Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 28, Sin & Punishment

Sin & Punishment was meant to make up for the paucity of a specific kind of game in the N64's library, and it ended up being one of the absolute best titles on the console.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

I didn’t know who Treasure was until Ikaruga’s release on the GameCube. Ikaruga had originally been a Japanese exclusive for arcades back in 2001, and was eventually ported to the Sega Dreamcast there as well, since, like so many of Japan’s arcade games of the time, Ikaruga was designed to play on the Sega NAOMI arcade board that shared architecture with the Dreamcast. Outside of Japan, though, it took until 2003 and Nintendo’s GameCube for Ikaruga to release. While I had no knowledge of Treasure or their previous works, I picked up the game case and saw what seemed like a pretty cool concept for a shoot-em-up, and that was that.

It finally gave me an at-home shmup to play for the first time since Galaga on the Atari 7800 over a decade before — a system I only had, and had late, because my uncle had given it to us when his kids had moved a couple of console generations ahead of it — instead of just the ones I’d happen upon in arcades or at the local bowling alley. Video games were expensive, and a thing I got as gifts or on the rare occasions my mom would say I could get a new game. I grew up renting at Blockbuster and occasionally purchasing what I played at Funcoland when I could find it, swapping cartridges with friends so we could all get the most out of our consoles, and they didn’t have any shmups. Neither did I. I wouldn’t have known where to start. (As you’ll find out if you keep reading this newsletter after this initial Nintendo project, you’ll realize things have changed in this regard.)

Ikaruga came at a time when I had a job, though, so I could buy games on my own: not often, but more often than before. I loved Ikaruga so much, and still do. I used to turn my small TV on its side so I could play it vertically, which introduced me to the concept of TATE (pronounced tah-tay — it means vertical) mode. It hadn’t really crossed my mind to that point that the orientation of the arcade games I loved was different than the console games I felt the same about. My appreciation for Ikaruga had me wanting other games by Treasure, but alas, that just wasn’t an option for a high schooler on a high schooler’s budget. Sega Genesis cartridges of theirs were rare and expensive, and the secondary market wasn’t what it is today in terms of shopping options: even ebay wasn’t as robust nor as reliable as it is these days. I didn’t, at the time, have a Game Boy Advance, nor a Sega Saturn, and my Dreamcast was busted thanks to a tragic fall that cracked its innards, because my sister didn’t understand how controller cords work (you can’t pull on the cord when there isn’t any slack left, come on).

A few years later, the Nintendo Wii was out, and the Virtual Console service was introduced. I still didn’t have much for money to spend on video games — as a full-time college student working two jobs at the kind of pay that mostly let me put gas in the vehicle that got me to school and work — but the VC presented an opportunity that even my wallet could handle. Old games, from various systems, for $5, $8, $10. Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes released on the VC in December of 2006, and it blew my mind. It still does: it’s one of the great action titles ever. Less than a year later, a game I didn’t even know existed was released on the service: Sin & Punishment. This was, initially unbeknownst to me, a huge deal. This was Nintendo putting a game that had previously only been available in Japan on their retro games service, and not just that, a game that was extremely rare and expensive for importers even at the time of its release, never mind most of a decade later. At first, all I cared about was that it was another game by the folks who made Gunstar Heroes and Ikaruga. And it did not disappoint.

It’s kind of a wonder that Treasure and Nintendo didn’t collaborate more often: both put significant thought into what system they are developing for, its strengths and weaknesses, the kinds of things that are unique to it that can be focused on in the game. Nintendo, though, as a console maker that needed to sell both hardware and software, was developing for the masses, while Treasure had some singular, boutique visions that could limit their audience, even if they had deserved critical praise heaped on them for their efforts. In the case of Sin & Punishment, Treasure saw a feature of the Nintendo 64 that was underutilized, and built an entire game around it.

You might be wondering why the 64’s controller has those three separate grips when you have just the two hands. It’s not just so that some games could be controlled with the D-pad on the left instead of the analog stick: many of the system’s games that used the D-pad could use analog instead, and the few that didn’t, like some 2D platformers, were extremely rare releases in a world obsessed with the shift to 3D gaming. The idea, though, was that developers could focus on whatever kind of control scheme would work best for the game they had in mind. In the case of, say, Treasure’s Mischief Makers, a 2D platformer, the D-pad made more sense for controlling the protagonist, and the Z trigger wasn’t needed. So, you could hold the left grip and the right grip, leaving the center grip alone. Some, like Ridge Racer 64, could be used with either the D-pad or the analog stick: it just came down to comfort, or what you felt worked best.

Most games, though, were based on the same grip style that Super Mario 64 popularized out of the gate. Left hand on the analog middle grip, right hand on the right grip, giving you access to the analog stick and Z trigger with your left, as well as the right bumper, C buttons, and A/B buttons with your right hand.

