Without taking a survey, I'd be willing to wager that most of you out there have never played Geograph Seal. That's ok, it isn't your fault. Back in 1994, I'm sure you were far too busy with Earthworm Jim or Donkey Kong Country to be bothered scouring the withering lineup of new games for late-80s Japanese computers. Even the diligent importer was more likely to have his eye on Tales of Phantasia than the latest from a small independent developer still another year from their breakthrough hit. It's too bad, though, because we all missed a bit of gaming history, as Japan took their first stab at 3D platforming, and Exact laid the foundation for the mainstream success they would have with Jumping Flash.
Born in the wake of Star Fox, Geograph Seal probably seemed like the next logical step at the time. It's a fully 3D polygonal first person shooter that manages to muster an impressive amount of style from its precious few untextured polygons. The free-roaming shooting was still novel enough at the time, but what really made it unique was the platforming mechanics. Players could make their frog-like mech leap high into the air, and then double-jump and triple-jump as the camera pans down. If it feels eerily familiar, it should. The gameplay mechanics here are virtually identical to Jumping Flash.
Time has generally been unkind to early 3D games, but Geograph Seal manages to be one of the few that really holds up.
But where its successor was a platform game with shades of first-person shooter, Geograph Seal feels more like a FPS with platform elements. The level design puts the focus squarely on the action, and the pace never lets up for moment. The throbbing techno-rock soundtrack sounds like it came out of an early 90s arcade shooter, and sets the tone perfectly. Stages are mission based, but these missions are little more than a list of targets to assassinate before taking on a boss.
And these bosses are no joke. From a giant robotic beetle to a towering generator that projects waves of deadly holograms, it never ceases to amaze me what Exact was able to do with that dusty old 16-bit CPU. More importantly, these guys are the first bosses in a free roaming 3D game that are really fun to fight (though that Stage 5 boss is a jerk).
There's actually a decent amount of variety for such a straightforward action game. In addition to the usual outdoor cityscapes swarming with enemies, there's a corridor labyrinth that lends some shades of Wolfenstein 3D, and giant vertical level lined with platforms with a towering pillar boss as the level's only target. There are also a few linear rail-shooter sequences to be found among the game's eight stages. These levels feel a bit like the first-person Star Fox you might have expected in 1994, but they're decidedly brief roller coasters, to help break up the rest of the game.
Time has generally been unkind to early 3D games, but Geograph Seal manages to be one of the few that really holds up. With its crude graphics and early 90s flavor, it might be hard to appreciate just how far ahead of its time it was, but it's hard to deny the legacy of a game that gave birth to the first 3D platformer to grace a console.
Time has been unkind to a lot of early 3D games, but it's nice to see one that holds up this well, especially in light of its legacy. I'd like to think that someday, someone might have the vision to pull this one out of the vault and make it available once more, but sadly, I don't see it happening. It may be destined to remain one of import gaming's best kept secrets just by virtue of its platform, but those that hold the torch for Sharp's little wonder will be sure to sing its praises.