Message from the author: This article was originally published on my website www.player1enter.com, all the way back in 2012. When my website went under the next year, I started migrating all my reviews + articles to Chalgyr’s Game Room (who have been very kind and accommodating). This is the first of two very long articles I wrote back in the day. Enjoy!
French maestros, Delphine Software International had a brief but memorable run in the video game industry. Their chance of making an impression was a short one; but it ran deep.
Active chiefly in the 90’s, several of their games have been the focus of groundbreaking and innovative moments in video games. Indeed, so groundbreaking that one of their games, Another World, popularized a sub-genre that’s stylish in execution and agony to master.
In their short foray into developing under the Delphine Software International (DSI) banner, the crew behind one of the greatest developers worked tirelessly, passionately, and most importantly, with this intention and philosophy that art and games need not be two separate things.
Games like Flashback, Another World, Fade to Black, and Future Wars all corroborate this, and should a whisper of a doubt form in your head, you need only play few minutes of their masterpieces (which are easily accessible in almost every platform available) to erase it.
The company was founded in 1988 as a subsidiary of Delphine Group, in Paris, France, by Paul de Senneville (who acted as the head director) and the unsung gaming hero, Paul Cuisset (who, in addition to being the co-director, would also be the lead designer for several of their games).
The name refers to the town of Delphi in Greece, the residing place of the Oracle Pythia. She is considered to be the most important Oracle in Greek mythology. The town also holds an importance of equal value. A myth goes that Zeus, wanting to find the center of earth (or Gaia), sent two eagles from the opposite extremities; one from the west, the other from the east. When they met over the town of Delphi, the omphalos, or navel, of Gaia was found.
In 1989, just a year after formation, DSI released their first video game: Castle Warrior – a sort of Zork imagined as an Ultima Underworld in a third-person view dungeon-crawler. Thought up by Michael Sportouch and given life by Emmanuel le Coz, Castle Warrior never made it to the spotlight; instead staying in the darkest corner of shadows, only stumbled upon by the ever-curious. The game is notable in the fact that it was one of the first video games that composer Jean Baudlot (a recurring name in the timeline of DSI) worked on.
Having a unique control system – the character moved vertically automatically – your aim is to kill the enemies that appear on-screen.
Needless to say, Castle Warrior flew under the radar.
Their next game, Bio Challenge (a side-scrolling beat ‘em up), too, never achieved the spotlight status, though it did give a glimpse of what the company would ultimately utilize and be well known for. However, despite not reaching the masses initially, it is held as one of Amiga’s best games by fans of the system.
Bio Challenge has a bizarre enough plot and some mean character animation, plus decent parallax scrolling and a night/day cycle shift. Also, Jean Baudlot returns, this time with a catchy tune that is bound to find its way in your playlist.
But DSI’s first true success would not come later in the same year when they hired Eric Chahi – a relatively unknown person at the time – to work on their next game, Future Wars.
Future Wars proved to be a great hit for the company, who were (then) recently suffering from the disappointing James Bond spin-off Operation Stealth. The striking production and a time-traveling story made Future Wars a success, and is nowadays thought of as one of the greatest point-and-click adventure games.
But yet worldwide success eluded them; and it was not until the 90s came about that Delphine Software International’s presence was noticed on the map. Starting in 1990-91, the release of Another World – a.k.a Outer World and Out of This World – marked the start of their brief, but successful and influential, run.
But before all that, a brief detour regarding the sub-genre known as cinematic platformer, a technique called rotoscoping animation, and a man named Jordan Mechner.
In 1989, the sub-genre, the technique and the man were all printed out in bold on the gaming map via the release of the uber-influential Prince of Persia. Set in ancient Persia, the eponymous Prince must brave danger, jump perilous, often-fatal, gaps, avoid spikes, open doors, do swordplay with guards, and save the damsel in distress. Though the story may not have been original, the inclusion of the rotoscoping animation technique in the world of video gaming certainly was.
What Mechner did was tell his brother to wear white clothes and then jump off a box – while Mechner traced his movements and implemented them into the game. This gave the game a smooth, fluidm realistic effect. Where Mario moved in blocky, stuttering steps, the Prince ran, jumped, walked and fought with relative realism. The release of Prince of Persia brought video games to new, unconquered heights and sent a clear message across the world that Jordan Mechner was here to stay.
Though he had already struck gold by his first game, Karateka, a 1984 beat ‘em up title that served as a predecessor of all that was to be expected from Jordan Mechner, it was by his 1997 time-period adventure title, The Last Express, and the 2003 reboot of his original game, Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time – which would quickly culminate into one of the best-selling and persistent franchises of all time – that he became a permanent household name. It even spawned a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal, albeit not a great one.
