Ghost Trick That Was a Thing

Have I ever mentioned I love a good mystery? Maybe it started with my childhood affection for Encyclopedia Brown books, or perhaps even earlier with my adoration of Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective. Whatever the case may be, my fondness for sleuthing didn’t really take hold until I got into the Ace Attorney series. The sorts of bizarre and colorful lateral-thinking puzzles that lie at the core of the many murder mysteries throughout the series clicked with me instantly. So it’s no wonder that when I read in the now defunct Nintendo Power magazine that Shu Takumi, the creator of the Ace Attorney series, was making a new game about an amnesiac ghost trying to solve his own murder, I was immediately intrigued. Read more Ghost Trick That Was a Thing

Bomberman Hero That Was a Thing

Let’s talk about Bomberman. Introduced in 1983, the Bomberman series has established itself as one of the iconic franchises of gaming, and for good reason. Nearly every system under the sun has at least one entry in the franchise. Moreover, the series has garnered a reputation for its simple, fast-paced, top-down puzzle gameplay and is best known for its frantic multiplayer mayhem.

Bomberman Hero is a single-player, third-person, action platformer. Developed and published by the now defunct Hudson Soft, the game was released for the N64 in 1998. As with any departure from formula, fans are split on whether or not this game is any good. So why the out-of-left field platformer game? Well, as it turns out, Bomberman Hero originally planned to be a Bonk game.

As with any departure from formula, fans are split on whether or not this game is any good.

You know, Bonk the Caveman? Anyone? No? Well, now you see why they decided to go with Bomberman instead. Point is, the Bonk series were platformers, so this game’s a platformer.

I rented this game several times as a kid, and I remember having mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I greatly appreciated the fact that—unlike Bomberman 64—I could jump freely, a hang-up I developed from my mostly platformer diet at the time. On the other hand, I remember the game feeling cryptic, alien, and everything in the game’s environments feeling just a bit off. It was both fascinating and a little off-putting.

I actually made it pretty far in, though, which was unusual for me back then as I usually stuck to the first few levels of games. Unfortunately, I never could quite beat it, getting stuck on the boss of the penultimate world. I never forgot about it, though. For whatever reason, this game stuck around in the back of my mind since my childhood. Then, just a few months ago, I stumbled across it in my town’s GameXchange for a mere ten dollars.

Ten bucks for closure? Heck yeah!

Plot

The story begins with Princess Millian and her robot companion, Pibot, escaping their home world, Primus Star. The Garaden Empire, who have recently invaded Primus Star, are hot on their heels. Turns out the princess has stolen a data disk that contains information on…something important, I’m sure, and the empire wants it back. She gets captured, but before that gives Pibot the disk and instructs him to seek the aid of Bomberman.

So it’s basically Star Wars. Yeah, I take issue with this. Not so much that their referencing something popular, or even outright copying it in places. It’s just that everyone parodies Star Wars. Basing a plot on Star Wars isn’t just plagiarism, it’s clichéd plagiarism! In the end, I suppose it’s ultimately harmless. No one’s going to play this game for its story anyway, and besides, who doesn’t love Star Wars?

Basing a plot on Star Wars isn’t just plagiarism, it’s clichéd plagiarism!

Where was I? Oh right. Pibot’s ship crash lands, leading Bomberman to go investigate and learn about Garaden Empire’s activities. From there, Bomberman and Pibot travel from planet to planet trying to rescue Princess Millian, only for her to be whisked away by the empire at the last second. Rinse and repeat a la Super Mario Bros.

Yes, I did find sprites of Bomberman, tracked down a font that looked like the one used in SMB, created a custom sprite for Pibot using hardware accurate colors, and edit all of it into a screenshot from Super Mario Bros. just for the sake of this throwaway gag.
Yeah, something like that…

Presentation

In regards to models and textures, the game is on par with most games of the era, and the simplistic nature of Bomberman’s design works well with the graphical limitations. The environments convey the intended mood quite well for the most part, but rarely have much in terms of personality.

The real issues are technical. The game’s frame-rate dips often, especially when there’s multiple explosions on screen, which, considering this is Bomberman we’re talking about, is often. Pop-in is also a noticeable issue for levels set along the Z-axis. Such levels aren’t terribly common, however, as most of the level design is either horizontal or vertical.

