Assault Suits Valken Declassified
Image: Nintendo Life

The Assault Suits mecha action games arguably deserve a little more attention than they enjoy here in the West. Back in the 1990s, their distinct blend of platforming and run ‘n’ gun design did indeed see ports from their native Japan to the rest of the world – sometimes in a heavily localised form – and they generally impressed critics of the era.

There have been somewhat more recent re-releases of Assault Suits games too, including to the Wii and Wii U Virtual Consoles. And yet mention of their name on these shores doesn’t quite court the same warm, nostalgic response enjoyed by loosely comparable titles such as Contra or Metal Slug.

That may well be because Western players have never been treated to a defining port of the series’ highlight, Assault Suits Valken. In 1993 it came to PAL territories in a heavily censored, edited form as Cybernator – and it is that version that has previously been ported here. In mere days, however, that is all set to change.

Retro revival maestros M2 – the talent behind the staggeringly polished, ambitious ShotTriggers line of shmup ports – have teamed up with Rainmaker Productions to deliver Assault Suits Valken Declassified on Switch. Bundling up a faithful, uncensored port of the original Japanese release with all manner of additional materials such as a translated recreation of the game’s 80-page guidebook, a developer interview, and pre-production artwork, Declassified aims to finally provide the Assault Suits Valken this part of the world has always deserved.

Curious to learn what Declassified delivers on top of the 2007 and 2014 Wii and Wii U VC releases — which Nintendo Life found plenty to enjoy about — we caught up with M2’s development director Masanori Yagi to better understand the intention and ambition of Declassified, as well as the firm’s enviable porting prowess.

Before all that, it’s worth setting some context with a quick dip into the Assault Suits series’ history. Initially created by dev house Masaya, the series started with Assault Suits Leynos (Target Earth in North America); a mecha action game for Sega Genesis that bristled with intense energy – and somewhat erratic pacing. The story of a brutal, unrelenting human-cyborg war attracted a modest cult following in the West, inspiring a no-frills port by Dracue Software in 2015, before appearing on the Nintendo Switch Online service last year.

It was Leynos’ 1992 SNES sequel Assault Suits Valken, however, that distilled the first game’s best elements into something sharp, captivating, and unrelenting in its tone and presentation. While PAL gamers had to settle for the localised Cybernator, Japan’s mecha fans were treated to the full, unabridged version.

In the years leading up to those releases, a young Yagi had been falling for games. It would take his discovery of a classic 1989 Will Wright release, however, to open his mind to the full potential of what the medium can be.

“I grew up alongside the development of arcade and console games, starting with Breakout and Space Invaders followed by Famicom, Super Famicom, PlayStation and many others,” he remembers. “I played the classic games of the time, but I was quite shocked when I came across SimCity when I was at university. I had never thought that urban planning could even be made into a game, and it was extremely fun to play, and made me realise how broad the potential of computer games was.”

Assault Suits Valken
Image: Rainmaker Productions

That realisation ultimately led to his career in games. Yagi spent many years at Artdink, famed for the A-Train railroad company management games, which were published in the US by SimCity outfit Maxis. There he built his skillset as a development producer, before moving to M2 in 2019, starting out as a project planner. And throughout that journey, he always harboured an affection for Assault Suits Valken.

So when Rainmaker approached M2 with the idea of releasing a high-end Valken port for the game’s 30th anniversary, Yagi was immediately affected.

“I felt really emotional thinking that 30 years had already passed,” he reveals. “It's been a while since mecha action games have entered the 3D era, but it also seems that nowadays the fascination of 2D games is being re-evaluated. Valken is a 2D mecha action game with a universal appeal that transcends time. In that sense, I think the 30th anniversary was just right as a milestone.”

But, why the love for Valken in particular? Why was it — to Yagi — a game worth bringing to a new audience in its original unlocalised form (albeit with those tempting archival extras)?

“The first thing I would say is that it has an outstanding feel as a mecha action game,” Yagi enthuses. “The movement by walking is full of a sense of gravity that is typical of mecha. Jumping is also different from jumping in ordinary games, with a unique floating feeling when the verniers are blown. The altitude and distance can be adjusted with the timing of pushing the buttons, testing your piloting technique. You can also roller dash for high-speed movement, and when you combine these controls to control the seemingly sluggish assault suit at will, it just becomes a lot of fun.”

There Yagi has got to the very heart of why Assault Suits Valken stands out as a mecha action game as much as a run ‘n’ gun platformer. The sense of weight, gravity and movement does a masterful job of conveying the physicality of piloting something looming and powerful. A decent spread of armaments from melee attacks to long-range ordnance also introduced a dose of strategic depth that complimented the unique movement style.

“Finally, although the mecha and character designs, settings and storyline are all original, there is a deep respect for Japan's proud mecha anime culture hidden in every conceivable part of the game,” Yagi adds.

As for the porting process itself, Yagi and his M2 peers were fortunate to be able to pull previous experience bringing Nintendo hardware releases to modern platforms.

“We've already had a number of successes with porting Super Famicom games to the Switch, so it wasn't too difficult to get the game to work,” he says. “However, our aim this time was to provide a complete English version of the game, so we had to make sure that all the Japanese texts in the game were converted into English.

“The basic nature of the game is an action game, so the volume of messages itself is not that large, but in some scenes the texts are displayed without stopping the progress of the game, so we could not allow the display area to be expanded or the number of pages to be increased just because the game had been translated into English. So we decided to apply a proportional font for English, both to increase the number of characters displayed and to improve the appearance. Although it is not that difficult just to display the characters, it would affect the playability of the game if it affected the execution of the game itself, so the programmers had the hardest time finding a way to achieve this without putting too much load on the game. Of course, even so, there was not always enough room for the number of characters that can be displayed, so I think the translators also had a hard time.”

It’s when you dig into granular details like those that you realise the precise and devoted mindset that has made M2 famous for its ports. The team has also introduced save states, increased freedom to customise input configuration, record and replay functions, scanline and CRT filters, and more control over access to the game’s hidden weapons and commands. And you get the original and arranged versions of the score.

Assault Suits Valken
Image: Rainmaker Productions

“Although we have added these additional functions, we have not made any changes to the basic game,” Yagi confirms. “The high level of perfection of the original is due in part to the high quality and balance of the various elements, so if we were to make any inappropriate modifications, we would lose the balance and the game would be distorted. We proceeded with development from the perspective of maintaining the play feel of the original game and eliminating as many inconveniences as possible, while still allowing the player to enjoy the original attraction of the game.”

Ultimately, then, Declassified is looking to bring a purebred port with carefully implemented quality-of-life modernisations, and those alluring archival extras which Rainmaker handled. On top of the concept art and guidebook translation, the Switch release adds new artwork from the original game's character designer, Satoshi Urushihara, and a fresh interview with Valken designer Satoshi Nakai about the mecha design on display.

Assault Suits Valken Declassified is due in the West on March 30th. Want to know how good it really is? Check out our review.