I originally wrote the awful title above just because having anything up there tends to be better than having to actually apply myself and come up with something witty, but as it turns out the sense of fantastic bewilderment that comes from playing through Hudson’s Saturn-exclusive adventure game is probably summed up best with that non-title after all.
The world presented in Virus that Serge and Erica must navigate is a rough-n-ready cyberpunk setting where the internet has advanced to the point that it’s essentially a part-time Matrix where people willingly and knowingly immerse themselves in a digital reality for up to thirty hours at a time, only instead of this being some leather-n-guns scenario or a flawlessly white Apple-style vision of the future Hudson’s version of the net is an utterly bonkers but very much lived-in affair with its own shady bars, dodgy unlicensed “Ura-net” connections, slick company presentation areas and high-fantasy recreation lands. This leads to some nutty (charitably: “dream-like”) situations where you’re picking coconuts out of trees for talking penguins or battling girls dressed in pink rabbit outfits, but the game pulls everything off with absolute sincerity so while it certainly feels strange it somehow doesn’t feel disconnected, forced, or random-for-random’s-sake. In fact it’s very much like our modern use of the internet: one minute you’re watching cat videos on YouTube or saving Eorzea from summoned Moogle-gods, the next you’re visiting a local government website to check when your weekly bin collection’s due.
Virus doesn’t appear to have set the gaming world on fire but it did do well enough to spawn the anime Virus Buster Serge (which you can watch – legally and in English – here) which bears a vague resemblance to the general plot of the original game, and this anime then spawned the Playstation game Virus: The Battle Field that appears to be some sort of card battling…. thing.
Underneath this extensively-realised setting (including the beautifully nineties idea of CYBERJAIL) Virus spends most of its time being a typical Japanese adventure game with the majority of your actions being of the usual look/talk/show-somebody-that-thing-you-just-found variety. You’d think the Saturn mouse compatibility mentioned on the back of the box would be a perfect fit considering the genre, but as it turns out it’s actually far more cumbersome than using a standard controller. The “problem” is that Hudson did a faultless job when they created the controller interface, every possible action is tied to a specific button so you’re essentially holding a bunch of hotkeys in your hand with no need to slowly drag a pointer between the icons along the bottom of the screen. But the real joy comes when you realise (alternatively: read the flippin’ manual) that repeatedly pressing the corresponding look/use/talk hotkey will automatically cycle through every appropriate interactive point on screen – goodbye pixel hunting!
It’s not all about talking to people so other people will talk to you and then checking a bookcase three times until Serge notices something though: The game has plenty of simple maze-like areas in both FMV and real-time 3D variants that allow you to do some light exploration and give a little freedom to a typically rigid genre.
Hudson also included a fair few mini games at set points in the three-disc story to break things up, ranging from disarming several explosives (thankfully not all at once) to analysing voice samples or even curing people of terrifying internet viruses. None of these sections are particularly long and you wouldn’t want them to be either, but they all come together to help create an adventure that feels more “hands on” than a lot of similar titles.
Still not enough? Then how about getting your hands dirty with a little battling too? Virus features both mandatory boss fights (often, but not always, occurring at the end of a chapter) and less intensive random battles when wandering around certain areas of the net, giving Serge something to wave his (cyber)gun at and the player the opportunity to engage in some real-time cursor-pointing action.
There are two gauges to worry about when fighting, HP and AP. The AP gauge* depletes every time Serge performs an action - anything from firing a shot to using a healing item – but it will slowly recover over time. As such it’s important to take note of how much AP you’re going through as you carelessly blast away at all and sundry - it’s very easy to end up on the receiving end of an enemy’s most powerful attack and unable to do anything about it other than stand there and watch Serge die! Boss battles throw in the added complication of multiple changing (but not random) weak points that need to be hit in order to do any damage; these aren’t actually visible on screen, you have to either find them yourself with a few exploratory shots or throw a Net Bomb and see where the damage marker pops up. It’s not a great idea but at least Virus’ continue system is mercifully the sort that allows you to restart a boss fight from the beginning regardless of when you last saved.
All-in-all Virus is a good and thoroughly nineties sci-fi adventure that was well worth the paltry £5-ish plus shipping it’s currently selling for. It could have probably been a bit shorter; not due to the quality dipping at any particular point but just because the world they meticulously created was really too much for a single game to adequately handle. The only notable black mark I can raise against it is no fault of the game’s at all and entirely typical for a text-heavy import game – unless you have some Japanese reading ability (or are so bloody-minded that you’ll methodically try everything on everything until something works) you’re likely to end up hopelessly stuck very early on, possibly even in the first room.
*I’m not prepared to insult your intelligence by explaining what the HP gauge is for