The music is a whole other story. The soundtrack, composed by longtime Bomberman series composer Jun Chikuma, is probably my favorite part of this game! The drum and bass inspired soundtrack gives this game very distinct musical identity. Moreover, the otherworldly sound of Bomberman Hero‘s music fits perfectly with the game’s many alien worlds and bizarre environments. My only complaint is the song selection itself is pretty slim, and of the few songs some get used way more often than others. I really hope you like the song “Redial” because you’re going to be hearing that one a lot (also, I can’t be friends with you if you don’t).

The soundtrack is probably my favorite part of this game!

Between the soundtrack and the bizarre enemy designs, my initial impression that this game was weird was spot on. I’m surprised, too. Usually when I remember a game feeling surreal or mysterious, it’s just a product of my youthful imagination and inexperience; once I revisit it as an adult, it loses that mystique and intrigue. Nope, this game definitely retains that “fever dream” flavor after all these years.

Gameplay

As stated before, Bomberman Hero is a third-person 3D platformer. Bomberman can run, jump, throw bombs, drop bombs, and kick bombs. It took awhile for me to get used to Bomberman’s controls: he not only moved faster than I expected, but felt very heavy. In retrospect, it’s not that Bomberman carries much weight, it’s that he has weight to begin with. Yep, Bomberman has just a little inertia when he moves, which actually feels really good when you get the hang of it. By the end of the game, I was using Bomberman’s momentum to do cool stuff like jump in one direction while chucking bombs in another.

Here we see the Bomberman stalking his prey...
A typical gameplay moment from Bomberman Hero.

Another unexpected but welcome aspect of the game is its level design. Instead of huge sprawling sandboxes for the player to navigate, the stages are typically linear and fairly constrained, being concise and usually only requiring the player to move in one direction: forward, up, right, etc. Again, I think this works well. Each stage is bite sized and rarely overstays its welcome.

That is until you reach a vehicle stage. Bomberman Hero features four vehicles-like pieces of equipment for Bomberman to use: a jet-pack, a submarine, a helicopter, and an underutilized snowboard. While I like the helicopter alright, I don’t think too highly of the rest. They just feel awkward and a little out of place. To make things worse, the B button no longer attacks and is instead used to maneuver each vehicle in some way, which tripped me up on numerous occasions. While I can appreciate the variety they offer, these segments were a chore compared to the core gameplay.

...Except much slower and your only weapon is just as capable of killing you as it is your enemies.
If you squint really hard, it’s kind of like Star Fox…

Unfortunately, my grievances with this game’s design don’t stop at the vehicle stages. This game is very fond of “gotchas”. There are plenty of traps that only seem to exist to stick it to first time players, such as missiles that launch out of destroyed crates. Of course, traps aren’t a problem for cautious players who take their time to look before they leap.

There are plenty of traps that only seem to exist to stick it to first time players.

The real problem is it’s not always possible to look before you leap. The game’s camera mostly stays in a fixed position relative to Bomberman: angle and distance. Because the player’s view is so constrained, seeing what’s to the left or right or above and below is difficult. Remember how I mentioned most levels aren’t set along the Z-axis? That’s great if you want to hide the technical limitations of the game’s engine, but it leads to several situations where enemies can fire at the player before he can even see them. The game does offer some very limited camera controls: the player can rotate the camera by pressing the up, left, and right C buttons…but only while standing still. Seriously, why not just have the camera stay angled the way the player tells it to be until told otherwise?

While we’re on the subject of the game’s camera, boss battles are the one time the camera doesn’t stay in a fixed position. To the game’s credit, it tries to always keep Bomberman and the boss in the frame; the key word here is tries. For whatever reason, the camera is rather lethargic, not wanting to exceed a certain speed of rotation. That said, it works most of the time, with the constant motion only being a little disorientating. When it does screw up, however, you’ll be fighting the camera more than the boss.

At times, you’ll be fighting the camera more than the bosses.

Ending

So after traversing four planets, Bomberman finally catches up with Princess Millian. She asks Bomberman to return the disk that he apparently obtained from Pibot and was carrying this whole time. Bomberman obliges only to find out the Millian he’s talking to isn’t the real Millian and you totally saw that coming didn’t you? Well, the bad guys take the disk and use it to revive their leader, Bagular…whoever that is. Cue one more world, a boss rush, and kicking Bagular’s butt. The game ends with the princess giving Bomberman a medal and a “thank you” kiss while Pibot expresses envy.

