Time to stoke the fires of debate- 8:7 or 4:3 for SNES screenshots? FIIIIIIIGHT! If you're curious, this very informative video explains it in more detail, but the CliffsNotes version is that the SNES has an internal resolution of 256 x 224, a sort-of square image, which would inevitably be stretched a little when displayed on a CRT back in The Day. Some developers took this in account and would squish their graphics so they'd appear 'properly' on a TV (the easiest way to tell is whether circles are ovals or not) and others would not. This is an option on both the SNES Classic Mini and Nintendo Switch Online ('Pixel Perfect' is the internal resolution) in case you wasnt to see the difference. Psycho Dream is an odd case because while it doesn't seem to take stretching into account and thus is presented in 8:7 here, these shots look like they're 4:3 anyway because the game has bloody massive black borders that, when cut off, make it look 4:3-ish? Well, in any case, these images aren't stretched, to present the game in the best possible light. As much as you can do that for friggin' Psycho Dream. The 1CC you'll see later is in the 4:3 ratio though simply for my writer's convenience and because that recording is a litany of errors, a horrorshow of mistakes from start to finish, befitting Psycho Dream. Thank you for your understanding.
Also, shoutout to the Retro Pals whose stream of the game brought it to Gaming Hell's attention.
Oh, wait, finally...This game contains frequent flesh and insect imagery. The first set of screenshots don't have anything like that, but the second onwards do.
If these aren't your cup of tea, read no further.
You creak open the old tome The Canon of Gamesoft, that defines all there is in video games, and look up the term 'all style, no substance'...
The entry you find has just two words: Psycho Dream.
Oh boy, there's a lot to dig through before we can talk about this one! Telenet Japan is probably best known for the Valis series (which definitely ended in 1993, why would you say it ever had anything after that, why would you lie) but they were pretty busy back in the '90s, and in particular they had a few internal development teams, like Laser Soft (focused on CD Rom-based consoles), Wolfteam (focused on ridiculous action games and would eventually become Namco's Tales Studio)... Then there's Riot. The documentation of which internal team did what for Telenet on the English-speaking web is pretty poor (and it really doesn't help that the team who made today's game was originally called Reno who focused on home computer games, later split into Riot and Renovation Products) but what I could dig up (mostly the Japanese Wikipedia page and the Valis Wiki) points to the Exile and Tenshi no Uta series being their main focus, as well as porting stuff to the TurboDuo / PC Engine CD like the original Valis and Xak I*II before being reabsorbed into Telenet and staff moving over to Wolfteam. Above you can see some of their other works, Beast Wrestler / Beast Warriors and Mahou no Shojo - Silky Lip- picked for no real reason other than, well, why would I not show off Beast Wrestler given the opportunity?
So, Psycho Dream stands out among their output- a SNES game by a team who almost never did SNES games. Some of the names on this project are pretty notable too. Eiji Kikuchi, the production manager, went on to Wolfteam and later the Tales Studio to produce and direct several games in that series; Masayasu Yamamoto, producer and programmer, would move on Spike Chunsoft and work on a bunch of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeons games and The Nonary Games series; and Michiko Naruke, on music duties, went to Media Vision to become composer for the Wild Arms series. The biggest names in those credits would be the game's producer, Takashi Fukushima who would split from Telenet to form Media Vision that would create a whole bunch of notable Playsation games like Crime Crackers and Wild Arms; and director Kenichi Nishi who, after working at Telenet then Squaresoft, would work on weird games like Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, L.O.L.: Lack of Love, Giftpia and Chibi-Robo. Even with its action game stylings, Psycho Dream kinda fits in to that set of games rather comfortably from presentation alone. Finally, the design, writing and story was provided by Marino Nishizaki, a mangaka who had a few collections published, including one called Abandoned City Story... Which will become relevant shortly. So, a surprising amount of notable names were put onto this project. This game's gonna be a belter, right? No way it could possibly disappoint, surely?
