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History Lesson: Hybrid Heaven

By Matt Edwards on Saturday 21st Sep 2013 at 10:00 AM UTC

Although it happened well over a decade ago, I can still vividly remember the day I traded in my Super Nintendo and a shoebox full of cartridges for a brand-spanking-new Nintendo 64.

It came from an indie games store that was run by a bearded man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of videogames. Rather than simply palming me off with the barebones console and a copy of Super Mario 64, he convinced me to buy the special edition GoldenEye pack - complete with a golden controller that eventually died from 'limp analogue stick' syndrome after years of waggling abuse.

My early teens then became synonymous with Mario Kart 64 weekends gathered around a 14-inch portable TV and nights spent hunting for heart pieces in Ocarina Of Time. Sadly, my quest was hindered by a third-party strategy guide that was about as helpful as a space-hopper in a minefield.

Yet despite offering some of the most amazing games of its generation - including Turok 2 and Jet Force Gemini - I was slightly disappointed by the lack of RPG output for the N64, especially after such a strong showing on the SNES. Thankfully, there was an action-RPG that provided my adolescent self with some much-needed sustenance.

Heavens above

Released by Konami back in September 1999, Hybrid Heaven immediately stood out with its sci-fi boxart, which depicted a cast of anime-style characters standing in front of an eerie blue glow. Liberating the cardboard box from the shelf then revealed a condensed blurb that promised everything from alien invasions, scientific experimentation and murder to unravelling the future of humanity and the true identity of yourself.

Zoom

The latter wasn't talking about a journey of self discovery for the player - as some young and impressionable gamers may have assumed at the time - but was instead referring to the plight of Hybrid Heaven's protagonist. The opening sequence sees your character, the blond Diaz, assassinating a man in a New York subway station before being dragged to an underground complex by a pair of sinister-looking suits.

It's then revealed that an alien force is using an army of clones and hybrids to replace all the officials in the White House, with the ultimate goal being to switch the president for an otherworldly facsimile in a diabolical scheme that resonates with both Blade Runner and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. There's also some mystery surrounding the identity of our flaxen-haired protagonist, and it's only as the game progresses that you learn his true place in the gene-splicing story.

Based on the narrative alone, Hybrid Heaven isn't a top contender for rose-tinted praise, finding itself unable to challenge the epic yarns spun by the heavy hitters of gaming. In terms of graphical clout, it doesn't push the N64 to its limits either - even with the optional Expansion Pak. But by combining elements from a surprisingly broad range of genres, this game was exponentially more than the sum of its parts.

Even when played today, it reminds us of a time when the industry was young and openly experimental, rather than obsessed with sequential numbers. It also enables you to perform a piledriver on a hybrid monster that looks like an undead horse. And you have to admit that that's something many modern games are missing.

The bulk of the gameplay has you searching the depths of the alien base while using your trusty Defuser pistol to take out electrical equipment, such as floating laser drones and scurrying mines. There are platforming sections where you have to vault perilous pitfalls and run from charging beasts as well.

But the real challenge comes from the hand-to-hand fighting system, which has you edging Diaz around a 3D arena while selecting punches, kicks and wrestling moves from a pop-up menu. While that may sound bizarre on paper, it offers a surprising degree of strategy and creativity, since you learn new moves by having them performed against you.

Hybrid by nature

It's a unique fighting system that injects a wealth of RPG elements into the formula. For instance, in addition to having an offensive and defensive rating for each limb, your individual fighting moves can be levelled up by using them consistently.

So if you rely on fancy footwork rather than Running Headlocks and Elbow Backbreakers, your field of expertise will develop around kickboxing strikes rather than grappling techniques. You also have to gauge the fighting style of each grotesque opponent you meet, as while the humanoid pigs will try to tenderise you with a barrage of punches, the reptilian mutants will try to dislocate your shoulder with a sneaky Armbar. Bloody hybrids!

Which leaves the question, why isn't Hybrid Heaven lovingly inscribed in the annals of retro gaming history? Well, it's probably a combination of a slightly bland presentation, a steep learning curve and the fallout of being too different for its own good in terms of mass appeal.

But as a unique and thoroughly enjoyable adventure that proved the terms 'N64' and 'great RPG' were not mutually exclusive before the belated arrival of Paper Mario in the UK, Hybrid Heaven is a rare example of gaming surgery that works medical wonders. You just have to look past the scars and protruding neck bolts.

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