Friday, March 18, 2011

March Mecha Madness Round 1: Super Robot Wars MX

I have to admit it:  When I first heard the concept of Super Robot Wars (or Super Robot Taisen, if you prefer), it really did not sound all that appealing to me.  All I knew initially about it was that it was some sort of strategy game that involved a bunch of mechs from series that I had never heard of.  Most of the aforementioned series either never made it out of Japan, or made it over here underneath some strange name to appeal to the American masses, while having the core elements of the story butchered (Plus, the graphics presented in combat were of super deformed mecha, which just made it look a bit silly, honestly.


The only reason I had even heard of such an obscure series was that during college, my best friend Nick, was (and still is) quite enamored with the series.  I really can't say enough nice things about Nick here to do him justice, but there's one thing (among many others) that I have to give him credit for:  When he is sharing his current fixation or hobby of attention with you, he's one of the most unobtrusive guys in the world about it.  As he told me about it, I'm sure he knew me well enough to sense my skepticism about it as we talked.  So instead of insisting that I get into the series as much as he did, Nick simply directed me to where I could find a version of the Super Famicon game, Super Robot Wars 4, gave me enough of an explanation of the mechanics of the game to get started, and decided to let me make of it what I would.

I can quit any time I want to.  Really.
There's a good reason (well plenty) that Nick is my best friend:  He knows me very well.  I was hooked to the series quite quickly, for a host of reasons that I will explain later, and over the years, have amassed quite the collection of SRW games (which you will here about in later posts).  Many of them were courtesy of Nick, who, after seeing how much I enjoyed SRW4, told me one day "Hey, keep an eye out on the mail.  I sent you a box with a few games in it".  Let's just say that when Nick says "I sent you some stuff", he's downplaying it a little:

He later apologized for forgetting to pack in that elixir of immortality.
Needless to say, through the courtesy of Nick, other friends, and my own cash, I've accumulated quite the number of SRW games over the years.  Among those games is the subject of the post:  Super Robot Wars MX for the PS2.

So how does it stack up?

MX is an easy game to pass up.  It's independent of the normal, more established SRW storylines.  The original characters are forgettable, many series favorites are either diminished greatly in present, or absent altogether.  Yet inspite of these flaws, Super Robot Wars MX distinguishes itself as being one of the entries into the series with superior dialogue, creative story choices, and manages to integrate the best elements from its predecessors to create an experience that any fan of the series can find something to like about.

This post serves not only as a chronicle of my experience with SRW MX, but it will also give people without any knowledge of the series some framing on how the series works.  Read on to learn more, but be warned:  Dangerous levels of geekery are ahead.



Background:  The Thought that Doesn't Count

How I acquired SRW MX in the first place is an interesting story.  I mentioned before why MX was an easy entry to pass over:  So in fact, when I saw the previews of the game initially, I had no intention of buying it.  Sure, it looked fun, but it didn't have the draw that the previous two Playstation entries (Super Robot Wars Impact and Super Robot Wars Alpha 2) had.  Not to mention that, as I was about to graduate from college, my finances were understandably limited.

That's where another good friend, G-Mike, a fellow robot enthusiast, comes in.  G-Mike, the awesome friend that he is, informs me that he was proud of my accomplishment of finishing college, and as a late graduation gift / early birthday gift, he was going to send me a brand new copy of SRW MX.  While that sounds like a minor thing, it really isn't.  You see, I was the first person in my immediate family to graduate college.  You would think that a monumental occassion like that would garner a lot of praise (which it did) and a number of impressive gifts:  After all, I did most of college on my own financially.  My parents (who did not raise me, but were in my life) are by no means, poor people.  G-Mike, knowing this, figured that his gift was minor in comparison to what my loving family got me.

I kid you not when I say this, if you're reading this, Mike:  You got me the best graduation gift possible.  Seriously.  For emphasis, let me show you a picture of another graduation gift I got from mom:

I wish I could be making this up.  Seriously.
And from Dad:

This still hasn't been cashed in.

Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when this gem of a game came as a present to me all those years back.  Unfortunately, it was a present that came just before I entered graduate school.  I only had a few months in the midst of those preparations to pop in MX a few times, deem that it was in fact enjoyable, then lose all track of it as I switched coasts, and for a period of time, left my PS2 behind (a fact I've alluded to in previous posts).  So it is only now, nearly 7 years after its release, that I'm getting around to playing it.

Better late than never, right Mike?

