Genre: Action Developer: Probe Entertainment Publisher: Acclaim Players: 1 Released: 1995
When the relatively low-budget sci-fi action flick Stargate hit cinemas in late 1994, it was safe to assume that nobody expected it to take off like it did. A few critics praised it, Roger Ebert hated it, but most reviewers were rather indifferent about this action movie by then little-known German director Roland Emmerich. But take off it did. The story about a group of marines and a scientist embarking on an expedition to a different world, technologically advanced but with parallels to ancient Egypt, not only became a surprise hit that grossed more money than everyone had expected, but it also kick-started Roland Emmerich’s career as a director of major summer blockbusters and spawned a new science fiction franchise with several successful TV series spinoffs that lasted until 2011.
But let’s go back to 1994, though. The 16-bit console wars are entering their late stages. The fifth generation of consoles, namely Saturn and PlayStation, were already knocking at the gamers doors. The summer of that year had seen some major blockbusters with star power, like the Lion King, Forrest Gump, True Lies or Speed. In the middle of all of this, gaming Studio Acclaim decides to acquire the license to make a game based on a late-coming action flick (released in October, not a popular month for movie premieres), directed by a rather unknown German director whose previous effort was a moderately successful but critically panned B-movie called Universal Soldier. This new film, called Stargate, featured Kurt Russell, an actor who many critics considered to be past his prime. Nevertheless, the decision was made to take this rather low-budgeted sci-fi flick and turn it into yet another action-game for the aging 16-bit machines. The resulting title was largely ignored and went under the radar, even though the movie had already come out by the time the game reached consoles in 1995 . This is a bit of a shame, because surprisingly, especially for what at first glance appears to be another run of the mill action-movie-tie in, the resulting Stargate for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis is actually rather good!
The game loosely follows the story of the movie, though it begins with a major spoiler (anyone who hasn’t seen the film but is bothered about those should skip to the next paragraph. Yes, I mean both of you!). Unbeknownst to Egyptologist/scientist Daniel Jackson, the five marines heading with him into the unknown world have brought a nuclear warhead, with orders to detonate the Stargate should they encounter a threat to their homeland. Unfortunately, after a sandstorm they discover that their weapon has been stolen (sounds like just the right guys to entrust an atomic bomb to). The player assumes the role of Colonel Jack O’Neill (played in the movie by Kurt Russell), who not only has to recover said warhead, but must help the oppressed people of this world to overthrow their evil, alien dictator, the immortal, god-like and spaceship-faring Ra. So yeah, machine gun-waving marines saving the day, how original. Well, the story may be stock, but the atmosphere of the game makes up for that pretty well.
As Colonel O’Neill, you head out into the alien desert world and soon encounter hostile wildlife in the form of various beetles. The graphics in this late Genesis title are actually quite beautiful. The scarab-like enemies have shimmering carapaces, the backgrounds do have some nice detail to them, and the sprites move with a very elegant fluidity. The soundtrack may not be overly memorable, but the thematically appropriate tunes do a very fine job in underscoring the action and help in creating a very enjoyable environment. Speaking of fluidity, the controls are very agreeable. Gamers who enjoyed the Genesis rendition of Demolition Man will be glad to hear that Stargate plays very similar, as it basically uses the same engine, albeit with a few tweaks. For example, the game omits the sometimes annoying top-down stages and concentrates on the side-scrolling action, which in my eyes is a big plus. Also, it isn’t segmented into stages as much as Demolition Man. Basically, what you have is one big world in front of you. Whenever you meet new characters, your mission objectives (which can be viewed at any time in the pause menu) change. So, rather than just running from left to right, you need to explore the stages, sometimes backtrack to doorways or caves you’ve passed before, unlock new gateways, and so forth. This is integrated quite well and never feels out of place. The Super Nintendo version also had a heavily Mode 7-reliant shooting sequence that is missing in the Genesis port. It’s only one stage though, and frankly, I don’t really miss it.
People used to the action genre may be a bit thrown off about the weapon selection: There is none. You only have one gun, an automatic machine gun with an unlimited amount of bullets. While this weapon usually is the ultimate problem solver in other games, where you spray auto fire everywhere until everything stops moving, things are a bit different here. The gun is comparatively weak, and even the first enemies you encounter can withstand quite a lot of fire. Also, if you hold down the shooting button for too long the weapon will overheat, resulting in an unsteady sputtering. There are power-ups for the machine gun in the game which give you greater firepower, a coolant system, or greater firing speed. More importantly, you’ll find grenades lying around, which are a godsend. Most enemies can withstand a lot of gunfire, but one well-placed pineapple will usually send most baddies packing immediately. There are quite a lot of them lying around too, so don’t just stockpile them for later; you had better use them frequently. One gun and additional grenades may seem very limiting at first, but it fits the atmosphere, so it’s definitely more than adequate. You are, after all, just a regular marine in a foreign world using the scarce materials he brought with him. This, combined with the tough enemies, makes for a very challenging game though, but not in a bad way.
Great animation, nice graphics, well done sound, fluid controls – sounds like a great all-around package, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, there are a few things that detract a few points from the overall impression. The controls work great for the most part, but there are a few annoying kinks that hurt the game. For example, if you press down once, your character enters a kneeling firing stance, allowing you to steadily fire while standing still (instead of wildly running around). Unfortunately the animation is a tad too long, so if you accidentally do it in a tight spot it’ll hurt you big time! Also, things tends to get repetitive after a while. The designers packed quite a lot of ideas in at the beginning and ran out of steam halfway through. So throughout the game, for the most time you constantly revisit the same exact four environments (desert, cave, cityscape, spaceship) with little variation between every instance. Mind you, this scenery is generally rather beautiful and fits the context of the game, but it gets stale after a while. Only near the end are you presented with a fifth environment.
The missions are very repetitive, too. Usually you get two sorts of missions: find something or someone, or fight somebody. The game has a very annoying focus on the character of Daniel, too. Yes, he’s the second main character of the movie, but why has approximately every third mission to center around finding him? One time he’s lost, then he ran ahead without you, than he gets kidnapped, then he gets lost again… I mean, how useless is this guy? I’d reckon he’d even lose his way when he tries to go to the bathroom, only to end up in a supply closet… in a different apartment… in an entirely different house… four blocks over! At least that’s what it feels like when you are told to “find Daniel” for the umpteenth time.
The other major downside is that the game blows its load way too early when it comes to character design, as later on you sadly discover only little variety. This is especially sad when it comes to the boss battles. Out of four major fight sequences, three are against the same guy! I know they tried to stick close to the movie, but here a little more creative freedom would have livened things up a bit.
Overall, I really recommend giving Stargate a try. It may appear as a run-of-the-mill movie licensed shooter at first glance, but you’d be wrong to pass it up on that technicality. The Graphics and the animation in particular are beautifully done, and the gameplay is solid. If you can stomach a very tough challenge and can look past the lack of versatility during the middle parts, you are rewarded with a good action title that will entertain you pretty well. Plus, if you want the best ending you’ll have some extra item-finding and exploration to do, so it’ll keep you occupied for quite a while.
SCORE: 7 out of 10