In 1993, the Japanese developer Treasure made a name for themselves with their inaugural title, Gunstar Heroes. From there, they created many more games for Sega’s consoles such as Dynamite Headdy, Alien Solider, and Guardian Heroes, which would become beloved cult classics. After the release of Guardian Heroes in 1996, Treasure began making games for various platforms. Mischief Makers marked their first appearance on a Nintendo console, having been released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64. Around this time, Treasure wrote a proposal and submitted it to Nintendo.
They were inspired by the Nintendo 64’s decidedly abnormal controller. Nintendo themselves suggested two ways of holding the controller. The player’s left hand would grip the center or left handle in order to reach the control stick or control pad respectively. Due to the success of Super Mario 64, which effected the medium’s 3D revolution, gripping the center handle became the standard. This is because the control stick, being able to register precise, subtle movements, proved ideal for 3D gameplay. The control pad, on the other hand, was better suited for 2D gameplay. However, because a majority of the medium’s big-name franchises began experimenting with 3D gameplay, the Nintendo 64’s control pad was underutilized more often than not. Masato Maegawa, the president of Treasure, took note of this and began discussing ways with which to incorporate the left positioning. Thus, Treasure teamed up with Nintendo’s first Research and Development branch to create a new action game.
The team behind this hypothetical game started off as a skeleton crew, consisting of two programmers and two designers. By the end, more people were on this team than in any of Treasure’s previous projects. The lead programmer Atsumoto Nakagawa and enemy designer Yasushi Suzuki previously had roles developing the shoot ‘em up Radiant Silvergun. As this game was to be their first attempt at a true 3D action title, they were about to explore uncharted territory. Treasure believed the console’s graphics card lent a more robust 3D presentation than that of their rivals. They had made it part of their creed to push the limits of the hardware, but understandably ran into multiple difficulties with the Nintendo 64.
Because the two companies had wildly different design philosophies, the development of this game wound up being slightly tumultuous. Hitoshi Yamaguchi was placed in charge of Nintendo’s half of development. He described Treasure as a weird company. His attempts at establishing deadlines for the Treasure team often led to them deflecting the requests. To make matters worse, when Mr. Yamaguchi played an early prototype, he declared it to be too difficult – even though he was impressed with it on a technical level. Treasure responded by saying that if he wasn’t skilled enough to play the game, he had no business supervising its production. Mr. Yamaguchi understood that Treasure took pride in making difficult games, but still insisted they tone it down. These negotiations continued for roughly a year before Treasure relented and lowered the game’s difficulty level.
The working title for this game was Glass Soldier. This was to metaphorically reflect the fragility of the main character. As the proposed title consisted of two English words, it was spelled out in the katakana writing system. However, because many game titles ended up being written in katakana during this era, Mr. Yamaguchi suggested creating a new title written in kanji instead. Rare’s spiritual successor to their hit first-person shooter Goldeneye was in development at the time. Domestically, it was to be known as Perfect Dark, but in Japan, it had a different title: Aka to Kuro – Red and Black. Taking cues from this naming convention, Mr. Yamaguchi thought up of a new title: Tsumi to Batsu – Sin and Punishment. Believing the name would be too obscure, he then asked the younger staff members for a subtitle. They, in turn, came up with Earth Successor. Though Treasure did not like this name change, they warmed up to it.
Compared to its contemporaries, Sin and Punishment took an unusually long time to be developed. The cycle began in 1997 and wouldn’t see the light of day until the end of 2000. By this time, Nintendo was putting the finishing touches on the Nintendo GameCube, the Nintendo 64’s successor. Nonetheless, Satoru Iwata remarked that Treasure accomplished a lot with a relatively small team. Targeting older gamers, Sin and Punishment sold a modest 100,000 copies. Featuring English voice acting, Sin and Punishment was geared toward North American enthusiasts. However, because the Nintendo 64 was at the end of its lifecycle, these plans did not come to pass. Despite this, the few Western critics who managed to import the game praised it, believing it to be one of the most ambitious titles on the console. Like many of Treasure’s works, Sin and Punishment grew a cult following among Western gamers. They believed it to be one of the best Nintendo 64 games that never saw localization. Even so, with its lack of international availability, it was doomed to fall into obscurity.
