Does Sony have any idea the treasure it’s sitting on since it acquired – and shut down – Psygnosis? The familiar owl logo graced many a PSOne-era favourite; let’s highlight a few particularly shining gems.
By the time SCE Liverpool was shuttered late last year, it had become synonymous with WipEout. Once one of Sony’s biggest properties, and a late 1990’s phenomenon (an early build appears in the revolutionary geektastic Hackers, along with other hilarious pieces of history like 2.8k modems being fancy), the hover racer had lost its charms, and the one-time system-seller failed to prove itself Vita’s killer app.
But SCE Liverpool didn’t always lurk under such a functional name, and it didn’t always churn out highly polished racer after highly-polished racer. Once, we knew it as Psygnosis, one of the most prolific British developers (and publishers) of the PlayStation era, with a category of games so broad you needed binoculars to see the edges of it.
Let’s take a wander back through some of my personal favourites; this is by no means an exhaustive look at the venerable studio’s output, and I’d love to hear your favourites as well.
Space games are having a bit of a resurgence thanks to the indie scene, but it’s been years since the glory days when every other game was some sort of sci-fi sim. Colony Wars spawned two sequels; nobody could get enough of its starfighter combat and intricate plot. Tellingly, Colony Wars live up to its title, eschewing the safe route of xenophobia to pit human against human in a battle for waning resources. Delicious.
I played Destruction Derby until one of my control pads literally cracked down the middle and I still never got any good at it. But who cares? it was like dodgem cars, only a suspiciously hairy carnie never came to yell at you for deliberately bumping other players. Instead, you got points. Why drive around in circles talking about torque and other mystifying rubbish when you could just attempt to blow somebody else’s car up with your own? Psygnosis not only published this, it kept publishing it, long after the novelty had worn off. Ballin’.
Developed by a division of the now-defunct fellow Brit team Perfect Entertainment, the first two Discworld games were point-and-click affairs of the old school variety. Manoeuvre Rincewind about the screen, pixel hunt objects, combine them at random till something clicked, then smack them against everything you found. All the best jokes came straight out of the books, making it somewhat redundant for serious fans, and even in the early 1990’s the cumbersome interface put everyone else off. Nevertheless, Psygnosis dutifully published them both – on consoles, no less – and some of us sat around in our anoraks happily geeking over them.
G-Police! Why, that takes me right back, that does. Psygnosis got very narky at the time about you calling it a helicopter sim; they were VTOL vehicles, using jets rather than rotors. Trying to control one of these hovercraft like police trawlers with pre-analog stick game pads was a nightmare for my barely conscious teenage self, but once I got it, I felt like king of the world. Psygnosis produced two games in the series, piecing together a future dystopia plot full of clashing factions and fantastic action set pieces. Few games have ever made police work seem this fun. Sony toyed with the idea of bringing the franchise forward into the PS2-era, as it was a critical and cult darling, but doubled down on Formula 1 and WipEout instead. This was characteristic of the era and slid into the situation we see today, with mega-developers working on a single genre. None of them are devoted to flying police cars, though, worst luck.
Now, okay, everyone’s heard of Lemmings, the addictive little puzzler that it is. But not many people know that Psygnosis was involved. It’s easy to forget that a small Edinburgh indie named DMA Design once relied on an assured welcome to Psygnosis’s deliciously fluffy, slightly rank bosom (I imagine the publisher as a giant owl, obviously) where it found a home for all its early games. Later, with a verified phenomenon under its belt, it took off to flirt with Nintendo (Uniracers) and shortly thereafter spat out a little something called Grand Theft Auto, which, oh, only became one of the biggest franchises in the industry’s entire history. How Psygnosis must have gnashed its teeth. Beak.
Acronyms were big business in the 90’s; acronyms and puns. O.D.T. stands for “or die trying” and let me tell you, back when not every game involved shooting 13 gazillion enemies and watching their hyperrealistic blood paint the walls, that sound quite menacing. An action platformer with a hefty dose of puzzling, it represented one of Psygnosis’s few popular forays into third-person action. Unfortunately, for all the fanatical devotion history has lent its ripping sci-fi atmosphere, it did play rather badly. Never mind.
Hold the fucking phone, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag; the best pirate game ever has already been made. Apart from a shift in perspective from top down to third person, and the delights of analog controls, I am uncertain how Ubisoft Montreal imagines it has bettered Psygnosis’s efforts in this regard. Part strategy, part shooter, part laugh-out-loud multiplayer experience, and 100% terrific, Overboard is still on my shelf and frequently finds its way to my disc tray. If any game is begging for an HD PSN remake ahead of Black Flag’s October launch, it’s this one.
Psygnosis’s reputation for racers made it the perfect brand to launch Rollcage, a very different take on the futuristic racing theme. While the cutscenes and promotional materials made it out to be very serious, the contemporary house soundtrack, colourful visuals, and frequently explosive action showed it off as a terrific bit of fun. Fantastic in single- or multiplayer, Rollcage’s gimmick was the ability to stick to walls and ceilings, taking advantage of boost pads which, along with some nasty weapons, could shake up a pack considerably. Add to that destructible environments, which you could use to launch yourself to poll position, and you have a slightly more grown-up Mario Kart for the cool kids with disc-based consoles. I am ready to play this online any time you care to resurrect it, Sony.
Rosco McQueen Firefighter Extreme
Okay, ha ha, so, you’re a firefighter named Rosco McQueen, and you have to go into burning buildings and put out fires while rescuing their inhabitants. Rosco’s chin is enormous and everyone speaks in appallingly stereotyped accents. You only have a limited time to battle each inferno before you hit the game over screen, but the twisty layouts hide bonus items and stubborn survivors. It’s a shooter, only you’re armed with a hose. I could play this all day.