Treasure wanted to make a game with the orientation that had been essentially ignored in the wake of Mario 64: left grip, center grip. You weren’t locked into this specific scheme, as there were three different control options, but this was the default, and the one the game was designed around. It made playing Sin & Punishment difficult at first, until you could wrap your brain around what you were supposed to be doing. Once you did, though, when you realized that the D-pad was for moving your character within the realm of a 2D space and the analog stick was for aiming within a 3D space, then everything could finally fall into place. Then you could focus on the fact that the game can actually be designed around left grip, and then either center or right grip, depending on your needs at the moment, and if the exclusive left/center arrangement isn’t fully clicking for you. If you need to aim and fire, it’s center grip. If you need to dodge or jump, you can switch to the right grip if you want to separate standard movement from dodge movement in your head.

Sin & Punishment used the whole controller in a way that almost makes it seem like it would work better on a more modern dual analog setup. But trying to dodge with an analog stick can be tricky: you press the C button or D-pad twice in game in the direction you want to dodge, and pulling that off with an analog stick takes too long for the kind of twitch reactions Sin & Punishment can sometimes expect from you. It really was made for the N64 controller, even if your brain wasn’t wired that way. You can rewire it with practice, though, just like I also had to do for another on-rails shooter on a different system, Kid Icarus: Uprising. Coincidentally, I had to play that like I was playing an N64 game, not a 3DS one, in order for it to make sense to me.

Sin & Punishment was a late release on the N64 in Japan, and as such, never made its way to North America until its VC release. It’s a bit odd that it didn’t, since the game had voice acting in English as the default, with the subtitles and menus in Japanese. The menus were converted to English for the Virtual Console release in 2007, the subtitles left alone, and there it was. A $12 N64 import instead of the standard $10 on the Virtual Console, the extra $2 preferable to the $100-plus import of a cartridge that didn’t sell all that well in Japan despite praise for it, that also had Japanese menus.

Nintendo wasn’t bothered by the low sales: for them, R&D1 co-developing this game with Treasure was about filling a gap in the system’s library with something high-quality. The kind of thing that could show they were open to this sort of game being on their system, that might encourage developers in the next generation to remember Nintendo was also a place they could put their games — as Treasure did, when Ikaruga went to the GameCube first in North America. After all, Nintendo had lost its identity as the system where Japanese RPGs would land to Sony’s Playstation, and while the N64 had an abundance of high-quality 3D platformers and racers and first-person shooters, there were basically giant holes where shoot-em-ups and fighters and generally more arcade-style games should be. Filling in those holes even a little bit could mean more console sales in the future.

The Sega Saturn was for shoot-em-ups and fighters what the Playstation was for RPGs: in today’s world, Nintendo has their very Nintendo things, sure, but what’s across the three systems is more similar than it’s maybe ever been. Comparatively, preferring Sony to Microsoft or vice versa for your average person comes down to a few franchises at most, or maybe, if you’re a very particular average person, a preference for or against offset analog sticks. Back in the mid-90s, though, the Saturn, Playstation, and N64 all delivered extremely differing libraries. There was crossover, sure, but what you bought said a lot more about your particular tastes in games than your console preferences in 2021 do. (Why the change? Have you noticed that Sega isn’t making consoles any longer? This way is boring, but safer for investors.)

Sin & Punishment helped out a system that had essentially produced the tremendous on-rails shooter Star Fox 64, and… uh, a relatively forgettable Star Soldier entry, Vanishing Earth, for its arcade-style shooting games. Vanishing Earth is good, mind you, and a solid transition of a classic series into 3D, but you don’t have to be bad to be forgettable to the masses. Sin & Punishment probably would have stood out more in the North American and European markets than it did in Japan, where the Saturn, comparatively, had been successful, and featured even more of the kinds of arcade-like titles the N64 lacked. Alas, it was a swan song for the N64 in Japan alone, and not one that many bothered to listen to. If it had been finished years earlier — the game’s development was abnormally long for the time period — it might have made more of a difference in this fight, and seen a North American release sooner.

How about that Sin & Punishment gameplay, though? You initially control Saki, who you might know best as an assist trophy in the Smash Bros. series. He — and later Airan Jo — is armed with a gun that is also a sword, and mastering the time to use one or the other is the key to success in S&P. The sword is your most powerful weapon, and can be used whenever an enemy is in range. Again, while you are just on a 2D plane, able to move left and right and jump up, the enemies are coming at you from a 3D space, like in Star Fox or Space Harrier or Panzer Dragoon or Galaxy Force: the difference here being that you’re on foot instead of in a space ship or atop a dragon. The enemies can move toward you, as can whatever they shoot at you. Sometimes you’re even flying around in a 3D space, but are only able to move yourself on a 2D plane within it. The sword lets you dispatch enemies that get too close to you while you’re moving left and right, and also to redirect missiles and rockets fired at you back into whatever enemy or structure your reticule is aimed at.

These moments where you return the enemy’s own fire back to them is your next most powerful weapon, and how you’ll manage to escape a number of skirmishes with your health fully intact. No one can shoot you if you redirect a missile back into a platform carrying both the guy with the missile launcher and then the platform crashes on everyone else on screen, you know.

