Men in Black Retrospective: I Put My Hands… On My Head…

The second half of the 90’s was alien territory; it came after dinosaurs ruled the cinema, but before pirates and zombies made a well deserved and ultimately overstayed return. It was a revival for extra terrestrials, who had last been big in the late 60’s and 70’s following the space race, thanks in no small part to the dramatically lit FBI duo Mulder & Scully and their stories of a confusing filing system. Right in the middle of this resurgence of interest fell Barry Sonnenfeld’s movie, Men in Black, which showed moviegoers a lighter side to the alien invasion with this witty and clever insight in to the fictitious agency charged with keeping their presence a secret. It’s quirky, funny, and about as 90’s as things get with Will Smith taking the leading role backed up by Tommy Lee Jones, and has some neat ideas along with special effects which were impressive at the time. If this were a movie blog, I could easily ramble about the film for pages, but I want to focus on that always tricky game tie-in.

“Men in Black” for PS1 made one half of the games that I received when I was first gifted that iconic cuboid of grey. It was what I’ve previously described as “The Second Game“; picked up by my parents alongside the one title that I’d asked for to provide me with some variety in play, presumably recommended as popular by some employee of “Game”, or “Electronic Boutique”. As a teenager I never managed to complete it (I’ll come back to that one particular hurdle that I got stuck on later), it took my weeks to make it out of the first area in one piece and survive long enough to save my progress. With my recent revisiting of some PS1 games, I decided to finally sit down and conquer this game and put it to rest…

… it turns out that time had dulled my memory about how bad this game actually is; it’s flawed in so many ways it’s tricky to know where to start and, given the source material, it’s difficult to understand how the designers managed to mess it up…

Just … erm… diffuse the bomb… if you can work out where it is… 

The game only partially draws from the film’s plot arc; the player begins as James Edwards, an NYPD cop, who in the first mission must chase down an alien through New York. He’s then recruited by the MiB and becomes J. From here the player gets to pick which of the three MiB operatives they plays as, J, K, or L (Which is confusing because L isn’t recruited until the end of the events in the movie… whatever). I can’t say that I noticed much difference (maybe the standard sidearm weapon?) between the characters and ended up playing as K because the fake Tommy Lee Jones voice grated on me less than the fake Will Smith voice. From here the game abandons the plot of the movie and takes the player through three seemingly unconnected missions; one in the arctic, one in the jungle, and one in some kind of futuristic facility. Aside from an initial briefing, there’s basically no plot to the missions… or at least none that I could follow… occasionally K would say something which seemed to have some significance, but mostly it was an exercise in doing “stuff” until making it to the next part of the mission. I think I recovered something from each of the missions which was referenced in the next briefing, but I couldn’t see any attempt at an overarching plot and the game’s ending didn’t link everything up as I was assuming it would… just three random MiB missions… It still baffles me that from a movie with some memorable scenes and a clear plot, the game decided to go in a completely different direction.

The gameplay doesn’t help clarify which “direction” the game was trying to take; it lurches from shooter action, to puzzle solving, to brawler, to platformer, and doesn’t manage any of these well. Mechanically it draws its inspiration from Resident Evil with fixed camera views, pre-rendered backgrounds, and tank controls; in themselves all ideas that fit with the time, but even as a veteran of this type of game I found it very awkward. The pre-rendered backgrounds are all supposed to be shadowy and moody, but just end up obscuring what the layout of the area is and in many places my selected person in black would just be walking in to an invisible wall where it looked like a valid place to move to. The lack of similar shadow effects on the 3D models of the characters themselves makes them look even more “superimposed” on the still backgrounds than they normally do with this style and transitioning between areas is accompanied by a jarring pause for loading.

This guy just levitates off the screen when he leaves… never explained why…

The game’s combat drags it further down; it’s the usual Resident Evil style, hold button to ready a weapon and aim, then press another to fire. Unlike Capcom’s masterpieces however, the movements here feel sluggish and unresponsive making the fast moving enemies and those with guns frustrating to pick off. The designers also opted to have the shoot button assigned to the ‘up’ direction the d-pad so it’s easy to let a few rounds rip accidentally when pressing left or right during aiming. The only slight blessing is the crosshair that appears on enemies when you have them in your sights, but it’s weirdly flickery and difficult to see. Given the scarcity of ammo at some points, and that I tended to have wasted a good few shots during aiming, the player more often than not has to resort to fisticuffs. Hand-to-hand combat is even worse than shooting; the player needs to hold a ‘ready’ button to bring up their fists, only now ‘up’ kicks and ‘left’ or ‘right’ throws punches. The problem is that the enemies move and you need to position your character looking directly at them in order to connect, so if they move mid combat the player has to release the ready button (slow fists down animation), awkwardly pivot or run around until their facing their opponent again, press ready button (slow bringing fists up animation), and hopefully tap attack a few times before they sidestep… why wouldn’t the designers allow the player to move in the combat ready stance? Coupled with some tediously big health bars, the combat doesn’t even come close to delivering. Luckily many of the enemies can be backed in to a corner, or against a wall, and pummelled without being able to respond, whilst the remainder can just be shot.