Understanding SRW - An Overview

Before I get into detail about the game itself, the general concept of SRW deserves some explanation:  Particularly for our readers who are unfamiliar with the series.  The initial impression I described in this post's entry probably gave you some idea, but for clarification's sake, the Super Robot Wars series is a crossover strategy RPG series that's quite popular in Japan, but has only seen a limited release in the United States.  SRW takes the storylines, characters, and mechs from numerous series to populate its games.  Some of these will be quite familiar to American gamers:  Gundam (in all its various incarnations), Evangelion, Eureka 7, Code Geass in more recent installments, RahXePhon, The Big O and even Voltron (aka Go-Lion in Japan) in one case.  Others, such as Combattler V, Deimoss, Hades Project Zeorymer, and countless others won't ring a bell at all for anyone, as popular Japanese robot shows from the early 80's.

Daitarn 3 is Japan's take on Bruce Wayne if he used his funds to make a giant robot instead of a Bat suit.

While the crossover SRPG genre is nothing new in Japan, and becoming increasingly frequent in North America, I've always found it interesting how the SRW series handles it.  Chaos Wars, for example, uses the idea a separate world to explain how such different characters can exist in one place.  I mean it makes sense:  After all, how else would you explain Okita of the Shinsengumi hanging out with a demon from a place called Neverland?

Aside from blaming it on Oda Nobunaga.
SRW, on the other hand, takes the storylines from the aforementioned series and meshes them altogether.  So you have a world where somehow, the Gundam fights from G Gundam are a known occurrence alongside the Angels from Evangelion's second impact while some villain from another Gundam series is plotting to drop yet another giant space rock on Earth while aliens from billions of light years away have chosen that precise moment to take advantage of the space rock falling on earth to wipe out its remaining human population.  Naturally, the good guys from these respective series decide to team up and wipe out the bad guys, while the bad guys put aside their own scheming (in some cases) to wipe out the good guys so they can go back to fighting amongst each others.

Every bit as awesome as this.
While it sounds like a cracked out version of something you'd find on fanfiction.net, here is the frightening part:

It works.

One of the most notable things about SRW doesn't come from the big name series that populate it (because let's face it, if you throw Gundam Wing in a game, people will buy it), the music that plays in the game (a combination of original tracks, as well as respective themes from the various shows), the original characters Banpresto throws in, or even the fact that its giant robots blowing things up.

It's the fact that the creators of the game can take such storylines from different realities with different 'laws' and mold it into something resembling a coherent plot.  Furthermore, they're able to do this while keeping the core personalities of these already licensed characters completely intact.  Admittedly, in some cases they shift away from the personalities, such as Shinji Ikari no longer being a wuss, but when these shifts happen, it's actually believable:  Banpresto takes these characters and further develops them.

After playing Chaos Wars, I can't underscore the significance of this enough, as while some characters were more or less believable (Yuri from Shadow Hearts comes to mind), many of the characters just felt a little off compared to their source material.  From a plot standpoint, SRW games aren't just haphazard crossovers trying to cash in solely on the popularity of the series within:  They're remarkably dialogue intense and well written.

Gameplay

I'll be honest with you:  I would not have stuck with SRW in the first place if it didn't have an enjoyable battle system:  With no frame of reference for the series outside of Gundam, there was little incentive for me to keep playing beyond the flashy animations.  Most standard SRW games give you an army of robots with their respective abilities, piloted by characters with various skills.  There are two things of note here:  Robot stats and pilot stats.

Your mechs have a HP rating (obviously), an "EN" (energy) which depletes when using certain weapons or moving while airborne or in space, an armor rating (the unit's defense), and a mobility rating which affects their dodge rate (and in later games, aiming ability).  Later games add in elements like robot size, which further affect dodge rate (for an example, a "large" unit with the same mobility rating as a "small" unit will always have a poorer dodge rate), shield durability, and countless other factors, all which can be upgraded between stages.  In addition to stats, each mech has its own unique arsenal, complete with weapons taken straight from the series -- though sometimes Banpresto puts an original spin on some of the things they can do.

