Released: August 2015
Originally Released: October 1999
Also Available For: Nintendo 64
You wouldn’t really know it now but Rare were a big deal back in the nineties; they were responsible for the excellent Donkey Kong Country series (ibid, 1994 to 1996) on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) before taking home console gaming by storm with the renowned GoldenEye 007 (ibid, 1997), one of the few licensed videogames to not only be good but also one of the greatest first-person shooters (FPS) ever made thanks to its highly enjoyable split screen multiplayer. Following this, Rare ventured into the 3D action/platformer genre with Banjo-Kazooie (ibid, 1998), a whimsical collectathon that secured Rare’s places as one of Nintendo’s premier third-party developers.
During their time developing for the Nintendo 64, Rare were generally known for producing videogames that were either bright, colourful fantasy adventures; Conker’s Bad Fur Day (ibid, 2001) later turned this expectation on its head with its graphic violence and crude sense of humour but, before that, Rare deviated from this norm through Perfect Dark (ibid, 2000), GoldenEye 007’s spiritual successor, and Jet Force Gemini, both of which were darker, far moodier titles that veered into science-fiction and futuristic technology.
Given how much I enjoyed Rare’s titles back in the day, I spent quite a bit of time with Jet Force Gemini on the Nintendo 64, either borrowing it from a friend or actually owning a copy for a brief period of time. One of the main reasons I chose the Xbox One over the PlayStation 4 was that console had the exclusive title Rare Replay (ibid, 2015), a compilation of thirty of Rare’s greatest hits over their many years, which contained, among many other gems, Jet Force Gemini. As I had never finished the game, and often struggled with it at certain points, this seemed like the perfect time to return to the game and put that loose end to rest once and for all.
After their entire fleet is wiped out by the insectoid armies of the villainous Mizar, the remaining members of the intergalactic law enforcement team Jet Force Gemini split up to infiltrate Mizar’s warships. In the course of their attempt to rendezvous at Mizar’s Palace, the team discover that Mizar has enslaved the bear-like Tribals and, when the fate of the galaxy and the team’s home world is threatened by Mizar’s wrath, the team resolve to defeat the alien’s forces and restore peace to the galaxy.
Jet Force Gemini is a third-person action/adventure shooter with a heavy emphasis on exploration, backtracking, and some light (if frustrating) platforming and puzzle solving. When you start the game, you’re put in control of Juno, the male member of the titular team but soon rescue his female partner, Vela, and their mascot, the semi-cybernetic pooch Lupus. Functionally, each character controls the same, running and jumping around their environment and using a variety of weapons to blast away any insects that get in their way.
When you play Jet Force Gemini, the very first thing you should do is opt to switch to the new control scheme implemented into Rare Replay; without this, you may struggle to control your character, aiming reticule, and co-ordinate your inventory. I don’t remember this being a problem on the Nintendo 64 version but, in the absence of that system’s C-buttons, the default controls for Jet Force Gemini map the strafe and weapon selection to the right analogue stick, meaning you’ll often switch weapons when trying to strafe. This control scheme also makes precision aiming a tedious and pixel-perfect operation but both of these issues are largely remedied by switching to the duel analogue control scheme offered by the Xbox One version.
This doesn’t correct some of the games other control issues, though; as you explore, you’ll do so from a third-person perspective, which is where the controls become relatively tight and responsive but the camera is obsessed with staying locked behind your back, somewhat skewing your view when you’re trying to make difficult jumps. When enemies appear onscreen, the view switches to a pseudo-first-person perspective; at the press of the left bumper, your character become translucent, an aiming reticule appears onscreen, and you’re tasked with strafing behind cover and around your foes as you mow down enemies. The new control scheme makes this far more enjoyable but I still found this shift in perspective to be jarring every time it happens and that the game’s base controls don’t necessarily make moving and shooting the easiest task.
For one thing, your characters control in a variation of the classic “tank controls” of early PlayStation and survival-horror videogames; you can travel in all eight directions and it seems as smooth as the controls in Banjo-Kazooie but this is a deception. For example, you’ll be running ahead at full speed and suddenly have to either make a right turn or turn around; your character then skids to a halt, sliding along the floor as they go, and either makes the turn in a wide arc or you’re forced to reverse backwards like a truck! The slipperiness of the characters is a major flaw; it’s great that Juno and Vela can grab onto ledges, which often saves you from plummeting to your death, but often you’ll fly right off an edge or a platform simply because the characters slip and slide all over the place.
