Monday, 31 July 2017

Quick Comments on the Super Robot Wars OG line

Good ol' Ted asked in the last post's comments about games to play and my answer was the inevitable "play OG1 and 2". So I don't have a big weird reply sitting at the bottom of that piece I'll make some quick comments about those games here.

Super Robot Wars as a franchise is of course an SRPG series about crossing over japanese robot cartoons (and Yamato in the most recent game because it's Yamato). They're like if Crisis on Infinite Earths were Japanese, a computer game and actually remained entertaining outside the context of being a DC fan in 1985. Much like Marv Wolfman's magnum opus, the series has inevitably made up its own original characters as a means to bind all the series in a game's plots together for a fitting climax. Indeed, original characters are so integral to the writing that series founder and executive producer Takanobu Terada has stated that writing the final boss is one of the first parts of planning any title.

The history's actually a little bit more muddled than that though. The first game on the Gameboy (and remade for the Playstation 3 in 2012!) is utterly devoid of plot or even pilots, instead having Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, the RX-78-2 Gundam and so on just yell generic comments as they mow down droves of early series mechanical beasts and minions of the Dinosaur Empire. It's Super Robot Wars 2 (techincally Dai 2-ji Super Robot Taisen or "2nd Super Robot War") for the NES where the first original villain, Dr Bian ties things together. What's particularly funny about this game is that the plan was to feature 1983 fantasy series Aura Battler Dunbine as well.
Attack! Attack! Attack~! Ore wa senshi~!

Alas, a weird holdup in rights at the time meant the deal fell through. Not to be deterred by the twist of having a fantasy robot join the game partway through, the dev team simply... made their own ripoff. Thus, this guy was born!
Ka~ze ga~ Yo-n-de~ru~...
It's the Cybuster! Elemental Lord of the Wind! It's piloted by a hapless Japanese fellow who wound up in the magic land by accident one day and has a ludicrously poor sense of direction! This is important because it's reflected in game mechanics with a poor accuracy stat and the highest price to cast the 100% accuracy spell in any game he's in. Piloting something associated with the wind naturally means he's arch rival is...
...a scientist's prize project that can generate artificial black holes. That may sound like a bizarre, unintuitive rival but it's the sort of creativity that helps this series have such lasting appeal.

Anyway, the team at Banpresto decided they liked having an original character so they gave him someone to play off in SRW3. Then they finally got the rights to Dunbine and made a game (bizarrely named EX instead of 4) where the rest of the gang up to that point wind up in that fantasy land and the lore of Not Dunbine is expanded while interacting with the real thing.

The games were selling okay at this point but those in charge of finance at Banpresto felt they weren't going to get much more out of the SRW gimmick. Thus, in 1995 came SRW4 (the fifth SRW game yet 4th with an actual plot, causing the numbers to finally make sense). With 4 the team assumed they were done with this series and raised the plot's stakes a bunch. They also happened upon a brilliant idea: the player inserting themself into the game. At the start of the game, the player can select one of 8 portraits (4 male, 4 female), describe their personality as "calm, hotblooded, timid or eccentric", enter a name, birthdate, bloodtype and whether they'd prefer to pilot a Super Robot (thematically, the more superheroic sort; mechanically the tankier type) or Real Robot (thematically the military drama sort; mechanically a mobility type). To add to the self-insertion gimmick, the Super Robot flagrantly mimics elements of Mazinger Z and Daitarn 3 while the Real Robot is absolutely 100% Not A Gundam.

Older and newer drawings of the 008L Huckebein. Note the red chin and V-fins atop the head. This similarity will become a running gag over the years.
 Much like how Alicesoft's Kichikuou Rance would save that company a year later, SRW4 was a smash hit with consumers. Word of mouth had spread, the plot was much stronger than the preceding games and the mechanics were really coming together by this point. Defining series features like the ability to attack/defend/evade when enemies attack added strategic depth, tactical variety and set the series apart from things like Fire Emblem at a time when they were making people want to punch their TVs. Thus instead of killing the series, it resulted in funding for a tweaked port to the Playstation, a compilation of all the previous games ported to the Playstation and a two part complete overhaul to the Sega Saturn called F and F Final. These were then ported to the Playstation, resulting in that console having four versaions of SRW4.

