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by Kurt Kalata - September 19th, 2009

Policenauts (ポリスノーツ) - PC98, 3DO, PlayStation, Saturn, PSN (1994)

PC98 Cover

3DO Cover

PlayStation Cover

Saturn Cover

For the longest time, Policenauts was considered Hideo Kojima's lost masterpiece. Although initially released in 1994 for the Japanese PC-9821 home computer, it was eventually ported to the 3DO, PlayStation and Saturn over the next few years. None of these were ever released outside of Japan. It wasn't until 2009 that a group of determined fan translators at Policenauts.net hacked the PlayStation version and released an English language patch, to elation of thousands of fans around the world.

Why all the hype? At the time of its release, Policenauts was advertised as "The Next Generation of Snatcher". While Snatcher was released in English for the Sega CD, it gained a cult audience in America and Europe, although the sales were beyond dismal, mostly due to it being released at the tail end of the system's life span. It wasn't until 1998 that Kojima's name entered the video gaming world with the release of Metal Gear Solid, which not only revived interest in the old 8-bit series, but renewed interest in Kojima's other works. The price of Snatcher in the aftermarket shot up, and gamers everywhere wondered, just what the heck was that Policenauts thing?

The story begins on Earth, now called HOME, in Old Los Angeles in the year 2040. Jonathan Ingram is a private detective with a bit of an odd past. Thirty years ago, he was one of the five elite policeman chosen to serve aboard a brand new space colony called Beyond Coast - the Policenauts. During a routine spacewalk, his suit goes haywire and sends him flying off into the yonder. Assumed dead, he actually enters a state of hypersleep, suspended in time and floating through outer space. Fast forward to the present, and Jonathan is miraculously rescued, not having aged at all during his hibernation. The world has, however, left him behind. (The resemblance to the tale of Taro Urashima, a fisherman who went underwater for three days and returned to the surface, finding that three hundred years had passed, is noted several times throughout the game.) His wife, Lorraine, had given up on him and moved on. The space colony had grown into its own nation, with its own culture and industry. With everyone having abandoned him, Jonathan takes up a job as tracking down kidnappers, junkies and bail jumpers. It's far from glorious work, and pretty boring... until his ex-wife visits him with a case.

Lorraine stays in the dark, having aged while Jonathan has not, ashamed of what she's become and what she did to him. But she has no one else to turn. Her husband, Kenzo Hojo, has mysteriously disappeared. Her only clues are a pair of capsules, a leaf, and mention of the world "Plato". Jonathan is too stunned to take the case, but as soon as Lorraine leaves, her car explodes into a fiery blaze, leaving her to die in her old love's arms. Unable to come to terms with his past and intrigued by an obvious conspiracy, Jonathan leaves Old LA to follow the few leads - back onto Beyond Coast.

Characters

Naturally, once Ed shows Jonathan around the colony, things seem more than a little bit fishy. Karen's ex-husband Kenjo was an employee of the Tokugawa Corporation, who appear to have some backdoor deals going on with the police. Jonathan obviously suspects his old friend of corruption on multiple levels, but without any hard proof, there's little he can do. Piece by piece, Jonathan and Ed must piece together the conspiracy, locate Kenzo Hojo, avenge Lorraine's death, and take down the Tokugawa conglomerate. Quite a tall order for two men, one of whom is, quite clearly, getting too old for this shit.

Policenauts is structured much the same way as Snatcher, with the main difference being the interface. Instead of picking selections from a menu, you move a cursor around the screen, examining and interacting with objects by clicking on them. Like its spiritual predecessor, it's more of an interactive comic book than a game - there are very few puzzles, and progress revolves around searching as many objects as possible until the game lets you go forward. And again, there are first person shooting segments that break up the investigation portions and provide a bit of tension. Unlike the simplistic 3x3 grid from Snatcher, you can aim anywhere on the screen, and the fights are not only longer and more complicated, but quite a bit more difficult, too.

