New Super Robot Wars confirmed

Source: IGN

Slightly old news, but a new SRW title was announced for the 3DS at E3. Not much else is known.

So on the one hand, I’m excited for any new SRW game. On the other hand, I have little intention of buying a 3DS any time soon after the launch, given that I still have a backlog of unplayed games on various sixth-gen consoles and a pitiful lack of funds.

Although we don’t know anything about the game – even whether it’s an Original Generation title or a main series title – it’s interesting to speculate. Given the capabilities of the new DS, perhaps we’ll finally see voice acting on a handheld SRW, PSP remakes notwithstanding.

If it does have licensed titles, maybe Code Geass will get its SRW debut…

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Mapping the Uncharted Fandoms: Super Robot Wars

Super Robot Wars Alpha 3 Cast

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.

Super Robot Wars Original Generation 1 and 2Now, 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.

Super Robot Wars Alpha GaidenHowever, 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.

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Pre-emptive Action: Preparing for Alien Invasions

This post was inspired by 2D-Teleidoscope’s post on the Angels of Evangelion and the subsequent comments. It contains spoilers for Super Robot Wars: Original Generation.

Stories of alien invasion have been ubiquitous since the Victorian era. They’ve been tied into our fears of invasion from neighbours closer to home, whether Prussian or Soviet. In a sense, they foster a patriotism that works above national boundaries: like a global ‘spirit of the Blitz’, it’s all of humanity together against the alien other. And it’s not just fiction that warns us of the alien threat, as Stephen Hawking will attest to. History shows that the meeting of two disparate civilisations often ends in disaster.

Given the vast reams of invasion literature, you’d have thought that there’d be more genre-savvy fiction depicting humanity going one step further than just fighting off the aliens and actively preparing for the threat. After all, former US presidents have encouraged such preparations. But there don’t seem to be many stories of aliens coming to find humanity ready to fight them.

This might just be a result of plot conventions. A movie where the UFOs don’t come unannounced (remember that we’d probably see invaders coming a long time before they reach us) and get nuked to hell before they’ve even landed on Earth would be rather short and boring, even if there were lots of pretty explosions.

Also, there’s common sense to consider. SETI have enough trouble getting funding just to look for aliens. Convincing people to pay billions to protect against a purely theoretical threat, whilst possible, would be hard for a non-government body, especially considering that there’s a multitude of immediate problems facing mankind here on Earth.

However, there is one example that came to mind: Super Robot Wars. Although the same themes are repeated throughout the several timelines and games in the series I’ll focus on the Original Generation games, since they avoid licensed series’ plots.

Bian Zoldark is the head of the Divine Crusaders, essentially a terrorist group which aims to secure world domination in order to prepare for invasion. In homage to Macross (a series which I shamefully still haven’t watched in full), this zeal is prompted by the discovery of alien technology on a crashed meteor. Bian is pretty successful considering that he is of questionable sanity (he devotes two thirds of his entire organisation’s budget on one (admittedly awesome) machine and builds a mecha musume for his daughter because the original design wasn’t feminine enough). His movement has enough manpower and resources to overthrow a world government.

Zoldark and Branstein

Bian's on the right. Apparently he's Icelandic, which would explain why he looks like a Viking.

In the end, he’s defeated by the game’s protagonists and reveals that the entire war was orchestrated so that humanity would develop better mechs in order to fight the invading Balmarians who become the primary antagonists for the remainder of the first game. A fairly ridiculous scheme even by mecha standards, but apparently it works!

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More FE3 remake news

Source: andriasang and the official site

So, we’ve now got a set release date for Japan (July 15th) and a few new details. Most importantly, they’ve reintroduced the idea of a personalised player character.

This isn’t an entirely new concept – the seventh game in the series, released in the West simply as “Fire Emblem” (it was, after all, the first localised game) allowed you to input a name, birthdate and gender. The other characters would interact with you to a minimal degree but you didn’t even get a sprite. Following the trope of the Heroic Mime, all your persona’s lines would be inferred by the other characters. Otherwise, you had very little impact on the storyline and the only difference it made to the gameplay was a minor stat boost affected by the birthdate you entered.

