5 Pioneering games that time forgot part 2

Body Harvest (N64)

Without it we might not have had: GTA, Just Cause, Assassins Creed.

What did it pioneer? 3D Sandbox environments (in console games).

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but sandbox games are a big deal these days. It’s not really surprising since they represent the pinnacle of what modern gaming hardware can accomplish; wide open worlds where you can go where you please and do anything you want, whenever you want. It’s a style of play that’s given us a rather gratifying amount of freedom from the linear style progression that’s been the foundation of games since Atari era, and for pioneering that experience I think we owe 1998’s Body Harvest by DMA Design a debt of gratitude.

But just so we’re clear, I am in no way saying 3D sandbox games didn’t exist before Body Harvest. Hunter for the Amiga and Atari ST is generally considered to be the first of its kind, and it came out way back in 1991. Further more, Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall for the PC which came out in 1996 is still to date largest 3D sandbox in gaming history by a significant margin, dwarfing all competition at a staggering 62,394 square miles large. To put that into perspective: you could fit the ginormous Just Cause 2 into Daggerfall 155 times and still have enough room for the entirety of Azeroth.  In some ways Body Harvest it wasn’t even the first 3D open world game on a console either, you could easily argue that Mario 64 beat it to the punch on that one by a long way.

But the concept itself isn’t the issue here, it’s the scope and the platform. True 3D sandbox games as we know them, ones that span many towns and cities, were the soul privilege of PC gamers for longest of times. Consoles simply weren’t capable of providing a decent enough large scale environments that people actually wanted to explore the way we do now. It essentially locked a vast majority of gamers, particularly the younger sort, out of the whole experience of a sandbox game entirely. That is, until Body Harvest came along and showed us how it was done! Not that many people noticed of course.

What was it? A bunch of open worlds anda collection of tools to blow them up with.

In short, Body Harvest was ambitious, violent, innovative and downright awesome in a lot of ways. But like most games of the era it had a fairly simple premise. You play Adam Drake, a space marine sent back in time to prevent various attacks on the human race by alien insects at different points in earth’s history. Each time period had its own unique fairly large (for the time) sandbox to explore, with the overall mission in each being to find and destroy the shield generator that keeps the local populace at the alien’s mercy.

These sandboxes had just about everything we would associate with a modern open world game: guns, cars, missions, side missions, hidden collectibles and most importantly, vehicles you could steal at the touch of a button. Those vehicles weren’t just bog-standard cars either; you could jack anything from a submarine to a helicopter, all of which were period specific to each time frame. It really puts a lot of contemporary Sandboxes to shame in terms of variety.

Another thing it had in common with modern sandboxes (one that I doubt Nintendo was best pleased about) was the ability to slaughter innocent civilians at a whim and watch them collapse into a pool of their own blood after giving off one final scream of pain. It was pretty graphic stuff for the time but at least the developers put in a mechanism to help keep homicidal tendencies in check, which is probably how it got away with only a T rating.

Just below your own health bar was a second gauge that measured the number of civilians that had been “harvested” by aliens or killed by your actions in that time period, and should that gauge ever be filled to the max then you would automatically get a game over. It’s a somewhat far cry from today’s open world games that more often than not encourage relentless carnage, but that’s not to say you couldn’t raise a little hell in Body Harvest if you wanted to! Plenty of buildings and objects could be bulldozed over or obliterated with heavy ordnance if you so desired, something that even games aimed at the PC master race didn’t really offer back then.

Why was it forgotten? Mistargeted, ugly and more bad timing.

Despite managing to do fairly well with what passed for video game “critics” in the 90s, Body Harvest had the same problem as WinBack: the horrible misfortune of being released on the N64. A beautiful console yes, but also one where the games had to retail at an absolutely staggering £72/$117 (accounting for late 90s UK inflation) just to cover the construction costs of those lovely cartridges. Essentially that meant if you wanted to buy an N64 game it had to look and sound pretty damn good to be worth the money.

That “Looks good” part was a bit of a problem for Body Harvest, as even by the very low standards of the time it looked absolutely ghastly. Which is no surprise considering it was originally meant to be a launch title for the N64, but due to the objections by Shigeru Miyamoto over the games adult content it ended up getting delayed by nearly 2 years. It was also a completely new IP, which just like today meant that there was no brand awareness to act as any sort of guarantee of the games quality to potential buyers. DMA couldn’t even rely on their successful Lemmings franchise for leverage, as this was WAY before most console gamers were savvy enough to bother tracking who made what.

You also had the little problem that the N64 (and console gaming in general) was primarily aimed at youngsters at the time, people who were unlikely to have £72 worth of wonga as pocket money. The result of that was that the purchase of games, and ultimately the selection process itself, was likely to be performed by parents on the prowl for anything that might harm their poor little child’s psyche. So let’s do a little role play; Imagine you’re an average parent in ‘98 on the lookout for a nice little game for your child to play on their “Nintendo”. Let take a look what’s out at the moment:

Banjo Kazooi, a game about a cute animated cartoon like bear called Bajo and his bird buddy Kazooie on a quest to rescue Banjo’s sister form an evil wicked witch. Well, that sounds pretty wholesome doesn’t it! I’m sure they’ll love it. Hmm let’s see what else is here before we decide though….

………OH MY!

Yeah, the cover art (in Europe at least) didn’t really do Body Harvest any favours, especially as it featured what appears at first glance to be a pair of exposed buttocks. Even if the parents got as far as reading the back of the box they would likely find its subject matter off-putting enough to give it a miss in favour of something else a little more low key.

To top it all off, Body Harvest had the absolute motherload of misfortune by being released a matter of weeks before what is considered by many to be one of the greatest games ever created.

………OH MY!

Yeah, the cover art (in Europe at least) didn’t really do Body Harvest any favours, especially as it featured what appears at first glance to be a pair of exposed buttocks. Even if the parents got as far as reading the back of the box they would likely find its subject matter off-putting enough to give it a miss in favour of something else a little more low key.

To top it all off, Body Harvest had the absolute motherload of misfortune by being released a matter of weeks before what is considered by many to be one of the greatest games ever created.

Yes THAT Rockstar. The guys who like making the game industry their bitch on a regular basis, usually via their somewhat renowned Grand Theft Auto franchise. The GTAs were already a successful 2D sandbox series at the time of Body Harvest’s release, and that was despite (or as some argue, because of) what would later Rockstar’s trademark: the deafening howls of angry parents who were utterly convinced GTA was the spawn of Satan himself.

But when Rockstar combined GTA with the 3D sandbox elements they had pioneered with Body Harvest in order to make GTA3 in 2001, THAT’S when shit got real. That’s when devs started realising that making 3D sandbox games on consoles was kinda awesome (read: profitable) that’s when almost everybody started calling every sandbox game a GTA clone, and that’s when the course of game design was forever changed.

But without Body Harvest, there’s a good chance none of that would have been possible. For all we know the very idea of having a 3D sandbox game on a console and not a PC could have still sounded absurd by now, much like how the idea of a console based RTS is still considered fairly ridiculous. But either way, Body Harvest was rocking the 3D sandbox on consoles WAY before it was cool. Oh, and it was pretty damm fun too!

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: