As a kid living in the 1990s, money for video games was hard to come by. In my day, Blockbuster Video was the place to rent games before the chain eventually succumbed to being America’s punching bag. My family didn’t live very far from one of these stores and it became my primary resource for Sega Genesis titles. I was blown away by the potential of 16-bit video games. We never had a Nintendo and until we got the Genesis, gaming was limited to what my dad owned for the Commodore 64. The leap from that computer to the Genesis was astounding and I fully embraced Sega’s beautiful and colorful future. While browsing our local Blockbuster for games to play, I picked up Another World (known as Out of This World back then) and from the moment the game starts, everything I knew of the 16-bit era was wrong.
The game was on a whole new visual level the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Golden Axe didn’t reach. With it’s strong emphasis on creating a cinematic experience, a minimalist plot, and frustrating difficulty, it was like nothing I had ever played or seen before. It was also too much to handle at the time and it didn’t last very long before I returned it. That was 1991. Twenty seven years later and Eric Chahi’s science fiction adventure has come back into my life and, for better or for worse, nothing has changed.
Another World tells a wordless yarn about Lester, a scientist who looks a bit like Eddie Redmayne. We follow the character as he visits a scientific facility that wouldn’t seem out of place inside self-service storage facility. The drab, concrete building holds a massive particle accelerator that the protagonist uses to conduct some sort of unknown experiment. As terrible luck would have it, the experiment begins after the onset of a freak lightning storm. A bolt suddenly strikes the laboratory and causes a chain reaction that catches the young man in a violent explosion, sending him to a completely different planet. Dazed and confused, our hero must survive against natural wildlife and a race of brutish, gun toting aliens that don’t seem too keen to have him around.
What separated Another World from other Sega Genesis games at the time were its striking visuals and departure from arcade gameplay. Sonic The Hedgehog taught us how to go fast, ToeJam and Earl taught risk and reward, and Altered Beast made it fun to turn into humanoid dragons that bolted across the screen in a flash. Another World was a whole lot different. It was slower and more deliberate. Death was frequent and came without warning. The only way to win was through memorization and trial and error because of all the death traps and enemy encounters. Now that I think about it, the original Prince of Persia is a close cousin to Another World as both games had player characters that moved slowly and jumps had to be measured, and neither could sustain a whole lot of damage from enemies or the environment. In fact, almost everything on the planet is capable of killing you in one hit, such as laser bolts, poisonous slugs, toothy maws buried in the ground, spending too much time underwater and falling from great heights. Even bursts of steam can be lethal. Learning how to navigate these dangers takes up a large part of the game. It can feel a little unfair because there’s no way to know what lies on the next screen until you get there.
You aren’t entirely defenseless, though! After the initial jailbreak, you’re immediately rewarded with a laser pistol to be used against the aliens that hassle you. It can fire laser bolts in pretty quick succession but if you hold the action button down for a moment, the gun will create a temporary laser proof barrier that’s useful in giving yourself some breathing space in a firefight. Hold the action button down even longer and you’ll charge up a devastating bolt of energy that’s strong enough to blast away doors and walls. The gun is useful in triggering puzzle mechanics at a distance, though it’s really a tool for defeating alien enemies. In that regard, gun combat is not all that great. While many of the encounters are typically one-on-one battles that can sometimes be solved without firing a shot, having to deal with multiple enemies reveals the game’s shortcomings. Shoehorning action gameplay in a slow and steady cinematic platformer doesn’t really work that well and gets to be really frustrating after the third, fourth, or fifth try.
Dying in Another World kind of sucks because it happens so much and is unavoidable. Not only is it unfair but it's also a huge inconvenience. To the game’s credit, the time between death scene to restarting from the checkpoint is instantaneous. Since you’re going to be dying a lot, lengthy load times would make the game feel more excruciating than it needs to be. The checkpointing, however, isn’t all that perfect because there’s no indication of when and where the game launches a save state though certain rooms seem to trigger it. A common problem I ran into was the game doesn’t seem to save progress whenever I cross these particular rooms. Or maybe it does? I honestly can’t tell. There’s no way to tell if anything you’ve accomplished moments before death are still in effect when you come back. I found this out by blindly running into a room I thought I cleared only to be shot in the face by an alien. Considering the amount of backtracking present in the game, having to run back and double check on puzzle elements can get tedious.
I mentioned two things about Another World that made it a standout title in the Sega Genesis library. The gameplay was one and the other are the visuals. After all these years, the game still looks great. Given that a lot of indie games these days rely on pixelated and low poly graphics, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone didn’t know this to be over twenty years old. The alien planet is still evocative with its dangerous and foreboding atmosphere. You quickly learn to fear the native creatures even though they tend to look simple and even a little goofy. One of the funniest moments in the game happens at the beginning where your first encounter the small slugs that wiggle their way to attack you as soon as you get in range. These harmless-looking things seem silly at first until they make contact and trigger a cutscene that shows them sticking out a small, needle-like tooth dripping with poison and giving you a small scratch. And then you see the hero drop dead on the spot. It’s a great sequence because it does a good job of showing you that this game takes no prisoners. The Nintendo Switch copy of Another World is actually the “20th Anniversary” edition that came out for nearly every game-running machine under the sun after 2006. The re-release (and Switch version) lets you play the game with the original music or the CD soundtrack that shipped with later editions. You can even change the quality of the graphics on the fly, switching from the original look to a remastered one that boosted the resolution of the textures and added more detailed environments.
To me, Another World is an old game that persists by virtue of being ported to nearly every gaming platform under the sun. You don’t see games like this anymore for the same reason no one has made a game like the original Prince of Persia. Although certain dark-ish, soul-ish games delight in punishing gameplay, difficulty was as much a game mechanic as swinging a weapon around. Here, it gets to be an annoyance and feels like a means to pad the length of this fairly short game. Another World is a relic, a product of a time where video game developers filmed themselves to rotoscoped game characters. I’d be surprised if it manages to find an audience in 2018 that hasn’t played one of the ports that popped up since the anniversary editions were released. The game preservationist in me, however, is happy to see this game alive and kicking because it gave me a fond remembrance of a time when game developers experimented with ways to push the envelope with consoles that, these days, could probably run on your Apple Watch.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.