Psygnosis: Contender Eliminated

Tonight, I would like to pay tribute, and have cancelled my plan for tonight’s post (I had no idea Taco Bell wouldn’t stop you scooping up and taking home armfuls of sauce sachets!)

SCE Studio Liverpool, née Psygnosis, has died at the age of 28.

Psygnosis – later known as Sony Computer Entertainment Liverpool after their acquisition by Sony – was a prominent British game developer and publisher and the developer of a game series that had a long-standing effect on me as a child and an adult. That series was the science-fiction antigravity racer Wipeout, which is largely believed to have been given the double-barrels along with SCEL.

The original Wipeout was widely regarded as Sony’s response to F-Zero; Nintendo’s futuristic mode 7 racing game on SNES. It was designed to have heart-pounding, adrenaline-gushing combat racing action and set the tone for the rest of the series. I will admit that I never had the original Wipeout as a child and didn’t play it until much later. It lacks several features for which the series later became known; weapons in the original are more of an inconvenience than a real threat and players cannot be eliminated. The spark was there, but the series had not yet reached its full potential as a stylish, intense, combat-based racer.

The first Wipeout I played was Wipeout 2097, also known as Wipeout XL outside the UK. Set exactly one hundred years after its launch date, Wipeout 2097 brought with it elements its predecessor was missing. Vicious combat, breakneck speed and teams as memorable as any characters made 2097 a game my brother and I played for many happy hours as children. It was also probably a considerable cause of sibling rivalry: in a decision that I think is a bizzare vacuum of common sense to this day, 2097 had no local two-player, instead requiring a second Playstation, television, copy of the game and connection via the Playstation’s long-forgotten link cable. Like 99.9% of people who had the game, we only had one of each, so we took it in turns. I also remember being irritated no-end by the inability to turn off the checkpoints and their timers which were probably pretty lenient, but as a particularly hamfisted child with crap hand-eye coordination led to some pretty frustrating time overs. I exploded. A lot.

For a lot of the time we had 2097, I was too young to really play it to its full potential. Even so, many of my childhood daydreams revolved around that game, and cheesy as it sounds, it has a special place in my heart: nestled under its sequel, Wipeout 3.

Everything changed with Wipeout 3. I respect the original Wipeout. I have many fond memories of Wipeout 2097. I adore Wipeout 3. The controls and physics were tuned. Two-player was added. The team ranks expanded from four to eight. The settings were divine.

I’m aware for the purposes of this tribute to Psygnosis/SCEL that Wipeout 3 was developed by Psygnosis Leeds. I can’t seem to find any information on whether they still exist as part of Sony.

Where was I? One of the points that makes Wipeout 3 stand above its predecessors is its settings and environments. Psygnosis had teamed up previously with The Designers Republic to create the visual style of the earlier Wipeout games. In Wipeout 3, they paid meticulous detail to making the future depicted in the game low-key, refined and believable. It led to some beautifully made environments. My enduring memory of Wipeout 3 is the track P-Mar Project, in which the racetrack snakes through a park with cherry blossoms in the air, launching the ships into the sky where team-branded hot air balloons float. All this was done with the limited processing power of the then-aging Playstation. If you don’t believe me when I say how beautifully made this is, watch this replay video.

Wipeout 3 was incredible.

Then along came the Playstation 2, and with it, Wipeout Fusion.

Wipeout Fusion is considered by many fans of the series to be its lowest point, and it’s certainly the black sheep of the franchise. The style and setting of the game was distinctly different: The Designer’s Republic had been shifted in favour of a different team named Good Technology who made a rather more half-arsed approach to the game’s design. The gameplay changed with it; gone was the technical course navigation of the previous games in favour of a much, much stronger emphasis on weapons and combat. The changes to the formula give Wipeout Fusion the feel of a bloodsport game, which I’m not sure is what was intended. Ships are larger, clunkier, and less nimble than their predecessors, which combined with the Playstation 2’s new analogue sticks on its shipped controllers gave the controls a slightly stodgy feel, as if the controls were mired in mashed potato.

Fusion is not a bad game by any stretch, but it is very different to the rest of the series. I will give credit where it’s due: watching the game run with the Playstation 2’s graphical fidelity at such a smooth framerate was mindblowing at the time.

The next two chapters in the Wipeout series – Wipeout Pure and Pulse – were relegated from the flagship Playstation 2 to the PSP, which I didn’t have. That is until after 2009, when the series returned to the Playstation 2 with a port of Wipeout Pulse which I still play daily. Wipeout HD on the Playstation 3 and its expansion pack, Wipeout Fury, I wish to play. Ditto for the recent PSVita release, Wipeout 2048, although that doesn’t help the PSVita much from its pit of poor sales and mostly uninteresting titles.

Studio Liverpool didn’t just make Wipeout. They made a host of other games, some of which I played, some of which I didn’t. They earned their position at the top of their field and Sony’s decision to close a successful studio is, from the outside, baffling.

Even so, they can’t take the existing games away. Wipeout games have been a part of me for a very long time, influencing things from my childhood daydreams and doodles right up to my modern-day music tastes. It is a series which has brought me many, many hours of enjoyment, excitement, adrenaline, frustration, shock and awe as a child and as an adult. It is heartbreaking to see its creator shut down so unceremoniously – leaving many talented men and women redundant – and likely taking the franchise with it.

Goodbye, Psygnosis, Studio Liverpool and Wipeout. You will not be forgotten.

EDIT: Came across this video from Wipeout HD which I quite like and fits the tone of this post rather well.