Sunday, August 16, 2009

I, Gamer: Seriously!

I am very glad to have recently experienced the bipartite old-school blastfest known as Serious Sam. First brought to the PC gaming market in 2001 by Croteam, a group of then-rookie developers from Croatia, SS brought to us a relatively simple experience that cuts out all the fat and gets right to the mean of an FPS; the S! The goal in each stage is to get from point A to point B by building a bridge out of your antagonists' corpses. I don't mean that literally (though that sounds like an awesome game idea), but you do have a lot of killing to get around everywhere. And I mean a LOT, like in this screenshot where Scythian Witch Harpies do a "Zerg Rush":

Aside from the occasional MacGuffin required to advance (which is invariably obtained after a big battle), there's almost no puzzles. You only have to keep killing until the next gate opens up while staying alive with all the health and armor powerups you can find. It's practically a modern-day revival of classic arena shooters, particularly Smash TV and its successor Total Carnage. You have big arenas and a lot of space to run around, and you have to mow down bastards such as the plentiful Kleer Skeletons, the stingy Arachnoids, and the Sirian Werebulls which I hate with an intense passion. Oh, and of course, the headless Kamikazes whose initially humorous yell you will grow to loathe in due time. This game didn't pull its punches with tossing wave after wave of alien jerkholes atcha. Oh, I forgot to mention the plot consists of badass human warrior "Serious" Sam Stone going back in time to prevent an assault from xenoform big bad Notorious Mental. It is flagrantly derivative from Duke Nukem 3D, and Sam himself even looked a LOT like Duke for the initial release of The First Encounter, but he was changed in all subsequent games. My guess is that Croteam realized how similar their premise was to DN3D and made Sam look like him for shits and giggles, but they were shocked when it caught on and they went on to make sequels with a less-infringy Sam who reminds me a tad of Bruce Campbell.

Sam sure is serious alright, and you've got to be if you want to kick Mental's ass. This is a tough game that will likely elicit a lot of save scumming to survive through some of the longer battles. It's also incredibly mean at times, as it frequently assaults you with enemies who drop out of thin air if you go out of the way to pick up an item on the side. Fortunately, you have an awesome arsenal consisting of (but not limited to), a revolver (or a pair) armed with unlimited ammo, the requisite minigun meant for mowing myriads of mooks to mulch, CHAINSAW, a surprisingly fast-shooting rocket launcher, and my personal favorite, a cannon armed with massive iron balls that flattens anything in its path. Despite such a fine arsenal, you'll always be wanting more when it comes to the bigger bads of the game. Hell, even most of the minor ones are fearsome through sheer number (I'm wagering there are at least one thousand Kleer in The First Encounter alone), but giant enemies also get painfully common in later stages. The Major Bio-Mechanoids, for example, are almost like the Cyberdemons of Doom fame but only about a fourth as durable. They still take a lot of punishment regardless and can easily kill you with a single rocket to your face, and there are... easily around a hundred of them throughout the entirety of The First Encounter. Twice that in The Second Encounter, likely. That's nothing to say of the skyscraper-sized bosses, the most infamous of which is Ugh-Zan III, one of the most famed big battles of recent FPS history. It's hard for The First Encounter's conclusion to not be epic while THIS guy is chasing you up a road littered with every type of enemy in the game and you eventually get to fight him at the very top of an alien pyramid.

"Big" applies to a lot in the series, not just the enemies. While its goals are technically linear and straightforward, the size of all the levels are MASSIVE. Many of the areas in which you fight enemies don't leave much room for cover but a LOT of space to dash and dodge enemy assault, upholding the eternal adage "you can run, but you can't hide." Something I find impressive is that in the original PC version, most levels allow you to run outside of your intended path and off into the wilderness, and instead of colliding with an invisible wall, you just keep going and going and going! I'm sure there's a limit to be drawn somewhere, but it's amusing to see the stage where you once where as a tiny line on the horizon. There are even a few bonus areas that are placed out yonder, such as an oasis on the very first level of The First Encounter. Instead of being confined to limits as you are in other games, you can really roam free in Serious Sam even though there's not too much outside of the actual areas. I just find this scope impressive, and this "wilderness" is cut out of the XBOX version, unfortunately.

If you want to play the original Serious Sam, I should clarify its releases for posterity, as it's a tad confusing. The First Encounter (2001) is the game to begin it all, but its successor, The Second Encounter (2002), is not so much of a sequel as it is a follow-up/expansion that manages to feel somewhat different from its predecessor while having the same look, weapons, and enemies of the first with some awesome additions, as well as continue in the direction of its predecessor. Think Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 in this case; the two games are kind of the same, and yet, not quite. I believe hearing they were intended to all be one part, but the four areas of the planned game turned out to be too long overall. If this is the case, I'm assuming Croteam expanded Egypt and made it the entirety of TFE, while the other three areas (Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia, and Medieval Europe) carried on to make up TSE. If the two can be compared, I like TSE more if not just for the addition of four incredibly useful weapons and more varied landscapes, but if you see them as two halves of a whole game (as I do), the entire shebang has to be played overall. The XBOX port (2002) actually does combine the two into one massive game, but it reportedly removes some areas here and there; on the other hand, it better balances difficulty by giving Sam lives that can respawn him on the spot, so it might be worth a play if you're not fond of scumming in the PC version. Both parts were re-released for the PC in 2003 as Serious Sam: Gold Edition, alongside an expansion titled Dark Island, which I have yet to play myself.

