Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering how I lucked into living in a universe where Ghost in the Shell exists. How this erotic, hyper dense, hard sci-fi manga managed to spawn a multimedia franchise that is still strong some 30 years later and emerge as one of the most influential works of science fiction in that time is beyond me. Not only that, but the children of that original manga — the spin-offs and movies and shows — are good! Frequently great, even! Ghost in the Shell is a name that now belongs to an all-timer manga, an all-timer movie and an all-timer anime series. Truly an embarrassment of riches! We don’t deserve to be blessed like this.
But it doesn’t end there, because the name Ghost in the Shell carries another classic under its belt, one that is largely glossed over in favor of its less interactive family — the 1997 Playstation One game.
Just speaking tonally, it is a miracle game that shouldn’t exist. Despite coming two years after the mega success of Mamoru Oshii’s ponderous film adaptation, Exact’s game falls much closer to the manga in its characterization and atmosphere (appropriate considering Masamune Shirow wrote the script). The plot, wherein you play a nameless, faceless rookie to the police squad Section 9 who are tracking a mysterious terrorist organization, remains almost impenetrably locked away behind waves of jargon and information that doesn’t waste a second to make sure the player is keeping up, which drives home how complex the world is, how labyrinthian a hyper-capitalist society is, how all of these corporate allegiances and betrayals and plans add up to make nothing.
The darker tone of the world (purposeful over-complexity is a staple of one of the moodiest genres — noir), is reflected too in the graphics which are fantastic and clean and a real point against people who think PS1 games all age badly, but are also soaked in the grey of concrete and skyscrapers and the black of night. It’s not a coincidence that the one mission that is truly bright and colorful is the one which takes place in the sea, ocean water the single surviving piece of nature in an owned world. The music too, is a collection of tracks from various artists in the one style that could fit a concrete world: techno. A style born in warehouses, within the skeleton of the oppressive capital which dominates the story of Ghost in the Shell. They even have a track from one of the Detroit techno godfathers, Derrick May!
It all sounds pretty part and parcel for the franchise, sure, but it’s from here that the manga’s influence really starts to expose itself, because despite the darkness and grime of the world, Ghost in the Shell is not a dreary game. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like the manga, the members of Section 9 are a goofy family who can’t resist making jokes and faces every chance they get. Take Major Kusanagi. Whereas her popular image is that of a cold, serious woman, here is the Major I know best — one who is brash and loud and short tempered in every aspect of her life (in the manga she regularly has orgies and demands the team go to strip clubs). She acts more like a straight man for the rest of the cast to bounce off of, while also playing into her fetishy origins, showing up in a new outfit in just about every animated cutscene in the game.
And what animated cutscenes! A total of about 10 minutes of Production IG produced, Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Golden Boy, Roujin Z) directed anime goodness are interspersed after every other mission. These babies are an absolute delight to behold, bursting with personality and layers of color (apparently it was relatively boundary pushing with its use of digital coloring) while giving us plenty of fan service, character moments, and acting as the field much of the overarching plot exists in. On top of that, the English release managed to get the entire voice cast for the movie back for this, which is just completely charming and leads to an unnaturally good dub considering the time. Seriously, these cutscenes are absolutely essential watching for any Ghost in the Shell fan. It’s almost a shame the story bits here are so short, the game a propulsive experience always pushing towards whatever comes next, never stopping to smell the roses, cutscenes and mission briefings lasting about a minute tops before dumping you into a new stage.
Just as I lie awake thinking about this wonderful timeline that gave us such a gift as Ghost in the Shell, I spend an equal amount of time cursing it, this awful universe where Super Mario 64 emerged as some sort of totalitarian dictator and demanded all 3D movement follow in its steps. Not that I don’t love 64 (I do) or think that games shouldn’t have borrowed from it (I don’t); but the more time I spend with games before that language had been learned, the more untapped and forgotten potential I see in the way control an object through three dimensional space. Resident Evil with its tank controls, Tomb Raider with its methodical positioning, Jumping Flash with its jumping and flashing — the PS1 is full of games which hint at an unrealized world of unique expression carried out through one of the most basic elements in games. And Ghost in the Shell absolutely belongs to that universe that never came to be.
