We dive into the Sega Saturn’s underappreciated deep sea horror cult hit, ‘Deep Fear,’ right in time for its 20th anniversary.
“A monster! What are you talking about? Anyway…”
Even the most committed of gamers can have a number of blind spots and Sega’s 32-bit console, the Saturn, was a system that many people never got to experience. The Sega Saturn is perhaps the biggest neglected stepchild from Sega’s glorious days back in the console war. Many people contribute the Dreamcast’s fraction of an audience for Sega’s “failure” during the console days, but the Sega Saturn made a lot more mistakes and burnt people out than the Dreamcast did. If anything, gamers were apprehensive to jump on board to the Dreamcast because of the lackluster impression that the Saturn made and people were initially resistant to try out the Saturn because of the wealth of add-ons that were implemented towards the end of the Genesis/Mega Drive’s lifespan.
Like most things that Sega does, even though the Saturn is one of the most underappreciated consoles that existed, there were a number of gems for the system that showed what the complicated machine could do when the right people were involved. Many people adopted Sony’s Play Station instead of Sega’s alternative, but in spite of this there’s still a dedicated fan base out there for the console. The survival horror genre was still in its infancy during the Saturn’s lifespan, so while the genre obviously wasn’t the console’s priority, there are only a few titles that fit into the survival horror mold and they’re ports for the most part. That being said, there still manages to be one unique, exclusive horror game that was in many ways ahead of its time, but largely goes ignored in the larger discussions of survival horror (it probably doesn’t help that barely anyone has played a Sega Saturn). Get ready to submerge yourself into the inky depths of Deep Fear.
At first glance, Deep Fear might just look like “Resident Evil on a boat”—Resident SEA-vil, if you will—but it actually pushes quite the heady story that incorporates conspiracy theories, alien narratives, and turns into a horror/sci-fi hybrid that’s quite unique and far more than a mere zombie outbreak. Imagine if Resident Evil’s iconic cutscene where a zombie is first encountered immediately undercut itself by everyone shouting “April Fools!” afterwards and showing that it was just a prank? Not only is this a creative, subversive way to kick off the horror here, it also keep the audience on their toes and brings disbelief into where the real danger lies. Deep Fear’s story revolves around the mission of preventing the outbreak of a transformative disease, with the secondary threat of nuclear warheads also adding to the danger. The task of freezing life and then attempting to resurrect it later leads to mixed results and a disastrous insecticide-like compound begins to mutate everyone into these deadly monsters.
Besides Deep Fear, the only other original horror titles on the Sega Saturn are D and its sequel, Enemy Zero. Sure, there were ports of Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark 2, and surprisingly, even Phantasmagoria, but in terms of Saturn-exclusive survival horror the pickings are pretty limited (especially considering Deep Fear never even came out in North America). There’s of course House of the Dead, but that’s much more of a shooter than survival horror fare.
Deep Fear’s release also comes during a very interesting time as it’s a year after the release of Resident Evil, but also a year before Silent Hill comes out. There was a definite gap and niche to fill here and the Saturn’s lack of popularity ultimately kept Deep Fear from finding the success that they were hoping for. It also didn’t help that the game was only released in Japan and Europe. It was also the last Saturn game to get released in Europe, so this was definitely during the end of the Saturn’s lifespan and most people—Sega included—had already moved on. The Dreamcast would even be out in Japan less than six months after Deep Fear’s European release. Sega’s reputable in-house AM7 team were the ones that were producing Deep Fear, however, the two people responsible for the title, Hiroyuki Maruhama and Kunihiro Shirahata, wouldn’t ultimately make a big splash in the horror genre. Maruhama would stick with survival horror in his career, but he goes on to direct the regrettable Dino Crisis 3. Shirahata, on the other hand, wouldn’t go on to direct anything else with Deep Fear acting as his final title.
Deep Fear attempts to make a strong first impression and it mostly succeeds. The game’s opening cinematic is operatic as hell and really tries to make this all seem epic and like a movie rather than a video game (right down to how the credits are brazenly presented). It makes for a good distillation of what the game has to offer, while it also manages to actually be scary and invoke the game’s sense of “what the fuck?” Not to mention, all of this sets the scene just as well, if not better, than Resident Evil’s introduction. In spite of the game’s strong presentation style, Deep Fear’s voice acting is notorious for somehow actually being worse than the infamously cheesy job done in Resident Evil or House of the Dead 2. The ironic thing here though is that there’s some real money and production value that’s put into this game, yet it results in utter camp. Capcom’s Resident Evil was unintentionally campy and lucked into finding a tone that inadvertently worked for the audience.
