08 April 2017

P.N.03 | Mastery through memorization

You tap your feet on the floor at a tight rhythm. Shots fire and bounce from the wall. An engine roars and you lift your leg up to the beat and snap your fingers. Nothing can hold you back. Your head bounces, you nod as foes fall before your magnificence. As the screen fades out you see how well you did while your head keeps nodding. The beat forces you to press on.
You are playing P.N.03, congratulations for you are one of the few; and you are lucky for having done so.

P.N.03 was part of the now infamous Capcom Five: a series of five games made by Capcom exclusively for the Nintendo Gamecube. These games were set to launch yearly, starting with 2003. In the original planning the games released would be Viewtiful Joe (2003), Robot War Game (2004), Resident Evil 4 (2005), Killer 7 (2005 as well) and Dead Phoenix (2006). With Viewtiful Joe leading the pack director Shinji Mikami could focus on directing Robot War Game, Resident Evil 4 and Killer 7. Yet after the announcement of the Capcom Five in late 2002 an internal delay hit Viewtiful Joe hard, forcing it out of the fiscal year. As a result Robot War Game was pushed to the front of the release calendar. After only five days of development Mikami changed the direction of the game towards that of a more action-shooter with a clean design aesthetic to set it apart from his other games which had a more bleak visual tone. After the protagonist Vanessa Z. Schneider was seen dancing past bullets Mikami originally intended for the game to be called Jaguar but other staff members didn't care for that title, forcing Mikami to come up with a new name. Despite this one animator changed Vanessa’s crouch animation to one that resembles that of a jaguar, to keep the spirit in tact. The final name would be Product Number 03, shortened to P.N.03, to give off a more mysterious feel.

"The real reason is, Viewtiful Joe slipped out of the fiscal year, so I had to do something to fill that gap. I think it should be OK to talk about that now. And really, that isn’t a very good reason to make a game.” - director Shinji Mikami

To describe P.N.03’s controls is to describe dance as one can: stretch out the arms of heroine Vanessa to shoot bolts out of her palms while she snaps her fingers to the rhythm, perform special "Energy Drives" that deal high damage but cost energy to use and they can make Vanessa do a cartwheel dodge. All her animations contain dance moves and rhythmic twists, giving each attack a strong feeling of style. Rolling is also possible but not initially recommended as it requires you to first crouch and then press the dodge button. Killing enemies in a row will start a combo with larger combos giving more points to spend on new suits. These give Vanessa alternate stats and access to different "Energy Drives", her glorious dance macabres during which she is fully invincible. These require a button sequence to be done using the D-pad. Sadly, due to the Gamecube’s unreliable D-pad, this can result in the attack not coming through at times. These Drives also suffer from balancing issues; while the game starts of fairly balanced some dominate the end-game. Drives like "Swan" and "Harrier", which deal solid damage, are nice but ones like "Tengu" render Vanesse invulnerable for a decent duration while doubling the damage of her regular shots making it the go-to Drive.

P.N.03’s combat exists out of the player traversing through a single room avoiding enemy fire while trying to reach the exit, killing enemies as they go along their merry way; one can see it as a throwback to old-school shoot’m up games like Space Invaders. Enemies are mostly stationary or move at a slow pace, all having a few attacks that contain strong visual and audio cues. Levels exist out of separate rooms of a clean design which are re-used and repeated throughout the game. Shooting is done by tapping the A button, one press equals one shot. While certainly annoying this does force starting players to make each shot count as the ability to hold down the button to fire doesn’t unlock until the end of the game. Ask any player whose around mission 3 how many shots it will take to kill a certain foe and he will be able to tell you. After mission 7 they will draw an entire map of each type of room. In their second playthrough they will school you on their cleanest and quickest way to beat a room without getting hit and which suit is best for used for that level. At the end of their third playthrough one can put a Gamecube controller in their hands, play a few of the game’s audio cues used to warn the player of incoming attacks and see his fingers move on the controller in response. This form of memorization plays a crucial part in the game’s core design, akin to the dance-like rhythm of Vanessa's moves.
Though this doesn’t come without it’s flaws. Rooms, while visually appeasing and really making the hard-grey enemies stand out against its white surfaces, can often resemble each other too much leading to the player getting lost. This is an especially big problem during the Trial Missions: side-missions in which a random selection of rooms is put together to form a level to test your skills.

