Note: A version of this article is also available at D PAD magazine: http://www.dpadmagazine.com/2012/05/08/super-robot-wars-using-the-limitations-of-games-to-create-a-mood-and-evoke-a-medium/
The licensed video game is a much-maligned species, and quite rightly so if one looks at the majority of titles on offer. From dubious platform games in the 16-bit era to the flood of 3D action platformers and simple fighting games that current-generation consoles have been faced with, the main problem of a licensed game is often that it does not adequately represent what it is based on faithfully or interestingly. By rights, superheroes should be an easy subject for games to handle, being as they are power fantasies with abilities as required by the plot, but somehow few games manage to make “being” Captain America, or Superman, or Iron Man a fun experience. Titles like Batman: Arkham Asylum are few and far between.
One possible reason for this failure is that the structure of superhero adventures is not easily converted into game format; a video game for the most part requires a steadily-rising challenge comprising a number of different skills (for example platforming, fighting and collecting items) – but not in the same way as a superhero film or comic would use them. Game-like quest progressions are parodied in some comics (an issue of Judge Dredd has the hero having to negotiate a series of themed zones in a museum) but if someone were asked what their favourite part of any recent hero film was, it probably wouldn’t involve 3D platforming or fighting weak enemies with simple movesets to get to a pattern-recogition based boss.
Comics are a series of set-pieces; superhero films have to balance big action sequences with things games don’t usually concern themselves with like romantic subplots or character development. As a result, licensed games tend to gravitate towards being distinctly average action games set in levels visually similar to bits of films or comics, but with added movable crate puzzles or crawl-sized vents. These are often interspersed with chunks from the film in question as a kind of reward for playing – the player completes a challenge and receives some familiar scene.
“Ensemble” licensed games tend to be even less satisfying, with characters reduced to simple ciphers or sets of abilities; the Marvel crossover action games are cases in point. Characters with massive backstories and diverse abilities end up compressed down to functionally similar pawns padding out a roster, while villains become boss fights often acting in ways that don’t really get across what players might want from the chance to pit their favourites in mortal combat.
The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from this is that action games don’t work for superheroes. The pacing and structure of an action game can work with licensed characters (as the Aliens or X-Men arcade games show) but the result often feels like a reskin of a mechanically strong concept with different characters – it ends up not really mattering if you’re controlling Human Fighter, Spiderman, Homer Simpson or Ellen Ripley.
It was discovering the massive but largely unknown to Western gamers Super Robot Wars franchise that led to me considering the strange idea that the best way to handle comic-book style action is not with an action game but with a strategy game. The franchise, which has spanned consoles from the Game Boy to the PSP (with PS3, Vita and 3DS entries in the pipeline) works on a premise somewhat like the crossover comic books that Marvel and DC love – massive numbers of recognisable characters interact, team up, and fight their respective villains who are all working together. The characters are all plucked from a 40+ year back catalogue of giant robot anime, and inclusion in a franchise entry often reinvigorates interest in an otherwise forgotten series.
In gameplay terms, SRW works in the same vein as Fire Emblem, albeit less punishing; losing a unit does not permanently remove it from the game, but simply gives you a resource penalty at the end of the mission. Where it fundamentally differs, though, from most strategy RPGs, is in the massive variety of weapons each unit is armed with. If a unit used an obscure weapon in one largely unremarkable episode of the series it is drawn from, that weapon will probably be featured in its move list somewhere. This makes every piece under the player’s command a specialised, yet still functionally diverse, tool; exactly as a hero should be. If, in its source series, a robot is a slow-moving mobile fortress, it will fulfil that role in-game. If it has no melee weapons, it will not have any in the game.
Already SRW is taking a far closer grip on series canon than some licensed games; however, the design goes even further in replicating not only the fighting styles of each unit but also the pacing and choreography of cartoon and comic battles. Especially in Japanese animation and comics, superhero fights tend to feature big set-pieces, heroes testing powers and villains responding with their own. Everything is given its chance to shine in full. This is ideal for a strategy RPG; the idea of the hero throwing their best punch at a villain and then the villain coughing up some blood and throwing one right back is superhero brawls. In a SRW level weak enemies will explode spectacularly as your stronger units breathe on them, carving a path through to a boss who you then slug it out with trading blows until the hero wins. Doesn’t that sound more like superhero fighting than mashing X-X-X-Y when the boss reveals its weak point? Even the sound design contributes, with soundbites from the shows in question, characters shouting out their catchphrases and attack names as their theme tunes play.
The Will and Spirit mechanics take this even further, turning comic cliché (the hero’s sudden burst of last-minute vigour, the gradual arms race of blows until the big finish is brought out) into tactical gameplay mechanic; Will is accumulated by killing enemy footsoldiers, or taking blows, and most signature moves rely on a certain level of it to activate. Spirit is a pool of MP spent to allow your units to take fatal hits with only a pithy one liner, or to increase damage to astronomical levels when needed. All the things that define the genre being celebrated are turned directly into game mechanics.
What’s more is that the SRW franchise takes its ensemble storylines seriously; often an original plot along the lines of “some massive enemy appears, enlists a bunch of villains and tries to take over the world” features which is then embellished by creative attempts to mesh together 5-10 or more completely separate plots; branching campaign paths group together similarly-minded villains by agenda or methods, and add replay value. Were it simply to stop there, with similar plots merged, that would be interesting; but it’s when SRW throws series canon out the window and goes off the wall that the most memorable missions occur. Scenes begin to play out as expected and then something completely different happens, be it a spaghetti Western-quoting ninja telling the apocalypse to hold on a moment, or an alien invasion stopped by a hair metal band getting in jets and giving an impromptu concert with military-grade sound systems. Bonus content in the games is then added by the chance to completely go against established plots; saving characters who die, helping villains see the error of their ways and enlisting their support, or even rewriting entire endings and adding completely new final bosses. This doesn’t even touch on the numerous series entries with completely original casts of units and storylines, which have ended up getting their own spinoff TV series (resulting in a TV series spinoff of a game that’s itself a spinoff of a licensed game series)
It sounds, therefore, like a player would have to be au fait with a huge amount of source material to enjoy this franchise; this isn’t entirely true. Played “blind” the games work as amazingly over-the-top but yet nuanced strategy RPGs with often massive amounts of content and superb sprite-based graphics. The crossover stuff is an added reward for dedicated fans, while the option is there after having played the game to track down the series featured and find out more. Anyone interested, though, in playing a SRW title has limited options: the only main-series entries available in English are fan translations of SRW Alpha Gaiden (PS1) and SRW J (Game Boy Advance). However, minimal knowledge of Japanese is required to play the games and a vast number are available on region-free consoles – W, K, L and Lords of Elemental on Nintendo DS, or MX Portable, A Portable, Lords of Elemental 2, Z2 Destruction and Z2 Rebirth on PSP.
Note: As mentioned in the comments, two entries in the series did get official English-language releases, SRW Original Generations 1 and 2 on the Game Boy Advance – however, finding copies of these is rather difficult and they are spinoffs from the main series focused entirely on original characters rather than licensed ones.