The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
Getting the game took longer than I expected. Just ordering it was complicated, a procedure involving an inquiry on Twitter, a few exchanged emails with a vendor in Malaysia, and a PayPal invoice. Then I was treated to a fairly long wait, which is my fault for not paying extra for the express shipping. But soon enough I was popping Super Robot Wars Original Generation: The Moon Dwellers into my Playstation 4. There are more than 20 total Super Robot Wars games, but Moon Dwellers is just the fourth one to be released in English anywhere.
I've been playing Moon Dwellers on twitch, partly because I just want people to have a way to experience the game without having to take a gamble on importing something expensive. The other part is because I tend to get distracted and stop playing games after a while, and streaming it regularly is a way to keep me focused. The other other part is because it's a unique and pretty awesome experience, a turn-based strategy RPG (think of Final Fantasy Tactics or Shining Force or Tactics Ogre and you've got the right idea) rooted in anime. The thing is, though, that it's not based on anime. Not exactly, anyway.
Across Moon Dwellers's narrative, you get access to a sprawling selection of pilots and robots—one of the game's many, many strategic wrinkles is the fact that you can frequently change pilots, to give yourself an advantage. One pilot in particular is the magnificent red dude you see above. His name is Kohta, and he bursts on the scene pretty early. He pilots an awesome super robot called the Compatible Kaiser, a heavily armored machine that strikes me as vaguely reminiscent of GaoGaiGar. But while he's enjoyably overpowered, questions arose in me while utilizing the character and his robot. Super Robot Wars OG has a vaguely retro feel, but most character designs are modern—only Kohta's is a bit more retro than usual. Also, what exactly is the Compatible Kaiser compatible with? I had to find this out, because I was bored.
Getting the answer to this question involves some backtracking. In 1990, the original Nintendo Entertainment System, the classic Famicom, was still king. (It would be succeeded by the Super Famicom late in the year.) Part of the galaxy of publishers from the console was a company called Banpresto, a toy and video game maker that had just recently gotten a name change thanks to its acquisition by toy giant Bandai. Banpresto noticed something interesting; being under the big Bandai umbrella gave them some leeway to publish certain character goods. Specifically, while Bandai was known for Gundam model kits, they also had some licenses (through the old, subsumed subsidiary Popy, which, FYI, is an adjective that means “like or similar to a pope”) for other stuff, like Tsubaraya's Ultraman series and Toei's Kamen Rider. What if they leveraged their status as both a video game company and a toy company to release a product that crossed over some of Japan's greatest superheroes?
And so it came to pass, in April of 1990, that Banpresto released SD Battle Ozumo: Heisei Hero Spot, featuring the adventures of Ultraman, Gundam, Kamen Rider, and Banpresto's very own original hero, Fighter Roar! Here's what Roar looks like.
Whoa! It's… Kohta? Not quite. If you're well-versed in the mythology surrounding Super Robot Wars and its related games, you're nodding knowingly. Roar is kind of neat – he's an escaped cyborg who turned against his master, Dark Brain (shades of Cyborg 009!). He later gets stuck in the world of Super Robot Wars, only able to send his reliably powerful Compatible Kaiser into battle with the help of a high school kid named Kohta Azuma. But why did Banpresto feel the need to stick their own hero into the mix with famous legends like Utraman and Gundam? It's all about the brand, baby. Just look at Roar's face next to the Banpresto logo.
Roar was the start of a smart and highly successful strategy – Banpresto seeding their heroic SRPG games with their own characters, “Banpresto Originals.” He'd soon be followed in Banpresto's superhero pantheon by Guiliam Jager, pilot of the powered suit Gespenst. But before that, the company busied themselves flooding the market with sequels and spinoffs to their new hit. One spinoff, SD Great Battle, established a long-running franchise of superhero team-up RPGs that both added new heroes and built on Banpresto's shared mythology of a great struggle against the villainous Dark Brain. In 1991, they came up with the most exciting idea yet—a team-up of super robot heroes! For the first time, Gundam, Getter Robo, and Mazinger Z would battle together. Just look at these cutting edge graphics.
