Back in 1995 Review
Fixed-camera flop deserving of a good ink ribbin'
Like many other people with exquisite taste and dashing good looks, I have often insisted that Resident Evil 4 is a solitary masterpiece, rising triumphantly from the murky, festering waters of a franchise that—up to that point, at least—could charitably be described as “clunkier than a gearbox full of hot toffee”. No matter how instrumental early survival horror games were in establishing the pillars of their genre, the reality is that their lauded limitations—fixed cameras, tank controls, combat comparable to sticking your hand in a cage full of rabid rats—were little more than clumsy means of achieving far more abstract qualities, which more recent games have since managed in ways that don't make you want to pitch the gamepad across the room.
Still, there's plenty left to like about old-school survival horror, elegant design be damned, and there's always room in video games for a new angle on a subgenre's formula, no matter how outmoded it may seem or how many times it's broken its hip walking down the stairs. Thus we arrive at Back in 1995, a game so unabashedly retro that its title is literally a description of where it plans to take you. I suppose if you intend to paint your game as a nostalgia trip then you might as well lay it on as thick as you can, and Back in 1995 lays it on with the gusto of a toddler that’s just been presented with a brush, a bucket, and a pristine bedroom wall. You are a very bland man in a brown coat, ostensibly called ‘Kent’ but probably represented in the code as something along the lines of BarryMason.cpp, and you need to get from the roof of an office building to a distant radio tower because… actually, I’m not sure. The game condenses its exposition so thoroughly that I’m not entirely convinced that some of it didn’t get accidentally lopped off the final product, but regardless, one thing is clear: you’re going to go through a lot of obtuse puzzles, awkward camera angles and weird fleshy monsters to reach that nebulous goal.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: as an exercise in masquerading as an old-school survival horror from the days when every single polygon was more precious than a diamond on a platinum chain, Back in 1995 excels. As soon as I got my hands on a nice sturdy pipe-wrench, I unthinkingly slipped back into that Silent Hill groove, plodding from room to room—well, skipping the doors with broken locks, of course—bludgeoning monsters, and methodically checking every last corner for clues, bullets, and off-brand Panadol. It’s an experience that feels genuine in a way that most retro games can only dream of. Like the wonderful Devil Daggers, Back in 1995 recognises the value of an almost unnerving eye for minute details, drawing from the days of console gaming’s first shaky steps into the world of 3D instead of the golden age of the FPS. Polygons jitter and textures warp with every step, threatening to rip the primitive illusion apart at the seams as the graphics coprocessor screams and tears its hair out through another batch of matrix multiplications. Animations are stiff, things occasionally render in the wrong order, models are uncomfortably spindly, and whenever you're in an outdoor area there's a chance that the background scenery will be suddenly swallowed up by the abyssal maw of the far clipping plane. Drop shadows are everywhere—well of course; what kind of PlayStation game has dynamic lighting?—and even the loading screen does its part with a little spinning CD icon; a callback to when games still felt the urgent need to remind you that yes, they're stored on optical discs, and yes, those take time to read. The dull, fuzzy, slightly painful to look at CRT scanline filter is optional, presumably because people still seem divided on whether they're an act of high heresy or not, but since all my memories of the PlayStation are of playing it in the middle of the night, staring with bloodshot tired eyes at a lousy old television, the sensation of minor ocular trauma felt strangely appropriate.
I could, of course, tear apart a self-sabotaging approach like this with the gleeful ferocity of a cat that has leapt upon a particularly bone-headed pigeon, but I think we both already know how pointless that would be. Back in 1995 doesn't try to present its retro sensibilities as a 'good' thing in much the same way that a tour of the Tower of London doesn't try to present the torture rack as a means of chiropractic treatment. It's about creating a very particular kind of experience, warts and all, and the problem is not with those warts themselves—after all, does Silent Hill, as a game that's enthralling to this day, not have every one of these faults?—but with a wholly independent set of afflictions.
Item one: Back in 1995 is not scary.
Now let's be fair here: I could probably count the number of games that do horror well on one hand, even after an unfortunate wood-chipper accident or three. It's an already unpopular genre in an industry that treats nuance like a red, flammable, conveniently-placed barrel, so I'm not about to wring Back in 1995 out for not reaching those lofty heights. However, I would need all my digits and possibly those of a skeeved-out co-operator to count the number of games that—in lieu of supplying actual horror—are able to be stressful, tense, thrilling, revolting, weird, surreal or just deeply unnerving, and Back in 1995 doesn't tick any of those boxes either. All the pieces are here, but they've been hammered into place so clumsily that half of them don't work anymore. Yes, the tank controls theoretically make you unwieldy and liable to panic in a tight spot, but if Garry Jason has the manoeuvrability of a forklift, then the monsters themselves have the manoeuvrability of freight trains on a frozen lake. You can run rings around most of the enemies—figuratively speaking, I mean; there's no run button—and your trusty pipe-wrench is imbued with the twin arcane powers of stunlock and wide swing, so you can safely melee your way through mobs of fleshy monstrosities without needing so much as a band-aid. I was almost halfway through the game before something overcame its brain-dead AI long enough to finally spill my pixelated particle blood, and it hardly mattered anyway because by that point I had accrued enough drugs to knock Ozzy Osbourne into next week.
