There’s a new Hitman game out and, naturally, a retro gamer’s mind turns to thoughts of previous sneaky stealth experiences. Metal Gear Solid, perhaps, the game that made hiding in cardboard boxes an acceptable activity for tactical espionage agents? Thief, the immersive olden days creep-and-cram burglary sim in which environmental awareness was as important as speedy reactions? Maybe even Spy vs Spy, that old school multiplayer game in which you laid traps to ensnare your rival?
All are valid milestones along the road of stealth gaming but, for me, whenever I think of pioneering sneak-em-ups – especially in the context of Hitman – my mind immediately turns to one that everybody else seems to have forgotten: Capcom’s 2004 PS2 curio Under the Skin.
Some of you may have glanced at the screenshots on this very page and are already questioning how this primary-coloured cartoon game is in any way relevant to Hitman, and that’s a fair question. All I can ask is that you bear with me.
Under the Skin casts you as Cosmi, a young alien from Planet Mischief, a world that is predictably based around hijinks, tomfoolery and slapstick gags. Every young inhabitant must prove their worth by undertaking a series on trials on Earth, and it’s here that you step in. Stranded on Earth after crashing his spaceship into a TV news satellite, alerting the humans to his presence in the process, Cosmi must demonstrate his pranking prowess by catching out as many homosapiens as possible within a strict time limit.
He does this by first zapping someone with his alien ray gun, which then stores that person’s identity. Then, by standing under hovering UFOs dotted around the map, Cosmi can transform into that person and use their special items and abilities to play practical jokes on everyone else. Those successfully caught in your wanton whimsy excrete giant gold coins, the collection of which determines your level of success.
There are, however, complications. Pranked humans turn hostile and will chase you, and if they do damage to your borrowed human form it first sheds its clothes, leaving you in underwear (a Capcom fetish dating back to Ghosts n’ Goblins) and then another hit will reveal Cosmi himself, at which point everybody chases after you until you can disguise yourself again.
The pranks in question range from the predictable – such as boxing gloves that fly across the screen and tacks that jab the feet on unwary pedestrians – to the outlandish and even terrifying, like impromptu karaoke singing and electric bombs that fry everyone in range. There’s also a wacky cast of rival aliens rampaging around the same maps, trying to trip up your plans and prank you in turn, and each of the game’s eight maps features unique “panic time” conditions which trigger periodically adding extra perils. In Coco Town, the first map, for example, it becomes rush hour and suddenly all the cars refuse to stop and knock you over, spilling your precious coins.
Under the Skin, therefore, marks a particularly strange kind of stealth game. You’re in disguise but hiding in plain sight. Far from being methodical it is played at an arcade-frantic pace. That makes a certain kind of sense when you learn that it was produced by Capcom’s Production Studio 4, the division that developed Dino Crisis and Devil May Cry, but also upbeat comic book oddities like Viewtiful Joe and Phoenix Wright.
You may already be composing a comment declaring that this makes it a very thin comparison point for the Hitman series, but it’s important that you understand that I am a very bad Hitman player. Not for me the painstaking observation and elaborate assassination scenarios. No, my default way of playing Hitman is to swipe a costume and then embark on a clumsy and steadily escalating spree as I create as much mayhem and confusion as possible. And in that sense, the way I play Hitman is exactly identical to the gameplay of Under the Skin, just without the generous sprinkles of golden coins.
Capcom has never been a publisher that was shy about cranking out a franchise, so the fact that Under the Skin vanished almost immediately and earned precisely zero sequels or spin-offs says everything you need to know about its sales performance. That’s despite the game featuring an entire level set in Raccoon City featuring the Nemesis creature from Resident Evil 3.
There’s no shortage of quirky games to choose from, of course, and while Under the Skin (or Annoying Alien: Panic Maker as it was known in Japan) shares some DNA with the likes of Space Channel 5 and Katamari Damacy, there’s something a little off about it, a resistance even to that sort of oddball niche, that makes its failure and subsequent obscurity even more charming.
It opens, for instance, with George Baker Selection’s 1969 hit Little Green Bag, a song that was already iconic for soundtracking the stylish ultraviolence of Reservoir Dogs and thus seems wilfully perverse atop a cheery arcade game about a baby blue alien. Production Studio 4 would only produce one more game – Resident Evil 4 – before being closed down and reshuffled in one of Capcom’s sporadic internal upheavals.
I can’t pretend Under the Skin is a particularly good game. It’s woefully shallow and often teeth-grindingly unfair, as confusing action collides with an unhelpful camera. The overall tone and characters are so exuberant and over the top that it becomes exhausting to watch, let alone play. It is fun, though, in small doses and it still pops into my brain whenever stealth games are in discussion, so it must have done something right. If nothing else it makes me wish for a mod that lets Agent 47 turn into a giant puce superhero and fly around the level, knocking people over like a psychotic Mr Tumble.
Like most forgotten cult games, it was ultimately too weird to survive and while the gameplay leaves something to be desired, it’s hard not to wish the big publishers would still roll the dice of daft experiments like Under the Skin.