Well that was underwhelming…If I didn’t know any better, I’d say there was some sort of secret, unlockable, true ending…

Wait, there is? Okay, now we’re talking! What do I have to do? Find all of the collectible bonus items…and get a perfect score on every level of the game?

To YouTube!

In all seriousness, it’s only worth your time if you really like the game and have the time to 100% it. The true ending amounts to nothing but a non-sequiter plot twist that extends the game by a scant three levels, one of which is a…jetpack stage. While the ending cinematic for beating the true final boss is slightly cooler, it doesn’t add anything to the overall narrative.


In the end, Bomberman Hero is great platformer that feels distinct from its contemporaries. The game’s by no means perfect, but most of the issues it has were more the result of the time it was made than poor design choices on the developers’ part, most notably the camera. Aside from the vehicle stages, the game feels very focused, with its tight controls and concise level design. In my debatably humble opinion, this is a game that deserves a spot in any N64 collector’s library.

I’m really glad I shelled out those ten dollars: finally having closure on this bizarre blast from my past is more than enough bang for my buck.

TBC 002: Being a Nintendo Writer

Play

We’re back for our July 2017 podcast! In this episode, we’re talking about what it’s like to be a Nintendo writer. With a year of blogging experience under our belt, we have some interesting thoughts and takeaways to discuss. If you are interest in Nintendo or gaming journalism of any kind, this is the show for you!
Ready for more TBC Podcast? We are an ad-free show, and you can support us on Patreon: http://patreon.com/twobuttoncrew
Get Your Daily Nintendose of Fandom on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/TwoButtonCrew
“Escape the Premises” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Red Steel 2 | That Was a Thing

Howdy, crew! Welcome back to That Was a Thing, where I take a look at strange and obscure pantendo games and paraphernalia!

The Wii: when it’s key feature, motion control, was first revealed, the first two uses that went through everyone’s mind were sword and gun. Not missing a beat for once, game developers were quick to cater to the public’s sociopathic expectations. Many of the Wii’s early titles utilized the Wiimote’s pointer to aim projectile weapons and its motion detection to swing melee weapons, and the results were undeniably mixed. One such game was Ubisoft’s Red Steel.

The game was fairly standard fair: girlfriend kidnapped by yakuza, go to Japan and shoot them, yada, yada, yada. What separated it from other first-person shooters was its motion-controlled swordplay. At various points in the game, the hero would have to fight in one-on-one katana duels. Long story short, it just didn’t work. Unfortunately, the Wiimote’s I.R. sensor and accelerometer simply weren’t enough to emulate the one-to-one precision players expected.

Which is why Nintendo invented the Wii MotionPlus! And this is where Red Steel 2 comes in. When Ubisoft saw the gyroscope add-on, they knew they had everything they needed to set things right. I seem to recall a lot of hype surrounding this game before it came out; retailers even offered preorder bonuses. I first heard about the game from the now defunct Nintendo Power magazine, and was immediately intrigued. This game was dripping with style and—just as important—it didn’t have anything to do with the first game, so I could jump in without missing anything. However, I wouldn’t get around to playing it until I got an extended trial of the late Blockbuster Video’s online rental service, and decided it was time I a gave it a shot.

Nu-Western Post-Cyberpunk Japanimé

Let’s start at the beginning. The game opens with our hero waking up on the outskirts of town. As he slowly comes to, he notices his hands are tied. Tracing the rope, he quickly realizes he’s not just tied up, he’s tied to the back of one of his assailant’s motorcycles. Just woke up, and this day’s already turning out to be a drag.

And this is how we’re introduced to the game: a gloriously over-the-top, first-person cutscene in which the hero is dragged into town, crashes the bike, and dusts himself off like he does this every day. While it admittedly takes a few minutes to get to gameplay, this intro nails the tone of the game and what players can expect right off the bat! You’re the toughest, badest son of a gun on the planet and you can bet your stetson every pinhead fool-enough to take a shot at you is going to make you prove it!

The intro nails the tone of the game and what players can expect right off the bat!

