Before jumping into this game, I'd like to share a little bit about its director. Hideyuki Suganami (aka Nami, Choko Monkey, Merry... probably Fukuryu and Garyo, too) was one of the original staff members of Treasure when they first set-up shop in 1992. Here's most of the stuff credited to one of his many aliases:
Bucky O'Hare - Special Thanks
Contra III: The Alien Wars - Side-View Programmer
Gunstar Heroes - Enemy & Boss Programmer
Alien Soldier - Director, Main Programmer
Guardian Heroes - Assistant Programmer
Mischief Makers - Director, Story, Game Design, Enemy & Boss Programmer
Silhouette Mirage - Boss Programmer
Radiant Silvergun - Assistant Director, Enemy & Boss Programmer
Rakugaki Showtime - "Props & Cameraman", Test Player
Bangai-O - Game & Figure Programmer
Sin & Punishment - Director, Enemy Programmer, Model Motion Design, Camera Work
Gunbeat (cancelled) - possible director or programmer; the game was cancelled around the time Nami left the company
Gunstar Super Heroes - Enemy & Boss Programmer, Graphic Design
Stuff in italics are things that I think can be attributed to Nami, but I'm not 100% certain. It's hard sometimes to keep everybody's nicknames straight. Anyway, you should be able to see a common thread in this list. Almost every game in which Nami had a prominent role is a boss-heavy action game of one kind or another, the only real exception being Mischief Makers. He's pretty much the entire reason Treasure built a reputation for fucking awesome bosses early on. Seven Force? Nami. All those dice palace bosses? Nami. That crazy awesome running man in the last stage of Radiant Silvergun? Nami.
Sin & Punishment is very much a Nami-style boss-heavy action game from start to finish.
Originally Posted by Nami, on boss design in Radiant Silvergun
We wanted to pursue that feeling of "fighting." I think the essence of shooters is when the player can easily feel "I really am fighting!"... It's not my end-all goal, but I want to add that [reading game] you find in 2-player fighting games as an element when playing against the CPU [in a shooter].
A neat little calling card of Nami's is his fixation on dates. If you stall against Timeron on the shmup stage of Gunstar Heroes for a full 100 minutes without dying, you receive a point bonus of exactly 930410 (1993 April 10, the date of the game's release). In Radiant Silvergun, on Saturn mode, you get a bonus of 1998530 (1998 May 30) for destroying the last boss.
But enough trivia.
Sin & Punishment's development studio wasn't revealed for some time during its creation, and the game turned a few heads when it was first announced, as neither the premise nor visual style looked remotely similar to Nintendo's typical offerings. The art direction was also a pretty big departure for Treasure for that matter. Rather than tapping HAN for his vibrant and colorful anime stylings seen in most of their previous games, the visuals in Sin & Punishment were handled mostly by relative newcomer Yasushi Suzuki, who also did much of the design work for both Ikaruga and Romancing Saga: Minstrel Song. It's a lot darker and grittier than much of their previous fare. I dig the style, and some of the concept art and manual illustrations are pretty cool, but really, the actual in-game execution leaves a little bit to be desired. To borrow a line from SF Kosmo, "almost every creature and human all look like triangles meshed together that got run over with a blur tool about six-hundred times." Seriously, can you even tell what is going on here? Some of the smaller creatures have a cool, organic-like look to them, but most of the game's aesthetic makes me glad we were well underway for a next generation of consoles when this game was released. On the plus side, at least the framerate never falters, even in turbo mode. So, at the very least, you could say that the graphics are perfectly functional. Let's hope this remains true for the VC release.
Sin & Punishment's audio doesn't fare any better than its visuals. There is pretty much only one track in the game that doesn't make me want to mute the TV, and while all of the game's dialogue is spoken in English, the delivery is laughable and the script is pretty much trash. We're not too many steps removed from original Resident Evil or House of the Dead 2 territory, here. At least all cutscenes can be skipped at the press of a button.
But what does any of that junk matter in an arcadey shooter, right? Fortunately for Sin & Punishment, the core gameplay is solid. Most reviews describe it as a "rail shooter" in the vein of Panzer Dragoon or Starfox, but I don't think that's the best way to put it. I find it to be very reminiscent of Sega's Space Harrier (behind the player viewpoint, horizontal and vertical movement, automatically scrolling levels, and so forth) but with a wider arsenal of moves for the player, more varied terrain, and enemies that are a lot more fun to fight. Your character walks forward automatically, stopping whenever a boss or group of enemies block your path. You use the C-left and C-right buttons to walk to the side, the analog stick to aim, the Z-button to shoot, and the R-button to jump and double-jump. Double-tapping C-left or C-right allows the player to quickly duck and roll to the side to escape enemy fire, and you're invincible while doing this (similar to Alien Soldier's zero teleport). You can also use a sword to deflect several different kinds of projectiles and fire them back at the enemy with a quick tap of the Z-button (similar to Alien Soldier's counter force and Gunstar Super Heroes' close-range sword). The only gun at your disposal is pretty basic, but it has two firing modes. In manual mode (red crosshair), you must perform all of the aiming manually, but shots are twice as powerful as they are in automatic mode. In auto mode (blue crosshair), shots are only half as strong, but the crosshair automatically locks onto enemies until they die (yellow crosshair when locked on), allowing you to more easily concentrate on dodging enemy fire. Press the A button at any time to switch between the two firing modes. There's a completely optional training level that runs you through all of these techniques, and even in the original Japanese version it's pretty easy to understand and complete.
I'd rather not go into too much detail on level layout or specific boss fights. There's plenty in the game to enjoy, but I'm not too great at explaining the experience second-hand. Generally, the variety in bosses and environments are what keeps the game fresh and interesting from start to finish. The "aircraft carrier level" is probably the most famous, and for good reason. I've uploaded a video of the level that immediately precedes it if you want a general idea of what to expect when playing.
Being an arcade style game at heart, Sin & Punishment is meant to be able to be beaten in a single sitting, so it only lasts about an hour from start to finish, and replay value is earned through 1-credit attempts, score attack, and time attack. Difficulty progression is handled very well. At higher difficulties, enemies have more health and different attacks, and life items and other crutches aren't as frequent. You start with Easy and Normal difficulties at your disposal. Hard mode becomes available after clearing Normal mode, and Turbo mode (where the entire game is increased to 200% its original speed) becomes available after clearing Hard mode. You have a limited number of continues and can earn additional continues every time you destroy 100 enemies (so racking up easy kills in the first couple of levels is extremely important). I would recommend that first time players start out on Easy mode to familiarize themselves with the bosses and general progression of the game, gradually working their way up to Hard mode. Easy mode is easy enough for just about anybody to clear without being bored, while I still don't think I've gotten around to a 1-credit clear for hard mode.
Sin & Punishment is a well-crafted arcade shooting game slightly marred by lackluster visuals, bad music and sound, and hideous voice acting. If you're a fan of classic Contra-esque run-and-gunners, and as long as the VC port doesn't fuck anything up, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a reason not to recommend this game.
Questions? Disagreements? Did I miss anything? All the VC hype makes me want to pick the game back up again, but I'm currently N64-less. :(