Justifying my PC-FX with… Team Innocent

Hudson’s Team Innocent is a game saddled with the unfortunate bad luck of coming out at exactly the wrong time. Being a launch title should have meant lots of eager buyers looking to show off their shiny new PC-FX when they weren’t busy shoving their crusty old PC Engine in the bin, but NEC and Hudson had a slight problem - the PC-FX really wasn’t very good.

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To make matters worse that wasn’t even the PC-FX’s biggest obstacle to success. The console had the misfortune of coming out on December the 23rd, 1994 - mere weeks after the Saturn and PlayStation had launched in Japan. Ridge Racer. Virtua Fighter. Clockwo- OK maybe not Clockwork Knight. The point is, the PC-FX was has-been tech before it had even hit store shelves, and its flagship killer-app was a sprite-based sci-fi adventure game nobody had ever heard of at a time when the only things that mattered more than how many polygons your hardware could push were which hot arcade ports it had.

Neither the PC-FX or Team Innocent had polygons. Or an arcade port of any kind. What it did have were three weird girls - one normal-ish girl, one with tentacles growing out her back and a chest like two kittens fighting in a sack, and the last one had a third eye hidden under her headband – starring in a Resident Evil-style adventure well over a year before Resident Evil came out (Alone in the Dark fans – this came out the same year as Alone in the Dark 3).

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It all starts off quite well, as you poke around abandoned space-places with nothing more than a knife, a needle gun with just two shots in it, and the radio chatter from your sisters for company. Kenji Kawai’s (of Deep Fear fame) main exploration theme is haunting and adds tremendously to the atmosphere – and it’s a good thing too, because not much else does.

To briefly go back to the PC-FX itself – they apparently decided to not bother with any 3D doohickeys because they felt that the hardware of the time was too primitive to do anything worthwhile with, and as such 2D with high quality (faked) FMV was the way NEC decided to go. So you’d imagine the hardware was some sort of PC Engine DX, that the sprites found within Team Innocent would at least be on a par with Dracula X, Winds of Thunder, or Valis IV – good quality Super CD-ROM titles with clear detailed sprites and a lot going on.

You’d be wrong.

To try and stop this blog post being nothing more than a text-based kicking of something that we’ve established was released on its knees anyway, let’s start with the good points. The movie sequences are all full screen, very clear, and the animation itself is of good quality whether you’re looking at a pre-rendered scene or something that’s been traditionally animated – but then again you’d expect them to be, considering this sort of thing was the PC-FX’s raison d'être. The CG backgrounds are also crisp, if rather sterile and often angled in an unhelpful way. The sprites though… I can’t put it any other way – they’re awful. Main character Saki looks like a pixelated mess at any angle or distance, and her sprites rarely align with the camera angles used. Under ‘Reasons why you should always use 3D models on top of pre-rendered backgrounds in games’ in the How to Make Games handbook is a picture of Team Innocent and a short sentence that reads ‘THIS IS WHY’. That’s not to say that Hudson actually had a choice in the matter due to the PC-FX’s underpowered technology, but there’s no getting away from the fact that navigating the environment and engaging in battle is a constant struggle due to the character sprite not representing the exact direction you’re facing in.

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It would appear that either by engine limitations or deliberate design Hudson compensated for this lack of fine visual feedback by only ever giving Saki a single enemy to fight at any given time, then making said enemy very slow moving with a complex AI pattern of ‘Walk straight toward the player and (slowly) attack until one of us is dead’. I’m being a little unfair here – there’s another attack pattern used by one enemy and the last boss that reads ‘Stand still and fire at the player’ too. Saki can fend off these formidable adversaries by either punching, kicking, or shooting them with a handgun. The PC-FX joypad was blessed with six buttons as standard but for some reason all of the attack options (and jumping) are assigned to button II, leaving you to manually set (and re-set) the button’s current function through the menu system. You’ll want to stick with physical violence for most enemies anyway as your gunfire is literally invisible with no recoil animation or impact effect to let you know you’ve fired a shot or where you’re aiming at (aiming must be done manually, by the way) – if it weren’t for the sound effect or the enemy doing a little hop back when they’re hit you’d have no idea you were shooting at all.