One of the most tense moments of the story is when Jonathan and Ed are charged with finding and defusing a bomb, located in a purse in the middle of a trendy boutique. Nearly all of the purses are bootlegs, but the bomb is hidden in an authentic one. Jonathan and Ed know what the real purse looks like, so it's up to them (and you) to examine and identify the fake purses by comparing images. It's intense, but also a bit silly that one of only major puzzles is one the same level as a children's magazine. After discovering the bomb, you naturally have to defuse it, as you follow very specific directions and use extremely steady coordination to take it down safely. It's one of the best moments in the game, if mostly because it shows Jonathan and Ed at their best. It's something of a ludicrous (if familiar) situation, and they trade barbs and various fourth wall breaking jokes when they fail. (Thankfully, a continue option prevents this from becoming too frustrating.)

Hideo Kojima has long been enthused by Hollywood movies, as evidenced by pretty much every single work he's ever done, ranging from the influence of Blade Runner in Snatcher, to the likenesses of several famous actors unofficially used in Metal Gear 2. Just from looking at the two main character, it's obvious that Policenauts is a homage to Lethal Weapon, but the relationship is more than skin deep. There's the liberal use of the saxophone in the soundtrack, usually accompanying both shocking and hilarious moments. There's Ed's hot daughter that flirts with Jonathan, complete with a jovial family dinner with terrible food. And Ed, wouldn't you know, can't bring himself to fire his gun due to a traumatic incident in his past. (This isn't quite Lethal Weapon, but still a well known trope.) There are tons upon tons of cop movies cliches here, but it pulls off the buddy cop thing extremely well, and there are plenty of humorous moments throughout, even though they mostly highlight how hilariously incompetent (and irresponsible) the heroes are. Jonathan is not only a hothead, but a bit of lech, rudely commenting and hitting on on every girl he meets, and occasionally finds ways to cop a feel, complete with boob jiggle. (There's actually a whole person, a woman no less, devoted to these animations, according to the credits.) Allowing the player to be a bit of a pervert is a running gag with Kojima - Gillian Seed from Snatcher was much the same way, although it was toned down a bit in the English release.

Still, even though Policenauts is an almost perfectly successful homage, something about its story seems empty. Snatcher is a cyberpunk detective story, with tons of mysteries and plenty of suspense. That, combined with the intensely elaborate Metal Gear Solid, has earned Kojima a reputation for creating mind-blowing twists and screwing intensely with the player's head. Policenauts is, on the other hand, merely a buddy cop movie with some sci-fi elements. It's a much more straightforward crime story, complete with evil corporations, corrupt police departments, and drug smuggling. And while it has an amazing setup, the story never really pays off, especially since the overall plot can easily be guessed by playing through the first Act. Furthermore, the game goes to great lengths to show how awesome the police mobile suits (EMPS) are, but you certainly never get to pilot them. They just end up as enemies you fight in a few sequences near the end. What a missed opportunity.

Other small problems crop up too. There's absolutely no way to skip through any of the voiced dialogue Snatcher didn't let you do this either, but it also had a lot less of it. And, like most of Kojima games (and a lot of Japanese games in general), the script is detailed but overwritten. Plus, most of the actual detective work takes place in the first few Acts. There are technically seven chapters altogether, plus the Prologue, but the first two are by far the longest, and the rest consist mostly of cutscenes and shooting segments, much like the final act of Snatcher. And there are too many roadblocks, where you find progress halted because you forgot to exhaust all conversation options or missed over something in the scenery. It's fantastic that there's so much depth in the game world, but after you start clicking through the same text over and over to find what you missed, it quickly grows annoying. It's even worse than Snatcher because the hot spots in the scenery aren't always visible or apparent. At least it's a bit longer, as an average play will take approximately ten hours or so.

