Monday, 31 July 2017

Cool Game Design Moments: Super Robot Taisen Original Generation 2 and New Game+

Ever since Bubble Bobble first shocked players with its announcement that THIS  IS  NOT  A  TRUE  ENDING!computer games have had the option to provide content and goals beyond reaching a staff roll for the first time. Arcade games, particularly scrolling shooters by Toaplan and its progeny at CAVE began all sorts of experimentation around additional loops of games with higher difficulty and adjusted placement of hazards. The aim was to provide a greater challenge and fresh experience for players who had become skillful enough that they could complete a game without spending very much money. This gave greater shelf life to arcade titles and a prolonged sense of discovery about them.

Doing what Taito says doesn't even give you the true ending...

In computer games intended to be played at home, this sort of thing is often referred to as New Game +. It's most common in role playing games. That genre's focus on number crunching and in-game equipment rather than purely twitch skills from a player natively leads to players wondering what would happen if they could begin the game as strong as they end it. The definitive example of this approach is Chrono Trigger, which uses it to aid players in viewing all the alternate endings. I'd say that the concept probably has its beginning in home computer role-playing games such as The Bard's Tale, where character save-data from the end points of a game could be loaded into the beginning via clever use of floppy disks.

Part of Chrono Trigger's NG+ being so good is it making it easier to see all 16 endings.

Super Robot Wars is a series of strategic role playing games that has continually quested to both improve its experience and try new ideas over its 25 years of life. Given its genre, experimentation with New Game+ has been inevitable. Early attempts simply carried over expendable resources used in upgrades such as money and pilot points, but it wasn't until 2005's Original Generation 2 and Alpha 3 that two of Banpresto's dev teams worked out the definitive system. I'd like to talk about this method because it's one that not only provides the hijinks of beginning a game overpowered, but transforms the games that use it into a fully fleshed-out experience that provides incredible value for money.

This is a first draft and I'm intending to make a video here. If so, I've stuck to discussing Original Generation 2 over other games as it's much easier to take screenshots and record footage with.

Before we talk about restarting the game though, we need to talk about the first run. In each episode of OG2 there is both a primary objective and an optional secondary objective. In the English release these were called Battle Masteries (or SR Points in Japanese). The more of these completed, the higher the game's difficulty setting. This alone provides a tailored experience to both new and veteran players but there's a catch: the final episode and true closure the story is only available if the vast majority of SR Points were completed! As a result, a player struggling with the systems is provided the crutch of extra resources if they fail the first time, but they're still expected to make full use of them, gain the benefit of hindsight and prove to the game that they're willing to do better on the second time around. Given that guts, determination and overcoming insurmountable odds are recurring themes in both heroic cartoons and the games themselves, this means that New Game+ can serve as a means for a player to live out some of those ideas in pursuit of plot resolution.

There's another reason to restart a game even if the player did get enough SR points though: route splits. At various points in OG2, there's multiple problems arising at once and the cast need to split up and take them down simultaneously! As a result, the player has to choose which side they've got control over. This means that on the first playthrough, you've actually missed 11 whole levels of content! To make the hook all the better, SRW route splits are often where pivotal moments of character development and unit upgrades occur, encouraging a player to see what went on over there in another run.
There's not just mutually exclusive episodes: there's mutually exclusive unlockable units as well! In OG2 there's just the one (and the second option isn't even avilable until New Game+) but some other entries (Alpha 1 and 3 come immediately to mind) went in hard with this stuff. Do you want a better Aura Battler or a better original unit? Do you want a redesigned Nu Gundam only available as a model kit normally or to give Evangelion Unit 01 a katana? Well, that one's easy since Shinji loses his combination attack that ignores barriers if you take it. How about in Advance where you could unlock a variety of efficient smaller upgrades and save a Nadesico character's life or recruit MASTER ASIA, UNDEFEATED OF THE EAST?
While I'm mostly talk about OG2, the home console games at this time had also started implementing a scenario chart. It would indicate where all the route splits are, give a percentage of game seen score and leave big greyed out chunks where the content hasn't been seen. This further encourages a completionist to give the game another whirl.

So the game has more than one run's worth of levels, and a challenge to get better in order to really end things. What if that's all been done? OG2 took things one step further for those who already proved themselves the first time around: EX Hard Mode. Upon completing the game for the first time a player may choose this mode which locks the game's difficulty to Hard (giving greater stat boosts and minion counts to the villains), doubles the cost to upgrade pilots' skills and removes the ability to upgrade the robots entirely. This leads to a fascinating paradox of the New Game+ approach. The player has more resources than the first time around yet if they immediately jumped into this mode they actually have a net loss of Pilot Points and any money gained is completely worthless! On top of that, the game's enemy settings may be at Hard, yet it still expects the majority of SR Points to be acquired in order to get the actual ending. Of course, a canny player may intentionally fail SR Points just to end the game sooner or even do additional runs in the regular mode to gain more PP before taking this on. It can be difficult to really heavily grind in a lot of SRW titles, so that's essentially the longest-form approach to that concept.

Beating EX Hard isn't the end though. OG2 decided there should be a concrete reward for completing such a task and provides the player with the option to restart the game in Special Mode. At first glance it's the same as the regular play but with a couple of exceptions. First, one of every equippable item and weapon in the game is provided from the get-go. This gives an extra sense of freedom and play to the mode. Want to give a 10m katana to the nerdy girl? How about turning flying brick the Alteisen into a sniper from the second episode? On top of that, the mech stat upgrade bars which usually have set limits in OG2 are all increased to a whopping 10 bars of capacity! This allows for immensely overpowered potential for units, but also incurs a greater financial cost than usual. Thus, even several runs worth of inherited finances can wind up getting chewed up faster than the player is used to. This also makes the unique bonuses for full upgrades more expensive!  By this point the player already likely knows how to exploit the game hard, but they're given lots of potential to muck around and play to their own aesthetic preferences rather than a number-crunched, precise strategic perfection.

The Super Robot Wars series has run for over 25 years at this point. A lot of players have been along for the ride for a large chunk of that time and have learned a lot of standard tactics to exploit. Even assuming that those are used for optimal play, seeing everything OG2 has to offer requires a minimum of three runs through. What's truly impressive is that the journey to see it all is usually a joy to undertake. There's enough visual flash and entertaining writing to draw a player in. Enough mechanical depth and challenges to keep a player striving to overcome. Finally there's enough catchy compositions to keep the experience from becoming irritating. The end result is that I've probably played each game using the OG2 formula about 5 times apiece and still get the itch to revisit them down the line.

That's absurdly good value for money.


  1. If I'd theoretically never played one of these games. Where should I start and how would I get my hands on a copy?

    1. As of this moment the following games are in English

      OG1 (GBA)
      OG2 (GBA) - both localised excellently by ATLUS
      2 (NES)
      3 (SNES) - patches by Aeon Genesis
      Judgement (GBA) - fan translation by Aerie.
      Alpha Gaiden (PSX) - fan translation by Aeon Genesis
      OG Moon Dwellers (PS4) - very wonky English release for the South-East Asia market by Bamco
      V (PS4) - somewhat less wonky English release for the South-East Asia market by Bamco

      Really, OG1 and 2 for the GBA are the way to go. Easy to emulate, everything makes sense, some neat secrets to find/look up and try to get the first time.

      Now for a quick talk about the OG games.