Publisher: Bandai America
Release Date: June 28, 2005
Most anime fans are acutely aware of the Gundam Universe’s standing in Japanese culture. For those that are not, think Star Wars. Or, perhaps, think of Star Trek, Deep Space Nine-era, with the Next Generation running in its final seasons simultaneously. Or, more accurately, combine the two franchises, namely the licensing potency of Star Wars posters, figurines, fast-food tie-ins, videogames, and the unavoidable televised presence and sprawling universe of Star Trek. Now you understand at least some of what the Gundam universe means to millions of Japanese people.
As I pull the focus closer to the videogame extension of Gundam, let’s continue the Star Wars parallel. Think about all of the Star Wars games you have ever played or at least heard about. You may remember some classics. Remove those from your brain, and you have the Gundam videogame lineup -- a collection of software ranging from bad to mediocre, continuing the tried-and-true tradition of ho-hum anime-based releases.
These are releases meant for anime fans, not for gamers. Of course, most anime-based titles are developed as “throwaway projects” on purpose. They are farmed out to various developers and publishers regardless of product history. These games are churned out as quickly as possible, and all involved producing parties know that none of the content has much at all to do with sales -- it is the name on the box that will move units from stores into the hands of the fanbase. For the most part, at least.
That said, it was a big surprise to hear that a studio at Capcom -- publishers of instant classics likie Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, Viewtiful Joe, and countless other recent, incredible releases, would be behind the next volley of Gundam games. Better yet, many, including the game you are reading about right now, Mobile Suit Gundam Vs. Zeta Gundam, would first be released into arcades.
Queue up starry-eyed flashes of Virtual On.
Queue up concerned images of every Gundam game released so far.
Queue up fantastical scenes of fast-paced, heart-pumping giant robot battles.
After sifting through the above thoughts, I booted up the game and soon discovered that we had nothing more than yet another Gundam game on our hands. It is a game that will be especially embraced by fans of the series, but foremost it is a release that will disappoint gamers the world over -- looks like we’ll just have to make the sacrifice and pick up that unreasonably priced $50 copy of Armored Core: Ninebreaker instead.
As with most games that disappoint and excite simultaneously, it is often best to begin evaluating the good before the bad. While I often break this rule readilly if a game happens to be especially atrocious, Gundam Vs. Zeta Gundam is not one of those games. Effort was clearly put into this release -- a great deal of it -- but not all of it was put into the right places, not if gameplay is what one looks to garner the most enjoyment from in a videogame.
Frankly, every Gundam freak should probably own this game. Despite everything I have said and will say about this game, it is something that any self-respecting fan of the classic Gundam shows simply needs to have in their collection.
Battles can be sought in two distinctly different formats: Arcade/Survival and Universal Century Mode. The former is a storyline-free succession of fight-to-the-death stages. The latter -- the meat of the game for Gundam fans -- allows players to play through the early Gundam storyline.
There could be no greater moment for a Gundam freak than playing through one of the History Change Points. While I won’t spoil any of the specific events here, I will note that massively important moments, including some that can rescue characters from certain death, will be put in the hands of the player during these missions.
Did a favorite character die during the original Gundam series? It’s up to you to keep it from happening this time around.
Ah, as great as the Universal Century mode is, it requires players to actually play the game in order to change events at will, and the Arcade mode is where skills are best honed. After reading up on the initially confusing controls (they’ll be nearly intuitive in a few minutes, don’t worry) in the manual or by playing through the Traning mode, spending an hour or two with Arcade mode before diving into the storyline is the best way to approach the game.
If you can play for that long, at least.
Gundam Vs. Zeta Gundam is a completely brainless take on giant robot gaming, placing it far below even the likes of Virtual On Marz, never mind touching the complexity of Armored Core (as stagnant as that series has become). Lock onto enemies. Fire. Get close to use melee attacks. That’s all there is to it. Primary and secondary firing mechanisms are almost always simple lock-and-fire affairs, which can, in turn, be easily countered by stepping to the side, stepping back into place, and firing back. None of the mobile suits have any of the complex evasive motions that experienced mech gamers are used to discovering through diligent play; once the controls are mastered within an hour, there is nowhere else for skilled players to go with the game besides lock on, fire, lock on, fire.
In a move that will be surely disappointing to Gundam fans and gamers alike, not much effort was placed on graphical appeal. The visual grandeur, mostly carried by the colorful surroundings and fantastic explosions and battle-clash effects that Gundam is known for are translated poorly, for the umpteenth time, the visuals are riddled with simple errors like clipping, coated with a touch of slowdown, and given that extra pinch of second-generation PS2 game flair. Outside of the 2D backgrounds and menu layouts, nothing about the game looks "Gundam" enough, instead having the visual effect of an awkward shadow of the anime.
Of course, polygonal graphics could not be cut-and-pasted from the anime, so with the usual short development cycle given to anime games, something shoddy had to be done. The soundtrack, on the other hand, could easily be taken from the television shows, and rightly so -- Gundam Vs. Zeta Gundam is a work of fan service and little else, so original sounds would be completely inappropriate for the final product.
Here it is, Gundam fans: The game you have been waiting for. And, as usual, the rest of us are left with our copies of Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram -- not Marz -- with the sad notion that there will never be another game like it again.