Snatcher is a graphic adventure game that was released for Japanese home computer systems in 1988. The game was successful enough to warrant being updated for numerous other video game consoles. In 1994, the Sega CD version was finally in North America. I certainly don’t remember ever hearing about the game, much less actually playing it. It seems that Snatcher didn’t stand much of a chance outside of Japan, and I have a few thoughts as to why.
Snatcher was too sci-fi. The game was an obvious homage to the genre-defining cyberpunk film Blade Runner. However, in 1994 Americans were still recovering from the technology obsession that typified the 1980s. The game’s most popular contemporary would have been the movie Stargate, which wasn’t a bad film… but it had more in common with the action adventure movies of the early 90s than it did the thinking-person’s science fiction films from which Snatcher draws its influence.
Snatcher was too anime. At this point, anime was a niche interest in America. Most of the stupidly-marketed “Japanimation” that was making its way to the States featured a some mix of ultra-violence and hyper-sexuality. I remember frequently staying up past my bedtime on a Friday night and seeing infomercials advertising cartoons that were too violent for television (call this toll free number RIGHT NOW to order your copy on VHS… only $4.95 plus shipping and handling… please allow 6-8 weeks for delivery). Ironically, one of these was Akira, another obvious influence on Snatcher.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t any anime being released in the United States. There were a handful of series that aired alongside American cartoons every Saturday morning, but they weren’t specifically identified as anime. It would be roughly half a decade before the mainstream would embrace anime, thanks to the likes of Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, and the anime-inspired Powerpuff Girls.
Snatcher was by no means the first video game to feature an anime art style. However, because of the game’s presentation, it felt more like interactive OVA (anime made specifically for release on home video) than a traditional video game. And that meant that it had to contend with the preconceived notions that 1994 America would have had concerning Japanese anime.
Snatcher was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I would speculate that neither of the above-mentioned failings would have been counted against Snatcher if Konami had opted to release the PlayStation version in North America. The game would have been a quirky stand-out title on the PlayStation while the system’s library was still in its infancy… rather than being relegated to the ill-fated Sega CD.
Though Snatcher is a product of its time, I think the game is easier to appreciate now than it ever has been. Everything about the game is in service of the narrative: from the understated simplicity of the mechanics to the intentional lack of playable “action” sequences. It’s brief and without much replay value. To me, the sensibility of this game is absolutely in line with the modern indie game scene. If Snatcher was released on Steam right now, it would probably be received warmly.
The only complaint that I could offer against playing Snatcher in 2016 is the same complaint I make against any adventure game. It seems that Snatcher—in an attempt to add gameplay—manufactures some of its challenge. Sometimes, the actions that you have to perform in order to get to the next scene are seemingly arbitrary (i.e. look at the door exactly 6 times in order to find the button that opens it).
Gameplay contrivances aside, Snatcher is surprisingly cinematic for a game of its generation. It’s full of exciting moments and well-paced twists. The characters are decently believable: a point that is helped by surprisingly solid voice acting. The entire experience builds to a climax that has all of the convoluted drama any great 1980s sci-fi anime. It’s pretty rad.
Snatcher was ahead of its time, so it’s unfortunate that it will probably remain in obscurity. Given that Konami has essentially left the games industry, Snatcher will never be revisited, and the game will never be recognized for the quirky little gem that it is.
(PS: Snatcher is quite hard to come by. If you can’t actually play the game, The 8-Bit Duke has a fantastic two-part video retrospective on YouTube that features a pretty thorough commentary.)