Third Party N64 Games That Didn’t Suck Volume 2: Winback


Man y’know what? Forget PlayStation today.

The 20th anniversary of PlayStation has everyone going through their memories with the original console and I’m pretty much “whatever” on the whole thing because I never actually owned the original PlayStation. I begrudgingly got my first piece of Sony hardware — a PS2, towards the end of 2005, after the Xbox 360 had launched.

My old PlayStation memories are pretty much of just being on the outside looking in as people played Wipeout, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear while I stuck with my N64, the typical Nintendo classics, and the third party games I talk about in this series. The next one up is Winback: Covert Operations. Once again, this is a re-edit of a post from 1up way back in 2009.


Vol. 1: Beetle Adventure Racing

First of all, yes I am aware that a PlayStation 2 version of Winback Covert Ops came out in 2001, technically not making this an N64 exclusive.  That’s not the point.  The point is that when the game originally came out, Nintendo was able to slap that “Only on” mark on the box.  This was the original, lead version of the game and was an exclusive for two years.

The Origins of Cover Systems

Looking into the origins of cover systems reveals a strange trail. Gears of War is just the game that popularized them. Both it and Uncharted simultaneously drew the idea from Namco’s 2003 Kill Switch. The thing is, back during the PS2 era cover systems were actually fairly common.

Games like Splinter Cell, that James Bond game Everything or Nothing, Enter the Matrix, and a lot of other third person action games used cover before the mechanic actually had a name. Before all those however you had Winback, which itself drew the idea from the first Metal Gear Solid. Winback however was likely the first game to use cover for an overtly action-oriented purpose. It was no longer about checking corners and sneaking around them, but using them as actual cover from enemy fire and to conduct tactical maneuvers. That’s what made the whole game so cool — it felt tactical from top to bottom.

If you go back and play Winback today though, it isn’t really just a shooter at all.

What Is Winback Really?

Even years after the game’s release Winback was sort of ridiculed as a ripoff of Time Crisis.  Many back then also said the first MGS – released a year earlier, already outdid Winback in every way. It’s only today can we really do a better job of classifying Winback.

It actually shares a little bit more in common with classic Resident Evil than it does with most shooters.  It used a lot of the features Gears ripped off Resident Evil 4 seven years later.  At the same time, like the older RE games, Winback is really an adventure game where you also happen to shoot things.

Winback is after all a Japanese game. It is never meant to be an upfront shooter. Like in RE you must stop and aim before shooting, which is lock-on-based. Because of this, being out in the open is usually bad news.  Thus, moving from cover to cover puts Winback’s gameplay in a more cerebral light – not so distant from that of an adventure game.

It is there Winback builds a mental bridge between firearm combat and environmental puzzle solving. Each area in Winback is not a linear shooting gallery but a situation that must be figured out. You don’t just shoot guys to get to the end. There is usually a door to unlock, a bridge to activate, or a security obstacle to deactivate and return to pass through. Tactical dilemmas would be presented that essentially amount to puzzles, like “how do you get to the guy near the bomb before he sees you and sets it off?”

Each area in the game was also not just one level, but a persistent environment. The office building in Winback is sort of like the mansion in the first RE game, you crisscross it, finding keys and things to unlock the doors to eventually solve your way out of it. In terms of level structure, Winback might be Resident Evil 2 with the zombies replaced by terrorists.

The reason I find this so important is because really no game since Winback has provided this exact mix between combat with guns and adventure-style progression.  The closest thing might be Resident Evil 4, which is probably quite a bit more linear. Dead Space might count too, but is even more linear. The most eerie part of this situation is Winback’s developer – Omega Force.

Omega Force is the main team behind the Dynasty Warriors franchise.  The Dynasty Warriors people – a team currently pumping out rehashes symbolic of the state of Japanese gaming, kind of popularized a game mechanic that Japan has gone back and borrowed from western games!  Most conspicuous of all is that Winback is just about the only game Omega Force has ever developed that isn’t Dynasty Warriors or a Dynasty Warriors spinoff.

