War never changes. Unless someone replaces tanks with giant walking robots, then it looks much, much cooler yet is still quite tragic. That is exactly the point of Squaresoft's 1995 mech tactical RPG Front Mission. How does a man survive on the battlefield of the future? Canny strategy, pots of money and making sure you have a bigger robot than the guy in the other side, that's how.
It is the year 2090. You play the role of Lloyd Clive, soldier of the OCU (Oceanea Community Union) army. The game's prologue shows you how Lloyd - along with fellow soldier Ryuji Sakata - are ambushed during a covert op by the antagonistic USN (United States of the New Continent) army unit lead by the ruthless Driscoll, an attack which leaves Lloyd's fiancée Karen dead. It transpires that the whole incident was orchestrated by Driscoll to trigger armed conflict between the OCU and the USN on Huffman Island, turning the whole place into a vicious battlefield. Lloyd is blamed for the conflict and leaves the army disgraced, but the OCU's Colonel Olson speaks sweet promises of revenge in his ear, encouraging him to join the Carrion Crows mercenary group and take up arms once more.
Front Mission is a game of two distinct halves. You move on a linear route around Huffman Island, skipping between military bases, cities and various battlefields. You'll visit parts and weapon shops run by a family of hippie clones (can't be the same guy, right?) gather intel at local bars, fight it out on the arena for prize money, meet and recruit a varied bunch of pilots to add to your merry mercenary bunch and most importantly of all customize your wanzers - and before you ask, that's not an insult but the collective name given to the mechs in the game (taken from the German "Wanderpanzer", or "walking tank").
As is to be expected from a mech game, you're able to mix and match torsos, legs, arms, melee weapons, handheld weapons and rear-mounted weapons to create the perfect wanzer. How you micromanage your wanzer team is entirely up to your preferred playstyle - you can have a balanced posse with long and close range firepower units, or you can make everyone mean, lean, melee-smashing machines. All parts have advantages and disadvantages, so trying out different wanzer builds will keep you hooked for a long while - as a rule, getting the most expensive parts is always a good strategy. Pilots also evolve depending on what sort of attacks you have them perform, so it is possible to train your characters to specific roles – we love to turn Keith and J.J. into melee monsters – with specific skills unlocking as these pilots level up.
After all preparations are done, it's time to deploy onto the battlefield. The game switches to an isometric view and players take turns moving and firing against the CPU-controlled USN units. Missions range between the regular "destroy everything not on your team" to the more delicate and often harder "protect specific unit" tasks. Your best friend on the battlefield is Peewee and his resupply truck. Armed only with a puny machine gun, having one or two wanzers next to him for defense is always a good plan since his unit is the only one capable of mid-battle repairs to your wanzers - and trust us, you will need them. Perhaps more crucial is the fact that he is the only way to resupply your finite weapon ammunition, namely the lethal long-range missiles that you will eventually come to rely on as the difficulty ramps up.
When engaging enemies, the view switches to a closer isometric viewpoint, really showing off the detailed wanzers in all their glory. When weapons connect you are treated to the rather satisfying spectacle of chunks of debris flying off in all directions; it's not uncommon to see legs, arms and weapons arc through the air as a wanzer takes an especially serious hit. A ten-ton weaponless wanzer is about as useful as a paperweight, so make sure you don't let that happen to any of your own.
It is also in this section of the game we note Front Mission's biggest issue: weapon balancing. Long Range Missile weapons offer essentially free damage without any repercussion, while automated weapons can target multiple parts, and - when coupled with skills that allow your pilots to switch weapons several times per turn - make the process of transforming enemy wanzers into piles of scrap metal a little too easy, unbalancing the delicate rock/paper/scissor weapon triangle that the game borrows from Fire Emblem. Why use melee when long range and automatic weapons offer bigger rewards at lesser risk? This becomes more noticeable as the campaign progresses and players have no choice but to use this to their own advantage in order to overcome some of the game's sterner tests.
The team responsible for Front Mission was incredible. Developer G-Craft was formed by former NCS/Masaya employees headed by Toshiro Tsuchida - he had a prolific year in 1992, working on both the Mega drive shooter Gley Lancer and the SNES cult classic Assault Suits Valken (Cybernator for us westerner gamers). That certainly takes care of any concerns regarding the team's pedigree on science fiction scenarios and mech design, but why stop there? Every character has a portrait by Yoshitaka Amano of Final Fantasy fame, something you notice immediately from the game's cover art. Last but not least the phenomenal soundtrack composed by Yoko Shimomura and Noriko Matsueda features several notable compositions that vary from the jazz piece that plays in every bar on Hoffman Island to the heart-pounding tunes which accompany each attack. This is a dream team of talented folks that pretty much did for mech-based strategy games what Chrono Trigger did for JRPGs just a month later.
There is an excellent alternative if you don't mind tinkering with your wanzers on the go instead of the TV - in 2007, Front Mission was re-released for the Nintendo DS and was officially localized and released in America shortly after. But this was no simple port. It includes a lot of extra content (new parts, new missions) and perhaps the most enticing of all, a full campaign seen from the USN side of the events, with the player fighting it out against the mercenary Carrion Crows unit.
In short, Front Mission is Fire Emblem with giant robots. That alone would be enough to warrant a purchase, regardless of the year in which you are reading this review, but the game manages to be much more than a simple trade of medieval fantasy settings for mech science fiction scenario. It is a beautiful, masterfully-crafted package that can turn people who are not fans of either turn based strategy or mechs into diehard followers overnight. It was a shame Squaresoft never went ahead with the planned western localization of this game; such a well-crafted product would surely have found an audience among SNES owners in 1995 beyond the niche collection of Gundam fans. And much like Gundam, the whole game carries a notable anti-war message with a surprisingly mature storyline. Still, all is not lost - in 2001 the aptly-named Front Mission Translation Project ROM hacking group released a complete English translation for the game that you can use - along with the original cartridge - on the RetroN 5 or Retro Freak. Front Mission is just shy of the perfect score considering its balancing issues, but time has done little to change the fact that it remains a one-of-a-kind release, offering the perfect balance of artistry, storytelling and execution. In fact, Squaresoft set the bar so high on its first attempt at mech warfare that the series has had a hard time surpassing this game's brilliance ever since. If you have a Super Famicom collection, make sure you reserve space for Front Mission on your shelf.