Prince of Persia was groundbreaking and influential on many levels. It spawned a new sub-genre in the platform genre called cinematic-platformer. They are usually distinguished by their over-use of trial-and-error, one-touch death, vulnerable characters, realistic movements, a great amount of climbing and running, and (usually) step-based controls. These features and more – such as beautiful, often exotic landscapes, static-screens, and violent action – give a raw edge and a distinct feel to the games that fall under it.
Prince of Persia is perhaps the most iconic and well-known example. But more so, and sometimes the more-cited, is Another World.
Having being impressed by the smooth animation style adopted by Dragon Lair, Eric Chahi, with the blessing of Paul Cuisset, set about to making a new game that would bear the mark visibly of everything that influenced him.
With the levels being a visual presentation of the current mood Chahi was going through (the opening and ending level are metaphors for the loneliness and the exhaustiveness the creator felt, respectively), and a minimalistic, rhythmic, poetic approach to the narrative, Another World is as beautiful and haunting as it is agonizing and grueling in difficulty. Very early in the game the point is clear that Another World is a hard game that’s unforgiving in nature.
It was one of the very earliest games to have captured the aggressive and bleak, yet hypnotic and mesmerizing, atmosphere and tone of an alien world perfectly. The composer this time around was Jean-François Freitas. His memorably addictive and wonderfully ambient score is both a testament and contributing factor to the game’s lasting appeal; especially the piece that’s heard in the ending. That’s class. With the release of this game, Eric Chahi made superstars out of DSI.
Unfortunately, he did not stick around. He quit sometime after the release of Another World and founded his own company, Amazing Studio; which only managed to release one game, Heart of Darkness – a cinematic-platformer in the same vein as Another World, albeit with a more graphic presentation and deep emphasis on disturbing, unexpected deaths.
It took Amazing Studio six long years to develop the game, and was finally released in the year 1998. Over the period of time, Heart of Darkness achieved a rightly deserved cult status and is now heralded among the best games in the Playstation 1 library.
Chahi’s departure, however, did not signal the end of the world for DSI. In fact, they were just warming up.
1991 saw the release of Cruise for a Corpse; a game this author believes to have one of the coolest titles in video game history. Helmed by Philippe Chastel, Benoist Aron, and Paul Cuisset himself, this point-and-click adventure game put you in the shoes of Raoul Dusentier, who is invited to Niklos Karaboudjan’s boat for some quality time.
However soon upon arrival, Niklos is murdered, and it is up to you to don the detective hat and solve a well-written “whodunit”! Drawing inspiration from retro murder novels, especially those of Agatha Christie, this game is a treat for lovers of intriguing story with death as the main backdrop.
Exactly one year after Cruise for a Corpse came a title that would, over time, become synonymous with the company – almost gaining the title of an unofficial mascot.
That game is Flashback: the Quest for Identity, or just Flashback for short.
Just the mere mention of this game will set in motion a chain-reaction of memories and musings associated with the game; primarily among those who played it on the original systems back in the day. The resemblance between this game and Prince of Persia does not go beyond the fluidity in the animations. Though Flashback indeed utilizes the rotoscoping technique, it employs a more complicated version of it; thus resulting in a game far superior than its influence, in terms of animation, story, characters and just about everything.
Upon its release it was hailed by Guinness World Book of Records as the best-selling French video game of all time.
Flashback is set in a sci-fi futuristic world which sees you in the control of Conrad B. Hart. You are an agent of the Galaxy Bureau of Investigation. After stumbling upon a plot to destroy earth by using shape-shifting aliens who have disguised themselves as government officials, you are kidnapped and have your memory erased. But because Conrad is actually a smart dude, he made a backup copy of his memory and had it stored. Hence he’s able to get back everything that’s rightfully his. Now he must deal with the rogue aliens and set everything right.
All of the major tropes of this infant-genre had established are present, no expense spared. Every individual frame holds terrible, yet seductive secrets; danger is just around (or below) the corner; objects are liable to give way any moment; and the deaths are swift. Released in 1992 to a wide range of systems, it is perhaps the Amiga original, Sega Genesis port and the DOS version that is fondly remembered by gamers today. Though nothing beats the original, the other two versions are respectable in their own right. The DOS version has more cut-scenes than the other two, and this author sees it fit to recommend newbies out there to have their first outing with this version.
Flashback has many features that were previously unseen. Your character, Conrad, can take cover and even duck. Guess what, the enemies can, too – a good strategic angle for the more methodological player. This adds a whole new level of realism to an already realistic style of playing. Also unlike others, Flashback also has a HUD (heads up display) and a point-and-click adventure style option-tray at the bottom of the screen.
A fitting placement seeing DSI’s past repertoire. Flashback’s excellent surpassing of the boundaries proved to be the pinnacle of DSI’s – and Paul Cuisset’s – career.
Author note: The beeping sound you hear when you collect an item is easily one of the most iconic and satisfying sound effects in history.
Lamentably, Flashback proved to be both a blessing and a curse.