In fact, I’d say this game runs on distilled, unadulterated cool, and not in a “trying too hard” kind of way either. Even when parts of it seem hokey—or downright silly—the game presents its set-pieces with such confidence and commitment that the player really has no choice but to just go with it. While other games try to convince you they’re awesome, Red Steel 2 just leans in close, stares you right in the eye, and in a low, gravelly voice tells you it’s awesome.

On that note, let’s take a moment to talk about this game’s aesthetics. This game is a chocolate-and-peanutbutter-esque mashup of the wild west and samurai flicks, with the occasional dusting of cyberpunk. The game takes place some unspecified amount of time in the future in a dystopian Nevada. The environments you explore are a strange blend of old-west, feudal Japan, and run-down, futuristic towns. It’s not at all uncommon to see Cracker Barrel-esque country stores with tanukis on their signs right next to radio towers and hovering attack drones. Moreover, the plethora of destructible crates, trash bags, boxes, and barrels gives the environments a cluttered, grungy feel that reinforces the gritty tone of the game.

This is what all men aspire to.
Just look at this guy! He’s Clint Eastwood mixed with Miyamoto Musashi left to marinade in anime overnight!

The game makes use of a heavily stylized visual design. While the Japanese influences on the plot and setting may lead some to call it anime-inspired at first glance, it really has more in common with comic books: bold lines, fairly realistic body proportions, and a deliberate visual roughness that complements the game’s visceral combat and tale of ambition and revenge. As to be expected with a western, the color palette includes a lot of earthy tones: browns, oranges, and sandy yellows. Fortunately, Red Steel 2 manages to avoid the pitfall of making all of its environments dingy brown, with several areas including—if not primarily consisting of—cool blues, grays, and greens. Clearly, the art team put a lot thought into making each area visually distinct from one another, as every stage either has a unique theme or makes use of color to distinguish itself. That said, all the themes are variations of cowboy, samurai, or industrial, so while each level is aesthetically distinct from one another, the constraints of the game’s themes do start to wear thin toward its conclusion.

Clearly, the art team put a lot thought into making each area visually distinct from one another.

While we’re on the topic of environments, one of my biggest complaints with the game’s visuals is that some of them don’t age very well. Between the murky textures and low-res models, a lot of the environments in this game don’t look very good close up. Fortunately, you’ll probably be too busy hacking-up dudes (who themselves look fine) or searching for loot to pay too much attention to such things.

Cutscenes are another weak point. To be fair, most cutscenes in this game are okay, but the ones that trigger when talking to one of the hero’s allies are just painful. These usually consist of a stationary camera shot with one lone character pacing back and forth while talking. And it is so boring. In the end, while I love the visual design, I suspect the artists weren’t given enough time or resources to fully realize it.

So what exactly is the story? You play as the last surviving member of the Kusagari clan, an outcast banished by the elders for…well, the game never actually says. There was a short “animated comic” online that serves as a prequel to the events of the game. You can still find it, but I wouldn’t bother, it’ll just leave you even more confused. The only revelation I got from it is that the hero is wearing a blue shirt under his signature duster.

Confusing backstories aside, the story really isn’t that complicated. First, you get your sword back from a gang leader, then you find out the real villain wants to make more swords like yours because it has special qualities. Along the way, you compile a cadre of companions. Truth be told, they’re exactly who you’d expect to find in this sort of game: the sword smith/kenjutsu sensei; the old, stubborn sheriff; the hacker girl; and the guy who’s going to double-cross you. The plot’s pretty cookie-cutter when you look at it separate from the game’s unique setting, but I’d argue that’s not really the point; this is an action game. So how is the action?

Hack and Shoot

Red Steel 2 is a first-person action game. I say “action game” instead of shooter because, well, this isn’t really a first-person shooter. Sure, you play from a first-person perspective and you shoot things, but once you get a sword, the guns take a backseat. No, at its core Red Steel 2 is a brawler with some F.P.S. trappings.

At it’s core Red Steel 2 is a brawler with some F.P.S. trappings.

During combat, players can freely switch between swinging a sword and shooting thugs with one of four guns. As to be expected, swinging the sword is accomplished by swinging the Wiimote and guns are fire using the B-trigger. Sword slashes are individual attacks in a specific direction instead of 100% one-to-one movements, making each swing a discrete action, much like a button press. While it may sound like a cop-out, this system actually works really well: this system discourages flailing and instead encourages you to make deliberate, decisive strikes, which ultimately gives each hit you land more impact.

