Space Station Silicon Valley

Given its problems, the status of Space Station Silicon Valley as a mostly forgotten Nintendo 64 effort is, to a point, understandable; anyone who goes through it, however, will also see there is good reason for why the title is sometimes pointed out as a hidden gem

In the year 2001, a space station is launched into orbit. Whether due to engineering incompetence or mysterious forces working from within, however, mission control quickly loses track of it. Fast forward a millennium into the future, and the facility is unexpectedly spotted passing by Uranus thanks to a massive telescope. At that point, the government on the ground decides to send a squadron of supremely trained marines aboard to investigate. Sadly, the group does not return, and the same fate is met by subsequent highly professional teams, a series of events that naturally has anyone who is invited for future missions choosing not to go. Still adamant to keep up the endeavor, authorities turn to what might as well be their last hope: a duo of heroes for hire.

Dan Danger and Evo are an unlikely pair. The former is a middle-aged man in poor physical condition and the latter is his robotic partner. Even though appearances can be deceiving, it does not take long for one to notice they might not be ideal for the job: soon after departing, they manage to make a wrong turn in outer space; worse yet, while bickering over what kind of music to listen to, the two do not realize the space station is very much in front of them. Failing to execute appropriate landing maneuvers, they crash through the facility’s ceiling, murdering a dog who had just declared his love for a sheep and making Evo’s body break into four pieces. The robot is reduced to his central microchip and is launched out of the cockpit, opting to go ahead and investigate; Dan, meanwhile, stays behind inside the wreckage to give his partner general directions.

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That is how Space Station Silicon Valley, released for the Nintendo 64 in 1998, begins. And from the start, two details become quite evident. The first is that this is a game with a very cartoonish tone that is, at the same time, not afraid to step into some surprisingly dark terrain. As he gives instructions to Evo, Dan comes off as a lazy spoiled adult with ridiculous wishes who likes to push his robotic partner around; furthermore, with relaxing vintage elevator music blasting out of speakers and populated with different kinds of animals, Space Station Silicon Valley lends these creatures a fun characteristic look that has been compared to the Wallace & Gromit franchise, which makes interactions between the lifeforms lightly hilarious. On a darker note, though, the game is not a stranger to gruesome imagery, since it includes dead scientists as well as a few dismembered heads.

The second detail that one might notice is that going through a 3-D platformer as a tiny microchip that moves slowly and cannot do much of anything at all would not exactly be interesting. And that is where the major twist of Space Station Silicon Valley comes in. Mostly launched as an experiment to study the evolution of animals as well as artificial life, the vessel in which the quest takes place remained essentially isolated for 1,000 years. Consequently, not only did its lifeforms have quite some freedom to live and mutate, but they also happened to do so for a long time. What that means is that besides being plentiful and varied, the familiar look they carry to anyone on Earth disguises a partially mechanical constitution that has given them new abilities; and since Evo is an intelligent microchip, he is in perfect position to take control of all animals inside the space station.

Overall, Space Station Silicon Valley has a total of forty-two different types of animals; in other words, that is forty-two playable characters. It is a lot by any standards, be those of the Nintendo 64 or of contemporary gaming; and this variety is certainly the title’s main allure. It is true that some creatures are just slight variations of others; for instance, foxes come in a version with legs and in another with wheels, counting therefore as two, and this case also applies to a few other animals. Still, the list is impressive: there are lions, hyenas, dogs, mice, fish, piranhas, penguins, polar bears, gorillas, hippopotamuses, elephants, parrots, vultures, rabbits, camels, scorpions, kangaroos, chameleons, turtles, huskies, and more.

It is a lot to take in, but Space Station Silicon Valley makes it all pretty straightforward. Whenever players take over an animal for the first time, a brief summary of its characteristics will appear on screen, such as its traction, its defense, its resistance to water, and even its tolerance to falling from heights. The most important information provided in those introductory cutscenes, though, will be what exactly that animal is able to do, and therein lies the simplicity of the whole game, because all creatures only have two skills: one triggered by the A button and another by the B button. It is not much, but it is quite sufficient to make all of them rather different from one another while still being very easy to control.