... Moving right along, Psycho Dream has a hell of a plot (courtesy of both EN and JP Wikipedia, plus this site summarising the manual and the Nintendo Switch Online version), a tale that sounds like the kind of thing you'd find in the import section of a VHS rental shop, emblazoned with 'Absolutely Not for Kids!' warnings. Or something accidentally put into a Videodrome box. In an alternate 1992, software called Drag Movies or D-Movies- virtual worlds with a movie-like framework, interacted with by hooking up to a kind of life-support system that uses psycholeptic drugs- have become all the rage amongst the youth of the world. However, some become so entranced by these worlds that they stay in them for too long, becoming 'Sinkers', eventually atrophying and dying. To tackle the problem, Japan's National Public Safety Division organises a group officially called the Public Security Division 4, but nicknamed the Diamond Dogs, to act as 'Debuggers' who go into the D-Movies and save Sinkers from their fate. Two such Debuggers, Ryo Shijima and Maria Tobira, have been tasked with saving Sayaka, a heartbroken girl with a weak constitution who has sunk into the world of the popular horror fantasy D-Movie Abandoned City Story (translated in the description of the Nintendo Switch Online version as Legend of the Fallen Capital, but see, told you it'd be relevant) for three days now. She will die in 24 hours, and if the Debuggers don't save her in time, they'll be trapped in the D-Movie forever. Sayaka's subconscious refusal to return to the real world has twisted the world of Abandoned City Story even further, now brimming with horrifying and bizarre monsters... The lives of Sayaka and the Debuggers now rest in the player's hands.
Psycho Dream takes the form of an action platformer across six stages (called Tracks here), and if you take a gander at the HUD at the top of the screen, with the Player and Enemy healthbars, you get the sense Riot wanted this to be their own stab at the classic 8-bit action game, like Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden, but with the raw power of 16-bit hardware behind it. You might be tempted to compare it with Telenet's own Valis series, but this has none of the cutscenes that made that game famous- in fact, for a game with the plot described above, there's absolutely no text beyond the intro, and a lot of it you have to interpret yourself (making it ideal for importing). In any case, both Ryo and Maria start with short-range weapons (with Ryo using a sword and Maria having the advantage with a Castlevania-style whip with much better reach) and a limited number of F. Attacks, screen-clearing smart bombs as well as a run activated by holding either of the shoulder buttons that also makes you jump higher. The controls are mostly fine when they work (more on that later) and it's nice that you can attack and move at the same time unlike many other games like this. However, the game lacks a sub-weapon system but surely you're not just stuck with your standard weapon, are you?
Well, the power-up system is one of the core problems right out the gate unfortunately, which hinges on semi-random drops of gems called Proteins- some areas always drop specific types (you'll usually see invincibility-granting Green Proteins in the same areas in each playthrough, like most of Track 1 and the green room of Track 4 Chapter 2) but every handful of slain enemies, one will drop a random Protein. There's the Pink Protein for health refills and Purple Proteins for F. Attacks (wait and the Pink will change to Purple, but not the other way around) but the important ones when starting out are the Yellow Proteins which you use to theoretically make yourself stronger, either by grabbing them immediately for a melee-based upgrade or waiting for them to turn into a Blue Protein for a projectile-based upgrade. Theoretically because the projectile path feels very weak with a slow rate of fire (Maria eventually gets homing balls while Ryo's projectiles later bounce off surfaces) and the melee path at first seems to reduce your range, although this gets better upon subsequent upgrades (Maria's upgrades are effective at attacking behind her, while Ryo's upgrades increase his anti-air range).
