The mid to late ‘90s were an interesting time for gaming. With the end of the 16-bit era and rise of the Sony PlayStation, the slow death of 2D games was beginning and the ascension of the sexier 3D games we now know and love today was upon us. The end result was some beautiful titles the likes of Tekken, Ridge Racer and Virtua Fighter and many ugly ones that weren’t quite up to the task of nailing the new 3D look gamers now coveted.
The same can be said for gameplay as well. Many “new” 3D games still played like their 2D counterparts- they just looked a bit different now. Case in point- Visual Concepts’ One is a shooter that married 3D visuals and gameplay the best that it’s could during a time when the industry was still figuring things out. Following a man on the run for unknown reasons, it screams elements of games the likes of Ikari Warriors, Merc and Contra and adds solid 3D visuals and gameplay, that still feels like an arcade shooter from a decade earlier. While not marketed as well as many other games during the period, it has still earned cult status over the years and has been re-released on a bevy of other Sony consoles including the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable and Vita.
But way before it became a staple a plethora of gamer’s PlayStation game collection and a fun throwback title, One was a game that helped Ronald Pieket continue to develop his resume as a game developer. Serving as a programmer on games the likes of The Lawnmower Man, The Lion King, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and before his time on One, Pieket saw that times were changing in the industry during the game’s development cycle.
“One was the second 3D game I developed,” Pieket, who served as an engineer on the game said. “The first one was a port of Die Hard Trilogy for Sega Saturn. It helped me to further develop my skills as a programmer of 3D games.”
The game was special to him for another reason as well. Even though he had been in the industry for more than a few years by the time he got involved in One, the game gave him another special opportunity. “Working at Visual Concepts was my first job stateside,” Pieket said. “I had been in London, UK before that time. The game that would later become One was already in the early stages of development, although it was called Rage at the time.”
While it would go on to become a fan-favorite on the original PlayStation, Pieket saw it as a challenge early on, especially considering the changing of the guard going on in the industry at the time. He also believes it was a title that helped define Visual Concepts, the development brand connected to so many wonderful sports games, mainly the NBA 2K series, as a name synonymous with depth and quality. “It is a 3D game with the DNA of a 2D game,” Pieket said. “I think the game proved that Visual Concepts can do more than sports titles.”
The way Visual Concepts delivered on One is an interesting adventure however. Anyone that has played One before understands the game’s difficulty was one of its defining characteristics and not its story. Your main character is in a fight for his life from the first second you fire the game up, which gives One a ton in common with a Hollywood action flick- as well as a classic arcade shooting experience. This is no mistake. If nothing else, it’s a simple exercise in showing as much strength as possible and hiding weakness. Despite just being six levels long, each level was paced in a way where it was almost impossible to stop playing once you started. Add in asynchronous loading, a development technique that leveraged the PlayStation console’s RAM during gameplay to limit load time and One absolutely had the heart of a classic arcade game inside of it. That was no mistake, either. “All the programmers and most of the artists were hardcore gamers,” Pieket said of the team that comprised One. “That certainly influenced the direction of the game. The game design wasn’t mine, and I don’t know what inspired the designers. The visual effects, however, are mostly mine and they were inspired by the game I had worked on previously, Die Hard Trilogy.”
With a hearty helping of explosions, enemies, weapons and action as well, One always felt frenetic. But with the beginning of the 3D era, certain sacrifices had to be made to the complete package to get the game finished. This actually ended up as one of the game’s biggest strengths. “The lead designer wanted to develop a story for the game. It became clear however that the story would end up being rather cliché and would be too costly and time-consuming to develop anyway,” Pieket said. “Cinematics were not in the budget. It was my idea to reduce the entire storyline to four words: ‘I made a mistake’ and leave the rest to the player’s imagination.”
That one sentence ended up serving as a microcosm for the rest of the development cycle. Unable to tell a full story, the team just didn’t. Unable to have a huge backstory? Not an issue, either. Playing as John Cain, a man with essentially no backstory, on the run from the police and military, all you know is your hand has been replaced by a hand-cannon of sorts, like Mega Man– and you have a barcode on your neck. In today’s gaming landscape, that wouldn’t be enough to make a title’s story special, but in 1997, it was perfect.
If nothing else, the execution of the game’s plot, delivered in the exact way it needed to. Unmistakably noir and gritty, it catered perfectly to the style of the gameplay. While the game’s main character tells the gamer he “made a mistake” as soon as he game is fired up, everything else in the narrative is smoke and mirrors and less to the mystery of finishing each level for clues. Even the ending of the game left everything up to you to figure out. And there was, indeed, a lot to sort out. Why did Cain go through all of this? What was the point of it all? What was next?
“This will either be my first log, or my last. I don’t know yet, “ Cain (voiced by Terry Torok) says during the game’s ending. “But I’ll have to assume it’s my last. After everything, I’ve destroyed what I believe to be the source of this madness. I doubt that the facility will survive the blast. I can only hope that the ship dies with it. My memory is real sketchy, but I’m slowly piecing it back together. The voices keep calling to me. I’ve gotta find her. John Cain. Out.”
With that type of ending, after an insane battle and the blowing up of a massive structure, the point of it all becomes totally clear. The reason to play One was not the story, it was the adventure it sent you on- an adventure made enjoyable by excellent, old-school gameplay with a fresh coat of 3D visuals. But with that, came an understanding, with a limited story and a simple grasp on 3D visuals, One had to be fun to play. In terms of creating that gameplay structure, everything done by the team was a calculated attempt to deliver a solid shooting experience using 3D technology. Obviously delivering on their promise, the game is an homage to plenty of games of yesteryear- games you might not connect to a 3D shooter.
“I don’t know if anyone noticed, but the aiming system is inspired by 2D shoot-em-ups. In 2D games like R-Type or Xevious and many like it, you only get to aim in one axis,” Pieket said. “In most 3D games, you need to aim in both the horizontal and vertical axis. I find this frustrating and slow and not much fun. Therefore in One, you only need to aim horizontally. The vertical axis is taken care of automatically by the targeting system. This made it play more or less like a 2D shooter. It is intuitive and most people don’t notice.”
With hordes of enemies and action that rarely allows you to backtrack, One might as well have been a 3D version of the arcade classic Galaga, instead of a game that could have been mistaken for a film starring Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis. But while the shooting action was obviously paramount, the visual design went hand-in-hand and made you want to continue the thin story. You wanted to find out what happened to this character and what he was on the run from. Even though many of the answers you were looking for were never truly revealed, on the back of its sheer difficulty, gameplay and special effects, One managed to find an audience. Earning solid reviews from a litany of gaming publications such as GameSpot and Absolute PlayStation when it was originally released in 1997 and even winning Best Action Game of the Year from PSExtreme Magazine, Pieket said Visual Concepts was satisfied with the end product as well.
“We each got a bottle of 1992 Dom Pérignon,” Pieket said. “It was amazing.”
Over two decades since its original release, One is still available for download on the PlayStation Store on the fledgling PlayStation 3, and Vita. While not nearly as successful or technologically advanced as some of the other games on his resume (since One, Pieket has worked on Marvel Spider-Man, Resistance and games in the Ratchet & Clank and Mercenaries franchises), Pieket admits that a feeling of pride comes with the fact that the game that is still played and appreciated today. Not bad for a romp that was defined by older technology and featured a story that was just one sentence long.
“I’m glad that people are still having fun with it,” Pieket said. “We are now in the era of millions of triangles, detailed textures, complex materials and realistic real-time lighting. I am amazed that people still want to play a game that is technically so primitive.”