Of course, the mech is only as good as its pilot.  Pilot stats are as follows:  Melee (for the close-range attacks a mech has), Shooting (for the long range attacks), evasion (works in tandem with a unit's mobility rating), defense (likewise, for armor), aiming (which affects accuracy) and Skill (which affects critical hit rate).  In addition to these stats, every pilot has a unique list of "seishin" (essentially, offensive or defensive spell buffs) and innate traits (for example "Newtypes" from Gundam have their own trait to signify this).  The following picture (warning:  Japanese intensive) of the pilot and mech stat screen should give you an idea of how much thought is put into the system:



Mechs are also classified (at times officially, at times unofficially) as "Real Robots" or "Super Robots".  Mechs from series like Zeta Gundam, which operate under more 'realistic' physics and technology, are classified as Real Robots.  The larger, planet-destroying robots, by contrast, tend to be classified as Super Robots.  As you play through the games, certain traits are attributed to both:  Real Robots tend to have less HP, weaker arsenals, but are better at evading and actually hitting the enemies:  The stats and traits of their pilots reflect this.  Super Robots, by contrast, tend to have higher HP, better defense (making them more suitable to tank), and much more damaging attacks.  The downside?  They're much slower, have piss-poor hit rates, and many of their damaging attacks rely heavily on EN, meaning they can't be spammed.  Their pilots have stats to go in tandem with their mechs, such as having traits that increase their defense and mobility as their unit decreases in HP, and much higher SP pools to use their buffs.

With so many different series and mechanics from said series in play, you would think the games would be a nightmare for balance.  While there are obviously going to be certain characters and mechs that are always good (bluntly spoken, any game that has G Gundam units in it will be easier, simply because the God Gundam is that broken when upgraded), the game manages to balance it quite nicely.  The one exception to this rule being one of the earlier PSX entries, SRW F Final, where the high armor ratings of super robots simply meant they died in 4 hits, rather than 2:  Clearly, that game was much more balanced in favor of real robots.



The battles themselves take place on large scale maps:  Many of these maps are familiar locales from the respective series (such as NERV headquarters from Eva).  Enemies operate on the same rules that you do, with the exception being that until later games, despite having a list of SP commands, their buffs are rarely used.  The objectives for said maps are your usual strategy game pickings:  Destroy all enemies, get to a certain point on the map, protect the NPC, and so forth.

Once you have the mechanics down, the games are fairly easy to get into.  Admittedly, the big draw doesn't come from an immensely deep battle system (though admittedly, it is one that's well thought out and with loads of room for customization), but from watching the flashy animations as your robots clash.  With next gen consoles, the animations have come quite a long way.  Compare the earlier Super Famicon Screenshot to this, from MX on the PS2:

Totally not overcompensating.
Gameplay certainly isn't a reason for more SRW games coming here.  As you can imagine, with so many different series in it, many of which have never been released in America, getting a standard SRW game over here would be something of a licensing nightmare.  Let's not also forget that with the more recent entries being fully voiced during battle comes the issue of dubbing, dual language, and so forth.  This of course, is quite a shame.

I realize that thus far, this post has been mostly an educational one on how SRW works.  Explaining such, however, is vital in understanding how MX works by comparison, and will hopefully give readers some contexts as I remove other SRW games from my backlog.  But let's move onto the title game of this post, shall we?

SRW MX - Taking Creative License

In addition to all the other aforementioned reason, what usually dictates whether I'll buy an SRW game or not these days are the characters known as "Banpresto Originals" -- i.e. the original characters Banpresto inserts into their games to act alongside the established series.  Simply put, if the original characters and their mechs look cool, then I'm going to go for it.  It's almost certain to be an immediate buy if characters from their spin off series, Masou Kishin, are in the game.  Sadly, when I saw the initial screenshots of the MX mains, Hugo and Aqua, I was far from impressed:



The strength of MX's story, however, doesn't come from Hugo and Aqua:  I'll be quite frank, they're rather boring characters, especially compared to some of the previous ones Banpresto has had.  A FAQ writer at GameFAQs put it best:  MX is one of the better written SRW games out there, which is something I can confirm courtesy of my own limited Japanese knowledge and the help of translation guides.  I've mentioned before the SRW games tend to take the plots from their respective series and mesh them together.  Sometimes, in the course of an SRW game, the entire plot of a series is finished.  Usually after that, the series won't appear in that SRW continuum afterwards.

This is where MX distinguishes itself:  Certain series that appear in the game have already had their plotlines resolved (most notably G Gundam, Zeta Gundam, and Reideen).  Essentially, they have no reason to be in the game.  It's easy to write for characters when you're simply lifting their motivation and primary reason for conflict straight from the source material.  It's another thing to further develop the characters beyond their resolved plot, which MX is actually able to do quite well.  It's one of those things you can only truly appreciate the nuances of if you're fluent in Japanese (and can thus read all the quirky interaction), but it's certainly impressive.

