With the impending release of StarFox Zero for the WiiU, I’m keen to review that one once I get it and spend some time on it, however those of you that visit the blog don’t really come here for my thoughts on Nintendo or most other company game products. Most readers are here for the Atari stuff so I feel it is prudent to do another Gems of the Jaguar, this time concerning a game series for the Atari Jaguar that was Atari’s ‘response‘ of sorts to Nintendo’s StarFox.
I recall the hype for StarFox rather well. There were other games on the SNES that were popular and gained notoriety but at least in my neighborhood and school, when SF came out, it’s all everyone talked about. I think a lot of us thought that it was the first 3D game to come along, ignoring various other titles since Atari’s I,Robot that had used filled 3D polygons to make the graphics. Still, for a “16-bit” console like the SNES, it was different. At the time, Atari was prepping their “64-bit” console the Jaguar and as it would work out, they decided to use a 3rd party game by the name of Cybermorph to be the pack-in title for the system. That had been in development for their 32-bit Panther console that was never released; if Atari had the money then the Jaguar could have come along closer to 1992 but as fate had it, Cybermorph wouldn’t get its chance until late 1993.
Some Quick CyberMorph Talk
From a technical standpoint, CyberMorph was a great title to start the system off with. From a game standpoint…well…it wasn’t Trevor McFur at least. CyberMorph showed that the console could do 3D without any extra chip, like StarFox needed with the SuperFX, and do it better. I’ve seen some critics claim that StarFox looked better but you can only believe that if you have fanboy glasses on. CyberMorph was a showcase in gouraud shaded polygons – a step up in detail from flat shaded polygons but below texture mapped objects. With 50 levels, there was a lot more to explore than your typical 4-8 level 2D game and it was open world to boot. They didn’t really tout it as an open world at the time as the buzzword back then was “off-rails”. It also showed off high-color graphics(way above StarFox), Z-buffered objects (the console had hardware Z-buffering, which is standard today), dynamic 3D morphing and multi-angle lighting effects (just spin donuts with your ship in CM and you’ll see what I mean). The keypad on the Jaguar was used to change camera angles and it is clear that they were experimenting with the ability to move the camera here since some of those angles are pointless. But to be fair, the idea of the camera changing on the fly like this wasn’t something that developers had a lot of experience with in 1993, much less players. Top that off with a higher frame rate than SF (although not 60fps perfect) and technically speaking, CM easily trumps SF. CM also had high-quality voice acting but sadly no music, thus hitting a similar problem found with Trevor McFur.
As they play though, CM is more about exploration with some shooting while StarFox is more of a fast-paced shooter/shmup that would have been fine in arcades at the time. At the end of the day, players at large found StarFox’s style more to their liking as unfortunately for CyberMorph, most missions just involved exploring these somewhat desolate planets for pods; get a certain number of pods and the exit opens is the main objective for every level minus the boss battles. Sometimes you did have to deactivate shield generators to get to the pods or figure out warp gates to reach them and there were some interesting enemies but it needed a bit more variety in the objectives area to really stand out. For many players, all they really remembered from CM was “Where did you learn to fly?” as they would fly into a mountainside and not understand how reverse worked (it was very easy but again, people were not used to playing open world 3D at this point). Obviously the crafting quality and game style that went into StarFox was above CyberMorph allowed it to gain popularity
The Jaguar CD
Now around the time of the console’s release, Atari was already developing a CD add-on for the Jaguar system. There was some consideration of launching it as a CD-only console at first however that was nixed since it would have made it too expensive (ala the 3DO, which launched for around $700 about the same time as the Jaguar). The Jaguar CD was launched in the latter half of 1995 and only racked up 11 game releases before the Jaguar itself was canned and Atari was sold to a hard drive company until Hasbro picked up the property a few years after that. Two of those games were actually pack-in titles to boot. Among the small library, Hover Strike Unconquered Lands was the only release that provided a “remake” of the cartridge version to show the improvements the CD could offer. Iron Soldier 2 and World Tour Racing were released by Telegames a few years later which also showed improvements that could be made (in the case of IS2, it was a sequel to a cart game; World Tour Racing was original but a good ‘response’ to the hated Checkered Flag). It should be noted that many games were in development for the CD overall. It’s hard to see how much would have turned the tide though.
Instead of calling it CyberMorph 2, developer ATD and Atari named the CM sequel BattleMorph. It would be the only true sequel released to the Jaguar CD during the console’s active selling life, Iron Soldier 2 would come later after Atari had already closed up the Jag shop.
