Back in the 1990s, the first-person shooter genre was still very much a work-in-progress, beginning with incredible, pioneering work from id software in the form of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, accompanied by a flood of so-called 'Doom clones'. Bolstered by the arrival of hardware-accelerated 3D for PC gamers, players could explore ancient castles and realistic cities, even exploring the outer edge of space through the eyes of their avatar. In the years of that followed, the industry exploded with unbridled creativity as developers tried their hands at building the next great first-person experience. Some succeeded, others failed but one small developer situated in Redmond, Washington delivered its own hugely significant contribution to the development of the genre.
Lobotomy Software was founded by a group of ex-Nintendo staffers, who partnered up with engineers from Manley and Associates and created one of the best first-person shooters of the 90s. They called it PowerSlave, but European gamers will know it by its other name: Exhumed. On consoles, this remarkable game redefined what a first-person shooter could be with its unique focus on traps, puzzle-solving, platforming and, yes, shooting. It delivered a fresh take on the genre that set the stage for releases like the Metroid Prime Trilogy that would follow years later.
Thanks to its state-of-the-art Slave Driver engine, PowerSlave was also a technical masterpiece on Sega Saturn, a remarkable piece of 3D engineering that redefined expectations from the hardware. What this technology delivered was all the more stunning bearing in mind that many game developers were still struggling to get good results from FPS games on the limited capabilities of the consoles of the era.
PowerSlave features full 3D environments enabling complex layouts on par with games like Quake. Large polygonal structures of all shapes and sizes could be displayed using this engine - rooms above rooms and sloping surfaces (not possible on many of the engines of the time) were a piece of cake. Even on the PC, full 3D engines were still uncommon - Quake had been released and blew everyone away, of course, but this the exception in a world where many PC developers were still using older technology, like 3D Realms' Build engine - and the original Doom technology itself.
The one caveat here is that PowerSlave's objects were rendered as 2D sprites rather than polygonal models like Quake. So, in a sense, it felt like a hybrid, with aspects resembling games like Doom combined with the full 3D freedom of Quake. Then there's the lighting - PowerSlave features a form of dynamic light sourcing allowing enemy attacks and the like to radiate light across a surface. To pull this off, you start with the wall meshes which are drawn using gouraud shading. Even when no dynamic lights are present, there is a static lighting pass for things like torches or other light sources used to light the stage. For dynamic objects, as the Saturn transforms each vertex, the lighting contribution from the dynamic lights is added in.
It's also worth mentioning the handling of camera and character movement. Camera roll and sway is implemented to help provide fluid player movement, providing a real sense of momentum present when controlling the game. On top of that, PowerSlave supports the Saturn 3D controller, enabling full analogue movement and strafing thanks to the analogue triggers. Performance wasn't bad either - 30fps was the target, but more complex areas could see the game halve that. It's a bit wobbly by today's standards, but it was a revelation for the era and roundly thrashed the performance of the awful Saturn Doom port that arrived a few months later.
But on top of PowerSlave's technical genius was a fresh take on gameplay that we hadn't seen from a first-person shooter before - and it's here where the Metroid parallels are apparent. In one early level, you'll come across several obstacles including a steep wall that you cannot climb, a large gap that you cannot cross and several locked doors.
With no other options, you take the first exit you can find and continue to the next stage. Not long after, you'll run across your first artefact - a power-up applied to your character that enhances his abilities much like those found in a Metroid game. And just like Metroid, the room where you discover the power-up often serves as a miniature test of your new abilities.
You can then travel back to the previous level and suddenly find new paths are opened. That long jump is now achievable, allowing you to collect a key, which in turn opens a door with a power-up. The previously impassible wall reveals a new exit and a body of water. Now, you still can't swim beneath the water but you can take this new exit to the next area. Several stages later, however, you'll uncover the ability to swim underwater for an extended period and now you can return to that same early level once more, swim through the deep tunnel and emerge to find a life power-up and an exit to an entirely different area.
