25 years of the N64: Space Station Silicon Valley

Before there was Rockstar games and the GTA empire, DMA Designs developed a wonderfully charming game about murdering cute animal robots so that you could then take control of them.

On September 29, 2021, the Nintendo 64 will turn 25 years old in North America. Throughout the month of September, I’ll be covering the console, its games, its innovations, and its legacy. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.

It’s maybe hard to imagine now, but there was a time before Rockstar Games and Grand Theft Auto. Back when the very first GTA was in development, the studio making the game was known as DMA Design Limited. They were founded way back in 1987, and their first breakthrough hit was 1991’s Lemmings, originally released for the Amiga: it would end up selling over 15 million copies, and spawning a number of sequels, too.

Thanks to Sony buying up DMA’s early publisher, Psygnosis (also responsible for hits like Wipeout), DMA had to find new publishers for their games. A relationship with Nintendo began with Uniracers, an SNES stunt racer where you controlled a unicycle on a 2D track, and would continue, at least briefly, into Body Harvest. Body Harvest was originally going to be published by Nintendo as a launch title for the Nintendo 64, but DMA and Nintendo disagreed over what constituted an acceptable level of violence in the game, which resulted in Midway picking up the title once Nintendo discarded their publishing lights, and it was released two years after the system’s launch instead.

Released the very next day after Body Harvest was something more along the lines of what DMA used to be known for, rather than the direction they were heading in with titles like the violent Body Harvest and the intense arcade-styled action of Grand Theft Auto. That game was called Space Station Silicon Valley, and it, too, was an N64 game. Body Harvest sold 200,000 copies and is notable today for being an entry point in DMA’s transition, both thematically and in name, to Rockstar North a few years later, and all this despite some pretty average reviews. Space Station Silicon Valley, however, was critically beloved, and was something of a blend of the company’s past and present: it was outsold by Body Harvest, but to the credit of publisher Take-Two Interactive, they tried to get the game to be a hit on other platforms, too, with a faithful “demake” port to the Game Boy Color, and… well, alright, the less said about the terrible Playstation port of the game, the better.

If the Playstation game, with its massive install base to draw from, had been as well-produced as the N64 game, we’d probably talk about Space Station Silicon Valley a lot differently than we do, but as it is, it was handily outsold by Body Harvest, which, when combined with the explosive appeal of Grand Theft Auto, explains a lot about the direction DMA (and then Rockstar) would go in. It should be said that none of this is a complaint or a wistful what could have been if they had made a better choice or whatever. More that Space Station Silicon Valley is just so good at what it does that it’s a shame this kind of style of game has been left behind entirely in favor of open worlds and adult violence, when there could have been room for both given the vastness of the burgeoning Rockstar empire.

It was dark, in a lot of ways, with plenty of violence of its own, but it was also intentionally cartoonish and styled after the likes of Wallace and Gromit, because the N64’s graphical capabilities just kind of landed the team at DMA there. There was no move toward realism here, or real-world violence: this was a game about a robot that would effectively possess other robots, and then beat the heck out of even more robots. You play as Evo (which is why the Playstation version of the game is titled “Evo’s Space Adventures”), who just crash landed on the titular Silicon Valley space station after his human co-pilot was too busy messing with the radio to check where their ship was headed. Evo basically explodes on impact, with only his central processing chip left behind. His little connector bits convert into legs, so he looks like a little walking spider, and he uses these to get around and control the inhabitants of the space station, which are mostly robotic versions of animals.

There are sheep who can float when they jump. There are dogs with wheels for feet that also have rocket launchers strapped to their back. There are bears suited for heavy lifting, foxes that can dart forward and thwack foes to death with their tails, mice that can stab with their needle-like tails in between racing around a stage, rams who extend their necks to do what their name suggests, and rats that shit out proximity mines. There are 32 stages in the game, with new species of robotic animals to take control of in nearly every one of them, and you’ll need to utilize all kinds of robots in order to solve each stage’s environmental puzzles and progress to the next.

The level design really is excellent, with little in the way of repetitive tasks. These are self-contained stages, with clear missions to fulfill — as the dog, chase the sheep into the pen, then turn on the electric fence to keep them there. This is the basic way to handle things, but if you want to go around challenging yourself to 100 percent the stages, you’ll have to go a little beyond that. Take down one of the sheep with the dog’s bite, then effectively possess the sheep as Evo in order to float across a couple of patches of water that the dog cannot clear. At the end of those jumps is an island with collectibles you otherwise could not get. You have to switch back to the dog, however, to defend yourself against the other dog on the other side of the bridge in the stage, which leads you to the mouse that can hit a ramp and bring you to the stage’s exit.

