Mobile Suit Gundam Wing made quite an impact in the West, with the forty-nine episode anime series getting aired by Cartoon Network which would ensure it became one of the most recognizable entries in the iconic Japanese science fiction mecha series in our part of the planet. Predictably, video game adaptations followed and equally predictably they varied wildly in quality, but the important thing is that Natsume would do the series proud with the unique fighting title Gundam Wing: Endless Duel, which was originally released in Japan in 1996 - well into the twilight years of the Super Famicom / SNES.
Natsume has a stellar track record on Nintendo's 16-bit home console, with the likes of Natsume Championship Wrestling, Pocky & Rocky, Wild Guns and the The Ninja Warriors finding favour with both reviewers and gamers alike. Some SNES owners may also remember Natsume for its trio of rather good Power Rangers video games that managed to find fans even if you'd never seen a single episode of the show. Strangely, it was because the fact that both series feature giant robots that Natsume chose to build its vision of Gundam Wing upon the very same engine it had developed for Power Rangers: The Fighting Edition the previous year, but with worthy enhancements.
The game offers the player a choice of mobile suits and respective pilots from the two conflicting factions: the Space Colony Gundams versus the Earth's Romefeller Foundation Army. You will be able to pick from the original five Gundams (Wing, Death Scythe, Heavy Arms, Sand Rock and Shenlong), three OZ mobile suits (Tallgeese, Vayeate and Mercurios) and two Second generation Gundams: Wing Zero (enhanced version of Wing) and Epyon (end-of-story-mode-super-cheap-boss and secret unlockable for versus mode only). It's a shame the game misses out on the opportunity to have more of the second generation mobile suits that pop up in the show, but we can assume Natsume unable add more playable mechs due to ROM size constrains.
Graphically the game is stunning. There's an excellent introduction sequence featuring a SNES take on Rhythm Emotion - the second opening theme song - and highly detailed backgrounds, each with their own individual tunes (the Heavy Arms theme being a particularly inspired effort). Every Mobile Suit is made up from several individual sprites, a technique used to both save memory (since you can reuse common parts like legs on different Gundams) and to make sure they look and feel like the giant, multi-segmented robots the anime portrays. This is a late generation Super Famicom title and it shows; everything is an improvement over the first Gundam fighting game on the system (G Kidou Butoden G-Gundam) and having played both 2D arcade fighting games by Banpresto, we can assure you that this game gives those two a run for their money.
The fighting mechanic really shines here, with some surprising additions such as air blocking and Vernier thrust maneuvering that allows for dash and vertical jumping well above the floor level - something Capcom introduced the previous year at the arcades with X-Men: Children of the Atom - making fights a much more frenzied affair than any of the other games of the genre on the system. Attacks buttons are distributed between weak / strong punch and weapon attacks, with moves spread across specials, super specials and (in most cases) Vulcan machine guns, and the degree of control is impressive considering the game only uses a four button setup. The configuration is simple and easy to learn, but true mastery comes from correct management of your Power bar (every special you do will consume this energy) and knowing the correct time to counter, evade or unleash your Mobile Suit's arsenal. Defensive players beware: every hit will do chip damage, so hiding in a corner will do you no favours.
Sadly all of this greatness remained exclusive to Japanese owners as Gundam Wing: Endless Duel was denied a western release - hardly a shock when you consider that by 1996, the PlayStation and Saturn had already been launched. The game itself is almost entirely in English with just the chatter between characters in Japanese. This was solved when Aeon Genesis released the complete English patch in 2002 (his very first translation project), translating to English the pilot's dialogue exchanges in the main story mode. It's a nice extra if you feel like exploring the game's story, but gather a few friends and the verses mode is where you will be spending most of your time, because one-on-one fighting games live and die by the amount of fun you can have facing your friends. The ultimate test for solo players is the Trial mode, an endurance of increasingly difficult battles with your energy being carried over after each fight. It is a great mode to extensively train your skills with each Mobile Suit.
Judging Shin Kidō Senki Gundam Wing: Endless Duel by Super Nintendo one-on-one fighting game standards places the game well above the passing grade. It is one of the finest Natsume offerings on the system and much like its other offerings it feels you have an arcade game at home, mainly due to the amazing graphics and excellent audio. The way the gameplay flows and the ability to use Vernier thrusters truly gives the player the impression of controlling a giant robot instead of a weightless 2D game sprite, something that past Gundam games - even Banpresto's arcade game offerings - fail to do. The character roster might be a little on the low side with only nine Mobile Suits to pick from (and the cheap end-of-game boss Gundam Epyon a hidden versus mode exclusive) but even so this ranks among the top fighting games on the system, right up there with your favorite version of Street Fighter II, whichever that may be. You can use the translation patch to play in your RetroN 5 or Retro Freak, but it is not mandatory to enjoy the game in its native, untouched form. It's a real shame that as is the case with Natsume's noteworthy Power Rangers games, licensing problems are likely to prevent us from ever seeing this on Nintendo's Virtual Console platform. If you are a fan of the show or simply a follower of fighting games in general, this is certainly a Super Famicom cartridge worth having in your collection.