Throwback Thursday: Looking back at the N64 bug-smashing title Body Harvest

In the year 1998, the Nintendo 64 console received some of its most beloved and oft-remembered games, games like Banjo Kazooie, Pokemon Stadium, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, and the original Mario Party to name a few. It was also the year in which a lesser-known game joined the N64 catalogue, a violent, action-packed science fiction game called Body Harvest. Developed by a British studio called DMA Design, Body Harvest didn’t exactly blow gamers away when it first launched, but I remember it fondly as one of the very first games that introduced me to the concept of unfettered open-world exploration.

Running down the clock

According to the fiction of Body Harvest, a hostile alien force has chosen the planet Earth as its latest source for the harvesting of vital organic materials. However, rather than simply hit Earth once and then move on, the aliens have instead enacted a plan in which they return every 25 years to lock down and harvest a different part of the planet. This harvesting cycle began in the year 1916, and the game picks up 100 years later (yes, the game is set in the “near future” of the year 2016) with the human race on the brink of extinction after having endured four previous harvester invasions.

As part of a desperate last-ditch effort to stop the aliens for good, the final group of surviving humans has crafted a mobile time-travelling machine which allows a genetically enhanced soldier named Adam Drake to venture back in time and stop the alien harvesting attempts at their source. As Drake, players must explore five distinct locations in five distinct time periods, and sabotage the aliens’ harvesting efforts using both on-foot and vehicle-based combat methods.

For each of Body Harvest’s five explorable locations (1916 Greece, 1941 Java, 1966 U.S.A, 1991 Siberia, and 2016 on the alien homeworld), a basic progression template is followed. The player’s ship lands in a designated spot, and the player must then venture out and explore the surrounding regions, defeating any aliens and helping any local civilians they find along the way. Each location is divided into sub-regions, and the goal for each sub-region is to reach and defeat the large ‘Processor’ enemies that maintain control over the dome-like force field that the aliens are using to keep the entire region locked down.

As a N64 game, Body Harvest was unique in that it maintained a near equal balance of on-foot and vehicle-based gameplay. When necessary, the player would explore both outdoor and indoor environments on-foot, solving puzzles and using weapons like machine guns and shotguns to fight any aliens they encountered. For each location, the player could also unlock a special location-specific weapon that was usually alien in nature, but not always. In Greece, for example, the player eventually received a special Sun Shield that could shoot flames, and was clearly inspired by Greek Mythology.

Driving a large variety of land, sea, and air-based vehicles was also necessary not only for getting around more quickly, but also for completing certain objectives and missions. One example in the initial Greece level involved having to locate and use a fire truck to quench a series of fires the aliens had started. During a later segment, the player would have to unlock a hanger and commandeer the airplane inside so that they could reach a Processor which was surrounded by high cliffs, thus making it unreachable with ground-based vehicles.

A global adventure

Since Body Harvest involved travelling to five distinct locations across five distinct time periods, the game’s art team got to create levels which felt distinct both in terms of visuals and gameplay. Granted, there were only so many different alien types the player could encounter (meaning there was some overlap across levels), but each level also had its own unique aliens, adding another layer of tension and unease to the game’s exploration bits since aliens would often suddenly arrive via teleportation.

In some cases, the game’s technical limitations and harsh penalties for failing an objective made for a frustrating one-two combo. You could only save your progress by either venturing all the way back to your ship or by defeating a Processor, which meant that if you accidently lost/destroyed a key vehicle or failed a side mission, you could lose upwards of 15-20 minutes worth of progress. Granted, I’m sure me being the young unskilled gamer that I was certainly factored into Body Harvest’s perceived difficulty, but it still wasn’t fun having many minutes of meticulous effort undone because I accidently took a turn too fast.

Overcoming the odds

Originally, Body Harvest was slated to be part of the Nintendo 64’s launch lineup, and Nintendo had even agreed to publish it in the United States. However, when Nintendo learned of the game’s overt themes of violence and sci-fi horror, it backed out of the publishing agreement, forcing DMA Design to delay launch as it scrambled to find a new publisher.

Eventually, Midway Games stepped up to act as Body Harvest’s publisher, but even then DMA had to keep delaying the game because Nintendo kept requesting changes be made to soften the game’s violent overtones. Since Nintendo owned the console on which DMA was trying to launch Body Harvest, refusing to make the requested changes wasn’t exactly an option, and it wasn’t until two years after the N64’s debut that Nintendo finally gave DMA the green light for launch.

It’s somewhat ironic that DMA was met with so much resistance for trying to make a violent video game since, just a year before the release of Body Harvest, the studio had released a little game you might have heard of called Grand Theft Auto. Indeed, DMA Design was the studio behind the entire Grand Theft Auto series, and by 2002 it had become Rockstar North, one of the studios that made up the larger company of Rockstar Games. Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, Max Payne, all of them were created by the same studio that, back in 1998, released an ambitiously large and violent game on a console that was owned by one of the most violence-adverse companies in the industry.

Over the years, gaming IP’s like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption have slowly refined the idea of hybridized on-foot/in-vehicle open world gameplay, and it stands to reason that, in some small way, Body Harvest helped in paving the trails such IP’s blazed. There are many aspects of Body Harvest that haven’t aged so well, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more pertinent rough draft for the open-world blueprint that Rockstar North would go on to perfect in later years.