This shocking lack of visual feedback continues with the item hunting which renders most – but bafflingly not all – important items and interactive spots completely invisible. I would like to tell you that this leads to a lot of time wasted tediously brushing Saki up against the scenery while jabbing at the ‘interact’ button, but you can’t even do that as every time you ask her to investigate something she has to stop dead and perform a generic arm-waving motion before you find out if there’s anything in front of her or not. To keep up the inconsistent consistency theme of Team Innocent’s design you can sometimes find objects and open doors just by walking up to them – and you can trigger this behaviour with these particular objects every time – which may indicate that the game was rushed out the door half-finished. A lot of the things you’ll find are either outright useless or completely optional anyway; good for improving your score (yep, a points-based score in an adventure game) or perhaps viewing a small additional scene but otherwise clogging up your thankfully bottomless inventory with red herrings, minor diversions, and vast quantities of equally pointless weaponry. This all comes together to create a feeling of mistrust towards the game – ‘Did I not pick anything up because there’s nothing there, or did I not pick anything up because I wasn’t at exactly the right angle?’ – you can never be certain, which makes progression feel more the result of dumb luck than good judgement on your part.

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But all of these flaws can be lifted, if not completely forgiven, if the cast are entertaining and the plot gripping. This is the part where Team Innocent almost-succeeds the most – if only Hudson could have decided what sort of game they wanted it to be.

It feels like the characters were written in a vacuum as Saki, Lilis and Ariel all act in a light-hearted sisterly way towards each other – they’re clearly a family that care for each other and know how to work well together. This is fine, and if you read their dialogue on its own you’d think they were from some sort of Dirty Pair-alike show, all madcap capers around the galaxy with capable young women getting into Space Trouble. This is not the case. Team Innocent’s setting is one of human experimentation, dirty government secrets and children killing their parents. These two takes on the Team Innocent gang constantly butt heads, perhaps nowhere more so than during an event where Saki’s trapped in a place that filled with (well, one at a time – but this is Team Innocent) zombies, has fires raging unchecked, and has no way of getting herself to safety. This should be a dark panic-stricken moment as her sisters rush in to prise their beloved sibling from the jaws of death but instead Ariel, the genki-est of all genki characters, cheerily exclaims ‘OK, leave it to me~!’ and Lilis, who’s framed as the logical and serious sister, makes a joke about hurrying up to save the princess. The game is its own worst enemy.

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The most frustrating thing here is that all the ideas are perfectly sound – the world could always use more sci-fi adventure games, the cast are likeable (if painfully thin), and their backstory deserved better than to be revealed, explained, and concluded in a single mission. For all its faults this was clearly a huge effort and I’m loathe to criticise a game that is clearly something of a pioneer in the then-primordial ‘characters on a pre-rendered background’ action-adventure genre - especially for Japan, and especially as a console exclusive. Doing as well as this on their first attempt is extraordinary and it’s worth taking a moment to think that back in 1994 everyone was fumbling around in the dark, trying to find out what worked and what didn’t.

But on the other hand I am supposed to be playing this game for pleasure, and Team Innocent just isn’t much fun. The ‘adventuring’ involves stumbling around large personality-free areas clicking on objects at random in the hope of finding the one thing you really need in a sea of optional invisible items. Combat manages to be both frustrating and underwhelming. The plot is tone-deaf, often lurching between sci-fi comedy and dystopian future stylings in a single scene. As a launch title on underpowered 1994 hardware this was a good effort, but there’s no escaping the fact that any game released after that touches on similar themes – from the sci-fi alone-ness of Nebula: Echo Night, the adventuring found in Virus (which also has a little Team Innocent cameo)… heck, even the goofy shenanigans of Hard Edge make for a better game than this.

Team Innocent’s technically worth owning as it’s one of less than a dozen PC-FX titles that are both genuine exclusives and not some sort of glorified FMV-spewing program, however even at the low price it currently goes for (in the region of $30USD shipped) it takes very little effort to think of a better game to spend your money on, leaving this best left to people trying to justify keeping their PC-FX (like me).