Throwback Thursday: Enter the Matrix was the epitome of interactive gun-fu

May of 2003 was a very good month for fans of the Wachowski Brothers’ breakout sci-fi epic The Matrix. Not only was it the release month for the highly anticipated second film, The Matrix Reloaded, but it also saw the release of the very first Matrix video game: Enter the Matrix. At the time, video game tie-ins for movies didn’t have a lot of cachet in the gaming community, mainly because they were often little more than low-effort cash grabs riding on their respective movie’s coattails.

However, Enter the Matrix helped to change that perception by functioning as an immersive, engaging, and, most importantly, interactive companion to The Matrix Reloaded that offered players a deeper glimpse into the world the Wachowskis had created.

Two Is Better Than One

Rather than cast players as The Matrix trilogy’s central protagonist Neo, Enter the Matrix instead gave the player a choice between two different playable characters: Niobe, captain of the Logos or her first mate, Ghost. Both Niobe and Ghost also made their film debut in The Matrix Reloaded, and the respective actors who portrayed them in Reloaded, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Anthony Wong, reprised their roles for Enter the Matrix, supplying both voiceover and motion capture for the game’s action and fight sequences.

Along with cinematics rendered using in-game assets, the Wachowski Brothers also filmed roughly an hour of additional real-life footage that was peppered throughout the game’s narrative. The real-life footage featured Niobe and Ghost along with other recognizable characters from The Matrix and Reloaded, including Trinity, The Merovingian, Persephone, The Oracle, The Keymaker, and Seraph. The Wachowskis filmed the additional footage specifically for Enter the Matrix, showing how invested they were in branching out to other mediums beyond film.

In terms of gameplay, Enter the Matrix managed to recreate the iconic “gun-fu” nature of the film’s gun battles and martial arts fight scenes in an interactive format, allowing players to engage in third-person shootouts and fist fights. The game also naturally included a “focus” mechanic in which the player could briefly slow down time and perform advanced maneuvers such as acrobatic bullet dodges and advanced hand to hand takedowns.

Some levels also tasked the player with facing powerful opponents in 1v1 martial arts duels, replicating the feel of a fighting game. In fact, fans of the game’s hand-to-hand combat could even unlock a hidden two-player versus mode that allowed them to play as other iconic Matrix characters like Morpheus and Agent Smith.

Branching Narratives

The story events depicted in Enter the Matrix helped to bridge the narrative gap between The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded, starting out shortly before the events of Reloaded before moving up to happen alongside them. By playing Enter the Matrix, fans could find out what other characters were up to during the events of Reloaded while Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus were doing their thing.

The game also provided additional background information for Reloaded characters like The Merovingian, Persephone, and The Keymaker, offering further incentive for moviegoers who wanted to know more about those characters and their motivations.

The sequence of missions that players worked through was mostly the same depending on whether they played as Ghost or Niobe, with slight variations to help up the game’s replay value. Enter the Matrix was also notable in its approach to game difficulty.

The game had multiple difficulty levels for players to choose from, and lowering the difficulty not only made enemies easier to defeat, it also cut out specific portions of the game, essentially lowering the number of individual challenges that players had to overcome. This meant that if a player wanted to experience the “full” game, they had to play at least on the standard ‘Normal’ difficulty setting.

Glitches In The Code

As fun and in-depth as it was, Enter the Matrix received a widely polarizing reception upon arrival. Critics praised the gameplay and story elements, but some also took issue with the repetitive nature of the game’s missions and the fact that they felt obligated to play the game in order to get the “full story” of the events in Reloaded.

Interestingly enough, one of the biggest problems critics had with Enter the Matrix was that they didn’t get to play as Neo, and were instead relegated to controlling side characters who weren’t even in the original Matrix film. Given the newfound powers Neo was able to wield in The Matrix Reloaded, Enter the Matrix failed to deliver the power fantasy that fans craved, and it wasn’t until two years later that Enter the Matrix developer Shiny Entertainment would give fans what they wanted in a 2005 follow-up game called The Matrix: Path of Neo (of course, Path of Neo also ended up being a critical dud, proving that overly passionate fans should be careful what they wish for).

Enter the Matrix’s graphics and gameplay may not have aged super well over the years, but when it came to presenting an interactive version of The Wachowski Brothers’ engrossing alternative universe, it did a surprisingly competent job.

The high marks of Enter the Matrix’s presentation were undoubtedly thanks in part to the direct involvement of The Matrix’s creators, but even without the real-life supplementary material, Enter the Matrix was a well-executed combination of third-person exploration and combat. The Matrix series had a near-equal share of high points and low points, but Enter the Matrix proved that making a high-quality video game adaptation of a film is indeed possible, especially when the film’s creators are directly involved.