Saturday, June 17, 2023

Silent Debuggers (1991)

This looks less like a space station and more like a mecha.
Name:Silent Debuggers
Developer:Data East
Time:4 hours 10 minutes
Won:Yes (72W/60L)

Welcome back to the Turbografx-16, the system for pre-Wolfenstein console FPS games. Yeah, it is just two games, but it's kind of weird that there are two games on the system that most people ignore that feel very advanced for something that competed with both the NES and the Genesis. Obviously the Game Boy and the Genesis had their own games, but those were very lacking.

This was released both in the US and Japan. While the English version of this game has a questionable grasp on the language, I will be playing it in English. The Japanese version is only in Hiragana, and I'm much too reliant on Kanji to be able to read all that in a fast paced action game.
(Every other line this guy says is hilarious, but probably not in a way the original author intended)


This doesn't really sound good in-context either.
In the aftermath of a great war, humanity is united and begins to leave the planet. Alien bugs have been encountered, so the government calls upon the remaining military units of the great war. One of these groups are the Debuggers, the best of the best. You're a new Debugger, working under Leon, to retrieve treasure from the abandoned space station Gane/Ohme. (the name switches between the two) Unfortunately, no one has ever come back from the station in a year, including other Debuggers.

Music plays throughout this intro, and the menu, and when you select your name. Your given a paltry 5 characters, which makes me wonder why they included such a thing to begin with. It's very repetitive. The conversation continues. Myself and Leon are to find our way to the core computer from the shuttle bay. Leon kindly informs me that there are aliens here and that I should take them out. The player is actually offered a choice in the matter, in the sense that the game does a "yes/no" option after Leon asks you. Why would I have to be asked? This doesn't even offer an illusion of a choice, Leon just tells you to not be afraid if you say no.

This opens up the weapon screen. There are 3 primary weapons and 3 secondary weapons. The game itself doesn't explain any of these, but the manual does. When I originally started up this game, I didn't have access to the manual and the story from there, so I was playing this under the impression that the story in the intro was all there was. Before I get to the weapons, I'm just going to mention that batteries, the two batteries you get, power special equipment and act as the player's health. You only have one active at one time, and batteries are only switched when you want them to be. If the active battery runs out, you're dead.

  • Hand Gun, battery powered, always available to the player. To compensate for always being available, it shoots much slower.
  • Motor Cannon, a machine gun which "fires explosives at high speeds". Fancy description aside, it's just a machine gun. Uses ammo. Takes out most enemies in under two bursts.
  • Mega Beamer, a laser cannon, uses the batteries. Takes out a lot of enemies in one shot, but takes a moment to recharge and eats up power.
  • Lipp Shot, semi-auto cannon, uses ammo. Does decent damage, but moves around the target reticle every time you shoot with it. Supposedly hits the target every time, but your side weapon will miss unless you reaim. Somehow the worst of the three choices.
  • Grenade Launcher, shoots grenades, of which you can carry 5 at a time. Kills most enemies in one shot if you can hit them.
  • Sonic Launcher, causes nearby enemies to flee. Uses the battery. Kind of useless. Making enemies run away from you is not very helpful unless you desperately need to recharge your batteries, by which point you probably ran out of charge to use this, and you're screwed anyway.
  • Sleep Launcher, puts enemies to sleep, assuming you aren't too close to the target. Comes with 10 shots. Kind of hard to use, but surprisingly helpful.

There are 6 levels to the game, the only real difference consists of the outer sections of the map. Each level consists of a central section, where Leon is doing something to the ship's computer. Then we have the central rooms, these must be defended later, the aliens take out three of these and it's game over. Some of these are very important, like the battery, the light room or the ammo room, others can be destroyed without any real harm to you. I note that it takes a long time to reach these rooms from anywhere else. Finally, you have a big central ring, from which you enter the new parts of the level.

The game controls pretty well. The D-pad moves fairly well, though I'm not on original hardware. Takes a section to build up speed though. The button 1 controls where your target reticle is, and the game does allow you to target different parts of the body. It's inconvenient to adjust it in the middle of the battle though. Button 2 shoots your primary weapon, while the Run shoots your secondary weapon. Select opens up the menu, which allows you to open up the map, select your battery and other things.

