I was a mere 1-year-old pup in 1995, the year in which this game is set and seeks to elicit vivid and happy memories from for the gamers old enough to remember. I may not have been around to experience the innovation and immediate reaction to classics such as Clock Tower (1995), Alone in the Dark (1992) or Resident Evil (1996), but I have caught up with them and can fully appreciate how shocking and special they were and still are. ‘Back in 1995‘ is a game very much inspired by, and in homage to, games of that “golden generation” and while it has its own unique story and setting, largely plays exactly the same as Silent Hill, an obvious favourite of developer Takaaki Ichijo, even if that was released a bit later in 1999.
Here, you play as Kent Randall whom you really know nothing about except that he really wants to get to a radio tower that you see in the distance from where the game begins. There has been some kind of catastrophe where there are hideous and distinctly bizarre creatures roaming around forming misshapen obstacles stopping you from reaching that goal. On the surface, it’s a simple premise…
So, does this game do those classics justice and bring you right back to the good old days? Let’s see…
The story of this game is, in my opinion, its strongest aspect. For most of the game, I was confused about a lot of things while still being completely intrigued. It’s not a long game, taking around 2-3 hours at most depending on how often you’ve saved before you die, but I was gripped by its drip-feeding of information as you progress. You have very little understanding of who you are or why you want to get to the radio tower (except for guessing that perhaps you want to contact some sort of authority – minor spoiler: That’s not what you want to get there for).
The plot moves along in four chapters that basically play the exact same but in different (but not too dissimilar) settings. You meet a survivor at the start, whom you will then go on little fetch quests for before returning back to them and then moving on. It’s a little simplistic and therefore repetitive, but the characters you meet are interesting enough. They each have their own voice actors and personalities but they do however sound a bit like archetypes that are exaggerated, especially the cockney ‘GP’ Doctor that you meet early on. You’ll meet them, learn their intentions and then be sent off on your mini travels to complete a simple task. There’s not much in the way of story here, just a quick interaction that highlights how you need to progress.
Most of the story will unfold through the discovery of notes and newspaper clippings scattered throughout the various rooms that you explore. The notes are a decent read, especially in the latter sections. The first few notes are interesting but don’t really add much weight to the story. Later on though, is where they basically serve as the driving force of the plot where you learn more about who you are and what your intentions are. Without these notes, the story is pretty much non-existent, so depending on how much you explore you could be in for a very dull story. What I will say is that it had an ending that I didn’t expect and so was a pleasant surprise. The plot takes a very weird twist that explains a lot of things about the game, such as the reason why you can’t run or why the graphics are sometimes warped. It’s an interesting end and definitely made me want to replay the game with that new understanding.
The gameplay to me is most reminiscent of Silent Hill. To see your health you must go to your inventory where you will see a coloured indicator and percentage of how close you are to death. You can also swap between weapons here but really the pistol is going to be the most reliable option. It’s simplistic but it works just fine and definitely doesn’t feel out of place in a game designed to remind you of those early gaming days.
Back in 1995 also has that same awkward tank controls where you can only walk in the direction you’re facing when you push forward. Turning is cumbersome and can only be done effectively when you’re stood still. There’s no quick turn option and you can’t even run, it certainly captures the feel of the movement from those classic games but from this spells the game’s biggest problems, which we will now get to.
So, despite the classics having tank controls that made gameplay sometimes stiff and frustrating, they had an atmosphere that was imposing and uncomfortable. Back in 1995, unfortunately, lacks any real atmosphere at all. There are no scares, no thrill moments (I’m looking at you zombie dog window smash) and most importantly, no threat. The enemies are just as, perhaps even more so, slow and useless as you. They stumble around and are pretty much obstacles to manoeuvre around rather than monsters that cause terror. You have an abundance of ammunition and healing items if you even mildly explore and so there’s less ‘survival horror’ and more exploration horror.
The only exception is an enemy in the 3rd chapter that moves faster than you and swarms you in pairs or a group of three. The only reason they’re a threat though is because they can corner you and highlight some serious issues in the combat. Because you can’t turn quickly without standing still, you have to allow the enemies to close you down. To make things worse, if you get hit, your animation for your own attack or reload gets cancelled, meaning you can get stuck in a situation where all you can do is spam heals and the shoot button hoping you get enough shots off to get a kill. Therefore I’d recommend returning to the save room many times to make sure you aren’t left replaying entire chapters like I was. It feels extremely unfair and is a randomly huge difficulty spike, even the bigger enemies are slow enough to be dealt with fairly comfortably.
The enemies in the game do look horrifying though, not because their design is great but instead because they’re so unclear and misshapen that they’re actually uncomfortable to look at. I’m not sure if that was the intention, but it works. There are enemies that look like slugs, some that look like giant alien chickens and the first enemy that you meet looks like a floating walnut with arms. They’re very odd looking which made me feel a little uncomfortable – so I guess they work in a roundabout way.
There are a few puzzles in the game, again like the classic games in the ’90s, but they are very minimal and basic. They usually involve finding a note, getting a code and then put the code in the lock. There’s one example using containers that is fun but it didn’t really have any substance; it didn’t seem to affect anything at all.
Graphically, the game obviously employs a heavily retro visual style, with very little detail and polygonal enemies and characters. Even for a game trying to look retro, it looks worse than it could. There are some areas where walls and floors will warp underneath the static CCTV-like camera style that are extremely uncomfortable to look at and therefore make it very hard to play through. I don’t know whether it was intentional but the music is horrific! It has some very harsh sounds which are probably the creepiest part about the game. If it wasn’t for the music you wouldn’t really know that this is supposed to be a horror game, it feels much more like a sci-fi experience.
This game is difficult to recommend because it just doesn’t have the same effect of the games it tries to replicate. It’s stuck between a game trying to excel on its own by using retro stylistic choices and a game that feels like it’s trying too hard to be the same as its predecessors. While I understand the idea to bring that ’90s nostalgia back to gamers of that time, it ultimately robs itself of being a good game itself. It does, however, do its job because when I was finished playing I immediately felt like going back and playing those old games because they were just far better versions of Back in 1995. Takaaki Ichijo leaves some comments at the end of the game that made me feel a lot better about the game when I was done, so I’m glad they’re there.
There are some clever and innovatively retro-feeling features in Back in 1995 that I must give a lot of credit to Throw the Warped Code Out for. The game has a heart-warming incentive behind it that makes it very likeable but unfortunately, it just doesn’t stand out as a game in its own right. I think the story is eventually the strongest part of this game but it just doesn’t feel fun to play, neither is it scary, so I can’t really recommend it.
Developers are releasing remakes now (the recent Resident Evil 2 Remake was fantastic) and removing the tank controls and static cameras for more modern mechanics, which shows that maybe some of these were limitations of the hardware rather than reasons that made the classics great. Personally, I think Back In 1995 didn’t need to replicate everything, it would have been good to see it improve on them.
All I can say is that this game does a great job of showing you how good the original Silent Hill and Resident Evil games are, so its seemingly determined choice to be ‘bad’ worked perfectly.