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Interestingly, given their part organic part mechanical constitution, animals can fall into two categories: there are those whose skills are somewhat linked to their biology; and there are those that mix moves of that kind with humorous unexpected abilities of non-natural origin. Hyenas can laugh and jump, gorillas can pound the ground and grab objects, chameleons can perform a tongue attack and become invisible: none of these are out of the ordinary. On the other hand, there is a type of turtle that has a canon; penguins throw snowballs; the desert fox shoots pellets; scorpions produce a lightning bolt; and creatures on wheels move like motorcycles.

Broken into thirty-one stages, Space Station Silicon Valley manages to take great advantage of this incredible palette of possibilities. Five of the levels are built differently since they involve pivotal moments in the quest, diverging therefore into a dogfight, a boxing match, a race, a shooting mini-game, and a full-on battle against an army of animals. The rest of the bunch, though, take place in decently big open spaces, and before they get into the action, a mission briefing will be shown to players. In these, they will get both a general outline of the level’s motivation (which may be a serious investigation or one of Dan’s many ridiculous whims) and a checklist of two or three objectives that need to be achieved so that the exit opens up.

Space Station Silicon Valley is, consequently, very clear on what it wants out of players. However, the game does not give any orientation other than that checklist: there are no cutscenes indicating important spots or even showing the exit itself; and there are no characters Evo can talk to for extra information. As such, gamers have to figure it all out on their own; and although those who are used to the more intrusive aids seen in modern adventures may find themselves lost or frustrated, the truth is that this characteristic ultimately plays right into the hands of Space Station Silicon Valley’s greatest strengths.

Made up of sizable open spaces with a lot of animals roaming around, Space Station Silicon Valley is a game that thrives on exploration and experimentation. When they first step into the field, players will be piloting a specific creature; without exception, though, getting to new areas and clearing the necessary objectives will go through killing other animals, taking over their bodies, and using their abilities. Early in the game, the path to victory will tend to be obvious, since there will be a linear progression from one animal to the other until the finish line. Later on, however, it will all get trickier, because more than a single different lifeform will be reachable at all times, forcing players to either analyze their surroundings to see which option is right or simply toy around with the creatures to prospect solutions to the conundrums they find.

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Given the game is a product of DMA Design Limited, which just one year prior to its release had published Grand Theft Auto, parallels are drawn between that game and Space Station Silicon Valley, and for good reason, because despite the latter’s more limited scope, the freedom of choice found here is indeed comparable. Killing an elephant with a hyena might doable, but if there are two of them perhaps it is better to deal with the lonely lion first, take control of its body, and then handle the pachyderms more easily. Going down a corridor as a fox is possible, but if there are too many rats it may be practical to kill and take control of one of them so it is safe to walk through the infestation without being attacked. If the polar bear is too strong for the animal Evo is driving, maybe he can lure the nearby gorilla towards the beast and start a fight between two CPU-controlled creatures.

The list goes on, and Space Station Silicon Valley often feels like a sandbox of animal behavior. This sense of liberty is further enhanced by the fact that the objectives themselves can often be cleared in any order. Because of those aspects, as far as exploration is concerned, it is truly hard to find a game for the Nintendo 64 that can compare. Surely, titles like Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Donkey Kong 64, and others also excel on that front; Space Station Silicon Valley, though, is a very different beast because it usually offers multiple paths to the same goal. Sadly, despite the brilliancy of its central concept, the game stands very far a way from those classics for good reasons, since it is marred by a series of problems that bring it down to a lower level.

The largest issue at play here is the platforming. If when exploring Space Station Silicon Valley is wonderful, when it demands that gamers land precise jumps – which is especially common towards the end of the game – the experience is a bit of a nightmare. There are actually three problems that contribute to that. The first is simply that many surfaces that need to be traversed are ridiculously tight, and although they would have probably worked in a 2-D space, in a tridimensional scenario they are more painful than interesting; in this sense, it feels as if the developers (differently from those involved in the making of Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, to mention a few examples) did not take into account how certain types of challenges do not translate well when brought to a new dimension. The second is that, thanks to the way many platforming challenges are designed, failing to land on a surface often means falling to a lower level and having to backtrack for a while just to get another shot at the jump, which is rather frustrating. The third has to do with the camera, which is lacking in a few aspects.

Getting the camera to work right in early 3-D efforts was a major challenge, but in spite of occasional hiccups there were games that were able to do fine in that regard. Like them, Space Station Silicon Valley has automatic camera shifts while also allowing players, via the C-pad, to adjust the angle of the action as well as zoom in and out. Unlike these good examples, though, here there are plenty of moments when the camera gets in the way. In the platforming, those instances occur when exact jumps are required. In these cases, the demanded precision can be so extreme that constant adjustments are necessary so that the movement can be calculated, and sometimes no available angle feels right, which basically multiplies the already existing frustration of the adventure’s platforming segments.

