It is Pre-Programmed. So What? Who of your Friends is Not?
Format: PC88/MSX2, PC Engine, Sega CD, Saturn/Playstation
Release Date: 30 November 1994 (Sega CD)
In a Nutshell: Homicidal Commie Androids invade Japan while one man and his robot buddy learn the true meaning of Christmas.
It’s 2046 and Neo Kobe is about to E-X-P-L-O-D-E! A vicious army of androids are bent on taking in strip shows while eating buffalo and making everybody have allergy attacks--all while wearing sunscreen! In winter?!
Yes, it’s Snatcher, the infamous cyberpunk detective thriller from auteur Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid). First debuting in 1988 for Japanese microcomputers before a more-realized director’s cut dropped on the PC Engine the following year, Snatcher was Kojima’s first story-intensive game coming off the back of his work on the groundbreaking stealth-action adventure Metal Gear. The game finally reached western audiences in 1994 in the form of a US & EU-exclusive port to the ill-fated Sega/Mega CD, where it was a critical success but a commercial flop. Kojima didn’t have his trademark reputation in the west yet, causing Snatcher to go unfairly ignored by mainstream audiences.
Its low print-run in both territories didn’t do it any favors either; one can find a Japanese copy of Snatcher for PC Engine for as low as a dollar, but an English-language Sega CD version runs for several hundred, making this rare release difficult to get hold of for anybody but the staunchest and richest collectors. I was one of the lucky ones who snagged the game during its original release (as inappropriate for a ten-year-old as it was), but today I just attempted to check its current status on eBay and found that some joker is trying to sell a copy for $2000. But enough depressing money talk, let’s spend some time looking at the game itself.
Snatcher begins on June 6th, 1996. A biological weapon fittingly named Lucifer Alpha has accidentally been released in Chernob̶y̶l̶ton, Russia. Half of the world’s population dies. Eurasia is uninhabitable for the next fifty years, at which point Lucifer Alpha metamorphs into a non-lethal form. Just as it seems that things are about to calm down, a plane crashes in Siberia and the remnants of an android lifeform are found among the wreckage. Before long, a number of prominent VIPs in Neo Kobe City are found to be androids who all promptly explode upon discovery. Indistinguishable from humans, these androids have been killing high profile targets to “snatch” their identities. The reason? Unknown, but undoubtedly nefarious.
The Japanese government quickly quarantined Neo Kobe to contain this “Snatcher” menace, setting up the JUNKER task force (“Japanese Undercover Neuro-Kinetic Elimination Rangers”, or “Judgement Uninfected Naked Kind and Execute Ranger”, before anybody who spoke English got their hands on it) to tackle the threat.
Fast forward to December 2047: The Snatcher menace is at an all-time high; Preferring to operate under the cover of darkness, the long nights of winter allow them to move more freely than ever. Here we join the newest JUNKER recruit, 31-year-old amnesiac American dude Gillian Seed who, along with his wife Jamie, were both found wandering dazed in the Siberian Wasteland before being brought to Neo Kobe, because Japan is the center of the universe.
After a tearful meeting with his wife in which the two agree to separate due to the complications of their amnesia, Gillian reports to JUNKER HQ, which rents a floor in Konami’s skyscraper. The team is operating as a skeleton crew; There’s administrator Mika Slayton, engineer Harry Benson, runner Jean Jack Gibson and chief Benson Cunningham. Gillian’s set to be a runner himself to back up Jean Jack, whose fellow field agents have all been killed pursuing Snatchers.
Gillian’s partner comes in the form of navigator robot Metal Gear MKII (nicknamed Metal), a little guy who fluctuates between wisdom, smart-assedness, exasperation and outright absurdity, giving Snatcher the feel of a bizarre buddy cop comedy at times. Can these two knuckleheads get along for long enough to solve the case? Tune in Thursdays, 9.30/8.30 central!
