As the title of a blog post “Original 3D Polygon Action Shooting” may not roll off the tongue but it’s hard to argue with the accuracy of the description on the front of Geograph Seal’s box when it comes to the game in question, delivering as it does explosive full 3D arcade-like action on just two X68000 floppy discs – a format that as lovely as it may be really wasn’t designed to do that sort of thing at all, never mind do it so well.
And it’s obvious from the instant you boot the game up that you’re in for a real treat here, opening as it does with a lengthy voiceover (actual spoken speech from a proper human word-hole!) accompanied by a real-time cutscene filled with one-off graphics and animations detailing your upcoming game-long mission. From there things only get better as this sequence then moves on to a mixture of dramatic external shots combined with stomach-churning internal cockpit views as your craft drops from orbit onto the planet’s surface as beautiful X68000 chiptune music blasts through your speakers (is there honestly any other kind?) and then – then – you reach the title screen. That whole thing back there? All that fancy business with the rotating camera angles and the enemy turrets that physically crane their guns towards the sky before opening fire? That was just a warm up. The entire game’s like this, all smothered in a delicious super-cool future vibe as viewed through an 80’s movie lens with wireframe mission briefings giving way to flat-shaded polygons, whooshy “Mode 7” clouds passing by and stealthy enemies represented by simple sneaky outlines: Asking me to not to get excited about something looking like that is like asking if ursines use wooded areas for their lavatorial activities or for the Arctic Ocean to not be filled with enormous spider-crabs.
Perhaps even harder to believe than the thought of an already ageing Japanese computer pulling off this blockbuster action with such apparent ease way back in 1994 is the thought that only a year later these gritty sci-fi foundations would be given a thorough cute-over and used as the basis of the same developer’s early PlayStation robot-rabbit hop’em up, Jumping Flash.
Of course niche older games influence more popular later works all the time but here there’s several very clear and very close similarities between the two that are more outright lifted from Geograph Seal than the usual expanded rejigging of an existing idea a little further down the line: Remember Robbit’s hoppy rabbit legs and all the boingy gameplay that comes with them? Those colourful floating islands, occasional maze-like stages, carrot-shaped pickups, and firework-themed weaponry? They may look very different from their computer-born counterparts but when placed side-by-side you could quite reasonably mistake Geograph Seal for a Jumping Flash-inspired bootleg with a serious-face coat of paint if you didn’t know the PlayStation game was the direct descendent of the other.
Even though the turnaround was swift, Exact’s team small, and Sony’s shiny new target format opened up a thrilling new world of technological advantages (you might be interested to know that after Jumping Flash and its sequel they would then go on to create the Fuchikoma-based Ghost in the Shell game, also for the original PlayStation) there’s never a feeling that their work on the X68000 is a half-baked intermediate stage, a bundle of “nice idea but” development sketches waiting for the hardware to catch up with their three-dimensional ambitions. At all times and from all angles Geograph Seal looks like a highly polished game, keen to use its technical prowess to impress you: Sandstorms roll in and clear up before your eyes as you blast your way across city streets, the game’s draw distance dynamically pulling close and then melting away as if technical limitations are something meant for other, lesser, programmers to worry about. Giant polygonal carrier craft pass overhead before unleashing hordes of smaller ships at you as you rush through the air at high speed over deep blue seas. Towering bosses explode in a shower of triangles before you’re treated to an exciting escape cinematic as the game calculates your total score. Every level feels different and every level feels special, providing some of the very best graphics of the era no matter what the format.
I’m also very happy to report that the importance of good pixel art hasn’t been lost amongst all of this jaw-dropping 3D and while used only when absolutely necessary for a few UI features and the odd cloudy backdrop what’s here still looks absolutely stunning, and yet Exact chose to obscure these treasures with boxy buildings jutting into the sky or triangular trees, treating them as a casual little embellishment to tie each area’s theme together when other games would have had them as a centrepiece. Geograph Seal exudes the special sort of confident swagger that only comes from a game that’s incredibly beautiful – and knows it.
So what have we learned about the game so far? We know Geograph Seal looks incredible – far beyond what you’d expect for an early-nineties game running on late-eighties hardware – and that the developers took these ideas and went on to use them with bigger and better hardware.
And this is where an awful lot of envelope-pushing computer games of this sort of age fall flat: Creating something visually stunning or technologically impressive isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination but if you’re hoping to turn in something more than a tech demo with a sine wave shout-out to your mates for distribution through Amiga Format’s classified’s section (just make sure you send in a formatted floppy, £1, and a stamped addressed envelope) then all of that digital flexing really has to be more of an attractive window-dressing for a good core idea than the main event itself. Unless you’re Agony, that is. Agony gets a free and totally undeserved pass for being an Amiga shmup starring the most exquisitely animated owl in gaming history.
Geograph Seal is in all the right ways nothing like that Psygnosis-published owl ’em up – it never loses sight of the importance of being good fun above all else, that for a finished product the programmer’s back-of-house wizardry means nothing when measured against the enjoyment of the end user.
