When a mecha fanboy dies, this is his heaven.
If you’re a fan of giant robots, chances are you might have heard of Super Robot Wars: possibly through the awesome music or videos on Youtube of ridiculously over-the-top attacks. For the uninitiated, it is a series of crossover games featuring Japanese mechs – an anomaly of copyright laws that would never be allowed to live in the West.
However, Super Robot Wars can be daunting. There’s dozens of games on almost every system, at least three major continuities (Classic, Alpha and Original) and hundreds of characters have been featured. There’s a lot of confusion, particularly around the issue of English translations; and furthermore, there’s no real central source of information. I thought I could help out a little with some advice from a (relative) veteran.
Firstly one must understand that being a fan of the series is no fun at all. The vast majority of the games have no English translations whatsoever; a smaller number have (often shoddy) menu translations and only five are available fully translated. Generally, there is little that is groundbreaking or innovative about the gameplay, which can be quite repetitive and restrictive. If you play Super Robot Wars, you’re doing it for the love of mecha; it’s a series created by and for nerds.
Now, I would suggest that you begin with Original Generation 1 and 2 on the GBA. These are the only games to have been released in the West, for the simple reason that they lack any licensed series and instead feature ‘Banpresto Originals’, the original characters from earlier titles. In a sense, they’re a kind of meta-crossover from within the franchise. They’re easier than many other SRWs and have relatively accessible gameplay compared with, say, the complexity of squads in Alpha 3. They also offer a certain degree of flexibility that main series often lack. In fact, as standalone games I would recommend them to anyone interested in strategy RPGs – they require no knowledge about the mecha genre, although the diehard fan will enjoy the games’ references and tropes. In my experience both games can be somewhat pricey, moreso for Brits such as I who had to import from the US; to the best of my knowledge, neither game made it across the Atlantic. Bear in mind that it was released as Super Robot Taisen, due to some copyright troubles with the completely unrelated Robot Wars – this name is also used in reference to other SRWs on the internet.
Once you’ve acclimatised yourself to the basics of SRW you’ll want to move onto games with licensed series. If you’re already fluent in Japanese then I probably can’t give you very good advice; you’ll want to chose your SRW based on which series are included. This chart can help you decide; looking up videos on Youtube (of which there are a surprising number) to check out gameplay can also be helpful.
However, if you’re adamant that you’ll only play the games in English, I’m afraid you don’t have much choice. Of the few fan translations available, Alpha Gaiden is, at least in my opinion, the best. It features voice acting and a fair variety of series, as well as a reasonable difficulty which however spikes towards the end. The plot is quite good for a crossover game and the elements of original storylines are interesting enough. You can find the patch by Aeon Genesis here, although you’ll have to search for the ROM yourself.
Aside from Alpha Gaiden, you’re limited to the first and third games in the Classic timeline (on the Gameboy and the SNES respectively). While the effort put into the translation should be commended, the gameplay of both games is frankly primitive. 3 is regularly claimed to be one of the hardest games in the series. 1 is hardly recognisable as a SRW. Neither have graphics worth praising. By all means, give them a try; the retro charm appeals to some. The patches, again, are courtesy of Aeon Genesis: 1 and 3
Keep on the lookout for new translation patches: currently, the most optimistic projects seem to be J and the original Alpha, although release dates are anyone’s guess. There’s also translations for 4 and D in the pipeline, though they might be a little further off.
The advice commonly given by posters on /m/ in response to laments about the lack of English translations is to ‘suck it up and learn Japanese’, which I think somewhat underestimates the difficulty of learning a foreign language, especially one so alien as Japanese and even moreso at a later age when acquisition of new language becomes more difficult. Nevertheless, it’s probably the only advice that can be given if you want to understand the plot of most SRWs. However, a large proportion of the Western SRW fandom – myself included – enjoy the games despite a limited or non-existant literacy in Japanese. This is where one’s mecha fanboy credentials are essential. Even if you can’t understand the dialogue, the sheer enjoyment of watching giant robots attack each other with beautifully-animated explosions accompanied by a soundtrack of nostalgic theme tunes is worth it for the inner Ryusei Date.
For those who wish to persevere, I would recommend several games. On the DS, W and K have beautiful sprites and remixed music and relatively simple gameplay which is friendly to newcomers. They also feature more modern series which are better-known in the US such as Gundam SEED, Full Metal Panic! and Nadesico. The lack of region-lock means that importing is a viable option; alternatively, flash carts are a good solution.
The lack of region-lock means that the PSP SRWs are also worth consideration. Both games, MX and A, are remakes with a variety of older, more established series. However, loading times and difficulty levels means that your mileage may vary somewhat.
The various console titles are probably not worth the fuss for most people. Region-locking and complicated gameplay mechanics mean that you’re better off staying with the handheld games. However, Z is notable for being a very late release on the PS2 and having impressive 2D graphics; meanwhile, Alpha 3 is a giant morass of series, original characters and ham which culminates in some of the most epic moments in mecha history.
To call Super Robot Wars ‘underappreciated’ is probably inaccurate. These games aren’t for you unless you can tell the difference between a Zaku and Gouf. However, if you’re lucky enough to be in that group of neckbeards, you’ll almost certainly love it.