Anime (or Japanese animation) seems to be everywhere these days. Turn on the television and you're liable to catch an episode of Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network. Go to your local art-house cinema and Princess Mononoke might be on the playbill. Visit any video store and you're bound to find an entire section—which for some peculiar reason, is usually sandwiched between the sci-fi and pornography titles—devoted to the genre. For many Americans, this new wave of imported anime that is sweeping the nation is their first exposure to the distinct style of animation, but some may be surprised to learn that anime has managed to find its way abroad since the early '60s.
During that era, anime invaded American homes in more obscure, localized television cartoon programs like Kimba The White Lion, Astro Boy, Gigantor and Speed Racer. The trend continued into the '70s with shows like Star Blazers and Battle Of The Planets. For my generation—who were born in the '70s and grew up in the '80s—our first real exposure to anime was brought on by Robotech and Akira. The popularity of all of these titles (which can still be strongly felt today) spawned an anime fandom of Trekkie-like fervor in the United States and paved the way for the highly visible anime that we are witnessing today.
Among the pantheon of historical anime titles, one that I failed to mention earlier is Mobile Suit Gundam. Gundam is a legendary anime franchise/universe of epic proportions that redefined the outrageous giant robot, mecha theme to a harrowing tale of war and serious science fiction in the late '70s. It rose to the height of its popularity in Japan during the '80s and brought forth a tidal wave of movies, television shows, videos and model kits all bearing the Gundam moniker for the next two decades to come. But for all its native success, mainstream Americans never saw any state-side translation (hardcore otaku fans made do with bootleg copies and underground transcripts) until the year 2000, when the Cartoon Network decided to translate and broadcast episodes of one of its more recent series, Gundam Wing.
With a television series now in full-swing and the Gundam name no longer unbeknownst to a youthful public—though it has yet to reach the feverish popularity of Pokémon—Bandai (owners of the Gundam franchise) probably thought it would be a good idea to capitalize on the show's budding audience with a videogame bearing the same name. The game they choose to release is the 3-D action-simulator, Gundam Side Story 0079: Rise From The Ashes for the Dreamcast. Though surprisingly, the game doesn't follow the same story arc as the television show (Gundam Wing takes place in an newer alternate timeline and will get its own two-player-style fighting game later in the year). Instead, Side Story 0079 takes place in Australia during the final weeks of the One-Year War. (Critics Note: For more details about the Gundam timeline as well as other information, visit www.gundamproject.com).
Players assume the identity of a young hotshot pilot named Rayer, who is also the leader of the White Dingo, an elite squad of combat robots known as Mobile Suits. The actual game itself is broken down into a series of 10 missions where the player must actually pilot a Mobile Suit from a 3-D, first-person cockpit view and issue on-the-spot tactical orders to the three other team members in hopes of fulfilling each mission objective. Mission briefings and cut-scenes in-between missions flesh out most of the complex story details.
The most surprising thing about Side Story 0079 is the way it looks. While being based on one of the most popular anime of all-time, it doesn't look anything like its animated counterpart. Colors aren't typically bold and vibrant. Also missing-in-action are anime trademarks like physics-defying hairstyles and wide-eyed facial features in the character designs. For Side Story 0079, what we get instead are colors that are far less saturated and 3-D character models that are more physically proportionate. Throw in jittery in-your-face steady cam angles in the full-motion video and the overly idealistic military propaganda tone in the music, and you can tell that the developers were going for something a little more reality-based. In taking this route, it's noticeable that the designers have co-opted the visual style from film director, Paul Verhoeven and his recent adaptation of Robert Heinlein's sci-fi novel, Starship Troopers (which is ironic when you consider the earliest Mobile Suit Gundam stories also drew much of their inspiration from the Starship Troopers novel).
One thing that has remained strikingly faithful to the Gundam universe is the 3-D Mobile Suit designs. They look, feel and animate with incredible detail and believability. Without a doubt, Side Story 0079 is the most accurate and lively representation of the Mobile Suits to ever grace a videogame. So does the new pseudo-realistic art direction mixed with the classic Mobile Suit designs work? Not only does it work, but Side Story 0079 succeeds in being a unique vision all to itself. It would appear that the developers in all their wisdom realized that trying to recreate a 2-D anime world in an 3-D environment wouldn't conceptually work (how many times have we seen 2-D sprites look horribly out of place in a 3-D landscape?). So rather then force the issue, they looked elsewhere for their inspiration. The final distinctive look—furthered with effective fog effects and well-crafted landscapes that made me feel like I was actually sitting in a 500-feet tall Mobile suit—is a spectacular hybrid of anime sensibilities and Hollywood-slick production values.
