What do you call a superhero with a dayjob in graphic design? Vectorman.
Released in fall 1995 for the Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Vectorman is sidescrolling shooter that was developed by Blue Sky Software and is considered the, by then aging, Sega Genesis’ answer to the Donkey Kong Country series due to its use of pre-rendered 3-D graphics. The game features an eco conscious narrative where Earth has been abandoned by humans due to years of neglect and pollution, leaving behind machines with the sole purpose of cleaning up after them. One of these machines, named Raster, is ultimately driven insane by and fused with a nuclear weapon, becoming a maniacal dictator named Warhead, who wants to kill any and all humans that dare return to Earth. This leads to the games titular hero, Vectorman, beginning a mission to rid the Earth of Warhead and to restore peace to the planet.
I grew up playing this game a lot as a kid via the Sega Smash Pack on PC. While the emulation on this PC release wasn’t perfect, I logged countless hours onto this game through it, as well as other Sega classics such as Golden Axe and Altered Beast. That’s not to say that I ever did well in any of these games though because I was 4 or 5 and couldn’t even clear the first level of most of these games. It probably also didn’t help that I was probably playing on a keyboard, which just feels like a bad time waiting to happen.
At the time of its release, Vectorman was praised for the incredible mileage it got out of Sega’s 16-bit hardware, with critics almost unanimously concluding that it was a great title and a wonderful swansong for the Genesis. And I’ve gotta agree with the critics on this one.
But… does it hold up?
While Vectorman was an incredibly impressive and unique 16-bit title back in 1995, there’s no denying that this game is pretty heavily rooted in the 90’s. And much like a lot of things from back then, it’s easy to assume that this game probably hasn’t aged well.
However, you’d be wrong to assume that! Almost 26 years later, Vectorman is still a total blast, with incredible animation and art design, a catchy techno soundtrack and variety of gameplay styles. And it manages to do this in spite of a couple of problems that range from fairly subjective, to a little negligent from the developers.
Vectorman features 16 levels of shooting action, with the vast majority of them taking place in a standard sidescrolling format while also deviating from this style from time to time for a few different types of pseudo-3D inspired levels. In that regard, the game is somewhat like the Traveller’s Tales developed Toy Story, which came out a month later and is also an impressive pseudo 3D sidescroller that incorporates different gameplay styles.
In a standard stage, Vectorman has a relatively simple gameplay loop that revolves around exploring and reaching the end of the stage while disposing of enemies and bosses along the way. To do this, you’ll need to gun down your opponents either with Vectorman’s default gun, or with several other temporary weapons he can procure from TV units scattered across each stage. These power ups come in the form of a shotgun-like spread shot, a machine gun, and this kinda cool twirly ball thing that reminds me of that one weapon that Batman has. I think it’s called a bolo… so yeah, there’s some random trivia for you. There’s also a pretty cool set of power ups that can transform your character into stuff like a drill, a bomb, or a… fish, I guess? Anyway, none of these power ups ever seem to last for too long so, for the majority of your play through, you’ll probably be using your standard attack, which is fine due to it being a semi-automatic weapon. Just be ready for thumb cramps though if you tend to be prone to those things, and maybe consider using a turbo controller or function on an emulator if you are.
And, while we’re on the subject of things to look out for, I’d also recommend approaching this game with caution if you’re sensitive to flashing lights, as the game features screen flashing whenever you complete certain actions such as blowing up a TV. While I’m no expert on what is or isn’t broadcast safe, blowing a TV up in the game results in the screen flashing about 7 or 8 times within the span of a second, and that’s actually pretty dangerous if you’re exposed to it for prolonged periods of time. The World Wide Web Consortium states that a flashing image shouldn’t flash more than 3 times in the span of a second and, while that metric almost definitely came about after this game came out in the 90s, it’s something that I do think is worth being aware of.
Vectorman runs at a blistering 60 frames per second. As a result of this, the game feels buttery smooth in a way that seriously compliments the gameplay. In fact, Vectormans lead programmer Richard Karpp described the games high frame rate, as well as the animation that it allowed for, way better than I ever could. In a delightfully retro interview with GameZero.com, he said:
“The fact that the animation runs so fast allows the game to respond to controls very quickly. So you don’t get any delay between the time you hit a button and the animation response. Plus, we designed everything so there was minimum delay: there is no “wind-up” animation for shooting. That “wind-up” would take time between the button-press and the response, and I didn’t want that to happen.”Richard Karpp on the design of Vectorman
Simply put, the game’s controls are as responsive as they get. And that responsiveness, as well as the amount of animation everything has in the game and Vectorman’s sound design result in this game feeling good to play. Despite the lack of force feedback on the Sega Genesis, you can really get a sense for how powerful your character is, especially when you can visually see your enemies recoil as they take damage.
Though, if I’m being honest, I’m not the biggest fan of the rogues gallery that you’re put up against in this game. It’s not that these enemies are poorly designed or anything, it’s just that their characterization does feel somewhat empty and lacking. Although their design isn’t always perfect. While most enemies go down after a flurry of shots make contact with them, others require a bit more strategy, such as by targeting a weak point. However, and this could just be me, I didn’t feel like this was particularly well telegraphed, especially since we’re only talking about one or two enemies here. Aside from that, the games enemies are mostly inoffensive and not all that memorable. Except for these wasp enemies that are everywhere. They go down in one hit but, due to there often being several of them, it can also be easy to get caught off guard and swarmed by them.
