SeaQuest DSV

Genre: Action/Strategy Developer: Sculptured Software Publisher: THQ Players: 1 Release: 1994

I was surprised when I found SeaQuest DSV as a Genesis title that I didn’t recognize or remember anyone mentioning. I didn’t know what to expect. My first impressions were good, mainly that the graphics were advanced, and fairly unique in the Genesis library.  This is one of the few Genesis games that heavily emphasized pre-rendered 3D-style graphics. And while such graphics were typically used with a cartoon art style, like Sonic 3D Blast, VectorMan, and Donkey Kong Country, SeaQuest DSV instead seems to be striving for cold, hard realism!

The title screen showed a watery, rippling reflection of the logo, and if we didn’t press start, we’d see some slightly-animated cut scenes explaining the plot.  The cut scenes were shown as if they were on a computer screen; everything looked good and seemed to be shooting for photo-realism. Basically, some bad guy wanted to destroy everything, so he brought a sub to an underwater base and shot missiles at it.  

Once we started, we were plunged into the isometric ocean with pre-rendered sprites for all the sea craft. It almost looked like real 3D graphics. Screen shots can’t do it justice because it was the movements of the sprites that showed off their pre-rendered models, as they smoothly, fluidly rotated through many, many frames of animation, showing the craft from all different angles. I attempted to count how many frames of animation went into turning our sub around. I was only going by my eyes while tapping the D-pad lightly to tease out each frame. As far as I could see, a full rotation of the sub went through sixty-four frames of animation! That means we had 64 different perspectives on our sub, and it also means our sub could move in 64 different directions! It gave quite a convincing illusion of real 3D models, and real 3D movement. These might be the most frames of animation for the rotation of any sprites, anywhere in the entire Genesis library. The various sea craft (in the isometric world) even had 3D-style distortion, with their sides facing the camera drawn bigger than the parts facing away, and we saw this whenever the craft turns.

It turns out that SeaQuest DSV is based on a TV show that I had never heard of that aired on NBC from 1993-1996 and was intended as an ocean-themed equivalent of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Since it was a live-action show, it helps explain why the cartridge graphics are so realistic. However, if we read the text, we see that the gameplay did not represent real-life action. Rather, this title always showed the interface of an advanced computer, and the gameplay was all just supposed to be a simulation on that computer. This premise is interesting because it explains why the graphics were advanced but not quite the live-action of the TV show. Also, this premise does the trick of technically removing all violence because it doesn’t count if it’s all supposed to be a computer simulation!  

The gameplay grew on me the more I explored, and SeaQuest DSV was fun to mess around with, even before we got the hang of it. We could always shoot at everything and blow everything up, from every sea craft in sight to all those futuristic buildings on the seafloor. Each small battle was fun. Mainly we just needed to maneuver around enemies’ gunfire, while aiming our own guns or missiles at them. It was fairly basic gameplay, but the pseudo-3D made it seem like a unique experience. Our sub was stronger than the enemies around us, so we didn’t have to worry about engaging in these shootouts. A total beginner could probably survive at least a few shoot outs in a row, even before getting a grip on the controls.

And the controls should work fine, if we could get used to them. The D-pad turned the sub left and right, and regardless what direction it was facing the sub moved forward when we pressed up and moved backwards when we pressed down. Interestingly, C let us move up and down vertically, down to the seafloor, or up above it (which helped the sense of three-dimensional space and the vertical movement was sometimes needed to maneuver over rocks, but it didn’t seem to help for avoiding enemies or gunfire). The sub also had momentum from all of its movements, so the controls were responsive but with a definite learning curve. A and B both used weapons of our choice out of a few that we started with that we could change on the pause screen. We basically had the choice of a few guns and missiles of different strengths and different amounts (we had more of the weaker weapons and less of the stronger weapons). The A button started off with missiles, while B started with a gun that shot out from the back of our sub. I can see what they were going for, but the backwards shot always seemed awkward and impractical, at least to me. So, a good pro tip was to switch B to a forward-shooting gun, so you could shoot a nice double attack of missiles and bullets in front of the sub, which was more useful and fun. The pause menu was a grid of small images that looked like small windows on the futuristic computer screen. One part of the pause menu was the choice of character to play as for each 2D stage. Our sub could release one of five different robots into each 2D stage, plus an actual dolphin who was apparently the TV show’s unofficial mascot – a super-intelligent, talking dolphin.  