But the remake has changed the formula a little. Now, you get to design your own character portrait using preset features and even use him or her in battle.

Player generated characters

Despite the resemblances, these two are not Marth and Shiida

I can’t say I’m massively excited. FE7‘s player character feature felt rather pointless given that you could remove all mention of the character and the storyline wouldn’t change at all. Besides, I don’t feel that FE is the right kind of series for a player-generated character. The games rely very heavily on an established storyline and character interactions, so the impact of a player-inert can only be minimal and bland at best.

Still, FE7 remains one of my most favourite games despite its rather lacklustre PC feature, so ultimately I don’t think it will make much difference to how good the FE3 remake is.

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Deus Ex

Deus Ex PS2 front cover

Disclaimer: this review only covers the filthy heretical version PS2 version and may not represent the alternative PC gaming experience. Also, spoilers ahead.

Something that I’ve always considered important in a game is a sense of atmosphere. Although I can’t define it exactly, I’d say that music, graphics and background information (that is, information presented to the player that isn’t directly part of the ongoing narrative – for example, NPC dialogue or ‘bestiaries’ à la Final Fantasy XII) contribute to a good sense of atmosphere. Although gameplay is also important, I feel that good atmosphere can make up for mediocre gameplay (thus why I’m still slugging through Drakengard despite the horrendous gameplay mechanics). Deus Ex has both of these qualities in significant amounts.

As far as atmosphere is concerned, Deus Ex does exceedingly well despite being somewhat dated. Although the music is rather subdued and not particularly memorable (aside from the lovely orchestral opening theme), it does what’s needed: it sets the mood of intrigue and conspiracy perfectly. If anything, a more emotional soundtrack would clash with the cyberpunk setting.

What the game particularly excels in is background information. Books, computer terminals and ‘datacubes’ (which seem to act as rather pointlessly hi-tech post-it-notes) are commonly found around the gameworld and while some reveal necessary information for storyline progression, the majority are simply fluff. However, this fluff is what really makes the world of Deus Ex: backstory to the major characters, details about the setting and poignant sidestories. For example, in the final level we find a datacube next to the body of a soldier who stood his ground against invading troopers. There are other bodies like this one scattered around the level, but we get to learn about his individual fate.

The great thing about all this fluff is that it’s completely optional: the storyline progresses fine without the player knowing any of it. It really rewards exploration without making it tedious. The only downside is that the fluff becomes rarer towards the later sections of the game, but there’s more than enough of the main plot at this stage anyway.

It’s through little details like this that we get a constant apocalyptic feeling, especially in the decaying urban settings where most NPCs are drunk, dying or murderous. Various conspiracy theories are weaved together effortlessly – Area 51 exists side-by-side with the Illuminati and an illness not too dissimilar from AIDS covertly spread by the government. It’s almost like a Super Robot Wars game for crackpots. Furthermore, although it’s obviously not on the same level as, say, Orwell or Huxley, Deus Ex is a lot more intellectual than your average shooter; there’s a genuinely political feel to it in places beyond simple violence.

Gameplay is another strong area. While it’s by no means a stealth game, Deus Ex does encourage discretion and careful planning. It’s often easier to pick off enemies one by one or find alternative ways of killing them rather than a full-on firefight. Rushing through stages with a machine-gun is possible, especially towards the endgame with judicious use of certain upgrades (the self-healing augmentation is pretty broken), but it’s trickier and ultimately not as fun. Item management is key, considering that there are few places to restock and most of your weapons and usable items must be looted from enemies or found as treasure – something which I felt paralleled the spirit of the RPG genre nicely. The upgrades system has a good in-game justification in the form of nanomachines (Deus Ex doesn’t really believe in gameplay and storyline segregation) but can be somewhat gamebreaking when levelled-up enough (the aforementioned self-healing and cloaking augs particularly).

The elements of choice within the gameplay are substantial. You can choose to bypass a lot of the fighting by going through side paths and most bosses can be killed earlier than usual.  The downside to all this choice is that not very much is permanent – and the different routes through a level can provide such lucrative benefits that you’ll end up exploring all the alternatives simply to pick up upgrades and such; thus defeating the purpose of branching pathways. So, while you might choose to enter a base stealthily, you’ll end up killing everyone in order to find the secret stash of grenades.