Answer: None. Rush the kneeling man with your sword.
This game is full of tough choices, like, “who do I shoot first?”

This game also showers you special abilities. Each one has its purpose, and figuring out how to combine them seamlessly is immensely satisfying. It also helps that most of them are very easy to perform. All special abilities are simply one swing direction and button combination, and because of the aforementioned motion registering method, the game has very little difficulty figuring out what it is you want to do.

Gun fighting isn’t nearly as intricate. Simply point and pull the trigger. That’s not to say it isn’t fun; getting to smoothly switch between the two fighting styles is a blast. It gets even better once you start unlocking special attacks for your firearms and—of course—more guns. You start with just a revolver, but eventually get a sawed-off shotgun, a Tommy-gun, and finally a rifle. Of all the guns, the only one I don’t really like is the rifle: by the time you get it, it just doesn’t feel necessary. That’s not to say I never found a use for it, just that it doesn’t really stand-out.

Not pictured: the prorder weapons. Fun fact: you can find the codes to unlock them online.
Say hello to your new best friends.

Fighting is the most fun when you manage to get into a rhythm. Most fights aren’t terribly difficult, so the fun comes from trying to establish a sense of flow. Fights just look awesome in this game, with animations carrying a great sense of impact and frequent visual effects, like slow-motion, punctuating dodges, parries, and finishing blows. This means that once you get that flow, the fights almost look choreographed, especially if you make a conscious effort to make use of your diverse moveset. All of this is enhanced by the game’s first-person view. Because you experience gameplay entirely through the hero’s heterochromatic eyes, you never get to see what exactly it is the hero’s doing, letting your imagination run wild filling in the blanks.

But visceral acts of violence are only what you’ll be doing about half of the time. A good deal of the game is quietly exploring the levels looking for fights, money, or optional objectives. And I have to say, these quiet moments are what give this game its phenomenal pacing. Much like in Metroid Prime, F.E.A.R., or Half-Life, these exploration segments help to break up the action and give the player some breathing room, not to mention a chance to wind down between battles. These brief interludes never feel out of place, however.  Walking the abandoned streets creates a rising sense of tension which makes you anticipate the next fight all the more, especially since your opponents tend to come out of nowhere.

Walking the abandoned streets creates a rising sense of tension which makes you anticipate the next fight all the more.

An odd quirk of these exploration segments is the occasional motion-based prompt. Every now and then, you’ll come across a combination safe or a dial that you’ll have to turn with the Wii remote. It’s never very challenging as you either need to tilt the remote at the appropriate angle and hold it there, in the case of dials, or press the A button to activate the tumblers, in the case of the safe. While it seemed perfectly natural when the Wii and the MotionPlus were still fairly recent, nowadays I can’t help but think it dates the game. Not necessarily in a bad way, mind you, but it certainly screams “Wii.”

Then there’s the upgrades, and—oh golly—are there a lot of them! You can upgrade your sword, your special abilities, your guns, the ammo for your guns, your coat, and even your hat! This is where money comes into play. You’ll come across a lot of cash, be it from completing missions, using special attacks to finish foes, finding secret collectibles, or just plain lying around. I can only assume part of what makes dystopian Nevada dystopian is inflation, ’cause you’ll find money flipping everywhere. And even then you’ll still have to go out of your way to get all of the upgrades available to you. Honestly, while I appreciate the effort, I can’t help but think the dev-team went a little overboard. While not being able to get everything in one run does encourage thinking about how you upgrade the Last Kusagari, it can be frustrating to obsessive types like myself, as this game doesn’t feature a “new game plus” option. Then again, maybe it’s for the best. Since enemies aren’t that strong to begin with, upgrading your weapons means they go down even quicker, thus revealing the tragic irony of this game: one-shotting an opponent is the ultimate buzzkill.

