Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
We’re right around the corner from the release of Final Fantasy XV, which means that now is the perfect time to look back at the absolute pinnacle of the series! …But I’m not going to do that today. It can wait. You see, today is Black Friday, the national celebration of mindless consumerism and potentially regrettable impulse buys. And to me, there’s no classic game that encapsulates that spirit better than Enter The Matrix, a divisive offering from an infamous franchise.
The 1999 sci-fi/cyberpunk film The Matrix is rightly hailed as a modern classic, and if you haven’t seen it, you aren’t using your life effectively. In the early 2000s, Matrix fever was at an all-time high, with its revolutionary “bullet time” visuals taking over movies and video games alike. While the Wachowskis – auteurs who always swing for the fences with anything they create – were working on the hotly anticipated sequels to their hit film, they also began development on three companion pieces across multiple media: A series of variously animated shorts, collectively titled The Animatrix; a series of comics originally for release on their web site; and the video game we’re discussing today.
Enter The Matrix, released by Shiny Entertainment in 2003 for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox, is an essential part of the Matrix storyline, serving as the connector between the top-billed animated short Final Flight of the Osiris and The Matrix Reloaded, as well as fleshing out many of the side characters from the films – that’s right, non-gamers at the time only received part of the Matrix story and never knew any better! Since it was a major component in a franchise at the height of its popularity, it’s no surprise that the game sold well – to the tune of over 5 million copies. Unfortunately, reviews largely considered it a mediocre game, and since many people were retroactively disappointed with The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions after examining the series as a whole, the game tends to be looked on as an oddball entry in an underwhelming franchise. But to fans of the Matrix saga, it’s something more.
Enter The Matrix is easily the most successful film crossover game of its era, and that makes sense, since functioning as a truly interactive cinematic experience (way ahead of its time) is where the game’s biggest strength lies. Over an hour of original live-action video was shot for the game, featuring the same acting and cinematography that film fans were looking for when they plunked down their money. This is interwoven as cleanly as the technology of the time allowed, and the game’s creators were aware of the limitations, addressing them proactively by waiting to introduce the graphical sequences until the characters are inside the virtual reality of the Matrix. The sound design is every bit as good during this part of the game as during the filmed scenes, so the immersion value is high despite the graphics falling short of what today’s gamers expect.
The plot centers around Niobe, ship captain and Morpheus’s ex from the Matrix sequels (expertly played by Jada Pinkett Smith, who takes her video game role as seriously as that in the films), and her second-in-command Ghost (Anthony Wong), a taciturn Buddhist assassin with only a few lines in the films but an enjoyable star turn here. Players control one of these two in a series of missions to support the human rebellion against their A.I. oppressors – here, Enter The Matrix wisely borrows a page from Resident Evil 2’s playbook, presenting two unique scenarios that give us a reason to go back and play the game again as the other character. These gameplay sequences are punctuated by fantastic cutscenes, most of which are live-action – and nearly every character from the films has at least a cameo, as the story extends and explains various scenes from the movies. For instance, it’s Niobe and Ghost who catch Morpheus with their car during the highway fight sequence (for my money, the best scene in The Matrix Reloaded); the game has them finding out he’s in danger and frantically racing through traffic to be there at the right time. They interact with memorable film characters like the Oracle and the Key Maker, and there are surprisingly deep subplots like Ghost’s unspoken love for Trinity (which you only discover by meeting certain conditions). Overall, it’s clear that the whole video game medium was treated with much more respect by the Wachowskis than was typical of Hollywood at the time.
There are different types of gameplay featured – beat-’em-up brawler, third-person shooter, stealth, driving – and while none of them stand out, they’re all done well enough to keep things fresh and provide an enjoyable challenge until the next scene, with little penalty for failure. Players have a “focus bar” that they can use to activate bullet time (a la Max Payne, which heavily influenced this title) in order to give themselves extra Matrix powers and cause their enemies to move in slow motion. There’s even a portion of the game which borrows from classic horror; the Merovingian’s security guards, some of which appear in the movies, are older Matrix programs based on vampires and werewolves (this fills in another unexplained plot point when Persephone kills one with a silver bullet). And naturally, Agent Smith puts in an appearance to hunt our heroes down – all 100 of him!
The feature I find the most exciting is actually a command-line based mini-game accessible from the main menu; with a little curiosity and creativity, players can delve further into the controls behind the Matrix, unlocking various game features – including a hidden message from Morpheus himself – and ultimately attracting the attention of agents who notice you perusing their forbidden files. It’s actually pretty intense, especially when you suspect they might go so far as to erase your saves!
I originally played Enter The Matrix as a weekend Blockbuster rental between the release of Reloaded and Revolutions, and that was all the time I needed to delve into everything the game had to offer. I’m actually a fan of the second and third movies – to me, they’re one of those properties that are trendy to hate on, even if there isn’t a lot of substance to one’s criticisms. It was incredibly satisfying to see the characters I’d gotten to know in the game make appearances in the third movie, and many of the plot points made a lot more sense when I understood the world more thoroughly.
Seeing that they had a commercial (but not critical) hit on their hands, the Wachowskis heeded the fans who complained that they wanted Neo, not these side characters, and followed this game up with Matrix: Path of Neo. But, proving that they were impossible to please, Path of Neo didn’t sell nearly as well and was even more derided by critics, who compared it unfavorably to the films. They tried their hand at an MMO with The Matrix Online, hoping to expand the world further and create a reality where fans could feel like they made a difference, but this too was a failure and was shut down in 2009, marking the Wachowkis’ final foray into masterminding games.
If Matrix fans are willing to endure the outdated graphics and the gameplay they’ve seen perfected elsewhere, Enter The Matrix is a fine way to spend a few days. Because it sold so well at the time and was widely available for every console, it’s very easy to find a complete copy of the game for only a few dollars – an excellent value! If that’s too big of a time commitment, there’s a playthrough of the game here; the first ten minutes might just give you an idea of why it’d be more fun to experience the game firsthand, preferably in your home theater.
In the end, while Enter The Matrix often goes overlooked as a standalone game, it holds up remarkably as an example of what creators can accomplish across multiple media, if only they have the vision to make it happen.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!