Evolution may be one of the most important ideas in the history of science, but it's tricky material for a game. It occurs at a geological pace, compounding slowly and autonomously from the smallest results of random chance. It does not necessarily produce stronger or more interesting life forms, but merely ones better suited to their environments. All of this is at odds with the experience of playing a game; a player wants to frequently make meaningful decisions rather than find themselves totally the mercy of the game environment, and to experience a feeling of growth directly related to the consequences of their decisions. The games that embrace these parts of evolution often relinquish their claim to the title of "game," becoming god-games or software toys like SimLife, Evolution: Seventh Cross, Creatures, and Darwin Pond. Other games, including the successful Pokemon and Spore franchises, attempt to capture the wondrous diversity of life without worrying too much about the exact mechanism that produced it.
So make no mistake, 46 Okunen Monogatari (4.6 Billion Year Story) is not really about evolution, but it does let you explore how cool the variety of life on Earth is, placing you in the role of a creature with the ability to intelligently design themselves. Though Westerners may know the series for the SNES action-RPG E.V.O.: Search for Eden, the series began with an overhead RPG, 46 Okunen Monogatari: The Shinka Ron, released only in Japan on the PC-98. They both take place in explicitly creationist and anthropocentric worlds, your creature taking a role as the mortal servant of Gaia, the goddess of the Earth. By defeating the creatures around you, you earn points you can spend on evolving into something stronger, faster, or tougher, at your discretion. As you become a stronger and more advanced creature, all the way up to a human (or perhaps beyond) you complete quests for Gaia and help her save the planet. However, you're not alone in receiving Gaia's divine favor and assistance in evolution; some extraterrestrial presences begin to meddle in the evolution of the rest of Earth's creatures...
You awaken as the most primitive possible fish, not entirely sure where you came from but integrating well into a shallow village of simple jellyfish, anenomes, and elder fish. However, once a strange light begins to sicken the others, they blame you, the outsider, and kick you out of the village. The surrounding sea is hostile, and there you must struggle and evolve to survive. 46 Okunen Monogatari: The Shinka Ron (4.6 Billion Year Story: The Theory of Evolution) is a fairly simple turn-based RPG, with first-person battles a little simpler than the Dragon Questgames. The battles are primitive, usually ending in seconds - and that cuts both ways. You can attack, use your creature's various skills, or try to run away. No armor, no potions, just you and whatever limbs you have against some animal trying to eat you. And if you outlast your opponent, since battles in The Shinka Ron are usually wars of attrition, you survive a few evolution points richer.
Instead of leveling up in a straightforward fashion, you can spend evolution points improving one of four statistics: strength, resistance, stamina, and intelligence. Strength and resistance determine how much damage you give and take; stamina increases your maximum health. Intelligence determines the effectiveness of the essential "Rest" skill, which can be used in battle to restore health. Given how simple the battle system is, all of these statistics feel equally beneficial; each one helps you survive longer, or end a fight more quickly. Evolution points are never in short supply, so you grow at a rapid and satisfying pace.
Here's the hook: When you raise a stat to a certain threshold at the end of the chart, you evolve into a different creature. Beginning the game as the weakest fish, raising your strength to a sufficient level will cause you to evolve into a fish with a similarly puny body, but fiercer jaws. Each time you evolve in this way, you traverse a web of about 12-50 creatures from the current era, apparently largely based on real evolutionary trees. When you evolve, the game also gives you some information about your new creature, including its size and when it lived. New creatures gain new skills, making them more effective in combat. But the greatest appeal of the evolution system may just be aesthetic - it feels badass to finally become the shark in an ocean full of guppies, or the T-Rex striking fear into your enemies' hearts.
Trying to evolve strategically can be a little frustrating. Each statistic corresponds to a cardinal direction, and some of the time, evolving with that stat takes you in that corresponding direction on the evolutionary map... but it's not always predictable. A lot of the time, alternating between evolving different stats will have you simply evolve into the same two adjacent creatures over and over. The number of times you can evolve in a given era is limited by a maximum value for each stat, so this kind of evolution limits the amount of the evolutionary map you can see in one playthrough. It'd be nice to see more consistent logic in the sequence of evolutions.
But when your creature is right at the edge of the evolutionary map, evolving with the wrong stat will evolve you "off the map" and trigger a joke ending and a game over. Some of these failed evolutions are simply too weak to survive - dinosaurs unable to survive the cold of the Ice Age, huge marlins caught by humans for sport, etc. Others are powerful, yet unsuited to the task of adventuring across the world and completing the game's quests - a humanoid fish worshipped and given decadent tribute by the Egyptians, for example.