Anyway, Vectorman has some pretty decent level design going for it. I won’t mince my words when I say that it’s nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done and maintains a relatively cozy linear structure for most of the ride. It does deviate from this a bit too much for my liking in the later half of the game though, as the levels begin to grow more maze-like in a way that I don’t necessarily think works all that well. It’s not that I don’t mind non-linearity in games, but I feel like it doesn’t do the player any favors here due to Vectorman also having a time limit on each stage, as well as featuring zero continues.
Oh yeah, Vectorman doesn’t feature continues. If you run out of lives and get game over, that’s it. Honestly, while some may find this sort of thing endearing or “part of the fun of retro gaming,” I’ve never been all too keen on it. In my opinion, not offering continues to players is usually little more than a way to artificially inflate the difficulty or length of a game. And, because Vectorman features several stages that change the main gameplay style and offer the player little time to figure out what’s going on, I’d hardly call it’s inclusion in this game fair. There were several moments during my play through where I was caught off guard by a different play style and ended up taking unnecessary hits as a result of it.
However thankfully, Vectorman does offer a number of different difficulties that are uh- “charmingly” labeled with nineties vernacular. For first time players, or people who want a bit more of a laid back play through, I recommend going with the games easy mode, which I refuse to acknowledge as being lame.
While I initially played through this game on easy, I did eventually manage to get through a healthy chunk of the game on it’s standard difficulty, and found it to be a pretty fair and reasonable challenge. And after doing so, I can’t help but conclude that, difficulty wise, Vectorman is honestly just more punishing than it is difficult due to the lack of continues. Still, it’s an extremely playable game with tight gameplay and excellent performance.
Visually, the game is also stunning. As I’ve already said a few times before, Vectorman makes use of 3D style graphics that are somewhat similar to what’s on display in the Donkey Kong Country series. As a result of this, the game’s character and environmental sprites look incredible for something that’s on 16-bit hardware. The game’s backgrounds also feature layers upon layers of parallax scrolling, which help add to the incredible sense of depth in the game. Add to that the fact that things run at a steady 60fps and you’ve got a well animated and detailed game on your hands.
And that’s before even bringing up the number of straight-up incredible visual effects on display here. There are a number of sprite and background effects in this game that make it look like it should be on the SNES in order to take advantage of its Mode 7 capabilities. If you’ve played Contra Hard Corps before, this game makes use of the same sort of wave warp effects that are all over that game. You can really tell that Blue Sky Software had a total mastery of the hardware that they were working with, what with it being so late into the Genesis’ life-span.
As for the visual style itself, I think the best way that I can describe it is that it looks and feels a lot like the Brandon Lee movie The Crow, after it’s been put in a blender with a bunch of 90’s existentialist sci-fi movies like The Matrix or the ever-so-on-the nose-ly titled Extistenz. Oh, and maybe a hint of Lawnmower Man.
What I guess I’m trying to say is that Vectorman may be just a bit too nineties at points. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the 90’s as much as the next guy, but even I have my limits. And while I can take this game at face value and love it for its grungy aesthetic, I can totally see how that same aesthetic may be a huge turn off for some players.
Still, I do commend the game on being very visually clear and for having well defined layers and easy to identify color choices to separate objects.
And, since I just mentioned how 90s the game looks, I think it’s only fair to bring up how 90’s this game’s soundtrack is at the same time. It’s got a number of really awesome and exciting electronic tracks in it that are genuinely catchy and stand up as being, not just good and appropriate video game music, but solid electronic music to begin with. This is partly due to the Sega Genesis’s sound hardware, which has been criticized over the years for being relatively limited. But in the case of Vectorman, it’s put to good use. The games music is heavy on funky beats, arpeggios, and mixing what sounds like organ sounds with saw synths which are all things that Genesis is quite adept at.
For those unaware of how sound works on the Sega Genesis, a lot of its games were developed using a sound driver known as GEMS, or Genesis Editor for Music and Sound effects. GEMS was developed to be an easier and more hands on way for Western developers and musicians to wrap their hands generating sound on the FM synth-based hardware in the Genesis. And, unfortunately, while GEMS did a great job at making things easier for developers from a workflow point of view, it often led to games having that patented Sega Genesis “farty” sound.
That isn’t really the case here though, for while Vectorman did use GEMS to create it’s music and sound effects, the devs were clearly comfortable with the technology, and were able to produce arrangements that played to its strengths. If you’re at all curious about how music and sound works on the Genesis, GST Chanel actually made a great video on the subject that I’ll be adding to the end screen for this video.
A lot of this games music works in the same way that the games visuals do for me. They’re undeniably dated, but full of charm because of it. The lofi Genesis instrumentation does an adequate enough job of simulating 90’s synths, while also having this endearing and highly nostalgic quality to them that makes the music fun to listen to. And in that sense, it kinda reminds me of the MIDI music from games like Runescape, or shows like Rugrats.
So does Vectorman hold up? While I’ve spent a decent amount of this review joking about how utterly 90s this game is, as well as pointing out my personal misgrievences with the lack of continues, I have to say yes, this late Genesis title totally holds up.
It’s got some really addictive and easy to pick up gameplay, wonderful and hardware pushing visuals, and an extremely solid 16 bit soundtrack. While I do think that the game could’ve done with being a bit more accessible, as well as featuring a few less flashing lights, I still found myself having a lot of fun with this one.
I don’t know if I’d go as far as to put this amongst my favorite Genesis games or anything, but Vectorman is still a great title, and a fairly affordable one to boot. If you’re looking for a side scrolling shooter with a healthy mix of fun and different gameplay styles, you really can’t go wrong with picking up Vectorman.
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