Still, even if it can be exhausting at times, Policenauts has an amazingly well realized world. Space, as it turns out, is pretty inhospitable for humans, creating a whole scheme of new diseases that must be dealt with - hence Tokugawa's rise to power. The best thing about it is the way it examines how humanity can survive in space - not only on a medical level, but a cultural level too. People born and bred on Beyond Coast are taught to act differently than their terrestrial brethren, and how it plays out in the game. For example, each group has speaks with a "Home" or "Beyond" accent - but Beyonds are told to speak in a calmer, more thorough manner, while Homes speak louder and more emotionally. There's more than a few dialogues about aspects as how the isolation of the colony has affected things like crime, drug use, and even the insurance industry. It's also pretty interesting that the colony was developed by a Japanese corporation, and there's lot of commentary towards their pros and cons of their work ethics - pretty interesting given that the characters are technically gaijin. Of course, just as Metal Gear Solid was screaming "NUKES ARE BAD" at the top of its lungs, the prevailing theme in Policenauts is "SPACE IS BAD", which is pounded into your head on several occasions.

There are also tons upon tons of Easter Eggs, many of which are easily missable. There are tons of obscure references to Snatcher, which are going to make any obsessive fans giggle, along with many other strange or goofy observations if you click on random stuff. Apparently, if you have a completed save game from Tokimeki Memorial on your memory card, at some point, the game makes a comment about the girl that you won at the end of the game. I don't know when or where or how, but that sounds crazy/weird/brilliant, even moreso than the Psycho Mantis bit from Metal Gear Solid.

Policenauts also benefits from an excellent soundtrack, composed mostly by longtime Konami stalwart (and excellent guitarist) Motoaki Furukawa, along with Tappi Iwase, who would later go on to compose Metal Gear Solid. The main theme relies on a spooky, fourteen note theme which should also sound familiar to anyone who played Metal Gear Solid - it plays during the Konami logo in that name. It's a bit jazzy and funky, with lots of moody saxophone and guitar work, and much of it sounds like a Hollywood flick. Still, amidst all of the excellent music, some of the themes during the investigation sequences loop too quickly, and grow annoyingly repetitive, especially if you're stuck.

Like all visual novels, Policenauts suffers a bit from its linearity, and its story may be somewhat disappointing for those expecting more off-the-wall fare. But its restraint is also one of its greatest assets, because it's not nearly as messy nor as convoluted as some of Kojima's other games, but it's got an extremely likable leading duo and an immensely satisfying game world. It might not be a complete masterpiece, but it's still more than essential for adventure gamers and Kojima fans alike.

The fan translators did a fantastic job in not only localizing the text - which contains tons of medical and scientific terms, not exactly everyday reading - but keeping all of the (occasionally rather dirty) humor. They even went to great extents to fix up some bugs and make some of the name spellings to make them more consistent. The dialogue is obviously left in Japanese, which is naturally for the best, because fandubs never, ever work. As of current, only the PlayStation version is translated, but the hackers are looking into the other versions, if technically feasible.

Nobody really has a solid idea why Policenauts was never translated in the first place. The Saturn version initially appeared on retail release lists, and there was even a promotional box mockup, but it dropped off pretty quickly. Jeremy Blaustein, the localizer of Snatcher and Metal Gear Solid, said he heard of no internal plans to localize the game at the time he was working at Konami. Kojima had once said in an interview that translation work had started, but he wasn't happy with the lip synching in the cutscenes due to timing issues - a strange, idiosyncratic reason to deny an overseas release, and possibly a false one. It may have just been the fact that Snatcher for the Sega CD was a huge failure, and Konami didn't want to risk sinking huge amounts of money into translation and dubbing, only to get a small return, especially in a world marketplace that was looking for 3D action games, which Policenauts was not. After the release of Metal Gear Solid, Kojima was interviewed several times by the Western press about an English translation of Policenauts, but he shirked them all off, essentially saying that they should look forward to his new games and forget his old ones. Very strange words, from a rather strange man.

