[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.]
Nostalgia aside, examining the origins of now prevalent game concepts and genres is something that always interests me. The PlayStation contained some of the most experimental titles of its era, games that blended genres, created new ones, and reimagined others through CD-ROMs and 3D graphics. We know genre-defining hits like Crash Bandicoot and Metal Gear Solid very well, but there are some Japanese games that have eluded us.
Spriggan: Lunar Verse is one of the most mysterious PlayStation titles. Developed by From Software and based on a manga series from the early '90s (called Striker in the US), Spriggan introduced many design elements that would be popularized by Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden a full console generation later. You can call this an embryo of what would become the 3D action-adventure. It certainly is a stunted version of a genre we've become so familiar with over the years but could barely foresee in 1999.
Fan translation: No, but you can get by without knowing Japanese
Before From Software became the name that brings joy to the hearts of the hardcore and pitch black dread for everyone else, it was building its first series with the slow-paced dungeon crawler King's Field and fast-paced third-person mech shooter Armored Core. Spriggan was the company's attempt at something bigger and more ambitious. Developed by a new company arm called From Liquid Mirror Software, which would be dissolved after just one other game (Echo Night #2), it merged the RPG aspects of King's Field with Armored Core's focus on combat and pacing. Spriggan is one of the most progressive games of its era and no one even knows of it.
Lunar Verse takes place in the same world as the manga and film but focuses on a new character and goes for a different visual style. Oshiki Tashiki is a new Striker in the ARCAM Private Army, which seeks out ancient artifacts and keeps them from enemies who wish to turn a cold war into an actual one. The game takes a lot from Tomb Raider, but at least it makes sense here since the original manga was about armed archaeologists.
As a new recruit, Oshiki grows stronger throughout the game and gains access to new items and abilities. At the start of each of the game's 16 missions, you'll equip Oshiki with a melee weapon and firearm. You'll eventually gain access to three armored suits that give you buffs to defense, speed, or attack. These suits also grant temporary access to new, more powerful attacks, but the suits are powered by a gauge that can only be replenished through items and combat.
The most progressive idea of Spriggan is the ability to improve your character's stats through ability points, which are acquired as items and awarded for doing well on a mission (based on time, amount of kills, etc.). The mix of platforming, combat that switches from melee to long-range on the fly, leveling, and equipment selection really make Spriggan an early precursor to Devil May Cry and similar games that would follow Capcom's PS2 hit.
Where Spriggan falls short is in execution. You can choose between Tomb Raider tank controls or analog, but both feel terrible due to the camera and pace of combat. The right analog stick does nothing, even though it would be perfect for controlling the camera -- something developers didn't seem to realize in the PlayStation years. Instead, you use shoulder buttons to strafe and the square button to reset the camera. What's worse, the square button also changes your weapon when double tapped and lets you walk when held. It's a mess and the clunky combat only makes things worse.
Despite all this, I still had a good time with Spriggan outside some maddening boss fights and an instant-death platforming section. The game has a great atmosphere, look, and music that feel like a blend between the cool espionage of Metal Gear Solid and supernatural horror of Akira. The soundtrack is really one of the best to grace an action game of its time.
I also loved the customization, exploration, and variety in levels. One level has you guarding a truck from an onslaught of ninjas while the next sends you on a long trek through a tomb full of traps, spiders, and puzzles. From Software has always excelled at level design, and Spriggan is no exception.
I wouldn't recommend Spriggan unless you are feeling curious about From Software's early years or the beginnings of 3D action-adventure. From an academic and nostalgic perspective, Spriggan is a fascinating game that tried out concepts at least three years before Capcom. As a game enthusiast, you'll think there may be a reason why we credit Devil May Cry and not Spriggan as getting the action-adventure ball rolling.
Are you guys into researching the roots of game genres?
Is From Software a developer worth digging deep into?
What other '90s games had elements of Devil May Cry and God of War?
Azure Striker out next month in Japan, working on North American release parity
4:30 PM on 07.22.2014