Someone on a game forum recommended this to me and I hadn’t heard of it, so I wasn’t sure at first why he recommended it. The topic of discussion was frustrating SNES games, but there are frustrating games that are difficult but satisfying, there are overly obscure games, unforgiving games, and sometimes games with just awful design. Which one was Jim Power?
Jim Power: The Lost Dimension in 3-D is I guess a misleading title. It recalls to mind something like beloved The Lost Vikings (1992) or Virtual Bart (1994), video game narratives that feature time travel or virtual realities, narratives that have no rules. Jim Power promises 3D, as well, whatever that could mean on the SNES (Star Fox?).
The game was developed by French developer Loriceil, who came out with a handful of Commodore 64 and MS-DOS games in the 1980s that probably not a lot of people have ever heard of and a few hits like Golden Eagle (1991) on MS-DOS. Eric Chahi, who later designed Another World (1991) had his start at Loriceil, so the studio isn’t too obscure.
In 1992, the studio came out with what seems to be their biggest hit, Jim Power in Mutant Planet, which was co-developed by Digital Concept, and features music from the incredibly talented Chris Hülsbeck, who worked on the Amiga/C64 version of R-Type and sci-fi run and gun Turrican (1990). A year later, The Lost Dimension in 3-D would be released.
Wikipedia seems to go to great lengths to make sure its readers are aware that Lost Dimension is not a sequel to Mutant Planet. The two have the same first level, though Mutant Planet looks, sounds, and maybe plays much better. Hülsbeck’s music can be heard in Lost Dimension, but it gets a bit garbled in the translation, though I might be biased. The first level’s theme is my favorite, and it’s pretty rockin’.
Both games have a striking resemblance to Turrican, both in terms of gameplay and sound. It’s funny to think that Loriceil wanted to make a Turrican-clone and actually went out of their way to get Hülsbeck to do the sound, but I’m just speculating.
According to this, publisher Electro Brain actually packaged stereoscopic Nuoptix 3D glasses with the game, which would make the parallax scrolling backgrounds appear 3Dish. I can’t even imagine this. I felt so sick after playing it for about three hours and went straight to bed.
I didn’t look up the game online first like I usually do for these reviews. The game starts off with a Ghosts ‘n Goblins-looking world map, which gets it a few points from me, though it looks pretty generic. Level one, again, has a truly hyped up piece of music playing (sounds sort of like Ys III), and the game seems pretty cool.
When you begin walking, though, the impressive but dizzying moving parallax background might be too much, even for my love of bad taste, blinding graphics. The game’s graphics are intricate, but extremely busy, oddly colored, and just painful to look it. I just opened my screenshot folder, and I can’t even look through it. The aesthetic is a mix of excruciating highlights and dull neutrals, and you have to imagine every image flickering back and forth quickly.
Players will jump up the first series of platforms and die immediately. Lesson One: every enemy is huge, fast, and comes out of nowhere, and there is no life bar. Players start with three lives and three continues, but good luck trying to even get through the first level. I played the game for about an hour before looking it up, and I found an in-game code for infinite lives and infinite bombs, which I used after not being able to get past the second level. And even then, it was still an exercise in frustration and permanent eye problems.
The first level is tough. There are moving platforms with patterns I’ve never seen before, not even on a graphing calculator in trigonometry. Those opening and closing bridge platforms that require precise timing that annoyed me in Fez (2012) are rampant, but they’re probably the easiest part of the level. Players can try to perfectly time jumps and running under projectile streams, but they’ll run out of time if they take too long. It’s better just to die and use the moment of invincibility to get through the areas where more than three things are designed to kill you at once.
The enemy sprites are large and intricately drawn, rarely well-animated and always colored with ugly palettes. Most enemies run back and forth over a certain length of ground, and some jump, and the jumping one’s will always kill new players at least once. It’s sort of like Dark Souls (2012) difficulty, but it’s never rewarding. It’s just awful.
Players can stand and wait for enemies to come into range to shoot them to be safe, but some enemies take so long to appear that it’s impractical to wait for them. Thus, players must blindly rush forward, rapidly hitting the shoot button.
Late in the first level, it begins to rain, and it looks stunning. With the parallax background, the rain effect, and the unappealing colors and patterns, seeing Jim run through this ugly jungle village, shooting these mutants (?) is pretty impressive, if not motion sickness-inducing. For how generic the game is, this scene is sort of actually stunning.
I managed to get to the end of the first level once before using the code. Protagonist Jim Power picks up a jet pack and flies off into space. The game turns into a shooter, with Jim flying around, shooting at this giant disgusting eyeball monster that looks like it’s from Life Force (1986). There’s something sublime and absurd about this fight, and it felt nice to make it out of the jungle without cheating (once). There’s a sense of accomplishment, getting out of the dense, existentially frustrating jungle, and players can feel the gust of fresh air in the sky, just as sweaty and muddy as Jim is.
Players at this point say to themselves “Hey, I must be getting pretty good at this game! I’m really learning the ropes.” Unfortunately, level two is nothing like level one, and is instead a blatant rip-off of Contra III’s top-down levels. The controls are pretty much the same, the layouts are similar, and even the annoying vortexes that spin players around are back. Despite the different camera angle, the game manages to still be incredibly nauseating, and bullshit hard.
To be fair, this stage is easily the most manageable one in the game. Players can swivel the camera with the L/R buttons (Mode 7), and the game almost feels like Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993) with its emphasis on collecting keys and unlocking doors (except it’s much, much more frustrating). If Jim steps into the spiraling vortex panels, the screen spins FAST, and it’s just so unpleasant to look at.