Before long, JUNKER HQ receives a frantic call from Jean Jack, stating that he’s cornered a Snatcher in an abandoned warehouse and requesting backup. Thrown into the thick of things on his first day, Gillian hops into his department-issue turbocycle (an auto-piloted three-wheel hovercar) with Metal in tow to catch some badbots. Things just go downhill from there, as the story spirals into a fairly well-plotted cyberpunk noir.
The bright lights of Neo Kobe’s facade quickly give way to the city’s seedy underbelly. Gillian and Metal will find themselves mingling with the patrons of sleazy nightclubs, following leads at the black market district and having some tense interviews with unsavory individuals who may or may not be robots in disguise.
Snatchers are essentially vampires, operating exclusively after dark or during winter in an attempt to stay out of the sun. Unlike their gothic cousins, they won’t turn to dust when hit with the sun’s rays; Instead they are prone to melanoma due to flaws in their artificial skin, forcing them wear sunscreen even in the dead of winter. As a result, Gillian and Metal will find themselves snooping around private bathrooms to find out who’s hiding some off-season SPF-100 in their medicine cabinet.
The game excels at building atmosphere when it needs to; Investigating Neo Kobe’s many suspicious locales always tends to be a tense and uncomfortable affair. The evidence you gather becomes more disturbing, the music becomes more menacing and the anxiety of hoping that an unwanted guest will not show up reaches fever pitch.
This chilling atmosphere is due in no small part to the excellent work carried out by the game's localizers, a Japan-based team led by Jeremy Blaustein (Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill 2). Snatcher, alongside Lunar: The Silver Star, was one of the earliest titles that proved that Japanese games could achieve high-quality localizations when placed in the right hands. Snatcher could be campy, but it was rarely unintentionally so. The game contained a previously unseen amount of self-awareness and wit, not to mention being well-written and compelling in its own right. The game is unafraid to poke fun at itself, so players will be treated to scenes of Metal Gear eating pizza, becoming paralysed with fear in the face of danger or expressing excitement at the prospect of “investigating” an exotic dancer. It’s undeniably cute.
The voice acting was equally competent, standing head-and-shoulder above many of the CD-ROM games that preceded it. Jeff Lupetin and Lucy Childs make an excellent team as Gillian and Metal, bickering back-and-forth during the story’s lighthearted moments but able to turn serious when required. Stage actress and comedienne Susan Mele does an excellent job as Jamie, perhaps giving the most human performance in the game, while Ray Van Steen, voicing Cunningham, Harry and numerous other characters, is delightfully hammy and steals every scene he’s in. Making the voice cast even more special is the fact that, with the exception of Lupetin, many of them never worked within the medium again. As a result, Snatcher’s acting remains unique in the vast sea of union-dominated game casts.
Written by Kojima when he was in his mid-20s, Snatcher wears its influences plainly on its sleeve: The world is an amalgamation of The Terminator, Blade Runner and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a little bit of Bubblegum Crisis, Akira, Raymond Chandler and a whole lot of William Gibson thrown in for good measure. By this point you’re probably thinking that Snatcher is just a rip-off, and while that’s technically true, it’s also an extremely detailed and loving homage to a few of Kojima’s favorite things.
Calling Snatcher “half-assed” would be a grave mistake: It’s undoubtedly one of the most in-depth ADVs ever crafted. Kojima spares no details when it comes to world-building. Although often choosing to tell rather than show, Snatcher tells you everything you want to know with great relish. JUNKER HQ contains a computer database called JORDAN that is bursting with facts about the world’s history, events, its key players and the infrastructure and politics of Neo Kobe. Want to read about STBO, a super form of AIDS plaguing Snatcher’s dark future? You can! Air Surfing? Pocket Pets? Whatever those are, they’re all there too! You can even look up members of the game’s staff, and in some cases, take their vidphone numbers and call them in-game for some amusing fourth-wall breaking conversations.
