Robotech: The Macross Saga
Scouring the libraries of the original GameBoy, Sega’s Game Gear, Atari’s Lynx and the NeoGeo Pocket yields precious little. Finding a portable shooter has always been akin to a diehard gamer finding a girlfriend. And finding an exceptional portable shooter. well, that’s like that diehard gamer having a girlfriend and knowing what to do with her. Sadly, while somewhat enjoyable, in the end, Robotech: The Macross Saga leaves us with blue balls once again.
And so much was riding on this! Robotech isn’t just a GameBoy Advance game for me-I have loved this Robotech phenomenon since I was a little kid slurping up Honeycomb, similarly sopping up the cartoon drama on Saturday mornings. This series easily outclassed more American efforts such as the Hasbro-driven G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises, classics in their own right.
Robotech had depth, and it had death! Characters fell in love! There were incestous pairings and interracial relations before any of it was popular. And real, whole, important characters died off, often going out in a blaze of flames, blood and glory, genuinely shocking and saddening viewers. By comparison, in G.I. Joe ejector seats always worked, parachutes were always ready to flawlessly deploy, and cardboard characters always landed safely on the bushes below. Once there, they would loll gently in the wet, welcoming embrace of a calming brook, then clamber out onto the bank where they would enjoy a Sprite and a joint in the heath. Or something like that.
The realism set Robotech worlds apart from the rest. Roy Fokker of the series’ first generation (chronicled in The Macross Saga), felt real pain when his transforming Veritech jet fighter bore him into the hard face of his own mortality. What would it have been like if Ben Dixon if had been part of the G.I. Joe team, rather than the Robotech cast? Sure he would avoided burning up beneath his jet’s canopy had he changed places with say, Bazooka or Lifeline, but where’s the fun in that for us?
Dear lord, I love my Robotech. And believe me when I say that I love my horizontal shooters. But I do not love this game.
When I saw the title screen to R:TMS, I rejoiced, as it held the SDF-1 (Super Dimensional Fortress, the alien spaceship-turned-Earth vanguard), splashed across the tiny GBA screen in all its glory; the theme song playing to set the mood proper. And then the game started.
The first thing you’ll notice about R:TMS is that it looks very impressive, and I’m overjoyed to report this. There are ten missions-each one named after an actual episode from the cartoon series-and certainly the scorched, barren landscapes of “To The Stars” is one of the most visually outstanding. Even the opening round, “Boobytrap”, is sweetly drawn, with a surprisingly detailed cityscape serving as its backdrop (for a good laugh, compare this cityscape to the one seen in the Game Gear’s Aerial Assault). Remarkably, the programmers managed to make both the enemies and bullets easy to see and easy to track on the small screen, satisfying two critical points of contention in handheld shooters.
So R:TMS looks tasty, and yes, you’ve heard right, TDK provides the best tracks from Ulpio Minucci’s godly score, right out of the cartoons-joy! And yet, I disappointment was the overwhelming emotion that consumed me while I listened. Confused? Well, consider that the half-hearted, lackluster renditions that plink out indifferently from the GBA’s speakers will reach your ears in a way that is analogous to a pretty girl smiling in your direction only for you to realize that she’s smiling at some chump behind you. Heartbreak! The sound effects are decent, but it’s hard to care when they just further obscure what would have been the best shooter score ever-bitterness.
R:TMS’s presentation elicits feelings of ambivalence, and the gameplay is no different. Inconsistency and up-and-downs are the name of the game. The saga is played out predominately in side-scrolling shoot-em-up action, with a pair of partly overhead, partly isometric shoot-and-run levels thrown in. But not for good measure, as the saying goes! These levels, while only two in number, simply serve to annoy the player.
For these levels, you’ll commandeer one of four bipedal ‘mechs’ that you’ll stomp around in clumsily, with no strafing function to guide your lame duck weaponry. It’s amazingly easy to die during these missions as you navigate the streets, because dodging is nearly impossible. In order to target an enemy, you’ll have to get close to it, and face it, and those tasks alone are difficult given the viewpoint. That much accomplished, you’ll likely find that the enemy is more prepared to fire upon you than the other way around, since you went to all the trouble of lining things up for the both of you.
A solution would be to sit and wait until something wanders into your line of fire, but that’s not very dependable as you’ll often be flanked, and your objective is to seek and destroy the alien strongholds after all-not sit around playing hide-and-seek. The addition of a simple strafing function would have made these two stages playable, somewhat enjoyable even, but ’twas not to be.
