Cartridges back then subscribed to the "Oh, you want some of this?" school of game design. They made you gnash your teeth, throw your controller, and bellow four-letter words. But when you finally emerged victorious . . . well, that meant something.
Which is why it is such a joy to find those same traits in Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, a next-gen game with that old-school challenge. It's awesome, sometimes breathtaking -- if you're up for it.
And that's a big if.
Lost Planet is set on E.D.N. III, a frozen world inhabited by hostile insect-like creatures called Akrids. Players take the role of the most bland videogame hero in recent memory: "Wayne," an amnesiac who remembers his name, how to fight . . . and that's about it. There's a story to follow -- one involving soldiers, snow pirates, and hordes of Akrids -- but truth be told, it's not worth thinking about.
You'll have a hard enough time just staying alive. Lost Planet hits you with everything but an alien sink. It starts with E.D.N. III itself -- a world so cold, your character is slowly freezing to death from the word go. There are other humans out to get you, all of them well-armed. And then there are the Akrids: vicious monsters that grow to the size of cruise ships.
No other recent game has demanded this kind of concentration and split-second timing. Boss battles, in particular, are fierce, nail-biting affairs that almost always make you highly familiar with the "Game Over" screen before you taste victory. Relatively early on, Wayne confronts "Green Eye," the Akrid who killed his father. But after a few rounds with this behemoth, you may be ready to let bygones be bygones.
One gripe is that the game's smoke, fire, and explosion effects make the action murky, posing a problem when you're trying to see your enemies (think of it as a literal fog of war). To make matters worse, many foes knock you down with their attacks. You don't know frustration until you're in a cloud of debris and pyrotechnics, getting knocked down over and over by an enemy you can't even see.
There are bright points, though, and lots of them. For one, Lost Planet is a visual stunner. It's easy to be awed by giant Akrid snow worms, which stand as tall as a skyscraper and barrel at you like a freight train. But what's more impressive is an alien world so wonderfully realized that it actually looks cold. And the sound -- from snow crunching under your feet to rockets zipping by your ear -- is amazing, especially if you have a surround setup.
But best of all, the game delivers when it comes to pure white-knuckle excitement: Explosions shake the screen, fire erupts from damaged mechs, and slain Akrids shatter into a thousand tiny shards of ice. And every level is paced masterfully, starting slow but ending in a frenzy of action that will have you fighting for your life.
As a nice extra, you can play others online. The option works well, but it's hard to match the careful design and barely contained chaos of the single-player experience.
For those who love the thrill of hard-won victories, Lost Planet is probably the best pure action game on a next-gen console thus far. But if you're a more casual gamer, this one might be frustrating. Take warning: Only the hardcore need apply.