I have frequently voiced my love of robots on this website, and one can assume from this that my effusive joy re: metal men extends to everyday life as well. Indeed, if you were to inquire about this to any of my closest acquaintances they'd probably do naught but beg you to stop, having already been inundated with my pro-robot propaganda for the duration of their friendship with me. I am a robo-fanatic.
I have one other notable characteristic: I am inveterately lazy. This works out in a smashingly good fashion for video game companies for, though I know there are pirated copies of videogames out there, I have never made a move to get any of them because it constitutes too much work. Certainly morality and a desire to "give back to the creators" exists in my reasoning for buying games instead of stealing them, but one would be remiss to discount laziness as a factor.
In Japan there is a game series that has been around for a stunningly long time, longer, in fact, than some of the readers of this site have been alive. This series, called Super Robot Wars, is primarily an excuse for robot enthusiasts to play videogames that involve their favorite cartoon robots beating up on their other favorite cartoon robots. There are elements of strategy and money management involved, yes, but the gist of it is "Here's my Evangelion, go beat up on his Getter Robo."
I will keep anime references to a minimum, for sake of readability, but that's the best I can promise.
Super Robot Wars has a pretty extraordinary following in this Western Hemisphere. This is pretty surprising considering that none of the games have ever been commercially released in America, at least, not until now. The reason the game got so popular over here is because of dedicated fans who would acquire ROMs of the games, translate them, and then post them on the internet for all to enjoy. I was aware of this concept, and excited, but my love of robots was overridden by my aforementioned laziness. I was content enough to wait until the games were made legally available on these American shores.
And wait I did, until this August when "Super Robot Taisen: Original Generations 1" was released for the Game Boy Advance. The "Original Generations" series is sort of a subset of games in the Super Robot Wars continuum that involve no licensed robots (no Gundams, no Voltes Vs). Instead the ranks swell with creator Banpresto's own machinations and overwrought, melodramatic characters. To the worried reader, have no fear! If you are familiar with the traditional conventions of robot cartoons then you will find yourself stuffed to the brim with young, anxious pilots, older, stoic pilots, and the fan-favorite uber-effeminate wavy haired male pilots with horrifying, calculating logic who are just there to catch the eyes of the ladies.
The robots of the series are no less methodically manufactured. All machines run the gamut from "reasonable" to "insane" as far as logistics go. Small, mass produced man-bots have relatively mundane weapons like shotguns or flamethrowers and would almost seem normal if it weren't for their penchant for leaping in the air with a fist full of blue fire ready to bear down on the enemy's warship. Other 'bots use telekinetic swords or are able to transform into aeroplanes at a whim. Though sense of scale is tough to get on the super deformed mecha monsters, the impression that some are big as battleships while others aren't much larger than your standard Japanese house isn't all that hard to grasp.
These valiant warriors of justice are deployed on a chess grid-style playing field to fight evil dictators, religious zealots, and bug aliens from outer space one turn at a time. Anyone familiar with console strategy RPG ideals will find the system relatively easy to pick up, though practically impossible to master at the same time. Super Robot Wars is a series that delights in bogging you down with the details. Not only can individual robots and their weapons be customized through use of cash gained in missions, but pilots can have their abilities advanced with the spending of "Pilot Points" which are acquired when enemy units are shot down. That description sounds like any old run of the mill strategy RPG from Japan, but one really needs to see the wall of text they're confronted with between each mission to get the full scope of statistics the game wants you to understand. Each pilot can have six skills to aid them in battle and, in addition to six statistics that can be raised at will, certain pilots are more proficient with certain types of weapons and the skills of certain pilots mesh better with certain types of robots. Some jockeys will find themselves at home in a big tank of a mech, while others prefer more evasive crafts.
Fortunately the game is misleading, in that it doesn't really require you to know what every little detail does, and it's never as complicated as the hordes upon hordes of menus you're driven through make it seem. The game clearly WANTS you to know whether or not 265 Manuverability is significantly worse than 285, but the choice is yours whether or not you bother to care. As you're playing you'll pick up little lessons that will guide you through the whole game. You'll learn that certain statistics are lifesaving while others don't really matter much at all. Some mechs salivate over the ability to add ten more Energy to their maximum value while some wouldn't even know there WAS an Energy stat. Which robot falls into which should be immediately obvious, provided the player has played even a single RPG before hand, or watched an episode of Transformers, or saw a laser gun when he was a kid.
