If I had god-like powers and could view the whole of the past, find everyone involved, see all of their thoughts, and know all of their motivations, I would steer my omnipotence right in the direction of the people making N64 games back in the late 90’s, because, seriously, what the hell was going on there?
Final Fantasy 7 was a revelation for the entire console generation, for good or ill. Its repercussions are still being felt today (Cloud 4 Smash 4 Real!), but back in 1997, it shifted the entire paradigm of gaming. Yes, there had been six or so Final Fantasy games prior to Barret’s Big Adventure, but Final Fantasy 7 was the one that lit the gaming world ablaze, guaranteeing the fledgling Sony Playstation’s dominance not only for the remainder of the generation, but decades to come. JRPGs, with their wealth of FMVs and “mature” storytelling, became the dominant genre, and everything from platformers to board games started touting “RPG elements” and “eighty hours of gameplay”. The Playstation was flooded with every RPG you could imagine: the inevitable Final Fantasy sequels, the Western-themed Wild Arms franchise, the perpetual second banana Breath of Fire continuation, anime moon simulator Lunar, 108 Suikoden games, and even some more experimental nonsense, like the criminally underrated Legend of Legaia, or the “getting there” Koudelka. There was a half-finished JRPG with giant robots and a stuffed animal battling a cannibalistic god for the sake of a world where everyone was already dead, and it somehow sold like gangbusters. The JRPG was the defining genre for the generation.
Which begs the question: why didn’t anyone give that a shot on the N64?
Yes, there were technical limitations. For everyone that played JRPGs for their story and mechanics, there were probably a greater number of people that only showed up for the FMVs and voice acting, which wasn’t going to happen back in the House of Mario 64. And the N64 kind of demanded polygons, so kiss any idea of “cute” JRPG sprites good-bye, it’s all blocky square dudes, all the time. But beyond that, there’s no good reason a game copying the good ol’ Fight / Magic / Item / Run of classic JRPGs couldn’t pass on the N64. There’s nothing saying polygons can’t tell a good story, and that silly controller could certainly allow for quick menu navigation.
But, no, Nintendo’s home consoles went from blockbuster JRPGs like Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger to the likes of Quest 64, a game that sucked the magic out of the very concept of magic. Ogre Battle 64 might have been the “mature” TRPG title that N64 owners were clamoring for, but when it was pitted against Final Fantasy 8, well, the battle was ogre before it began. I’d claim that the only good RPG on the whole of the system was Nintendo’s own Paper Mario, but that was a title that came far too late, and, for the predominantly “edgy teenage” JRPG fan club, too cutesy. And this was all amid the time period that Pokémon ruled the portable realm, so it’s not like Nintendo didn’t understand the appeal of a good, mechanics based JRPG.
So, while Square had wandered off to greener, disc-based pastures, you’d expect some company would decide to step in and fill the niche that so desperately wanted to be filled. Good ol’ Konami decided to give it a go in ’99, and created a confusing mutant of a game.
Hybrid Heaven has a lot of features that were associated with Playstation JRPGS. It’s got voice acting and cinema scenes, it’s got oddly shaped polygon people, and it’s even got a plot that is completely bonkers. I can’t help but feel a bit of nationalistic pride at the fact that the crazy plot is very America based, complete with a plot on the life of the (fictional) President, and a very important meeting on the White House Lawn for Big Fat American Christmas (and not Crazy Valentine’s Day Japanese Christmas). But back to its Japanese forbearers, this is a game featuring a super SOLDIER… err… soldier who suffers from random plot-based amnesia thanks to cloning another dude, and does its best to not clue the player in to anything that is happening until the villain decides to stop by and monologue about how everything is going according to plan and thanks for doing his job for him by helping a mysterious alien consciousness along in its machinations. It’s a pretty stock plot (in America!), but the public was eating that kind of thing up with a spoon at the time, so I can’t really disparage it for that.
But I can disparage Hybrid Heaven for its gameplay, because, holy cow, I can’t remember the last time I saw a game this… confused. I don’t know how much of it is an exaggeration, but I’ve heard many tales of Final Fantasy 13’s production, and how different areas were designed by different teams, and, when it was time to release the game, everything was just stitched together, so pretty crystal area was connected to dirty industrial area and then theme park world to haphazardly create a faux-cohesive planet (or two). I definitely played through the entirety of Final Fantasy 13, and I can say that, unlike every Final Fantasy before it, I could not ever get a feel for Planet Cocoon and its unusual geography, so the game did suffer for its seemingly random layout. Hybrid Heaven seems to suffer from the same issue, but this time it’s a constantly shifting gameplay that refuses to allow the player to “learn” the game.