In short, Back in 1995 is the kind of game that’ll try to convince you that you’re being pursued by horrors from a higher plane of existence even while they sit unthreateningly on the far side of the room, endlessly headbutting a cafeteria table. I’d accuse all the gameplay bits of once again getting under the feet of a perfectly good horror experience and tripping it into the flower beds, but that would require me to actually know what kind of horror experience Back in 1995 is trying to create in the first place. It starts off in medias res with a light dose of rather lovely dreamlike surrealism, accentuated by the various obfuscating visual effects that leave you squinting at the screen wondering what you’re actually looking at, but then it takes a sudden hairpin turn into a B-grade “Black Mesa on a budget” plot that has you struggling to travel from building to building in the aftermath of some mad science gone cataclysmically wrong. It’s all very confused and directionless, as if two games bumped into one another on a busy street corner and each walked off carrying the other’s tone, a problem that only grows worse when the surrealism hastily drops back in to not-quite explain things for the finale. It’s like if Leon S. Kennedy finished gunning down a legion of Spanish peasant cultists, tuned into a codec call with his support partner, and was given the “they look like monsters to you?” routine. No, ma’am, they were definitely monsters. There have been multiple plot points dedicated to the nature and development of the monsters. I have picked too many diseased parasite spleens out of my immaculately-combed hair for you to try and make things ambiguous now.
It’s something of a shame because there’s potential for Back in 1995 to create a truly unique, unnerving atmosphere here. Its presentation taps deeply into influences that a lot of games rarely touch: scattered memories of experiencing Resident Evil as a child, fearing the unknown, not understanding the rules it played by; the hazy lo-fi obfuscation of VHS horror, filtering the experience through a veil of static and bad tracking; a wafer-thin fourth wall tenuously balanced on the brink of shattering. You shuffle mindlessly from room to room, slowly losing yourself to the droning music and the Google Translated notes, and it dawns on you that everything you experience is a very personal product of the game's solitary creator. It's the stuff of a thousand internet creepypastas: an eerie, shonky, solitary project, salvaged from obscurity, burnt to a CDR, and played in the wee hours of the morning in a darkened house. Everything about the game is distinctly off—though perhaps not always intentionally—and if it was just a little bit better at nailing down the basics, it could maintain a sense of all-pervading unease you can normally only achieve by watching an old friend fall further and further down the rabbit hole of ugly xenophobia.
But alas, the basics are not nailed down, and instead flap loosely in the wind for the amusement of the neighbours. Kent—you do remember he's called Kent, right?—doesn't go through an arc so much as a zigzag, ricocheting off MacGuffins and arbitrary objectives before nosediving into the ending like an errant firework sputtering over the garden fence. The game is two hours long, which in itself isn't much of an issue—especially not since old-school survival horror tends to drag minutes into millennia the moment you get stuck on a puzzle—but that timeframe simply doesn't give it a long enough runway to really go anywhere; you need to get to a tower, some trivial events happen, and then you reach the tower. Monsters are introduced like a spitball to the face mere seconds into the experience—no, no, there's no time for a suspenseful build-up, just run away from this bloated brown paper bag ghost—and from there onward are treated as little more than a sort of regrettable annoyance by the few characters you run across. One chap, whose divine purpose on this Earth is apparently to just drag the play time out for a precious few more minutes, even has the bare-faced audacity to milk you for multiple chores that are totally inconsequential to the plot before handing you the key to the next area. He's not even the most blatant roadblock, either; that prize goes to the invisible barriers that funnel you in the right direction by simply telling you that you're not supposed to go this way yet.
Back in 1995 is a rare example of a retro game that actually suffers very little from its devoted adherence to dust-covered doctrines. Of the qualities we best remember early survival horror games for—fixed cameras, tank controls, obtuse puzzles, clunky combat and dialogue written by somebody who has never seen two human beings interact before—none of them really hurt the experience here; only when it ventures out into the treacherous marshes of originality does Back in 1995 become struck down with irredeemable daftness. The problem is simple: despite its promises, we don’t really want to go back to 1995; we want to go back to Resident Evil, or Silent Hill, or—god forbid—Alone in the Dark. We want the experiences that launched a genre, but Back in 1995 is the kind of experience that would’ve sunk it forever.