Super Robot Wars is not the best gateway to mecha

The misunderstanding of what kind of genre mecha belongs to is slowly starting to ebb away. While North America still sustains people who consider it as nothing more as a toy commercial for children, that’s just one section of the overall genre. Transformers has very much seeped into the American culture as a defining example of what mecha is, even when it kind of bastardises the rest of the genre. The same can’t be said for Italian, French or Spain where shows like UFO Robot Grendizer and Space Warrior Baldios got localised and were relatively popular. Grendizer still gets seen as Goldorak is a pop-culture icon there, similarly how the Middle-East will gush over it. Then again, both of these shows are about space invaders coming to Earth with a special hero fighting a new monster on a weekly basis. By the 1990s, mecha was somewhat infamous of using stock footage over and over. If you’ve seen, say, New Mobile Report Gundam W, you’ve seen a certain Gundam Heavyarms shooting scene over and over to the point of it becoming somewhat ridiculous. In shows where you had relatively less budget and episodes’ animation quality might’ve wondered every which way, stock footage would stick out with its overall better animation quality. You might as well drop more money into the clip that gets used almost every episode.

I’d argue that the change in overall attitudes overall in the Western fandom that wasn’t into mecha in the mid-2000s. While Mobile Suit Gundam Seed was the first of many for a new generation of consumers due to the starting anime boom, to many its emphasis on interpersonal relationships juxtaposed with giant robots was something new. Within the genre itself, this has been done since the 1970s, with the original Mobile Suit Gundam itself garnering a significant female fanbase due to the aforementioned relationships. People love Char’s story, which sort of has undermined the rest of the Universal Century timeline. People can’t seem to give up Char and his character while ignoring other major characters and leaving their significance largely underdeveloped at best, almost completely ignored at worst. Code Geass‘ popularity could be argued to be a kind of breaking point, where I had multiple discussions in person, and read multiple arguments over whether or not the show counts as mecha, or whether or not it was drama. It has all hallmarks to be counted as mecha, from being future military drama to all the aforementioned bits, and foremost, it had giant humanoid war machines. While mecha doesn’t need to have war or conflict to be counted as one, them being sort of modern stories about knights or samurai is fitting due to their role as an external armour of the characters.

However, as a genre, it is hard to penetrate. Unless you already have a preference for the style of storytelling the genre often employs, visuals or interest in mechanical stuff overall, you might find mecha somewhat boring, jarring, stupid and all the stuff you don’t want from a show. All you end up with are a bunch of stupid robots fighting and not caring about anything else. You need some kind of line thrown to you that would fish out your interest and to separate that from the big robot battles. Code Geass did this to many through the characters. Though nothing special on the large scale, Code Geass managed to tap certain aesthetics with studio Clamp’s character designs and a very specifically made story surrounding royalty, loyalty and betrayal. This, accompanied with larger than life characters with special powers who are given a chance to change their rotten fate. It pulled in people who were fans of Gundam and Clamp together, and while these two did have overlap, Code Geass managed to intertwine them even more. The fact that it was a new IP made it much easier to access as well. There was no need to watch hundreds of hours of shows to get into something or try to withstand older animation that some people have a hard time to deal with.

Now we finally get to the actual subject matter of this post. Super Robot Wars is a game series that embodies this impenetrable wall all the while throwing as many lines out there to hook someone in.

Super Robot Wars, henceforth SRW, is a long-running game series clocking at thirty-plus years now and hasn’t exactly changed in big meaningful ways during that time. Outside of spin-off titles, the mainline games have not meddled with the formula. Only tweaks, additions and modifications to the core strategy playing element have been made, or how the whole story progression could be done. Sometimes you’re locked to one route with multiple characters, sometimes multiple characters have their own route that crosses over, sometimes you have only one route and character. While the modern games in the series are largely easy games to play through on their Normal difficulty, earlier titles in the series are still notoriously difficult to the point of needing to use certain specific units because of how strong they were in stats and attacks. Often you’d find junk units that would always sit on the bench. It didn’t help that at its core SRW titles have very lax pacing, with older titles forcing the player to spend more time with the game simply because you couldn’t skip Battle Animations. That didn’t become a thing until SRW Alpha, and speeding up those animations of you wanted to watch them didn’t hit the curb until SRW Z. We’re talking games almost ten years apart from each other (well, closer to seven, but still). Sometimes the improvements come from necessity, with The 2nd SRW Alpha (or SRW Alpha 2 as it’s more commonly known) introducing a squad-based system due to the larger cast of characters. The third Alpha game would one of the biggest cast in the series’ history and is lovingly called a massive clusterfuck of tedium in terms of unit management, especially after an Event stage when the game resets all the squads and the player has to reassemble them from the scratch. Just before the GameBoy Advance SRW Original Generation games cold localised into English by Atlus, many people who couldn’t afford to import the games (or had ways to play imported games) spent lots of time watching other people’s captured footage of the attack animations. The attack animations are one of the things that pull people in, as they’re one of the last big 2D assets still done today, but also that the fans of the shows can easily recognise from where in the shows they’re taken from, with some attacks being behind special conditions.