A while back Koei expressed a desire to make a game that would appeal to the western market.  Sometime it was reported somewhere that only about eight percent of Koei’s sales came from outside Japan.  Given the prevalence of third person shooters in the west these days, I think it’d at least be pretty funny if “the original cover system shooter” made a return.

At the same time though, it wouldn’t be enough for Koei to simply ape the west and leave it at that. What needs to happen more is for Japanese developers to apply western game design standards to what they’re already doing to create a blend (see Lost Planet, Metal Gear Solid 4, Vanquish, maybe even Dark Souls).  I think a hypothetical third Winback presents an interesting opportunity.

Imagine if Koei did make a game that took to heart all the standard features of today’s third person shooters, but still retained the adventure-style level design of the original Winback.  You’d potentially have something that could really stand out.  This is just talk though, I don’t want to get into the chances of that actually happening.

What Really Doomed Winback Critically?

The official reason critics were lukewarm on Winback, as stated above, is because they kind of saw it as a poor man’s Time Crisis or MGS. To those who played Winback for its own merit, the game’s real flaw is that it was just really freaking hard.

Going back today, Winback is a very unforgiving game. One of the things that promoted its somewhat strategic nature was the fact that you couldn’t soak up bullets like in most shooters. Getting shot actually stopped your character in his tracks and in some cases knocked him down.  Depending on the range, only four or five shots could kill you. Then there were those damn lasers.

Winback is full of security lasers, but only a few of them actually alerted security. The rest just kill you instantly. Most of the time you deal with lasers by finding and destroying their power sources. There were a lot of points though that involved rolling under them with precise timing.

In my opinion the hardest section of Winback is fairly early in the game when you’re on a roof and you must traverse a veritable maze of these lasers. They all move and you must precisely time half a dozen rolls in sequence. Then, you might have to do it again when enemies appear to reactivate the maze. Add to this the fact that each level in Winback has exactly one checkpoint.

Also, almost all of the game’s bosses were a fairly big pain in the ass. There were like 10 of these bosses, they had super powerful weapons like M60s and flamethrowers, and were unusually mobile – nerfing the usual style of play.  The point where I finally gave up and gamesharked the rest of Winback was at the game’s final act which started with a boss that used a rapid fire heat-seeking missle launcher.

Even after I gamesharked Winback I ended up with the worst ending because I’d taken too long in the first place. You see, the main point that the game’s storyline drives is that you must stop the terrorists before they make good on their threat.  What you don’t realize is they really mean it.

I’m not sure on the specifics, but I think Winback has two or three endings depending on how long it takes you to beat the game. To get the true ending I think you have to reach a certain point in the final act within three hours, which is a feat in itself considering the overall difficulty. The general theme of the story though seems to be the ramifications of decision and indecision, so you can say Omega Force accomplished their objective in that regard.

Why We Even Liked Winback

The main thing that made Winback so appealing was of course the cover system, which at the time was pretty innovative.  It was also however the mentality behind that cover system and everything the game did to enhance it.

Winback was probably called a rip-off of Time Crisis because it very much evoked the same style.  The Time Crisis games more or less felt like interactive Michael Bay movies in every way from the commentary to the “trailers” that played on idle arcade machines.  That’s what gave the games their charm and that’s where Winback get’s what charm it has.

The character designs, like those of Time Crisis, were in a weird but cool space somewhere between more serious Japanese anime and mid-90’s Hollywood espionage movies. The theme felt very American, but you could tell the visuals were coming in through a Japanese lens.

Time Crisis used this in conjunction with very heavy, theatrical-sounding music. Winback had a similar tone, but was a bit more subdued.  It felt like they were going for a videogame version of movies like The Rock, Speed, and Die Hard with a Vengeance. I for one ate this up.

As part of the central theme of this whole list, PlayStation owners had games like Metal Gear Solid and Syphon Filter from which to get a certain kind of action. For the most part N64 owners only had Winback.

The Bullets:

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