So how does this play out as far as the plot goes?

As noted above, unlike many SRW games that try to completely play out each story (or pieces of the story) the story of MX focuses heavily on the plots of the Hades Project Zeorymer, Dragonar, RahXePhon, and Gear Fighter Dendoh -- the plots of the series (I encourage you to look them up on Wikipedia) play out more or less in full, from start to finish.  To a lesser extent, the game also focuses on the, the Nadesico movie, The End of Evangelion, and Machine Robo:  The Revenge of Chronos.  Overarching all of these plots, similar to SRW fashion, is the story of Hugo and Aqua.

In short, Hugo and Aqua are test pilots for a new machine developed by the Earth Federation.  Much of the early story has Aqua complaining about Hugo not opening up to her and sharing his feelings:  After all, she's supposed to be his partner!  They're supposed to be a team!

Admittedly, I'd have liked Shiki a lot better if she had a giant robot instead of a damned stuffed animal.

Hugo, on the other hand, is sort of a closed off prick.  Admittedly he has a reason:  Later on in the game, we find out that he was a member of the "Cry Wolves":  An elite military squad that was decimated by some time ago by the Devil Gundam.  In the midst of this battle, Hugo's best friend (and the son of his commander) lost his mind, and later on his life, but not before nuking Hugo's suit to high hell.  Hugo survived, but barely so.  Later on, we find that Hugo's former commander, Albero, is also piloting a new prototype suit:  And for whatever reason, he's opposite of Hugo, constantly claiming that he's going to kill him in order to test the potential of his new suit, but always stopping short of doing so.

Hugo and Aqua's story is nothing fascinating, and even a tad disappointing considering past SRW originals.  As I said before though:  The real strength comes in seeing how the other series interact with each other.


SRW MX - Going Back to What Works

MX was proceeded by Super Robot Wars Alpha 2, the third game (yes, third) in the Alpha Continuum.  SRWA2 is especially noteworthy in the series for adding the 'squad' system, which not only mixed up combat a bit, but gave the potential for even larger scale battles, as up to 4 mechs could make up a platoon (depending on size) and you could have up to 12 squads on a map.

MX, by contrast, goes back to the basics with a single unit system.  While this seems like a step back initially, MX also borrows the better elements from other games in the series while sticking with the basics.  Most notable are the abundance of combination attacks:  If you have certain units positioned near each other, then they gain a unique, powerful attack.  Alpha 2, for all its innovations, only had these in severely limited quantity.  MX, by contrast, has an abundance of them:

These are the components of the pain train.
In addition, MX implements the Pilot Point system first seen in Original Generation, which allows you to further customize your pilots by upgrading their base stats to make up for any shortcomings, or purchase more passive traits.  The mech upgrade system has been expanded to allow you to upgrade a robot's hit and critical rate for their weapons, in addition to the base strength.  Individual weapons on mechs now have more special traits, such as a double attack ability that allows you to target more than one unit.  While each of these things seem minor in isolation, they all come together to make for quite an enjoyable experience:  MX really takes the best parts of its predecessors on PS2 and creates quite a solid game.

Of course, one downside is that it's painfully easy.

The Starting Lineup.

I mentioned before that while the potential for awful game balance is a looming possibility with so many different series in the loop, SRW usually manages it quite well.  It could be that MX was made deliberately easy after the complex Squad system of Alpha 2.  Another reason could be attributed to the removal of the "Skill Point" system, which required you to fulfill certain conditions on a stage to earn a point, and with your total point tally affecting which ending you received and which "hidden" mechs you could acquire.

Personally, I attribute it to the unit selection.

There are just certain units and pilots that, no matter which SRW game they appear in, will always be good.  This makes sense, after all:  In their series, they're the ace pilots.  Amuro Rei of Gundam fame, for example, is always going to be a solid choice:  He always has the "Newtype" passive trait which gives him excellent aiming and evasion rates, he always has a high shooting stat, and normally he gets one of the best real robot units later in the game.

