Comedy and video games have always had a torrential relationship. Throughout the years, there seems to have emerged an unwritten rule that a game that is purely comedic in nature must be different enough in its gameplay to turn heads, but also retain some form of traditional gaming "values" to hook otherwise uninterested gamers. The problem is that comedy is best when it's presented directly, not as a changeable, interactive medium like the drama that comprises a role-playing game. In an RPG, where characters develop through tragedy, revenge, or love, the funny stuff is usually reserved for mini-games and sidequests. Yet there have always been games that go for all-out laughs and succeed, and even more that try hard but eventually fail, to forever spend their days on the bargain jewel case shelf of the PC section at the local Gamestop (no singling out of Panty Raider intended). Panic! was a game that also tried to be different, to reaffirm that comedic games can be done correctly. And in the end it succeeded, by being both very funny and somewhat fun to play.

Full Immersion Video

   In 1993, Sega was feeling intense pressure in Japan after releasing two hardware bombs: the Mega Drive in 1988 and its Mega CD add-on in 1991. While the Mega Drive's American and European counterparts were faring well, the Mega/Sega CD was doing bad business worldwide. Taxed for software but not losing its drive to produce original games, Sega released an odd game by the name of Switch for its all but doomed CD system. It was not expected to be a blockbuster hit (and wasn't), but it boasted some interesting features and hilarious situations. However, those outside of Japan who had seen the game were convinced that the game was interesting and very likely worthwhile, but would never reach America or Europe without some severe censoring of its numerous risqué scenes. In 1994, Data East, a company whose console reputation consisted mostly of ports of its own arcade games, shocked those disbelievers by picking up the game for American release, uncut and under the new name "Panic!" Sadly, the game quickly slipped under the radar and became a forgotten classic. Until now, of course.

   Panic!'s plot is one of near apocalypse. The Computer Network Server, the technological nexus that controls the operations of every machine on the planet, has been infected with a virus which causes its connected machines to malfunction irrevocably. A countermeasure has been devised in the form of a program codenamed "PANIC!", and it's up to an intelligent young lad named Slap (and his dog Stick) to enact the program and restore the machines to normal usage. Admittedly, the story falls apart completely by the time the game starts as the true key to eradicating the virus is simply pushing the right button to "fix" a machine and teleport to the next one.

Speak of the devil

   On that note, Panic! provides some of the simplest gameplay ever, akin to an overblown HyperCard stack. As Slap teleports to a new scenario, a panel of buttons or switches appear on the screen. Players must use the colorful cursor to choose what button they're going to operate, and observe the results. This is all there is to the game. Nothing moves beyond the level of "point, click, watch". The vast map of scenarios are all connected in a web, and unless you're taking notes, you're going to be seeing the same stuff over and over for quite a while. This is Panic!'s only real failing in a world of more interactive products, but as a true "puzzle" game it doesn't fail, as it requires memory (and patience) to succeed.

   The results of pushing a button can be one of three things: instantly teleporting Slap to the next scenario; the machine or object doing something very weird; or an intermission featuring select players from Panic!'s diverse cast of characters. "Something very weird" includes (but is certainly not limited to) hammering itself into the ground, eating the entire area around it, or turning into something else entirely. The intermissions consist of a fade into a scene featuring a character from the game (as well as the omnipresent devil and angel) and have them speak in a strange little skit and/or give you "advice". This is where the tainted hand of localization comes into play, as nearly every one of these bits is awkward, irrelevant and plain not funny, taking away precious moments where you could be looking at something in the game that's much funnier and untouched by the American QA department. Although one or two of these intermissions are worth a chuckle or two, consider that out of the 1,000 animations the game boasts, you'll be seeing them for every third or fourth new scenario depending on your success rate.

