The idea of a “promised land” is as old as recorded history. Ever since Moses led the Israelites out of slavery and into a 40-year Burning Man party in the Sinai desert, people have dreamed of greener pastures—far-off places where their current humdrum existence will be exalted and easy.
It’s a trait that remains common in contemporary fictional tales, especially ones that detail life following the apocalypse. There is often no evidence for these distant Edens—they exist more as a beacon for survivors in need of a mutant donkey upon which to pin their hopes. In Cormac McCarthy’s super-bleak The Road, a man flees with his young son across the gray, scarred country, avoiding cannibals and bandits and all kinds of perverse obstacles. Survival instinct and the understandable wish not to end up in the digestive tract of some irradiated hillbilly can only take you so far. The man is leading his son to the coast, but we all know the beach holds no sunny egress, instead just one less available direction to flee.
The 1992 Sega CD “rail shooter” Sewer Shark appears at first to follow similar tropes. When the game begins, humanity has already been driven underground by some unspecified environmental catastrophe, as I’m sure our political leaders were calmly assuring us that climate change is just a theory and that the 140 degree heat and extreme weather patterns are just “summer” as usual. The only solace from the stench and potential run-ins with Ninja Turtles comes in the form of an impossibly nice, post-apocalyptic beach community called Solar City—a surface-level escape that might be a myth, but serves as good-enough a destination as any.
The good thing about humanity being forced to abandon large swaths of the surface world is that it has created a new industry. (Thanks, global warming-denying job creators!) Well, it’s a job, anyway. The underground world is apparently connected by a web of sewers, and in these sewers are loads of mutated creatures that you need to exterminate. You do this by shooting lasers out of your sewer ship, which flies mostly on its own, although you sometimes have to make turns based on coordinates provided by Catfish, your googly-eyed flying drone, and heeding advice from your surly copilot, Ghost.
The plot makes about as much sense as snacking on bath salts. Commissioner Stenchler—played by irritable Die Hard II cop Robert Costanzo—broadcasts to your craft periodically, complimenting you on your skills in vaporizing ratigators (mutants with a catchy name). He’s up in Solar City, ostensibly paying you to clean up the sewers for the benefit of this surface one percent. His title suggests that he’s your boss, and his slovenly good nature at the game’s start reinforces this impression. Your new comrades teach you the ropes of sewer sharking, as they call it, but are simultaneously searching for a way out.
A number of matters remain unclear. First of all, how does Commissioner Stenchler survive on the surface, particularly at a beach community populated by sycophantic bimbos and conga lines? We know that the sewer jockeys can’t go to the surface just anywhere, or they would’ve done that already. Solar City is apparently safe to inhabit, but nearly impossible to access from the subterranean labyrinth, except through the dreaded Sector 19. And what’s with Stenchler’s vested interest in keeping the sewers safe? He doesn’t live there and has no reason to visit. Apparently the mere existence of glowing orange mutant rodents somewhere is enough to end his veritable bacchanalia.
The video communiques from Solar City look like something out of Blue Hawaii, not the radiation-ravaged, polluted wasteland that drove people below ground in the first place. Clearly, this is all a mind game implemented to motivate the underground class to continue the dangerous, unsavory job of hunting overgrown, glowing predators—a Hunger Games-style reminder to people like you and fellow dweller Falco.
So there’s no telling what you’ll find once you get to Solar City, since Stenchler’s reports can’t be trusted. Falco claims to have found the way out, but her last transmission had her going down in Sector 19. You and Ghost have no choice but to try and find her. These last tunnels are more harrowing than early levels—you’re beset by more enemies, and must navigate by following an odd, tethered light-ball. Meanwhile, Stenchler appears again, this time with Falco tied up to a stake on the beach. Unless you give up, he means to turn Falco into a “mindless tool of the commissioner” using concentrated sun beams and fruity drinks with umbrellas. At this point, Ghost dubs you “Beach Bum,” the highest honor a sewer jockey can earn, and certainly a step up from your old name, “Dogmeat.”
Stenchler unleashes some improved monsters into the sewers to stop your advance, suddenly giving off the impression that he might have had something to do with the infestation. “Better hurry, Beach Bum. Falco’s weak little mind is already bending to my will. Soon she’ll join the rest of my beach blanket zombies,” he taunts. Time to turn and burn.
You shoot your way through Stenchler’s last line of defense, the brain-eating Zerks. Falco’s certainly on your mind, but more importantly, what lies behind door number Solar City? A Wizard Of Oz-type figure behind the obvious Stenchler fabrication? A high-tech film studio operated by Morlocks? Or evidence that you’ve lost your own tenuous grip on reality?
As the hatch opens, and you view the surface world for the first time, the answer is clear. It’s the beach, all of the bikini-clad zombies (aka tanned morons), and an unharmed Falco. It’s either all real, or the elaborate hallucinations of your sick mind, completely unhinged by the horrors of life underground. In the distance, you see some of Stenchler’s mutinous beach minions rolling him inside an inflatable inner tube towards the ocean. As he floats in the shallows, he shakes his fist and bellows, “I’ll get you for this, Beach Bum!” This game has gone from dystopian futuristic hell to a Scooby-Doo episode.
For once, the promised land is just as promised, and it’s completely insane. You’ve earned that Malibu and Coke.