Monday, June 13, 2011

Chakan: The Forever Man

When I first decided to write about Chakan, I figured it would be a quick and simple article. Sure it's a weirdly dark action platformer for the Genesis and Game Gear, but it was only one game that was only ported once, so how complicated of a history could it have? As it turns out, this undead pilgrim-looking guy has had a lot of behind-the-scenes drama. Chakan began life as an indie comic book that, as far as I can tell, was never particularly successful. Someone at Sega must have been a fan, because in 1992 it was adapted as a video game. The Genesis version was the first game developed by Extended Play Productions, who went on to exclusively make FIFA games for the next five years and then dissapear. The Game Gear version was developed by an unnamed Sega internal studio.

I'll be writing about the Game Gear version here because that is the version that I own, but I'm pretty sure I own it because I had rented the Genesis version and liked it for some reason. The versions are similar, but obviously the Genesis version is better looking and more fleshed out. Both are insanely hard. The main gimmick is that Chakan himself cannot die, which is translated into the game by giving the player unlimited lives, which was pretty unprecedented for a game from 1992. This mechanic may have been ahead of it's time, but in a weird way Chakan was the progenitor of a lot of things that I wasn't aware of. More on that later.


The game starts out by having you select your difficulty level, but the three choices are named such that I don't know which word is supposed to signify which is hardest. Actually, the game starts with the title screen playing a barely understandable voice clip saying “Chakan: The Forever Man,” but that's not really important. Anyway, you start in a hub world with various roman numeral labeled levels to choose from.

My first instinct was to go to level I, but that seemed like a mistake because it was a pain in the ass and I couldn't beat it. There are demons flying around, rocks being thrown at you, and if you get past all that there are lizard guys with swords waiting for you inside. The weirdest thing about fighting these enemies is that they take multiple to kill, but they don't have any attack reaction, so it is hard to tell if you are even successfully hitting them. This also makes crowd control impossible because they don't get knocked back.

It's a shame that the interactions with enemies are so bad because because there are the makings of a decent combat system hidden in there. You can use your town swords to attack in 8 directions, as well as from jumping and crouching. There is also a double jump that can be turned into a spinning slash attack. I found that the most reliable method of attack was to use the spinning attack, which I believe has some sort of temporary invulnerability. Even more reliable than attacking was to just use this spin attack to move past and avoid enemies all together. This tactic is fine in some stages, but in others you need to kill enemies to get keys to unlock doors. It could have been a solid Castlevania-like experience, but it just isn't.


The non-linearity of the level design is kind of nice. It's not just he ability to choose multiple levels from the hub world that you return to upon completing a level or dying, but the levels themselves are decently complex. There are hidden nooks and crannies that contain different items, such as upgraded elemental swords and potions that give you various effects like temporary invincibility. Still, Chakan is really difficult, and for most people, including myself, it is more difficult than it is fun. I can enjoy difficult games, but games that are unfair just aren't worth my time.

When I say Chakan was the beginning of a lot of things in the video game industry, I don't just mean it is the first game from a studio that made a bunch of soccer games. It was the first game designed Ed Annunziata, a guy who is responsible for some of Sega's most bizarre creations such as Ecco The Dolphin and Mr. Bones. The art designer was Steve Ross, a designer on the chronically overlooked classic Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude!, which was released the same year on Genesis, and a man whose paths would cross with Chakan many years after the game's release.

According to the internet, Sega had planned to revive Chakan for the Sega Dreamcast, and they brought Steve Ross back to work on it. It is unclear how far into production the game got, but it doesn't appear to have gotten much further than initial design phases, but there is a good deal of concept art out there. Now this is where things get weird. At some point the development studio that was working on it was bought up by Eidos, owners of the Legacy of Kain series. Steve Ross was brought in to work on Blood Omen 2: Legacy of Kain for Crystal Dynamics, and somehow much of the concept for the Dreamcast Chakan game somehow ended up in Blood Omen 2. The exact relationship between the two games is unclear, but the similarities are undeniable. I was surprised to find this out because that game is the only one in the series I spent any extended time with and I had heard it was quite a bit different from others in the series. This was really interesting to me, and I was surprised to find out about it when just doing my research on Chakan, a game I thought was never all that important.

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