Deep Fear’s main environment, the underwater, sterile-looking Big Table doesn’t have nearly the same charm as Resident Evil’s mansion, police station, or Silent Hill’s titular town, but it’s an interesting change of scenery. The surroundings all look and sound great and the cramped claustrophobic feeling works in the game’s favor. However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a drab submarine fails to make for exciting level design. Thankfully the enemies are at least a lot more bonkers and creative. In fact, the game’s distinct mutants are designed by acclaimed manga artist, Yaushi Nirasawa, who is known for works like the Kamen Rider series and the Garo’s “Horrors” creatures. The snake-like monster that some people transform into also pretty much feels like Deep Fear’s version of Lickers, but it’s pure ‘90s goodness. On that note, one of the first real obstacles that you encounter is a friend asking you to kill him before he transforms into a terrible spider-like, skeleton monster that could give William Birkin from Resident Evil 2 a run for his money. John Mayor, the game’s protagonist, gets put through quite the gauntlet here and the circumstances of this first monster are much more traumatic than what S.T.A.R.S. encounters in the Spencer Mansion.
Whether looking at Deep Fear’s unique monsters, the game’s setting, or its themes, the title pulls inspiration from impressive films like The Leviathan and The Abyss. It wouldn’t be decades later until franchises like Dead Space, or more specifically, BioShock, would again put survival horror in such a different, sterile environment. It’s worth addressing that there’s a 2005 title for XBOX, PS2, and Windows that’s titled Cold Fear and many claim to be a spiritual successor to this title. The two games really just share similar titles and water-based premises, but this plucky Sega Saturn game is actually the more satisfying of the two, even if it comes from a previous generation of gaming.
Music and sound design is another major way in Deep Fear manages to stand out. The game features quite the moody, eerie score and it’s actually done by Kenji Kawai, who composed the score for freaking Ghost in the Shell, so there’s considerable talent on board here. On that note, there’s little to no music in the game itself, so all the sound comes from gunfire, enemy moans, and machinery, which adds to that isolating experience. Kawai’s music is so damn good in the cutscenes that it’s a real shame that they couldn’t figure out how to get it playing through the rest of the game (although there are exceptions, like boss fights and escape sequences).
Deep Fear really stacks up in comparison to everything else that was available at the time, so it’s a shame that this title remains such an unknown gem. The game doesn’t just push to a different setting for survival horror, but it also features many concepts and features that were highly innovative for the burgeoning genre. Deep Fear is the first survival horror game with a fixed camera angle in which players can run, aim, and fire all at once, which took other titles a long time to catch onto. The game also allows for easy-to-use secondary weapons. In fact, the game’s weapon and combat mechanics feel surprisingly advanced. This allows for some fairly tense boss battles, like one where you’re essentially up against a raging demon bull and you need to avoid the rampaging beast. Another boss climbs across the top of a hallway as you run back and forth in a fight that’s not unlike one of the boss’ from Resident Evil 4.
A rather creative approach is also taken for ammo and health, which are technically infinite, provided you can find “refill” stations. Enemies can take more of a beating as a result, but all of this at least feels different than the other crop of survival horror titles from the late ’90s. On top of that, other mechanics like an air meter make Deep Fear distinctly its own thing, it’s just a shame that not enough people found out about it. It’s also exciting to see how Deep Fear incorporates the air meter and various environmental hazards into its survival horror. This is a detail that’s also present in the brilliant Saturn title, Burning Rangers, but it’s not used for horror purposes in that case. Here the idea allows players to stress over how much air they have left and if they should go explore a new room or retreat for a refill. Furthermore, limitations like static camera angles and tight hallways actually add to the horror of the game and make enemies more frightening, too.
