Ah, Neon Genesis Evangelion - the hugely internationally popular anime series has, until now, been lacking games that English-speaking gamers could appreciate. Previously, there had been five console releases with the word "Evangelion" in the title in Japan (three for the Saturn exclusively, and two for both the Saturn and the PlayStation), and all but two were firmly entrenched in the digital-comic genre (one was merely an image collection with minigames, the other a mahjongg game). While they might have been intriguing to the native players, they were completely inaccessible to fans that did not speak Japanese. Enter Bandai, which is releasing an Evangelion game on a bizarre platform for an anime-related game: the Nintendo 64.
It's fairly obvious that a cartridge is a poor choice of medium for an anime-based game; anime is video and sound, and both compress extremely poorly, taking up an intense amount of space very quickly. In spite of that, Bandai has brought the anime experience home in a way unmatched by the previous titles - while these noncanonical side stories aren't directly related to the plot of the show, this game serves as a simulation of events as they unfold in the series itself.
For those who are unaware, Neon Genesis Evangelion is the story of Shinji Ikari, a fourteen-year-old pilot of the "artificial human" Evangelion, a massive creature encased in robot-like armor. The story picks up in the year 2015 as the Angels, a race of strange super-scientific monsters, begin to attack the city of Tokyo-3 and the headquarters of Nerv, an agency devoted to the Angels' defeat and the prevention of the "third impact." It is fifteen years after the "second impact," in which a huge meteor struck Antarctica, melting the polar ice cap and devastating the world's ecology. World War III then ensued. At any rate, while this may sound extremely generic, it's merely the setup for the much more personal story of Shinji. Even so, the game dissects the surface story of the anime in its presentation of the battles against the Angels, and the role "Third Children" Shinji, and later, "Second Children" Asuka Langley Sohryu play in this combat.
The game's opening is set to classical music and shows the truth of the second impact as recorded by the Katsuragi expedition to Antarctica on August 15, 2000. From there you have a few choices - with a menu that mimics the appearance of the Nerv Supercomputer Magi's screen. The attention paid to achieving the aesthetic of the series is quite high, and detail is excellent, in general. The choices are story mode, options, and training. Each mode begins with a few choices, and more are unlocked as you beat the different difficulty levels that are available: easy, normal, and hard. Training mode mimics the "target in the center, push the switch" training that the apathetic Shinji begins in the second episode of the show. Story mode is a series of battles against the Angels as portrayed in the anime, with a variety of different play mechanics, and this is where the meat of the game lies.Unfortunately, the game's grip on play mechanics is not nearly as good as its grip on the show's content (quite faithful), graphics (some of the best on the system), music (original tunes from the show, surprisingly well represented by the N64's infamously limited music-generation capabilities), and sound (amazingly large numbers of voice samples at a surprisingly high quality for a cartridge). The missions play like minigames. The flaw here is that there is no overlying game that contains them with its own full-fledged game mechanics. The first two missions are essentially an extremely stilted fighting game, and from there it moves onto cursor manipulation, a Track-and-Field-style button-tapping exercise, Parappa-style timed button pressing, and Dragon's Lair-ish screen cues. While at first it seems that you will only be involved in the missions that Shinji and Evangelion Unit 01 were both directly involved in, suddenly you are thrust behind the grips of Unit 02 and in Asuka's position for the mission based on the episode "Magmadiver." Whether the omission of several Angels and potential missions is due to the size constraints of the cartridge or time constraints of the development is not clear. What is clear is this: The biggest flaw with the Neon Genesis Evangelion game is the game itself.
The ability to attain further options, training modes, and even a final mission based on "Air," the first movie (spoiler territory for anyone whose sole source of Evangelion tapes is the domestic release from AD Vision, incidentally) certainly adds to the desire of any true Evangelion fan to conquer this cartridge and unlock all the secrets. No one else can be expected to have any desire to do so. The minigames offer so little in the arena of gameplay that this game's relevance hinges solely on your interest in the show - as admirable a job as the developers have done in re-creating its experience, aesthetic, and story for the player, this game is a nudging reminder of the show and not a replacement. Add in the fact that it's totally in Japanese: It offers nothing for the import buyer who isn't intimately familiar with the series' plot to begin with. While the play is not victimized by the language barrier, the cinema sequences are (portrayed both by semi-animated stills directly from the show, and polygonal representations of its events), and offer a nudging reminder at best.
In short, the graphics are beautiful, the music authentic, the voice both excellent and abundant, and the attention to faithfully representing the anime zealous. Even the game's instruction manual is a copy of the top-secret Nerv booklet Misato hands Shinji in the first episode. The serious problem here is that the game fails to do what a game should do - deliver an engaging play experience. It most definitely conveys a wonderful sense of the anime, but if you only want a sense of the anime, buy the videos. If you are an Evangelion fan and you already have the videos and an N64, then this game is probably for you. But be forewarned - it's for no one else.