This is all Dungeon Master-esque, 90-degree angles, everything is tile based, including the location of you and your enemies. We've seen it before, we'll see it again. I can't say I felt any issues with the game were down to this, perhaps beyond a general boredom with the level design. Then again, it's hard to do generic sci-fi metal hallway in a way that isn't boring.

I like the HUD, it feels very modern in how much information it gives to you, but not so modern it feels like I'm being handheld. That mini-map isn't too effective as anything other than a general indication of where you are, but it's nice for the time. I would have liked the ammo counter to be lower, seems like it needed to be up there since the rest of the lower hud is taken up by other things later on, you don't even get an ammo count for the secondary weapon. Sound plays a big role in this game, a rarity this early. You have a radar that detects when aliens are near you. Turn in the right direction? It gets louder. And should an alien sneak up behind you? An arrow pointing to the direction the alien's in. Quite possibly the best such system for a while.

Level 1 consists of one giant corridor from which enemies remain in, so you can kill them at a leisurely pace. I say that, but beginning here is a bit creepy. These guys are your typical alien killing machines, though I don't quite think I've seen something like this before. Even with that sound system, it's easy for aliens to sneak up on you. Sure, they'll die in one or two bursts of machine gun fire, but they're fast, they're aggressive, and even as they're dying they thrash around, possibly missing a limb or two. Even the way they fight is a bit unsettling, they can get up right and close, and should they hit you, they knock you back. This first level does a pretty good job of putting the atmosphere of Aliens into a video game, better than any other game I've ever seen.

After taking out the aliens here, Leon unlocks the computer, called DR. DR tells us that we can now go to level 2, which I guess consists of moving the entire central room downwards. And Leon's access activated the self-destruct program and locked all the doors out. Lovely. To deactivate it, we need to reach the computer on Level 6. So, the rest of the game is on a 100 minute time limit. (Time limit is paused whenever a cutscene happens though) We do have enough time to read a log from the last captain of the space station, which insightfully tells us aliens have taken over the space station. This ends the cutscene and I can begin level 2...except Leon calls me back to the computer right away to inform me that some of the aliens, the green ones, can reach the central area.

The action here is so frantic that I'm not sure if I shot off his head or what, which you seem to be able to do without killing them.

Once I can actually do something in level 2, one of the green aliens breaches into the interior. This basically amounts to the alien running through doors as it runs away from me. I said I thought the game controls pretty well, it does, but the movement screen is somewhat awkward when you're chasing down an enemy running away from you down snaking corridors. The game isn't shy about having them enter either. As I began my incursion into the outer regions, another one entered. By the time I tracked it down, one of the blocks was about to be destroyed. I reloaded, it wasn't terribly vital, just the light room, but at this stage, wandering around in darkness would be suicide. There are no actual saves, but for sanity's sake I used save states.

The death animation of one alien.

And it's a good thing too, because dealing with the invading aliens is kind of distracting. I go out into the cargo area, I'm quickly pulled back because I need to take out another one. And if a block is about to be destroyed, I have to reload because losing one this early basically guarantees I'm going to get a game over halfway through this level. I switched out the grenade launcher for the sleep launcher, and when that works, it works, but I still have to travel halfway across the damn interior area just to hit the guy. Unless you're chasing the thing across the outer hallway you have no chance of getting a good shot off, and even then you have to get lucky. Even though I eventually won, the amount of motor cannon ammo I've used is over 450 rounds, not very sustainable even though I haven't used the Lipp Cannon at all. Worse yet, these guys have been damaging the blocks despite them not being destroy, and the damage is enough that I have to restart despite what I've done. So...just camp out in front of the areas they can enter. Or...not, because the system the game uses to decide whether or not the green aliens can invade seems to be random, but mostly only happens whenever you're outside the area, primarily on changing in and out of the interior area. Which means if the game feels cruel, you can be put in an infinite loop and entering and exiting the interior area until all the green aliens are gone.