The camera really doesn’t help matters; it’s completely out of your control unless you hold down the left bumper and entire the quasi-first-person mode, meaning you don’t have full 3600 control of the camera like in Banjo-Kazooie. As the camera is always seemingly zoomed in just a little bit too much and permanently lodged behind your character, this makes jumping across gaps or to floating platforms a massively annoying task as there’s never a good camera angle to judge your jump and there’s a significant delay in the characters’ jumps (not to mention the slipperiness and the way they kind of freak out a bit when they land from a jump).
Each of the three characters explores the environments a little differently and has access to different abilities: Juno can run through magma without issue, Vela can swim deep underwater (and, thankfully, has no need for air during these sections), and Lupus can hover for brief periods of time. Lupus can’t grab edges or duck but all three characters have a super jump (activated by simply holding down the jump button) and are able to find and use new weapons as they explore their surroundings.
To progress through stages, you’ll generally have to unlock doors either by destroying all enemies in an area or using a coloured key. You’ll also encounter a number of non-playable characters (NPCs) who offer you additional items but only after you bring them something in return, forcing you to go off on a side quest to another world and run around in desperate circles as each of the characters trying to find what you need as, again, there’s no map or indication of where to go or what to do, forcing you to experiment with the three characters, different routes, or to consult a guide.
As for the weapons, you’ll be relieved to hear that there’s no need to reload in this game; ammo packs are in plentiful supply and often dropped by enemies, though you’ll be burning through some of your more effective ammunition as you mow down your enemies. This wouldn’t be so bad if the standard pistol had infinite ammo but it’s doesn’t; it also comes hampered with a power meter, of sorts, that keeps you from spamming the fire trigger over and over as the speed and power of your shots will decline the more you fire the gun until the bar refills.
Each character’s health is represented by a glowing band in the bottom left of the screen; the band surrounds the logo of the team and drains as you take damage. You can replenish your health by collecting Gemini gems and expand your health by finding the appropriate items but, while you effectively have up to four health bars, you’ll find your health whittled away to nothing in short time when you’re ambushed by large groups of enemies if you don’t find cover or beat a hasty (if clunky) retreat. When you begin a stage, you’re given two continues; you can’t earn any additional continues but, if you exhaust them all, you do continue playing from the last auto-save point (and you can also manually save the game from the menu), which seems to make the continue system utterly redundant as you can just keep continuing as often as you need to.
Jet Force Gemini begins in a very linear fashion; you can switch to Vela and Lupus after rescuing them from Mizar’s forces and each one makes their way through three different worlds before meeting up with their teammates at Mizar’s Palace. Once you fulfil this objective, the game opens up into a free play mode, of sorts, allowing any character to visit any world or location at any time. Unfortunately, you can’t switch to a character on the fly; when you select your character, the game forces you to sit through an unskippable cutscene of the character arriving and landing or docking at their location and you must begin the stage from the beginning.
Switching to a new location is easily done from the map screen in the game’s menu but, when you select a location, you’re forced to start from the beginning of the stage rather than jumping to one of the other points of the stage. Also, when you’re exploring a stage, there is no onscreen map or menu-accessible way to help guide you through and this becomes incredibly frustrating during the game’s later stages as a lot of areas in the game’s generally diverse stages look the same and it’s easy to get turned around, lost, or simply struggle to progress as you have no real idea of where you should be going. This becomes even more annoying when you’re forced to backtrack to every location with each character and hunt high and low for the missing spaceship parts you need to reach the final confrontation with Mizar; Rare never liked to hold your hand when it came to exploration but omitting a stage map was a real boneheaded move and makes the game more tedious and annoying than it needs to be.
During the free play portion of the game, you’ll have to revisit each location at least three times, once as each character, in order to locate new weapons, upgrades, story-progressing items and, of course, rescue all of the Tribals. As you explore stages, you’ll find these cute little critters scattered around, usually in your line of fire; touching them teleports them to safety and you must rescue every last one of them in order to complete the game. If a Tribal dies, you can continue playing and “simply” replay the stage to rescue them the next time around but, here’s the kicker; even if you’ve rescued Tribals, they still appear in the stage when you return, meaning that you never really feel as though you’re actually progressing with rescuing the little koalas. You can track your progress from the menu screen but, honestly, it isn’t very clear and I would have much preferred it if Tribals disappeared from the stages once they were rescued.