What you really want is the Red Protein which only appears after you've reached maximum power through three Yellow or Blue Proteins- grabbing one changes your appearance more dramatically and gives you the max melee and max projectile upgrades (now with double the amount of projectiles, firing both in front and behind you) at the same time, turning you into an nigh-unstoppable killing machine. Maria in particular becomes pretty busted and overpowered because of her homing shots and her new wings allow her to slow her descent from a jump by holding the button down, allowing her to skip certain sections and dodge enemies more easily. Ryo doesn't get any of that, but he'd sure be good in a fighting game with all that anti-air range. The catch is if you take three hits in this form you go back to the basic melee weapon which is extremely bad if, say, it happens during a boss fight. Which it will because the hit detection is all over the place in this game. If nothing else, this makes playthroughs require a certain level of strategy and planning ahead- the lifebar is pretty generous so you have to gauge whether you should take hits now to power down and get a fresh set of hits by powering up if you have enough enemies left to kill in a stage to reach that poiint before the boss.
However, I feel this power-up system means that the difficulty level has no real flow to it- you are either weak and ill-equipped to fight some of the more aggravating enemies, or you are ten times more powerful than God, and there's no comfy in-between state. Other action games vaguely in this mould generally handle things far better, giving you sub-weapons to help deal with specific threats but not making you overpowered or making the power-up process fairly quick and painless. There's also three elements that mean you'll often lose your power through what feels like little fault of your own. First, the very flaky hit detection means you'll often be hit with no idea of what actually hit you, and you also get a very short mercy invincibility period after a hit so you can rack up hits quickly. Next, the game's technical failings get in the way- SNES action games have somewhat earned a reputation for having a lot of slowdown (to the point where there are fan-made fixes for some games) but Psycho Dream will chug pretty constantly whenever something remotely taxing is on screen. Now, slowdown in old games is something I personally assess on a case-by-case basis, as sometimes it can be good- I have some very controversial opinions about the unintended extra slowdown in Metal Slug 2, for instance- but here it is absolutely a detreiment to the game because of the final element of this trifecta, input drops. Psycho Dream is a hungry, hungry game, and just loves eating your inputs, something made worse when the game is slowing down, and so when things are hectic and you need them, your F. Attacks just won't work (my record is something like four button presses before it'd come out) and clear the screen like they're supposed to. These three elements- bad hit detection, slowdown and input drops- make the power-up system deeply frustrating and just make the game a real slog to play in general as it feels like it's actively fighting against you enjoying yourself.
The level design is all over the place too, with little cohesion or thoughtful layouts, almost like it was thrown together hastily. A prime example is Track 4 Chapter 2 which is the type of stage all platformer game players dread, a vertically-scrolling area where you have to clamber up small platforms. However, there's no rhyme or reason to their placement, plus the game makes you get dangerously close to the top of the scren to make it scroll so you're likely to just blunder into enemies. There's a similar section later in Track 6 with Mega Man-style platforms that shift in and out of existence but unlike that game there's no logical sequence to when the platforms disappear or where they're placed, they just all do whatever they want. Some areas are also very poorly considered in some regards- Track 5 is an auto-scrolling runner section like the running sequences in Alien Storm, but while enemies do drop Proteins as normal, you can't actually grab them when they drop because they scroll off-screen too quickly, and the elevator sequence in Track 1 has a similar problem, just with items scrolling up off the screen instead. Finally, whole areas are frequently repeated too- Track 2 has several subway tunnels that are just a straight run to the end, Track 3 has two near-idential elevator sequences where you have to destroy enemy-spawning pods that take way too many hits to destroy (the only differences between the two is sometimes the second elevator spawns a flying enemy) and Track 6 has two long areas where you have to destroy pulsing orbs to s-l-o-w-l-y remove veiny blockades while being attacked by Life Force-style flesh wall nails and arcing flames, the only change being the direction you head in. There's a promotional video you'll see at the end of this article that makes me wonder if the game was originally more ambitious with its level design- Track 1's elevator sequence was originally more complex than what the final game got.