Oh right, I should also mention that a silly conventional JRPG called Hero Senki: Project Olympus was released on the SNES around this time. The protagonist had a bunch of wacky side switches throughout the story, regained his memories, then rebuilt this interdimensional teleporter and left at the end of the game. His name is Gilliam Yeager.
Why am I mentioning him? Because you know that interdimensional teleporter I said he fixed? He used that to start hopping around the multiverse trying to gain a greater understanding on the nature of reality. This resulted in him being a playable character in SRW4 before zipping away again when nobody noticed.

After all those versions of 4, the team started doing some heavy duty experimentation in the late 90s. There were also staffing shifts, with one of the dev teams breaking away (kinda. It's a very Japanese thing to make your own company then still basically behave as a team in your old employer) and naming themselves Winkysoft. The end result was The New Super Robot Wars, a game with no plot connection to 2 through 4, a Tokusatsu crossover game called Super Hero Sakusen and Winkysoft deciding to expand on the plot of that fantasy land I mentioned several hundred words ago in its own game called Super Robot Wars Sidestory: The Lord of Elemental. There was also an N64 game creatively entitled Super Robot Wars 64 that had nothing to do with The New Super Robot Wars or the old timeline.

The turn of the century rolled around and Banpresto decided that their new owners, Bandai's recently released Wonderswan handheld would be a good thing to make games on. Given the success of the two part remake of 4, they made a whopping huge three part game with no ties to any previous game. By this point, The New, 64, this Compact 2 Trilogy all had written their own protagonists and main villains, all being pastiches of elements of the shows in their respective games.

SRW becomes a bit of a subculture phenomenon at this point. Kids who watched exciting 90s shows like Might Gaine, Da Garn or Gaogaigar are at this point getting exposed to the shows of their parents through these games. Edgier sequels and remakes like Tekkaman Blade and Getter Robo Armageddon are hitting the airwaves at the same time Evangelion is inspiring a whole generation in all sorts of ways. Getter Robo Armageddon's themesong hits the main charts.The original compositions and great themesongs of old mix together well enough that a concert series dedicated to performing them all happens. This revitalises certain veteran singers' careers, causes bands to get back together and most bizarrely causes Ichiro Mizuki to have so much fun that he decides to make a band dedicated explicity to making corny superhero anime themesongs. Creatively, he names that the Japanese Animation Project (JAM Project) and the first thing they do is a themesong for a modernised Mazinger Z. One that's based on an original upgrade that first appeared in... Super Robot Wars F.

Banpresto's multiple dev teams have absolutely taken notice of how big things are getting. How many fans are growing into what started as a cheap cash-in game. They know how people exploit their games, how their stories are written and what beats to look out for. So with Super Robot Wars Alpha, they rekindle that SRW4 vibe. There's 8 new portraits to create yourself with! And this time they're voiced! They also decide to write a plot that turns the old continuity on its head. This time, SRW2's villain didn't try to take over the world because terrorists from Jupiter kidnapped him! Evil Blackhole Guy I mentioned earlier? He's a good guy now. Those Not Daitarn and Not Gundams? We've got new ones now. Your self-insert from 4? They're just an extra character and in their 30s now. Remember The New SRW? Those guys are here too and might be more important than your player character. So might the main character of Super Hero Sakusen. Both versions.

The Gameboy Advance has just launched in 2001. It gets two games within the first two years of its life. They have new characters as well. They don't share continuity, but the second one basically does the opposite of what the first one's plot chose at all points. That second one's also about travelling back in time to stop dumb, controversial movie sequels from happening.

So now it's 2003 and the continuities look like this:
Original games (2, 3, EX, 4/F and F Final. Also SRW Sidestory)
The New
Compact 2
Compact 3 (yeah that's happened now. It has nothing to do with 2, which had nothing to do with 1 but it had no originals)
Alpha (1, Gaiden. At this point SRW Sidestory totally fits here as well.)