Most modern uploads of older SRW titles is forced into widescreen, something that breaks the quality as the aspect ratio is now wrong

That fan bit is another key though. What aspects would SRW have to engage people who aren’t into mecha as a genre, or want to spend several hours in a strategy game that is either stupidly hard or nearly a walk in the park? The concoction of different robot shows crossing over in an official fanfic, often compensating for each other weaknesses while reinforcing the strong bits even more and having all these different characters and motifs meeting in a unified manner isn’t something that would interest most people outside the already established fandom, but modern times has proven how SRW can have something for anyone in these terms, if given a chance. While the series has been considered somewhat a significant staple in Japan to the point of influencing the animation media and series themselves, like how Mazinkaiser’s introduction in SRW F ultimately led into the creation of the retro robot OVA boom, the inclusion of Koutetsu Jeeg in SRW Alpha 2 raised newfound interest it to gain a retroactive sequel in Koutetsushin Jeeg and numerous similar shows directed at the adult market bloomed up now and then. This coincided with the drop in children’s robot shows, as the new generation of Japanese children and young people considered giant robots and mecha overall to be a thing of their parents. While shows like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann were massive successes across the board, it’s one of the few examples from the modern time when a mecha show shot through every genre fandoms and pulled people in, and that was 2007, thirteen years ago. Kill la Kill would replicate similar success, though it wasn’t mecha. SSSS.Gridman didn’t manage to gather the same audience, but that might’ve been because it was special effects live-action show, or tokusatsu, turned into a cartoon. Nevertheless, successful enough to get a sequel in SSSS.Dynazenon.

For the Western world, outside those GBA titles, SRW has been a series some people played because they were cool without understanding the context, as SRW games are stupid easy to learn with zero knowledge of Japanese. Because the systems, mechanics and hell even the menus haven’t changed much since the second game, you can skip from one game to another without prior knowledge what does what. It takes about a quarter of an hour to learn what does what. Some people enjoyed the text, sure. the GBA Original Generation titles had no licensed shows, just so-called Banpresto Original characters that are used as a glue to tie all the other shows together SRW, so in that manner, they provide a bastardization of SRW overall all the while showcasing how these games themselves kicked up a whole new level of fandom, equal to its humble cross-over origin. While you got the best gist what the games were like, that cross-over really is the salt of SRW.

These games later got a full-blown remake on the PS2 as Original Generations, retconning many things the GBA games set-up in the story, but never got localised in English. Later OGS titles would get an Asian English release, but this itself poses problems when you have non-canon versions in English and missing a few titles between those and the translated ones, not to mention the whole Lord of Elemental side games lacking any translations (outside the original Super Famicom game, but that’s canon to the Classic SRW timeline, not the modern OGS one)

With SRW being part of Bandai-Namco’s growing pains Southern Asia Ocean English releases, with the initial titles having terrifyingly bad English and translations that made little sense nor had any character to them, the three last Super Robot Wars titles, VX and T, have been very successful games in terms of imports. I’ve heard rumours of those imports making more profits to BaNco than the Japanese releases, which tells you a lot about the import market. Because of the stupid amount of licenses and trademarks involved in each game (sans OG) it’s no wonder no company even attempted to properly localise the series before. Outside Japan, the licenses and trademarks are spread wide and trying to get some kind deal where everyone would get some profit just won’t happen. With importing being a completely viable and easy way to obtain games nowadays, Japan’s awakening to the import market like this has done only good for their sales. Dropping Steam versions of some of the newer titles has also allowed Steam users to enjoy the series if they got into it.

That’s the last point that has held SRW back. If you’re sitting down and playing it, you’re getting mechas from shows you probably don’t give a damn as a general consumer, characters and concepts that are unfamiliar and make no sense with the games themselves not even trying to open them up in-game, bombing you with more and more ludicrous stuff that only hard-core fans would understand and play that’s arguably two decades out of date. While Muv-Luv was called the ultimate otaku game by some contemporary reviewer, that title belongs to Super Robot Wars without any doubt. It’s not just mecha that SRW contains, but the whole Japanese otaku culture at large in a form that is presentable to the general consumers. There are numerous little things that reference or throw shade at in the Japanese popular culture, with one of the more known example being a thing between Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Misato Katsuragi and Mobile Suit Gundam‘s Amuro Ray. The two characters share voice actors in Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask respectively. In SRW Alpha, the two have certain specific scenes showcasing a slight romantic interest with each other which is played out as a direct reference to the voice actors’ roles. That one Tactics Ogre reference in Muv-Luv Alternative is baby tier fanaticism compared what SRW does due to the sheer amount of franchises and games being involved in this whole shebang.

And yet, the title of this post is that it’s not the best gateway, not that it isn’t one. The same reason people might stay with SRW is the same thing they found Code Geass interesting and captivating. SRW has to base itself on all these franchises, and the writing tries its hardest to be on the same level, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. The series is filled with characters to the point of overflowing and their interactions and relationships are one of the pillars. You might find a character who is batshit insane and charismatic guy, who yells every attack in his rounded robot and want to see where his story goes. Maybe you’ll find a cute girl flying a transforming bike who fights dragons. Hell, maybe you’ll even grow to like this Shinn guy and his Destiny Gundam, the other characters seem to give him some good support and growth. All these little things lead into considering visiting the actual work itself now that you’ve familiarised with the work in an environment that might be more to your liking. The games are all about the robots fighting on the surface and neat as hell sprite work, but if the characters and the plot manage to grab you even a little bit, that’s when the gateway to Robotland opens. It just takes tons to get there, and if none of these elements really nab you, well that’s something that can’t be helped.

Super Robot Wars could be considered an institution in itself in Japanese gaming. Whilst it is not for everyone, it has made itself more and more approachable throughout the years with its play tuning and series selections. With the occasional surprise in there, like Tekkeman Blade in SRW J and the recent Battleship-slot entries, namely The Secret of Blue Water, Space Pirate Captain Harlock and most importantly, Space Battleship Yamato 2199, with the side mention of Linebarrels of Iron original comic version having an entry in SRW UX, many fan-perceived limitations and bans seem to have gone the way of the dodo and all doors are open what could enter next into the mainline games and have that full SRW treatment.

One day…

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