This is just an outline of basic progression but you get the idea - PowerSlave presents non-linear levels with multiple exits all leading to different stages. Progression in the game is tied to power-ups which permanently enhance your character, just like Metroid, and it's this piecing together of the game world that winds up being so addictive. Each level feels like a puzzle box that you slowly pull apart to reveal its secrets and it's fantastic. As you progress, new challenges start to appear - platforming becomes a regular part of the experience and the slow-descent option helps make precision navigation possible. Yes, PowerSlave had first-person platforming that worked all the way back in 1996.
The concept and execution were brilliant but PowerSlave failed to gain much success on its North America debut. However, its fortunes were better in Europe, thanks in part to blanket coverage of the game from the Official Sega Saturn Magazine, helmed at the time by our own Rich Leadbetter (and contributor Dan Jevons who went on to work for the developer itself). Part of the problem in marketing the game was that although a multi-format release, each version offered profound differences.
Indeed, the PC version was almost an entirely different game, created using the Build engine that powered the PC version of Duke Nukem 3D. It's more of a straightforward Doom-style release. You move from level to level, blasting enemies along the way while hunting for keys and navigating complex environments. At the time, this sort of game was extremely common, making it difficult for Lobotomy's efforts to stand out. The PC was flooded with first-person shooters and by going up against the likes of the hyper-interactive Duke Nukem 3D and id Software's full-3D Quake, PowerSlave felt dated. These days, however, it's fun to revisit as it offers an FPS experience quite unlike what we have today. The sprawling, key-filled stages are a joy to navigate and combat is solid.
The PlayStation version - coded by Lobotomy's Jeff Blazier - arrived later, featuring a dramatically improved frame-rate, superior image quality, smoother shading, enhanced dynamic lighting and transparent water. However, Lobotomy also compromised the game in many ways, most notably in pared back geometry, and even smaller environments. The levels on PlayStation are still well designed and interesting to explore but the experience feels more claustrophobic and confined overall. Other changes also impact the quality of the experience. For example, Sony's analogue Dual Shock controller released in the month's after PowerSlave's debut, meaning digital-only inputs for the title - a profound cutback compared to the Saturn game. It's a still a good version overall, but revisiting both releases, it's clear to see why it's the Saturn version people still talk about fondly today.
So PowerSlave came and went - it made a name for Lobotomy Software and found a place in many of our hearts. Lobotomy would go on to develop the remarkable Saturn conversions of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake using the Slave Driver engine, but it was not to last. To those on the outside, Lobotomy seemed untouchable - PowerSlave was a top-tier original creation and its ports delivered what many, including John Carmack himself, once thought impossible. According to Lobotomy's Ezra Dreisbach, the firm underbid on the Duke and Quake contracts - straight ports weren't possible and those titles had to be rebuilt almost from scratch. According to Dreisbach, the firm ended up deeply in debt to its employees and failed to find a new contract - and in the wake of that, Lobotomy Software was no more.
What we're left with is a sense of profound, unfulfilled potential - given time, what could this talented developer have delivered with Sony's more powerful hardware? Where would Lobotomy have taken its in-development third-person PowerSlave sequel? We'll never know. But more positively, the legacy of Lobotomy's achievements remain and they stand the test of time. Metroid Prime 4 is in development for Switch right now, but PowerSlave was the definitive proof of concept, demonstrating beautifully that Nintendo's brilliant progression mechanics would fit seamlessly into a first-person shooter.
And then there's technical brilliance of the Slave Driver engine itself: Sega Saturn played host to versions of PowerSlave and Duke Nukem 3D that, in our opinion, surpassed the PlayStation versions in an era where Sony's hardware routinely outclassed Sega's in 3D action games. Lobotomy's lifespan may have been limited, but its achievements were astonishing - and the fact that its work is still being discussed 21 years on speaks for itself.
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