Aside from its vast database, the adventure itself is also filled with hundreds of lines of optional flavor text. There’s even voiced characters hidden for the player to uncover: Many fans know about the “Neo Kobe Pizza” scene that takes place at Plato’s Cavern, but far fewer have returned to Alton Plaza to encounter a fortune teller who bears more than a passing resemblance to Nina Hagen, sampled the local ramen in a scene that’s straight out of Blade Runner, or rescued the sick homeless man collapsed in South Itayado. There’s even a running joke involving flying bugs coming up on Metal’s motion detector that you can stumble upon if you poke around enough during the game’s tenser moments. These scenes and ancillary characters may not have any bearing on the main plot, but they exist to make Neo Kobe truly come to life in a way that other fictional settings do not. It’s very easy for the observant player to find something new each time they play.
The game is frequently unafraid to break the fourth wall, something that would go on to become something of a trademark for the director. Aside from the aforementioned calls to the game’s staff, a memorable early sequence involves Metal advising Gillian to “turn the volume up on the TV” so he can hear a strange beeping noise better. When it is discovered that the beeping is coming from a time bomb, which subsequently explodes in a loud fashion, Metal admonishes Gillian for “leaving the volume turned up”. These moments keep popping up throughout the story, with a phone sex operator making allusions to being censored by the ratings bureau, and Metal reassuring Gillian that they “fit right in” in a bar full of patrons dressed as Konami characters, among other scenes.
But Snatcher isn’t all reading. OK, most of it is, but on occasion you’ll find your investigation interrupted with a shootout. It’s very much an arcade shooting gallery affair: The screen is split into nine segments in which you aim and fire at targets as they appear before they have a chance to shoot back at you. The Sega CD version actually had support for Konami’s Justifier light gun: You’d plug it into the second controller port and pick it up when an enemy was encountered, much like Gillian pulling his gun out of its holster. It sounded like a pretty cool idea, but unfortunately I never got my hands on a Justifier to try it out myself.
The shootouts are few and far between, but they prove to be a nice shift to the formula. Interestingly, the difficulty changes depending on how proficient you are at the Junker’s Eye training machine at HQ. If you’re a poor shot, the battles will be easier. If you’re a good shot, they get harder. The problem is that the game doesn’t actually tell you this. Careful not to ace the machine too many times, or you may find yourself facing a nearly unwinnable encounter at the end of the game.
Snatcher starts to wilt a bit in its final act, which, in true Kojima fashion, is largely told via long expository cutscenes. This is especially disappointing as the act that it follows is the strongest and most surprising in the game. If it feels like a tacked-on epilogue, that’s because it actually is; the original microcomputer release ended on a cliffhanger at the preceding act’s conclusion. This final act’s extensive walk down a hallway to have a conversation feels largely anticlimactic in comparison. You’ll meet the mastermind behind the Snatcher menace, but their motivations are contrived at best and it’s somewhat difficult to care about. That said, it’s the journey that matters more than the destination. Regardless, many of the dangling plot threads find themselves neatly tied up, and the door is left open for Gillian to return in an action movie-style sequel that, frankly, it’s probably a blessing that it failed to materialize.
Thematically, Snatcher is not without its issues, many of which stem from its political attitude and its portrayals of race. The game is prefaced with a dedication to “All those cyberpunks who fight against injustice and corruption every day of their lives”, but the game’s themes tend to run directly counter to this statement.
Warning: Spoilers Follow.
Unlike authors such as Dick, Vonnegut and Gibson who Kojima shows obvious admiration towards, Snatcher fails to challenge authority in any meaningful way or, arguably, at all. The status quo is the Macguffin that must be retrieved in Snatcher.
Gillian, an agent of the Japanese government, is tasked with transforming chaos into order; JUNKER HQ representing ultimate good and the Snatchers ultimate evil. Eventually, when JUNKER Chief Cunningham is revealed to be corrupt during the story’s climax, it is not due to any inherent flaws that come part-and-parcel with a position of governmental power, but because he was killed and replaced by an evil Snatcher. JUNKER HQ and its policies are never wrong, except for when they find themselves hijacked by their nefarious rival faction in an attempt to dismantle them from within.
