As previously alluded to in our article on the development of the Sega Saturn hardware, history is written by the victors. It’s because the Saturn ultimately failed–commercially–as a platform that games like Exhumed never got to deliver developers like Lobotomy Software the reward for their efforts that they deserved.
Exhumed (or Powerslave, as it was known in the US) is a corridor game that touts the virtues of the Saturn. With tight controls, well-executed concepts, and fantastic early fifith generation graphics, Exhumed is an example of a triumph of substance over form, a true case of game design done right. At the risk of sounding formulaic, it’s important to stress that while it is a fantastic game, it isn’t without its flaws.
I’m going to buck the trend and say that the best thing about Exhumed is its non-linearity. That’s not to say that non-linearity is a virtue in itself (cf. this Kotaku article); in this particular game, it, as a method of delivering game-play, non-linearity has been well-executed. From the very beginning, the player will get the impression that there exists some deeper intention behind the levels they’re exploring. Out-of-reach items and impassable passages might at first present themselves as confusing obstacles, but upon finding new power-ups and using good old-fashioned logic, finally satisfying your curiosity is definitely satisfying. Given Exhumed‘s Egyptian setting, it’s entirely appropriate that the player should be feeling as if they’re stabbing around in a warren of inter-related pathways (many fittingly tomb-like), some to be traversed early, some later, some many times, and some to be noticed once and then entirely forgotten. As the game progresses you will truly get the feeling that you’re moving deeper and deeper into the heart of some powerful and mysterious heart of darkness–and this is where Exhumed‘s aesthetics lend a great helping hand.
In addition to the way it structures its substance, Exhumed‘s graphical prowess offers much to impress. I’m going to ignore the features of Exhumed‘s graphics that modern attitudes towards first-person shooters would deem unacceptable (like the lack of: two real degrees of player visual freedom: left-right, up-down; full 3D, context-sensitive game environments; complex NPC AI &c), because they don’t impact on the kind of game Exhumed was trying to be. In 1996, first-person shooters were games of a fledgling new genre. Many of them, like their proginator, Doom, were corridor games. Given that it is a corridor game, Exhumed‘s graphics/aesthetic features are of a very high standard. Combine this with the fact that it was purposefully designed for the Saturn, a platform with hardware architecture that was notoriously difficult to program, and you have something of great interest in terms of video gaming history.
The stunning thing about Exhumed‘s visuals is that they feature large environments without sacrificing its fast-paced game-play speed. This is achieved through a neat programming trick that owes much to Exhumed‘s Doom origins.
As Exhumed‘s 3D-engine programmer Ezra Dreisbach tells Eurogamer in 2009,
…the main different thing about console FPS of that era is that every wall has to be diced into a grid of polygons. This is because there is no perspective-correct texture-mapping and, in the case of the Saturn, no way to clip. You really needed some custom tools to deal with/take advantage of this, and Lobotomy had Brew (made by David Lawson).
As Dreisbach stated in his interview with Segasaturn.co.uk, overcoming this limitation in texture-mapping was achieved by
automatically [combining] the wall tile graphics into fewer “uber-tiles” and [rendering] the walls like this when they [were] far away.
It’s a simple concept, but many 3D games of the era on the Saturn failed because they refused to take account of the Saturn‘s hardware. Through original programming, Exhumed was able to pull off enormous environments with fluid animation and dynamic lighting, helping develop a proper atmosphere in which to immerse the player.
Much like the effect achieved by the game-play progression, the visuals really do convey the idea that you’re penetrating a many-thousand year-old civilisation. Sky-lit levels leave you feeling roasted, laying everything bare and brutally exposed in its openness. The swarm-like onslaught of enemies in these environments cause you to become desperate with your weapons, as there is frequently nowhere to run. Contrastingly, underground levels are suitably chilling and dank, sparsely but properly lit, all giving the strong impression that these places are musty from thousands of years of rest, previously untouched, unseen, dormant and perfectly sealed.
The following excerpt from an now-defunct Slovak game magazine does a great job at conveying an idea of what Exhumed‘s atmosphere is like. The language is somewhat over-the-top (and not perfect), but I couldn’t put it any better:
I won’t start with technical execution, graphics or sounds, but I’ll spit out immediately the most important and gigantic thing which Exhumed has: atmosphere. Atmosphere of this game is something so perfect, heavy, [colourful and full of emotional impact], that words are not enough to describe it. You will be walking inside thousand-year-old temples full of mummies, and most fantastic decorations: vases, paintings, hieroglyphs. That [is all said] with a regard for [the game’s] monumental architecture, which makes you feel–even though you are the main hero, [on] which the faith of mankind depends, [and] though you will be fearfully killing enemies with your weapons– small and unimportant. Even though you [might be] cutting with a machete the strings of the original inhabitants, the buildings remain. [So too remains the] gold, paintings and the old culture, which is [also] indestructible. The majestic columns benevolently gaze over at doings of some man with knowledge that he will [soon] leave, and will leave them to rest maybe for [many more] thousands of years.
Before moving on, it’s worth mentioning that a key feature to praise is Lobotomy‘s ability to engineer convincing transparency in the game’s water terrain–something heavily rumoured to be a weak ability of the Saturn.
There are points where the visuals falter. The main complaint to level against Exhumed here is a common one among many games of its time: poor texturing. As an example, an early level, ‘Sobek Pass’, is almost entirely composed of one texture. See right for an image.
The difficulty in resolving different wall-faces apart from one-another makes finding your way around the level’s environment difficult, and at times frustrating. While this is regrettable, the level very cleverly riddles away the keys to its doors, and staggers its assortment of enemies in an intelligent way. This is much the same where-ever weak texture variation occurs: weakness in texturing is always moderated by the level design. The player is never unfairly forced to deal with too much of a challenge at once.
A welcome complement to both Exhumed‘s graphics and game-play is its controls. While the main character’s enormous jump length, somewhat stilted ability to look up and down, and at times slippery pin-point on-the-spot manoeuvring takes some getting used to, Exhumed‘s auto-aim and pleasantly precise controls give it an intuitive feel. As opposed to many corridor games and Doom clones/ports, the controls don’t buck back at you in the middle of hectic fire-fights, resisting your will. It’s obvious that careful attention has been paid to the player’s interface with the game environment because one is able to learn how to get better at Exhumed. It’s rare that a console first-person shooter that relies entirely on D-pad controls features such intuitive player interaction (cf. Croc), but we here have a shining example.
Modern FPS players might have a hard time adapting to what they might describe as primitive control scheme and limited game-environment context, but, that aside, Exhumed is a stellar example of the fruits of the labour of a developer who cared about their work. Lobotomy Software may have ultimately paid the price for not jumping on the same wagon as many other early 3D developers, but they produced something authentic. Effort, here, clearly translated into quality, and it is for that reason that Exhumed is definitely worth your time.
If you can scrounge together–by any means–a working version of this Saturn title, you’re guaranteed to be rewarded with an experience that creatively extends and develops the ideas that made their first exposition in Doom.
The reader can find a Lobotomy Software fan blog here and a YouTube video about the history of the developer here. A really good post to read from the fan blog that centralises a lot of information about Exhumed should not be missed. A write-up and a fairly illuminating interview about the technical aspects of Exhumed by GameFan can be found here:
I put the dynamic lights in after seeing Loaded on the PlayStation. Each of the wall polygons is being drawn gouraud shaded for the static torch light. As each vertex is transformed, the lighting contribution from the dynamic lights is added in. The algorithm is the cheapest, fastest thing I could think of that would still look okay.
EDIT: For more screenshots and another great discussion of Exhumed‘s concepts, read this NeoGAF thread.