It takes a certain type of western gamer to be a Mobile Suit Gundam fan. You probably got hooked into mecha anime and spent your youth glaring at import gaming magazines, making lists of Gundam games you would either never play, or end up doing so decades after their original release after some brave fans translated them. You knew they had zero chance of official localization due to the costs involved and lack of audience in the west, but you somehow stuck with it and continue to be a fan of the series, even today.
You'll also be aware that hope was not lost and eventually, several Gundam shows ended up being aired in the West, beginning with Cartoon Network’s Toonami premiere of the 'After Colony' timeline series Gundam Wing, which served as an introduction to the whole Gundam universe for many non-Japanese fans. Overnight, Gundam became a part of mainstream western anime culture, achieving a tiny, tiny fraction of the fame it has enjoyed in its homeland since the late '70s (it's no understatement to say that Gundam is Japan's Star Wars).
There have been Gundam games since the days of the Famicom, but the SD Gundam series has always stood apart as being particularly niche. It's one of the oldest and most enduring franchises among the entire Gundam series, itself based on an extremely popular line of Capsule Toys that offer hundreds of your favourite Gundam series Mobile Suits presented in 'Super-Deformed' proportions – that means huge heads, tiny bodies, and fully adorable. The SD series kept reinventing the franchise by adopting several established genres from platforming, shmup, JRPG and Strategy RPG. This new entry into the series is one of the later genres, but not the first of the series to be released on Nintendo’s world-conquering hybrid system.
That honour belongs to SD Gundam G Generation Genesis, an older entry that saw a re-release on the Switch back in April 2018. Due to lack of region locking, Switch Gundam fans could import the game and play it at their heart's content, with one major caveat – there was no English language text support for the Switch version, a massive sin considering that, despite never officially releasing in the west, previous Sony versions of that game came out-of-the-box with complete English text localization.
Despite this mishap, western gamers continued to take full advantage the lack of region locking and dipped into Japanese exclusives that, more often than not, began to offer the much-desired English text support in their Asian versions. Even better news, the Switch began to receive ports of the Super Robot Wars entries, with full English support – which brings us bang up to date.
Hardly a single year goes by in Japan without a new Gundam game and 2019 was no exception; the exceedingly long-winded title SD Gundam G Generation Cross Rays arrived on all major platforms, with English text support out-of-the-box. At long last, we were able to fully comprehend an SD Gundam game on release day without any knowledge of written Japanese – an unthinkable event not so long ago. The make this an even more appealing proposition, the game itself is brilliant.
Immediately after the CGI intro movie is done, SD Gundam G Generation Cross Rays lets you freely pick story-driven campaigns from four major series: Wing, SEED, 00 and the most recent Iron-Blooded Orphans. Future DLC aside, there are thirteen of these on offer, with each branching into several different missions that follow their source material in quite extensive detail. We assure that if you are familiar with the original series on which these campaigns are based, you will often find yourself among familiar protagonists – piloting their iconic Mobile Suits, of course – thrown into conflicts from their respective shows.
Once you start your campaign, Advance Wars and Fire Emblem veterans will feel right at home – there's your familiar overhead map with two-dimensional sprites representing units from both sides. The player must deploy, move and attack enemy units before passing the phase and letting the AI opponent do (very competently so) the same. When you open a menu item for the first time, a brief text tutorial tells you what you are dealing with, helping newcomers get accustomed to the complex mechanics these series is famed for.
Whenever the inevitable clash of units begins, the two-dimensional map and sprites take a step back to full polygonal, glorious Itano Circus renditions of the fight you have chosen to unleash (or have been forced into). These are stunning, where even the most basic Leo model beam sabre strike becomes a light show spectacle that could easily pass as a real anime episode. You can multiply this several times over whenever you engage enemies with your most outlandish attacks from battleships, unique Mobile Suits or even coordinate assaults from mixed groups of both.