Taken as an entity, the Snatchers are equally as black-and-white: During his James Bond villain-style speech in the game’s second act, high-ranking Snatcher Dr. Chin Shu Oh explains the Snatchers’ plan: “In the same way as the Nazis, our strategy begins with the overpowering of the spirit ... We will strike at your weakest point, your suspiciousness and fear.” Chin goes on to inform Gillian that the Snatchers’ ultimate goal is to snatch all of the world’s leaders in an effort to “Take control of human thought and achieve worldwide racial unification.” Yikes! Why an army of androids want to rule the world, starting with Japan, is beside the point; they’re here to disrupt the dominant ideology and they must be stopped.
It all comes across as a dense and disappointing take on the cyberpunk genre, content to complacently revel in uncontroversial and unchallenging themes that its forebears did not. But Snatcher’s conservative nature takes a slightly uncomfortable swerve into xenophobic territory if we examine the origin of the killer robots. This is a foreign threat; in particular, a Eurasian invasion.
The Snatchers themselves are revealed to be Soviet in origin, while some are from Soviet-allied countries, notably China. They seem to exhibit some humanity in that each major Snatcher encountered has a framed photograph of 20th century Moscow mounted somewhere in their home. Unfortunately, any deep pondering on the “humanity” of the Snatchers or their political leanings are left unexplored outside of their comic book villainish motivation to take over the world.
Created at the end of the Cold War, the game lacks any meaningful examination of communism or Russia’s sociopolitical climate: The Soviets and their allies were obviously chosen as convenient bogeymen for the story, just as Al Qaeda or North Korea would be likely be chosen without hesitation today.
While it’s quite humorous that a faction of robots from the USSR would directly compare themselves to the Nazis, it’s also revealing: No faction in 20th century history was as evil as the Nazis, so what could be more evil than an army of deadly androids harboring Nazi sensibilities? Yet another bogeyman; It’s an easy reference point to make.
Earlier I wrote of Chin’s motivation of “racial unification”, which brings to mind Japan’s anxieties over shrinking birth rates and, in particular, immigration. Indeed, Snatcher’s narrative comes across as slightly hostile towards immigrants. You wouldn’t think so from a cursory glance: Neo Kobe is portrayed as a multicultural haven, and not a single Japanese character is encountered throughout the story save for Mika, who is half-Japanese-half-Jewish. Even our hero Gillian is an immigrant, but Snatcher raises some interesting questions on what it deems to be an “acceptable” immigrant.
If players do some digging, it’s revealed that Neo Kobe has a problem with Chinese immigrants that it is struggling to keep under control. Many of these immigrants are criminals, or in Japan illegally, or both. The situation isn’t given that much screen time, but the game contains two notable Chinese characters who must be addressed.
The first character we’ll look at is the aforementioned Dr. Chin Shu Oh, one of the game’s more formidable antagonists. A dodgy character even before his identity was snatched, accessing Chin’s file on the JORDAN database shows a string of violations related to eugenics experiments that ended with his medical license being revoked. Eugenics? “Racial unification”? Is Chin trying to commit genocide against the people of Japan? That’s not immediately clear, but it is clear that he’s a mad scientist. Put together with his race, motivation and especially his appearance, we construct a character who is little more than a stand-in for Dr. Fu Manchu. Even his name is similar. The “Yellow Peril” fiction of the early 20th century seems like an odd inspiration for a cyberpunk adventure, but Dr. Chin is there plain as day.
The other Chinese character featured, Napoleon, is not a villain but rather an informant for JUNKER Jean Jack and later Gillian. Napoleon shows us a much more benign and likable portrait of a Chinese man, but one that is no less racist. Napoleon aids the heroes but he does so from the shadows. He moves through Neo Kobe’s underbelly, working for strip clubs and black markets, where he gathers his information. A character who’s not entirely on the up-and-up, Napoleon frequently shakes Gillian down for bribe money before offering any information of his own volition. Appearance-wise, he has stereotypical Oriental buck-teeth and a hint of a Fu Manchu moustache of his own. He’s frequently played for comic relief, sneezing away in an exaggerated fashion while Gillian comments on his ugly face, poor hygiene and body odor.