Which shouldn’t be a surprise; the developers Exact are the same team behind the Jumping Flash games, and they show their experience with maneuvering 3D at its peak here. You control a tachikoma — essentially a spider tank — which also happens to move like a tank: press left and it turn left, forward it goes forward. But there are two key differences. The first of which being that this tank zooms. Press one of the shoulder buttons and your tachikoma will fly in that direction at wild speeds, much faster than it can move forward, resulting in strafe heavy battles, constant repositioning, and races against the clock played out sideways. It’s needed too, because though enemies are rarely much of a challenge, their bullets and missiles come at you fast, demanding an active playstyle or death. If you are still in Ghost in the Shell, something is going wrong.
The second major change is that a tachikoma can move across any surface. Or just about. Move into a wall or the side of a building and your little machine will start running up it as naturally as if it were the floor. Suddenly that repositioning is blown wide open to include climbing on the ceiling to avoid a turret that can’t aim up, or escaping a tricky situation by boosting up a skyscraper and jumping onto an overhanging construction pole. The stages become massive playgrounds which force the brain to reconsider terrain in video games. What is usually an obstacle isn’t anymore; what was once cover to hide behind is now a blind spot. Rules that have become only more ingrained into the language of the medium are exposed and broken.
And when you combine these two wrinkles, suddenly you have a game of near limitless potential, a potential Ghost in the Shell is more than happy to explore. One mission features you fighting an enemy in a rain soaked city who periodically goes invisible, leading to a chase over rooftops and walls; a boss later into the game turns into a balletic dance as they push and pull your body from them while shooting out volleys of bombs, resulting in something that approaches the sensation needling a danmaku bullet spray; the final stage all but destroys ideas of up and down as you platform through a 3D labyrinth of construction. There is a remarkable variety to the levels of the game, each one exploring some aspect of its unique movement systems.
Two of these missions however, are very different from the rest. A race down a highway and across the ocean, your tachikoma always barreling straight forward to its destination. It’s in these stages that really highlighted to me the truth of the game: that it is an on-rails shooter largely gone off the rails. Panzer Dragoon but your dragon goes wherever you want.
I know, that sounds a lot like a third person shooter, but it makes more sense when looking at the combat. Mashing on the square button results in an unending stream of machine gun fire, perfect for weak targets or hurried kills. But you won’t be using it much, because the real weapon lies in holding square which charges up to 8 lock-on missiles which demolish everything in their path. A classic on-rails set-up. The only catch is that if you are hit while prepping this, the charge is lost and you have to repress the button to start it all back up again. That extra button press is such a small detail, but an incredible one: I found myself constantly forgetting about it in the heat of the moment, my brain barely keeping up with the chaos as is. And what this does is significantly shift the focus of battles to defense, most fights coming down to avoiding fire long enough to pop off your missiles. A system perfect for a game all about the pleasures of moving.
Fortunately or unfortunately, that on-rails shooter energy is also present in the game’s length — a clean two hours and you’re out, 12 missions making up the entirety of the story mode. I’m a big fan of a quick game, and Ghost in the Shell is begging for a thousand replays thanks to its brevity, but in this awful timeline we’re trapped in where we never got a sequel or anything (as far as I know) that continues its magnificent style, I can’t help but feel that it ends just as it is starting. There is still so much to explore here mechanically, so many adventures the Section 9 squad could get up to that’ll remain untold.
But you know, that’s life. The untold stories outnumber the told eight billion to one. And at least we did get what we did: Ghost in the Shell, one of the very best video games on the Playstation, and one which reminds why the medium is so special.
Here’s hoping I’ll get a good night’s sleep someday.