The Robot Wars series has remained an undiscovered gem to Western audiences for over a decade. This wildly popular franchise has been a juggernaut since its 1991 debut on the Game Boy, and the ensuing years have seen it appear on just about every platform you could imagine, from the NES to the PlayStation Portable and everything in between. Unfortunately, not one entry in the series has made it to the US. The biggest obstacle to a stateside release has always centered upon licensing. One of the core elements of the franchise's appeal is the roster of characters that have appeared in most every entry. As the name implies, the Robot Wars series has featured superdeformed incarnations of a veritable who's who in the mech world. Just about every major mech series has been represented in the series at one point or another.
While this has made for some very cool team-ups, it has also created a nigh-impossible licensing challenge. While publisher Bandai and internal developer Banpresto own the rights to all the mechs that appear in the game in Japan, things are decidedly more complicated in the US, where the rights are split among a number of different companies. As a result, the likelihood of any game in the series ever appearing in the US has always seemed like a pipe dream of "Save Aerith" proportions. A funny thing happened this year, though: Atlus, the people's developer/publisher, made some bizarre pact with the devil (or maybe just a business deal) and managed to secure the rights for not one but two entries in the series. The first of the two, Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation, is shipping shortly, and we had the chance to hunker down with a near-final version to bask in the localized glow of the series we were convinced would never, ever hit the US.
Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation is one of the more recent entries in the series. It was released in Japan in 2002 and focuses on the original characters and mechs that have been seen in the series over the years. The game's story follows one of two characters--young Ryusei or large-haired and somber Kyosuke--as they get sucked up into events that lead to a galactic conflict. Mankind has made its way to the stars, and the stars have made their way to Earth, albeit in meteor form. Following a particularly nasty meteor shower, new technology is discovered that leads to speculation that the Earth could be invaded. This is all the perfect excuse to create an army of mechs to defend the planet. Once you factor human unpredictability and some extraterrestrial shenanigans into the mix, you have a nice stage set for two lengthy storylines to weave in and out of.
In terms of structure, Super Robot Taisen follows a straightforward, linear design that mixes role-playing and strategy elements, and it's broken up into three main sections: story, combat, and maintenance. The story plays out during lengthy dialog screens that introduce a veritable army of characters, which may initially seem to be overwhelming. But if you ride the wave, the characters' stories and the cast of faces in them come to make sense. Of course, combat is the core of the various acts that you'll go through for each character's story, and maintenance is basically time you'll spend in your hub tweaking your pilots and mechs.
While the story sequences are pretty straightforward, the combat bears some explanation. Combat will play out in a grid (Advance Wars- or Shining Force-style) that will see you mobilizing an ever-growing force of mechs (you'll gain more and more as you go deeper into the game). Each mech will have its own set of attacks that will vary in range and power. In addition, each pilot will have its own unique abilities that offer various buffs, such as health restoration or improved attack or evasion. As you defeat enemies, your mech and pilots will earn experience (leveling up as you go) and money, as well as items for your armor. During the maintenance sequences, you'll be able to beef up your mech's stats, weapon damage, and pilot abilities.
While this may sound pretty by-the-numbers, the two characters' storylines feature branches and secrets (ranging from items to characters and mechs). As such, the game doesn't feel as linear as you might think. Combat is also quite strategic, as you'll find that certain combos of mechs, pilots, and weapon loadouts are better suited to certain situations. Managing everything works fine, thanks to the simple menu-driven interface.
The visuals in the game are sprite-based and are a mix of rather boring grid-based battlegrounds and dynamic cinematics that show the robots making with the flashy taisen on each other. If the cutscenes get to be too much of a drag, you'll have the option to skip them, although this means you'll just be seeing tiny units move around the gridded-out field of battle. As far as tech goes, the game features some very cool visuals that get a lot of mileage out of the aging GBA hardware. The audio makes the most out of the limited hardware the game has to work with, as well. You'll hear weapons fire, assorted sound effects, and a ton of unique theme songs during the game. You won't hear anything that breaks the envelope here, but it gets the job done well.
Based on what we played, Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation is looking like a faithful translation of the Japanese game that should please fans of the series. While we'd obviously like to see all of the Robot Wars titles with their famous mech casts appear in the States, it's still good to have at least one. Newcomers may be left in the dust by all the jargon and the massive cast, but the gameplay really does shine, offering a deep experience that's engaging, even if you can't keep track of everyone. Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation is slated to ship next month for the Game Boy Advance. Look for our full review then.