You see, the robotic animals behave in ways that are impressive today, never mind for 1998: animals of the same species won’t attack each other, and will act in ways that are completely different than if you were another species instead. So, in order to avoid that second annoying fox later on in a stage, you might need to isolate the first fox you see and take it down with either the ram or the rocket-launching dog. Then, when it’s late in the stage and your health is maybe a little lower, you can ambush the other fox as that first fox, taking it down and clearing the road for the dog you need to reach the exit, who, because of the way this part of the stage is designed, was a poor fit for a one-on-one bout with the speedy second fox here.

These kinds of behaviors, and this recognition that some robots are predator while some are prey, depending on what species of animal you’re referring to at that moment, makes the entirety of the game one big puzzle to sort out. The sheep will follow the ram, but run from the dog. The fox won’t attack its own. The dog will give chase to the mouse or the sheep, but won’t even acknowledge another dog, because it’s too busy going “hey, a stick!” or whatever on its own. The rats are rats and fear nothing: they will just keep dropping explosive deuces around whatever you come at them as, because they are rats. You have to recognize these behaviors, and use them to your advantage or to bolster your defenses as you traverse the game’s puzzling environs. It’s exceptionally done, really.

The way Space Station Silicon Valley is laid out is also refreshing, and forward-thinking for 1998. There are four different regions within the space station, which are all different environmentally: this means different kinds of challenges, as well as vastly different species of animals to figure out. The first one you’re in is meant to be like the European countryside, with streams and lakes and hills and the occasional little house or barn to climb or go into. The second region that opens up is covered in snow, and will have you handling little penguins that use parachutes to float themselves down to the ground. You don’t have to wait to complete the entire first region before this snow-capped region opens up, however: complete a few stages in the first area, and the second becomes available. Complete a few stages there, and th third region, and the jungle opens up. Repeat that process, and you unlock the final region, the desert.

This lets you bounce around and try different things, or move on for a bit if you happen to be stuck in a particular stage or on a particular puzzle. Maybe inspiration will strike to help you solve an earlier stage while you’re in a later one, and all because you had the freedom to move on for now and continue to play, rather than getting frustrated and putting the whole game down.

Between the iffy revised controls and the inferior graphics, it’s pretty clear the Playstation version of the game (seen above) is the inferior one. Image credit: Hardcore Gaming 101

Hardcore Gaming 101, while criticizing the Playstation port of the game, brought up the exceptional draw distance of the N64 version (check the link for additional comparison shots). Unlike some N64 titles, you can simply look around and see everything there is to see in each stage in Space Station Silicon Valley, which helps you plot out your actions and the nature of the stage itself and what is expected of you. There is no fog, no pop-in of objects or geography as you move closer (the Playstation version uses black, starry skies as fog, with what’s in front of you only being revealed as you approach it, as seen in the above image.) The stages are just there, laid out, ready to be examined by you, from whatever safe point you’ve managed to get your robot animal to in order to survey it. It not just looks better and helps make the game feel more modern even as it’s full of 1998’s exceptionally large polygons, but makes the game play better, too. High-end graphics are good and all, but if they serve no purpose other than simply looking good, well, it’s a style over substance thing, isn’t it? Superior graphics that also improve gameplay itself, though? That’s some chef’s kiss shit, and Space Station Silicon Valley’s graphical and technical achievements serve the gameplay more than they serve your eyeballs.

Space Station Silicon Valley might have received two ports of extremely varying quality, but it has otherwise been forgotten about as far as subsequent releases go. It never received a release on either the Wii or Wii U Virtual Consoles, and it hasn’t been in the group of games that Rockstar throws together in compilations of their past, either. It’s one of the better N64 games going, though, with a concept that still feels fresh today given it hasn’t been utilized again and again in subsequent years, despite all the critical praise heaped onto it. You’re going to have to either cough up somewhere between $40 and $90 for an original cartridge on Ebay, emulate it, or hope that it somehow ends up on the Switch’s newly announced lineup of N64 games playable on Nintendo’s modern console. It’s absolutely worth playing, so find a way to do so if you never have, and for reasons way beyond it being a fascinating slice of Rockstar’s past.

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