Graphics and Sound:
Jet Force Gemini has a very distinct visual style; ostensibly a sci-fi adventure, the game is filled with large, open areas, futuristic technology, and alien creatures. There’s a mish-mash of all kinds of scenery and styles in this game; one minute, you’ll be exploring a swamp-like world, the next you’ll be trapped in the large vertical halls of a spaceship, then you’ll be dropped into a vast desert or a desolate, metallic prison.
Each world and location has its own look and feel though the gameplay mechanics are, largely, the same for each location; even on worlds filled with magma, Vela can find pools to dive into and Lupus will find gaps only he can cross, for example, and most locations task you with making some awkward jumps to desperately trying to navigate maze-like hallways and locations. While I am largely impressed with the size and scale of each of the game’s worlds, in many ways they are too big; a similar issue plagued Banjo-Tooie (ibid, 2000), which featured a large interconnected map that seemed both empty and full of life at the same time. The individual locations of Jet Force Gemini are more akin to somewhere between the size of Banjo-Kazooie’s stages and those of Banjo-Tooie, made even larger by the alternate paths the different characters can take, but some can feel far too monotonous thanks to all the areas looking the same and seeming far too big.
The game features a far more operatic and dramatic soundtrack compared to Rare’s other titles; a mixture of bombastic heroic themes, ominous, foreboding ambient sounds, and heart-pounding boss music all work really well to set the tone of the game but it feels a little more generic compared to the likes of Banjo-Kazooie. Jet Force Gemini also features a few unskippable cutscenes, many of which seem to be masking the game’s loading times; every time to return to an area, you have to sit through the same cutscene of your ship flying in and landing, which gets very annoying after a while. Cutscenes feature no voice acting, relying on text boxes to convey the story, and only a handful of characters speaking in the charming gibberish seen in the Banjo videogames, which is disappointing. The game’s presentation is bombastic and over-the-top (enemies explode in a shower of goo and limbs) but the plot is generally played entirely straight, with only the game’s wackier NPCs showcasing some of that quirky Rare humour.
Enemies and Bosses:
For all the diversity of its worlds and locations, Jet Force Gemini drops the ball a bit when it comes to enemy variety. No matter which location you visit, you’ll encounter the same enemies, with only slight variations depending on the stage you visit or the path you take. Mostly, you’ll come up against the generic blue drones who run around in a blind panic, blasting at you from behind cover and dropping in just a few hits, but you’ll also encounter a couple of variants on this enemy.
One of the more annoying variants are the shield-wielding drones, who constantly hide behind impenetrable shields and force you to either fight with the game’s controls and chase them down or strafe around them or use one of your more powerful weapons. Green drones usually adopt a sniper position to whittle your health down from up high and afar and the large, purple beetle-like enemies will either blast at you with rapid fire or explosive shells, and the red drones are far tougher and smarter. Despite the lack of variety, the enemies are surprisingly smart, ducking behind cover and running from your fire, and have a shocking amount of personality; sometimes, they’ll throw their weapons down and surrender, you can blast their weapons out of their claws and sending them into a panic, some drones will resort to tossing a grenade at you (often committing suicide in the process) or rushing at you head-first, and, if you land a headshot, you can blow their heads off and collect them to unlock bonus features.
Alongside these drones, you’ll also exchange fire with variety of flying, or floating, robots. These little bastards will float around in groups of anywhere from three to, like, thirty, either hovering in a swaying formation or swooping around in predictable, but annoying, attack patterns. Usually, you’ll fun head-first into ambushes of these robots, which can whittle your health away in a flurry of laser fire in no time at all, forcing you to back up or find cover and hope that you have enough machine gun ammo to blow the little bastards out of the sky.