Riding into the Sunset

Red Steel 2 is a rip-roaring good time. From it’s sense of style to its fluid gameplay, the game knows what it wants to be. I think it succeeds partially because it’s so focused on nailing the core concept. That said, it is a bit of a one-trick pony. If you don’t like old-school, run-and-gun shooters or hack-and-slash games, then there is absolutely nothing here for you. It’s a great trick, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but the whole game is the same basic exploration and combat loop all throughout. It’s also not without some flaws. Aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, the ending is pretty weak, the “challenge mode” is just a mission select with a tacked on scoring system, and there’s no post-game content or completion bonuses to add replay value. But I guess that—aside from the ending—all of those complaints just reinforce the notion that this game is about doing one thing and doing it well. This is—in my opinion—one of the best action games on the Wii and an excellent exhibition of what the system’s motion controls could do to enhance gameplay.

Here’s hoping there’ll be a Red Steel 3 on the Switch!

Battalion Wars | That Was a Thing

Welcome to That Was a Thing! A new series in which I discuss my favorite weird, obscure, or simply underrated pantendo games and media. Think of it as the evil twin to Simeon’s Nintendo Experience series. In this inaugural installment, I’m going to look at one of my favorite—not to mention one of the only—real-time strategy Nintendo series out there: Battalion Wars.

The Battalion Wars duology was a spin-off of the Nintendo Wars franchise and originally had the working title of Advanced Wars: Under Fire. Unlike the other Nintendo Wars games, however, Battalion Wars wasn’t developed by Nintendo or Intelligent Systems, but a British company: Kuju Entertainment. The first game was released for the GameCube on September 19, 2005 and its sequel debuted on the Wii on October 29, two years later.

Overview

The Battalion Wars games are a combination real-time strategy and third-person shooter. Like most R.T.S. games, players are tasked with completing objectives with the units provided for the mission—riflemen, tanks, bombers, etc. Needless to say, each unit type had its own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities and the majority of the strategy revolves around knowing where and when to deploy each unit. The unique selling point of this game is that the player directly controls one of the units the whole time, with the ability to freely switch between units as needed. Think of it as being sort of like Pikmin but with guns…and tanks.

Both games are set in a fictional world filled with global super-powers just itching to find a use for their massive armies. Seeing as the series was developed in England, each of the games’ fictional nations are comically stereotypical counterparts to real-life countries. The United States is represented by the gung-ho Western Frontier, the Tundran Territories are an odd combination of Tsarist/Soviet Russia, likewise Xylvania combines Imperial Germany with Nazi Germany, the Solar Empire is a futuristic tropical Japan, and the Anglo Isles—first introduced in the second game—mirrors the Anglo Isles…I mean the United Kingdom…seriously, they weren’t even trying to be subtle with that one.

As to be expected, each of these nations employ an eccentric and colorful cadre of commanders. Each mission has the player receiving orders from one of their faction’s commanding officers while the enemy commander emotes and responds according to the events of the game. While they don’t offer any special gameplay bonuses like the commanders of the Advance Wars series, the commanders’ typically blasé attitude toward warfare and nonchalant dialogue helps keep the tone light. I would say the only commander that I personally didn’t care for was Empress Lei Qo of the Solar Empire—who left so little of an impression on me, I had to look up her name just to write the previous sentence.

The third-person perspective really is what makes gameplay stand out. Giving orders from the perspective of one of your men while returning fire yourself really makes you feel like you’re an actual part of the conflict, instead of some ghostly observer calling the shots. When your battalion’s under fire, you’re under fire, and having to make tactical decisions in the midst of the chaos of the battlefield can create some really tense moments. Then there are the times when you spot some enemies in the distance or look at the map and have to plan your next move. I’m not sure I can properly express the feeling I would get as my men crowded around me, expectantly waiting for me to formulate a plan of attack.

Take that ya tsarist turnip!
Being an entity on the battlefield requires the player to look after both himself and and his units.

If quality gameplay wasn’t enough, these games are also overflowing with personality. The games’ humor and cartoonish visuals give the series a lighthearted tone; these aren’t games out to deliver a ham-fisted “war is bad” message but instead revel in the innocent—and perhaps naive—feeling of playing with toy army men. Despite having the depth of a Saturday morning cartoon, almost every character is likable in some way—with my personal favorites being Tsar Gorgi, Kaiser Vlad, and Col. Austin—and I genuinely wanted to know what happened to them next. Each faction’s units are instantly recognizable, and their designs convey a lot of personality, not just for the unit itself, but for the faction it belongs to.

Giving orders from the perspective of one of your men while returning fire yourself really makes you feel like you’re an actual part of the conflict.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, take a closer look at the first game.

