Microcosm is yet another entry in what seems like a neverending list of full-motion video shooters that seemed to infect the market back in the early 90s. Much like Sewer Shark, this is simply a sprite-based, into the screen shoot em up that runs over an FMV background.
It’s not a very good one, either.
The plot is straight out of the dystopian future science fiction handbook, where mega corporations are all-powerful and murder appears to be standard operating procedure in the name of corporate espionage. It is the year 2051 and two companies – CyberTech Industries and Axiom – are battling it out for global dominance. Axiom blames CyberTech for its president’s recent death. It plans to take revenge on CyberTech by injecting its president with a virus that will take over his body. You’re the lucky soul who gets to go all Fantastic Journey in an attempt to neutralize the virus and save the president. Actually, InnerSpace might be a better example.
This is all conveyed through a lengthy opening cut scene featuring laughable voice acting and terrible lip syncing. Apparently the reason behind this is two-fold: no one in the video is a professional actor and all of the original dialogue was recorded in Japanese. More on that later.
When the game proper finally does begin you find yourself flying through what appear to be veins or…well, somebody’s insides. One of the major problems with this premise is that each level, no matter how well the video has been rendered, kind just looks like you’re flying through slimy crimson corridors.
The gameplay is generally poor, with the disconnect between the FMV backgrounds and the sprite-based enemies and projectiles making it rather difficult to discern exactly how close each threat is to your ship. Not only does this make things kind of difficult to avoid, but it also has an adverse affect on your ability to properly aim your weapons.
The exception to this rule is most of the boss battles. Outside of a few sections where you chase an enemy through yet another slimy corridor, the bosses are all represented by full-motion video as well. This makes them some of the more impressive looking bits of the game, though the fact that they are limited to the video being streamed off the disk, their movements and patterns are extremely predictable and can’t change even a little bit to react to whatever it is the player is doing. Not only that, but any projectiles they fire don’t look like they belong at all thanks to them being, you guessed it, sprite based.
Despite its general mediocrity, Microcosm is an interesting game for a few different reasons. Psygnosis had been around for quite a while by the point they started development on this game, but Microcosm marked their first foray into CD-ROM technology, as well as one of the first instances of a developer streaming video in the background of an otherwise traditional game. In fact, Psygnosis was so ahead of the curve that the lead platform for development was the rather obscure Fujitsu FM Towns computer, based mostly on the fact that it was one of the only computers at the time which featured an onboard CD-ROM drive.
Fujitsu eventually bought the game engine directly from Pysgnosis as it was preparing to unleash its FM Towns Marty console and desperately needed games for the platform. Unfortunately that meant that Psygnosis’ flagship CD-ROM game went largely unnoticed in the western world, as the FM Towns Marty never made it out of Japan. Microcosm does have the honor of being featured on the first of Edge Magazine Issue #1, however.
It wasn’t until a while later that Microcosm made its way west, appearing on the Sega CD, 3DO and DOS operating system. None of those versions were created by the original team, however, and I believe the console versions were cut back in one way or another. Either way, by the time the game came to these shores it really didn’t seem like anything special.
More importantly, though, the game got Psygnosis some much-needed recognition. In particular it attracted the attention of Sony, which was gearing up to launch its own CD-based game console in 1994. Sony bought Psygnosis, which went on to produce some of the system’s earliest AAA titles, such as Destruction Derby, F1 and Wipeout. Psygnosis apparently had a major hand in early development tools for the PS1 as well.
Psygnosis was eventually reorganized into Studio Liverpool.