I save up a lot of ammo for the second time through. Use of short, controlled bursts and not wasting ammo on chasing the green aliens helps a ton. Aliens have death animations, but you can shoot them while they're dying, wasting ammo. It's pretty cool and reinforces their creepy factor, seeing them thrash around as they die. This level isn't terribly hard in of itself, but ensuring that you're not going to die on level 3 can be tricky.

Referring to the aliens, of course.
Like with the first level, more information is given. Not really important information, just that they faught the aliens before dying. The game is trying to make this all sound much more impressive than it really is, but compared to these days when every single horror-related game has some logs like this, it's kind of bland. I can see this being incredibly impressive in 1991 though. There's also someone at the bottom of the ship, as in someone else, not an alien. Probably.

The aliens, in addition to the space station, have a different kind of symbolism to them than your usual Giger knockoffs.

Level 3 adds black aliens, ones that are invisible to your sound detection system. Again, Leon teleports me away from combat to inform me of this. I do admit I wouldn't have given it much thought until one inevitably snuck up behind me, but I would have preferred it that way. If I leave Leon and then return to talk to him, he'll then give me a sensor capable of seeing the black aliens, and only the black aliens. Dealing with green aliens is still top priority, because battery power is quite expendable compared to blocks.

This makes me wonder, not about them specifically, but as to whether or not spawns are predetermined. It's hard to tell because aliens often move around, but the green aliens, based on their focus in running towards the interior, can be tracked. I know this level started off with me having to rush to deal with an alien south, then east. I sincerely hope that's how you're supposed to deal with it every time on this level, and not just get screwed randomly. I switch out the weapons a bit on this level, as I was using the motor cannon constantly. Seems like the mega beamer is the best, though if an enemy turns as you shoot, exposing his arm to your blast, while he loses an arm, you're still out a shot and have to wait for it to recharge. Sometimes when enemies advance their arms get in the way, and you get hit anyway. It's great when it hits though.

You get to see this person later, of course, and funnily enough they used the same image in both cases, but it doesn't quite work here.

Eventually, when I won this level, we get a message from the other person on the stage, basically just telling us we'll regret ever coming here. And then a mysterious side cutscene from someone saying he'll test our real abilities. Sentient alien leader being the same person saying both of these, I guess. Level 4 was going to be annoying anyway, all four doors lead to monster filled areas. Which means that green aliens can come from anywhere! And...there are doors everywhere in the exterior? Huh.

Once again, when I return to Leon, he gives me something, with a very forgetful tone. This happened on the last level too, but in that case you were kind of aware that was going to happen. Here, not so much. Considering how frequently the game pulled you away from the action to tell you something, like a modern game, you could get used to relying on the game to tell you things. I figured better. What do I get, why a muzzle breaker, which increases my attack power, but apparently I shouldn't use it too often?

The green aliens get really annoying on this level. No longer do they seem to obey any real rules, just popping out of any door you didn't just open. Which is great, because if they're far away from where I started the level, a single block loses a bit under 50% integrity, three of those and the block goes. One block, just the lights, is already in the danger zone. I sort of figure out how to defeat these guys without getting hit. Check each door, if an enemy is outside it, it should be a green alien. Walk in and out quickly, green aliens only head towards the center when you're outside the center. And now I can go through the area at my leisure.

Even with these guys dead, I'm struck at how often I need to circle around the level. First I do a general clean-up of the area, then I go around again, to clear up any stragglers. Okay, one final sweep...and there are still quite a few more. And again. I haven't even used the scanner for the black aliens yet, though some have been eliminated. In the end I just got the black aliens by sweeping for the rest of the regular ones. Huh.

[Random] words the game seems to think are [important] are randomly done up like that for some [reason].

End level briefing, Leon tells me that there's just one more floor, guess that's the last regular floor? I sense something's going to seriously change up for the sixth floor. Leon got another message from our enemy, mocking us for trying to loot the place. Leon brings up some interesting points, talking about how there are no humans or cargo here or any sign of it, along with how we get convenient information and use of the computers. I admit, I wouldn't have noticed that if the game didn't bring it up, because it's not unusual for games to work that way. It's fairly typical for a first-person game around this time to gloss over anything remotely realistic, so I just sort of don't pay any attention to it. It's interesting to see a game work in a limitation that in most other games would be completely ignored.