Battalion Wars

Clearly, this is a real man's adorable war game.
The cute proportions and solemn color choice of the cover art sums up the game’s unique atmosphere quite well.

I first heard of Battalion Wars from the now defunct Nintendo Power Magazine. That’s not to say I immediately took an interest in it, however. I wouldn’t pay it much mind until my younger brother returned from the now defunct Hasting’s Entertainment with a used copy of the game. Shortly after he inevitably lost interest in it, I took a crack at it and fell for it harder than Tsar Gorgi off a bridge (too soon?).

The game places the player in command of the forces of the Western Frontier—with some exceptions in the form of unlockable bonus missions. The story begins during an uneasy truce between the Western Frontier and their longstanding enemies, the Tundran Territories. War breaks out when Western Frontier troops find a Tundran spy on the Frontier side of the border. As the plot continues, the Tundrans ally themselves with the Xylvanians, the Xylvanians betray the Tundrans, an old man is thrown off a bridge, I think there was a zombie-ghost legion at some point…you get the picture.

While it won’t win any awards, the story has a great sense of progression to it. Plot-wise, mission objectives often tie into something you did in a previous stage. If you saved a spy, you can bet his intel is what will point you toward your next target. The fort you defend in one mission is essential to launching a counter attack in the next and so forth. It’s a small detail, but having your actions contextualized like that goes a long way toward making your input feel meaningful.

While it won’t win any awards, the story has a great sense of progression to it.

While we’re talking about writing, I need to discuss the most important character: the grunts. Throughout the game, the troops under your command are constantly responding to your orders, quipping at the enemy, talking among themselves, or commenting on the situation at hand…and it is freaking adorable! Okay, I know that sounds like it’d get annoying after awhile, but the troops have so many lines that I would sometimes still be discovering new ones on my fourth or fifth play-through of particular missions.

“I’m beat…let’s make camp and whip up some cocoa!”

On to the atmosphere: the visual style is a strange blend of cute, chibi soldiers and vehicles and a muted color palette that gives the environments an oddly grim and gritty feel. This, in conjunction with a great soundtrack that wouldn’t sound out of place in an old WW2 movie, produces a unique atmosphere in which the tone is never too heavy or oppressive but the player is still fully aware that—no matter how cute the enemy’s tanks are—this is still war.

The game isn’t without faults, however. The A.I. for units under the player’s control is a little slow on the uptake, to the point of seemingly lacking a self preservation instinct at times. I found any mission where I had to fight enemy aircraft especially aggravating, as anti-air vets tend to not take initiative, resulting in massive losses from even brief lapses in focus. I didn’t care much for missions where the game expects me to command planes and ground forces at the some time, either. For whatever reason, when given the wait command, planes continuously fly in a straight line instead of staying in proximity to where they were when the order was given. This required me to constantly check back on them to make sure they weren’t about to fly over enemy anti-air embankments.

Battalion Wars 2

"Sir, the last game didn't sell well." "Then put an explosion of the cover of the next one!"
More playable factions, more unit types, more color! KA-BOOM!

Battalion Wars 2 starts its story off 200 years in the past by showing the player the final conflict between the Solar Empire and Old Xylvania at the end of the “Lightning Wars”. Bottom line is that the S.E. nukes O.X.’s H.Q. with an orbital death ray and then—fearing that the weapon is too much power for anyone to wield—chucks the controller (a staff) into a glacial ravine…what could possibly go wrong?

Back in present day, it’s been 2 years since the events of B.W. 1 and the nations of the world are at peace…until the Anglo Isles preemptively attack the Solar Empire based on rumors that they are harboring some sort of super weapon. The plot jumps between flashbacks and modern day from there with each campaign focusing on a different faction: a conflict between the Western Frontier and Tundra, the Anglo Islands staving off the Solar Empire’s retaliation, one where the player controls Old Xylvania’s forces, and finally Tundra’s attempts to prevent Xylvania from finding the staff.

The plot sounds a lot more complicated, but it really isn’t. I assume the 200-year-old-artifact-of-doom plot was meant to make the story feel bigger than the last game’s. Unfortunately, I’m not very fond of epics; I much prefer down-to-earth plots as I think they tend to have better focus and require the author to actually make me care about something specific like people or places. Fortunately, most of the characters are still quite likable, including most of the new ones.