Altogether, we had seven different modes of gameplay. There was the smoothly-rotating sub of the isometric world, and in 2D, there was the dolphin “Darwin” and robots resembling a fish, a truck, an airplane, a probe, and a crab. Each choice had its own strengths and weaknesses for speed, weapons, and abilities (like being able to collect items, or not). Each of the seven gameplay modes also had its own unique controls, with none of them controlling quite how we’d expect, and none of them controlling the same. So, a big part of the gameplay experience, unfortunately, was just getting used to these seven different control schemes.

The 2D stages were interesting, as they allowed us to see how the isometric stages translate into 2D with murky water and parallax scrolling at the bottom of the ocean. It was vaguely similar to some of the environments in the Ecco series but with darker colors and the pre-rendered style. The details of the 2D backgrounds can often got lost in their own murky, dark colors. The 2D stages also brought the most frantic action, with swarms of enemy ships swimming and shooting everywhere. Unfortunately, our dolphin and five robots were very weak compared to these enemies, so it could be frustrating. The dolphin and robots could only die once, but we could buy more on the same screen where we selected them by just clicking the button to buy more. Our money came from completing certain tasks or missions, like collecting boxes of toxic waste or mining for minerals. Money also came from just destroying enemies, so we always had money to buy more robots as long as we were blowing up enemies. If the main sub ever exploded in the isometric world, however, it was game over. The sub had only one life. This must have been an attempt at realism, so welcome to reality; you had one life to live! However, if we then went to the password screen, it would automatically load up a password that marked our progress, and we could restart with the same progress. So, in effect, we had infinite continues as long as we visited the password screen.

The pre-rendered sprites looked great, in both 2D and pseudo-3D for our sub, dolphin, and robots, and also for the enemies. There was an ocean of different ships and machines to evade, chase, and shoot at, especially in the 2D stages. There were also natural sea creatures swimming around, which didn’t harm us, like fish, turtles, and whales. Even the creatures which seemed harmful still don’t harm us, like sharks, stingrays, and electric fish. These creatures were there just because it was the ocean, and we needed to avoid harming them because the game punished us by decreasing our money! The environments were mostly different shades of blue, outlined with black. It was minimalist, but it worked. A handful of colors were used for most of the sprites, especially shades of gray/silver, brown, and white. This worked well for metal machinery and sea-craft, although the living creatures also shared these colors. At first, I thought they were machines too! Beyond that were a few bright colors thrown in for small highlights, like the computer’s yellow and green text, while the isometric view showed green lights on the seafloor. Bright yellow was used for some explosions, although most explosions were blue (which made sense underwater). Small red lights glowed on top of buildings and on the seafloor. Altogether, it worked, as the dark colors fit for the bottom of the ocean with a few bright lights shining in the darkness. The enemies were also mysterious, lacking clear identities or clear reasons for their design, and I loved it because it was a convincing impression of unknown alien ships and machines. For example, one enemy resembled a red truck, and it was anyone’s guess why. Others resembled spaceships and underwater airplanes. We don’t even know if the enemies were just machines or if they were vehicles with living creatures inside.  (Of course, it was all supposed to be a computer sim, but besides that!)

The specific missions and goals were explained with messages that our computer received during gameplay. The bottom of the screen would occasionally show computer text, saying that we had a message. So, we paused and chose the icon for the computer that would have a new file of green text explaining our next goal. It was a cool premise that we were simulating an advanced computer on our Genesis, and we could even see the computer’s physical appearance with a pre-rendered dashboard of buttons and lights.

