GameSpite Quarterly 8 | Sony Before PlayStation

Back in the early ’90s, the prospect of Sony entering the console race was exciting from a hardware perspective. The electronics super-giant had given us one of the most inventive personal entertainment technologies ever seen in the Walkman, and it was also responsible for a number of less-successful but equally excellent endeavors such as BetaMax (vastly superior to the VHS format, but ultimately too deficient in porn to appeal to the masses) and the MiniDisc (which lives on, sort of, as the PlayStation Portable UMD). They even had some video game hardware cred, thanks to the Super NES audio chip they designed. By some people’s reckoning, the SNES still boasts the finest piece of dedicated audio hardware ever to appear in a console.

But hardware is only a portion of the equation when it comes to a platform. The bad news was that Sony as a software provider had proven to be a far, pitiful cry from the hardware side of the company. Sony Imagesoft was ones of those logos that no one with any sense of taste ever wanted to see on their games, kind of like Acclaim or THQ. Imagesoft basically existed as a tool for spinning the company’s film and music properties into video game form. Its games, generally speaking, were not good.

Witness, if you will, the best and worst of Sony Imagesoft—or rather, why no one in the world would ever have expected to see games like Parappa the Rapper, vib-ribbon, and Ico on PlayStation.

Barkley Shut Up and Jam!
Dev.: Accolade | Release: 1994 | Platform: Super NES (Europe)

It says a lot about a game when most people today only know about it, ironically, as the loose inspiration for a satirical indie game that has nothing in common with the original work save some graphics and the presence of Charles Barkley. Shut Up And Jam Gaiden is a clever RPG; Shut Up and Jam! is a clumsy two-on-two basketball game whose only real saving grace is that it’s a hell of a lot less embarrassing than other games of the era built around sports stars (i.e. Michael Jordan Chaos in the Windy City, Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball).

Dev.: Malibu | Release: 1993 | Platform: Multi

Based on the Sylvester Stallone movie! ...which is probably all you need to know. Cliffhanger is somewhat commendable for being a film-based game that follows its source material’s storyline as faithfully as possible, given that its only means for expressing the nuance of film is a 2D side-scrolling world where you jump and perform combat and climbing actions. But that probably says something about the two-dimensionality of the movie itself. In any case, this is exactly the sort of unimaginative and inexplicably challenging mess that has given licensed games such a bum rap to begin with.

Hudson Hawk
Dev.: Ocean | Release: 1992 | Platform: NES

The nicest thing you can say about Hudson Hawk is that it’s not as bad as the movie. But we’re talking about a notorious cinematic dud where Bruce Willis cashed in his Die Hard cred so that he could freely improvise to his heart’s content. (Turns out he’s really awful at improv.) The best thing that ever happened to this game was appearing on the cover of Electonic Gaming Monthly -- which, funnily enough, was one of the worst things ever to happen to EGM. Oh, and the game itself? Generic, sloppy, grating, unbalanced, poorly designed 2D brawler/platformer. You had to ask?

Kriss Kross: Make My Video
Dev.: Digital Pictures | Release: 1992 | Platform: Sega CD

If you ever dreamed of being the video producer for a novelty act about two pre-teen boys who liked to put their clothes on backward so they could rap, this was pretty much your dream game! Provided you didn’t mind being limited to a small number of songs and video clips, or being forced to do your editing with an ugly and unintuitive video game front-end.

Sewer Shark
Dev.: Digital Pictures | Release: 1992 | Platform: Sega CD

This was pretty much the game to sell people on Sega CD at launch, which is less a glowing recommendation for Sewer Shark than a chilling piece of context to explain just how directionless the Sega CD format really was at its debut. Eventually it saw great games like Lunar 2, Snatcher, and Keio Flying Squadron. At launch, though, it was all about playing overly simplistic shooters with a grainy video stream running in the background.

Chuck Rock
Dev.: Core | Release: 1992 | Platform: Multi

Your opinion of Chuck Rock will probably vary according to whether you’re American or European. In the U.S., Core’s series never really caught on—but on the other side of the Atlantic, it was remarkably popular, spawning a sequel, a Mario Kart clone, and even some ancillary media spin-offs. A fairly by-the-numbers platformer, but well-made... especially compared to most other Sony Imagesoft titles.

Dev.: Sony | Release: 1994 | Platform: Super NES

The 16-bit sequel to NES isometric adventure Solstice, this one presumably took six months later. These decidedly seasonal games were among the most unabashedly European titles ever to show up on a Nintendo console in the west, and happily they were solid representatives of their kind. Like Solstice (not to mention Knight Lore and the billion other Spectrum games it inspired), Equinox consisted of dozens of single-screen rooms interconnected into a vast puzzle packed with enemies and other challenges—sometimes arbitrary challenges, due to the visual perspective. Still, an engrossing adventure.

International Sensible Soccer
Dev.: Sensible Soccer | Release: 1994 | Platform: Multi

Being American, I have no knowledge whatsoever of this game outside of the fact that it involves a bunch of tiny men kicking a ball around a field. However, I do know that the British seem to hold it in high regard! Admittedly I don’t always share the British’s reverence for certain old games, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of a doubt on this one. So... well done, Sony Imagesoft.

Mega Turrican
Dev.: Factor 5 | Release: 1994 | Platform: Mega Drive (Europe)

An awesome Contra-style shooter from Factor 5, who would go on to make awesome Star Wars games for Nintendo 64 before being destroyed by compulsory SIXAXIS controls. But let us not think of the dark days of Sony fumbling PlayStation 3 and instead focus on the dark days of Sony struggling to publish good software leading up to their debut as a hardware manufacturer. This action masterpiece was a great step in the right direction; as one of Sony Imagesoft’s final releases, it could be regarded as a fitting segue into the PlayStation era.

Super Dodge Ball
Dev.: Technos | Release: 1989 | Platform: NES

Probably the single best publishing deal Sony Imagesoft ever made, much of the company’s failings can be forgiven in light of their bringing Technos’ cult-classic sports brawler to the U.S. A fast-paced action game loosely based around the concept of avoiding being hit by that damned medicine ball in gym class, Super Dodge Ball perfectly balanced strategy and chaos. Much has been written about the game, which went largely unknown until the world of NES emulation brought its greatness to light, but the mere fact that Sony would option it for localization suggests that they had their heart in the right places all along. Hudson Hawk notwithstanding.

By Jeremy Parish? | April 17, 2011 | Last: Chapter I: Sony's Big Ploy | Next: Chapter II: Sony Delivers