To take the first area as an example, after falling off an elevator, Slater (in disguise as Mr. Diaz) falls into an installation that initially appears vaguely town-like. There’s a dude talking about keycards and changing codes and it’s all very relaxed and “opening town”. Then there’s these little security bot things, and they’re attacking you, and it’s pretty much like an action game: you can jump, crawl, sneak, and, most importantly, aim your “disrupter” (gun) at the little buggers, and blow them straight to robot hell. Complete with the little HP ring up in the top corner, by all accounts, this game looks like a 3-D action game, and the next area reinforces that by forcing Slater to literally jump up some steps and shoot some crates and panels. Then, after some cryptic nonsense, a hybrid is released, and, yeah, it’s cool, I’ve got this, I’ll just jump over him and shoot my gun and… what? It’s a RPG battle system now?
The meat of the combat in Hybrid Heaven occurs in JRPG-like battle menus meant to simulate the same ol’ fight/magic/item of JRPGs. However, the significant difference here is that it is much more “action” based, which sounded good in Nintendo Power, but in practice, it means that while your ATB-wannabe gauge is filling up, you’re scampering around the arena trying not to get slapped around. Assuming you are tagged, you’re basically stuck playing rock/paper/scissors and guessing which direction that wily monster is going to attack. Once your gauge is full (or thereabouts) you can unleash your own attack (including a variety of fun wrestling moves, because I guess grappling with aliens seems like a good idea), and hope the AI isn’t reading your inputs and dodging appropriately.
In theory, this entire battle system could be something new and interesting. In practice, it’s Tekken, but with extra pauses. A lot of extra pauses. And if you think that comparison occurred in a vacuum, go ahead and look up Hybrid Heaven’s two player mode. Or don’t, and live in a better world.
And the game continues in this way, neither fish nor fowl. The odd thing is that it never seems to take any one system too seriously: you can be horrible at dodging “action” robots or “RPG” aliens alike, and still survive on the bevy of healing items that are provided along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want this game to be Resident Evil, I like having healing ready at a moment’s notice, but it seems to put the nuance of the rest of the game out to pasture the minute you realize you can likely just “tank” through a number of challenges. And you know what happens when that becomes a significant factor in the game? It makes a healthy chunk of the gameplay just seem like a waste of time between cutscenes. Good job, Konami, you just emulated the worst part of JRPGs.
There’s a trace of a good, interesting game here, but Hybrid Heaven is nowhere near the experience the N64 kids were clamoring for. The system that desperately thirsted for a Final Fantasy 7 “killer” was left with a wild action/JRPG hybrid (ha!) that tried and failed to please disparate masters. It’s a poor action game, it’s a poor RPG, and, really, this was never going to beat Final Fantasy 7 in any conceivable way.
Well, unless Final Fantasy 7 HD finally allows Cloud to piledrive Jenova…
FGC #63 Hybrid Heaven
- System: N64, and I wouldn’t hold my breath for that Virtual Console release.
- Number of Players: Two, thanks to a very odd Versus Mode. Just go ahead and fire that one up with a friend blind sometime. Don’t explain anything, and see what happens. Spoilers: you lose a friend.
- A little bitter, aren’t we? I swear this is the last N64 game I complain about. I just… it was supposed to be yet another game that put those Playstation fanboys in their place, and this game is forever lodged in my memory as one of the first games I ever received (Christmas gift, incidentally), played, and then nearly never played again. I finally beat it years later when I had far too much time on my hands, but I want to say this was the first game that I “bought” based on hype and then barely touched. Wouldn’t be the last…
- N64 Woes: You can only save to a Controller Pak, and then you are prompted to switch out the Pak for a Rumble Pak at every single save point. It’s just as cumbersome and stupid as it sounds. Here’s a fun activity: write an essay persuasively arguing the case for the Controller Pak being at all a good idea for gamers. Submit your essay, and if I find it at all worthy of merit, I shall grant thee a boon of thine choosing.
- Did you notice? All the captures are from the first half hour of the game, because I don’t have any idea where my save file for this game has gotten to (ever try searching through N64 Controller Paks?), and I wasn’t going to waste anymore of my life trying to find the proper keycards to progress or whatever. Those long, boring JRPG battles respawn when you leave a room, and, man, there are other games I could be playing.
- Did you know? According to various preview sources, this game was originally intended for the 64DD, the doomed disc-drive expansion for the N64. Oh, I wonder if the lack of JRPGs on the N64 was because Nintendo was putting all its eggs in the eventually-migrated Mother 3 basket. Hm. I want to say a successful Mother 3 launch could have tipped the JRPG scales back into Nintendo’s favor, but, then again, Nintendo of America has never known how to market a Mother game, so it probably would have been another Mega Buster shot bouncing off the Met that was the Playstation. Probably worked out for the best in the end… assuming Mother 3 ever gets an official translation…
- Would I play again? No.
What’s Next? Wildcat JF has chosen… Elevator Action Returns aka Elevator Action 2! Do I… Did this game even come out in America? Guess we’ll find out as we meet gaming legend Jad the Taff. Please look forward to it!