Quake (1997, Lobotomy Software for Sega Saturn)

Thank God for Lobotomy Software. Ezra Dreisbach was a programming genius on the Saturn. Powerslave and Duke Nukem 3D are two of the finest first-person shooters of the Fifth Generation, and provided Saturn with desperately needed credibility with 3D polygon graphics. Quake is the final installment of the trilogy, and also its masterpiece.

One has to be forgiving when playing FPS videogames from that era, as technology has grown by leaps and bounds ever since. If you demand 60 fps and dual-analog controls (or PC keyboard-mouse controls), you’re going to have a rough time. You must make your peace with the limitations of the era, which means 10-20 frames-per-second and single-analog controller. It’s really not that difficult; you played the hell out of Goldeneye and never once complained. You’ll be fine.

The Saturn 3D controller is quite excellent for this game, featuring a very comfortable and responsive analog stick and analog triggers that allow you to sneak along Quake’s dark caverns, shadowy castles and monster-infested dungeons. Movement is swift and precise, and I manage to navigate fairly easily, dispatching grunts and dogs and hideous creepy things. Mind you, I also find myself quickly outgunned just as quickly, but I have nobody else to blame but myself.

By late 1997 standards, Saturn Quake is a minor miracle. Its polygon graphics, complex architectural and level designs, and copious amounts of impressive lighting effects push the hardware to its limits. These worlds are dark, rusty, gritty and brutally violent. It’s all such a wonderful nightmare, and it is to the game’s credit that this visual style works so well. Quake on Nintendo 64 may be “more powerful,” but it doesn’t look nearly as convincing. That game is like a Disneyland kiddie ride compared to Lobotomy’s translation.

What really wows me are the lighting effects. I tried to show a few examples in my screenshots, from the building lights to flickering candlelights to the orange flash of your machine guns. A special armor power-up paints the nearby environments in a harsh blue light. Underwater passageways are painted in green shade. Hidden hazmat suits paint everything in a green filter. The illuminated fireballs in Powerslave and flashing explosions in Duke Nukem seem primitive by comparison. I like the way Saturn handles lighting effects. It’s nowhere as smooth and refined as the lighting effects seen on Sony Playstation, but it’s never as gaudy, either. It fits a game like Quake perfectly.

As I’ve already hinted at, Quake is very challenging and difficult. Stealth and strategy are required survival skills. If you go barreling into rooms like it’s Doom, you’re going to be cut down very quickly. You will also need to find the many secret rooms to uncover badly-needed armor and weapon upgrades. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, I have to fight tooth and nail for every square inch. You’re not going to become bored with this videogame anytime soon.

For many years, I have often said that Sega Saturn needed another year or two on the market, especially in the West. By late 1997 and early 1998, programmers were finally beginning to truly master the hardware, resulting in an amazing string of high quality hits. Could Saturn have reached the heights seen on the Playstation in games like Ridge Racer 4, Tony Hawk Pro Skater, Spyro the Dragon and Metal Gear Solid? Probably not. But Sega might have kept things close, and they might have surprised us. The legendary Shenmue demo offers this very promise. Whether this notoriously complicated console could finally deliver on those promises will remain an unsolved mystery.

We all know that Saturn was an enormously, and needlessly, complicated beast, but one thing has always fascinated me. Nearly every programmer who worked with the machine hated working on it. But what have they done since then? What has Ezra Dreisbach done in the last 20 years? What has Yu Suzuki or Yuji Naka done since Sega Dreamcast died? What ever happened to Game Arts, Tecmo, Technosoft? Adversity creates art. Plenty creates complacence. Hand a painter only a dozen colors and watch them create the Mona Lisa. Hand that same painter a thousand colors and what does that produce? Velvet Elvis and cuckoo clocks.

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