Every once in a while, a video game comes along with a young, new, upstart production company that has put their heart and soul into the title; only for it to, of course, end up as a disappointing mess. Making a video game is very difficult, and not too many companies have a successful enough first release to learn from their mistakes and go on to be successful. In 1992, a cartridge released for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) called Mutant Virus (with an absurd full title having something to do with a crisis in the computer world) was produced by one-shot company Rocket Science, with development work pitched in by American Softworks, who worked on several other titles through the next few years, though mostly clunkers.
Mutant Virus is a top-down shooter that, roughly, revolves around a miniaturized anti-virus scientist who is charged with fighting a new strain of especially harmful virus that has infected the CPI, which is some sort of all-encompassing universal electrical computer system that controls the Earth’s communication, data, power, and other functions. Slogging through five levels of virus-blasting, the protagonist must save the planet from utter chaos before it is too late.
The player controls Ron Trainer, the “hottest of the elite corps of Computer Master Debuggers.” One of the first signs of a potentially very bad game from a new developer is when they needlessly go into intricate details concerning the plot, yet none of it truly matters once gameplay begins. To Mutant Virus’s credit, though, the game is not absolute garbage, and there are extensive cutscenes between each level.
Gameplay takes place in a top-down view one screen at a time, with movement to different rooms per stage that roughly follows a map on the screen, all similar to a title such as Legend of Zelda. In a simulation of zero-gravity (or computer circuitry?!), the little on-screen character is controlled by pressing the B button to fire a jetpack burst, at which the character flies ahead at a constant speed, without any gravity or friction to cause slowdown. Thus, just as in Solar Jetman or the classic Asteroids game, the player must navigate levels by careful thrusting, steering, and counter-thrusting, as the character rotates and thrusts.
The A button fires the blaster, or anti-virus, or whatever. The Select button cycles through three different types of ammo: One that has a long distance, one that has a short distance, and one difficult-to-understand-exactly-how-it-differs type that supposedly is automated as to what blocks it affects, such as only affecting viruses and infected locations. The graphics are tile-based, and as the character roams about the level, certain rooms will be infected. The “virus” appears as little moving dots on “infected” squares a different color from the norm, all the colors of which are altered for a different scheme per level. The player must blast the viruses and clean them all up, including infected squares, before they spread and overtake everything. This would kill the character, as moving through viral infection spaces decreases the player’s energy level, this game’s version of a life bar.
And thus play continues; exploring room by room, blasting viruses until they dissipate and a computerized scrolling text alerts success, all until a level is completely cleared and a cutscene can play. The levels get gradually, progressively harder, introducing new types of obstacles and viral objects, such as bits of the board that will fire at the character, blocks that will more quickly spawn viruses, and the need to enter through openings in the wall conduits.
The actual in-game graphics are simplistic and not very detailed; but this is likely forgivable, as the tile-based, top-down perspective has an intentional minimalist quality to it that lends more space for gameplay somewhere between top-down shooter and puzzle-solving. The cutscenes are the most impressive bits, with highly detailed characters exchanging dramatic dialogue amidst intense facial expressions as the plot thickens and details are slowly leaked regarding the origin of the virus and why its originator would plant such a devastating thing.
This is an interesting component of Mutant Virus: Actual music is hardly present at all, as the game instead tries the tact of emphasizing the stranded, isolated nature of the scenes, and just plays vaguely computer-like beeps and boops in the background, save for an instrumental strike whenever the player moves from one screen to another. The effects, like shooting viruses and taking damage and such, are basic and unremarkable.
This is a distinctive game, with thin aspirations of Smash TV, Pipe Dreams, and even slight hint of Bomberman present. There is nothing quite like it, yet it cannot claim to be 100% unique either, as it certainly stretches existing genre strokes and half-borrows cyber elements from other mythologies and games.
However, as the sole effort of Rocket Science Productions, Mutant Virus actually turns out to not be a bottom-scraping trash-heap piece of crap. This is a quirk title that will not grab the attention of most, but will certainly challenge the wits of a few. For its narrow appeal, not-quite-polished result, overly detailed instruction booklet/storyline additions, progressive difficulty, and uniqueness, Mutant Virus scores two stars out of five.
All in all, one of the best Pkv games to have come out with different features and a level playing experience not seen in modern games as that era was in a league of its own while the current ones are more sexually oriented.