As unfortunate as it is that Jet Force Gemini is lacking in enemy variety, it’s equally unfortunate that there aren’t many bosses on offer here. Luckily, the five bosses we get are gigantic and impressive in their scale but, regrettably, they’re generally more annoying than fun. To battle these bosses, you’re locked into a static area, able only to jump and strafe left and right to avoid incoming fire and their explosive (often cluster-based explosives) shots; the lack of cover and health in these battles is annoying and difficult enough but actually dealing damage to the bosses can be an issue in and of itself.
Easily the most annoying boss in the game are the Mechantids, two gigantic cybernetic praying mantises (Mantii? …Whatever) who dance around in the background and can only be attacked when they leap onto a platform closer to Lupus. When battling this boss, and the game’s other bosses, you’re given a very small window of opportunity to actually deal some damage; miss it, and your shot will either do nothing or careen off into the void and you’ll either take damage or have to try your luck in the next window. Given how slippery and awkward the game’s aiming mechanics are, this happens more often than not; seriously, I had this same issue in the poorly-implemented shooting sections of Banjo-Tooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day and I still can’t understand how Rare, the guys who made GoldenEye 007, struggled so much to incorporate shooting and aiming mechanics into their later games or why they ever thought it’d be a good idea to put them into 3D action/platformers and it really makes these boss battles far more frustrating than they need to be.
You’ll do battle with the game’s big bad, Mizar, twice in the course of the game; the first battle is more intimidating than it actually seems and can be easily won by simply blasting Mizar in the face with your tri-rocket launcher when he leaves his head exposed. Once you finally rescue all the Tribals and repair their ship, you’ll battle him again in the game’s toughest battle yet; the final boss battle has four phases, each made all the more difficult by the sheer number, power, and frequency of Mizar’s attacks and the lack of health, ammo, cover, and checkpoints. Oddly, considering the game is so focused on have three distinct characters, you only ever battle Mizar with Juno, which is super annoying as it would make this final battle much more bearable if you could switch between team members. Mizar’s only weak point in this final battle is a small piece of machinery fixed to his back; you have to weather a slew of asteroids that home in on you, dodge his claw attack, and then struggle to get your homing missiles locked in on this impossibly small target to get a few shots in, before desperately dodging his eye lasers, freezing breath, and damnable lightning attacks. Each time you deal damage to Mizar, these attacks increase in frequency until finally, he loses his wings and arms and starts blasting at you indiscriminately. Luckily, in this final phase, all you have to do is unload your tri-rockets and best weapons into his exposed head but that is very much dependant on you having enough health to survive to that point.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As you explore Jet Force Gemini’s many locations, you’ll come across a number of collectables and upgrades; these aren’t quite as numerous as in some of Rare’s other titles and collectathons but they are still quite varied, for the most part. You’ll find glowing crates that contain new weapons, keys, or story-progressing items, Gemini gems and ammo crates are scattered across the locations alongside capacity-increasing backpacks and health-increasing power-ups, and you’ll also pick up Mizar Tokens to spend on replenishing your health or ammo at certain automated stations.
The game features a wide variety of additional weapons to choose from: there’s the rapid-firing machine gun, the tri-rocket launcher, grenades, cluster bombs, shurikens, homing missiles, a chargeable plasma shotgun, and a sniper rifle, among others. Generally, though, I found myself relying on the basic pistol, machine gun, or tri-rocket launcher as the sniper rifle doesn’t mesh well with the game’s janky, slippery controls, the plasma shotgun is all-but-useless (even when fully charge), and the homing missiles are disappointingly weak. Also, I found I was more likely to toss a grenade right in my face due to the overly exuberant way they bounce around the areas, making them more of a liability than a viable weapon. It doesn’t help that your weapons only really do damage when the aiming reticule emits a lock-on beep, meaning you can literally toss grenades or fire rockets dead-on at enemies and have them do no damage at all because you didn’t get a direct lock on to the enemy.
Once the three protagonists rendezvous at Mizar’s Palace, the Tribals upgrade their armour; while this doesn’t give them additional health and doesn’t seem to increase their durability, it not only places Lupus into a cute little tank but also allows them each to charge up a jetpack at fuel pads so they can reach new areas. Unfortunately, this can only be done at certain points, though, so you won’t be flying across entire gaps and stages with this mechanic.