The story takes place in six eras: ocean, reptiles, early dinosaurs, late dinosaurs, pre-modern, and future. During each era, you explore the Earth and find small animal villages, completing various quests and struggling to survive. A pod of dolphins in an ocean cave warns you of the high water pressure in a nearby trench, which you can only survive with high stamina, so you leave to defeat enough fish to increase your stamina and survive the crushing depths. At the bottom you meet the goddess Gaia, who tasks you with helping her to save the planet. Throughout the game are shining spots on the ground where Gaia gives you encouragement and points you in the right direction. At the end of each era, Gaia helps you to evolve into a primitive version of the next era's dominant life form.
The goddess of the Earth, and your source of guidance throughout the game. She manifests herself in human form at the bottom of the ocean, then in space at the end of the game. Elsewhere, she speaks to you at various glowing spots throughout the game, where she helps you evolve into the next era or travel through time to avoid mass extinction.
Towards the end of Chapter 4, you meet Lucifer, who takes the guise of a sort of vampire Marilyn Monroe. Her influence corrupts the civilizations you meet throughout the game, from turning the dinosaurs into gelatinous slime beings to hollowing and decaying the once-vibrant environment of the Moon. To spite Gaia and display her power, she sends down meteors to wipe out the dinosaurs. She is the game's only boss, fought first in a face-melting human form and then in the form of a colossal winged spider.
Even though you're the destined one, chosen by Gaia to save the planet, your most pressing concern is mere survival. Near the end of Chapter 4, a gang of five T-Rexes are blocking your path, and you ask a nearby village of triceratops to help you. They line up against the T-Rexes, and fight a hopeless battle against them. You can try to help out your allies, but even with the highest possible stats at this point in the game, you cannot hurt any of the T-Rexes. Rather than fight an epic battle to save the peaceful dinosaur villagers, your only option is to quietly walk past them all, preserving yourself and leaving everyone else for dead. This feels a little anti-climactic when you've been spending the whole game growing stronger, ready to take on anything, but it subverts your expectations in an interesting way, demonstrating your insignificance.
For all its encyclopedia entries and apparent adherence to evolutionary and geological history, the game still embraces plenty of bizarre fantastical elements which increase as history proceeds, apparently due to the malevolent influence of Lucifer. You meet a race of reptilian aliens from the Moon called the Lunarians in Chapter 2, who eventually come to rule the continent of Atlantis; you enlist the help of a massive cave dragon to remove a stubborn brontosaurus from your path. Chapter 5 is the most bizarre, granting equal rule of the earth to cavemen, mammoths, lizardmen, horned demon children, flute-playing dinosaurs, goblin chieftains, dwarves, and more. A brief final chapter takes place in a bleak future ravaged by climate change, in which you, the leader of a space-faring elf civilization, must battle the massive winged spider Lucifer, newly emerged from the moon.
The Shinka Ron's graphics are fairly standard for the time, succeeding mostly in being clear and distinct rather than flashy. The creatures are portrayed in a fairly unadorned, scientific way, but some of the creatures just look dopey, especially among the fantastical creatures of Chapter 5. The music is catchy and appropriate, composed by Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama. Two overworld themes, one lonely and one heroic, stand out in particular.
An English fan translation was released in 2016, but even without it, it's decently playable for a non-Japanese speaker. All the game's quests are solvable in some combination of talking to everyone and raising all your stats, and the battle system is forgiving enough to experiment with skills without knowing exactly what they do.
E.V.O.: Search for Eden is a significantly different take on the same evolutionary concept and mechanics of The Shinka Ron. Abandoning the often monotonous turn-based combat of its predecessor, Search for Eden is a side-scrolling platformer, so you bite, jump, and dodge enemies in real time. Instead of distributing points into stats to evolve into discrete, pre-defined creatures, here you use Evo Points to upgrade your individual body parts, like your jaws, limbs, tail, and dorsal fin. Search for Eden also attempts to address the anticlimactic progression of the previous game's story, adding extremely tough boss fights throughout each chapter.
The ability to customize your creature's individual body parts is the game's main draw. At various points in the game, you begin as the weakest possible fish, amphibian, dinosaur, or mammal, unable to pose much of a threat to anything beyond shellfish, herbivores, and rats. But as soon as you can eat enough of these weak enemies to earn the EVO Points necessary to buy your first body upgrade, you'll feel a dramatic difference in your capabilities, in terms of damage, handling, or survivability. Every upgrade feels meaningful as a result, and it's more satisfying to improve in this way than to simply allocate points toward your various stats, as in The Shinka Ron.
