"Iím generally okay with fetch quests Ė hell, half of my N64 career was positively made of fetch quests Ė but Rare bumps it up a notch. They obscure some of the Tribals from regular view. The others are thrown out into the open, where theyíre more likely to get killed by stray gunfire. Whatís worse is that worlds are divided into districts, and youíve got to collect all of an areaís Tribals before you leave. If an area has ten Tribals and you save nine, you canít come back later and rescue the one that you missed. Youíve got to get them all in one fell swoop. Itís not simply tiring Ė itís exhausting."
Hang around gaming message boards long enough and youíre bound to eventually stumble into a debate about how old games should be scored, whether they should be viewed in the context of their own era or judged based upon todayís standards. Iíve always been a supporter of the former argument. Games canít be expected to hold up after ten years or so, especially when other games in the same genre have likely improved and evolved, as new standards are constantly being set. Perhaps the question of whether a retro game is still entertaining today is more relevant, but Iím a pretty lenient guy.
But what if time simply works to expose the flaws that have always been there, the flaws we were simply too naÔve to notice earlier? Thatís an entirely different story, and boy, have I got the specimen for you. Itís called Jet Force Gemini, and itís a game I loved until I realized it wasnít worth loving.
And maddeningly, itís got a lot going for it. British developer Rare is likely responsible for more N64 classics than Nintendo itself, and the attention to detail present in Gemini proves that even when they screw up, their production values are typically top-notch Ė these guys always deserve an A for effort. ďEpicĒ isnít usually a word Iíd use to describe a third-person shooter, but thereís an undeniably vast quality to the sheer scope and scale of this adventure. It follows three different characters and spans a number of planets, and Rare has taken care to give each world a distinct atmosphere, a feat of both the variety in visual design and the musical score. Kudos to regular Rare composer Robin Beanland on that last point Ė his soundtracks always tend to be catchy, but this feels like an evolution of his talents, so grand and orchestral and beyond anything else heís ever done, it feels like it was pulled out of a piece of classic sci-fi cinema.
Thereís also the option of running the game in widescreen Ė nearly unheard of at the time of its release Ė and the wealth of unlockable content, the sweet shooting gallery-style boss battles, and the excellent two-player co-op mode. Rare poured a lot of effort into making Gemini all that it could be, which is a shame when you consider how quickly the game loses appeal for the simplest missteps.
Iíve always considered the N64 controller very poorly designed, good for platformers and Zelda and not much else. Rareís compromise for their FPSs (Goldeneye and Perfect Dark) was fine even if itíd never work by todayís standards, and I donít blame them for (and can even sympathize with) their struggle to cram Geminiís convoluted control scheme onto the cruddy N64 pad. But that doesnít make the game any easier to play.
Basic movement is handled with the analog stick, as youíd expect, while the C buttons are used for specific movement-related actions like jumping, crouching, and strafing. If combat really heats up and this control scheme doesnít suffice, you can hold the R shoulder button, during which you can move with the C buttons and aim with the analog stick Ė a backwards attempt at pulling off dual analog control with only one analog stick that will take some time to get used to, unless youíve played a lot of Turok. With the A and B buttons devoted to cycling through weapons and the Z trigger used for firing, youíll notice weíve now used up all available controller resources and we still havenít incorporated any sort of camera system. Indeed, the camera is often too low to the ground and isnít always facing the direction youíd like it to, which leads to a lot of sensing as to where your enemies are located. Thereís a bit of auto-aim present here, but whereas other games use that sort of thing for assistance, in Gemini it feels like a way to correct one of the gameís key flaws.
Then thereís also the issue of aiming with the R button and analog stick, which by all means should correct the camera problem as long as youíre willing to sacrifice jumping and crouching. Trouble arises when you realize that the targeting reticle never stays in the same place, absolutely flying all over the screen as youíre struggling to hit enemies that are moving fast and shooting at you. Whatís worse is that Ė in contrast to the slippery reticle Ė turning is way too slow, which can be a major detriment in an adventure as action-packed as this one. I wound up avoiding the use of the R button unless it was absolutely necessary, when in fact it should have been a key factor in how I played Gemini.
The game follows a trio of intergalactic mercenaries as they struggle to save the race of meek, defenseless Tribals from the wicked Drones, an army of oversized bugs that go splat when you shoot them. The group is comprised of a guy, a girl, and a dog with a gun strapped to his back Ė and I donít care what you say, a dog with a gun strapped to his back makes any game better. Rare gave each of these characters their own abilities, which provide specific options when it comes to exploration. Juno doesnít get hurt by lava, for example, which makes him the prime candidate to traverse a volcanic planet later on in the game. Vela can swim underwater, which automatically gives her access to places the other two canít get to. Ditto for Lupus the dog, who can hover over large gaps.
For a while, he game follows a reliable get-to-the-end-of-the-level design that places the Tribal-saving plot into the background, as nothing more than a side quest, since we know how much the guys at Rare love their collect-a-thons. Our heroes are separated at the beginning of the game, and youíll constantly be switching between the three as their paths eventually lead them to reunite on a planet that appears to be the Dronesí base of operations. Thereís a climactic boss battle against the main villain. Even with the wretched control scheme in mind, the game is still pretty entertaining up to this point.
The fun ends when you realize the game is only half over, and a character tells you that youíve now got to go back and save all of the Tribals, which means going back to planets youíve already been to as well as exploring new ones. Iím generally okay with fetch quests Ė hell, half of my N64 career was positively made of fetch quests Ė but Rare bumps it up a notch. They obscure some of the Tribals from regular view. The others are thrown out into the open, where theyíre more likely to get killed by stray gunfire. Whatís worse is that worlds are divided into districts, and youíve got to collect all of an areaís Tribals before you leave. If an area has ten Tribals and you save nine, you canít come back later and rescue the one that you missed. Youíve got to get them all in one fell swoop.
This approach was simply the wrong one, especially considering how much I enjoyed myself for the first half of the game. Rare at least demonstrates their talent for foreshadowing here: Why is there an underwater tunnel in one of Junoís levels, or a pit of lava in one of Velaís? And what are these fuel pads I keep seeing everywhere? The playerís motivation to explore is definitely there, and I would have no trouble with this Tribal rubbish if it were merely a side quest. But the fact that I need to collect all of them, and the tedium involved in doing so, stops this adventure in its tracks.
And as I said, itís frustrating because there are a lot of reasons to enjoy Gemini. Rareís trademark googly-eyed visual style is notably absent, but the game still has cuteness to spare, especially in the supporting charactersí warbled voices. This only makes it all the more shocking when you delve into combat for the first time and realize just how hilariously gory it is. Drones donít simply die. They explode into a thousand bloody pieces as ant guts splatter all over the walls. Itís not realistic or particularly offensive Ė the game did snag a T rating, after all Ė but itís amazingly fun to watch, an instant reward for any kill. Before this juxtaposition of cuteness and carnage was made blatant and obvious in Conkerís Bad Fur Day, there was Gemini.
Gore is satisfying, thereís no doubt about it, and when itís incorporated so gratuitously into a gameís design, as it is with Gemini, it becomes a selling point. Damned if Gemini isnít the best crappy game Iíve ever played.
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