Virtual-On Retrospective: MARZ

Previous: FORCE

In the early 2000’s, Sega’s plan was to deliver cheaper and more effective arcade hardware for the Japanese market, which of few would see worldwide releases. NAOMI 2 was given the emphasize over the Hikaru, which was phased out in 2002. NAOMI 2 would last to 2008, with Atomiswave, a Sammy developed NAOMI derivative, running by its side. Around the same time in 2001 Sega developed the Triforce with Nintendo and Namco, based on Nintendo’s GameCube. Two years later, Sega would release Chihiro to the arcades, based on Microsoft’s Xbox. All these arcade machines ran different games that Sega was directly involved and developed, like NAOMI 2’s Virtua Fighter 4 series, Triforce running AM2 developed F-Zero AX, Atomiswave running many fishing and fighting games Sega was part developer and publisher, and Chihiro most known for OutRun 2 and House of the Dead III due to their Xbox ports. Later in the 2000’s, Sega’s arcade hardware would be more or less completely home media derivative, based on normal PC architecture, making some of the modern games running on a modified Windows. However, there was no Virtual-On, on any of these systems.

With Virtual-On FORCE generally receiving lukewarm acceptance from the overall audience, regarding Oratorio Tangram the superior game, Hitmaker would develop a console-only sequel for the PlayStation 2; Virtual-On MARZ.

Hitting the console in 2003 in Japan and later the same year in the US, PAL region missing out again, MARZ has been characterised as a spiritual home console port of FORCE. The overall gameplay is similar, with the same slower pace than its elder arcade sibling. Controls are more or less the same, with some tweaking done to fit the Twin Stick set-up with the PS2 controller. There are additional control options to choose from, all derivative of the base scheme. They’re more or less similar to what Oratorio Tangram had on the Dreamcast, though none of the really take advantage of the controller’s layout any better. At this point in the series’ history, it has come painfully obvious that the series relies a bit too much on its unique control setup, which does not work in the confines MARZ puts them into.

It doesn’t help that turning, something that Virtual-On has always struggled with, is terribly slow even with the help of auto-aim. This forces the player to miss all of their shots as the VR slowly rotates towards the enemy whole firing, or to jump every single time to reorient towards the enemy. The Lock-On button does jack shit, as it does not reorient the player VR against the enemies, just where the Lock-On itself goes. This was a problem in FORCE as well, but not nearly to the same extent as it is in MARZ.

MARZ‘s largest change to the series is its story driven Dramatic Mode, which is another name for Story Mode. Outside few stages directly lifted from FORCE, with some throwbacks to Operation Moongate and Oratorio Tangram, the player is expected to fight in a scenario driven stages with controls designed one-on-one arena in mind. Some of these stages are claustrophobic indoors, whole others are large canyons or generic regions with a box or two in the middle. Even when maps for these stages don’t seem to large, the controls simply don’t work for a game that intends to be closer to a generic 3rd Person shooter than an arcade arena fighter.

Temjin Colours
Temjin747 in MARZ has a new spiffy colour scheme, contrasted with much more darker blue than previously. Have to say, I dig it more than the purple scheme in FORCE. You can also see the increase in detail complexity, which doesn’t really serve any other purpose than showcasing how powerful the hardware was. Well, at least until MARZ

The story is based on the player pilot in a strike force called Marz, placing just after the events of war on Mars and Jupiter for their respective Crystals. Limited War, as the war with Virtuaroids is called, is now getting out of hands due to the chaotic situation on Mars. Multiple organisations try their hands at directing the war to different directions, with Daimon being one of them, and is directly linked with disappearance of Tangram at the even of Oratorio Tangram war. Marz was organised by Lilin Plajina in order to directly counter the threat Daimon poses.

However, because the story is set in a grand interplantery war with large amount of in-universe vocabulary, the story is mostly lost to the generic player who has no idea what’s going on and where. Hell, even most Western fans won’t have an idea what’s going on due to the lack of source materials, side stories and the like. Virtual-On have not conveyed their story all that well, less about the ideas and concepts the plot of the games have, but MARZ fully expects you to accept everything on face value, making most things sound nonsensical at best.

On a bonus side, the game explicitly states what M.S.B.S. is. It is short for Mental Shift Battle System, further solidifying that Virtuaroids and the technology surrounding them is much more than just giant robots. This was known beforehand via manuals, books, side materials and such, but as mentioned, the games never go deep into these things themselves. This PS2 release ran on M.S.B.S.Ver.8.5, as per standard naming for the system variants.