When set on the battlefield, which generally occurs after a ten-year long burst of text bubbles, robots will jump into the sky, dodge laser beams, and fire missiles all at the push of a button. This writer also awards the game extra credit for making the robots look so darn CUTE while doing it. Pilots screaming catch phrases and close-ups on their wailing faces generally are the order of the day. There's not a whole lot more enjoyable than watching a mech materialize a giant sword (with rockets on it!) out of nowhere and use it to slice up the enemy, but it pains me to admit that it gets a little old after the tenth or fifteenth time it happens. The outbursts are mostly canned, and if you've seen one gravity gun fire you've seen 'em all (the difference in what each individual pilot says notwithstanding). What's more, the enemy response to your laser onslaught is usually nothing more than a pathetic wiggle or flatfooted dodge. Unsurprisingly the creative team didn't go out of their way to make each robot react in a unique way to each gun. It's sad, but to be expected with the limitations of the GBA. Still, there's something charming about the chubby little super deformed robots that trundle across the screen, firing missiles and swinging swords that one has to assume are dangerous, but often look more like the ultimate set of children's Nerf toys.
Also a bit of a disappointment is that the AI in this game can be so dang DUMB. Most missions involve the computer trying to brute force its way through you, often with a unit count of twice or more than what you're allowed to field. It's never really hard as the computer will often fall for the most basic of ploys. In fact, most of the game can be driven through by throwing a single unit with high Evasion out in front of your main force. The enemy will congregate all over this apparent weakling that it has no chance in hell of hitting while the rest of your mechs can run roughshod all over their big bruisers. It's not until the computer starts to overwhelm you with their statistic superiority and amazing equipment like laser shields and gravity walls that you might start to feel the pinch, and even then the last levels are really less hard than they are monotonus, forcing you to keep a grueling pace of damage against bosses whose life bars are constantly recharging. This is more a complaint against the poor situation of strategic AI and scaling difficulty in Strategy RPGs than it is one directly against Super Robot Wars. Still, at the end of the day the game is damn good at making you feel like a superior robot commander while your battleship shoots loogies of gravitonic death across the map. AI or no AI, that's just plain fun!
My final gripe would be with the story of the game, which is about as enthralling as any top tier RPG is gonna be (at the level of any generic daytime soap), the problem is in the telling. The story in Super Robot Wars is told entirely through empty, static background images with text bubbles overlaid, exactly like how the Front Mission series tells their transitory mission cut-scenes. For example, we'll close in on an empty hanger and... all of a sudden a text bubble from Kyosuke appears!! Next to it is a picture of Kyosuke's head so we know what he looks like. Kyosuke relates some piece of pertinent information to Bullet, whose own text bubble appears with an appropriately shocked face. The game never shows you anything but talking heads, which is a little irritating, especially during times when you're forced to infer from dialogue alone that someone punched someone, or someone is embarrassed by someone else's choice of risque clothing. It's grating, but at this point almost to be expected from the genre. Talking heads are as ingrained in strategy RPGs as they're gonna get, but it'd be nice to have some 2D sprites melodramatically waving their hands around while the text bubbles flared.
There's also just too much story to go around. Every mission is preceded by five to ten minutes worth of text, followed by a brief conversation during the mission itself, which often leads to two or three shorter conversations as the mission goes on, and then ends with another five to ten minutes of text before you can save again. The story (which mostly involves the tried and true plot of alien invaders) is pretty manageable, but presented so poorly and stuffed to the rafters with esoteric information and Stan Lee-esque acronyms. Every organization in the game is referred to in acronym form: "The DC", "The EFA", "The UCC". One of my favorites, "EOT technology", is just as redundant as the much maligned "PIN number". The average user is probably going to be content holding down the right shoulder button and fast-forwarding through the dialogue and I wouldn't blame him for doing so. The true joy of the dialogue comes from the in-battle scenes of pilots shouting as they ram metal fists and machinegun bullets through each other's heads. The rest of the story is passable, but you can make do without.
Super Robot Taisen is a game that's going to appeal to a very specific sect of people, that is: those who can't get enough of robots and those who can't get enough of strategy games and these people almost certainly already know this game exists. If you don't fall into that demographic, and I'm sure very few people do, then the series probably isn't for you. For every convention or two it gets right, the game always has some niggling detail waiting in the wings. Those without a strong strategy (or robot!) bent probably aren't going to get a lot out of this title. For the hardcore fetishist, sure, but those who didn't spend four hundred hours on Final Fantasy Tactics are advised to look elsewhere.