The era of the first PlayStation is still one that’s looked back on as one of the best moments in the history of the video game industry. Being the new kid on the block and having been burned by Nintendo in the early 1990s, Sony came onto the scene and essentially stole the show with their PlayStation console which went on to be the de facto system for gamers until Sony’s PlayStation successor was released in 2000. For me the release of the PS1 was a big deal as it marked the first time my parents allowed me to own a video game console, which as many of you know led me down the dark path of staying up late, being obsessed with games, further igniting my OCD and eventually leading me to be here writing this nonsense.
I think most of our readers have their own fond moments of gaming on the PS1, but I’m sure some may have missed a few games that completely went under their radar while they played Medal of Honor, Final Fantasy VII or Crash Bandicoot. For the next few weeks I’ll be spending some time to highlight some cult games that may have otherwise gone unnoticed to gamers during the PS1 era and hopefully I’ll be able to help gamers out there find out about some games that they can check out in their spare time.
First off this week is a game that may seem peculiar given who developed it. Released in 1999 and published by Sony Computer Entertainment, the game had a fair share of marketing and earned respectable reviews at the time but sadly didn’t go on to become the latest first-party hit in the Sony stable.
Omega Boost was somewhat of an oddity when it came out since it was developed by Polyphony Digital. Yes, as in the same Polyphony Digital that makes the Gran Turismo games. At the time, Polyphony tackled Omega Boost in their spare time between Gran Turismo 2 and their work on the PS2 version of Gran Turismo, which as many of you know is what most likely set the company on the “We’ll release the game when it’s done” mentality. When Omega Boost was released gamers and the press alike were somewhat befuddled that Polyphony would release an action game featuring a mech as even then the company was somewhat known for developing racing games, as their previous releases were Motor Toon Grand Prix and the first Gran Turismo.
Despite being a bit unexpected, Omega Boost proved to be as solid as Polyphony’s other games, even if it didn’t have you behind the wheel of an Aston Martin but instead in the cockpit of a massive mech flying in space. What drew many people to Omega Boost, including me, was that it was an on-rails mech action game done right, which at the time of the PS1 wasn’t something that was common. The success of Omega Boost laid in its mixture of being somewhat simplistic to control but requiring a level of skill during key scenarios and boss battles that required players to not only unleash a hail of missiles, but boost like they’ve never done before in order to complete their mission.
Part of the charm Omega Boost had was that it actually had live-action cutscenes which at the time was a dying art form due to the advent of CG visuals. While used sparingly for the intro and outro and a few small interludes, the cutscenes of Omega Boost had some high production values despite the somewhat odd plot and peculiar helmet design of its hero, the unnamed pilot of the Omega Boost mech. The plot of Omega Boost was set in a future that had the world being overrun by a rampant computer program called Alpha Core. Somehow Alpha Core had devised a plan to go back in time to take control of the first computer created in human existence - the ENIAC. If Alpha Core successfully reached Earth in the late 1940s and overtakes the ENIAC then that basically means bad things would happen, lots and lots of bad things – like humanity would have to bow in front of their new computer machine overlords. The plot of Omega Boost was wafer thin, just as they should be in arcade style games, but it was still rather cool since the visuals and sheer ludicrous time travel element was pure camp fun. Like how hard is it to dig a game that has you travelling through space in order to stop a computer program from taking over the first computer ever made?
The opening cutscene of Omega Boost.
As thin as the plot of Omega Boost may have been, the gameplay itself was nothing but the definition of exceptional. With the aid of a few former team members from Sega’s Panzer Dragoon series, Polyphony crafted what is considered one of the best if not the best mech game to ever be released - ON ANY PLATFORM. Taking the standard on-rails formula, Polyphony just created something special with Omega Boost as it was a game that not only is exhilarating to play, but requires some true skill in order to successfully complete the mission at hand and receive a good grade. Omega Boost may have been rooted in providing an arcade style level of control instead of opting for complete flight prowess but the game still maintained a level of proper movement thanks to the boosting ability, which is required to use in order to escape enemy fire and the sometimes dizzying boss battles that has players facing off against lightning fast mechs or battling massive airships in the atmosphere of a planet.
I face a fast mech in this space battle.
If there’s one thing that Omega Boost does an exceedingly amazing job at, it’s establishing a unique feel and design to each of the nine worlds that are present. Things start off slow in the first two stages as they’re set in space against some opposing mechs that can be taken out rather easily and have simple sub-boss/boss encounters. From the confines of space Omega Boost shifts players to fighting ships in the atmosphere of a mysterious planet, going inside the core of a planet to do battle with a giant spider-mech only to move on to face what I still consider one of the most impressive final boss battles that I’ve ever experienced in a game. There wasn’t much rhyme or reason as to why I was visiting such locations as the story didn’t fill me in on anything, but I honestly didn’t care since things just felt right despite the lack of an explanation and justification for existing in this universe of mechs and time travel. Just like the rest of Omega Boost, things start calm on the ninth and final story level in the game only for a giant liquid metal mech/angel thing to suddenly appear in a realm that is awash in colors found in a rainbow acid trip with energy blasts/missiles going all over the place.
The fifth stage of Omega Boost.
That’s another thing about Omega Boost that shocked everyone who played it when it was released: the game does ridiculous things on the PS1 hardware. The PS1 was capable of pushing out some good visuals towards the end of its lifecycle, but Polyphony really did some magic as they produced one of the best looking games to appear on the system. Aside from running at a silky smooth 60 frames per second, Omega Boost had some incredible effects and texture work, the most impressive being the eighth level boss which was a mass liquid metal entity that could actually transform into different shapes in real time, similar to T-1000 from Terminator 2. So one minute I would find myself shooting at a blob only for it to suddenly change into a very creepy human face, all without a single graphical or performance hitch. Stuff like that blew my mind when I played the game for the first time and Omega Boost is a game that shows the power of the PS1 hardware utilized at its full potential through its gorgeous renders and effects work of a far flung sci-fi universe.
Omega Boost may be simple for its time and compared to the games we played today but it definitely deserved more attention and hype then it deserved. Despite a demo being included in magazines like The Official PlayStation Magazine, Omega Boost just failed to catch on with gamers, perhaps because they didn’t know what to make of the game or folks were gearing up for the impending release of the Sega Dreamcast and PlayStation 2. Sony and Polyphony had planned to do a PS2 version of Omega Boost that was to be included with Gran Turismo 3 as a bonus but that fell through and as we now know, Polyphony Digital is now focused on faithfully rendering classic cars via the power of the PS3. I don’t know if anyone at Polyphony Digital still looks back fondly at Omega Boost or has an intense desire to create a HD remake or sequel given the right circumstances, but without a doubt Omega Boost is one of the best games to be released on Sony’s small but powerful PlayStation.