Believe it or not, there was an era long ago when the name “Konami” excited instead of terrified. Back in the 90s it seemed like the company could do no wrong. The PS1 received banger after banger with franchise high points like Metal Gear Solid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, as well as genre-defining newcomer Silent Hill. Unfortunately things weren’t quite so rosy on other platforms. Their N64 offerings were, in a word, awkward. Even their best offerings like the Mystical Ninja games and Castlevania 64 struggled with finicky controls and dodgy translations. Their later entries on the console only suffered more from this inconsistency and although it wasn’t their last cartridge for the system, nothing demonstrates this brief bizarre period better than Hybrid Heaven.
Before I can explain why HH is so strange I need to explain how it even came about in the first place. Konami was a fairly large company, typically forming different teams for different projects. HH was created by Konami Computer Entertainment Osaka (KCEO), which saw a lot of changes in staff as well as strange projects. At the time their output mostly consisted of sports games (mostly baseball), Mystical Ninja titles (pretty great), and Deadly Arts (terrible). Not only was this branch already oddly suited for a sci-fi RPG, the project was headed by Yasuo Daikai, a man who now has decades of production experience but at the time possessed zero directorial credits. Couple that with it coming out in late 1999 towards the end of the system’s life, and HH’s ambitious jankiness starts to make sense. It also explains why the game offers a high-rez mode via the expansion pack, which unfortunately runs like you tried to run a cartridge via Microsoft PowerPoint.
HH is one of roughly 5 RPGs on the N64 and the marketing wanted you to know that. It pushed the “action RPG” angle, as well as its setting of New York City around Christmas time. Both of these attributes are mixed in terms of accuracy. The game’s cutscenes start and end in NYC, but the actual gameplay takes place entirely within an underground alien facility. With regard to the RPG portion, yeah that’s true, but…
Look, HH is a really weird game to actually play. Compellingly so, even! Combat is a cross between mixed martial arts and a Final Fantasy ATB system. Fights are only ever mono a mono so positioning is critical, which is done entirely in real time. As time passes your stamina bars fill up, giving you access to more and better options whenever you choose to pause the action to perform moves or use items. Spending multiple bars lets you chain combos together, sometimes even granting special moves if the sequence is right. Your opponents play by the same rules as you do for the most part, making fights feel more or less on even footing throughout. This is compounded by the leveling system, which improves all of your body parts and moves individually. If you want to learn to throw a roundhouse kick you need to get out there and boot monsters in the dome. If you want to learn how to make punches to the face hurt less, have fun getting your mug turned to hamburger until your chin is made of steel. By the end of it Slater is practically a terminator with iron girders for legs. I’ve genuinely never played anything quite like it and that in and of itself is interesting.
That’s a lot of praise, and it’s deserved, but unfortunately a few good ideas doth not a solid experience make. Walking from place to place plays like the most boring riff on Resident Evil you could imagine. Walk forward, stand still to aim your zappy gun, shoot exploding roombas, repeat until you get to the next fight. Along the way the ground will be littered with items since there’s no currency or shop of any kind, and they’re powerful to the point of feeling broken. HH recycles content mercilessly, and I say “content” because nothing is safe. The same few music tracks, low enemy variety, and in some cases entire levels are remixed throughout. Hell, area 7 ends up being a complete rehash of a previous one except it’s on fire. All you ever do in each zone is wander around, have a few fights, and eventually find a machine that’ll update your keycard so you can open a door to progress. The last area before the final boss rush is literally just 3 identical rooms with 3 identical separate doorways, each of which requires you to refresh your key card in order to open it. To call it a slog would be an insult to slogs, and yet the game’s only about 15 hrs on a first playthrough. That’s a guess by the way – I accidentally left the game on for a couple hours while doing housework so I have no idea exactly how long mine took.
I’ve avoided talking about the plot thus far, which isn’t a good sign for any RPG. In large part this is due to the story being totally divorced from the gameplay. Almost nothing you do has any impact or relevance. The story just sort of happens around you, with character after character monologuing around the mostly-silent protagonist. It also barely makes any sense thanks to disjointed writing and poor translation. You start out jumping down a hole after an assassination, and your rampage through the underground alien station is frequently stalled by humanoid hybrids blabbering about their evil plan to take over the surface despite none of them agreeing on how to go about said plan. The game’s only memorable set piece, a giant hybrid experiment that’s just barely legally distinct from one of Alien’s Xenomorphs, hardly sees any use and gets easily dealt with in a non-combat section that’s equal parts anticlimactic and embarrassing for the creature. In short, the game feels like a waste of time whenever you aren’t fighting, and you spend a LOT of time doing things that aren’t rolling savate kicks.
The term “hidden gem” gets thrown around too often for retro games these days. It tends to be used less to describe games that were well made but largely unnoticed, and more to stand in for “game I liked that didn’t sell a million copies”. It takes something original, something weird, something truly great yet overlooked for the label to apply. This is why I can’t in good conscience call HH a hidden gem. Sure it’s hidden, and sure it’s got some truly original ideas, but despite what its plot will tell you originality is not a substitute for quality. You could take the clever concepts here and make a good game from them, but there’s no reason to go back to play this today unless you have a strong affinity for retrojank and an unhealthy dose of morbid curiosity.
Reviewed on N64.