Furthermore, the three alternative endings pose a genuine moral problem for the player. None of them are particularly appealing and your decision really comes down to ethics. Would you prefer people to have to suffer for freedom or be happy under a benevolent dictator? Of course, your decision might also be influenced by simplicity – one of the three endings is rather easier to acquire than the other two. Also, rather than the traditional method of having the ending dictated by your actions throughout the game (and therefore you’re screwed if you did accidentally did something which prevents you from getting your preferred ending), Deus Ex pretty much explicitly presents your three options at the start of the final level and explains what you have to do to get them.

However, one area in which Deus Ex falls flat is its graphics. Given that the PS2 version is eight years old and the PC version even older, it’s understandable; but nevertheless, the monotonous backgrounds, lack of detail and repeated models are quite jarring. Sea-based levels are especially bad, as the water just seems to end in midair once you reach the edge of the map. Even the ending FMVs are pretty awful.

There are also issues with pacing. Because there are no proper cutscenes (the camera pans away for conversations between the player and NPCs), events can happen rather suddenly and unexpectedly. Boss battles in particular are affected; your opponent will somewhat randomly appear, give a line or two of dialogue and then start shooting. Even after you kill them, nothing really happens immediately. It can be quite confusing at times. Some aspects of the storyline could use more development: for example, ‘grey‘-style aliens are found in several levels and little explanation is given for them aside from a little background which seems to suggest that they are fake.

Also, the comedy accents are just inexcusable. The French, German and Chinese characters wouldn’t be out of place on a Saturday morning cartoon series.

Gunther

Casual stereotyping ftw

Regardless of its faults I’d say that Deus Ex has aged brilliantly and deserves the critical acclaim which it rightly gets. I feel bad for paying £2 for a second-hand copy. Like I said before, I played the console version; the PC version is probably better given that it’s a format more suited to shooters (also, the PC version apparently doesn’t have the cumbersome loading times which mar the PS2 version). But I’d guess that what makes it great on the Playstation applies equally well on the computer.

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Fire Emblem remake announced

Source: Neoseeker

So, after a two-year silence since Shadow Dragon in 2008, Intelligent Systems have announced a new Fire Emblem game. It’s sort of a remake of a remake, since half of the original Monsho no Nazo (or FE3 as it’s mostly called by the English fandom) on the Super Famicom was in itself a remake of the first Fire Emblem on the Famicom – although presumably they won’t include that section of the game in the DS remake.

The fandom is somewhat unimpressed in its response. It’s been three years since the last original offering, which was met with mixed reviews (although it’s still my favourite of the series), and all we’ve had in the meantime was a fairly lukewarm remake. Shadow Dragon, while not exceptionally bad, was pretty bland by FE standards – particularly due to a severe a lack of decent plot or characterisation, two things which English fans have come to expect from the series (although in fairness, the remake was pretty faithful to the original in this respect). It was also seen as quite money-grubbing of Intelligent Systems to only remake the first game, rather than the more extensive FE3.

Personally, I’m rather split on this issue. On the one hand, I’m pessimistic about the potential quality of the remake – Shadow Dragon definitely felt like a letdown after the four previous English-released games. Also, two remakes in a row carries the hint that perhaps IS is out of original ideas for an entirely new game. On the other hand, although a competent English patch of the original FE3 exists, it would be nice to have an official translation (admittedly, it’s not set in stone yet whether it’ll get a Western release but I’d wager it will do). Plus, a remake of FE3 might lead onto a remake and consequent translation for Seisen no Keifu, often hailed as the best in the series for its complex gameplay and storyline.

Besides all that, I’m a pretty rabid Fire Emblem fan. Having shelled out for all five of the Western releases (including my copy of The Sacred Stones found by chance in a Hungarian supermarket!) I guess I’ll probably do the same for this one if it comes out over here. FE has a pretty small fandom and we’ve only had about half of the series released in English, so we should support Intelligent Systems and encourage them not to abandon the Western market.