Basic tactical RPG tropes will work here, but you can really get an edge in battle by learning and taking advantage of group movement, group attacking, defensive support and up to three extra movement and attack opportunities (a Char homage, surely?) for the units dealing the killing blow to an enemy. Every attack will consume some energy (which recharges accordingly to several factors like allied proximity, unit and pilot skills), but using and abusing your military combined might will often reward you with “Overkill” bonuses that stop energy conservation being a real issue, in 'Normal' difficulty, at least.
Upon starting a mission, the odds as vastly stacked against you. Superior enemy numbers often hide unseen reinforcement units that are deployed when certain conditions are met. How can the player counter these seemingly impossible scenarios? Enter the SD Force, your fully-customizable squad of pilots, Mobile Suits, battleships and other support units. You start the game with a fairly balanced Battleship Group and Raid Group – curiously the same characters, Mobile Suits and battleship featured in the previous game, Genesis. Each mission has several deployment points where you can assign these groups to, along with the 'guest units' that make up the default player-controlled forces. In general, the more units you can deploy to your side, the easier time you will have, and while your default setup is quite capable, this feature of the game hides some hidden depth.
Spending time learning and tinkering away at the organization menus is the key to earning smooth victories. Funds are provided by your results in battle, while new Mobile Suit blueprints can be obtained by completing in-mission quests. You can also recruit new characters, capture enemy units under certain conditions or even create your own pilots from scratch. The combinations are nearly limitless, adding several dozen hours of game content to the total already required during a campaign made up of missions that can last anything from twenty minutes to two hours per stage, depending on how many battle animations and cutscenes you decide to either watch or skip.
Regardless of how you chose to enjoy the game, we can’t but be stress how impressive the amount of content on offer here is – quality content, we must stress. It is quite clear that this entry is built upon two decades of progression and evolution. It is true that we did spot, on occasion, some noticeable slowdown when unleashing some of the more spectacular attacks, but for most of our time, we had zero issues with performance in both docked and portable mode.
Speaking of the later, portable play is indeed one of the best features of this version. None of the other game systems let you take you Super-Deformed army on the go, to grind for better equipment and experience or simply use your commute time to tinker away at getting your squad's formation just right. The ability to suspend play – plus the ten individual quick-save slots – make this a very user-friendly and accessible title. We are particularly grateful for those quick-save slots because permadeath is not optional here; while your pilots are safe from actually being killed, a destroyed Mobile Suit or battleship is lost forever. Since both pilots and units level up individually, you don't want to lose a high-level mobile suit or battleship in the later missions – a lesson we ourselves learned the hard way. Even when you turn the game off, you can still train and get rewards by sending your squads into timed away missions, a mechanic successfully lifted from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Buyers beware: If you are looking into expanding this already huge package with ongoing DLC packs, know that the game is locked to its respective regional eShop. If you pick up the Japanese version, you will need to have a Japanese eShop account and a way to add funds to it in order to use the DLC, free or otherwise (and that includes the coupon that comes inside the retail game box). Same goes for the Asian version. A bit of mischievous “under the radar” region locking right there, but we'll let it slide this once.
There is very little to complain about with SD Gundam G Generation Cross Rays because what it does, it does very well indeed, with no other game on the system to compare it against, other than its previous non-English entry. What we have here is months of content spread across an accessible, user-friendly package that will reward players who like to tinker with squad micro-management but will also let newcomers to the series enjoy the pyrotechnics display from each engagement. We doubt that we need to tell fans of the franchise why this is such a worthy investment; the amount of fan-service (we're talking the good, wholesome variety here) is staggering and more than worth the admission price. To those who love strategy RPGs and have already exhausted all possibilities provided by Fire Emblem: Three Houses and rabid Pokémon trainers who have filled their Pokédex, we offer this advice: Cross Rays might just be the best game of this type on Switch that you've never heard of, and would probably pass you right by if you’re not a Gundam fan. Take a chance on this and you might just become one. It's a fitting 40th-anniversary celebration of the entire saga.