Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly: Mechs

at 3:33 PM
The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly takes a look at a character archetype and breaks down where it's gone right, wrong, or just plain weird. While the effort may seem perfunctory, we hope to examine the consonance (or dissonance) between high-level concepts and their practical execution. 

Today we're gonna talk giant mechs. Walkin', talkin', manned robots. These guys have been popular since the first time Japan got their hands on a dev kit, and have only grown in popularity since. Gundam Wing adaptations alone would provide enough fodder for this feature. The sad fact is, most mech games I've handled tend to be... well... mediocre. Not bad, just not exciting either. Robotech: Battlecry, Dynasty Warriors Gundam, Armored Core, they just don't do it for me. They tend to be boring; how do you make the player feel in control of a gigantic hulking machine without slowing the gameplay to a crawl? I'm not claiming to be an authority on the matter; what I can say is that I can identify a few instances that spectacularly succeed and fail in capturing this feeling. 

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The Bad: Nitro (Metal Warriors)

Metal Warriors is, for all intensive porpoises, the same basic sluggish platformer/shooter as Cybernator, yet it's immensely less fun to play. There's no input lag to convey inertia, rather Nitro simply possesses a terribly low walking velocity. The infinite jetpack feels nonsensical and further detracts from any sense of a real physical world - you're never making calculated boosts and dashes, but simply struggling with loose control. The most damning part of it all is actually a feature of the level design that affects movement so much that it has to be wagered against the control: fucking destructible walls. Everywhere you go in Metal Warriors, your path will be hindered by layers and layers of bricks that require you to stand still for 15+ seconds to chip away an opening. Remember Gemini Man from Mega Man 3? It's that all over.

There is no need for this shit. You have to shoot through three rows of blocks just to be able to walk through a passage. It's not challenging, and it's not even rare - it's all over at least the first two levels, just to slow the pace.
So how 'bout that weaponry? What does Nitro have to offer there? In short, jack shit. Nitro's default blaster is a typical machine gun, though the point of fire is strangely distant from the center of the sprite, thanks to an unnecessarily long barrel. This makes aiming at nearby targets a hassle, particularly because the game loves the tiny human enemies that were extremely frustrating for the ONE second that they appeared in Cybernator. An incredibly clunky lightsaber does little to fix this, as it possesses woefully short range and requires that the player stand still for almost a whole second. If you thought the lightsaber in Super Star Wars was a mess, boy are you gonna be thrilled here. The only upgrades to this basic weapon set come in the form of haphazardly-placed timed power-ups, which will again make you resent the designers' insistence on walling off every passageway. I am absolutely NEVER a fan of timed power-ups (come fucking on Super Mario Galaxy, I only get 30 seconds with the Fire Flower?), and they make even less sense in this lethargically paced game. The ONE armament that does pack some punch, a killer rocket launcher, will often vanish before you get the chance to use it on even one enemy. Plus you have to press an alternate attack button to use it - what the fuck is up with that? It's not like the system is ammo based. Don't make me simultaneously press two attack buttons! Fucking Xevious bullshit. 

The Good: Ranger X (Ranger X)

My favorite pick here would actually be the Assault Suit from Cybernator, but I've already discussed that game at length and decided to move on to another excellent 16-bit mecher: Ranger X. Ranger X is typical of Genesis games in that it's hard to love, but it takes a lot to love. A lot of learning, and a whole lotta love. For the best.
It's a rough-around-the-edges shooter that sees the player steering through varied environments, from hangars to forests to caves, battling full-screen bosses and tracking down enemy factories. Ranger X captures one of the most difficult-to-execute aspects of mechdom: transformation. This doesn't just entail a bunch of different robots; on the fly, Ranger can ride or combine with his high-tech motorbike to become a blazing fury of the blazers. In mech form, he's yet another chug-a-lugger, so he can snap onto his trusty bike just as fluidly as Voltron joined up with Voltron Jr. to take off at high speeds across the nation. The bike and mech can be controlled in tandem even when they are separated, allowing for some neat dual-pronged attack opportunities.

As in Cybernator, boost facilities are limited by a recharging meter, requiring the player to make the most of their inertia to keep airborne. Ranger's deeper charge reserves and faster boost speed makes the mech feel more agile and aggressive, in keeping with its hornet-like appearance.

The Ugly: Cyclone Suit/J-Bomb/Thunderfist (Blast Corps)

When I was eleven, I was glued to whatever versions of Gundam Wing and Robotech they showed on Toonami, but the thought of a mech in a video game was nothing but fantasy. I also somehow managed to gain quite a predilection for the sheer destructibility of Rampage, even though I had probably only ever played it two or three times. So when I first laid eyes on Blast Corps, it was like a dream come true. You get to control a mech to lay waste to cities! When I learned more about the game, that it was based around a tight time limit and clearing an immediate path through those cities, I lost a lot of enthusiasm. Time limits are anathema to a little kid who just wants to dick around without any rules. Remember, eleven-year-olds are the primary audience for Grand Theft Auto, so you have to put yourself in that mindset. 

Why, Rare? Why did you do this?
When I did finally get my hands on Blast Corps (which my parents were reluctant to rent/buy for me, as I pronounced the title as the much more violent-sounding Blast Corpse (they weren't too fond of Maximum Carnage either)), all of my dreams and worries were completely stifled by the fact that, what the fuck, the mechs have to somersault into buildings? Or slowly hover to the top to do a piledriver? Agh, it's so strange. I understand that they were trying to add challenge beyond "hold forward to smash", but these limitations lend themselves to a crushing linearity. The mechs don't feel like mechs when they each only have one gimmick-behavior, equivalent to the functionality of the game's other construction vehicles. One wonders what is the point of including giant robot men at all. Smashing buildings is still neat and all, but using robot dance-moves to do it? Fucking weird.

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Though Metal Warriors may be an abomination in play, I respect that it makes some - however misguided - attempt at conveying the sensibility of Mech War. The separation of driver from mech is always a nice touch, present in Blast Corps as well. Other mech games like M.U.S.H.A. and Strania make no attempt to justify their aesthetic of giant mechanical men, which isn't inherently a fault, but at least a missed opportunity. 

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