SSPA – Congo: The Lost City of Zinj

Author Michael Crichton often dabbled in other skills besides writing. He directed the sci-fi film Westworld in 1973, and later the period piece The Great Train Robbery in ’79. In the early 80’s, Crichton started to get interested in computer games. He taught himself basic, and after teaming up with a programmer and artist, set about designing an adventure game around his recently released jungle adventure novel Congo. Unfortunately for the project, Crichton did not realize that he had already sold the rights to the novel and could not base their game on it. After some hasty tweaks and alterations, Crichton and his team released Amazon. In essence it is the same story as Congo, but with a change of setting, some characters renamed, and set pieces altered.

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At this time, Crichton had been in the process of writing a screenplay based on Congo. After a couple of failed attempts to get a film made, the project was shelved. Then, in the 90’s, Steven Spielberg directed the adaptation of Jurassic Park. That film was so successful it lead to tons of merchandise. Games, comics, toys, and sequels proved Crichton’s work to be just as loved then as it had been in the past. Paramount pictures picked up the film rights to Congo and in 1995, the film was at last made.

The movie was a total flop. Not only were major elements of the novel changed for the worse, but the acting was subpar, and the make up effects for the gorillas, a major part of the story, were very poorly handled. Paramount had been in the process of designing video games to tie into the film, a 2D game for both the SNES and Genesis, and a 3D game for the Sega Saturn. Of the two only one saw the light of day. In 1996, Congo the Movie: The Lost City of Zinj was released. It received a lukewarm reception and has largely been forgotten, but as a fan of Crichton’s original novel, I was curious and acquired a copy.

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Story:

The telecommunications company Travicom has been working on experimental technology to revolutionize satellite communications. This tech is a specially designed, high power laser that could allow near instantaneous communication with their satellite network from anywhere on the planet. However, for the laser to work it must be focused through industrial diamonds with a specific impurity. While searching for a natural source of such diamonds, Travicom finds reason to believe in the existence of the fabled lost city of Zinj deep in the rainforests of the Congo. An expedition is formed to find the lost city. Although the operation begins smoothly, contact is lost after the team flies over the deep jungle. A short while later, a transmission is received from one of the team leaders, Butembo Kabalo, a survivalist and hunter. Kabalo reports that the transport plane crashed and that he has seen no other survivors. With no means of extraction, and only one-way contact with Travicom, Kabalo resolves to follow the original mission plan and find the lost city of Zinj.

The game is loosely based on the Paramount film adaptation of Crichton’s novel. None of the characters from the film appear and outside of a cutscene at the start and end of the game, there is very little plot. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the slim story allows the atmosphere of the dense jungle take center stage, while the story takes a backseat to gameplay.

Gameplay:

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Congo is a first person shooter in the vein of games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. You must navigate through jungles, mountains, and ancient ruins, finding an assortment of weapons on your way. As a secondary objective, there are a number of diamonds to find in each level, and if you find all of them in a level, you will receive a supply drop at the start of the next level, which increases your maximum ammo capacity. The Diamonds also have a secondary purpose as the ammo for the Phasic laser, a powerful weapon fashioned from Travicom’s experimental comms system. The laser is an optional weapon that you have to find the parts for in a later level. Because there are only so many diamonds in a level, the laser can only be used so often before it is useless. The more gems you collect early in the game, the more you will be able to use the laser in later levels against more powerful enemies. The limited ammo gives a little more depth to the exploration and combat, forcing you to be watchful while exploring and mindful about using the laser.

The levels are somewhat maze like, but are on the whole pretty straight forward. Some levels have different obstacles like earthquakes, pit traps, or platforming challenges. You have a mini map in the corner of the screen and the area you have covered is marked by a line you leave behind yourself, making it clear where you have been. Exploring the levels also forms a level map in your pause menu, however there are secret ammo and health caches that are only vaguely hinted at on the map. Your mini map also displays the position of enemies and projectiles.