In retrospect, it's impressive just how quickly Super Robot Wars took off. Faithfully following their “Banpresto Originals” strategy, once Super Robot Wars was an established hit, the inevitable sequel, Super Robot Wars 2nd, introduced players to the young hero Masaaki Andoh and the first Banpresto Original super robot—the Cybuster!
It seems like nothing special, particularly if you've seen the really underwhelming Cybuster anime from 1999 (it did get a DVD release in North America for some reason), but it established a formula that's kept robot nerds entertained and Banpresto in the money since then. Each successive Super Robot Wars game—from Super Robot Wars EX to Super Robot Wars F Final (hey, remember when they made a joke about this title in the Burn Up W OVA?) to Super Robot Wars MX and beyond would start by introducing the player to one of Banpresto's original characters and robots, before teaming them up with their licensed counterparts. This served a dual purpose—it kept the games' stories from impacting too much on known continuity (although you do sometimes get to interact with famous scenes from the likes of Gundam and Grendizer), and it kept Banpresto's story growing.
The reason I keep pointing at Banpresto's original stuff is because it eventually led to anime—anime that, much like the North American releases of Super Robot Wars games, kinda got lost in the shuffle. Super Robot Wars Original Generation: The Animation was one of the early marquee titles for the infamous Bandai Visual USA, who opted to release this obscure OVA as a pricey subtitled-only set. Furthermore, it's not a neat story that you can just jump in on—it's designed as a follow-up to the two Super Robot Wars OG games. You might think that many fans were ready for this, since these two games got released on our shores—but those games didn't do well, and were marketed under the somewhat confusing Super Robot Taisen title, ostensibly to avoid a legal problem with the TV show Robot Wars. I have to hand it to Atlus for sticking with the franchise, even as they released the games late in the Gameboy Advance's life cycle. I made it through most of the first game, which is why I totally missed out on seeing Roar/Kohta earlier (he only shows up in the bonus battles!).
But if Super Robot Wars Original Generation seems intimidating—the main storyline features a couple dozen protagonists, including multiple 3-pilot teams and multiple bad guys-turned-good guys—fear not, because you can go ahead and start with the TV series. That was another puzzling Bandai Visual USA release, a 26-episode affair broken out across nine $40 DVDs – so for a mere $360, you too could own a subtitled-only DVD release of a super robot obscurity! Yeah, it's no wonder that company didn't last. But the show was eventually picked up by Media Blasters, and lives on to this day on Crunchyroll.
Why's Super Robot Wars Original Generation good, though? How can it really compare to the visceral thrill of teaming up Giant Robo and Basara from Macross 7? Watching the series, it took some time for me to really get it. The show introduces us to Ryusei, a video game jock who get a chance to try out the military's personal trooper mecha when an unexpected alien invasion occurs. It turns out that the aliens are actually being set up by a shadowy consortium of leaders and scientists, real tough guys (they were the main bad guys in an earlier Super Robot Wars game) who want to test the human race in preparation for the true alien threat yet to come. In the meantime, Ryusei joins up with the SRX team of Aya Kobayashi (commanding officer; powerful, but vulnerable) and Rai Branstein (stereotypical haughty Teutonic dude) to square off against his old video game nemesis, a guy who eats in the cockpit, which tells you all you really need to know about him.
The series very gradually reveals its charms – Ryusei and his pals feel like a military unit at first, but they soon meet more powerful and advanced robot pilots, who are almost to a person larger than life and charmingly absurd. They meet a girl genius, a grizzled space captain, and a pretty lady space captain with a giant command hat.
