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Sewer Shark is a first-person rail shooter game, the first video game for a game console to use full-motion video for its primary gameplay. It was originally slated to be the flagship product in Hasbro's NEMO video game system, which would use VHS tapes as its medium. However, Hasbro cancelled the NEMO, and Digital Pictures later picked up the game for the Sega CD system. Sewer Shark was one of the first games to come out for the Sega CD — shortly after its release in 1992, Sega began to include a copy of this game with each Sega CD unit, making it one of the most widespread games for the system. It was later ported and released for the 3DO in 1994.
Sewer Shark takes place sometime in the future, where environmental destruction has forced most of humanity to live underground. The player takes the role of a rookie pilot in a band of "sewer jockies", whose job is to exterminate dangerous mutated creatures to keep a vast network of sewers clean for the resort area "Solar City", an island paradise ruled by the evil Commissioner Stenchler (Robert Costanzo). The player's co-pilot, Ghost (David Underwood), evaluates the player's performance throughout the game, while a small robot named Catfish scouts ahead and gives directions. The player is later assisted by Falco, a female jockey who believes that there is a hidden route to the surface. Falco is later captured by Stenchler, who threatens to turn her into one of his mindless minions. This plot is thwarted when Ghost and the player reach Solar City.
The objective of Sewer Shark is to travel all the way from the home base to Solar City without crashing or running out of energy, and while maintaining a satisfactory level of performance as judged by Ghost and Commissioner Stenchler. As in other rail shooters, the ship mostly flies itself, leaving the player to shoot ratigators (mutant crosses between rats and alligators), bats, giant scorpions and mechanical moles. Along the way, Catfish periodically gives the player a series of numerical coordinates corresponding to directions that the player must follow at a set of upcoming intersections. If the player takes a wrong turn or misses a turn, he or she may crash into a door, grate or wall, ending the game.
During the second half of the game, the player must follow an eagle-like "crazy lookin' thing" to reach Solar City.
The ship has a limited amount of energy, which depletes slowly during flight and while firing. (Scorpions also rob the ship of energy if the player fails to shoot them down.) This energy can be fully replenished at recharge stations found at key points through the sewers. In later areas, the ship will also encounter occasional pockets of hydrogen that the player must have Catfish detonate to pass through safely.
At certain times through the game, Ghost and/or Stenchler will interrupt the player to give direct feedback on his or her performance. If the player is doing well, he or she is allowed to continue and is occasionally given a promotion in the form of a new call sign. A poor performance will cause the game to end. As the player gains Ghost's trust, the extent of Stenchler's hostility toward the player increases until he actively tries to destroy the ship.
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While properly classified as a rail shooter, Sewer Shark can also be considered an interactive movie through its use of full-motion video to convey the action. Like the actions in Dragon's Lair, the turns are simply gates the player must pass through to continue playing, and thus the gameplay is almost entirely linear, as in a non-interactive movie. The video footage was directed by Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor John Dykstra.
At the time of its production, game developers were just beginning to realize the potential of CD-ROM technology to bring richer game experiences to the market. And while the Turbografx-16 was the first video game console to include a CD-ROM drive, the Sega CD was the first console to bring CD-ROM games into the mainstream in the West. (the PC Engine Super CD being a good deal more popular in Japan)
While quite powerful for their time, the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis console and the Sega CD add-on module were limited in their capabilities. Because the CD-ROM drive was only capable of streaming at single-speed (150 KB per second) and the Genesis could only display 64 colors simultaneously out of a palette of 512 colors total, a game that displayed full-motion video was a major challenge. Digital Pictures programmers wrote a custom video codec that worked similarly to the later MPEG standard. This codec was used to compress high-quality video at 60 frames per second into chunks of data that were small enough to support up to four simultaneous video streams while staying within the console's limitations. The video quality is very poor by today's standards, but at the time, this was a major technological breakthrough.