Generally, though, you’ll be firing, and you’ll only stop long enough to dodge. Things aren’t so hectic on easy: if it’s your first time around, however, they’ll feel that way. It’s on normal and hard where the game really shines, when you’re trying to twitch react to incoming fire, enemies lunging at you, and possibly even avoiding crashing into obstacles all at the same time. Like many of the best arcade-style games out there, S&P requires not just fast reactions and instinct, but also memorization. Remember where enemies show up, remember when they attack and how to dodge those attacks, and you’ll be fine. You just might die a lot before you get to that point.

Despite being a console exclusive, Sin & Punishment is designed very much like an arcade game, the kind that you play and play and play until you can do a one-credit clear on it. With that in mind, it’s all of an hour and four stages long. You earn continues fairly regularly — for every 100 enemies killed, and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds to fire at — so you don’t need to worry about running out of those. If you want to clear in one “credit,” though, if you want to have the highest score you can and not have it reset every time you die, then Sin & Punishment takes a whole lot of effort. And replaying. And replaying. And, to use this rhetorical emphasis device again, replaying.

It’s the perfect example of a game where critics saying it’s “too short” have completely missed the point of the experience. Seeing the credits doesn’t mean you’ve done all there is to do, or even begun down that road. We might be getting back into that kind of frame of mind now, in the age of games like Hades, which has you doing essentially the same run over and over and over again for dozens of hours, then we were for the start of the 2000s. But there is still work to be done in this regard, in erasing the stigma that “short” equals “bad” or “not worth the money.” There is a difference between one and done and that’s that, and what Sin & Punishment and a whole bunch of its cousins in the arcade space want from you.

The bosses are where the game truly shines, which should be no surprise to anyone who has played a Treasure game before. The pre-boss times in Treasure games are meant to teach you how a game works: the boss fights are meant for you to prove that you took your lessons seriously. Sin & Punishment works no differently, as defeating these bosses requires you fully understand how to dodge, how to use your sword, how to deflect incoming attacks. If you can’t do that, then you’ll never reach the end of the game, where you, in the form of a massive biological mech, are fighting off an entire planet that is trying to destroy Earth so that it can take our home’s place among the stars and start its own eugenics-ish-influenced civilization.

This is where I’ll note that you need to watch S&P’s title screen cutscene in order to have any idea what is happening in the story, and even then, it’s not entirely clear why things go down the way they do. Just keep your head down and shoot, and skip the cutscenes if you want or have to, and you’ll be just fine on this front.

The only real complaint to be made about Sin & Punishment, from my point of view, is that it’s very much hampered by the N64’s limitations. It doesn’t look bad, mind you, especially in action — Treasure purposely kept things looking simpler and low-count as far as polygons are concerned so the action would be admirably smooth, to the point we can safely say now that it’s even future-proofed a bit in how it plays — but it’s clear looking at all of the wonderful art for the game that they just weren’t able to render anyone in it to look as amazing as they were envisioned to be. The goofy voice acting doesn’t help things, but “goofy voice acting” in 2000 was more norm than anything, and it actually helps with the overall weirdness of the plot. You know, if you’re sick.

These are minor issues, though: the actual gameplay foundation is as solid today as it was in 2000, with the entire experience as compulsive as ever. You learn from your mistakes, and you want to try to avoid making them again. You want to keep playing, to perfect your score, your playthrough. There are no online leaderboards, but there are the ghosts of your past, and you can always feel satisfied besting them. It will take time for Sin & Punishment to feel right, given the oddity of the control scheme and the surprising complexity found within your limited 2D movements. But once you get there, so many other action games are going to feel as if they lack depth in comparison. They don’t, but that’s just what it feels like when you finally get why Treasure did something the way they did. Like with much of PlatinumGames’ work today, Treasure’s releases often feels ahead of their time, and never appreciated as much as they should be. Sin & Punishment certainly qualifies for that designation, and still feels excellent to play today, over two decades after its release.

This is where I bring up the bad news. You cannot get Sin & Punishment on the Wii Virtual Console service anymore if you haven’t already, because Nintendo shut down that storefront for anything besides downloading games you’ve already purchased. The Wii U is, once again, the only place where you can get a legitimate copy of the game unless you are willing to shell out $50-60 for a cartridge-only import copy from Japan, meaning it’s now about as barely available as it was before its dramatic international release. Do I think $50-60 is worth it? Yes, but as already alluded to, I am sick, and a huge fan of this style of game, too. Your mileage may vary.

As I’ve said before, finding a Wii U and getting a whole bunch of the “only on Wii U” games I’ve listed off in this series is your best bet, but I’m sure you can also discover some kind of illicit loophole that will allow you to experience Sin & Punishment without having to do any of that. Regardless of which path you choose, the game is going to be worth whatever effort it entails. If you’re not already a fan of Treasure’s work, and you’ve got some patience, this could be your gateway to them, like Ikaruga was for me. And if so, you’ll thank me later.

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