On Poetry, Prose, and Videogames

JLawrence Kenny

Friday Night Retro: Jet Force Gemini

on October 28, 2011

Once upon a time, video games used to be difficult. Now, I’m not talking about difficult in terms of faulty controls or infuriating design. I’m talking about the fact that gameplay used to actually be a challenge. Let’s face it, today’s gamers are soft because today’s games are too easy. (With the possible exception of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls) Gone are the days when you had to spend hours trying to master a game, progressing inch by slow inch through an area as hordes of enemies tried to end your character’s puny existence, replaced with games that baby you, and the only danger is that you might accidentally fall to your death. Strategy and intricacy have taken a back seat to beautiful graphics and brute force, and even when you beat a game, it doesn’t seem to mean as much because you didn’t really have to try too hard. So let’s take a look back at one of the hardest games I recall from my childhood, Jet Force Gemini.

Wait, how do we know those bears weren't asking for it?

Jet Force Gemini follows the story of two teenagers, Juno and Vela, and their wardog, Lupus, as they attempt to overthrow the tyrant of the universe, Mizar, and his hordes of insectoid Drone soldiers. The three go their separate ways after their ship is attacked and destroyed, progressing through a series of non-linear planets, saving the Tribal friendly units along the way, as well as an NPC named Floyd who accompanies you, before reuniting at Mizar’s Palace, where they confront the tyrant himself. They defeat him, but before they can finish him off, he escapes, vowing revenge upon the human race, and sets an asteroid hurtling towards Earth. At this, the reunited JFG team must race across all the previous planets and gather a multitude of spaceship parts to power a ship, given to them by the tribals’ King Jeff, and catch up to the asteroid. Juno descends into the asteroid alone after a rough landing, defeating Mizar for a final time, only to discover that Mizar was actually the brother of King Jeff, Barry. Unfortunately, the asteroid is no longer able to be stopped, and so the team straps a warhead to Floyd, who proceeds to fly into the center of the asteroid and detonate, vaporizing the rock mere miles before it impacts into Earth, saving the planet.

Damn, Mizar, you ugly!

I have to admit that when I was a child, I never actually beat this game. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was going through a nostalgic phase, that I booted up my Nintendo 64 and ripped my way through this game, and it was just as hard as I remember. The non-linear levels, combined with enemies that were not as dumb as rocks, made the game a genuine challenge. Ammo needed to be conserved, surroundings had to be observed, different doors opened under different circumstances. It’s not a game you could just run through blindly and hope for the best. It required on-the-run thinking and knowledge of the enemies you were facing, so you could react appropriately before you were killed. The control scheme was sometimes criticized, but I found that after an hour or so of gameplay, the controls became second nature, and were actually rather fluid, really allowing the player to cycle between two different play styles: a third-person platforming mode, useful for moving around the worlds, and a first-person shooting mode, obviously useful for combat. It’s a method that hasn’t seen much use since, which I find strange, considering how well it lent itself to the game.

And a merchant who still charged you despite being in mortal peril.

Jet Force Gemini has also received mountains of praise for multiple reasons. Besides the non-linear game path, something that, with few exceptions, just plain does not exist in today’s video games, for the time it had superb graphics, with great diversity, color, and lighting effects, though the game was known to lag slightly if too many enemies were on the screen at once. The soundtrack was amazing, even by today’s standards, forgoing the usual techno-like music that is so common in sci-fi for more classical sounding music, which really adds to the atmosphere of the game. These two elements combined to give the game a very gritty, harsh, and realistic tone to it, treating its audience as adults. Planets like Tawfret still give me the chills, as the level is filled with mist, with enemies that jump out from behind every corner, enemies that exploded in a shower of bug guts, and even zombie drones. The enemy AI, as mentioned before, do not have the intelligence of rocks, and there is a satisfying variety of them, from snipers to soldiers to giant tank-like drones. Likewise, your arsenal, while somewhat limited, is very diverse, each weapon  completely different from the others, from machine-gun, to rocket launcher, and even a tazer. When the player recruits Floyd, he accompanies you as an ally that automatically targets enemies, but also has the option of playing co-operatively with a friend controlling him instead, which is great if you have a friend who enjoys the game, but hasn’t quite gotten the hang of it yet. One of the few genuine concerns with the game’s difficulty, however, was the fact that you had to rescue every single Tribal in the game to defeat it, which could get very tedious in certain areas where enemies would specifically search out and kill them before you could rescue them. The game also had an multiplayer mode which put the players on an automated shooting course, where they competed to kill the most enemies, but it wasn’t very engaging; the focus was on the story mode, and rightfully so.

And to close, here's that cute puppy again. Aaawwwww!

Games like this make me long for the days when I couldn’t just sit down and beat a game in one sitting. While I find video games today just as enjoyable, the focus has shifted to games that look good with as little effort as possible, both from the point of the developer and the gamer. Jet Force Gemini is a perfect example of when a game took a long time to beat because the focus of the game was on the journey rather than the outcome, which made it all the better when you actually beat the game. You EARNED those credits, damnit, and you were going to enjoy watching those names scroll by as you laughed at their futile attempt to confound and defeat you. I look forward to the day when games like this become popular again, but until then, I’ll just sit here with my Nintendo 64 reminiscing.


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