I am sure not to be the first one proclaiming this, but we are in the middle of our second British invasion (the first was when the Beatles first arrived on these shores). Yes, there are the tone-deaf balladeers (aka: the Spice Girls) assaulting us with lame-stream music and capturing the hearts and minds of young girls all over, but the invasion I'm actually referring to is the one in the video game industry. Small British development houses like DMA Design and Core Design have come onto the scene and made a name for themselves. But one company, in particular, has come on big and created some of the most beloved games the industry has ever seen with wonders like Golden Eye 007 and Banjo Kazooie. I'm speaking of Rare, of course, a developer who seems bent on raising the bar for everyone with each release and with Jet Force Gemini, they seem to be even more driven to do so. Jet Force Gemini has everything an action game fan could want and more. It has big explosions, big guns, and big special effects. And, oh yes, it also has two teens on a quest to save the world in order to save a planet of furry Ewok-like creatures (Tribals) from a race of marauding ants. But despite Jet Force Gemini's very strange premise, no one doubted Rare's ability to pull it off. After giving it a go, however, I am inclined to think that Rare bit off more than they could chew.
Graphically, I must say that Rare has surpassed even Nintendo's mighty internal development team, EAD. Jet Force Gemini comes packed with what have to be the most beautiful graphics I've ever seen on the Nintendo 64, period. The worlds are incredibly huge and, in some areas, I could see for "miles around." In later levels, Rare turns things up a notch further and includes many more special effects such as light-sourcing and reflections and did it so well that I was indeed floored every time I entered a new room or level. And the same holds true for the sound department. Rare has somehow managed to create excellent game sounds and music in Dolby Surround Sound with little to no hits in the framerate department. It's hard to ignore such mastery and I was all ready to commend them for sticking to their policy of never releasing a game until it was perfect. But once I got past the first stage, everything seemed to be thrown at me at once and it never slowed (at least not in a good way).
It starts with the graphics, because they are certainly hard to ignore; they are absolutely spectacular but they quickly become a hindrance to the game overall. With all the special effects, textures, and polygons onscreen, whenever the action heated up, the framerate would become erratic. This problem is highly noticeable because on most levels, ants would storm at me relentlessly and the combination of their numbers with the flashy explosions from my weapons would slow the action down to a crawl. And this especially strange when one considers that when reporters repeatedly asked Rare if having extra memory would help the game, Rare dismissed the thought. Well I'm here to tell you and them that it was a major mistake on their part.
Almost from the beginning, people who saw the character designs were scratching their heads. Jet Force Gemini was supposed to be a juxtaposition of cute mascot-like characters and violent, gory action, but it never worked out. Even after they were redone to be more mainstream, they still looked unnatural and downright creepy. I was grateful that I spent most of the game looking at their backs but when it came to Vela (in her too-short skirt), I couldn't shake this uneasy feeling I had while playing as her. It just makes me wonder what the artists were on when they came up with these designs. I mean, someone must have thought the Yellow submarine album was attractive too.
I really don't think this game spent a lot of time in playtesting, because if it did, at some point during the process, someone would have asked, "are we putting too much into this game?" And if someone had made such an inquiry, we would have had a more focused game with fewer loose strands. Jet Force Gemini plays like an over-the-shoulder shooter that wants to be a first-person shooter. It gives me platforms and all sorts of obstacles, but not a realistic way to negotiate them without undue difficulty. Half the time, I felt totally out of control. My character was always sliding around the terrain and this only seemed to worsen when I needed the character to be most solid. If I ran left, my character would run left but when I took my hand off the analog stick, Juno or Vela or whomever would continue taking steps. Can you imagine dealing with this while trying to creep across a ledge? I had to constantly jiggle the stick to keep the character walking in any semblance of a straight line and, many times, I still fell off the ledge. Plus, it only gets worse when in battle.
During battles, I would try to run around an enemy or avoid his attacks if he was in close proximity, but the controls and camera angles screwed all that up. If I got close to an enemy I couldn't lock onto and wanted to run around him, the camera would, for no reason at all, swoop down and lock in just over my shoulder and obscuring my view of the enemy. It forced me to stop and wait for the camera to return to its default position, meanwhile hoping the whole time that I wouldn't be killed by the same enemy who was now in my "blind spot". Rare added a cool feature with which I could lock onto enemies perched high on ledges or in trees and shoot them down. The problem is that the analog control is anything but precise and I would usually end up spending more time missing and getting shot by my target as well as by other enemies onscreen.
The sheer size of the game is the game's Achilles Heel. In my quest to stop (the evil) Mizar from enslaving all of the Tribals and rescuing them, I also have to waste as many ants as possible. Let me stress that you will NOT get credit for beating the game unless you rescue ALL of the Tribals. These Tribals are prone to, at times, hiding in the most inaccessible of places throughout the game so I needed Vela and Lupus (and their unique abilities) to find the missing Tribals. But there are a few catches. For one, I had to start the game over and go through previously-completed levels to find the little critters. And this is no small task because these levels are probably the largest of any N64 game, including Zelda 64. Going through each level three times becomes majorly tedious and Rare is unusually stingy with their clues so getting around and finding them also lead a lot of pointless legwork. To make matters worse, the Tribals are often hidden right next to enemies perched on ledges or behind flammable barrels. So, oftentimes, if I didn't shoot the little fluffballs by accident while aiming for the ants, I may inadvertently blow them up with a flaming barrel or two. Hence, there went my continue and there goes my patience.
We've benefitted greatly from the first British Invasion. The Beatles have changed music (and an entire generation, many would say) and their impact is felt to this day and they will always have a place in the hearts of music fans. I don't think that it's too much of a stretch to say the same about Rare. After all, their games have made the top 20 of most Best Game Ever Made lists and they have sold the kind of numbers that have only been surpassed by Nintendo itself. It's no doubt that people will buy this game going on the Rare name alone, but for those who have yet to do so, I warn you to rent this game first, because this is certain to not be the gem that many had expected. Rare came to the table with a product that was intended to be off the wall and would blow away everyone in every category and the intentions are indeed clear and good. The problem is, however, that the final product collapses under its own weight. It is actually too big and packed with too many explosions, too many great sights, too many levels, too many enemies, and WAY too many Tribals. All other miscues like bad control, framerate-slowdown, and camera angles further bury a game that could have soared high based on its graphics and sound alone. Jet Force Gemini is not standard Rare-fare and maybe, just maybe, they simply had their own version of a Yoko Ono whispering in their ear (as the Beatles had) and have only been temporarily misled. It's not too bad because I'm hearing good things about Donkey Kong 64, in which case, Jet Force Gemini may just be one of life's reminders that with the good, you get the bad.