In terms of gameplay, Side Story 0079 also manages to accomplish some interesting things. One of the trademarks of the Gundam series that fans know and love is how two enemy Mobile Suits engaged in combat will skillfully bounce around while shifting back and forth between firing off all kinds of weaponry (lasers, missiles, etc) and hand-to-hand combat with beam sabers. While Mobile Suits in the game are no where near as nimble as they are in the anime, developers still managed to recreate the battle experience fairly convincingly without having to utilize an overly complex control scheme. In fact, most players will be amazed by its simplicity (a well-designed lock-on feature manages to track the quick-moving Mobile Suits and streamlines the controls considerably). Though it is worth mentioning that fans of the anime who want to pilot a Mobile Suit like the one-man-against-an-army untouchable prodigies that are often featured in the series will be disappointed. Facing off against one enemy Mobile Suit is already tough, but being outnumbered by a group without support is nearly impossible. Making use of team strategy is a must to be successful in the game. The concept may be, again, less faithful to the fantasy element of the anime, but it's actually more in-line with the realistic tone of the game and provides more depth in terms of gameplay. In the end, whatever gripes I had, I still found the piloting and combat experience to be intense and satisfying (locking beam sabers with another an enemy Mobile Suit simply rocks!).
If there's one thing that I enjoyed most about Side Story 0079, it's how the developers put a great deal of effort to make the player feel more immersed in the game in subtle ways. The story, being based on the epic Gundam storyline, is admittedly complex with usual elements of patriotism, military espionage and personal struggle. But the game manages to break things down in a manner that allows players new to the Gundam speak to understand the gravity of the situations and be engaged without having to fully comprehend every single last detail. What also added to the immersiveness was attention to detail in other areas, like the voice acting. The quality of the voice acting and lip-synching with the character models is remarkable compared to most of today's games, which always seem to put up a Z-grade effort. On top of all the great voice-acting is the way the player interacts with the cast of characters via streaming video-like windows on a desktop. While none of the details of their personal lives are fleshed out to any great extent in this method, their constant vocal chatter, on and off missions, add to their personalities and go a long way toward making the in-game universe more convincing.
As far as negatives go, there aren't many, but some are rather significant. In terms of technical problems, the vocals coming from characters were often mumbled and too low in volume—often making it difficult to hear over the background music and sound effects. Also, the cockpit view is a bit cramped at times, and the short-range radar is useless. While worth mentioning, none of these problems were too serious, and all were manageable. In terms of gameplay problems, some may consider the low selection of Mobile Suits and armaments to be a flaw, but I felt it was an elegant touch in keeping with the realistic nature of the war, where weapons and resources are limited. Sometimes less is more, and that certainly applied here since it helped to create a mood. If I had any gripes about the gameplay, it was the lack of variety in the missions. Almost all of them usually fell under the same search and destroy category.
Commenting more on the mission designs, I liked how during most missions, unexpected events would transpire. It added an element of surprise, and I would be forced to react in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, choices made during these decisive moments didn't really alter the plot to any significant degree. I would have liked to see more dramatic consequences and different alternating storylines based on player decisions. Yet the thing that drove my rating down the most was the length of the game. Being comprised of only 10 missions, most enthusiastic gamers will complete the game in a matter of days, if not hours. After completing the game, I had just fell into my piloting groove and wanted desperately for the game to continue for several more missions.
Due to the brevity of the Side Story 0079, the gaming experience ends up feeling a bit like a wild roller coaster ride that you wish lasted longer. As most anime fans of the mecha genre will admit, piloting a Mobile Suit is a childhood fantasy. I am no different. And while Side Story 0079 brought me one step closer to realizing that fantasy, it needs work on delivering a longer, all-around package. I close this review with some mixed feelings. As a critic, the short length makes it hard for me to thoroughly recommend it, but as an old-school otaku, I am grateful for the game being such a convincing experience no matter how short the ride.