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P.N.03 | Mastery through Memorization

You tap your feet on the floor at a tight rhythm. Shots fire and bounce off the walls. 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. The concept behind them was that Capcom felt the gaming industry was slowly stagnating, their own products included, and they wanted to give birth to new intellectual properties. These new games were set to launch yearly, starting at 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). Viewtiful Joe would lead the pack, being director and directed by Hideki Kamiya. Meanwhile Shinji Mikami would focus on directing Robot War Game, Resident Evil 4 and Killer 7.

Yet, shortly after the public announcement of the Capcom Five in late 2002, an internal delay hit Viewtiful Joe, 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 Capcom Five titles like Resident Evil, which had a more bleak visual tone.

Immediately when the concept was set, Mikami rushed to a character designer, asking “draw the design of the hero, immediately“! When the designer started to ask questions about the design, like the gender of the protagonist, Mikami recollects that he quickly responded with “What do you like to draw, man or woman”. The designer choose for a woman, to which Mikami ended the conversation with “then it is so”. And thus, protagonist Vanessa Z. Schneider was born.

When the gameplay was slowly coming together, and Mikami saw Vanessa dance past bullets, he intended for the game to be called Jaguar, in reference to her agile motions. Staff members didn’t care for that title however, forcing Mikami to come up with a new name. The final name would be Product Number 03, shortened to P.N.03, to give off a more mysterious feel.

Despite the short deadline of only seven months to work on the title, the game saw its release in March 2003. While previews garnered positive reactions, like IGN calling P.N.03 “the most promising of the bunch” in regards to the Capcom Five, reactions on launch were negative, including those of its own director:

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.”

Shinji Mikami

director

To describe P.N.03’s controls is to describe dance, as one can. Tap the Gamecube’s A-button to 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 through d-pad commands that deal high damage and invincible moves that cost energy to use. Or press the shoulderbuttons to make Vanessa do a cartwheel dodge. Her animations are shaped like dance moves and rhythmic twists, giving them a strong feeling of style. Consequently the enemies are slow, robotic and wooden in their movement, making Vanessa stand out even more. As noted by Mikami at the time, a CGI model can only get so beautiful, and there’s more to a design than physical beauty. It is the way the character moves that sells you on her.

Rolling is also possible, but not initially recommended as it requires you to first crouch and then press the dodge button. Once you start dancing, enemies start to fall apart. Killing foes in a row will start a combo-chain, with larger combos giving more points. These can then be spend on new suits and their upgrades. These outfits give Vanessa alternate stats and access to different Energy Drives.

These Drives come in various shapes and sizes. Drives like “Swan” and “Harrier” deal solid damage, while ones like “Tengu” render Vanesse invulnerable for a decent duration while doubling the damage of her regular shots. Some other Drives see less use, only being applicable in a few rooms at helping the player gain a full combo in certain, harder, rooms. Though due to each suit only having a few Drives installed, the “Tengu” tends to be favoured the most – exposing some balancing issues. Sadly, due to the Gamecube’s unreliable D-pad, players can expect the Drives to not register in times of crisis.

P.N.03’s over-all combat sees players traversing through a single room, avoiding enemy fire and killing enemies trying to stop the combo-chain from expiring. The goal is to reach the exit where players are ranked on their maximum combo, clear time and if they took damage or not with bonus points as a reward. The later is another reason why the Tengu Drive sees so much use, as it allows the player to get more points due to not taking damage.

The enemies you face are mostly stationary or move at a slow pace and all their attacks contain strong visual and audio cues, allowing players to always react and dodge if they are sagely enough at the game. The levels themselves exist out of separate room as mentioned before, each with a clean white aesthetic. Producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi recalls that, once the gender of Vanessa was decided, they wanted to portray the world as such too. A femine world of delicate lines, strong whites and a delicate image leading to a minimalistic approach to level design.

Many of the rooms are repeated however throughout the game, probably due to the game’s tight deadline. Some rooms will be visited more than a dozen times, with only a few variations in enemy layouts and sometimes the area will be mirrored.

In a way, P.N.03‘s structure of short room encounters with slow moving enemies can feel like a throwback to old-school shoot’m up games like Space Invaders.

Which is what they were going for, as Producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi noted: “the gameplay is essentially reminiscent of a tough, old school arcade shooter“. And just like those arcade games of old, shooting in P.N.03 is done by tapping a button, not holding it down. One press equals one shot. While this could be seen as annoying, it does force new players to make each shot count, if only to save their thumbs. It isn’t until later in the game that the player can unlock suits that allow you to hold down the fire button.

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 suits and Drives are 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. The rooms, while visually appeasing and 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 where random selected rooms are put together into one new challenge.