Deep Fear is sure to make its characters an unusual lot, too. John Mayor is surrounded with a number of clichés on Big Table, but they all make for memorable, unbelievable caricatures in gaming. Mayor’s closest friend is Mooky, a huge Yankees fan who will find any opportunity to bring up the baseball team. He instantly has more personality than anyone in the original Resident Evil. Dubois (or Duboa, as his name is inexplicably spelled in the credits) is also a tremendously offensive portrayal of a homosexual and Mayor’s superior officer, Clancy, often writes about submarines and his crew in a way which feels like a major nod to the audience about how this is supposed to resemble a B-movie. All of this makes it especially brutal that this game didn’t come out in America because they’re the most appropriate and the obviously intended audience for this title. Who knows, maybe a US release would have seen Deep Fear become more of a known title or the Dreamcast could have even put out a sequel that could then go on to be underappreciated, too.
The game also features a weird fixation on animals and it shows a particular obsession with monkeys, like Anthony, who becomes a strange focal point for the video game, but one that still works for it. There’s also Rambo the bulldog who’s actually one of the few survivors at the end of the game. Rambo fits into the title in a truly bizarre fashion. Can you imagine needing to locate a dog using the lure of a cheeseburger in order to get Barry to work with you in Resident Evil or for Cybil to help you find your daughter in Silent Hill? And this is all happening on a submarine base, at that. Why are there dogs and/or cheeseburgers in the first place!
While many early survivor horror titles are victims to frustrating amounts of backtracking, Deep Fear resists this urge and pushes a fairly linear approach (although disc two does indulge in this staple a little, which unfortunately makes for a sluggish final act after an effective start). The game can feel like a fairly isolating experience as Mayor moves from place to place in the submarine in your attempts to find key cards, meet various surviving personnel, and disarm parts of the ship. It’s almost like the game’s a sim for a maintenance worker on a ship and there just also happens to be mutated monsters in the mix, too. In Deep Fear’s defense, a lot of early survivor horror titles had this back-and-forth “mission” mentality to them.
Deep Fear is far from the most frightening video game from the ‘90s, but there are still some rather brutal, cinematic death sequences in it. Mooky’s in particular strikes a real chord and is Deep Fear at its most ruthless and violent (the fingernails!). Additionally, it’s actually sad when John Mayor’s friends die in this. The fact that the game makes you fight Dubois underwater, right after you kill him, is probably the biggest surprise in the whole game. It’s surprisingly emotional for a survival horror title from this era. There are also some timed escape sequences that will definitely remind players of Resident Evil’s self-destruct countdowns. One of these tense passages involves John Mayor launching himself out of a torpedo hatch as his submarine plummets below. Later chapters in the title also play with the idea that the game’s hero might be infected with the virus himself, which is an interesting, albeit predictable, development that digs deeper than the original Resident Evil does.
Deep Fear saves plenty of excitement for its conclusion and the big set piece that the game goes out on is quite impressive and pretty much sticks the landing. It’s an ambitious way to conclude things and this awesome ending easily knocks every other survival horror game’s finale out of the water. Basically, Anthony, the cute ape, is the key to everything in the end. Everything comes down to John needing to shoot a monkey in order to end this madness, but not before the chimp’s owner risks her life for him. The visual of the transformed fairy-like Gina who hugs and embraces her pet chimp while she dies and the station self-destructs is a truly bizarre visual for the game to go out on. Even John is like, “Yeah, I’m out of here…” when he begins to witness this weirdness. But hey, at least Sharon’s dolphin gets to get away safe in the end. It probably goes off to hook up with Ecco or something.
Deep Fear is far from a perfect video game and it suffers many of the same issues that other survival horror titles from the ‘90s do, but the many ways in which Deep Fear strays from the norm and tries to do something new absolutely make this oddball title one that’s worth checking out. The fact that it’s on the Sega Saturn makes the title even more mysterious. Deep Fear feels like a video game from the ‘90s, but it’s a title that could also do tremendously well on Steam or GOG.com and it seems highly unlikely that Sega is looking to hold onto this property or has any future plans for it. Put the game out there and let people finally get to experience its weirdness. Now, during this retro renaissance, is literally the perfect time for Deep Fear to hit new audiences. It also doesn’t hurt that this year marks the game’s 20th anniversary.
And if you still have any other questions about this game, may Deep Fear’s very direct commercial speak for itself.