The original PC98 version differs substantially from the console versions. Although all versions come on CD, the console versions use full motion video for certain important cutscenes, while the PC version just uses animated stills, similar to Snatcher. The visuals in the PC version are all high resolution 640x400 static bitmaps with 16 colors, looking remarkably crisp and surprisingly colorful, despite the dithering. The console versions consist of scanned cels, with much higher color count and detail, but at a lower 320x240 resolution, which ruins some of the detail. For example, the scientist, Victor, has an AI named Gorby to help him analyze samples. In the PC98 version, he looks like a polygonal Mikhael Gorbachev, as he should, but it's made completely generic in the console versions. Some other small animations also had to be removed too. The bomb defusing sequence is much harder in the PC98 version, because the maze you have to guide the block through is viewed at a slight angle, making it difficult to see the edges. The viewpoint was changed in the console versions.

The character designs are slightly different, with the console version using the redesigns that animation studio AIC created for the cutscenes. Most of the scenes look approximately the same, but a few were completely redrawn, especially the biomort storage facility. The PC98 version looks heavily inspired by the 1982 thriller Coma, with suspended bodies in mid-air, but perhaps it was too graphic for the consoles. The PC version also features little portraits at the bottom of the screen during voiced dialogue, without subtitles, just like Snatcher. These were removed for the console versions, although it adds in text. (The PC98 version does let you turn this on once you've beaten it.)

The PC98 version also has a longer script, with more dialogue, and some events that play out slightly differently. For example, Jonathan signs a document upon giving the capsules to the BCP, which in turn is used to forge incriminating documents. And during the bomb search sequence, Ed's daughter arrives on the scene with an "authentic" purse, before her dad confesses that it's fake. In the console versions, she's nowhere to be found, and Ed just confides to Jonathan about his grievous error. There's nothing really major that was deleted, though, so it's not like console gamers are missing huge chunks of the story. The console versions also introduce summary screens, which act to bring the player up to speed upon reloading a saved game, an element carried forward to Metal Gear Solid. (Policenauts also started the Kojima tradition of showing a character's name, along with their voice actor, when they first appear onscreen.)

The opening is a bit different too. The console version starts with a flashback that shows Jonathan's accident, before moving onto the opening credits. The PC version doesn't have this and it moves straight to the credits, allowing the player to determine the backstory through the news clippings in Jonathan's office. The opening theme is also completely different - the PC version uses the (outstanding) track titled "Old LA 2040", while the other versions use a variation on the main theme "End of the Dark". "Old LA 2040" can only be heard in the console versions on Hojo's CD rack, which acts as an in-game sound test.

There are slight differences between the console versions. The first was the 3DO version, oddly enough, which used some crappy compression for the video cutscenes. (There's also a promotional retail release called Policenauts Pilot Disc, which has a short demo along with tons of artwork and storyboards, documentation from the designers, and a full database containing a glossary of all important terms. (This is fully translated online at Policenauts.net.) The second release was the PlayStation version, which has the best looking videos, but these only run at a rather choppy 15 FPS. A supplementary release called the Policenauts Private Collection was later released, which includes nearly all of the goodies from the Pilot Disc, plus the script and storyboard. Since the Pilot Disc was meant to be a demo it dances around spoilers but the Private Collection has no problem revealing the entire game. The Saturn version is the final release, and comes in a 3 CD package with a hardcover art booklet. The video looks slightly worse than the PlayStation version, but it's also a bit smoother. It also contains a few extra scenes and slightly modified story elements, making it the most comprehensive of the console releases, as well as light gun support for the shooting segments. It also has most of the goodies from the Private Collection, including the ability to look up any term in the glossary via hyperlinks in the in-game text.

Thanks to Charlie Johnson from the Junker HQ for the PC98 pics and Jonny2x4 for the info on the 3DO Pilot Disc.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Konami

Publisher:

Konami

Director:

Hideo Kojima

Genre:

Visual Novel

Themes:

Dark SciFi


Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)

Policenauts (PlayStation)


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