Thursday, October 14, 2010

Potentially Frightening Halloween Games: Hysteria Project

It’s been a long time since Sega took on the Nintendo juggernaut and, for a fleeting while, was beating the Home of The Plumbers at its own game. However, it wasn’t enough for Sega to simply win; they wanted to obliterate the Big N and capture the love and money of the gaming masses. But greed and hubris often lead to bad decisions, and the Sega of the mid-‘90s was chockfull of them.

The poor judgments and marketing missteps all began with something that had boundless potential when it was first released to American audiences in October of 1992: The Sega CD, also known as the Mega CD in Europe and Japan. Instead of crafting expanded worlds or delivering fresh, exciting experiences to hungry gamers, Sega focused on “full motion video” games, which were supposed to be like playing a movie; yet they were little more than exercises in timed button presses and choosing an action at random, then watching the results play out in grainy, postage-stamp sized video.

The FMV “craze” petered out nearly as quickly as it started, but producers like Digital Pictures – with plenty of games still in the pipeline – kept shoveling more FMV titles on an already saturated market. Sega CD became typecast as an FMV machine and died a slow death, breathing its last in early 1996 and virtually taking the FMV genre with it.

This... looks frighteningly like an FMV game title screen.

I say “virtually” because earlier this year, Sanuk Games unleashed the PSN and iPod/iPhone title Hysteria Project, giving longtime gamers flashbacks to how those tear stains appeared on the manuals of so many of their Sega CDs. Apparently the men and women of Sanuk Games have never heard of FMV clunkers like Ground Zero Texas, Supreme Warrior, and the granddaddy of them all, Night Trap, as evidenced by their description of the game: “Recommended for fans of new experiences and thrill-seekers.”

If by “new experiences” they mean the same repetitive, frustrating dreck I pumped hundreds of hours into through middle school and even high school when I was feeling an odd combination of nostalgia and masochism, then yes, Hysteria Project is a new experience.

Despite what this looks like, I didn't drop my camera in the woods and accidentally take a picture.
This is an actual Hysteria Project screen shot.

Your character begins in someone’s shed, inconveniently built in a desolate forest about 90 miles from his home. Our nameless flannel-wearing hero, who I’ve dubbed “Untitled,” has been bound at the hands and feet with duct tape by a man in a black hoodie who is never without an axe; I guess he must be a lumberjack or something. Then the pixilated video stops playing for a moment, giving you a Choose Your Own Adventure style set of options: Either try to remove the tape or look around the cabin. Once you make your choice, a few more seconds of YouTube-quality video show the outcome.

"If you think Untitled should search the pile of leaves, turn to page 72."

Eventually, Untitled escapes from the shed and right into unused footage from The Blair Witch Project. Like Jason Voorhees, The Lumberjack can teleport at will and is always behind or in front of Untitled, causing him to shake his camera like a freshman video student. You’ll spend the majority of your time prancing about the woods, avoiding The Lumberjack because he has a habit of mistaking you for firewood. If Untitled does something stupid and gets himself whacked, you can retry as many times as you need – at the cost of overdosing on the movie clip that comes right before where you lost. Sometimes you’ll be required to make a few timed button presses, just like the 1994 Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers game on Sega CD. It is a thrilling new experience.

Disembodied hands = 80 percent of Hysteria Project.

And that’s the entire game. I literally finished it in less than half an hour, which makes the beginning screen that warns players to take a break after every hour of play kind of unnecessary. Considering Hysteria Project is labeled as a “PlayStation Mini” on PSN and cost me a grand total of $2.15 after tax, I wasn’t really expecting an epic along the lines of Final Fantasy XII, Dragon Warrior VII or David Robinson’s Supreme Court. But what’s inexcusable is that the game ends smack-dab in the middle of the action with a “to be continued” substituted for actually gameplay. There’s no indication anywhere in the description that what I purchased is not a full game or is episodic in nature.

I liked this game better when it was called Wirehead. At least there was a touch of primitive humor and a boatload of variety. Wiredhead begins in a house and can wind up with the main character skateboarding down a rural main street, hopping on an airplane, or even wrestling a grizzly bear. It sucked, but it sucked with a few ounces of charm.

It wouldn’t be fair of me to rake Hysteria Project over the blazing hot coals of gaming ire without pointing out that it features some appropriately atmospheric music and a genuine-if-mild sense of dread for the first two minutes of Untitled’s mad dash to freedom. Ironically, the game’s bite-sized scares can be attributed to the fact that it’s an FMV game and, therefore, the player has almost no control over the action. Just like in a Michael Myers flick, all you can do is watch helplessly as the guy on screen gets stalked and slaughtered. But unlike the movies, in Hysteria Project, you’re the one to blame. (Although I could go into a tirade about how movies wouldn’t exist if there was no one paying to see them – supply and demand and all the jazz – so it sort of is the viewer’s fault in a way. But that’s for another day.)

I'm waiting for Untitled to turn the camera on himself and start talking about how he's "so scared."

When I’m making a sale at AMERICA’S NUMBER ONE ELECTRONICS DEALER, Best Buy®, instead of a boring job like teaching English to students in 7th to 12th grade or reporting on local theater, I always like to throw in the fact that I’m not getting commission. It helps to gain a customer’s TRUST. By that token, I think now’s a good time to tell you that I love the Sega CD console, even the crappy FMV games. But that’s only because it was a snapshot of a burgeoning industry and a monument to Sega’s overconfidence and laziness at that time. Playing an FMV title on anything but my trusty/rusty Sega CD is kind of like a Nightmare on Elm Street movie starring Richard Simmons; no one goes to see a Nightmare flick for anything but the Bastard Child of a Thousand Maniacs himself, Mr. Krueger. Otherwise you get an empty experience that makes you yearn for the comfortable mediocrity you’ve come to expect.

"He's inside of me, Grady!"
In a way, one might trace Sega’s decade-plus long woes back to its reliance on FMV games. The Sega CD was the first in a long line of consoles that eroded customer confidence in Sonic the Hedgehog’s headquarters, and full motion video was a major culprit. While I hardly think that one cheap, downloadable FMV game will be enough to bankrupt Sanuk Games, I think the fact that Hysteria Project hasn’t seen its continuation in the six months since its release certainly doesn’t bode well. I can’t recommend this game as a must-play title, but with a price tag of $2, there’s not much to lose if you find that you’d rather be playing strip Uno with your card-counting cheater of a cousin than even thinking of Hysteria Project. The curious should download it, but know that you’re much better off grabbing your FMV fix from Double Switch, Prize Fighter or any of the other 12 million Sega CD titles that are probably just as inexpensive at your local pawn shop.

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