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In exploration, meanwhile, a similar situation occurs because there are moments when no angle will let players see what they want. The most obvious and frequent example of that comes up when one wants to get a more panoramic shot of their surroundings in order to evaluate possible paths or dangers. When that happens, it sometimes feels like because of the way the camera is positioned, there is no perspective ample enough to give somebody a good overview of what is around. Ironically, perhaps realizing such limitation, almost every level has a camera out in the open that, when interacted with, displays a brief cutscene with a general look of the area. Naturally, that does not make up for the problem.

Platforming and exploration are not the sole victims of camera shortcomings. Another area affected by those is combat. Smartly, in order to stop battles from disintegrating into button-mashing affairs, all creatures have their attacks limited by a gauge; once it is empty, it is necessary to wait for it to refill so the move can be used again. As such, killing another animal usually involves a meticulous process of moving in and backing out at the right times. It is a shame, however, that because of the unstable camera and the lack of a lock-on feature, combats can become a chaotic mess in which the player-controlled animal flails around hoping to land blows without being hit, making them a bit devoid of enjoyment.

The last major problem that afflicts Space Station Silicon Valley is found in the way it handles death. If they run out energy or fall into a deadly trap, players will always have to start the stage from scratch since there are no checkpoints at all. This issue is made especially annoying due to two other factors. For starters, stages can be rather long, usually lasting more than twenty minutes; even though that time is diminished once one knows what to do, that is still too much progress to be lost because Evo was murdered by a lion or landed on lava. Moreover, given getting a hold of other animals is a must, that means combats are a constant part of gameplay; as such, there are quite a lot of opportunities for players to die and be forced into restarting the level from the beginning. Sure, implementing save points would probably have forced developers to change some key design elements, but it would also have made the experience much more pleasant.

Although large, those problems are not enough to turn Space Station Silicon Valley into a bad game: the strength of its exploration and the flexibility of its borderline sandbox gameplay are too significant for that to happen. Because of that, players will be happy to know there is plenty of content to be found in the package. As a whole, it should take one about twenty hours to complete the main quest; and those looking for a little more will find it, since all stages have collectible power cells as well as a trophy that shows up when specific additional objectives are completed. On that front, the only caveat is that what needs to be done in order to collect the trophy is never spelled out, and since some goals are rather obscure, disclosing that information would have certainly been helpful.

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In the end, Space Station Silicon Valley does not measure up to the classics of its era. Although its music is great, its graphics suffer a bit from occasionally blocky designs and clumsy animation, even if with dozens of playable animals that is somewhat forgivable. In addition, its gameplay is held back by a myriad of problems. As such, its status as a mostly forgotten Nintendo 64 effort is, to a point, understandable. Anyone who goes through it, however, will also see there is good reason for why the title is often pointed out as a hidden gem.

Space Station Silicon Valley is a sea of possibilities that is unmatched as far as the Nintendo 64 goes. With forty-two animals to be controlled, each with its own set of skills, it gives players great freedom when it comes to figuring out what needs to be done; better yet, in some instances, it offers multiple paths to get to the same goal. It effectively feels like a cartoonish sandbox experience, and it is – in many senses – ahead of its time. Sadly, in numerous areas, it also pales in comparison to its contemporaries, showcasing misguided design decisions and problematic camera angles that significantly detract from its conceptual excellence. Expecting Space Station Silicon Valley to match the classics of the console is, therefore, a mistake; and the best way to see it is as a product of great ambition that stumbles on frustrating technical details that although impossible to overlook, do not completely destroy the enjoyment that can be gotten out of it.

FINAL SCORE: 6 – GOOD

2 thoughts on “Space Station Silicon Valley

  1. Absolutely ruddy loved this game when it came out. it was really bizarre but entertaining. I should imagine it hasn’t aged very well though. But that funky soundtrack still has some nifty beats.

    1. I had been meaning to play this one and review it for a while, and I am glad I finally did it!

      I imagine it was a lot more fun and mind-blowing back then, but it still has some quality in it after all these years.

      And yeah, the soundtrack is oddly great!

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