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The Rise And Fall Of Sega's Vectorman

Vectorman 2The one thing I always think of first when I recall the Nintendo versus Sega console wars of the 1990s is that whatever one company did first, the other would follow up with their own version soon after.  Nintendo Super Scope?  Sega Menacer.  Super FX chip in StarfoxSVP chip in Virtua Racing.  Pre-rendered graphical style for Donkey Kong Country?  Pre-rendered graphical style for Vectorman.  While Donkey Kong Country went on to spawn two direct sequels during the 16-bit era, a Game Boy side series, and so much more over the years up through Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the Wii U in 2014, Sega's answer to the gorilla in the room went on to star in a single sequel in the Genesis era and then a couple of aborted relaunches.  Hardcore Gaming 101 has the story of Vectorman's rise and fall.

What Vectorman lacks in consistent difficulty and compact level design, it more than makes up for in its presentation, which is where all of BlueSky Studios' offerings shine the brightest. Proclaiming that the SNES is graphically superior to the Genesis may be a tired cliché nowadays, but it's an undeniable fact that most titles of the time looked better on Nintendo's 16-bit console than they did on the competition and that Donkey Kong Country deserves praise for stuffing all of its then-high-tech graphics and timeless soundtrack in a single 32-meg cartridge with no special chips inside despite its bland gameplay (which the sequels greatly improved upon). In comparison, Sega's console had a much paltrier VDP/PPU and less access to large ROM sizes, but its lightning-fast and easy-to-program-for Motorola 68000 processor could easily trump Nintendo's choice of CPU (the unique, yet terribly slow Ricoh 5A22) in every aspect imaginable if in the hands of a talented programmer, and this is what makes Vectorman's unique graphical style look good up to this day.

By the way, do you know Vectorman's dirty little secret?  It doesn't use vector graphics at all.  That doesn't stop it from looking impressive on Sega's 16-bit hardware though.  It was the unique visuals that first drew me into wanting to play the game.  When I was in high school in the mid-to-late 1990s, a friend had the game and we spent too many weekend afternoons trying to clear the second level.  We were absolutely terrible at it; poor Vectorman may as well as been a magnet for incoming enemy fire.

It wasn't until college that I tried to put any significant time into the sequel and I was equally terrible at that.  That's when I realized where Vectorman stumbled compared to Donkey Kong Country: Nintendo's games had (and still have) a way of teaching the player new gimmicks and techniques that are required for success. Typically the first time a player is required to jump or attack, it's in a controlled space optimized for figuring things out.  The next time the technique appears, the danger level is increased slightly.  Maybe there's spikes or a bottomless pit mixed in with the obstacle.  Eventually all bets are off and level designs begin to demand perfection, but there's a ramping up of that expectation.

VectormanVectorman, on the other hand, has a habit of tossing new twists at the player without explanation or warning.  It's as if the game is shouting "Now try this!" at odd turns like a broken microgame from Wario's collection.  The game opens with a side-scrolling shooter platformer stage and then leaps without warning to a rail shooter segment already in progress for its second stage, for instance.  I never feel like I know what's going on or how to handle the structure of either game.  I like the idea behind Vectorman, but the execution feels sloppy. 

HG101 goes on to explain that the sequel was seemingly built in a hurry over top of the original game which explains its unevenness, at least.  There were attempts at reviving the character for the Sega Saturn and, much later, the Sony PlayStation 2, and while neither of those titles came to fruition, I still think someone could do something interesting with the character.