That's like 14 games which have each had series come together to stop an original villain, often with the help of a player insert character that is sometimes customisable but who were all born on the 11th of November and have a blood type of B (series creator Takanobu Terada's birthday gives a better list of spells if you set it)

So what does Banpresto do when they see all these games and know their fans have been with them for 8-10 years through all this?

They realise 8-10 years is long enough to get nostalgic. For their own games.

What do you do when a crossover series is nostalgic for its own crossovers?

You crossover your original self-inserts.
All SRW covers feature robots from the game to attract customers who recognise the brands. Now the brands are Classic, Compact and New in the same game!
Thus, the Original Generation is released in 2003. They went all out with this, frankly. We're talking investing in more expensive carts with more memory and more audio channels so the music won't get out by the diegetic sound. Their best animators put in a lot of work to make visuals more comparable to the final Playstation games than the SNES and Wonderswam games.
They also feel the roster's a bit thin, especially since this game's "merely" doing the plots of SRW2, Compact 2-1 and The New. So what do they do? Why, they make more original characters! Well, that and Gilliam teleports in from whatever universe he was last in. Think it was Alpha for a scene.

This winds up being a great thing. Not only do you get to hear those sweet original tunes all day, there's no cross-studio licensing fees to worry about for an English release! Alas, it's by ATLUS so they printed like 15 copies. I own one!

Look at that list of pre-OG games I listed. Did you see me mention them all being this game? Of course you didn't. They came in OG2!
Well, Reversal didn't. It also doesn't help that it's now 2005 and there's been another GBA title, a Gamecube title, a third Alpha game (named The 2nd Super Robot Wars Alpha), an unrelated extra Playstation 2 game and a gloriously messy RTS attempt also for the PS2. The Third Super Robot Wars Alpha is also due out the same year. What this means is that game crossing over the crossovers? It's got its own timeline now, baby! And that means it gets to play around with the expectations of fans who played those games as well!

The story goes on and on. There's a PS2 remake of these two games. Then a sequel that doesn't have a number. Then, since the PS2 remake pushed 1 and 2 together it's considered internally as 1 and the fourth Original game is named The 2nd Super Robot Wars Original Generation. Then last year the team finally said "this is stupid, let's just drop numbers for these" and named the fifth game Moon Dwellers. There's a Wii game that wants to shake things up so it's called Neo but it has nothing to do with The New. The GBA gets a fourth dang conventinal game and the DS gets four. The 3DS received two, neither related to each other.

I've taken a long time to get to this paragraph and it's for a reason. I first played a SRW in 1999 and it's one of the few series to have active development since that time that I can gladly say has maintained a quality standard both the developers and the players can be proud of. The games have a bizarre, cluttered yet rich history that has in turn become a diegetic concept in the games. There's characters like Gilliam and Super Hero Sakusen's villain Euzeth Gotho who travel the multiverse scrambling for a comic truth, never realising that it's that they're in wacky fanfiction crossover computer games. There's repetition to give comfort and nostalgia, and there's enough innovation in any individual entry to make each game feel completely fresh. You can play the Original Generation games and be entertained by some goofy anime stereotypes. You can laugh at the bad jokes, be appalled by the cartoonishly evil villains and cheer when those with redeeming qualities join you and are immediately playable. The depth to the lore isn't so much in what's written in the games, it's the interplay between the writers, developers and fans. Like there's a bug in OG1 where a certain character's themesong overrides any other music event flag. Thus his theme overrides things like the final boss theme. This leads to this guy's appearance in Alpha 2, where the only time his theme doesn't win is when a villain has giant speakers on the hull of his battleship blaring out The Blue Danube and overriding the theme diegetically.

In other words, the SRW series and its Original Generation are essentially a microcosm of how experience shapes culture, memory becomes meme and that there's so much fun to be had celebrating this.

Then Super Robot Wars Z set out to deconstruct it all, but that's for another time...

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say it's really cool seeing a series summed up this way, complete with perspectives on both the fandom and the larger genre it's founded in. Looking forward to mebbe reading more as the month wears on. ;)


    "This leads to this guy's appearance in Alpha 2, where the only time his theme doesn't win is when a villain has giant speakers on the hull of his battleship blaring out The Blue Danube and overriding the theme diegetically."

    This is the best thing ever.