Review: Postal

For gamers of a certain age, Postal is a powerfully evocative title. Those who played it will not have easily forgotten their experience, and indeed, even those who haven’t played the game (myself included until recently) will likely recognise the name due to its notoriety. At its core this is because the entire raison d'être of Postal is to entertain its players through on-screen representations of unflinching gratuitous violence. Not violence in the context of a justifying purpose, or under circumstances that bear no semblance with reality, but remorseless mass shootings by a lone gunman.

Therefore, understandably, Postal will not be to everyone’s tastes. However, even those who find the game hard to stomach may have some appreciation for its developers who, whether intentionally or not, pushed back against those who sought (and still seek) to stifle the artistic freedom of game creators. Developed by Running With Scissors and originally released for PC and Mac in 1997, Postal arrived in the midst of ill-founded outrage directed towards video games by self-appointed moral arbiters and sensationalist sections of the media. Rather than focusing their ire on any of the other obvious causes of society's ills (say massive global inequalities, persistent unemployment, or chronically underfunded public services), the narrative being pushed by some was that video games were an exceptionally dangerous source of moral corruption. Within this context, Postal struck a defiant tone. 

A mere 25 years on, Postal has now finally made its way to the Dreamcast, thanks to the meticulous work of Dan Redfield, who took on the challenge of porting the game after Running With Scissors released the source code to the public in December 2016. When the original developers jokingly asked for a Dreamcast version to be produced, I seriously doubt that they expected this outcome: a near flawless port running at a solid 60 frames per second, packed with features, and published professionally in a physical medium. The latter aspect is down to Norwich-based WAVE Game Studios, an outfit who have quickly cemented their reputation within the Dreamcast scene since publishing their first title for the console, Senile Team’s Intrepid Izzy, in August 2021.

Ok, enough with the pretentious preamble, what about the game itself? For those unfamiliar with it, Postal is an isometric shooter, with a smattering of top-down sections, in which the player takes on the role of an unnamed protagonist (simply referred to as ‘Postal dude’). As alluded to above, the premise of the game is quite simple: you roam from level-to-level taking down as many enemy combatants as possible. And although it isn't a prerequisite for progress, the player is presented with ample opportunities to slaughter seemingly innocent civilians too. There really isn’t a great deal of plot: each stage is preceded by a cryptic and often foreboding message, presumably stemming from the pen of the main character, which along with the visuals suggests that Postal dude is gripped by some kind of madness. This lack of plot depth doesn’t necessarily detract from the game though—the no-nonsense approach is focused on dropping you straight into the action and keeping you on your toes at all times. This lends itself nicely to short bursts of gameplay, and the dry sense of humour that occasionally rears its head ensures that the mood isn't as depressing as the subject matter might suggest at first glance.

To facilitate your mission, Postal dude is equipped with a range of weapons with varying characteristics (range, damage, shot frequency), from the low-powered sub-machine gun, through to the more outlandish and spectacular napalm launcher. As with any shooter the aim is to hit your targets while avoiding taking damage. On the face of it, the gameplay of Postal can appear to be quite invariable and a little shallow. On the easier modes it can certainly be played in a mindless manner, with your character capable of tearing through stages while soaking up incoming fire to little effect. However, at its heart, the gameplay is rooted in strategic thinking – something which becomes mandatory if you wish to progress in the harder difficulty settings. Making careful use of terrain, being mindful of your inventory, and deciding when to fight and when to run, all need to be brought into play if you want to actually do well.

As Postal is not a brand-new title there are already a multitude of reviews out there which assess the gameplay and artistic direction of the game, so I’m unsure if there really is a need to re-hash things that have most likely already been said countless times before. To my mind, there is plenty of fun to be had with the game, despite it clearly showing its age in some respects. For the purposes of this review, I feel that the crux of the matter is that the game has been released on our beloved little white box, so, let’s get down to business and focus on the Dreamcast specifics.

When I said the game is packed with features, I meant that sincerely. Postal on the Dreamcast is bursting at the seams. For starters, there are a whole host of control schemes to choose from. If you are playing with the standard Dreamcast controller you will have options that allow for variance between movement combined with aiming via the analog stick, complete with a ‘lock-on’ mechanism designed specifically for this release, and a simulated twin-stick style of play with movement and aiming assigned separately to the analog stick and face buttons (partially similar to Xeno Crisis). The controls map well to the Dreamcast controller, feeling responsive and taking little time to become familiar with. My only minor quibble is that shifting between weapons can feel a little cumbersome—although this is probably down to the inherent limitations of the Dreamcast controller compared to the games’ native mouse and keyboard. 