While honing these skills one might call P.N.03 clunky or wooden in terms of its movement, and it’s easy to see why. Moves don’t overlap, if you’re shooting you are shooting and cannot dodge. You cannot shoot while moving, you cannot immediately jump after dodging and getting hit halts the game to a crawl. But after multiple runthroughs, with the knowledge gained, you’ll be stringing combos together, rolling underneath laser fire and dodging left and right at perfect timing. You’ll know exactly when to use your Energy Drives and where the energy-pickups are and which rooms can be skipped for a high-score.


P.N.03 is like dancing; at first it’s awkward and clunky but once you know what you’re doing it is magic.



Most of this magic originates from the mentioned tight deadline. Original images and footage show Vanessa wielding a gun and other weapons, which were scrapped to save time on animation. Instead she would now fire with her hands which allowed the animators to throw small dance-style like motions into the mix. But this is also felt in the gameplay with Vanessa only sporting one weapon, cutting down on variety. The deadline also rears its head when it comes down to the length of the game which, if one doesn’t touch the randomized Trial Missions, clocks in around one or two hours. With missions sometimes containing only around 10 seconds of cutscenes which were put together hastily one can see that the biggest emphasis in development went to the designing the combat.
And faced with such a tight deadline it’s good that Mikami did so. As a game so focused on rhythm and memorization it is as pure an 覚えゲー(pronounced OH boe GHe) game as one might find; meaning “remember the game”. Once mastered Vanessa is a like swan among bourgeois pigs in a temple painted white with echoes of blaster fire. And if you think you’ve mastered the game and all its patterns P.N.03 will offer one final challenge. Don the Papillon suit, which has access to all "Energy Drives" but reduces your health to one and beat the game. If done so a steamy cut-scene shall be your reward.

Sadly, despite this allure, P.N.03 was a financial failure. It’s shortcomings and rushed nature resulting in bad reviews emphasizing short run time and clunky controls, neglecting unlockables or the push players might feel for mastery. Paired with a normal price tag it never saw much love ending up as the only finished game of the Capcom Five to never be ported to another system. It is in essence the only real game of the Capcom Five that stuck to its goal: to be a unique exclusive game by Capcom for Nintendo’s Gamecube. And because of this, and its excellent combat system, it will always be held dear by fans of the system. It might not be the best game the first time through but it is one that gets better and more fun to play with each runthrough as you’ll always improve or find new tactics. And in a world where games are slowly shying away from replay value but instead focusing on the singular experience, it’s good to still have some of those great replayable gems out there. Mastery never felt this great.



Release-date: 2003 | Director: Shinji Mikami | Producer: Hiroyuki Kobayashi | Platform: Gamecube

opinion style
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In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.

For me P.N.03 is Darude - Sandstorm. A quick Youtube-search will result in finding a music video which combines all sorts of footage from P.N.03 mixed with that famous song. The beats are a perfect fit for a game like this.
I bought P.N.03 shortly after having finished my seventh playthrough of Alpha Protocol, a gem of a game which was blasted with horrible reviews with some even calling it one of the worst games ever made. After being confronted with the fact that commonly accepted bad games could be good I decided to hunt P.N.03 down having been pulled in by its visual cover years ago. Back in secondary school I recall a friend having bought the game and hated it for being repetitive and lacking multiplayer so I never touched it despite the box-art’s strong combination of white, blues and yellows urging me to pick it up. And when I finally bought it I was not disappointed; quickly finishing the game six times in a row before the feeling of repetition set in. I never managed to beat the Papillon challenge as my current save-file was set to Hard and I didn’t have enough points to unlock Tengu Pro; which would have made the run a lot easier. It is still one challenge I wish to finish, not for the secret cut-scene that is unlocked (which sadly in this day and age can be easily googled), but for the accomplishment. Though far from a finished game its combat is one based on such fundamentals of memorization that it will be a timeless cult-classic.


postscript notes
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  • The title of P.N.03 has many rumors surrounding its origins, some stating that it literally meant its production number within the Capcom Five which was subsequently used as working title due to the harsh deadline; this is false. The one mentioned in the article is seen the most.
  • This was the third title of the Capcom Five that I played, the first being Resident Evil 4 followed by Viewtiful Joe. Coincidence? I think not.
  • Vanessa, while not very talkative, is voiced by Jennifer Hale. While now famous for her role as Female Shepard in the Mass Effect Trilogy she was then of soon to be fame as Sheena in Tales of Symphonia and the overpriced originator of all screams and grunts of Samus Aran in Metroid Prime.
  • Mikami has often stated that he’s not proud of P.N.03. As such he reused a lot of ideas and built on them further with his masterpiece Vanquish in 2010 which we'll cover at a later date.

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