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Delphine is a nearly-forgotten developer that created timeless games

Delphine is a nearly-forgotten developer that created
timeless games

The story of French developer Delphine Software reads a lot like that of any other defunct studio that launched during the video game gold rush of the late ’80s. A few early hits put them on the map, they kept on trucking along for a while after but never managed to duplicate those initial successes and then they quietly went out of business following a string of desperate saving throws.

Well, except for one thing: Delphine may be gone, but its creations continue to carry considerable weight. This year has seen remakes and follow-ups to no less than three of Delphine’s creations—an especially impressive figure when you stop to consider the fact that the company only created a little more than a dozen games during its time on this planet.

On top of that, a fourth Delphine back-catalog title will be making its way to Dreamcast later this year. Delphine faded to black more than a decade ago, yet a full quarter of its catalog remains in circulation in 2018. That’s the kind of legacy any studio would kill for.

Why we’re still talking about Delphine in 2018

Delphine’s rise and fall may not be unique in game, but the staying power of the studio’s catalog makes it practically peerless.

Delphine’s breakthrough hit arrived in 1991 in the form of Éric Chahi’s legendary adventure game Another World, which initially made its way to the U.S. under the title Out of This World. Another World pushed action game design in a cinematic direction that continues to inform the medium more than a quarter-century later.

Unlike Prince of Persia or cutscene-heavy works like Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden series, Another World built its narrative into the game on a granular, screen-by-screen level. Players didn’t so much watch a story unfold as they felt like they actively participated in creating the narrative while they played.

In hindsight, this admittedly amounted to little more than an illusion. The game’s heavy emphasis on story reduced the actual process of playing Another World to performing a series of predefined actions.

This becomes evident in the first few screens of the game: Your actions trigger a monster that appears in the background but bursts into the foreground a moment later, forcing you to escape its ravening jaws.

Every screen in Another World represents a discrete chunk of the game’s narrative framework, where every story event takes place in the same place with the same timing, no matter how often you play. The player’s role ultimately amounts to being on hand to make sure protagonist Howard Knight Chaykin performs his requisite actions on cue.

Another World may look less rigid and clunky than ’80s LaserDisc titles like Dragon’s Lair, but it’s not too far removed; it belongs very much to the school of design that gave us modern Quick-Time Events. But Another World worked, despite its limitations. Its visuals combined traditional bitmaps with cutting-edge (in 1991) polygons.

Interestingly, Chahi only used polygons for 3D gameplay in a few limited scenarios, most memorably the tank arena battle sequence. For the most part, the point of Another World’s sophisticated tech was to allow for smoother but traditional 2D gameplay than you typically saw at the time.

The low-resolution character models also gave the entire game an angular, stylized look, which created visual consistency when the viewpoint shifted from side-on 2D action to character-focused cutscenes. Another World managed to create a perfectly seamless mixed-media world six years before Final Fantasy 7 used several wildly different polygonal models to depict its hero Cloud Strife.

And while fans and historians alike love to talk up the brilliance of the non-verbal storytelling in games like Super Metroid and Ico, Another World had already laid the groundwork for those concepts by forcing players to learn to cooperate with a strange-looking alien who couldn’t speak the same language as the protagonist. It truly was one of the most inventive and influential games of its time, and it belongs to the elite ranks of video games that remain in perpetual circulation — most recently showing up on the Nintendo Switch last month.

Unsurprisingly, Another World became the jumping-off point for Delphine’s other enduring works, inspiring the company to further explore the alchemy that made Chaykin’s journey into an alien realm so enticing. (It also inspired a direct sequel, Heart of the Alien, which was created without Delphine or Chahi’s involvement … but we don’t talk about that one.) Another World’s proper successor, Flashback: The Quest for Identity, followed a few years later. Fittingly, it also arrived on the Nintendo Switch last month.

While Flashback thrust players into a strange, hostile and beautifully rendered setting akin to Another World’s, its did so with technology and a visual style all its own; Flashback mostly dropped the polygonal elements in favor of traditional bitmap sprites during gameplay sequences. While some Delphine fans lament the loss of Another World’s sharp, flat alien vistas here, Flashback makes up for their loss by filling every screen with exquisite detail. The otherworldly settings — which range from alien jungles to sci-fi dive bars — perfectly fit the game’s more elaborate storyline, which reads like something out of a William Gibson novel. No pantomime here; Flashback is crammed with text.

Despite the change in its presentation, though, Flashback did carry over one critical detail from Another World: its gorgeous, Prince of Persia-inspired animation. French developers have always had a knack for in-game animation, sometimes to the detriment of actual playability. Those lovely frames of character movement have a tendency to bog down response time.

In Flashback’s case, however, the elaborate animation of protagonist Conrad Hart works with the overall style of the game. It’s not meant to be a quick, snappy platform action game. Flashback falls more into the adventure genre and plays almost like a 2D prototype for the cover-based shooter genre.

Indeed, its deliberate mechanics made it a perfect candidate to shift into 3D. Before Prince of Persia went 3D, and even before Tomb Raider took the Prince of Persia/Flashback style of exploration into immersive polygons, Delphine created Fade to Black: a fully-3D sequel to Flashback.

Fade to Black hasn’t aged as gracefully as its predecessors, as tends to be the case with early excursions into 3D game design. Nevertheless, even that game is slated to be re-published later this year for Dreamcast as Fade to Black: Flashback 2—admittedly not exactly as mainstream a release as its predecessors’ respective turns on Switch, but a reissue all the same.