For those whose cupboard space is heavily laden with peripherals, there are also control schemes dedicated specifically to the Brook Wingman adapter (enabling use of modern twin analog controllers) and the Dreamcast Twin Stick controller, a hefty piece of kit that was released exclusively in Japan but works just fine on PAL and NTSC-U consoles. Controls using the Twin stick are actually rather well implemented, with the left stick used for player movement and the right stick used to aim. It does feel a little cumbersome initially, but in time it feels more natural to play this way, with circle strafing feeling much more achievable with two sticks rather than one. That said, the overly 'clicky' nature of the Twin Stick mechanisms does start to grate after a while...but that's hardly a fault of Postal.

Once the player has chosen their preferred method of handling, they are presented with the opportunity to play Postal in its original guise or experience the extra levels that were produced for the Special Delivery expansion, as well as those that were exclusive to the Japanese edition of the game, Super Postal. That is 22 levels featuring distinctive hand-drawn terrains in total, with those from the expansions freshening things up considerably due to their different settings and style. 

However, perhaps the most impressive feature of the Dreamcast release of Postal is its capability to facilitate local cooperative play by up to four players, the local aspect of which is a distinct feature implemented by Dan Redfield, never before featured in an official release of the game. It’s true cooperative play where there is a shared goal rather than a competition. Thus far I haven’t been able to gather four willing participants (why do adults need to handle their meaningful ‘responsibilities’ and not just plough hours into couch co-op?), but my experience of the two-player variation was thoroughly enjoyable and gave the game a new lease of life after completing the campaign solo. 

The attention to detail in ensuring Postal controls well on the Dreamcast, and the inclusion of an exclusive local co-op mode, are undoubtedly the standout features of this release. However, there are many other ways that developer and publisher alike have pushed the boat out, such as incorporating in-game VMU screen images, or facilitating translations to make the game playable in no less than six languages (some of these build on previously available translations, but the Dutch, Italian and Spanish versions are all brand new). To put it frankly, you don’t get the feeling that this was a rush-job, which unfortunately isn’t something that can be said of every indie game that sees a commercial release on the Dreamcast.

The significance of all of the above means that Postal on the Dreamcast is not just a novelty. Sure, this notorious title making an appearance on a commercially failed console two decades on from its official demise is what will probably be causing ears to prick up. However, it would be unfair if this is all that Postal on the Dreamcast is noticed for, as those who delve into it may have reason to argue that this is the best version of the game released to date. Of course, those who didn’t enjoy the game the first time around, or who are put off by the subject matter, are unlikely to enjoy the Dreamcast version as the fundamentals remain the same. Yet a large section of the Dreamcast community will rightfully welcome Postal with open arms.

Postal is available from WAVE Game Studios, priced at £29.99.


Tom Charnock said...

Superb review Laurence. It's a really solid port, hopefully the start of even more PC classics heading to Dreamcast!

FlorreW said...

Insane , Dan seems to made a fantastic job. Multiplayer added ? Just like that ? Im definetly gonna order this game.

Nice review and thank you for the hard work Dan <3

Janino296 said...

Order is coming in! Many thanks from Berlin

DCGX said...

Wow this sounds like a great port! I'm waiting on my copy, which has apparently shipped.

Pizza Hotline said...

This was a great read Loz. A concise and well structured run down of the game. I have to say, I wasn't that interested in grabbing a copy of this but after reading the review, I might have just changed my mind :]

Laurence Goodchild said...

Thanks for reading and taking the time to commment Tom, FlorreW, Janino, DCGX and Pizza. I received the copy I had preordered a couple of days after this review published and have since had a few more enjoyable sessions using the disc (GDEMU was used for the review). The loading times are longer, which is to be expected, but I'm still really impressed with how well it performs. The attention to detail that I mentioned above is also evident in the physical packaging which WAVE have done a tremendous job with. Neither the developer not publisher have paid me to say these things either (not yet anyway) - just giving props where it is due!