Play Gundam Games on Emulator Archives

Play Gundam Games on Emulator Archives

Play Gundam Games on Emulator Archives

Play Gundam Games on Emulator Archives

"It's not you, it's me." That's the message the Japanese gaming industry is telling the world this week at TGS. "Our games are as good as ever, they're just not for you anymore."

Critics in the west have been crowing about the supposed death of the Japanese industry for years. And while their critiques have a certain degree of truth to them, they're missing the point. Japanese game development did run into trouble during this console generation, but their issues are so removed from the average gamer's experience (workforce and labor management) as to be meaningless. The games themselves are as good as they've ever been, but they're just not made for the entire world anymore. Japanese games are now by and large made to appeal almost exclusively to Japanese gamers. Rather than this being another piece that focuses on the alleged downfall of the Japanese industry, we thought we should focus on why Japanese games and western tastes have diverged so much in recent years. There's no single cause that can explain the phenomena -- the possible reasons range from the social and economic, to the practical and mundane. Regardless, the fact remains that Japanese gamers are now seeking different experiences from North Americans and Europeans.

Gamer taste in both regions underwent a massive sea change in recent years. While the slow takeover of the AAA console space by former PC heavy-hitting franchises, genres and studios like Fallout, FPS games, and BioWare changed the tastes of the western market in the past decade, other forces have been working on Japan in the same time. The reasons for the shift in Japanese gamer taste are numerous, but there are three that western gamers in the country continuously note -- a peculiar emotion called moe, the Japanese concept of hobbies and adulthood, and a tradition of disparaging foreign games.


The concept of moe (pronounced MOH-ay) is incredibly important amongst Japan's indigenous nerd population, otherwise known as otaku. While there are train otaku, military otaku, and otaku of all kinds, a great many of them focus on the geeky triad of anime, manga, and video games; the three media influence each other and are often linked together. Moe is a word that Otaku will often use at the sight of a cute, large-eyed juvenile character, but when asked point blank "What does moe mean?" most are unable to offer a coherent answer. It is an amorphous concept.

The word is often used by westerners familiar with Japan to describe the lolicon (short for Lolita Complex) art style which focuses on young, often pre-pubescent girls, and seems to feature a disturbing mix of childlike cuteness with subtle and not-so-subtle sexual overtones. This definition is not quite right according to Patrick Galbraith, a researcher of otaku culture at the University of Tokyo. "Moe is an affective response to a fictional character or representations of a character. There are two things that are important to note about this definition. First, we are talking about a response. Moe is used not to describe a character type or style, but rather characters that are likely to trigger a response or are designed with that in mind. This implies that there are a range of different characters that appeal men and women or various ages and orientations. Second, moe is a response to fictional characters, not actual people. Without this distinction, moe is conflated with descriptions such as 'cute' or 'sexy.'"

Moe describes the emotions that otaku feel upon seeing, thinking of, or interacting with a certain kind of character. Depending on the person, this character may or may not fit the little girl image that western game critics have come to associate with the word. It may be used by female anime, manga, or game fans that enjoy "Boys Love" media which feature homosexual pairings between popular characters for example.

So what exactly does this mean for games? It actually depends on which ones you're talking about -- for the biggest titles it means nothing, but it means everything to smaller publishers and developers. The business model for small games in Japan can only be sustained by catering to a small yet rabid fan base that's willing to pay a premium for content. AAA titles normally sell for between the equivalent of $40-$60, while smaller niche titles are usually priced at $80-plus. Small developers make their money by selling less at a higher profit margin, while major publishers sell more for less. If you publish small games in Japan you have to give your fans what you want, and since your fans are otaku who revel in moe, you'll give them games filled with the characters that elicit that response -- which are usually young, childlike girls. Between August and December of this year there are a total of 35 games set for release in Japan which follow this exact model. There are more games like this than there are FPSs in the west. By catering to their fan base, smaller publishers have alienated many western fans.

Moe's effect on AAA games has not been as direct. If you want to make a massive hit, you can't sell it only to the small crowd who wants to ogle 2D characters, as Galbraith points out. "What moe game has as many players as Monster Hunter? What franchise has been as successful as Pokémon? What moe characters have had the cultural impact of those of Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball? The point is that they are not the majority of the audience, and the most popular and bestselling works in Japan are not those targeting moe fans."

If smaller games are catering to an almost exclusively Japanese audience, that still leaves mainstream titles for the rest of the world to enjoy, right? Well, not as many as there used to be.