Then there are certain units and pilots that, no matter which SRW game they appear in, will always be horrendously game breaking, especially if you upgrade them.  Domon and his Shining Gundam (later upgraded to the God Gundam) is a perfect example of this.  His unit, on initial glance, operates like a Real Robot:  low HP, high dodge rate, modest EN score.  However, on closer examination, it's really a Super Robot in disguise:  It gains a power up when Domon's morale is high enough, and when fully upgraded, it attacks hit harder than most Super Robots.  Easier put, Domon Kasshu is your Orlandu in SRW.  While the other G Gundam characters aren't as strong as Domon, they're still no pushovers.  Oh, and they of course, have a combo attack involving 5 of them, meaning it can be executed more than once in a turn.

I already mentioned the part where G Gundam's storyline was resolved, right?  This means that instead of going through the normal progression where a decent pilot starts off with a modest unit, but gets a better one later on, Domon has his best unit as soon as you get him.  And you get him within the first 10 stages of the game, leaving you plenty of time to upgrade him.  G Gundam's SRW appearances aren't limited solely because you can only play out that story so many times (which MX solves by being..well, original), it's (wisely) limited because there's no real way to balance that unit aside from making it not appear.

Now here's the thing:  G Gundam is only one example.  Evangelion units are also a prime example due to how the A.T. Field operates in SRW games.  Yet the producers also saw it fit to add Hades Project Zeorymer, and Machine Robo:  Revenge of Chronos.

Of course, I can't fully hate on Machine Robo, since its addition to the cast brings its main character, Rom Stoll, A.K.A. the world's greatest troll.  Rom's appearances usually go like this:  A bad guy has the upper hand in battle on your dudes.  Said bad guy gloats about his impending victory.  Then out of nowhere, a voice yells "Wait!".  Cue to a scene of Rom's silhouette with Mexican standoff music playing in the background, as Rom lectures the bad guys for being tools.  Inevitably, the bad guys ask for his name.  Nearly always, Rom snaps back with "You don't deserve to know my name!".

Then he shows up and does something like this in combat:



Really, the fact that he can get away with trolling the villains like this multiple times in the game is to be commended.  From a gameplay standpoint, though?  Rom's unit operates much like a G Gundam unit, only with higher defense, meaning that you now have two broken units.

Closing Thoughts

As it stands now, I'm a little over halfway done with MX.  I've reached a point in the game where my main characters have received their upgraded mechs, and I've amassed enough cash to significantly upgrade my ace units.  SRW games tend to be fairly long (usually totalling 50+ scenarios), but considering how easy it can be to breeze through MX with its difficulty, I don't foresee it taking too long.

For our readers here, I realize that SRW may not be your cup of tea on the surface, but I hope this post has at least been educational as far as understanding how the series operates.  If you're fluent in Japanese and have a love of mecha related stuff, I highly encourage you to pick up some of the PS2 or PSP entries.  If you're not fluent and still interested, then track down a copy of Original Generation 1 and/or 2 on Gameboy Advance.

In the end, I can't say that MX is my favorite SRW game.  While it has some of the series that I enjoy, its original characters lack a certain charm that previous incarnations have, it contains a number of series that I could deal without (I'm looking at you, Nadesico and Evangelion), and it's painfully easy.  However, I can appreciate the fact that it takes some of the best elements from the previous game and packages it into an experience that, while not terribly taxing on the strategic thought front, is fun to sit down with and clear out a few stages.

It's a few years later than expected, but don't worry Mike:  Your gift's gone to good use, old friend.

3 comments:

Jonesy said...

Fell in love with SRW after a Japanese friend of mine intro'd me to the series in college. I learned how to read some Japanese and modded my PS2 just so I could play one! I got about a third of the way into Alpha 3 and a little bit into MX, but the constantly switching back and forth from game to Gamefaqs translation always gets a bit grating. I did recently beat OG on GBA.

I'm slowly learning Japanese through Rosetta Stone, but I'm always looking for a "back door" to being able to better comprehend SRW games without having to resort to translations. Do you have any advice?

Ayn said...

Hmm.. the best piece of advice I can give about comprehending SRW short of learning Japanese (which you're already doing) is to familiarize yourself with the series that are appearing in there. Sit down and watch a few episodes whatever series appear there. Doing that makes sense of some of the interactions that happen.

How's Rosetta stone working for you? Aforementioned friend in the post who introduced me doesn't care much for it, but uses something else to learn it. He seems to be getting pretty proficient in it.

Jonesy said...

Pretty good! It was a Christmas present - I'm not sure if I would have coughed up the dough on my own. The learning method is definitely effective, but it's easy to see that you're missing the cultural education. Fortunately I have spent some time in Japan so I have some of that already. I reserve full judgment until I finish the whole program...