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The enemies range from generic to a little crazy. You’ll fight the usual giant spiders, mosquitoes, and lizards usual to jungle games, but soon you’ll encounter the aggressive grey gorillas from the story. They attack by either swarming you or by throwing rocks from a distance. On the stranger side of things you’ll encounter flying bat-ape hybrids, fire and dart spitting totems, and multi headed snakes that poison you. The poison doesn’t do persistent damage, instead the screen will periodically distort and your movement controls will be reversed. The only way to counter this is by finding antidote vials, and there are only a few in each level. Luckily, most enemies stay dead after taking them out, but there are a few spots where they respawn, or are triggered to respawn. This can be a deterrent to exploration, but most of the enemies stay down. Combat can get very hectic and in some areas the bad camera and fuzzy graphics will force you to rely more on the minimap to fight.

The game can be rather difficult, mainly of the slightly floaty control, and slow camera. Your progress is automatically saved at the start of each level, and when you die, you can immediately use an extra life right then and there, losing no time upon death. However, there are no continues. Once you use all your lives, it’s game over and back to the title screen. Extra lives are very scarce, forcing you to choose between starting a level over and going that little extra bit farther.

On this note, the game does something that will most definitely discourage new players. When you get a game over, with no lives left, THE GAME ERASES YOUR SAVE FILE! There is no defending this. No matter how far in you are, if you lose all your lives, you do not get to try again. I suppose the idea is that at death, you are expected to start the level over, but why would the game completely delete your progress? What is worse is that the easiest difficulty level only lets you play the first few levels. If you want to see the end then you have to play on a harder mode, so you had better be fantastic at this game or have a Pro Action Replay cheat device to get unlimited lives. There are no cheat codes that I know of and no level select option. This may be the deal breaker for most players.

Presentation:

3D was never the Sega Saturn’s strong suit. The system tends to do better with 2D animation, while most of its 3D games tend to look undefined and muddy. Congo is a full 3D game with the environments rendered in 3D, with the items and enemies being animated 2D sprites. This set up has its drawbacks and advantages. On the plus side, the sprites are easier for the system to render and have pretty decent animation, despite looking a little cartoony. The biggest drawback to the 3D graphics is how hard they are for the system to render. When there are a large number of polygons on screen at any given time, the game slows down. This also happens when you move too quickly around enemies.

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The graphics are really cluttered. This is a problem most visible in the jungles where there are background sprites of the shrubs and trees that make it hard to tell where you have been and where you are going, often forcing you to rely on the mini map. Foreshortening can make it very hard to tell how much room you have to maneuver. The limited camera movement can also make the platforming difficult, particularly since you cannot look down far enough to see the edge of most platforms. In short, the graphics are dated and limited by the system the game is run on. They may have been impressive on the system back in 1996, but they have not aged gracefully. Also, playing the game on a newer flat screen TV makes the already fuzzy graphics even harder to see.

The music is very subdued jungle ambiance. Sega veteran Spencer Nilson, who composed some of the best soundtracks on the Sega CD, was a producer for the score. Here the focus is not on memorable tunes, but atmosphere. The music sort of falls into the background and adds to the feeling of being lost in the rainforest.

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The cutscenes are FMVs that incorporate some clips from the film, but none of the central characters, though the actor playing Kabalo does a fine job. The clips are rather well produced, making this the one time I would have like to see more early nineties FMV. Each level has a brief message from Kabalo describing what’s ahead, and in the end, that was probably the better way to give Kabalo character. Although the image of him transmitting to headquarters is blue screened, the opening cutscene of him running through the jungle while feverish was nicely produced, using the film’s assets wisely.

Conclusion:

This is a movie tie in game that took the premise of its source material and did something unique with it. It doesn’t really adapt the film or the novel, since it only uses the premise of lost treasure protected by rampaging animals, but it captures the isolation and atmosphere of a classic first person shooter. The graphics are a troublingly large stumbling block though and the first few levels are the worst in this regard. It can easily turn off most players. It does not have the speed and energy of Doom before it, and is not as ground breaking as Quake, a then contemporary shooter. However it is an enjoyable little obscure title that can help fill out a Saturn collection, and certainly the best thing to come from the Paramount film.

The sad thing is that even though I think the game has its charms, despite its age and technical shortcomings, I simply cannot forgive the punishing continue system. Restarting a level is one thing, but losing your entire save file is just overkill. This kills a lot of my good will towards the game, but if you have a Saturn and want to expand your collection I still say the game is worth a shot. Just keep an eye on those lives in the later levels.

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