BattleMorph took the basic CyberMorph formula and built on it considerably. You still had gourad shading but the effect was much smoother and at a higher resolution; instead of sudden pop-up on the landscape, the game would smoothly draw everything in (although the draw distance was a little short…guess they should have used N64 fog to hide it 😛 ) ; some texture mapping was now used for certain objects including the thruster on player’s ship, the War Griffon, as well as some enemies, power-ups, portals, rooms and buildings; water is animated; more destructible objects were placed into the game and polygon amounts were increased; and actual background is placed into each level instead of gradient shading; there is music now and it was excellent in quality; there were expected FMV cinematics to help tell the story; better detailed planet selection screens; a map function; and most impressive of all was the seamless switching of areas and graphics on the fly.
To explain this last technical feature, BM has numerous lakes or tunnels that you can go into to explore. When you fly just above the water it would produce a splashing effect but the moment you would go below the surface, the music and the graphics would change without a pause. Being that this was a CD game, that was impressive. For underwater areas, the whole screen would have a wavy effect to simulate you being underwater and of course your ship morphs into a new shape. There is no slowdown when this happens so you can go up and down along the surface as much as you want with these changes happening instantly. For tunnels, it would instantly switch you into first person view, also changing the music right away.
The most welcome aspect of BattleMorph however is that they also expanded on the play formula to go beyond just collecting pods. Yes, there are still some missions where you have to find cube shaped pods (whether to ‘uncover enemy plans’ or build a new weapon) but they have missions for doing things like destroying a military HQ building or launch base, manipulating electrical circuits to deactivate shields, destroy communications dishes to disrupt the enemy network or find and set off a certain number of detonators to blow up a whole planet, etc. With variety in place, this makes the game more enjoyable to play through. Another aspect that they addressed in BattleMorph is providing “hint pods” near your beginning portal on each level, which helps you know what to look for. It’s a nice tutorial touch that doesn’t get condescending.
The worlds in BattleMorph feel larger, which is partly due to the underwater and tunnel portions. The tunnels give the game a mini-FPS feel to it, almost like a very smooth and full 3D Wolfenstien as you do not really go up/down just side to side (they do fool you though by making some of the tunnels go up and down sligtly). Not only that but when you come across blue, yellow or red keys, those are used to unlock doors you find in the tunnels – just like keycards in Doom. The only aspect of the tunnels that can be odd is that the textures to not have perspective correcting – something that the Jaguar could handle when you look at the excellent textures in Hover Strike CD (which were both mip-mapped and perspective corrected).
They also did some interesting things with the water – there is more than one type of water in the game that affects your ship. The blue lakes you come across are typical water but you sometimes come across light-blue (heals your ships energy while you are submerged), yellow (you move faster while submerged) and red (acid; drains your energy while submerged) liquids. There are a few levels designed to take advantage of the effects that these liquids provide, such as swimming through yellow water to reach the end level portal quicker when a countdown is on. Although the last level is the worst since it makes plentiful use of the acid…but it is beatable!
The music also makes exploring and playing through so many levels a better experience – had CM used a similar soundtrack I imagine it would have felt less monotonous. Your female AI, Skylar, is a little more subdued in BM, not chiding you all the time in case you run into walls and they have a Sean Connery sound-a-like to narrate the FMV and game/level menus.
One really nice touch that was found in this was the existence of a hidden “Funny Mode”. By entering A_NAME into the username file, several aspects of the game change including your HUD which shows fuzzy dice and some other things; Skylar also sounds like a goofball. Blue Lightning also had a comedy mode; Highlander had a cheat that was basically comedy mode as you gained a chicken weapon that would make a ‘boing’ sound every time you hit an enemy with it. More modern games need light-hearted comedy modes.
Overall: Battlemorph is a perfect example of how a sequel can build upon an original concept although admittedly this was a case of the first title needing more work and polish so it wasn’t too difficult to improve on. When I see all of these re-imaginings of an old game concept in a modern engine like Unreal 4, I long to see a Jaguar game like BattleMorph get that treatment but it’s unlikely that an obscure game like this would get that much attention for it. I would also be happy with a sequel to the series although the open world ideas that CyberMorph and BattleMorph pioneered have been fleshed out by many other games since, making it less likely that anyone wants to revisit the series.
What do you like about BattleMorph?