Fortunately, hope was not lost. In 2006, Nintendo launched the Wii, their main platform in the seventh console generation and successor to the GameCube. Among its many features was the Virtual Console, a service that allowed players to digitally download classic games from Nintendo’s past platforms. When the service was announced, Sin and Punishment became one of the most demanded titles. Nintendo obliged, and Sin and Punishment was finally released in North America and PAL regions in late 2007. With the sheer amount of enthusiasm leading up to its international debut, was Sin and Punishment worth the seven-year wait?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers.
Sin and Punishment takes place in a grim, dystopian future. The year is 2007 and humanity is struggling with a worldwide famine. As a solution, scientists have developed a new, genetically engineered species to raise as livestock. They were herded in northern Japan until they mutated and began attacking civilians. These creatures were dubbed “Ruffians”. An international militia calling themselves the Armed Volunteers have tried to stop the creatures. Unfortunately, their campaign has seen them take advantage of their success by oppressing the Japanese people.
In response, a rebel group led by a woman with mysterious powers named Achi seeks to defend Japan against both the Ruffians and the Armed Volunteers. Her group is seen by the Japanese as their last ray of hope. Within her ranks are Saki Amamiya and Airan Jo. Saki has received a blood transfusion from Achi, which has granted him strange powers of his own. With two enemy factions to fight, they will need any advantage they can get to survive.
Anyone familiar with this game will stress how important it is for newcomers to play through the tutorial. Before it’s over, the player will get a sense of just how much different Sin and Punishment is from a typical action game. It is best described as a rail shooter in a similar vein as Star Fox. That is to say, the main character, Saki, moves forward independent of your own input. Sin and Punishment is a decidedly odd example in that you control human characters on foot rather a vehicle. This means you typically do not have the entire screen with which to navigate Saki, for he is subject to the Earth’s gravitational pull. As such, he must instead jump or roll to dodge enemy attacks or any other hazard. Luckily, as if to compensate for being tethered to the ground, he possesses the curious ability to jump a second time while in midair. He is also a bit more survivable than an aircraft in a typical shoot ‘em up title in that he has a health bar.
Sin and Punishment also stands out with its control scheme. The control pad or the appropriate “C” buttons are used to move Saki left and right. Jumping is accomplished with a press of either shoulder button. As is befitting for a rail shooter, Saki’s primary method of defense is a firearm called the G&R-M64-JPC DOLPHIN POLICE STANDARD. It shoots infinite bullets made of pure energy. The player uses the “Z” button to shoot. On top of this, the gun doubles as a sword for close-quarters combat. By tapping the “Z” button when an enemy is close by, Saki will slash the enemy in an instant. With the “C” buttons and control pad dedicated to movement, the control stick is instead used to aim Saki’s gun. Players can choose between manually aiming at the enemies themselves or a system that locks onto an enemy the cursor touches. These two modes are switched by pressing the “A” button. Though the auto-lock makes aiming easier, the Dolphin has little destructive power in that mode. Manual aiming will allow Saki to inflict more damage with ranged attacks, though a well-placed sword attack is usually the most devastating.
Being a rail shooter that takes place on the ground, the level design is quite interesting. Backgrounds in a typical shoot ‘em up usually exist for aesthetical purposes. In Sin and Punishment, you will often have to take the environment into account when you’re planning your attacks. For example, in the second stage, you can opt to destroy the platform on which the enemies are standing than waste time gunning down each one individually.
From the very beginning, Treasure had prided themselves in their unique boss fights. Gunstar Heroes famously had a boss fought fairly early that had seven different forms. Alien Soldier took this trend to its logical extreme by having the entire game revolve around boss fights – discounting the nominal segments connecting them. Though Saki and Airan are often made to fight cannon fodder courtesy of the Ruffians and Armed Volunteers, a significant portion of the game is spent in boss encounters.
Like Alien Soldier, there is a great variety to the boss fights. In the span of one game, the player will have encountered the Armed Volunteers’ war vehicles, Ruffians of various shapes and sizes, and heavily mutated monstrosities that were once human. A commonality between them is that they emphasize the importance of studying patterns and reacting accordingly. These fights often require the player have a good sense of timing as well. The sword isn’t just used to launch a powerful close-range attack; it can also reflect certain projectiles back at the opposition. In fact, some bosses can only be felled by launching their attacks right back at them.
