Sin & Punishment’s single best setpiece captures the essence and versatility of its design. With your character Airan on a platform zipping around a naval carrier fleet, you evade the barrage of artillery fire from massive aircraft carriers, dogfight squadrons of enemy aircraft, and bat missiles back at their launchers, while unleashing a constant stream of shots to send them to the bottom of the ocean, all as the world soars and reorients in full cinematic splendor. It’s one of the most exhilarating action spectacles of the generation and combines the best elements of the classic shooter and brawler genres into one unique game. The scene ends with the freedom fighter chasing down a comet-sized missile shot from low-orbit as it hurtles at your ally-turned-monster Saki.
At its simplest, S&P fastens Cabal’s run and gun shooting gallery on Virtua Cop’s scripted polygonal world, but its construction is able to deftly emulate many genres and sub branches. By locking the player to a 2D plane within a 3D world, legendary studio houses Treasure and Nintendo R&D1 were able to keep a complex design simple, mapping two basic input systems over one game. With the control stick aiming your shots, the game is able to capture Space Harrier’s quick aiming, while the face buttons move the character independently from the cursor. In a fundamental way, it’s a twin stick shooter.
With Virtua Cop, the player was automatically guided through the levels, frequently making stops to engage the enemy in complex environments filled with verticality and multi-angled threats. Its script moves you into a place, plays out a scene of enemy attacks, and moves you on to the next. Within a single area, you have scenario; over a sequence you have narrative. By maintaining this rhythm throughout a mission, the game fully controls its story pacing, while the player only controls the aiming reticle on screen.
To successfully merge genres, there must be a common mechanic or system to link them together. In the action packed maps of Cabal, the player runs around the bottom of the screen, spraying everything in his gun sight as enemies fire back from above. With its evasive roll, Cabal provides defensive options to its double-sided shooting gallery game play. Through their respective reticles, Virtua Cop and Cabal’s gameplay fuse into Sin & Punishment.
The difference between Cabal and Space Harrier is simple but has immense implications for the gameplay: it has a ground. The ground means gravity, means physicality, means consequence. Where aerial combat enjoys freedom of motion, being attached to a horizontal plane has a number of advantages including creating a frame of reference to base attacks on. By further confining movement to a two dimensional plane along that ground, you decrease how much data the player must consider at any time. Sin & Punishment’s movement is two buttons to sidestep and one to jump, simple considering you’re also sweeping the control stick around the screen to aim.
The horizontal orientation of the ground adds much to the gameplay besides just enemy placement and their resulting attack angles. Because of the friction that comes with standing on a surface, the game can justify quick, tight actions that make for precision movements. In contrast, aerial acrobatics are more about diverting energy, since an object in motion will have less friction to stop it. Quicker movements mean smaller beats of time means more action. You are attached to a physical place rather than passive scenery.
The two elements of character model and 2D playing field create a clearly observable sense of distance to the background. With that, the player can easily judge threats and react accordingly, realizing that things enter the plane and leave it. Since ground-based enemies can simply walk up to the player, they must be equipped with a means to deal with them. With the engine auto switching between a gun and sword, Sin can smoothly transition between ranged and melee combat. The sword’s primary function is a means to let the player deflect many enemy projectiles back, the increased damage the reward for braving the attack head on. By designing the sword, Treasure could occasionally throw melee battles that highlight the classic hallmarks of the brawler genre.
Though most enemies maintain a safe distance, the ones up close follow basic action game rules with enemy tells, animation routines, and blocking. Across the board, enemy attacks are fair, and have an option to come out of a fight unscathed. With the combination of ranged and close-quarter threats in the 2D plane, the screen can be filled with action that can be completely perceived at once.
Compared to the naval battle that marks the halfway point, Sin & Punishment’s act one climax puts the player in an intimate, more demanding fight. Against the gargantuan Kachua, the player as transformed Saki engages in a multi-phase battle with a broad set of dangers. The first phase’s close-quarters fight sees you dodging the monsters horizontal swipe and several downward swings. That gives way to an environmental battle with pillars of water, massive waves, and a meteor, and ends with a long distance offensive that forces you to weave between half a dozen simultaneous shots. It’s fast and visceral.
Two years before Sin & Punishment, Metal Gear Solid proved polygon’s power to create complex cinematic scenes in a real-time framework. This was given greater context for the safari tour through S&P’s virtual game park. Rather than simply being window dressing for the action, the environment is an active place, where human enemies hunker down behind fortifications as the insectoid Ruffian’s breach their perimeter walls. The action creates forward progression for the fiction and scenario for the player.
One of the main reasons polygonal games are so dynamic is thanks to their ability to make the camera a freely existing entity within the world, where sprite games were defined and rigid with a single view on each map. This allows for games to transition to different angles and reframe their subject at will. By changing the camera perspective, you can easily transition between genres with similar core concepts- the difference between the side-scrolling Gradius and behind the back Space Harrier is one of perspective. For Sin’s gameplay, it enables isometric platforming with shmup-caliber bullet patterns.
Since Gunstar Heroes in 1993, Treasure has excelled at forcing the player to navigate densely packed spaces. With Sin’s slim character proportions, enemies can fire narrow, geometrically consistent blast patterns across the length of the screen. To reduce player burden in tough situations, a lock-on toggle was implemented so they could focus solely on evading incoming fire, a feature that comes at the expense of power output.
One of the obvious advantages to the automated world is that it creates a plot-driven narrative progression that can be framed like a film. Every moment looks cinematic. This control is a natural product of the game design, the code directing the camera towards the amazing effects occurring in real time, putting itself in the laudable position of having the gameplay between cutscenes easily the most visually exciting.
All these components lead to a versatile container with potential for varied setpieces. Divided into the four beat, three act form, the game’s narrative is well paced and tosses new scenarios out left and right. With the structure, the devs were able to diligently control their game, crafting a flow that smoothly transitions between different types of action scenes and boss battles. The enemy designs benefitted accordingly, with each area offering a large variety of enemies, both in their overall theme and the specifics of dozens of unique minibosses.
Given its hour and a half play time, Sin’s length helps it blend the realms of game and movie, an anime feature more than a little inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion’s post-modern psychoanalysis, right down to the train ride through the subconscious. The themes of experience, transformation, and introspection are on display as well, an ambition that exceeds the game’s ability to tell a story. Regardless, Sin & Punishment would create the structural blueprint for Asura’s Wrath’s brilliant narrative design a decade later.
Where Sin & Punishment recognizes the full spectrum of action games, its last sequence returns to its roots. With the camera pulled back, the game turns into a player-controlled side-scrolling obstacle course of platforms and enemies rushing from both sides and the background. It leads to the final boss, a clone of the Earth complete with rival sending his own barrage of missiles your way. With the galactic change of scale, the battle emulates Missile Command, a mad dash to destroy every shot, every meteor raining down from the heavens before they impact. It’s a smart climax to a game that fuses shooters and brawlers into a fantastic experience.
DEVELOPER: Treasure Co, Nintendo R&D1
PLATFORM: Nintendo64 (Japan only)
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.