If you grew up in the mid-late 90s as a gamer, you have a certain affinity to the awkward early polygonal styles of games that graced consoles like the Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation, and Nintendo 64. Given the fact that most people born around the time to start gaming on these consoles are nearing their mid-late 20s, not to mention those in their 30s like myself, the time was right to have an indie era piece. More importantly was the fact that these consoles ushered in the more refined years of the survival horror genre that would become the template for that genre even today. Back in 1995 is acutely aware of this and developer Throw The Warped Code Out, which is mostly a single developer by the name of Takaaki Ichijo, has gone out of its way to recreate that time period. This will surely get many nostalgic gamers excited, as I was, with visions of Resident Evil and Silent Hill in their heads, but those games are a couple of years off from the era in this game. Back in 1995 is from an earlier era that is even more archaic and hearkens to Alone in the Dark 2 or for obscure Japanese fans, Dr. Hauzer on the Panasonic 3DO. It’s a technical marvel to me that the look and feel of those games is so perfectly crafted, but it all falls apart when you get down to the actual playing of the game. It turns out Back in 1995 is little more than a tech demo in a game’s clothing.
Looking at screen shots or developer released footage of this game you start to get a feel for what the experience may be like, and if you’re anything like me you may have even imagined playing through it. Knowing the attributes of these games prepares for tank controls, unfair enemies, instant deaths, reliance on saving, and weird story. In fact, the product page on Steam and developer site (backin1995.com) list some of these items as being in the game, so all of the decisions are clearly conscientious. Aesthetically Back in 1995 is spot-on, but the gameplay and design items I listed are all but absent. Upon loading the game you can customize from basically all available gamepads and the button prompts are then catered to what you are holding. There’s even three choices for visual features to make you feel all nostalgic: CRT with Noise, CRT without Noise, and Off (which has a “not recommended” note on it). This was another clear instance of care that developers took in letting everyone recreate their past, be it from an old TV using an RF cable (noise), the scanline heavy composite cable (without noise), and of course the emulator crowd (off). Once you start the game it is still doing a great job of capturing that look and feel of those classic games with fixed camera angles, tank controls that are a bit smoother than you’d probably expect, and texture models in the floor that look like a bitmap stretched over far too much surface. These are all good things because that’s exactly what they were like back in the day, so mission accomplished there. You will even go through an opening sequence with slow lumbering monsters that look like they could be half melted chocolate almonds (or even excrement), a menu interface that is not completely unlike Silent Hill, and even picking up a wrench to bludgeon the monsters to death. Those first 20-30 minutes are quite the setup to what I was sure was going to be a modern recreation of games I loved in high school. I was wrong.
While Back in 1995 is fantastic at crafting the worlds these games lived in – I personally couldn’t tell the difference – it fails to create the experience (known as “scenario” in many games of this era) that needs to occur in these worlds. It walks, talks, and acts like a survival horror game but doesn’t feel like one. Your enemies are slow, lumbering, and don’t incite panic. They can barely touch you if you navigate around them and often times fighting them is not ideal because protagonist Kent is just as clumsy as they are. I’m sure the intent was that you consistently fight these foes and thus the tension of survival horror is created, but in that thought process perhaps the developer didn’t consider that a larger portion of survival horror is knowing when to avoid fighting. As it stands you can navigate this whole game without fighting or taking a hit with ease, something that shocked me when I did a no kill run. If you do decide to fight, two out of the three weapons are guns that allow you to keep a distance from your enemies. Traditionally survival horror games balance this with high hit points or low amounts of ammo, but Back in 1995 enemies go down in 3-4 shots and there’s enough ammo in the game to kill everyone and still have plenty left over. The same is true for health pickups that seem to be found all over the place and may even outnumber the enemy count of the whole game, but keep in mind both of those numbers are lower than you’re probably expecting. Even when I fought everyone with only the wrench I was able to survive to the end with leftover health. This is basically what kills the experience because all survival horror thrives on the concept of tension. Even today when I replay Resident Evil and I’m expecting the dog through the window, I still get nervous when it comes time to run from Neptune the shark or fight Tyrant. This is because no matter how much I know about the game and prepare for it, I can still be taken out by Neptune if I’m not fast enough or die by the hands of Tyrant on a higher difficulty or getting to the end without enough health or ammo. Back in 1995 has none of that and you will never need to be concerned about it, especially considering the game doesn’t even have multiple difficulties. Couple that with simple gripes like meager puzzles that are all 3 digit codes you can basically guess and check, a predictable plot that isn’t even explained very well, and an ending that comes out of nowhere and there’s little to appreciate about the actual playing of the campaign. Some may criticize the length of the game, which the site says is roughly 2-3 hours and I found to be more like 90 minutes the first time (as a completionist) and far shorter in repeat plays. At the price point and given the history of the games it’s inspired by, I can’t fault the game for that, although I will admit that with some more time and a little fleshing out Back in 1995 has the potential to become what I originally envisioned. I should also point out that while the game doesn’t on the surface have a “new game+” there is something resembling that which you won’t know about because the game never tells you. No spoilers, just start a new game after completing it and the new scenario will start. Don’t be expecting much, but it provides insight, perhaps, to where this developer was coming from. Like everything else in this game, you expect more depth or a secret to be unlocked and you get a fleeting hint of what could have been.
This title is not a game that looks like it came out of 1995 and rather a museum that appreciates and loves the games of that era. It can look great on Steam pages and in convention demo coverage, but when you strip it down and play it there’s no way to avoid the fact that it lacks so much substance. The good news is that with this foundation it can totally become that game, but if you’re expecting Resident Evil or Silent Hill levels of game design and experiences you are sorely off the mark. I can’t say those who have an appreciation for this time period shouldn’t buy and play it, because no one else is doing something like this and as a time capsule it’s worthwhile. The rub is that those experiences, even with the inclusion of Back in 1995, remain relics of a forgotten time when everyone was figuring out these polygon things. That limited audience, myself included, can purchase this if they want to see what the game is capable of, but don’t go into it with high expectations because I can’t even say I particularly enjoyed the game. Back in 1995 cannot live in a time bubble where Resident Evil and Silent Hill haven’t come out, not to mention the expansive list of games that took inspiration from those two heavy hitters. What I do love is what it represents and that is why I think there’s value in it existing. In any event there is a niche audience for this type of game, but for the majority of gamers and even a decent portion of retro gamers, Back in 1995 will end in disappointment.
Final Score: 2 out of 5
A code was provided by publisher Degica Games for the purpose of this review. Back in 1995 is available for Windows XP+ platforms on Steam later today (around 5:00pm EST) with a standard price of $11.99 although it will be on sale for the first week. It was completed by the reviewer in 90 minutes with a total play time of approximately 3 hours for the end game scenario and repeat playthroughs.