In addition, the enemy AI is rather whacked. Just like in FORCE it likes to read player inputs and act according to those. This causes the enemy to constantly jump in the air, dodging your attack even before it has left your VR’s barrel. This constant mid-air dodging and input-reading makes the enemy easy to counter, but the game emphasizes on more direct action than turtling due to some stages having set time limit. This may end up you letting your teammate make most attacks as a bait while you sit back and spam long-range attacks. Close-combat becomes a chore at later levels, with the AI quick stepping all around you and blocking each and every of your attacks. It’s like playing a Capcom fighter on the hardest difficulty setting past stage 3.

However, it must be said, just like with FORCE, MARZ can get extremely fast at higher level of gameplay, something your average player won’t be able to pull off all that easily. However, this isn’t the case with all the stages.

With MARZ being a FORCE derivative, almost all stages have some sort of multiplayer aspect in them. The Dramatic Mode often pitches more than just one VR for you to fight, be it or without a teammate, while only multiplayer option is one-on-one versus mode. No four-player battles found here. Either the PS2 couldn’t handle it, or Hitmaker was unable to implement it in any sensible fashion. Probably a combination of both.

Of course, this being the PS2 means the graphics had to take a hit. Hikaru was a powerful platform, and no home console or computer at the time could render the same details, models and lighting. The base models are simplified, but the designs still shine through. However, the same can’t be said for the stages, which all look rather drab and are lacking in inspiration. Despite trying to use more realistic approach this time around, the stages end up looking dull. There’s a lack of interesting details, the geometry feels generic and nothing looks like it’s from a Virtual-On game.

Music’s still as Virtual-On as you can get, with some tunes taken from the previous games with whole new load of new ones. There are some more conventional songs in the mix too, which stand out a bit too much from the happy techno the series is known for. However, at least we now have songs that we can find ourselves humming every now and then.

With this being a port of FORCE, there is a healthy selection of VR variations to select from, clocking around 40, though less than in FORCE due to disc space limitations. Kagekiyo series was completely dropped due to this, and was probably the best selection due to its lack of popularity in the arcades. In retrospect, this probably was the wrong move, and dropping variations from other VRs would’ve been seen a better option.

The player starts with a low-level Temjin747, which is woefully underpowered after the first few stages in terms of stats. Healing Discs make an introduction in MARZ, as it seems developers were more or less aware of the gross unbalance most against the player, and made this solution as an in-between of FORCE‘s teammate healing and sheer lack of one in MARZ.

We might as well introduce the base VR cast of the game. However, as MARZ has a lot of overlap with its predecessor, we’ll be sticking with the cast as laid out by the official site.

 

Despite the neat cast here, the way you would unlock the Virtuaroid variants was to either complete the game multiple times, travel certain distance, and mainly to destroy certain number of certain enemy VR. The slightly branching paths allow MARZ to have some replay value, but overall it becomes rather uninteresting, seeing most variants are not different enough from reach other to warrant a complete save file.

For the game’s tenth anniversary, Sega re-released MARZ PlayStation 3’s online store in 2013. As per Sony’s own rules that re-releases must stay the same as the original release, no alterations was made to the game. This release, just like the earlier PS2 Sega Ages version of the original Virtual-On and its PSN release, is Japan only.

All in all, that’s pretty much all there is about Virtual-On MARZ in short. For fans, the story may give some interesting points, but overall still ends up a disappointment. Perhaps even more so than FORCE, which had the benefit of being pure arcade bliss. It can be argued that with two lacklustre games in row, with the first game in the series still being the most successful in global terms, Sega decided that enough was enough. They had bigger concerns with their dwindling sales and market value, and games like Virtual-On didn’t exactly make their portfolio look any better.

Despite its lack of success, MARZ was the first video game IP that joined the cross-over game series Super Robot Wars in 2005 in the eponymous The 3rd Super Robot Wars Alpha. Using parts of the story and combining with other elements, MARZ‘s represented the real robot side of mechas with low armour, but quick movements and higher evasion.


Jump to 4:15 to see why Apharmd the Hatter became a fan favourite even more

MARZ would be later implemented for Super Robot Wars K on the Nintendo DS. Characters and animations are largely the same, but due to DS SRW games lacking any voice acting, we’re lacking Hatter’s famous lines. While we’re talking about SRW and Virtual-On cross-overs, I might as well mention that Fei-Yen was combined with Hatsune Miku for 3DS’s Super Robot Wars UX, where she’s a real virtual idol.


Note that the video embed here does not have all the attacks or modes. They used Hatsune Miku’s real voice actor rather than automated voice, Saki Fujita, and she ended up being a pretty damn good unit overall. She works surprisingly well with the concepts of understanding each other from Fafner in the Azure

Outside these and few other appearances, Cyber Troopers Virtual-On as a series would lay low for fifteen years, with no new games in development or published, getting only re-releases of its titles, missing the series’ 20th anniversary.

NEXT: A Certain Magical Virtual-On

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