Because you have no control over your character’s forward momentum, I have to give this game a lot of credit for its lightning-fast pacing. Even when you’re returning to the boss you lost against, you are never waiting around for something to happen. In fact, the game is downright brutal – especially on higher difficulty settings. You will be constantly on the lookout for anything that looks remotely dangerous. In fact, it’s best to assume that something capable of damaging your character is headed their way at any given moment because such a belief is never far from the truth. You even occasionally have to worry about a boss’s underlings swarming the player during certain encounters.
Though Sin and Punishment is quite the daring game for 2000, it does have a lot of weaknesses. While the NES controller could only be controlled with one’s thumbs, the SNES’s own controller, which introduced and popularized shoulder buttons allowed players to use their index fingers as well. From here developers had to think carefully of how their control schemes allowed for simultaneous actions at a given time. After all, no sane developer would assign the ability to jump to the “SELECT” button. Because said button is usually activated with the left thumb, it would all but ensure the player’s inability to move and jump at the same time.
I bring this up because the biggest immediate issue most players will have with Sin and Punishment concerns its control scheme. Though it might not be immediately obvious from my description, the controls are highly unorthodox. It’s not as though the developers were unaware of this problem either – Mr. Maegawa himself believed the game’s difficulty lied in players being unable to understand it. In the interest of fairness, I will admit this in of itself isn’t a bad thing – in fact, given the odd shape of the Nintendo 64 controller, all games on the platform had strange button layouts to some extent. However, even as these three-dimensional games became more ambitious, the savviest developers limited the number of functions each hand could perform for optimal performances.
This is where Sin and Punishment falls short – playing it reveals just how much the controls defy conventional sensibilities. Depending on your perspective, the developers either assigned too many functions to the right hand or made a game that tends to be too busy for its own good. This is the kind of game that begs to have a second analogue stick or control pad, but the Nintendo 64’s controller only has one of each. The function of a second analogue stick is replicated somewhat when using the “C” buttons or control pad. The former doesn’t quite work because there are two superfluous buttons in between each of the ones used for movement. Meanwhile, the latter method doesn’t fare much better because it takes your hand away from the control stick, making it hard to aim the gun. This means if you want any chance of dodging enemy attacks, you cannot afford to wait until the last minute – even if your character does have the ability to roll out of the way. Because the “C” buttons and control pad are used to move while the shoulder buttons are used for jumping, the player’s first order of business is to learn how they can perform both actions in unison. There’s no straightforward answer either – you might find yourself having to hold the controller in a strange fashion to have any success. While Mr. Yamaguchi correctly deemed the earliest builds of Sin and Punishment too difficult, it doesn’t change that quite a lot of the challenge in the final product lies in wrestling with the controls.
As a direct result, Sin and Punishment has a terrible habit of giving the player too many things to focus on at once. The reason a typical rail shooter has you control some kind of vehicle is because it greatly simplifies the act of maneuvering, allowing you easily focus on both shooting and dodging. By making a rail shooter in which you control a human character, you have to worry about hazards on the ground in addition to the enemies’ ranged attacks. Don’t be surprised if during your first attempts playing this game that your character takes damage from enemies you failed to notice.
One could switch to the automatic aiming system to make hitting their mark easier, but the damage it inflicts tends to be pitiful. In case this hypothetical player decided they didn’t mind and sought to turn these encounters into a battle of attrition, the time limit hanging over their head would thwart any attempts at doing so. While letting it run out doesn’t immediately kill your character, it does cause their life meter to drain. Only by adding time to the clock can you prevent your character’s inevitable demise.
The premise on which the game is based has caused many people to declare Sin and Punishment the spiritual successor to Contra – particularly the series’ third installment. This makes a lot of sense, as many of the same programmers were behind both games. In fact, Treasure was founded from former Konami employees. One of the final stages places Saki in an environment that emulates the style of 2D platforming games. Though it’s a nice shout-out, I would argue this is where the issue with the controls reaches its apex. The button layout only barely worked for a rail shooter, but applying it to a genre that lives or dies based on its controls makes it untenable. If you have the patience to stick with the game to the end, you will have effectively resolved two conflicts at once: the fictional one that pits Saki and Airan against the Ruffians and Armed Volunteers and the meta one that pits you against the control scheme.