Sadly, the narrative’s constantly changing point of view leaves the story unfocused and absolutely kills that sense of progression the first game had. You only play as any one faction for at most five missions (usually less). Between less emphasis being placed on the player’s actions between missions and the fact the player constantly switches sides, that feeling from the first game of being a single commander fighting in a series of much larger conflicts is completely gone.

Did I mention the volume on the player’s soldiers has also been dramatically reduced? They still speak, and I’m sure it’s still adorable, but I for the life of me can’t hear what they’re saying.

The narrative’s constantly changing point of view leaves the story unfocused and absolutely kills that sense of progression the first game had.

Moving on to the visual design of this game: many of the units received redesigns, especially the Tundran Territories’ infantry, most of which I think are improvements. The same can’t be said for Brigadier Betty: her look, not to mention her distinctive voice and a good deal of her peppy can-do attitude, are gone, making this iteration rather bland and forgettable. Speaking of bland, the game’s color palette is much more colorful which, while fitting well with the cartoonish style, demolishes the unique atmosphere of the B.W. 1 and stands out less by comparison.

What's that orange bit above her shorts? Her underwear? C'mon guys, this is a Nintendo game...
On the left, a plucky, upbeat, and memorable character; on the right, the uncanny valley.

Okay, so maybe the aesthetics and narrative aren’t on par with the original, but this game fixes many of its predecessor’s failings when it comes to gameplay. The A.I. is much more proactive: there were many times I would be ordering my units to attack a tank or some entrenched enemy infantry and would be surprised by the wreckage of an enemy gunship I didn’t notice suddenly crashing nearby. Oh, and planes finally fly in circles when put on standby!

The motion controls also make targeting enemies and issuing commands a snap. The only place where they really feel out of place is when controlling aircraft, as pointing the Wii remote up or down controls altitude. This feels awkward, especially if the player is trying to target a ground based unit, partially due to the game not making the change in altitude immediately obvious.

The game’s missions do feel a bit more repetitive than before. BWii’s missions follow a pretty predictable formula: defend a location then go on the assault or go on the assault and then defend the capture point. That said, BWii doesn’t have any missions that drag on too long or feel unfair—which the first game was occasionally guilty of, so I guess it more or less balances out.

The game’s missions do feel a bit more repetitive than before. That said, BWii doesn’t have any missions that drag on too long or feel unfair—which the first game was occasionally guilty of.

Of course, Battalion Wars 2 also brought new gameplay elements to the table: naval units and buildings. Naval units basically feel like tanks and artillery, but much more sluggish. That said, the game does a great job of conveying their weight and scale, and their long range means naval missions don’t feel too drawn out. Unfortunately, missions in which the player has to command both land and sea units tend to feel disjointed and tedious, due the two unit types’ inability to travel together and the player not being able to use the “All Units” button to regroup their units without messing up their positioning.

Buildings are a solid addition. Players can’t select their position, instead having to secure predetermined locations. Once under the player’s control, buildings will periodically replace fallen units corresponding to the type of building (e.g. aircraft for airfields). These help take the edge off, as the player doesn’t have to worry about losing essential personnel. That said, the fact that units have to run all the way to the players position, which can be on the other side of the map, means the player can’t rely on reinforcements too much.

Debriefing

Despite all of the flak I just gave Battalion Wars 2, I do think it’s the better game. While I think Battalion Wars has more personality, it can also be much more tiring—and sometimes frustrating—to play. Of course, neither is particularly hard to come by, and they’re both worth your time.

Sadly, Nintendo never commissioned Kuju to make a Battalion Wars 3. I think it’s blend of action and strategy would’ve been a great fit for the Wii U, and the Wii U gamepad would’ve been a great help in micromanaging units, something that neither game made easy. Nintendo still seems to have a fondness for cartoony wars games if the recent 3DS game Tank Heroes is anything to go by, so I haven’t completely given up hope. If the rumors of GameCube games coming to the Switch’s Virtual Console are true, I’d happily double dip on Battalion Wars…and not just because of how utterly unreliable old GameCube memory cards are.


About the Author

Glen Straughn is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming. He is currently studying to receive his masters in computer science from Oklahoma State University. He has gotten an S rank on every mission in BWii, and even managed to get an S on the final mission on his first successful play-through…completely by accident.