The thought of spending an entire game dealing with first-person 3D jumping would normally be enough to fill even the bravest gaming hearts with abject terror but in practise Geograph Seal makes it feel fun and even more important than that, completely under your control. True 3D platforming (as in “You are down here and you must be up there if you want to progress”) happens almost never and when it does it’s not a problem as jump heights are generous, you can triple-jump by default, and your descent is slow and adjustable. You also automatically look down (the game calls this useful but vertigo-inducing point of view “Air Perspective”) after launching yourself into the air, allowing you to keep those pesky hostile targets in your sights at all times and with the assistance of your ever-present shadow perform precision leaps with ease. Even when there’s no higher ground to get up to you’ll still want to leap around like a frog on a hot pogo stick as the extra height can be used defensively to avoid enemy fire (this is especially handy with bosses) and also to cause damage to whatever unfortunate robo-fiend’s below you if you land on its back – making yourself something of a mecha version of everyone’s favourite plumber. Gaining a lot of height before taking out a turret below with your laser cannons then manoeuvring yourself to land on another causing it to explode in a very satisfying manner then launching yourself back into the air soon becomes second nature, and that sensation of heft and thrust as you push yourself upwards and watch the world below you shrink into tiny pixels always feels utterly exhilarating.
To help keep track of this constant action in a game where threats can come at you from literally all angles you’re gifted with an intuitive on-screen minimap (there’s a larger and longer-range map available in the weapon change menu if you need it) and your HUD clearly marks all enemies and mission targets in your field of vision without any prompting. Anything destructible (which is almost everything you can target, really) also comes with its own stylish in-line life bar so you can always easily see how much damage you’re doing and whether that boss is just one more well-placed shot away from annihilation.
Speaking of dealing damage: You have four weapon types at your disposal that can be upgraded with shmup-style pickups found sparingly throughout the game. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses that largely revolve around balancing power-per-shot with recharge time and firing speed, ensuring every weapon – vulcan cannon, lasers, homing missiles, and the powerful “Riat” – is always useful at some point along the way and that success comes from a combination of your personal accuracy and evasive reactions over simply spamming your most powerful attacks or praying you’ve discovered enough power ups to do some worthwhile damage along the way.
So Geograph Seal looks great and has been made with a lot of thought and care – nice! But there’s still one problem left – the game’s only about half an hour long for even the most inept action gamer so why would anyone want to come back to it once they’ve finished this linear adventure?
Far from being a negative that short play time is an absolute godsend for the tired and time-poor: A game that can be thoroughly enjoyed in a single evening? Something for a quick go after work or a fun blast when you’ve got a bit of free time? Beautiful. We all need more games that fit around us, rather than expect us to fit around them – no season pass, no daily tasks, no secret routes for experts or even a second loop with a real final final boss at the end – the game’s “just” a great experience that’s ready to go whenever we are. The (lack of) length means there’s no padding, no “This is great but I don’t really have the time to play it” excuses to not start it at all, and no uncomfortable late-level fatigue where you start to rush through things just to get the closure you already more than earned five stages ago.
Being so short also allowed the small team at Exact to make sure every moment was as exciting as humanely possible, from those gorgeous mission briefings warning you of what’s ahead to the awe-inspiring size of these flagship enemies when they finally come on screen. Even the regular troublemakers are well made – there’s a lot of them flying, walking around, and standing guard which is impressive in itself but what makes them special is noticing how even the most fragile opponents all have unique attributes and attack patterns that prevent you from treating everything aside from your mission target as so much forgettable metal chaff standing between you and your goal. The final battle (deliberately not shown here) is absolutely fantastic, bringing to mind the intensely personal one-on-one dragon battles in the Panzer Dragoon series – not a bad achievement for a game with no dialogue, is it?
Then the credits roll and you become aware of your shoulders dropping and your whole body relaxing – it feels as though both you and the game itself have had a really thorough workout, that everything that was possible within Geograph Seal’s framework has been offered to you and you’ve overcome it all. You’ve dealt with wide open areas, tight mazes, linear flying sections, and a whole range of enormous end-of-level-showstoppers and you’ve got the high score to prove it. The maze-like level in particular feels like something of a creative risk: the low ceilings all but take away that all-important jumping ability and older computer game labyrinths aren’t famous for being easy to navigate but the floors found here don’t impinge on the action or have you running around in circles even though they take place across four floors and feature both one-way floor tiles as well as locked doors.
Geograph Seal’s papercraft-like models may not feel as cutting edge as they once were but it’s a million miles away from being a museum piece that’s only playable through rose-tinted specs – this game still works. There’s nothing in here that needs fixing, no worries about the game being hampered by the hardware or the controls and n othing missing that you wish had been addressed in a hypothetical sequel. It may not have changed the gaming world but Geograph Seal will always be a visionary and thoroughly exciting trip through what “next gen” platforming, as it was imagined back in 1994, could have been.