If Fade to Black lacks something in terms of staying power, it certainly made an impression at the time of its debut. Fast-paced, exploratory, third-person action games with 3D graphics didn’t really exist in 1995. When Fade to Black arrived on PC (and a few months later on PlayStation), it felt every bit as transformative as Another World had four years prior— albeit in a very different way.

The loose trilogy of games Delphine forged in the mold of Another World more or less stands the test of time, but at the same time, the company made its share of missteps. Curiously, the most notorious of these tactical errors also has relevance in 2018 … which may well constitute the biggest Delphine mistake of all.

See, back in 1994 — in between Flashback and Fade to Black — Delphine produced a game quite unlike any of their other projects. It was a fighting game called Shaq-Fu, and it starred basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to retrace the individual strands of logic that must have led to Shaq-Fu’s genesis. After all, video games have a long tradition of games starring superstar athletes.

The various pro leagues had locked down name, franchise and likeness rights to their respective teams by the mid-’90s. However, a handful of players managed to exert exceptional control over their personal brands. This is why Michael Jordan didn’t appear in NBA Jam. Rather than taking part in the collective scrum of standard licensed sports titles, stars like Jordan and O’Neal leveraged their status to appear in standalone titles, some of which had little connection to the sports that made them famous.

In the mid-’90s, O’Neal was the hottest thing going in basketball, and he had far greater ambitions than simply being a famous ballplayer. He set his sights on music and released four different rap albums, the first of which went platinum. He aimed for the silver screen, starring in several big-budget movies, including a Superman spin-off called Steel.

Naturally, video games appeared in his aspiring-superstar mix as well. And which video game genre was bigger in 1994 than fighting games? None. Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat had turned one-on-one fighting into big business. Naturally, only a fighting game would serve as a suitable vessel for Shaq’s grand ambitions.

Somehow, Delphine entered the picture, despite the studio’s lack of experience with the fighting genre. Still, the French company may not have known much about fisticuffs, but it did have some impressive experience with rotoscoping — the film-conversion process that made for such smooth sprite animation in Flashback. Mortal Kombat turned heads with its digitized live-video footage, so it stood to reason that Delphine could use a similar process to turn Shaq-Fu into an eye-popping masterpiece. Right?

Well, maybe not. Delphine’s rotoscoping process made for beautiful and fluid animation, but it was also — as seen in Another World and Flashback — deliberate and precise in nature. It made for a perfect pairing with meticulous action games in which players worked their way through carefully designed action set pieces.

For a fighting game, however, the Delphine house style felt wildly out of place. One-versus-one combat games live or die by their responsiveness, and the rotoscoping tech of the ’90s didn’t leave much room for that. For example, characters in Shaq-Fu lacked effective cancels. Once a fighter had initiated an action, they were committed to it. The result was one of the least-responsive and most frustrating fighters ever created. Absolutely gorgeous. .. but not fun in the least.

Shaq-Fu was hardly a commercial flop, but critics at the time were divided. Certainly history has been less than kind to the game — especially compared to releases starring O’Neal’s contemporaries, like Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City and Barkley: Shut Up and Jam. In fact, the latter enjoyed a second life (and newfound respect) more than a decade after its debut thanks to the fan-made indie game Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, which reinvented the Charles Barkley-focused 16-bit brawler as a tongue-in-cheek Japanese-style role-playing game.

The underground success of Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden might account for why Shaq-Fu has entered the pantheon of immortal Delphine games despite its critical shortcomings. The original Shaq-Fu was a commercial success — it did well enough that Delphine nearly produced their own contemporary sequel — but it’s nobody’s favorite game. Likewise, O’Neal himself is fondly remembered, yet he’s hardly the omnipresent pop-culture force he was during the Kazaam years.

But there was enough combined cultural cachet between O’Neal’s fandom and the people who bought Shaq-Fu at an impressionable age that a semi-official sequel by Big Deez Productions just barely squeaked past its crowdfunding goal in 2014.

Sadly, about the only thing Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn has in common with other Delphine-developed games with remakes is that it, too, shipped in 2018. Unlike Another World or Flashback, there’s nothing clever or timeless about Shaq-Fu’s or its follow-up.

Big Deez had the good sense not to attempt to retread the fighting genre, going instead with a brawler format akin to Streets of Rage. Yet A Legend Reborn also left behind Delphine’s scrupulous attention to visual detail and game design. It’s a mediocre-looking game at best, plagued by clunky controls and questionable collision detection.

Outside of the protagonist and some offhanded references to the original game’s fiction, nothing about A Legend Reborn feels like the older game. It carries forward nothing good about Delphine’s creation and introduces a few questionable new elements of its own, including a decidedly racist undertone that had reviewers up in arms.

Timeless games from a very mortal company

2018 has seen a curious confluence for Delphine’s legacy, which is odd for a somewhat short-lived studio whose works have endured far longer than the company itself did.

Shaq-Fu and its sequel amount to something of an aberration, but it’s not hard to imagine Another World and even Flashback continuing to endure far beyond the present generation. Pixel art and low-poly design have become stylistic choices rather than strict signifiers of “old games,” and the artful minimalism of Delphine’s greatest creations give them a timeless quality. Another World may be more than 25 years old, but it nevertheless feels like the sort of game a top-tier indie studio would be proud to publish today.

Delphine itself may not have weathered the twists and turns of the games business, but the company’s greatest creations have come out on the other side of the 3D and high-definition resolutions none the worse for the wear. The world didn’t need a Shaq-Fu sequel that completely missed the point. But there’ll always be room for something as brilliant and timeless as Another World.

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