That presentation, though! With almost nothing else going for it, Psycho Dream bets every last one of its chips on aesthetics, presenting a nightmarish and unsettling world, a ruined urban environment that seems familiar and deeply alien at the same time teeming with unknowable horrors out to kill you. There's some genuinely unsettling imagery and moments in this, like the subways with trains flying by with gigantic eyeballs attached to them, Sayaka trapped inside some kind of flesh-bubble to later escape and vanish, or one of my favourites, the Track 1 boss where a grotesque half-transparent fleshmonster has taken over a TV station with its many tentacles smashing through the walls and monitors to strike you. There's perhaps a bit of a reliance on flesh and insect imagery (hey, there's a reason the Editor's Note warned you about that) but it absolutely makes Psycho Dream stand out from other action games of the time, especially on the SNES. The music is also ambitious from a game from this era, not being particular atmospheric but more unusual with somewhat repetitive beats that still get stuck in your head, Track 1 and Track 3 being particular standouts in this regard (the Retro Pals stream described the music as 'minimalist techno' and 'anxiety Phillip Glass' which are as good descriptions as any). Sadly this is undone by many of the sound effects, especially the sound of your character getting hit, an obnoxiously-loud CLUNK. Not exactly mood-setting, that one.
The crown jewel setpiece is the final boss scene- a cathedral, set in front of a twisted pastiche of the Main Street Electrical Parade from Tokyo Disneyland, which houses a gigantic inanimate humanoid beast with Sayaka inside its crotch in the foetal position, firing balls of fire from its fingers while a deeply haunting version of Schubert's Ave Maria plays in the background. That's... That's a lot, I'll be honest with you. While this scene stuck in my head for a good while after I first saw the game, when I reached it myself I was thinking about it for a while for a different reason- the boss is frustrating because the directions that the fireballs fire out at is not really telegraphed and they keep dropping Yellow Proteins when you're at full power, and if you accidentally pick them up you'll power down. Things are a little easier once you get past the first phase- you're then attacked by the floating head of the beast, but it's easy to jump around it- but if you lose a life trying this, it'll probably be quicker to restart the game as starting this fight without full power is extremely rough- maybe waiting for Blue Proteins might help, but good luck dodging the fireballs in the interim. All roads, even aesthetics, inevitably lead to disappointment with Psycho Dream.
So that's Psycho Dream, then. An absolutely fascinating mess of a video game that would've been doomed to be just a small footnote in the history of Telenet- a vaguely Valis-esque game with no ties to Valis- had it not been released on the Nintendo Switch SNES app in 2021 (more on that in the post-review section, of course) where it's instead a small footnote in the history of people complaining about this month's SNES app game not being Chrono Trigger. Arf, arf. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Comix Zone, a game that goes all-in on a particular aesthetic but doesn't have the gameplay or design to really back it up. A massive shame of course because even more so than Comix Zone this game absolutely nails the presentation side of things, there's very few console games from this era that go so hard on a biohorror aesthetic this twisted and it ensures the game makes an impact, it's just... I really wish it was less of a complete mess to actually play. I'm probably asking too much from Riot on that one, but it feels like an absolutely dynamite premise was just wasted on a game like this. Again, like Comix Zone, this is one that's pretty fun to watch someone else play, and it may even get you hyped up for trying it, but the presentation is writing a cheque this dumpster fire of a game just ain't gonna cash. A shame, really.
For being the real dream paradox, Psycho Dream is awarded...
In a sentence, Psycho Dream is...
All fur coat, maybe a tenth of knickers.
And now, it's that time, folks!
Here's a quickly-put-together Psycho Dream 1CC for you to judge harshly. This was recorded via the Switch SNES App and, uh, I recorded it at 30FPS because I'm not good at this kind of thing.
I think it adds to the Psycho Dream experience though- is the flickering not working because of my own incompetence, or is it the game? It's up to the viewer to decide.
Anyway, this has slight flashing in certain parts, so please take caution.
Courtesy of The Cutting Room Floor, Psycho Dream has a Debug Mode.