To the more straightforward sideview shooting levels then. You get to choose from a group of pilots whose planes of choice vary in terms of performance enough for you to find that one probably suits your style better than any other. Ben Dixon’s plane is durable but slow, for example. I selected Max (short for Maximillian) Sterling, the ace-est of ace Veritech pilots available at the pilot select screen. It turns out his famous skill translates into quick piloting in the game. Favourites like Rick Hunter, Roy Fokker, and even the alien pilot Mirya, are also on hand.
Once you’ve chosen a pilot that you fancy, it’s on to shooter basic training 101. One button fires your normal gun, and the other fires off a finite number of more powerful missiles that can be replenished by grabbing power ups. You can also find special bombs that take the place of the missiles as long as they last. Your normal gun can also be replaced temporarily by special weapons like the ricochet spread gun. All the special weapons have a fleeting effect but do well at mixing things up a bit.
The Veritech or plane mode is the quickest way to get about, and it will feel most comfortable to shooter fans used to their Gradius and Darius games. That is, until they start skimming the underbelly of the aircraft on whatever happens to be serving as the ground at any given moment. The collision detection in these ‘low to the ground’ forays is so inordinately bad that you’ll often find your vitality gauge draining when your ship actually appears to be a safe distance above harm’s way.
Annoyed by this, I got Max to switch to Battloid mode. For Robo-virgins, this is one of the ever-cool earmarks of the Robotech phenomenon-the ability to transform an F-14 Tomcat-ish superplane into a robot of sorts. Amazingly, as Max expertly made the change happen, the screen, already scrolling at an decidedly languid pace, stopped scrolling altogether. The Battloid dropped to the ground, where my left and right control on the pad caused the thing to clank this way and that, only advancing the screen when moved to the right three-quarters of the way over.
Enemies swooped past me overhead as I tried in vain to pick them off, like an infantryman taking potshots at B-2 bombers. Strangely enough, the enemy aircraft fired straight ahead, as if Max were still piloting the craft in the air! To add to the absolute silliness of the grounded experience, the missile button now served to make the monstrous mechanical anthropoid jump. Was Gradius turning into Shinobi?
Since that initial, lame tryout involving the Battloid mode, I have put quite a bit of time into uncovering just how the mode is actually useful or viable. My most conclusive conclusion: it’s not.
Having thoroughly trashed the isometric levels, and the effectiveness of two of the three modes of play in the side-scrolling levels, I can happily say that what remains is pretty damn good. Yes, there’s something left after all that, and it’s definitely worth playing. The in-between mode in the Veritech-to-Battloid transformation, known to Robotechies as the Guardian mode, is exceptional when compared to the other two modes.
Being configured in this way allows us to endure the ‘skimming’ problem rather nicely since the craft actually becomes a plane’s front half with legs. As a result, the thing’s feet buffet gently over surfaces like jet skis on water, saving your metal skin. The main drawback to the Guardian is the fact that it’s slower than the Veritech, but it’s also more durable, and that’s more important.
Configured thusly, with a good sense of humour about the two bad overhead-ish stages in tow, you’ll find R:TMS quite entertaining. The visuals are beautiful, the tunes are sweet (if painfully quiet) and the game makes up for killing you in the overhead levels by being very gracious with the extra lives that you can earn. The bosses have good patterns to work out and provide a decent challenge. But the best thing about R:TMS is the upgrade system.
Each time you finish a level, you’ll have earned points that you can use to beef up your Speed, Strength, Piloting and so on. With each improvement, you save and continue on your mission. By the time you beat the game, the pilot you initially selected will be a lot more powerful on the character selection screen than he was when you first picked him. Furthermore, when you beat the game with any of the original pilots, you’ll unlock hidden pilots. I won’t give them all away, but one notable hidden pilot is a young Rick Hunter, before he was combat trained. Flying his stunt plane into battle against the invaders is a real treat for series’ aficionados.
All in all, Robotech: The Macross Saga is an average shooter deep down, where it really counts. Sure, the potential for greatness was there, with added ingredients like the various plane modes and beautiful scenes and sounds from the show, but the great graphics are the only extra spices that found their way into the broth as per the recipe. That much said, it’s quite possible to find your way around the disappointing, and just plain bad aspects to arrive at a solid enough little on-the-go shooter. But a bit of advice: for unequivocal shooter satisfaction, check out the GBA’s R-Type III instead. Because real shmuppers want a shooter to grab them by the balls, not leave them blue.