Level 5's design looks to be the most annoying yet. Before now it was all sort of simple, easy to maneuver blocks, as opposed to the vaguely mazey design of this one. Well, I won't complain too much...yet. I try my new method of killing the green aliens on this floor. It first, but while I get one, another one always gets in while I'm killing the first. From places that don't seem to have one to begin with, and then it seems like they don't come in anymore. It's a trap, it's a trick, but there's not a lot I can do about it.

The green aliens work really strangely now. There are some on the inside, but they never seem to be the ones that appear inside, instead, green aliens seem to warp inside, always at a door I'm not in. So the game is just straight-up breaking its rules. That's fun. The new rules seem to be that if you encounter an enemy, a green alien spawns in the central area.It's not that other aliens aren't that difficult to kill, they can be, it's just that between aliens that charge after you, aliens that try to trick you into following the, and aliens that just run away from you, while potentially giving you a game over, one of these is more important than the others.

Finally, level 6. In preparation when I ran out of green aliens, I switched to the grenade launcher. Something told me the gameplay would switch up, at first it seemed in the opposite direction I was expecting. An alert sounded and...nothing happened. Instead I get another warning from the bad guy, saying that these aren't ordinary monsters. Look man, I've seen Alien, I know they're really colonists or something. Leon tells me there are no monsters here. More concerning, there is no map for this level. Just guess.

Once you see it, it does look like enemies are always in the same pose...
Level 6 starts, Leon says "Morpheus, look out, there are monsters". Couldn't Leon have just said this looks funny when he talked about the monsters? Only...they're in the central area, and they're invisible. Oh. They're tough to fight too, eating more than one grenade and two laser shots. I die, for the first time this playthrough. The game allows you to continue, with energy restored, but not ammo. Unfortunately, there is no way to recharge energy at this point beyond that. After the fact, I found out there's supposed to be an energy recharging device, but I imagine you only get that if you lose the battery block. Thankfully I had 27 minutes when I started this level, hopefully that'll be enough. Still, there are only four or so aliens here.
Given what's just about to happen, I presume this means we're the only Debuggers to make it this far.
After defeating this, I can then open the only door out, which enters a room with a computer explaining what's going on. Leon tells me that this is a trap, which tracks, and that the station was used by Project Bioroid...he dies. That sucks, Leon actually kind of improved this game. I mean, not as much as a character in a half-way decent modern game, but you know, pretty good for an oldie.
He doesn't look very impressive, but previous aliens were missing legs too.

Then I meet the head bioroid...who tells me I'll make a good bioroid...he doesn't look like the character mocking me the entire time. So who is that character?

That's a very polite way to put it...

And it turns out that the character mocking us the entire time is actually a friendly of some sort...? And a woman, which I think was supposed to be secret revelation, but those boobs are kind of obvious. Everyone I shot was formerly a human. Leon comes back to shoot the evil bioroid...and someone called Smith was doing the experiments to turn humanity into a stronger version of itself, which obviously wasn't working out considering these aliens have the intelligent of a potato. Guess Smith is the head bioroid.

We escape without incident, we find out that the friendly's name is Sara Bentury, and that this whole thing was done by rogue members of one nation's army. Leon, apparently, used to be in that nation's army and isn't surprised they're doing this kind of crap. The two argue about some stuff, but seem resigned to continuing to work together and the player is completely forgotten in the scuffle. 

And they never saw them again. Why is it that games having a "to be continued" bit at the end always seems to result in never showing up again? That was a bit lame for a final battle, but it shouldn't affect the rating too badly.