While you're switching the console on or after a reset, hold the Y, X, R and Start buttons down on the second controller until the Riot logo fades out. There's no chime or cue to confirm correct entry, but if it's worked, selecting Start or Continue takes you to the screen shown above where you can pick any Track or individual Chapter within a Track. There's also two blank spots at the bottom that both take you to a version of Track 4 Chapter 2 where you spawn at the top of the screen and fall down to the start of the Chapter.
In-game, you also get four numbers in the corner of the screen, the first two keeping track of the current screen brightness (with the hex code 0F being the maximum) and the other two indicating what Track / Chapter you're in. You can now also hold L to freeze the game and press R to advance by one frame, and press Select to cycle through all weapon levels (starting with the Yellow Protein progression, then Blue Protein progression, then the final Red Protein form). Have fun!
Next... If you know anything about Psycho Dream, then you know about Dream Probe.
We'll talk about Dream Probe now.
So, uh, for some reason, Renovation Products- Telenet Japan's US subsidiary who primarily published Telenet's games in the region as well as games not picked up for US release by other companies, very much a "you gonna eat that?" kind of business strategy- was planning on a US release of Psycho Dream, under the title Dream Probe. This release got very close to release, to the point where it was mentioned repeatedly in Nintendo Power as pointed out by SNES Central, had boxart done for it as reproduced above, got reviewed in Electronic Gaming Monthly #46 (May 1993) available here on archive.org and shown below, and at least one cartridge exists even if it remains undumped. As pointed out by the Retro Pals in their 1CC stream of the game, looking closely at the one screenshot used in EGM shows that they made some changes for this localisation- Ryo is now called Ron, Tracks are now called Stages and the F. AT is now called the BOMB. What little EGM says about the game indicates the plot's been changed a little too, talking about Sayaka being trapped in a dream machine (but that might just be typical '90s-era magazine coverage being wrong).
Dream Probe was cancelled sometime in 1993, but for fairly mundane reasons- Renovation Products were bought out by Sega in 1993, and needless to say any plans for SNES releases from them were quickly abandoned, taking out Dream Probe, The Journey Home: Quest for the Throne (a localisation of Neugier - Umi to Kaze no Koudou) and Arcus Odyssey (a localisation of Arcus Spirits). The only one that made it was Doomsday Warrior, which was... A very bad fightng game. Oof. It's probably not a huge loss that the US never got the game, because I can absolutely imagine this warping a few kids.
... Well, we can find out now if that's true as somehow Psycho Dream did get a Western release almost thirty (30) years after it first came out in Japan. The game was added to all versions of the Nintendo Switch Online SNES app in February 2021, with an English story blurb available on the app's menu but otherwise untouched for Europe and the US. Funnily enough, the same month the app also got Doomsday Warrior. Those two games are just cursed to forever be together, huh.
Finally, that promo video I mentioned, origin unknown.
As well as some live-action footage and character art from the manual, this short promotional video primarily shows clips from Tracks 1 through 3. There's quite a few gameplay differences at this point in development- the F. Attack counter is now labelled F. At and has only three digits but allows for more than six to be carried at a time, enemies can actually do more than one hit point of damage (Ryo loses half his lifebar at one point!) and the time limit for each stage seems much higher, seemingly starting at 500 in-game ticks rather than the 300 you get in the final game. As for stage layout differences, the only one I noticed is a big one, at the 2:18 mark you see Maria in the elevator sequence of Track 1 Chapter 2 with a completely different layout, as she's jumping between smaller elevators at different heights and making her way across the stage to the right. In the final game, all the elevators are at the same elevation and you just wait it out until you reach the bottom. It makes me wonder if some of the later stages were intended to be more elaborate like this but ended up being scrapped. Such a mystery.
So come on, hands up, who saw this game, this game, getting a rerelease on Switch. Anyone?
To be honest, even if you say you did, I don't believe you.