I can't recommend Serious Sam enough, not only on its own merits, but also because it's a throwback to the straightforward FPS games of old like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Rise of the Triad. That's not to say that modern FPS titles bordering on RPG and strategy territory aren't awesome (such as Deus Ex and Call of Duty), but I'm a sucker for "retro revivals" where a game gets back to the basics and sticks right to them. Serious Sam certainly delivers on this premise, and it's wrapped up in a nice package too. The graphics, while certainly not the most advanced for their time, are impressive considering they come from a then-unheard of developer working on a modest budget. The soundtrack is freaking amazing, and I'll provide an example at the end because I can't really describe it. The game's coded well, as I personally have not noticed too many breaking bugs or glitches, though maybe I haven't looked hard enough. And to top it all off, the game does NOT take itself seriously at all in an ironic contrast to the title. Sam rattles off some hilarious one-liners ("Didn't I kick your ass two rooms back?"), he comes across telephone booths where he somehow talks to himself, the Croteam developers are represented by freakish aliens with human faces but with bloated craniums, and there are some silly and/or bizarre easter eggs for players who look hard enough. My personal favorite is a curious pair of eyeballs which transform into a titanic Kamikaze if you shoot at it. This quirky charm rounds off an overall awesome experience that SERIOUSLY should not be missed by anyone looking for a rootin'-tootin'-assbootin' experience rife with explosions, lasers, and big bad bombs. Just remember, SAM I AM! Or... rather, Sam he is. I'm not Sam. I'm Mike. So yeah. THIS is Sam.

Anyway, here's the promised music link, which is from the last area of The Second Encounter, actually. If you're touchy about not wanting to hear music from near the game's end, just thought I'd give you a heads up:

Also, the game was popular enough to spawn a console-only sequel for the Playstation 2 and Gamecube called Serious Sam: The Next Encounter, as well as an official PC sequel titled Serious Sam II, which was also ported to the XBOX. I have yet to play TNE or SS2, but I might blather about them later if I get around to them. Hell, I might even write a full out article about the series, though I'll see if college doesn't effectively beat the crap out of those plans. Also, Serious Sam: The First Encounter is getting an HD remake due to be released for the XBOX Live Arcade and PC, but I don't know too much more about it just yet, such as if they have plans to do this for The Second Encounter as well. However, I would very much like to see a revival and larger mainstream release of the series, and with augmented graphics no less, so I approve.


  1. Serious Sam was the last FPS I actually had fun with, just so over the top and mindblowing, Second Encounter was even better! So many great and creative levels, awesome humor, impressive techology!

    I'm still amazed that this old game can put MASSIVE amounts of enemies on screen like Doom (except polygonal) and Doom 3 had to be a survival horror game!

    BTW, I reccomend the GBA port.. it lacks some of the charm of the original, and it plays more like Wolf3D than Ecks Vs. Sever (SS GBA was developed by the EV.S guys, Crawfish, overseen by Croteam) but it's still a fun little game and it has an AMAZING soundtrack by Matthew "4-Mat" Simmonds of Red Sector/Amiga fame.

  2. Oh yeah... the character design is kinda wacky though. Tim Allen + Duke Nukem = WTF!?

  3. I can't believe you didn't mention the best part of Serious Sam: Co-op play. Playing through the game with a friend (or several; I think it supports up to 8 players) can be some of the best classic FPS action around.

  4. I haven't fiddled with co-op yet, actually. When a game does offer two players, I usually lone-wolf it due to not having anyone else with which to play. I may give it a try if I can.

  5. Serious Sam is about the only FPS I can stomach. There is an area near the end that's just a flood of hundreds of enemies attacking in a wide-open area, no cover, just monsters and monsters and monsters, each keyed to spawn when the powerups generated by finishing the previous wave are taken. It is awesome.

    Think about that for a moment. There is little in the way of level design in this area. It's -just- slaughtering a huge number of tough opponents in a gauntlet. And that's a -good- thing. I think the most awesome thing about Serious Sam, really, is that it recognizes that.

  6. @Mewchu: Apparently I'm not the only guy that likes SS Advance. Although it's the only Serious Sam I have ever played. And I gotta agree with you on the soundtrack. It has a GBC music-like charm to it. Also, it was developed by Climax, but it's still formed by the same guys from Crawfish. I even think that SS Advance uses the Ecks vs Sever/Ballistic: EvS2 engine

    I seriously (no pun intended) should play Serious Sam. It looks like the kind of FPS I like: all-out action and survival. Like Doom