Seven weapons, a dinky pistol, three primary weapons and three secondary weapons. Only one of these weapons is truly useless, a weapon that causes enemies to flee, useless when enemies are faster than you. That said, there is generally a best primary weapon in the laser weapon, which kills most enemies in one hit, though it fails to completely outclass the others thanks to a slow rate of fire and it's thirst for battery power. 4/10

There are basically four enemy types, though mostly reskins of the same general enemy. The green aliens, which run to the interior of the station to damage the blocks, which is the most troublesome aspect of the game; The rest of the aliens, some chase after you, some try to bait you, some need a special scanner, but mostly they come to you; Slimes, which are sort of there, walk into them and they die; And the boss aliens, not that they seem all that bossy at the time, considering you fight four of them in a row. They're invisible, but your sound system still works. There's enough variety here to last the game and not just make you feel like you're killing the same thing over and over again, also helped by how creepy they are. 5/10


Very plain, to the point at times where it doesn't quite feel like they did much to think up the levels. But designing these kinds of levels is a rare skill, and what the game does works in context of how the rest of the game plays. It also helps that when the game does try to get more complex level design you have a decent map. 4/10

Player Agency:
The whole aiming mechanic feels half-baked, I could take out an alien's limbs, but I for the life of me can't figure out why I would want to do that. It's cool, I guess. I kind of question how the keys are laid out. Button 1 is aim, button 2 is your primary weapon and for your secondary weapon you press run, the Turbografx-16's start button. Select instead opens the menu. Speed is an issue, but I guess they're trying to increase the length of the game by making your sprinting speed, when you've walked over several tiles, less than the green aliens. Otherwise I have no complaints, in fact, otherwise it seems incredibly modern by 1991 standards, the menus practically are! 6/10


I said the game felt like it perfectly captured the atmosphere of Aliens, and I still feel that. Sure, no acid blood, but that's a minor quibble. A heavily armed soldier in an isolated place against a horde of terrifying, practically unknowable alien creatures, flitting between the corridors as you try to track them down with your radar. Nearly perfect. 9/10

The aliens look great in motion, I think they might have a limited amount of animation, but they shift around so much that it's hard to notice. The faux-3d looks pretty good, but generic sci-fi corridors are hard to make spectacular. The anime cutscenes are okay, not the kind of anime where the characters eyes are so big you could punch them, but not something inspired. 5/10

I actually grew to like my companion with a questionable grasp of English, Leon. It's a fairly obvious story, but it just feels that much better in having your companion note that the suspicious happenings are in fact, suspicious. I do wish he would give me the items he was going to give me without me having to go back to him. 3/10

What I thought before playing this game was that this early, you couldn't make a game on this kind of hardware and it would have great environmental sound. All with a single beeping sound and some deep breathing. I never thought that beeping sound was annoying, I was too focused on killing the thing that was making it. Music-wise it's okay, wisely it never overlaps with the sound, but that sound is just a step above every game I've played so far it's hard not to be impressed. It's just that good. 6/10

That's 42. Which is as of this writing the highest I've rated a pre-Doom FPS, and any game released before 1992.

I really liked Silent Debuggers, at the very least, of the faux-3d FPS titles, it's the best. Well, the best so far, Amiga developers have really tried to make that system work. It takes a genre that at this stage, still didn't quite work and makes something interesting and tense out of it. While the game resorts to several cheap tricks to lengthen the game, these aren't so bad as long as you're not on original hardware.

There aren't a lot of period reviews, but the ones I could find are positive. Helps that the sound system is just as impressive then as it is now. Modern reviews are somewhat mixed. Firstly, I'm going to go over the Gamespot, Nintendolife and IGN reviews, because they're basically the same old garbage. "Oh, faux-3d, it's like walking down the street and blinking. Oh, my head." before describing the gameplay as repetitive and slow. Now while the general gameplay loop doesn't change up that much throughout the game, what they write reveals that they just finished the first level and then their review. No mention of protecting the blocks, and the time limit is practically treated like an afterthought. This is the reason why people treat games journalism as a joke. Imagine someone for a major publication writing a review of a silent movie, only to complain that nobody talks and only describes things that happen in the first 5 minutes of the movie.

More positive reviews, though still not quite as positive as myself, point out the interesting aspects of the game, but also point out how dealing with the blocks is something of a chore. Which is a good point, since a shot of bad luck there can put you in an unwinnable situation, especially when the game decides to just spawn green aliens without any logic to them.

There's only one "new" title left in 1991, Armored Trooper Votoms: Dead Ash, a Japanese-exclusive game with a somewhat thick story. It's going to take a while on that one.

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