I mean, it’s sort of atmospheric… but not very Men in Black

Not content with messing up combat, MiB takes a shot at platforming, and I can’t believe that anyone ever thought that platforming in a fixed camera view game, with pre-rendered backgrounds was ever going to be a winning combination. The character’s jump is a feeble little hop, but in some places it’s as though the game is trying to assist you to make a big jump by turbo charging the hop, unfortunately if you havn’t lined it up perfectly then you’ll still fall to your doom… so why have this “assisted jump” if it’s still possible to miss? Luckily there arn’t too many of these sections, but all of them seem to have terrible camera views and harsh penalties; for example in one mission the player’s downtrodden MiB operative must jump from a staircase to a ledge. The player can fall from the staircase unhurt, but if they try to jump and miss they are instantly killed.

… and I really … really need to have a side-rant about the section that bested me as a teenager. Even going back now it is still a miserable experience. During the jungle mission the player needs to jump between moving floating rocks to make it across a chasm. Even getting on to the first rock is tricky because the edges of the chasm are poorly defined by the pre-rendered-ness, but the rocks themselves are irregualry shaped and each jump requires tense shuffling towards the edge and a hopeful leap at what feels like it might be the right moment. It is so easy to miss because the character wasn’t quite at the edge, or they weren’t quite facing the right direction. Just to add to this there are some pillars in the foreground that it looks as though you might need to jump on to (you can’t), and one of the rocks that looks as though it’s moving forward and backward is actually moving up and down… I did finally make it past this section, but never again…

Ok, so you see the pillars in the foreground… yeah, you can’t jump on to those… you see that little blog in the top right.. that’s you… good luck… 

Setting the combat & movement mechanics to one side, the only real positive I can give to the game is that occasionally it manages to be atmospheric. The opening of the arctic mission evokes memories of ‘The Thing’ and I actually found myself enjoying guiding K though the exploration of a seemingly empty outpost, reading journal entries, and solving some rudimentary puzzles to open doors. Likewise the opening of the jungle mission is mildly unsettling with its long shadows, spooked miners, and stories of mysterious forces at play. However, as with everything else in the game, it fails to go anywhere. Both of these missions descend in to tedium with no real story direction and the final mission is a joyless slog through area after area of combat and a final boss entirely out of keeping with the tone of the game or the film.

Similarly the puzzles are often an exercise in trial and error; the first area of the game involves diffusing a bomb before the time runs out and I remember that it took me a long time to clear it as a teenager. The bomb isn’t easy to find, there is no indication as to how much time is left so the explosion always feels like a random event, and even when I found the bomb there’s no guidance of what to do. All the player can do is keep restarting the game. There’s a similar puzzle in the arctic mission.. and I’m still not sure exactly what I did to stop the bomb going off, but it seemed to have something to do with the glowing things on the wall. My least favourite puzzle was one that occurs late on in the jungle mission and involves positioning statues in a room in accordance with a model that you find elsewhere. This puzzle has an instant death for failure that takes the player a long way back… and I failed over and over. Finally I caved an looked up the solution online. The statues needed to be positioned in the same way as the model … with respect to how the player’s fixed camera view was looking at the room… It’s tricky to describe, but the best analogy I can come up with is if someone showed you a clockface rotated so that the nine was at the top and then told you to set the time to twelve o’clock when really you have to set the time to 8:45 to solve the puzzle.

To complete this puzzle you need to… I have no idea… I just kept clicking things until it worked… 

Going back to this game was an itch that I wanted to scratch, but I can’t recommend that anyone do the same. So much about it is awkward, poorly designed, or just unfair…

There is a point in the game where you must go back through a room that you’ve been through before… only this time your health drains whilst you’re in there… there’s no visual clue, and nothing seems to have changed, so why is it now filled with poison gas? 

 and that just sums up the whole experience; either you figure it out because you’ve been persistent enough to just learn what’s about to happen, or you manage to get through because you got the enemy in to a position where they couldn’t hit you. Neither of these options feel like an achievement, and it doesn’t have a compelling plot to make up for these failings. I guess as a game it’ll just fall in to the pile of poor movie tie-ins. Does anyone else remember this game?… was I the only one cursed with it?  

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