The game’s action/shooting elements are offset by the inclusion of some racing mini games, none of which control anywhere near as well as Diddy Kong Racing (ibid, 1997), and a split screen multiplayer that is clunky and awkward and the furthest thing from GoldenEye 007’s generation-defining action. You also assemble a little robotic companion, Floyd, who can be controlled by a second player to help take out any enemies; this is super useful for when ammo is tight but I would have liked an auto-fire setting for those (long and lonely) times when you don’t have a friend around. Search hard enough and you’ll find Floyd pads that task you with flying and blasting through tight tunnels from a first-person perspective collecting items under a tight time limit as the cute little robot, earning medals, story-progressing items, and unlocking multiplayer options.
As you explore your surroundings, you’ll collect Mizar Tokens, drone heads, and find hidden totem poles that, when activated, unlock additional skins for the game’s multiplayer mode. This is largely similar to the mode seen in Conker’s Bad Fur Day, offering a traditional deathmatch, king of the hill, and capture the flag style shooting arenas that ape those seen in GoldenEye 007. You can also take part in target shooting games and race against your friends but none of these multiplayer modes offer the same level of depth or fun as those seen in Rare’s earlier titles.
Honestly, Rare should have focused more on the co-operative aspects of the game. Floyd is great for a younger or inexperienced player but the game really should have been expanded to a full-on split screen co-op mode. The game is about team work, after all, and I imagine it would have been much more fun to explore stages as two of the three characters at the same time, uncovering secrets and rescuing Tribals that much faster.
Playing the Xbox One version on Rare Replay also allows you to earn some of the most annoying Achievements ever, all for only 20 or 30G apiece. Some aren’t too bad; it’s likely you’ll acquire over 300 ant heads without too much issue as long as you remember to collect the severed heads when they fly off and you’ll easily mow down over a thousand enemies but rescuing every Tribal just to earn 20G is a bit of a piss-take. It’s honestly a shame that Rare didn’t put in a patch to address the Tribal issue; they patched in a new control scheme, after all, and it would have been nice to scrap the need to rescue every single Tribal. I mean, keep the Achievement for an added challenge but keeping this mechanic just drags the entire second half of the game down and ruins the lasting appeal of the game.
Jet Force Gemini has a lot going for it; visually, it’s quite impressive, with a lot happening onscreen at once and some large, layered areas to explore. Unfortunately, it does feel like the game engine is taxing what the Nintendo 64 is capable of; the Xbox One version seems to run better but there’s still a lot of slowdown at times, obvious loading, and some graphical distortion at work.
I could live with this if it wasn’t for the game’s dreadful controls and camera; similar issues dragged Banjo-Tooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day down for me and it’s hard to really hold Jet Force Gemini in as high regard as Banjo-Kazooie when I’m constantly fighting with the slippery controls, taking ridiculous fall damage from the slightest of drops, and desperately trying to get the aiming reticule to go where I want it. It feels like, after seeing success with FPS and action/platformers, Rare decided to mash those two styles together for the majority of their subsequent releases and Jet Force Gemini was the first sign that Rare were planning on bogging down Banjo-Tooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and even Donkey Kong 64 (ibid, 1999) with unnecessary FPS and multiplayer elements.
Jet Force Gemini’s controls just don’t really mesh well with these features and aspects; they struggle in the core single-player story until you finally get to grips with them and the game would have been much more enjoyable with a two-player, split screen co-op mode rather than awkwardly shoe-horning in traditional deathmatch multiplayer options. Yet, while it’s far from the quality of Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007, or even Perfect Dark, there is something about Jet Force Gemini that is appealing. When the game veers more into Rare’s trademark quirky humour, it’s a lot of fun; perhaps it would have been better to have the three playable characters have one distinct playstyle (Juno plays like an FPS, Vela as a 3D action/platformer, and Lupus is a racer/shooter) rather than trying to mash everything together. Unfortunately, it’s not like Rare really learned from this experience as they continued to mash other elements into their games and, generally, they just serve to distract from the more enjoyable elements of their titles.
What did you think of Jet Force Gemini? Did you also struggle with the controls or did you not have as much of an issue as I did? What did you think of the game’s more mandatory issues, like rescuing the Tribals and finding all the ship parts? Where do you rate Jet Force Gemini on the list of top Nintendo 64 and/or Rare titles? Whatever you think, feel free to leave a comment below.