In the 90s, the Japanese Games industry was booming. We saw a slurry of Japanese-developed games being released over in the West with revolutionary ideas, bad localizations and more. Not only did these Japanese games introduce new gameplay concepts, they also reflected the culture surrounding their creation, introducing players from all over the world to new ideas like mecha, aka, and giant robots.
Giant Robots have been part of anime from the start, like in Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor), and we've seen this seep into mainstream games like Titanfalland Metal Gear Solid. But before all that, there was a largely forgotten game from the arcades (eventually released on PC and the Sega Saturn) named Cyber Troopers Virtual-On: Operation Moongate.
Virtual-On was released in 1996, and brought with it a 1v1 versus fighter where you played as a "Virtuaroid," a giant robot kitted out with a range of unique weapons from beam sabres to heavy duty cannons. Instead of controlling your mecha with a single arcade joystick, Virtual-On utilized a brand new Twin Stick controller, which was equal parts clunky and cool. For players that stuck with it, Virtual-On presented a huge amount of depth, and it was within this core that the game saw wide appeal in Arcades and had three sequels created off its back, though only two of them saw release in the US.
'Virtual On: Oratario Tangram' is widely considered the best of the series.
Thankfully, Western fans of the dormant mecha franchise now have something new to scratch that itch: Mobile Suit Gundam Extreme VS-Force, a new PlayStation Vita game that is spiritual successor to the Virtual-On series in everything but name.
Extreme VS-Forceis the latest entry into the larger Extreme Vs. franchise, but it's the first game in the series to be localized to the US. The Extreme Vs. games feel like highly polished versions of Virtual-On: A friendlier control scheme, smoother gameplay, and a more refined set of rules turn every encounter into a high-speed tactical melee. Instead of simple one-on-one affairs, the Extreme Vs. games feature two on two arena fights, and EXVF even includes large scale battles with bases to capture and strategic maneuvers to execute. On top of that, the Extreme Vs. series combines 35 years of Gundam History in order to offer a huge character roster. EXVF allows you to play as Gundam from all eras from the original RX-78-2 to the fan-favorite Wing Gundam all the way to 2015's Barbatos.
One of the largest things that separates the Extreme Vs. series from other fighting games—besides the giant robots—is the "cost gauge" system. On top of a life bar, each player also has a "cost gauge" which depletes when your robot is blown apart, and each of the series' many mechs has a different cost. A 1000 cost mobile suit will have less health and firepower than a 3000 cost suit, but that more expensive mech will deplete your cost gauge faster if you die. When the cost gauge reaches zero, you lose. Good players will learn how to get the most out of low cost machines—or master the expensive, but risky high-cost mechs.
The moment-to-moment combat offers a lot of complexity, too. It's a game of cat and mouse, as you dodge in and out of combat range, string together attacks aimed at your foe, and learn to feint by cancelling out of one attack only to surprise your opponent with another.
Unfortunately, while EXVF offers diehard Virtual-On fans a fantastic substitute, fans of the Extreme Vs. series might find it a little lacking. The entirety of the structure of EXVF seems to betray the series of games that came before it. The most recent iterations, Extreme Vs Full Boost and Maxi Boost, are both very different beasts: Each is fully focused on 2v2 competitive play, and offers not only more characters to choose from, but additional gameplay systems encourage players to take part in fiendish mind games and allow them to stage dramatic come backs. EXVF somewhat loses this by having cut down movesets on each mech, dropping the game-changing "Burst" system, and featuring a cut roster of mobile suits to choose from.
The overseas popularity of the Extreme Vs. line of games does make one wonder why they haven't been localized until now. In the Early 2000's, we saw Federation Vs Zeon and Gundam Vs Zeta Gundam—predecessors to the much faster Extreme Vs. series—released outside of Japan. However, no title since has made it to Western shores until EXVF on the Vita. Last year did see the release of the short-lived Rise of the Incarnates, a free-to-play title which lifted the combat from Extreme Vs. and skinned it in a rather uninspired shell. Seeing EXVF come out in the West instead of the other mainline titles is, I have to admit, a little disappointing.
So, why bring out EXVF? When pressed for comment, Bandai-Namco told me that while they couldn't give specific reasons for why one game or another is localized, the recent (and well-received) localized releases of the anime Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans and Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn make it a very exciting time for Gundam fans. (That answer doesn't explain why the company didn't bring over other recent Gundam games, of course.)
Bandai-Namco's unusual awareness of the game is slightly surprising, as fans have been seemingly left in the dark for over a decade. However, a cult following for these games grew in the fighting game community, a fact that the company is clearly aware of. After all, just about two weeks ago, an Extreme Vs. Full Boost tournament was part of AnimeEVO, and Bandai-Namco sent staff from the company's Japanese office specifically to watch and to chat with fans at the event.
If Bandai-Namco wants to show fans that Gundam is well and truly alive in the West, then EXVF is a solid step towards that goal. Even though the series has been dormant over here for over a decade, Bandai-Namco have seemingly been on the lookout for the best Gundam titles to localize, something that all fans of giant robots can be excited about.
And despite whatever shortcomings it may have in comparison to previous entries in the series, EXVF is a damn fine game. Sporting story mode with additional strategic elements with a slightly cut-down version of other Extreme Vs. games, it's a good game in its own right that can give both new players and diehard Gundam fans a look at a new world of 3D fighters. To think, none of this would exist if it wasn't for Virtual-On.
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