The second floor is lava-filled and reminds me of Doom, though both games came out on the same day (December 10, 1993 – what a great day for gaming). The third floor starts Jim out surrounded by spikes, which teaches players that they can jump while in top-down mode, though most players will probably still fall into the spikes and die.
I’m impressed to think that players ever made it to level three without cheating. There’s a video on Youtube of someone beating the game nearly flawlessly, but I doubt many players made it past level three. The third level takes the idea from the first level of being nauseatingly difficult to look at and having insta-kill enemies pop up out of nowhere to a whole new level of bullshit.
Level three, “Never Ending Cavern,” is a horizontal scrolling shooter that is clearly inspired by Life Force with its pulsating, bio caverns and wild micro-organism aesthetic. The moving parallax backgrounds are back and the speed of everything is doubled. Every time I lost new life invincibility, I was already dead again.
I’m no expert at horizontal shooters (I always preferred vertical ones), but this stage is impossibly difficult. Enemies, which are a scrambled mix of random colors and patterns, blend into the insane background, but they’re so fast and pop up out of nowhere, that it doesn’t matter anyway. Gigantic spiked balls on chains cover three-fourths of the screen and have such strange patterns that they are nearly impossible to avoid.
It looks sort of cool, in a garbled SNES graphic carnivalesque kind of way, and I kind of like it, but it takes every ounce of my mind to find a way to appreciate this level. The high level of shadows gives the backgrounds a sort of comic book-look, and they don’t look bad. There’s a richness and weight to everything in the level, and it’s certainly a sight to see, especially when it’s moving.
The boss of level three is a trip. I wrote in my notes “WTF is ths boss??????,” which is pretty funny and pretty accurate. It’s a spaceship that takes up more than half the screen, with spikes and fire coming out of it, and it’s tough to initially tell what to fire at.
The camera pans around the area very unfairly quickly, forcing Jim into the ship, killing him. The camera moves in such a way that Jim is forced around the entire ship and at one point the camera rapidly moves left and right, hoping to get Jim to crash into the ship’s spikes. I have never seen a game so desperate to kill its player. This fight is ridiculous.
Level four is generically named “Mutant’s Forest.” The level is generic, garishly colored, lushly detailed, and the track playing is one of the best ‘80s synth lines on the SNES. I’d compare the level to a Troma film, maybe Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986), as it revels in its own insanity, generic kitsch, ‘80s badness. Zombies, a swarm of wasps, mutant pumpkins, robin hoods, vultures, and venus fly traps populate the misty forest with a rambling incoherency. Again, I’m reminded of Zombies Ate My Neighbors, but, like any Troma film, that game is satirical. Jim Power isn’t funny, he’s a badass.
The boss of Mutant Forest is the aptly named Scarlet Skull, who reminds me that I am slow and small.
The fifth level, or rather “PART V,” as the game calls it, is “Time Tower.” It looks to be another top-down level, which shouldn’t be so bad, but Jim Power has another trick up its sleeve. Plaers realize they can’t shoot…and something seems off about the movement. There’s a weird, clunky momentum. With horror, players realize that they’re on a motorcycle.
There’s some cool ideas in this level, particularly the way the designers convey vertical space and depth with pits and faux hills, but the controls are too slippery to ever feel in control of the bike. Feats include riding the bike up ramps and over pits and driving straight into walls of spikes. There are checkpoints in this level, which Jim returns to whenever he plunges down into a pit or gets a face full of spikes, but I wonder how many lives and continues players would have at this point. There are no passwords, and I can’t imagine getting this far only to drive off a cliff and get a game over.
Part VI, “Dark Corridor,” is unmemorable, and might be a tie for the least frustrating level.
If I didn’t cheat, I would feel so accomplished to make it to Part VII, “The Final Way.” The level is a sort of S&M chamber and instead of lava or spikes, each pit has both lava AND spikes lining it. Stalactites in games always fall on heroes’ heads, but once they fall, it’s safe. “The Final Way” proves this is idiotic logic, because every falling stalactite here in endless.
The most difficult part in the entire game is a series of stupid skull platforms toward the end of the level (I’m getting flustered just writing about them). These platforms move at a 45 degree angle at a jittery, schizophrenic pace over lava spikes and fireballs are constantly flinging all over the place. Some of the platforms touch for a split second and if Jim is standing too far to the left, the game will put him back on the left platform, and then make him plummet into the lava, a glaringly awful design issue. I probably died a hundred times here, and because of how fast the screen is jittering back and forth, my headache worsened and made it even tougher.
So, frustrated and tired, I make it to the final boss, this Brueghel-looking idiot generic demon with a flaming background, and I use my infinite bombs to blow him into oblivion (even though his pattern is one of the easiest to figure out). As he’s flickering white and flying offscreen, dead, the game GLITCHES and he becomes stuck in a loop of his death “animation.” I never get to see the ending, which makes sense, because it’s a game that’s not supposed to be beat. The poignancy put me into a coma.
Jim Power: The Lost Dimension in 3-D actually reminds me of Brueghel’s depictions of Hell (especially Dull Gret) with its incoherent, abrasive chaotic aesthetic, seen through a Troma Entertainment lens, written in SNES language. It’s more unfair than any Ghosts ‘n Goblins game, probably the most excruciatingly difficult SNES game period, and an admirable soundtrack, an array of large, detailed sprites, and a goofy box cover could never save it. Dark Souls players sometimes complain about “artificial difficulty,” but they have no idea.
Jim’s death animation, where he turns into a skeleton and offers a muffled yelp, will forever be burned into my brain, a searing branding that will follow me to the grave.
There’s an MS-DOS version of Jim Power where Jim gets a health bar, apparently, giving old Jim three bits of life before his skin melts off and he is plunged backward in time. I haven’t played it, but it’s probably a lot easier.
– Nilson Carroll ; p