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, Play Gundam Games on Emulator Archives

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    Play Gundam Games on Emulator Archives

    FamilySoft’s PC-98 Gundam Games

    The NEC PC-9801 computer: chances are, if you’ve heard of it, it’s because of Touhou Project or the platform’s large library of 16-bit eroge. In an age when seemingly all video games are at your fingertips, the obscurity and language barrier of Japanese home computer emulation has ensured that the PC-98’s software library remains largely unknown in the West.

    Among this wellspring of content, unsurprisingly, is no small number of licensed anime titles, including a handful based on the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise. Exclusively released by the company FamilySoft, most of these take the form of turn-based simulation games with varying combat systems. FamilySoft seemed to corner the market for this particular genre of licensed anime game for the PC-98, having also released superficially similar titles based on Super Dimension FortressMacross, Aura Battler Dunbine, Crusher Joe, and Captain Harlock.

    Beginning with Mobile Suit Gundam: Classic Operation in 1990, FamilySoft would release seven core Gundam simulation titles plus expansions. Of these, only three would feature original stories and a pedigree brought by artists that had previously worked on Gundam anime and manga.

    Advanced Operation (1992)

    The first, and best, of these three is Gundam: Advanced Operation. Set in late UC 0089, Advanced Operation occupies that elusive and underused timeline gap between the Gundam ZZ TV series and the film Char’s Counterattack. You follow the crew of the Pegasus Kai class ship Il Nido as they clash with a force of Neo-Zeon remnants commanded by a hawkish Haman Karn loyalist named Gerald Sinclair.

    Sinclair’s mission is to hunt down the representative of a moderate Neo-Zeon faction that seeks to make peace with the Federation: the late Karn’s own younger sister, Serrana Karn. The game features original character designs by Haruhiko Mikimoto of Macross and Gundam 0080 fame. Mikimoto would later create original characters for FamilySoft’s Macross games, as well.

    What may be most visually striking about the game, however, is its mechanical aesthetic. Advanced Operation represents the rare occasion outside of garage kits or his own manga where the designs of Kazuhisa Kondo are faithfully adapted, complete with oversized skirt armor and camouflage. The majority of these designs are lifted from Kondo’s 1988 manga Revival of Zeon, which takes place a year before Char’s Counterattack. This makes for some strange possible anachronisms, as near the end of the game–which story-wise doesn’t occupy a long stretch of time–you encounter ground-type Sazabi units. That said, considering that this is a game where you can potentially acquire multiple ZZ Gundams or even an early non-Newtype version of the v Gundam, odds are this continuity peculiarity will be of little concern.

    Of the many FamilySoft Gundam games to have “Operation” in the title, Advanced Operation lives up to its name as being the most sophisticated. It is the only game in the loose franchise to employ a zone of control system that gives stat modifiers during a combat action from the placement of allies and enemies relative to the combatants. Experience points come not just from scoring a kill but also from successful attacks and dodges, meaning that even units that usually function in a support role will still level up. By selecting different modes, you’re able to control the way units react and perform in various situations. Because of these features, you feel like you’re actually controlling the outcome of battle and not just hoping an arbitrary random number generator decides in your favor. If you’re playing on an emulator, it means you’ll be cheating less frequently.

    Return of Zion [sic] (1993)

    The somewhat dumbed-down spiritual sequel to Advanced Operation, Return of Zion takes place not long after its predecessor in UC 0090, where Zeon remnants are taking part in a large-scale operation to consolidate their forces and retreat into space to join Char Aznable’s own nascent Neo-Zeon. The game focuses on a group of Haman’s Neo-Zeon in Africa called “Nightshade,” as they link up with other remnant groups and representatives of Char’s Neo-Zeon to ultimately return to space. Return of Zion’s character designs are handled by prolific Sunrise designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, and fits well into the aesthetic he established with his work on Gundam 0083. Playing up the anime style, each mission is actually bookended with an opening and ending sequence, and even a “Next Episode” card.

    While Kondo’s style makes a partial return in the form of many reused sprites from Advanced Operation, he’s succeeded by Makoto Kobayashi, best known in Gundam as the designer of The O. Kobayashi’s contribution is largely seen in the detailed, worn-looking depiction of mobile suits in the game’s cutscenes as well as new mobile suit variations entirely unique to the game. These tend to take the form of reconnaissance and mid-range variations of existing mobile suits as well as non-transformable ground-based variations of the Zeta Gundam. Many mobile suits without explicitly named variations still appear highly customized, reinforcing the idea that the Zeon remnants had to use whatever was on hand for repair.