In case one was expecting the plot to salvage the experience, I can’t say that it does. It begins innocently enough, but things go off the rails when Saki finds himself face-to-face with Kachua, one of the Armed Volunteers’ highest ranking members. After this, a sea of blood floods Tokyo. Just when it looks as though Saki has drowned, he instead transforms into Ruffian and proceeds to battle against a transformed Kachua. When Saki wins, Airan eventually confronts Brad, the Armed Volunteers’ leader. Brad falls shortly thereafter whereupon Achi reveals that she was evil all along. She is not from Earth, and the war between the Ruffians and the Armed Volunteers was a test to breed Saki into the ultimate soldier. From there, he would be used in a cosmic battle against extraterrestrial beings.
I can imagine it’s difficult to keep up with the plot after reading these descriptions. Though I did heavily abridge the major developments, the truth of the matter is that the plot isn’t any more intelligible as you’re watching it unfold. More than a few people have likened Sin and Punishment to the anime End of Evangelion with its constant plot twists and out-of-nowhere developments. I can certainly see the connection given that both works tend to make things happen without any rhyme or reason. The sea of blood flooding Tokyo in particular is quite ridiculous because of how spontaneous and poorly foreshadowed it is. This game shrugs off such an anomaly as though it were a simple rainstorm.
It’s a shame the plot tends to be as incomprehensible as it is because I actually like the two lead characters. In light of the game’s short length, they aren’t exactly developed well, but they do have a nice, little dynamic to them. I also found myself enjoying how the story defies the player’s expectations with them. It’s easy to get the impression that Airan is Saki’s sidekick, yet she’s the one who deals with Brad. Saki himself only succeeds in dispatching Kachua, Brad’s second-in-command. He is counted on to wage the final battle against Achi, but that was after spending a significant chunk of the game predisposed.
Even if the story has myriad execution issues, I do like how complicated the conflict manages to be. The rebels have to fight against two enemy factions. Even if they and the Armed Volunteers have a common enemy in the form of the Ruffians, they cannot work together due to the latter’s oppression of Japanese civilians. The Ruffians themselves are divided into two groups – those controlled by Achi and the ones engineered by Brad to fight back that have gone berserk. It seems to show that there was room for advanced stories – even in action games. Then again, the confusing nature of the plot could be seen as a sign of the many growing pains the medium as a whole underwent attempting to evolve.
Drawing a Conclusion
I have little doubt Sin and Punishment was a good game for its time. In terms of presentation and action sequences, very few games could match it in 2000. The English voice acting may have been rather stilted, but it wasn’t a bad effort – especially when one considers its initial lack of availability in North America. Back when the game was released on the Virtual Console in 2007, I could understand why fans wanted it released in the West so badly. Between its creative boss fights and surprisingly deep conflict, it managed to be impressive even seven years after its initial release. It certainly has gained quite a following over years like many other Treasure games. Unfortunately, unlike their Genesis efforts, I personally feel it has not aged well.
The biggest obstacle when it comes to recommending Sin and Punishment is its bizarre control scheme. It really is unlike anything the medium has seen before or since, and its Virtual Console release only barely alleviates its worst aspects. Usually, it’s a good thing when games possess unique qualities, but there’s no getting around that anyone attempting to delve into Sin and Punishment – or even those revisiting it several years after the fact – are going to spend an inordinate amount of time adjusting to the controls. This wouldn’t normally bear commenting on, as adjusting to a new control scheme is something even veteran enthusiasts must do on occasion. However, the problem arises when you realize the skill you will build up playing Sin and Punishment doesn’t translate well to other games. Anyone who plays Half-Life can use what they learned to play other first-person shooters. Conversely, the skills one develops learning how to play Sin and Punishment are only applicable to playing Sin and Punishment.
At the end of the day, if you’re seeking a quality rail shooter from the Nintendo 64 era, you would be better off playing Star Fox 64. It has far more intuitive controls, a better difficulty curve, and a comprehensible plot. Moreover, while Star Fox 64 used the platform on which it was released in a meaningful way, Sin and Punishment wouldn’t have felt out of place in the arcades. There’s nothing wrong with bringing an arcade experience to the consoles, but Sin and Punishment didn’t provide enough content to have justified charging the same price to purchase as Super Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time.
Final Score: 4/10