While battling these challenges, one might call P.N.03 “clunky” or “wooden” in terms of movement, and it’s easy to see why. For instance, moves don’t overlap. If you’re shooting you are shooting and thus cannot dodge. You cannot shoot while moving, you cannot immediately jump after dodging and getting hit slows the game down 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, where the energy-pickups are and which rooms can be skipped for a highest 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.

It just takes time to get that far.

Most of this magic, the good and the bad, 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 for some quick creativity i.e. seeing the animators throw small dance-style like motions into the mix, giving the game a unique style. The harsh deadline is also felt in the gameplay with Vanessa only sporting one weapon, cutting down on variety.

Lastly, the short development time 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 at around two hours. The story is barely present, containing less than seven minutes worth of cutscenes and barely any dialogue, and that’s counting the credits at the end. While some concepts are present, it is clear that Mikami and his team decided early to focus on the gameplay.

And faced with such a tight deadline, it’s good that Mikami did so. Being a game so focused on rhythm and memorization, it is the purest modern example of an 覚えゲーgame as one might find; pronounced OH boe GHe 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. To don the extra revealing Papillon Suit. It has access to all the game’s Energy Drives, but reduces your health to one. Beat the whole game using this suit, and a hidden steamy cutscene shall be your reward.

Sadly, despite this allure, P.N.03 was a financial failure. It’s shortcomings and rushed nature resulted in bad reviews that emphasized its short run time and clunky controls. Understandable, as the game’s drive for mastery isn’t enough for everyone. Paired with a normal price tag it never saw much love, seeing it end up as the only finished game of the Capcom Five to never be ported to another system.

P.N.03 in essence is 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. Yet unlike many other failed games, P.N.03 does not entertain a cult following. There is not grand fan forum, not secret tournaments for high-scores or active Youtubers covering it. Instead it entertains a few lone fans around the globe, connected only through their unbeknownst shared passion for this little title that could have been so great, if only its creators had gotten more time. It might not be the best game the first time through, but it is one that gets better and more fun with each runthrough as you’ll always improve and find new tactics or suits to experiment with. And in a world where games are slowly shying away from replay value in favour of a singular experience, it’s good to still have some of those great replayable gems out there.

Mastery never felt this great.

鑒 reflection style 鑒

In this short section I reflect on the article from my own viewpoints as a gamer and lover of the genre instead of a critic.

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. The number of playthroughs mentioned should already give it away, I quite liked that game. After being confronted (yet again) with the fact that commonly accepted bad games could be good, I decided to hunt P.N.03 down.

I had 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… not to mention the attractive femme fatal. 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, and isn’t as steamy as one would hope to believe), 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 and one I still pick up from time to time. I do wish it would get a re-release however, though the chance of this are slim.

斬 postscript notes 斬

  • 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 most commonly regarded as true;
  • Because P.N.03 takes place in a space colony, Mikami wanted Vanessa’s country of origin to be ambiguous. Her name hails from numerous countries. Of the name “Vanessa Z Schneider”, Vanessa comes from France. Meanhile the middle name is from England and the last name, Schneider, is German;
  • This article was re-written and updated to fit the new website nearly two years later (2019). It was shocking to me just how messy this article was at times and how much information was missing or omitted. I learned a lot over the last two years, that’s for bloody sure!
  • 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 Metroid Prime‘s Samus Aran;
  • 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;
  • Despite its cult following, there’s a surprising amount of risque artwork of it available of Vanessa;
  • Though the name Jaguar was dropped, one animator changed Vanessa’s crouch animation to one that resembles that of a jaguar, as a nice little call back;

源 sources 源

  • https://n4g.com/news/582642/edge-interview-shinji-mikami
  • https://www.ign.com/articles/2002/11/13/capcoms-fantastic-five
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20121104183751/http://www.computerandvideogames.com/89343/interviews/interview-pn03-unloads/
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20130405172458/http://www.capcom.co.jp/pn03/pn03_cl/pn_cl02.html
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20130405172222/http://www.capcom.co.jp/pn03/pn03_cl/pn_cl01.html
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20130405200607/http://www.capcom.co.jp/pn03/pn03_cl/pn_cl03.html
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20110829111910/http://www.next-gen.biz/features/interview-shinji-mikami
  • https://www.ign.com/articles/2003/09/08/pn03-interview-hiroyuki-kobayashi
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20101023155948/http://www.next-gen.biz/features/time-extend-pn03
  • https://kotaku.com/remembering-capcoms-great-nintendo-promise-betrayal-5806800
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20080905044950/http://www.gameinformer.com/Games/Review/200309/R03.0821.1026.17899.htm

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