The graphics are so awful and the draw distance so shallow, that the perpetually foggy landscape becomes an enemy itself, endangering the player with unseen chasms and veiled ravines. The controls are so clunky when on foot and so floaty when on vehicles, that following the simplest road is a challenge worthy of the Paris-Dakar circuit. Gunfights with gargantuan bugs, which have come to harvest humans on Earth, are so confusing, such a fuzzy tangle of rainbow lasers and gelatinous blobs, occasionally interrupted by the smoky remnant of an explosion, that your Orange Glo soldier becomes lost in the visual chaos. Secrets scattered throughout each level are tucked into such distant valleys and improbable mountain ranges (cubist sculptures that only distantly resemble geological formations), that finding them is almost not worth the effort. Body Harvest has all the makings of a colossal failure, comparable, in its own generation, to Superman 64 and Small Soldiers. And yet, it is known as one of the best titles for the Nintendo 64.
Its production was doubtlessly embattled. DMA Design, later Rockstar North, pitched their idea to Nintendo in 1995: an image of giant insects and totaled automobiles. They were given the green light and, for two years, they built an action game. But as the Nintendo 64 outgrew its early stages, the Japanese giant realized that, after the role-playing heaven that had been their Super Nintendo, its newest console was severely lacking on this front, and this during the genre’s boom spurred by Final Fantasy VII on Sony’s rival machine. In Body Harvest, the company saw an opportunity to fill a troubling gap, and so DMA Design were asked to slip their shooter into the clothes of a role-playing game. This new direction, however, also floundered. Nintendo finally backed out of the project, and the title only saw the light of day, at long last, because Gremlin Interactive published it after buying DMA. The resulting product bares the wounds of its bumpy ride through development hell, mixing role-playing with action gameplay, stitched together by perhaps its crowning innovation, the ability to control any vehicle in sight.
The late 1990s were fertile times for genre-bending fare. Deus Ex is likely the most well-known example, and it popularized the concept, still in vogue today, that role-playing elements can be inserted into just about anything. Which is why, in our current era of endless career modes in sports games and upgradeable stats and weapons in everything, I suspect we will soon see a version of Tetris in which the famous blocks will have backstories, be given experience points, and even get married, depending on which blocks fall next to each other most often.
But in 1998, this trend was fresh and had yet still to generate some of its classics. Body Harvest was, thus, a brazing mixture. Released shortly before the (admittedly) more polished The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it nevertheless boasts miles of explorable territory. On a console not known for ultraviolence, it offers puddles of green and crimson blood. Long before Grand Theft Auto III, it presented an array of planes, helicopters, trucks, bicycles, jeeps, boats, and armored rides, all of which could be found, accessed, and driven across three-dimensional landscapes. Its wild skirmishes are more entertaining and larger in scope than those in Rare’s later and prettier bug-themed Jet Force Gemini or Omega Force’s Metal Gear Solid-lite Winback (which makes Body Harvest, along with perhaps Treasure’s Sin and Punishment, the premiere source for third-person thrills on the underpopulated shelves of the Nintendo 64’s library). Videogames, as this scrappy gem suggests, don’t necessarily date so much because of their technical specifications, as they do because of their gameplay and structure. Body Harvest might have looked ancient, but it played like the future.
Any given area in this game provides several interactive alternatives. Looking for hidden artifacts related to the surprisingly deep lore? Find a better set of wheels to negotiate the next seemingly random alien harvesting wave? Read a book or two? Solve item puzzles? Lead children to safety with the jingle of an ice cream truck? Even the process of selecting a vehicle is strategic. Attack from the air or from the ground? Privilege the speed of a motorcycle or the protection of a tank? What makes all this compelling is these activities are not always segregated into discreet episodes. Many of them overlap, and if traced on a topographical map, would cross each other at several points. Players can move with relative freedom, surveying the alternating possibilities of the land.
Since Body Harvest, sandbox titles have turned such dynamic level design into a cliché, making monothematic indie platformers like Knytt, with their severe minimalism and single-minded goals, seem like refreshing throwbacks. But, in 1998, the rough and irregular maximumism of this shooter game with a role-playing heart was an astounding, and unexpected reason to own a Nintendo 64.