As Eurogamer’s technology editor and founder of Digital Foundry, it’s fair to say that my focus is usually on the future of gaming, not the past. For many, retro gaming is a voyage of discovery and delight, but for me, it’s part of a 30-year-long career. With that in mind, few games retain a vice-like grip on my affections decades on from release – but Lobotomy Software’s PowerSlave (or Exhumed as I knew it at launch) is a game for the ages. For me, it’s up there with Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem 3D as one of the greatest shooters of the 90s – and now it’s back on all modern platforms, thanks to an astonishing remaster from Nightdive Studios. Skip ahead to the video below to see just how wonderful the remastering work is or jump ahead once more to see John Linneman’s original DF Retro episode on the title: see an expert deconstruction of what made this game so special.
The bottom line is that PowerSlave Exhumed was the cream of the crop from the 90s ‘Doom clone’ explosion, a game that actually manifested in three different forms: an interesting but not exactly brilliant PC game designed on 3D Realms’ Build engine, followed up by two custom console versions that were very, very different, both using Lobotomy Software’s own SlaveDriver engine.
A technological powerhouse on consoles (especially so on Saturn), PowerSlave Exhumed combined cutting-edge visuals with proper full 3D environments (as opposed to Doom’s ‘flat’ levels), but still hailed from the era where opponents were 2D sprites. Performance wasn’t solid on Saturn, but generally held at 30fps, with movement accentuated with a pleasing camera roll/sway effect, while beautiful dynamic lighting on effects introduced effects unseen on equivalent PC titles.
The real revelation was an emphasis on gameplay we’d not seen before in this genre, where Metroid-style progression elements were seamlessly woven into the game. One level sees the route forward limited to just one direction, the player passing a steep wall that can’t be climbed, several locked doors that can’t be opened and a gap that can’t be jumped. Eventually you uncover the power-up to jump the gap, find the key that opens the doors and so forth. Progression leads to further obstacles and new mysteries to solve, turning a linear experience into more of a labyrinth of highly compelling puzzles.
The PlayStation version followed the Saturn game, improving performance and image quality, but curiously, Lobotomy Software pared back geometry and complexity and delivered more claustrophobic environments. The diversity in the various versions of PowerSlave Exhumed ties directly into the phenomenal remastering work by Nightdive Studios: why just remaster one of the versions when you can combine the best of all of them into one glorious whole? It’s an ambitious idea – one that requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the original game(s) – but Nightdive has pulled it off.
It’s the right game at the right time because to experience the game at its best, not only do you need a retro console, you also need PowerSlave Exhumed itself – with disc copies of the game now costing hundreds of dollars. Nightdive’s new version is brilliant no matter where you play it. The PC version is excellent (with fully unlocked frame-rate and ultrawide support), while consoles see a 1080p60 experience on last-gen PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Switch, along with 2160p60 gameplay on PS4 Pro, Xbox One X and PS5. New-gen consoles are running under back-compat, which does mean that Series S only gets a 1080p60 version of the game. Performance is a tight 60fps on all systems, with only slight dips on Switch.
The remaster bases its maps primarily on the Saturn version, but mixes up elements from other versions to enhance the game. In areas that looked more interesting on PlayStation, Nightdive inserts those environments into the larger Saturn map. Additionally, red spiders were the common ‘cannon fodder’ enemy in the Saturn game, replaced with blue scorpions in the PlayStation version. Nightdive’s choice here is simply to combine the both of them into its own ‘mega mix’, while revamping enemy placement in general for a more dynamic combat experience.
Saturn was notorious for its issues in handling transparencies, leading to a mesh-like checkerboard effect on water. This wasn’t a problem for PlayStation, so Nightdive’s work draws more on the PS1’s water implementation, revamping caustics in the process. In general, the remaster draws upon the best of all versions – to the point where higher resolution sprites from the PC version were used – but Nightdive isn’t afraid to touch up and improve areas where appropriate. That extends to the HUD and view weapon too, where assets designed for 4:3 aspect ratios are enhanced to work for wide and ultrawide displays. This extends to the new, higher resolution overworld map too – though the original is there if you want.
Also impressive is that inclusion of ‘subtractive shading’ options, where users are given the choice to essentially ‘downgrade’ elements of the presentation in order to better match how the game would have originally looked on 90s console hardware, from various shading options right down to actually re-introducing texture warping (!). There’s even a configurable CRT filter, which looks unerringly accurate. All of this comes on top of additional features, including anti-aliasing, configurable texture filtering and an adjustable field of view setting.
And all of this is what makes Nightdive’s remasters so good. They’re built out of love and respect for the source material, they look and play great on all modern systems and they offer the ability to scale the scope of the remastering to deliver an authentic ‘period’ experience or else allow users to tap into the advantages of modern hardware while retaining the essence of the original game. And the game is still brilliant. It holds up to this day. I highly recommend you try it.