A charming space-opera whose potential is unfulfilled
From time to time, ambition may be taken for granted or even confused with lunacy, but it is one of the main qualities that made Rare such a big company during the nineties. Instead of restricting the scope of their projects to a smaller size than that of the other powerful Japanese giants which dominated the industry, the British studio had the courage to compete head-to-head with them, and it did so well enough to earn respect inside the market and be looked at by fans and media alike as one of the best in business.
In fact, ambition took them so far that, at one point, their products were able to compete, and even surpass, those of Nintendo in their own platforms, a feat that hasn’t been achieved by any other company before or since then. Jet Force Gemini was born during a period when Rare was rolling out great games on an yearly basis; however, differently from its majestic peers like Banjo-Tooie and Perfect Dark, its push towards the stars had both good and bad consequences, creating a uniquely irregular adventure when compared to the rest of Rare’s output.
The epic space quest begins as a group of drones led by the evil Mizar take over the planet of Goldwood and a handful of other worlds in its system, enslaving tribals and killing a big part of the population. Locked inside this chaotic scenario, the universe’s only hope lies in the hand of the Jet Force. Unfortunately, their entire fleet is destroyed by Mizar’s forces. Juno, a quiet orphan whose parents were killed during a space pirate invasion on his home planet; Vela, his spirited sister; and Lupus, their smart dog, are the sole survivors of the attack and must, therefore, face the universe’s greatest threat by themselves.
The straightforward storyline is presented through an effective Metroid-like minimalistic approach. All players get to see is the trio’s ship being attacked by the drone army; the rest of the plot needs to be pieced together via exploration and interactions with other characters, leaving it up to gamers to decide whether they want to know more about what is going on or if they want to focus on plowing through the adventure.
From the get go, Jet Force Gemini shows what it is all about: frantic action filled with explosions of cartoonish gore and plenty of shooting. Due to the sudden attack on their ship, the three main characters get separated and end up following their own path, and exploring different territories up to their meeting place: Mizar’s Palace.
Gameplay-wise, Juno, Vela and Lupus mostly have the same characteristics, and they also carry around the same impressive arsenal of guns that includes grenades, blasters, shotguns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, mines and other special weapons. However, each of the characters has one unique ability: Juno walks on lava, Vela can swim underwater for as long as she want, and Lupus can hover in the air for a while. During game’s first half – while the trio heads towards Mizar’s Palace – players will come across a bunch of inaccessible places when exploring the worlds, an indication that, later, the game can only be complete by performing some serious backtracking.
Even though the settings are plesantly different, most worlds play out similarly. They are brimming with a nice variety of evil drones, doors that can only be opened after a certain number of enemies within an area has been defeated, and lots of locked gates. Therefore, the game’s level design embraces puzzle solving, exploration, and – of course – killing.
True to Rare’s traditions, everything is done remarkably well: the 15 worlds are gigantic, present different environments, and are given life by a wonderful fauna, a rich flora, and alluring bluidings; all clear displays of the brillancy of the game’s artistic team. Playing through Jet Force Gemini is, consequently, experiencing a welcoming mix of atmospheric delights and thrilling action.
Yet, especially during the first few levels, the fact the controls are far from intuitive can be a bit bothersome, as getting a total grip on them is a process that goes through a long learning curve.
The A-button is used to shoot, the B-button is used to change weapons, characters are controlled via the control stick, the left and right C-buttons allow the heroes to sidestep while blasting enemies, and the up C is used to jump.
The main problem comes in when the R-button is pressed. Given it is used for aiming, its activation slightly changes the camera’s perspective from a third-person view to a boderline first-person scheme where the character is translucent. Doing so makes the control scheme change considerably: the C-buttons will now be used to move around and the analog stick will aim. Mastering that transition can be tough to some.
The drones players will face have impressive AI. Instead of shooting desperately, they will seek cover on carefully placed objects and only pull the trigger when the time is right, adding a lot to the already fun experience of blasting their heads off. However, such a brilliant AI – combined with huge environments – takes its toll on the Nintendo 64 hardware; when there are a lot of enemies on the screen, the game will suffer annoying frame rate drops, and since having armies of enemies on screen is a common occurrence, such issue becomes frequent.
Still, despite those problems, Jet Force Gemini remains, throughout its entire first half, one of the best games on the system. Sadly, as soon as the second half unveils itself, a world of frustration and anger is added to the package: a poorly designed backtracking kicks in. While traveling to previously visited locations can be a lot of fun when done right, the developers at Rare – in a clear attempt to make the large-scope adventure longer – stumble.
Each of the fifteen worlds that are visited during the game’s first half has a certain amount of tribals that need to be rescued. Instead of making the saving of those poor souls an optional quest to those looking for full completion, Jet Force Gemini opts to force players to find them all in order to finish the game.
As soon the first half is done Juno, Vela, and Lupus are informed that they need to go back to all the 15 worlds they have just explored and use their combined skills – now that the gang is reunited – to rescue every single one of those cuddly bears. Both accessing new areas due to the fact it is possible to use all heroes on all planets and saving all tribals are potantialy interesting concepts destroyed by poor execution.
The core issue with the latter is that some of the tribals are located right in the middle of the battlefields so, as players try to shoot one of the enemies, there is always a chance they will end up killing an unfortunate bear and being forced to to restart the whole level again just because of a silly mistake. As if that wasn’t enough, some of the drones will actually target and kill the tribals if the trio does not reach the victims quickly enough.
Meanwhile, getting to previously unreachable areas is turned into torture because players are not allowed to freely switch characters right in the middle of the level. For example, if – after fifteen minutes of exploration as Juno – players come across a ledge that can only be reached by Lupus and his hovering techinique, the level must be restarted with the other character. To make matters worse, if Lupus is not on that planet, it will also be necessary to warp to that location first in order to undertake the same fifteen minutes of exploration all over again just to reach that ledge.
Technically Jet Force Gemini is as impressive as it could possibly be on a console back in 1999. It has very impressive graphics, huge worlds, a large amount of breathtaking cutscenes, and a soundtrack that would only be surpassed a few years later by other Rare masterpieces. It exhales an impressive air that only exists in the biggest and most movie outer space epics.
However, the game is a very mixed bag. While its first half is the very definition of a Nintendo 64 masterpiece filled with charming and clever third-person action, the second half is one of the most frustrating experiences in gaming due to a bunch of terrible game design decisions. To those who are willing to try it, though, the game offers hours and hours of amazing gameplay with tons of collectibles and missions to accomplish. Jet Force Gemini could have ranked among the most noteworthy gaming space quests of all time – a beautiful unique jewel on Rare’s astonishing canon. Unfortunately, from time to time, too much ambition can be the fuel of a downfall.