To end on a lighter note, whenever a new FE title is released, a common response in the fandom is to ask whether Marth features in the game, harking back to the days when FE was still unknown and most gamers’ exposure to the series was through Marth and Roy’s inclusion in Super Smash Bros. Melee – and consequently, newbies’ first questions about a Fire Emblem game would always be “is marth in this???”. For once, we can finally reply that yes, Marth is in this one.

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Daleks’ Invasion Earth

Daleks' Invasion Earth posterAmong the fancy new releases and weird foreign films of the London Sci-Fi Festival, there were also some antique gems on offer. For someone used to the rebooted Doctor Who, Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD was certainly an eye-opener onto the cardboard-and-string world of yesteryears’ sci-fi. Before the showing, the festival director’s young daughters introduced the film and gave what I consider to be a very apt description of its merits: “cheese”.

Perhaps it’s worth expanding on that metaphor. There are two kinds of cheese: cheap, mild, ultimately forgettable stuff, but also more interesting, unusual vintage – maybe a little alien to the taste buds at first, but it grows on you. Invasion Earth is very much the latter of the two.

Watching retro Doctor Who can be quite a culture shock for the newcomer. Within five minutes, you’re presented with Peter Cushing as the Doctor (certainly not the bishonen we’ve come to expect from recent incumbents), his niece Louise with whom who he (thankfully) has no sexual tension whatsoever and his granddaughter. The TARDIS’ disguise as a police box actually works, and the multiculturalism that was part of the reboot’s winning formula is conspicuously absent (although there is a wheelchair-bound resistance leader!). The wackiness of Tenant’s Doctor is replaced by Cushing’s more grandfatherly eccentricity.

The plot itself is standard Who fare: aliens have invaded the Earth (it’s implied that they’ve overrun the entire planet, although for some reason Bedfordshire has become the focus of their war machine) and have a dastardly scheme; the Doctor and his companions go off on an adventure to stop them. What separates this from more recent Dalek escapades is the level of seriousness: whereas reboot Daleks are a cause for furious shouting, angry stares and tense drama, retro Daleks merit little more than mild frowning and old-fashioned British pluck. Whilst reboot Daleks are terrifying, invincible, laser-firing death machines, retro Daleks kill people with somewhat dubious poison gas and can be defeated with improvised explosives, being pushed off a ramp and, in one instance, by having a tarpaulin thrown over their heads.

That said, Invasion Earth is somewhat paradoxical: although the subject matter is treated in a more calm-headed, family-friendly manner than recent outings (see: the 2nd and 4th season finales), there are a great deal more on-screen deaths – and not just extras, but main characters are killed off like flies. The numerous battles with the Daleks are incredibly casualty-heavy (and there’s no happy end here – no-one’s coming back from the dead) and yet no-one really seems bothered. As with most post-apocalyptic stories, the ending isn’t particularly optimistic if one stops to think about it. If this had been handled like recent Who, I think that it might garner a 12-certificate.

Nevertheless, the moments of comedy (some intentional, such as the Doctor’s convoluted route into Watford; others not, such as any scene with Daleks or spaceships; some that even combine the two, such as the defeat of a magnetic prison door with the application of a comb) are what settles this film for me. Invasion Earth accepts that the Daleks are in fact a very silly design and it rolls with this (quite literally, sometimes). It’s good for kids – it’s got a reasonable amount of behind-the-sofa moments and a not-overly-complex storyline; it’s also great fun for adults, but in a more mature way than the current trend for “parent-friendly humour”. The 60s music (especially the James Bond-esque opening, which is frankly lovely) and visuals should appease fans who were around for the original series. The very indescribably English feel to the film certainly doesn’t hurt either.

It was interesting to see the mix of crowd in that theatre: a roughly equal split between diehard nerds and families. I feel that Invasion Earth appeals to both groups, and that’s an uncommon thing for sci-fi. The applause at the end was well deserved. It’s convinced me to investigate retro Who further, although I will of course continue to follow the 11th Doctor religiously. Any recommendations? 😉

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