Harsh consequences

   Not every button that Slap presses leads to mirth, however. Around thirty buttons peppered throughout the game's scenarios are wired to famous landmarks, monuments, modes of transport and smaller miscellaneous dwellings. Accidentally pushing a booby-trapped button will cut to a scene of the real-world location effectively becoming smoky rubbish. While this mass destruction of well-known locations and objects is perhaps too topical for its own good these days (one trap delivers an ion explosion through the middle of downtown New York, and another rips apart the middle of an airborne passenger jet), a few scenes are hilarious because of their randomness (an igloo or doghouse collapsing). This kind of clever placement keeps you hunting for the next location to destroy while simultaneously trying to catch every other "standard" gag (even if destroying all 30 locations results in a failed mission).

Not at all insane

   It's hard to judge Panic!'s graphics, if only for the sole reason that every scene leads to something that looks completely different from the last. Imagine taking all the work produced in a metropolitan art scene and combining it into one harmonious piece, and you'll come fairly close to describing what Panic! looks like. Renaissance painting and sculpture, modern pop art and even contemporary landscapes are represented and thoroughly violated. While playing Panic!, one can't help but wonder if the creators of the game were inspired by Monty Python, as giant feet, Moai statues, heads of historical figures and the volumous other creatures and characters are all present in the game and highly evocative of Terry Gilliam's classic animated vignettes. Everything is also nicely rendered thanks to the enhanced capabilities of the Sega CD, especially the aforementioned monuments and buildings of the booby traps.

   On the aural side of things, Panic! is also incredibly unique and varied. Most of the music carries a decidedly classical, upbeat flair that is somtimes reminscent of Gershwin on entirely too much nitrous, but also calms down and shifts dramatically from droning electronic synth to relaxing harmonica suites to creepy science fiction tunes. Unfortunately, there are far more scenarios than there are music tracks, so repetition is evident and frequent (and it seems that the least enjoyable tunes are the ones that are repeated the most). On top of all this, virtually every sound effect in the game is produced by a human mouth and are all very articulated (in a weird way), which reinforce the hilarity of a scene.

Great debates of our time

   When all is said and done and you've managed to make your way down the map to the final scene of the game, you'll be faced with the infected Computer Network Server itself. At this point, the designers could have opted to make this the hardest scene in the game, with all but one button leading to an instant Game Over. Unfortunately, all but one button ever does is shoot you through the various tubes surrounding the Server and back again, and when you finally push the "magic" button to beat the game, you realize you've just taken part in one of the more unabashedly anticlimatic final stages in video game history. So much so that it no doubt will breed anger and hate in a less patient player. Not even the lovely acoustic ending theme, in all its shortness, can salvage the great quest.

   It goes without saying that most people will dismiss Panic! as "just another messed up Japanese game." However, the game isn't so Japanese as to completely alienate a Western audience. For one thing, the core game is virtually devoid of a language barrier (save for the occasional text announcement and the voiced intermissions). Second, most of the gags are played upon internationally recognizeable objects like vending machines and satellite dishes. Thirdly, some parts of the game can be considered bizarre and confusing no matter where you're from. Slap will sometimes find himself in colorless voids and having to repair some absolutely bizarre mechanisms that even the likes of H.R. Giger would stare at blankly. And despite the game's usually juvenile humor (poop and vomit play a big part in the virus that infects the devices), nothing is too vague or dry-witted to be unrecognizeable by any other culture.

Moai heads = 100% instant hilarity

   So is Panic! a good game? If one finds it funny enough to continue searching out the various scenes all the way to the end, then yes. Other gamers will find that the insane amount of repetition can water down the humor drastically, but those with the time and patience will discover a diamond in the rough. With luck (and a notepad), one could attempt to beat the game in just under 8 or 9 hours, so it isn't a totally empty effort. Panic! is first and foremost an homage to comedy in all its forms, but in some ways it has also heralded the new wave of innovation borne from the 32-bit era. It's really not such a bad game to play. Or watch, for that matter.

Retrospective by Ray Barnholt, GIA.
Developer Sega / OFFICE I
Publisher Data East
Genre Puzzle Adventure
Medium CD-ROM (1)
Platform Sega CD
Release Date  1993
997 screenshots
Front and rear box art
Producer Hajima Tabe
Graphics Renzo Kinoshita
Music Kei Tani
Full game credits