Its appeal and maturity did indeed bring DSI on the map, marketing them as the go-to company for great games; but simultaneously prevented them from making another Another World or Flashback-level classic again. Disaster stuck, and millions of hearts were broken when DSI chose to combine the technique they had perfected… with a basketball player.
This marriage of two unlikely forces culminated in the ill-fated Shaq Fu – the single worst titled video game in the industry’s history.
An egotistical embarrassment, Shaq Fu caused the downfall of an empire that never recovered – though a coruscant did come in the form of Fade to Black (more of that later). Featuring Shaquille O’Neal as the, er, titular character and, er, hero, you’re thrown into a portal that’s a gateway to magical worlds. Once there, you must fight other characters for glory in a typical fashion of vs. fighting games.
Released for the Sega Genesis, it was instantly and universally panned, ending up in several worst games of all time lists. Even despite the fact Shaq Fu employs the same animation style as that of Flashback (as well as the same frame-rate), and identical hand-drawn backgrounds (albeit now with scrolling screens), its unresponsive controls, glitches, nonsensical setup, and difficulty due to poor programming all contributed to the failure of the game and made it an epic for all the wrong reasons.
Even with a failure in their hands, DSI displayed a sense of equanimity, and this showed perfectly in their 1995 release, Fade to Black – possibly the final hurrah for the company.
With the bulk of the production done by Paul Cuisset, this sequel to Flashback, though could not emulate the worldwide appeal of its predecessor, emitted a ray of hope that that the company still had life in them. In the making of Fade to Black, the company eschewed everything they had thus far practiced and what made their previous games unique from their contemporaries. Unlike its predecessor, Fade to Black utilizes gouraud shading in full 3D. Even so, for a computer game, Fade to Black isn’t on the whole pretty… but it gets the job done.
Furthermore, the use of 3D breathed new life into the game and gives a sense of freedom and open-world; a feeling that of being trapped in/by something much bigger (both philosophically and figuratively) than yourself. With just over an hour of gameplay, Fade to Black is surprisingly short – but it makes up for that by the unprecedented freedom exercised in the game. In this author’s opinion, Fade to Black is slightly better at gameplay than its predecessor.
By now releasing one game per year (or two) had become a thing of second nature for the crew of DSI. Considering the vast technical and graphical aspects of their games and the size of the company, this was indeed an accomplishment. In 1997 their release of Moto Racer would not only take them out of their element, but also result in the only proper series they managed to string together before going defunct.
Moto Racer is an arcade-type motorcycle racing game that features both street and dirt bikes, and is great for casual gamers and/or fans of the racing genre.
This Electronic Arts published title was able to generate enough enthusiasm for four sequels, all developed by DSI. Starting in 1998 and ending in 2002, the sequels are as follows: the cleverly named Moto Racer 2, Moto Racer World Tour, Moto Racer 3, and finally Moto Racer Advance (developed in conjunction with Adeline Software; a subsidiary of DSI, given birth in 1993).
This author believes the latter to be one of the best games available on the Game Boy Advance – for its smooth graphics, uncomplicated gameplay, realistic bikes and sounds, and the overall superb presentation.
The 90’s, especially in its middle and tail-end years, saw a boom in RPG (role-playing game) and RTS (real-time strategy) video games – fueled and spearheaded by the likes of Diablo, StarCraft, WarCraft, and the Final Fantasy series.
Drawing inspiration from the original Diablo, DSI decided to jump on the RPG bandwagon and crack their hands at this new money-maker. The result was the silently-ignored but enamored by fans, Darkstone; their most ambitious, intricate, and longest game ever.
A typical RPG experience, Darkstone employs all the major and recurring tropes of the genre. Gems, magic, portions, spells, strange sounding characters, towering presence of evil, fatal encounters, swordplay, mana, powerful stones – yup, they’re all present.
This author would like to bring into notice to the reader that he hasn’t played Darkstone yet and says that he cannot comment more on the game. But from the videos he has seen of the game, he does deduce Darkstone to be a potentially satisfying, engaging title.
With several great games under their belt, Delphine Software International boldly stepped into the 21st Century… only to find it very unkind to them.
With a total of only three games released (Moto Racer World Tour, Moto Racer 3 & Moto Racer Advance), the company relocated to Saint-Ouen in 2001. In the next year, they were removed from the Delphine Group. In the year after that, DSI was sold to Doki Denki. In the year after, they closed on accounts of bankruptcy and liquidation (a process in which a company, or part of it, is brought to an end and the assets redistributed). Around the same time their official website also closed down; if you attempt to open it, you will be redirected to a blank page. However, unofficial and fan-made websites do exist, and they are testament of their adoration of the company.
Though Delphine Software International may not be around anymore, through nostalgic tributes and memorabilia – and ubiquitous classics such as Another World, Cruise for a Corpse, Fade to Black, and Flashback – their spirit lives on.