The original Front Mission raised the bar very high indeed for what we have come to expect from mecha games on Super Nintendo. Just one year later, Square released a sequel - but don't be fooled, Front Mission Series: Gun Hazard is everything but a traditional follow-up. In fact, it's not even in the same timeline as the original and future games in the series; it's a whole new beast that boldly does away with all the original excellent isometric turn-based battles and focuses instead on platforming and shooting antics.

Looking at the screenshots you might be assuming that we've accidentally uploaded assets for the legendary Cybernator (also known as Assault Suit Valken) but we can assure you this isn't a mistake - the reason for the uncanny similarity is because the same core team created both titles. Gun Hazard certainly feels a lot more like an evolution of Cybernator than Front Mission, featuring the same style of mech (sorry, "wanzer") animation. But while Cybernator is a linear experience, Gun Hazard throws you off the deep end and gives you much more in the way of options. Fortunately, if you've already played Cybernator you shouldn't find things too daunting.

The story is a lot more involved than the one in Cybernator. Mankind has entered a time of peace and prosperity due to worldwide cooperation in the ongoing construction of Atlas, an orbital lift leading to a solar power plant that aims to provide cheap energy for every nation on the planet. However, a sudden breakthrough in mini fusion reactor technology has halted the project and soon every nation decides to revert back to their old ways and conflicts erupt over natural resources. It is now the year 2064 and there is an ongoing coup d'état in the nation of Bergen. Players take the role of one Sergeant Albert Grabner of the Bergen Army who is called to assist in escorting the nation's elected President Moss Orwen safely outside the country before the rebel forces of Colonel Ark Hellbrand get their hands on both. After eluding capture, the Colonel puts a spin on the story stating Albert is the one responsible for kidnaping the President and his forces are the true heroes. Without any way to reveal the truth, Albert and President Orwen try to carry out the original plan to escape the country and in their escape end up fighting a mercenary named Brenda Lockhart. All three of them end up captured at Beeg Army Base and a somewhat uncomfortable alliance is made between Albert and Brenda who manage to escape the country using Brenda's Tadpole carrier. These events unfold in the first half an hour of gameplay, which gives you an idea of just how involved the storyline is.

The controls fully mimic Cybernator; Your wanzer can jump, shoot, use special weapons like the hard knuckle, use a shield to block incoming fire and (once you buy a dash and Vernier unit) hover and zip across the land. New to the series and seemingly lifted straight from LucasArts own mecha game Metal Warriors (which was inspired by Cybernator)hitting "Select" will allow Albert to leave his wanzer and move around armed with grenades and pistol. Of course this leaves you very vulnerable, so you'll want to remain inside your mech until exploration demands you to leave it.

The game starts you off in a FN-8G Harby-G, a tiny wanzer that looks more like the loader from the movie Aliens than a proper army vehicle. You will be stuck with it for the initial hours of the game, but the RPG aspect of the game ensures that destroying opponents and successfully completing missions (there are over ninety) will reward you with both experience and money, the former allowing you to level up parts of the wanzer and the latter to pick up new weapons, parts, even brand new wanzer models. Since the game map allows you to move freely back and forth, it is possible to repeat already completed missions to grind for both resources, and if you're up to the challenge you can even complete the entire game with a fully powered up Harby-G. You also need to keep your fuel reserves in check; wanzer HP is replenished with it and you only have a limited supply in your carrier vehicle. Visiting shops is a must not only to browse for goods but also making sure you keep your carrier fuel reserves up. It might seem like you have more than enough to start with, but the more your wanzer levels up, the more total HP it will have - and the more fuel it will need to top up after each mission.

The presentation in this game is top notch, not uncommon for a Squaresoft release in early 1996. If the character portraits give you a familiar feeling it's due to Yoshitaka Amano once again returning to art directing duties, which explains why all the people you encounter wouldn't look out of place in Final Fantasy VI. Wanzer graphics are also neatly animated, with a great variety of both enemy and allied mechanical monstrosities populating the screen. Backgrounds are also detailed and efficiently portray the many locations the game will take you across, from the deserts of Al-Hari, the lush forests of Machu Picchu to the icy wastelands of Sibriska or the war torn cityscapes across the many nations your travels take you, there is certainly a lot to admire. Plus the developer Omiya Soft made sure it used every excuse to throw in a lens flare effect every time the sun is up on the horizon.

One of the most overlooked aspects of Gun Hazard is it unique soundtrack. There are about two and a half hours of the finest SNES music spread across over sixty tracks which snugly fit inside the game's cartridge. They mostly take on militaristic, industrial tones that help to sell the game's presentation. The outstanding quality of the tracks was no fluke; four composers took on scoring duties for this one, namely Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy series), Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger) Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu. The end result is yet another all-time great Super Nintendo soundtrack that remains criminally overlooked.

Some issues do arise, with levels that seemingly drag on for too long with little to shoot at. In fact sometimes there are just too few enemies on screen for the player to actually feel threatened. However, ignoring enemies and pushing forward is also ill advised since it may result in a busted up wanzer before the end of the level. Some players might take issue with the amount of grinding required, killing the same enemies over and over again in order to buy all available equipment available early or upgrading to a new wanzer as soon as they become available. There might also be possible roadblocks where your wanzer simply is unable to take on a certain mission unless upgraded or leveled up. These issues do pop up, but seem a small price to pay to find out what next plot twist will occur on the next mission. Pilots beware: In a few missions Verniers on your wanzer and grenades for your pilot are mandatory for progress, but the game doesn't really gives you a heads up notice about it.

You will eventually get an AI wanzer to tag along in your missions. At this point, Gun Hazard manages to pull something neither Cybernator or Metal Warriors did: two player co-op! By using the game's only input cheat (hit "Down" + "L" + "R" + "Start" on the second controller), player two can take control of the AI wanzer using the second joypad. It is a neat little unadvertised bonus that turns the game into less of a solitary experience.

As you might already be aware, the amount of on-screen Japanese text is rather copious. Without a good understanding of the language, navigating menus is the real titular hazard and missing out the plot that is presented in the cutscenes will diminish the experience. However, hacker group Aeon Genesis released a stellar English fan translation back in 2004, shining light onto the story for westerners and making us wish that the game really had been translated and officially released in the West. By 1996 - and with the first game a no show in the West - the chances of the title arriving in the US and Europe was little more than a daydream for SNES mecha fans. Get your revenge nowadays by using the native cartridge and fan translation patch on your RetroN 5 or Retro Freak.

Conclusion

Front Mission Series: Gun Hazard might not have recieved the attention and acclaim the original did, but despite some design hiccups it remains a very impressive and ambitious product. A stellar plot that would not look out of place in a mecha manga or anime maintains your attention while tuning up and customizing your wanzer with the different special weapons keeps the game fresh, with surprising aural delights coming up frequently. Gun Hazard is the plot heavier pseudo-sequel to Cybernator you never knew you wanted;. a side-story that perfectly demonstrates how much could be squeezed out of the Super Nintendo hardware when it was left in capable hands.