Unfortunately, even the most basic goals and missions generally seemed impossible because the 2D enemies were so much stronger than our robots (and our dolphin). For example, if the goal was to collect crates of toxic waste, we might get a few before our robot exploded from enemy gunfire. Such goals would bring us money, but we never seemed able to actually complete such objectives because we die too fast. Even if we sent two or three robots into the same 2D stage, we were unlikely to complete the goal entirely. (However, if we manage to bring the robots or dolphin back to the starting-point, we can return to the sub, and their health is regenerated, to try again. The enemies don’t seem to re-spawn in such cases.) If we lost all our robots and dolphins and ran out of money to buy more, we could always return to the isometric world and make money by destroying more enemies. This was rather easy in the isometric view, but there was usually a slow drain of life from the damage we sustained during these shootouts. There seemed to be no power-ups, but the sub’s health did regenerate slowly (in the isometric world) from the sub’s crew members slowly repairing it. So, there was another element of gameplay: We could choose to kill time to let our sub’s health bounce back. While the isometric world was fairly easy to survive a bunch of shootouts, the 2D stages were almost impossible to survive at all, and this was the fatal flaw of SeaQuest DSV. It was nearly impossible to make any progress, and this was probably why no one remembers this title, despite its decent graphics.  

The complexity of gameplay, and all its different aspects, created a convincing world to explore and a convincing responsibility of manning a sub with different missions and obligations to carry out. Unfortunately, the complexity also made this title very ill-suited to just pick up and play, because it would take a long time to figure out all the details and quirks and how to actually make any progress. There are some similarities to the Ecco series, especially in the 2D stages. And the Ecco series is known for its difficulty, but it’s less complicated than this, with more beautiful graphics and music, and with many more stages and environments to explore. SeaQuest seems to have about two dozen of the 2D stages, and four isometric stages, which are like a hub for the 2D stages. While the isometric stages each have a different color, most of the 2D stages look quite the same, so there’s the impression that there’s not much to see here, despite all the different stages, goals, and missions.  

The audio of SeaQuest DSV was solid, though not quite as advanced as the graphics which remained the most appealing aspect. The handful of songs sounded very complicated and rich, with many different notes and different rhythms playing over each other. It was definitely one of the more complex soundtracks on the Genesis, although the actual notes sounded like classic FM-synth; we just don’t normally hear those sounds used in such complex songs. The sound effects were mostly just gunfire and explosions, but they sounded better than most such sounds on Genesis. And the explosions actually sounded great, with deep rumblings that echo out every time a projectile hit something. The sound effects were basically limited to those two effects, but they sounded full and satisfying, especially when we were destroying things in the isometric world.

This title was also released for SNES, after the Genesis release. Obviously we expected more colors from SNES, and it could especially make a difference for pre-rendered graphics. So, as great as the Genesis title looked, the SNES title looked brighter and more colorful. The developers also took their extra time to add more special effects to the SNES version, which is disappointing, because it gives a false sense of that console being superior for such effects, even though the Genesis is fully capable of the same effects, or comparable effects. For example, the overview graphics have a rippling effect on SNES, which the Genesis was fully capable of doing… but the Genesis only shows rippling in the 2D stages, only.

Along those lines, the SNES used transition screens of that Mode-7 effect (where the screen becomes large, zoomed-in pixels). The Genesis could actually do the same thing in software (as seen in Pier Solar), but even short of that, it could easily do some other type of transition screen. (Instead, the Genesis version just switched screens with no effects). SNES also boasted a spotlight effect with light surrounding the sub as it moved through darkness, which the Genesis could have done but didn’t. Those extra special effects made the SNES version a little flashier, so most folks would probably prefer that version. I honestly prefer the Genesis graphics because I prefer the darker colors used rather than the neon colors in the SNES version. Sure, it was more colorful, but those bright colors looked out of place at the bottom of the ocean!

While the gameplay might seem impossible, we did have a password system to skip around the mining missions, although they tended to be pretty standard, requiring us to survive while fetching some items. There were also password codes for extra life and weapons and even debug-style options like moving through solid objects, removing most enemies, or stopping enemies from shooting, etc. For those who’d like to see their way through the title, one code made us automatically win each mining mission that we visit, so our progress was automatic. These cheats might actually be the most fun way to enjoy this title, although we can only use one password at a time.

SeaQuest DSV is such a mixed bag! The graphics are great, and they’re some of the best pre-rendered graphics on Genesis. So we have great graphics, good music and sound, and solid gameplay; which is unfortunately a bit too complicated and difficult for most people to enjoy. SeaQuest DSV is worth diving into, or at least it’s worth dipping our toes in the water to see if we might enjoy its complicated gameplay. However, when it comes to 16-bit simulations of the sea, Ecco the Dolphin will always be the king of the ocean.

SCORE 7 out of 10

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