Time Machine: Vectorman

Shooter meets graphics demo on Mega Drive...

Although games for Sega's 16-bit box of tricks often looked comparatively flat and colourless when running next to their SNES counterparts, some things - more specifically, some processor-intensive graphics techniques - looked inexplicably good.

Vectorman is one of those games. A relatively late vintage Mega Drive title, having been released towards the end of 1995, it shows off the result of many years of technical advancement.

The main character is made from several smaller sprites - little balls linked together to form a body. Hence the name Vectorman, since he's constructed along the lines of vector graphics rather than being a single large image. Presumably it saves on memory as well as allowing for very smooth animation.

It's pretty much a run and gun affair, combining rudimentary platforming with some snappy weapons. The levels are tall, and the designers stuck the most challenging jumps in the upper reaches, where the best goodies are hidden. If you fall to the bottom, you can carry on along a slightly easier path, or backtrack and try to climb up to where you were.

There are a number of TV sets to find in each level, which you shoot to earn bonuses, and Vectorman can rearrange his orbs to transform into different types of robotic tool. At various points during the game he'll become a drill, a fish, a buggy or a rocket, among many other temporarily useful things.

One level sees Vectorman travelling on a railway suspended high above the ground, while a giant enemy robot swings hand over hand below and the camera pans from side to side. It looks for all the world like it's running on a SNES - the rotation of the background is a dead ringer for a Mode 7 effect - and only the muted colour palette hints at a less powerful host machine.

If somebody could have figured out how to do all this stuff a few years earlier in the Mega Drive's life, the 16-bit console war might have played out differently. At least Nintendo wouldn't have been so brash when boasting the SNES was the most powerful machine on earth - in the eyes of the casual consumer, a game like Vectorman would certainly have cast doubt on the claim.

Incidentally, check out the game's plot for another example of Vectorman being ahead of its time. Humans have polluted the world so badly that they've abandoned it as a giant rubbish dump and left behind robots to clean the thing up. Sounds... familiar, doesn't it?


Whether or not the writers of Wall-E were Vectorman fans, the game is definitely worth a look today. It plays like a faster, better Earthworm Jim, it spawned a pretty good sequel and it's one of a forgotten vault of gems that's surely worth resurrecting on more recent hardware. Sadly, the original developer, BlueSky Software, went out of business a decade ago. We wonder if the rights might be available for a decent price...

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