    The game excels at selling the feeling of being underdog Zeon soldiers, and encourages you to resort to guerrilla tactics as you’re frequently outgunned early on. In a direct connection to Advanced Operation, one of the remnants’ recurring adversaries is the Pegasus class Il Nido, though staffed by mostly new faces.

    Unfortunately, Return of Zion drops Advanced Operation’s zone of control system, reducing much of the combat to attacking and hoping for the best. Low hit-rates on both sides can result in tedious, seemingly arbitrary combat, and the new ability to turn off battle animation is surely a response to that. Advanced Operation’s myriad of unit modes have been streamlined to just five essential options: normal, full speed, assault, sniping, and supply/capture. The overall game is simplified, but the net effect is a diminished feeling of control.

    A Year of War (1993)

    A Year of War feels like a game of transition for FamilySoft’s Gundam titles. Abandoning the relatively untapped story gap between ZZ and Char’s Counterattack that the previous two games inhabited, it returns to the now well-worn ground of the One Year War from the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Most material that plunders the One Year War period is guilty of overstuffing it with an improbably high number of Gundam variations or secret Zeon prototypes, but A Year of War suffers from the opposite problem: your team of original Zeon characters essentially act as ineffectual witnesses to major events of the 1979 Gundam series. As such, it’s a game that wants to have things both ways: to be an original story while simultaneously being a straightforward adaptation of an earlier work.

    To its credit, the first few missions take place before the events of Mobile Suit Gundam proper begin, seeing your crew (without even a special squad name!) taking part in early One Year War actions like Operation British, the Battle of Loum, and the initial Zeon operation to land troops on Earth. In those early missions, your only opponents are Salamis and Magellan class battleships. Ironically, because the game divides attack types into anti-ship and anti-mobile suit, your Musai cruisers actually tend to do better against enemy battleships than your mobile suits.

    In the first two missions, your Zakus are only effective against ships due to them being equipped with nuclear bazookas. In these early battles, where mobile suits were supposed to have made such a huge impact, A Year of War portrays them as worthless unless they’re packing nukes. You can even create an anachronism by upgrading two particular pilots’ Zakus into Rick Doms ten months before they should even exist, but the lack of a nuclear armament actually ends up making them a downgrade.

    Once your team arrives on Earth, the story skips nine months ahead to Garma Zabi’s funeral, as seen during the original anime. From this point on, each mission becomes survival challenge for a set amount of turns or running to one specific space on the map, usually to witness a key moment from the show or to escape from the Earth Federation forces.

    Most of the gameplay system is carried over from Return of Zeon, retaining the same flaws. However, there’s no mobile suit sprite-based combat animation; rather all combat is reduced to the faster, but less impressive, quick battle system. This belt-tightening extends to the rest of the game; art that includes mobile suits, with the exception of the opening cutscene, is of a much lower quality than art of the game’s original characters. Kawamoto returns as character designer with a somewhat softer style that anticipates his work on The 08th MS Team, but tellingly there’s no dedicated mechanical designer this time. A surprisingly charming addition, however, are quaint mini-cutscenes of full sprite animation depicting key scenes of brutality such as the Solar System obliterating mobile suit forces at Solomon or the death of Gihren Zabi.

    FamilySoft would take a break from Gundam and release several Macross games before returning to the franchise with Multiple Operation in 1995 and Stardust Operation the following year. These were straightforward adaptations of Mobile Suit Gundam and Gundam 0083 respectively. Both eschewed the systems that were established in this spiritual trilogy for their own distinct, somewhat convoluted combat systems, and neither had any notable guest staff.

    The new characters and situations presented in FamilySoft’s original Gundam works seem to have fallen largely into obscurity even in Japan, with perhaps one notable exception: Serrana Karn and Gerald Sinclair from Advanced Operation were both given minor roles in Hiroyuki Kitazume’s manga, Char’s Deleted Affair.


    Advanced Operation Gallery

    Return of Zion Gallery

    A Year of War Gallery

    FamilySoft Cover and Catalog Gallery


    Further Reading

    Tagged with: emulationfamilysoftguest writergundamharuhiko mikimotokazuhisa kondomakoto kobayashione year warpc-98toshihiro kawamotovideo gamezeon

    Tom Winnicki

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    Gundam diehard who's been one longer than he hasn't. Amateur archivist seeking out weird forgotten robot stuff when he can. You can also find him on Twitter.

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