While Snatcher’s Chinese characters are not as overtly hateful as those of nationalist manga pundits such as Kobayashi Yoshinori or George Akiyama, it is important to note that they adhere to “Yellow Peril” stereotypes, both in personality and appearance. In Snatcher, the Chinese people are either to be feared or to be laughed at, and they’re certainly always ne’er-do-wells. Chinese culture itself is mocked, too. When Gillian asks Metal to translate Chinese, Metal responds that his strongest knowledge is in egg foo yung and wontons, boiling Chinese culture down to a joke about popular take-away dishes.
Does this mean that Hideo Kojima is racist? Personally, I do not think that he is, but I do believe that the racist narrative of Japan’s previous colonization and subsequent demonizing of the Chinese people had a subconscious effect on him. You’d think he’d be slightly more open-minded due to his influences, and it’s disappointing that he chose to adhere to these easy stereotypes.
There was undeniably a lot of racist pop culture and media around during Kojima’s youth; To the right I have included two pages from Osamu Tezuka’s 1971 manga Ode to Kirihito, a story in which a Japanese man, Kirihito, is transformed into a dog. Tezuka is held up as the “Godfather of Manga" due to his memorable characters such as Astro Boy, but Tezuka has shown some ugly attitudes towards race in many of his works.
On the first page, we are introduced to the antagonist Mahn, a fat and ugly Chinese millionaire who curates increasingly shocking freak shows for his friends, in the search for ultimate decadence. Here, his evil is illustrated by feeding a baby to a snake.
On the second page, we see that Mahn has captured Kirihito, and is about to force him to have sex with a dog in front of an audience. Why? Because he can. Mahn is the evil other, here to conquer Kirihito and break his spirit. This showcases Japan’s anxiety towards being subjugated by its Asian neighbours.
I’ve brought up Ode... for two reasons: Firstly, as stated previously, this is not a work by an overtly nationalist artist, but by a man who is heralded as the “Godfather of Manga". The themes in Kirihito were accepted within Japan, and it is still a critically acclaimed work today, not just in Japan but worldwide. You’ll find very little criticism towards the Chinese characters in Ode.... Secondly, Mahn and Dr. Chin have a lot in common. They are powerful Yellow Peril depictions of Chinese villains who seek to destroy our heroes simply because they can. They cannot be reasoned with and they lack humanity--literally, in the case of Dr. Chin. In both Ode... and Snatcher, Japan’s position has been rewritten from that of the colonizer to that of the colonized; Invaded and unfairly subjugated by a sinister force. This is shown on a personal level between Mahn and Kirihito in Ode..., while Snatcher shows us a literal invasion of Japan by the Eurasian android army.
Snatcher's references to Liquid Sky, Frank Zappa and Joy Division (the Japanese name for the Plato’s Cavern market) show that Kojima is no stranger to actively subversive art, and yet the themes of Snatcher are anything but.
Well, if nothing else, at least this means that Kojima has watched Me and My Rhythm Box in its entirety.
Snatcher would find itself re-released in the late 90s to both the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation. These versions were not only Japan-only, but also lacked the involvement of the original team. As a result, many of the female characters were redesigned with a “cute” sensibility in mind, much of the gore would find itself toned down or mosaic-ed over, while the attractive minimalist intro would be augmented with a terrible CG sequence that looked dated at the time of release. The soundtrack suffered from some unfortunate changes as well; Konami no doubt wanted to utilize the new sound technology of the 32-bit consoles, but what they put together sounds like MIDI files from a Sierra FMV game. Seeing that Japan missed out on the Sega/Mega CD version, it’s understandable that the game would receive a wider re-release, saving it from being doomed to obscurity as an exclusive PC Engine title, but it’s a shame that the game was altered in so many detrimental ways.
Despite its problems, Snatcher remains an outstanding work of postmodernism that still holds up today. Seeing that Konami don’t seem to have any plans to rerelease it (and they likely never will due to their recent split with Kojima), go hunt down an ISO if you need to, because Snatcher is a truly wonderful work of interactive fiction that deserves to be experienced.