Past meets present: PowerSlave Exhumed
A modern re-release of a 90s shooter that combines names and console versions into one unified game.
This column is “Past meets present,” the aim of which is to look back at game franchises and games that are in the news and topical again thanks to a sequel, a remaster, a re-release, and so on. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
PowerSlave was something of a divisive game when it first released for the Sega Saturn in 1996. Some outlets felt it was a truly excellent game, one with enough high points to counter the issues it did have, while others felt it was uninspiring and not worth the time when other first-person shooters existed. Like with many first-person shooters of the day, it was considered a “DOOM clone,” which isn’t really fair to say: DOOM was built on extremely fast-paced, exhilarating movement and aggression, both from the game’s enemies and the person playing it. PowerSlave is a slower, more thoughtful game, in the sense you literally have time to think instead of just react, with more of a focus on platforming and exploration.
That’s not to say it didn’t pull from DOOM: the Anubis Zombies are basically just DOOM’s Imps, only with blue fireballs and Anubis masks, and the shooting, while a bit more freeform with its movement than DOOM, is still mostly a point-and-shoot (and dodge) affair. Whereas DOOM was designed to be overwhelming in every way, though, to the point where it remains a complete thrill nearly 30 years later, PowerSlave slowed everything down. Enemies don’t came at you in startling numbers, and they aren’t quite as nightmarish and demonic, either. You spend quite a bit of time platforming, finding items with special powers, and then using those abilities to do further platforming and exploring. PowerSlave has jumping, double jumping, swimming, floating — it might have released at a time when “DOOM clone” was the nomenclature, but it might have more in common with future FPS titles like Metroid Prime than anything else.
That’s not to say PowerSlave is on the same level as Metroid Prime — very little is — but even as a proto-Prime, still living in a very DOOM-centric world, it has loads to offer even today. Which is why the 2022 re-release developed by Night Dive Studios, PowerSlave Exhumed, is worth your attention.
PowerSlave originally released on the Sega Saturn, and a different version came out for Sony’s Playstation a year later — the two systems had different strengths, so the developer, Lobotomy Software, built different levels for each in order to highlight what each system did well. While this is a better strategy than shoving a square peg into a round hole, as would sometimes happen with these vastly different console architectures in the 90s, the Playstation version of PowerSlave didn’t get nearly the attention of its Saturn and PC counterparts. It wasn’t all a waste, though: PowerSlave Exhumed is something of a bringing together of the various versions of the game, into one unified title. It not only joined together the North American (PowerSlave) and European (Exhumed) names for the game, but it brought together bits and pieces from both the Saturn and Playstation versions of the game, making this both a re-release and something new even for those who have played the game before.
While PowerSlave Exhumed starts out simple enough — enemies are scorpions and birds and flying insects, for the most part, and your weapons are basic things like a machete and a handgun — everything opens up over time. The difficulty ramps up as enemies become more complex and monstrous, the game world grows and grows, and you’ll access more of it by acquiring those aforementioned abilities. PowerSlave is a game where you will fight an Anubis Zombie that’s a lot like DOOM’s Imps, sure, but it’s also a game where you can fight piranha underwater using a machete, a magical Cobra staff that shoots ranged fireballs and hisses at you when you equip it, or grenades.
The games stages are all built with different environments, puzzles, and platforming in mind, but there is one concept that carries over: keys. There are four types of keys, represented by imagery depicting Power, Time, War, and Earth, and they keep much of the game behind them. You need to pick these up each time you revisit a level, but for the most part, you really only need to utilize the keys the one time: if you’re returning to a stage, you’re probably going after a key you could not previously get to, to bring you to somewhere else you haven’t yet been. Most of the time, these keys open up doors that bring you deeper into a level, or provide access to an exit that opens up a completely different stage to tackle, but on occasion, they are just hiding upgrades behind them. You’ll want to check them all out, just to be sure, so keep your eyes peeled for both keys and doors to use them in.
There are times where you might need to use a specific weapon in order to progress — blowing up a weak wall with a grenade, for instance — but you’re mostly left to your own devices and comfort in this regard. If you want to take down foes with a machete, well, by all means: it won’t break or dull and doesn’t use ammo, but also, you brought a knife to an ancient battle with the gods and their servants fight. The pistol is good in an emergency or against weaker foes without ranged attacks, while the M-60 machine gun will be your most trusted and versatile companion. The Flamethrower does what you expect it to do, the Cobra Staff is a ranged weapon with fireballs that will do their best to track the opposition, and the Eye of Rah gauntlet lets you send thunderclouds to your foes to judge them with lightning. Use what you want, when you want: ammo pickups are shared among all of the weapons, so just have the one you want refilled equipped when you pick them up. You don’t need to “save” weapons for later, tougher times, like you might have in DOOM, and you might actually find yourself using everything just to get by some times, anyway.
PowerSlave has five hidden health upgrades that aren’t really optional, in the sense that you will die a lot if you don’t pick them up. Enemies hit hard, you are capable of blowing yourself up with your explosive weaponry, and the world is full of traps. You are traversing ancient Egyptian ruins in a world where all of those gods and their powers are real, after all, did you expect there to not be traps within these locales? The good news, though, is that the 2022 re-release fixes some issues the original game had that made it exceptionally painful to die. The original PowerSlave didn’t feature a very nuanced save function, and you had limited lives, with extras being an item you needed to collect. The checkpoint system only retained your in-level progress while the game was on, as you had to fully complete a level to get the game to actually save. Once you powered off, it was back to the beginning of the stage with you. Now, though, the checkpoint system is used like in any modern shooter (though it’s still an in-level item you need to touch to enable, rather than simply a location trigger) and extra lives have been removed in favor of infinite respawns, in addition to the game saving your progress for you to pick up where you left off.
Another welcome addition, at least on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, are motion controls for aiming. I’ve said before that being able to aim with the gyroscopic sensors of the 3DS or Switch made life in the various Legend of Zelda games that much better, but they also work wonders for this old style of FPS, where you mostly had to be worried about pointing in the right direction instead of at a specific point or polygon in order to be accurate. So, if you want to quickly move your view around the screen with the controller instead of an analog stick, you can, but of course, PowerSlave Exhumed also utilizes dual analog controls that just weren’t an option when the game released for systems whose originally controllers used directional pads.
I do still have some complaints, but they’re the kind that could be addressed in the future with a patch. Despite all the various options for visuals that help to bring the game from the 90s to now, there are no subtitles, for instance. Which is not a surprise for a game from 1996, but should have been addressed in its 2022 version: you have just the one floating god head speaking to your character, sure, but given that it is often telling you where you need to go back to now that you’ve acquired [item/ability], it would be helpful to not have to strain myself to understand everything being said through a voice modulator. Especially since you’ll do a lot of backtracking, and could use the occasional reminder of, “Oh, right, this level had a jump I couldn’t make before, but now that I can double jump…” to help you keep it all in order a little better. Even Metroid eventually added optional map hints, you know? And that’s without even mentioning that, for accessibility reasons, modern games should never just have audio without an option for text, anyway.
The core game here is a lot of fun, though, the kind that transports you back to a different era of gaming without being painful. It certainly feels old, and looks that way, too, but these facts don’t have to be derogatory: there was enough of a core here, and enough quality-of-life adjustments made to the modern release, to make sure that it all still works 26 years later. You can pick it up for $19.99 on the Switch, Playstations 4 or 5, Xboxes One or Series X|S, and through your choice of Windows retailer.
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