E.V.O.: Search for Eden – A Retrospective Review

Chrono Trigger is one of the SNES’s best-loved role-playing games, with beautiful graphics, enchanting music and a sweeping story which encompassed time travel between many different eras of its world’s history. It wasn’t, however, the only SNES game with a focus on multiple eras. For instance, Maxis released a version of SimEarth: The Living Planet on the SNES, although as an awkward port of a mediocre title, it languishes in deserved obscurity. A more interesting title is E.V.O.: Search for Eden, a title developed by the Japanese developer, Almanic Corporation, and published by Enix in 1992.

It’s difficult to pin down E.V.O.: Search for Eden‘s exact genre, given that it encompasses elements from many different game genres. I think it would be best to describe it as a side-scrolling action RPG with platforming elements. By killing other creatures and eating their remains, you gain points which can be spent on developing your body to better suit the conditions of the era. Eventually, at the end of each time period, you face off against the most threatening creature of the era and progress to a later time period, often evolving into a different form.

The story, which is very much secondary to the gameplay, combines evolutionary theory with a sort of creation myth, where the Sun creates the nine planets (this being developed at a time before Pluto was demoted), and names one of them “Gaia”. Gaia is told that creatures may challenge to progress to Eden, but must complete the challenges before them through the multiple eras of the Earth. Your creature, as Gaia’s apparent favourite, is given guidance and challenged to progress through the different eras of Earth’s development, starting with the Cambrian era. The game begins with you playing a fish in the Cambrian period of the geological timescale, progressing to an amphibian, then to a reptile, before you are given a choice to progress into a bird or a mammal later on. However, some time during the amphibian stage, you are given some indication that there is outside interference in the evolutionary process, which could have dire consequences for the development of Gaia’s wildlife.

The more interesting part of the game lies in the gameplay. In each stage of your evolution, you begin with a weak example of the creature in question, such as a fish without a dorsal or pectoral fin, or an ichthyostega-like amphibian with puny frog-like jaws. In each evolutionary stage, you have a number of attacks which can be used to kill opponents, such as the bite or ram in the fish stage, or the kick available to mammals. Defeating and consuming other creatures gives you Evolution Points, which may be used to purchase more powerful body parts, such as more powerful jaws, a stronger tail or a more well-armoured body. Some of these improvements enhance your combative abilities, giving the ability to bite or ram more effectively, while others give you more protection against attacks, or more hit points to absorb damage. Not every improvement is entirely positive, and there is occasionally a trade off of protection against agility.

When you start out as a fish, the evolutionary system can seem somewhat like a gimmick, as there is fairly obviously a most effective path to take, and all of the other improvements are merely transitional. This gimmicky feel persists until the reptilian stage, where you begin to get mutually exclusive evolutionary paths which allow different body forms. It is in this stage where the system begins to show real promise, and while it’s somewhat disappointing that it takes until about two-fifths through the game for the system to really work, it’s imaginative and fun.

Unfortunately, the system, along with the fact that many of the levels are a linear affair and most of the creatures are easy to defeat with a simple strategy, encourages grinding over transitional evolutions. Indeed, grinding is often the only way to get your creature strong enough to take on the game’s bosses, who are substantially more powerful than the other creatures in the game. The difficulty of the bosses compared to the other creatures can occasionally halt progress as you try to figure out how to defeat them before they destroy you. It’s most unfortunate that perhaps the strongest boss in the game aside from the final boss comes at the end of the amphibian stage, before the multiple evolutionary paths have been unveiled and at a stage where the most effective body parts for defeating the boss also lead to low hit points and fragility.

There is, however, a way to subvert the battle system in your favour. The evolutionary system has a peculiar quirk where any evolutionary change leads to the regaining of life, leading to a way to cheese your way through fights by evolving cheap horns and removing them when your life gets low, or the four-legged mammal trick of shortening or extending your neck for low cost and little in-game effect. Given how cheap some of the boss fights can be, it can hardly be protested if you use a cheap trick in your favour to counter some of these tricks.

One of the most frustrating elements in the game which contributes to the cheapness of some of the boss fights is the near-lack of mercy invulnerability when one is hit. This is especially frustrating when it comes to collision damage, which can be a major pain not only during boss fights, but also during some fights with standard creatures, especially near the start of the game. I even would have accepted more powerful hits from creatures in exchange for some mercy invulnerability, as it would be a fairer prospect all round.

Graphically, the game is nice, with decently coloured environments and sprites, although it doesn’t match the best on the SNES. There is a sort of cartoonish look to the game which suits it well; it’s not entirely serious, and merits something a bit out of the ordinary. This especially comes into play with some of the early stages of evolution for each creature type, which happen to look a lot softer and squishier than the ultimate progressions. The environments are, for the most part, attractive enough, but they’re hardly memorable, and really serve as a place for the action rather than being a centrepiece of the game.

The game’s music, composed by Koichi Sugiyama of Dragon Quest fame, is again for the most part nice, but inconsistent and not particularly memorable. The music ranges from the great, but not exceptional, final boss theme which reappeared in I Wanna Be The Guy, to the mediocre overworld theme, or annoying “Amphibian’s Land” theme. None of it is terrible, but the soundtrack is hardly up there with Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid or Final Fantasy VI.

Before I give the game a final assessment, perhaps I should delve deeper into the science of the game, given that it does have an evolutionary theme. The game does appear to contain a fair deal of the archetypical creatures of each geological period, such as ichthyostega and early dragonflies and proto-cockroaches in the amphibian stage and Tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus and pterosaurs in the dinosaur stages, although these are often out of sync with their real development. The evolutionary process is also stated on occasion to be tampered with, which perhaps explains some of the differences, but the game doesn’t entirely stick to the plan even during the early fish period.

All in all, the game probably presents a better view of evolutionary biology than most other computer games, or for that matter, cinema or television, but that says more about how bad the representation of science is in computer games than anything else. What is notable (and sad), however, is that looking up Wikipedia to see how accurate the game was taught me more about evolutionary biology than anything else I’d done since I last studied evolution at a second year university level two years ago. In that way, at least, there is some educational value in the game.

Looking on the game as a whole, it’s pretty easy to see why E.V.O.: Search for Eden is obscure. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game, because it’s not – although it can be very frustrating, especially considering the boss fights and the lack of mercy invulnerability. However, neither is it a brilliant game, and in an era of exceptional and excellent RPGs such as the aforementioned Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, or the likes of EarthBound and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, that would be enough to guarantee some degree of obscurity. Something that can’t be denied, though, is the game’s innovative structure and imaginative progression.

Bottom Line:Innovative, interesting, although occasionally frustrating, it’s easy to see why E.V.O.: Search for Eden is obscure, but it’s very different and perhaps deserves mention for its imaginative system of play at least.

Recommendation: This is not a game which you’d be running off to eBay to order immediately, but it would be a decent buy in a bargain bin, and perhaps deserves a rerelease on the likes of the Wii Virtual Console. If you can find it without too much effort or expense, and you’re in the market for a different RPG, you might want to consider a try.