The uniform game alone is enough to sell me on Super Robot Wars Original Generation, where one command officer might wear a tube top with a plunging neckline, while another just has an entire suit of armor on in the pilot's chair. Many of the robots and pilots unrepentantly borrow characteristics from their better-known counterparts, and the show's plot is a fast-paced mixture of political gamesmanship, mysterious alien artifacts, low-key comedy, and nutso super robot battles. It's great proof of Banpresto's success—they've really managed to create their own mythology that's slowly taken hold over the decades, stuffed to the brim with much-loved heroes created from absolutely nothing.
That's not even pointing out the profound influence Super Robot Wars has had on some of their key starring robots. Ken Ishikawa took cues from the series in expanding the role of the powerful Shin Getter Robo, which made an appearance in Getter Robo Go but didn't really carve out its own place in the pantheon until its key appearance in Super Robot Wars 4. Go Nagai's Mazinkaiser, which starred in its own OVA and film, was originally conceived by the artist as a game-only upgrade to Mazinger Z and Great Mazinger.
Playing the new game isn't the only reason Super Robot Wars Original Generation has been on my mind. One of the franchise's best characters is Excellen Browning, a pilot who's not just memorable because her first name is a combination of “Excel” and “Ellen”. On the one hand, Excellen occupies the role of the shameless flirt, a bubbly blonde who capers around with both boys and girls, and revels in constantly causing her normally slick, confident boyfriend Kyousuke to lose his cool. On the other hand, she's unquestionably effective in the cockpit, a smart fighter who's one of the most useful in the game. Since the series started featuring character voices, Excellen was played by Yuko Mizutani, who was also appearing in Super Robot Wars to voice her famous character Leina Stol from Machine Robo. Ms Mizutani succumbed to cancer this year, and Moon Dwellers was her final performance as Excellen – so I'm trying to soak it up as much as I can.
Even with the latest game available in English, the Super Robot Wars franchise never has never quite gotten a proper chance in the English-speaking world. Atlus did their best with three Original Generations installments, and Bandai Visual USA and Geneon's release of Super Robot Wars-related anime were mere curiosities. That's a shame – the sheer spectacle of the series is something that's worth seeking out. That's part of why I've been streaming the game – more than many others I've played, it really gives me the sense of “playing” an anime; it's kinda like Sakura Wars, in that respect. As often as not, the animation sequences result in a sense of awe, or at least a bunch of delighted, incredulous laughter. Special attacks run the gamut from impressive to outright insane, and the series doesn't shy away from comedy. There's also the requsite pages and pages of stuffy discussion of past events. If Super Robot Wars Original Generation: The Moon Dwellers has one problem, it's that it's starting to get weighed down by its own continuity. It's neat that they're still squaring off against Dark Brain after all of these years, but come on, fellas! The new game does have a gigantic dictionary of terms, and the last big patch included a history feature which, while sadly untranslated, includes most of the key Original Generation-related scenes from prior Super Robot Wars games.
Ultimately, my point is this: if you love super robot anime, don't let this strategy game, which heroically tries to quantify crazy robot anime stereotypes with numerical values, intimidate you into not checking it out. If you watch the first Original Generations TV anime, you'll have a really solid primer. Just look at what you're missing out on. See that cool robot above? That's the Compatible Kaiser itself. Remember, the BF on the front means Best Friends, and definitely not Battle Force, the name of the team the robot fought for in Great Battle IV.
Alongside Super Robot Wars, Banpresto (which has since turned its attention entirely to toys, leaving the games to Bandai Namco) has kicked out a number of similar team-up titles, like the Gundam-centric Another Century's Episode and the descriptive Sunrise World War, which I want to play just to team up the Big O and Spike Spiegel. It's a genre that's never gotten traction over here, but maybe now it will—Bandai Namco have already announced plans to release the next SD Gundam and Super Robot Wars (the regular one, with the famous bots!) in English for Asia, so they'll be just as easy to import. I'm hoping for a faithful port of Super Hero Dodgeball, pictured above. What's your anime hero dream-team, the one you'd love to see in a video game? Speak up in the comments!
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