Your evolutionary choices are generally determined by which of the five eras you're living in - Age of Fish, Early Creatures of Land, Age of Dinosaurs, Ice Age, and Early Man. Your animal type is predetermined in the first three eras - fish, amphibians, and dinosaurs, respectively. But at various points in the final two eras, some hidden away in side quests, you have the choice to evolve into a new kind of creature, switching permanently to its evolutionary tree. You can complete the game as a reptile, bird, mammal, or human.
As satisfying as this customization mechanic can be, numerous issues mar its execution. The game's controls often feel clunky; you tap a direction twice to charge irreversibly forward until you change directions, jump, or hit something, which makes it difficult to be both fast and flexible in combat. Hit detection can be pretty inexplicable; the best place to bite a stegosaurus, it turns out, is a spot floating in space above their tail. The game's combo-friendly stun system is a double-edged sword; you can take out several bosses by locking them into a stun with repeated bites, but if you fight multiple enemies at once, you'll find yourself juggled between them and dead very quickly. You spend a lot of time being stunned, anyway, from getting hit to merely landing a jump, which makes movement feel rather unresponsive.
Whereas the previous game felt universally hostile, with everything from the rats to the sharks engaging you in combat as soon as they bumped into you, Search for Eden is full of prey. Herbivore dinosaurs run in terror as you approach, and only attack if they have no options left. You can attack many of the NPCs in the game without reprimand. As a result, many of the levels tend to feel like grazing fields - and they're often just as flat - where you can devour everything in order to evolve enough to face the real threat of the bosses. The bland levels tend to improve in the game's final two chapters, with some fairly difficult fields of stegosaurus and a large number of modern animals. But at this point in the game, you have more than enough EVO Points to upgrade everything you want, so there's little incentive to take on these more challenging enemies.
The boss battles in Search for Eden are frequent, long, and deadly. The bosses' damage output is extremely high relative both to what normal enemies can dish out and to what you can yourself, and the aforementioned frequency of stunning attacks grants some bosses several hits on you if they manage to land just one. Without resorting to attempting to bite them into an infinite combo yourself, these fights require a lot of patience and absolute vigilance. One trick at your disposal is that by evolving, you restore your HP and horn durability; one way to make it through some boss fights is to repeatedly purchase a cheap upgrade (like alternating between short and long necks) whenever you are close to death. Since dying costs about half of your EVO Points, as does this HP-restoring trick, some bosses simply require a lot of grinding to defeat.
As expected for the move from a text-heavy RPG to a platformer, the storytelling is a little more sparse in this game. This time, Gaia introduces herself from the beginning, asking you to complete a trial called "survival of the fittest" in each era of the Earth's history, with the ultimate goal of gaining entrance to Eden, where you will be her eternal companion. Along the way, you meet various animals, sometimes benevolent and asking for your help, but more often trying to wipe you off the face of the planet to guarantee their own race's supremacy or mere survival. Outside of brief conversations with Gaia between eras, the story is told mostly in-engine; gone are the often gorgeous landscape shots in the previous game's cutscenes. However, the death of the dinosaurs is told well through a dramatic cutscene, ending on a heartbreaking shot of a mother protecting her child.
The scope of Search for Eden is a bit smaller than the previous game - this game's final chapter ends with a collection of existing modern-day creatures, joined by cavemen, sentient fish armed with lasers, and slime-lobbing ninja dinosaurs. Yet this direction is far more conservative than the smorgasbord of terrifying lizardmen, dwarves, ogres, and Doctor Manhattans roaming the earth of the previous game's penultimate chapter. So the concept is a bit more unified and grounded in reality, if a bit less fun. Still, there are some mysterious crystals scattered throughout the world which advance creatures' evolution, and in a hidden area you come across a colony of Martians trying to stop their originally benevolent experiment of bringing these evolution-speeding crystals to Earth. The fantastical elements are there, but just more hidden.
The game's music is hilariously uneven, all its good parts having been taken from The Shinka Ron's soundtrack. The game's opening chapter has a particularly spectacular ocean theme, arranged from The Shinka Ron's first overworld theme. The rest of the ocean's music also comes from the previous game, from the ominous cave theme to a strangely jaunty theme to a land of sharks. But it's all downhill as soon as you wash ashore. Your life on land, that is, roughly 80% of the game, is mostly accompanied by a thirty-second loop of some two-chord blues, admittedly with a few instrumental variations at times. The game's final dungeon and final boss themes stand out from the surrounding auditory mess, though (or since) they're lifted from The previous game's Lucifer theme. Despite its low quality, the Search for Eden soundtrack was featured in the second annual Game Music Concert in Tokyo in 1992.
E.V.O.: Search for Eden is a curious, flawed game, and a bit of an evolutionary dead end. It hasn't aged particularly well, and it requires a lot of patience to make progress in, but the feeling of customization and progression it offers is deeply satisfying and fun to experiment with.