D worlds which were a step above Doom’s sophisticated 2D bitmaps. Yet here is Lobotomy doing much the same with their celebrated Slave Driver engine. These worlds are fully polygonal with extensive use of 3D space. This is shown not only in the long cavernous drops and narrow bridges, but the secret underwater caverns and mountain passageways. One location takes place along a series of tall mountains and hills where you must constantly jump up tall steps and across deep ravines, all while dodging lava lakes, deadly fireballs and rolling boulders. One almost expects to find Donkey Kong throwing barrels at you at some point.

Powerslave’s graphics blaze by at 30 frames-per-second, only slowing down in occasional moments where the screen is crowded with enemies or when navigating through large expansive areas. The pacing is far faster and movement more liquid than Quake, which takes a methodical, strategic approach while pushing Sega Saturn to its limits with all-polygon graphics. Here, the enemies and objects are all 2D sprites, which helps to keep the speed fairly high. Your character bobs and weaves with ease, and you can maneuver your way around any situation, especially with the 3D controller’s analog features which was very welcome.

Even more impressive are the realtime lighting and shading effects, which not only includes outdoor light and shade, but indoor flames that illuminate a short distance in the darkness. Pottery and jars will briefly shine as they’re destroyed, and explosive barrels will set off a chain reaction of fireworks. The hulking Egyptian bird-men with the fireballs are always a favorite, as the surrounding walls are lit in shades of red, orange and purple. More than any other title in the system’s library to that point, Powerslave puts to bed the notion that Sega Saturn “can’t do 3D,” a cruel and lazy stereotype that haunted Sega from day one. Of course this machine can “doo three dee.” Here’s the proof.

Of course, what makes Powerslave a classic is its gameplay, not its graphics. The level designs are far closer to Mario and Lara Croft than typical FPS games, especially with the non-linear structure, quest for and extensive platforming jumps, as well as those item upgrades that allow access into previously hidden zones and hidden transmitter pieces that are required to reach the best ending. And what videogame immediately comes to mind when we mention such things? None other than Nintendo’s Metroid. When you really get down to brass tacks, Powerslave is an Egyptian-themed 3D Metroid. Indeed, when Nintendo and Retro Studios created the 3D Metroid Prime, Sega Saturn fans would have every reason to feel a strong case of deja-vu, and maybe a small bit of satisfaction.

Finally, there is one more bonus feature that elevates Powerslave to the level of genius: the team dolls. These are Egyptian dolls that feature the digitized faces of the Lobotomy developers and are all hidden throughout the game world, greatly enhancing the replay value. There are no overt clues to alert where to find them, only through trial-and-error or extreme violence will you uncover them. Uncover all 23 dolls, and you will unlock two new features: Lobo Flight and Death Tank. Lobo Flight gives you the ability to fly, allowing you to explore every nook and cranny of the world without fear of falling. Death Tank is a simple yet brilliant mini-game where two tanks climb across mountains and lob missiles at one another. It even features a crudely drawn title screen and the voice of a small child that always leaves me laughing. It should be snuck into other videogames and movies as an Easter Egg, like the Wilhelm Scream, just to see if anybody is paying attention. Lobotomy later introduced an expanded version called Death Tank Zwei with Duke Nukem 3D and Quake, which has since become a cult classic.

There was an effort a few years ago to recreate Powerslave for the PC using modern technology. I certainly applaud the effort, but I must admit that I prefer the look of the Saturn original. I love its visuals, which are slightly chunky in that 240p sort of way, its rich color palette and detailed textures, its superb lighting effects that couldn’t be reproduced in the (radically different) PC version, the rolling waves and transparent water effects that only work when you’re using RF or Composite cables. It’s like the artists drew with a slightly thicker paintbrush which adds to the impressionist designs. If you draw with too fine a brush, you lose the essence of the piece, its emotion and excitement. You lose part of what made the original so magical, which was its ability to inspire the imagination. Videogames always work best when they’re slightly abstract. Photorealism kills all the mystery and all the romance.

Outstanding, magnificent work. Get your hands on this videogame by any means necessary.

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