10 October 2017

FWS Top 10: Forgotten Military SF Video Games (Vol. 1)

The video game industry is over 40 years old and since its founding, there has been a love affair between Military Science Fiction and video games that burns still. While some games reach legendary status as icons like DOOM, HALO, or Wing Commander...others do not. These MSF games disappear from the common conscience of the video game public for one reason or another. FWS has profiled a few "lost" military sci-fi games like Xenophobe and Battle Engine Aquila over the years, and I was inspired by YouTube review Metal Jesus to explore more forgotten military sci-fi games. For clarification, this is the first of four Top 10 lists on forgotten military sci-fi games and I will be excluding shoot'em up style games, like Xevious, R-Type, and Blazing Lazers. If there is forgotten Military SF you know about and want to see included, comment below and let me know!

1. Star Trek Strategic Operations Simulator (SEGA 1983)
Despite Star Trek coming onto the public consciousness some 11 years prior to the release of Star Wars, Trek has never reached the levels of popularity in terms of toys and video games...especially in the arcades. In 1983, Trek and Wars both had vector graphics arcade cabinets battling it out for quarters in the golden age of arcades, which I was front-and-center for as a small boy. The 1983 ATARI Star Wars arcade game is well known and celebrated and there was always a line for it...but the 1983 Star Trek Strategic Operations Simulator (STSOS) by Sega is a forgotten title in the long history of Trek video games and this is one of the few Trek arcade games ever developed. I can clearly remember this arcade game in the 1980's, and I would always pump quarters into it. When my family made the trek to Tulsa from Bartlesville in the 1980's, my brother and I descended on the Starbase 21 comic book store and then begged to go to the Mexican food joint next door: Casa Bonita. Good food with a massive arcade, it was a real winner...and they had the sitdown STSOS arcade game which I always played first due to being a massive Trek fan since birth.
There were three versions of Sega’s STSOS: the white sit-down “captain’s chair”, the dedicated standup cabinet, and the retro kit sold by Sega to switch over one of  their other vector graphic standup machines to the Star Trek game for about $1200. You sat down, took the controls on either side of your command chair as Spock-like synthesized voice and main theme pumped into your ears. Then it was time to defend Starbases and kick some Klingon D-7 ass! Borrowing heavily from the look and feel of Star Trek II: TWOK, it was a real winner that could be merciless, but it did not replicate the complexity of capital ship combat seen in the Trek universe.
Rather, STSOS was a basic space shooter having D-7 capital ships dying quick deaths like the TIE fighters in the Star Wars arcade game. STSOS was not confined to the darken arcades only, being ported to the ATARI ST, 2600 and 5200 systems, the Commodore 64, Apple II, and the Colecovision. Decidedly, the ports on the computer systems were much better and fleshed out with you even engaging NOMAD from the original series! One of the only articles I’ve read on comparing every port concluded that the Commodore 64 was the superior of the home ports, only trumped by the original arcade. The only system that was able to replicate the Vector graphics was the Vectrex home console systems own Trek game from 1982. This was not developed by Sega, but GCE under the title of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. This was even more the space shooter with you taking command of the refit  Enterprise and battling the Klingon and Romulan forces. Given the uniqueness of the arcade and the many ports of the game, why is STSOS considered a forgotten game?  Part of this stems from the delicate nature of the arcade game hardware, especially the vector graphic monitors. According to a vintage arcade cabinet reseller, vector monitors are troublesome and often see service calls. It was not just limited to the monitors, but also the power supply, along with issues with the computer boards themselves equaling an arcade game that has the reliability of an old Fiat!
Despite the extensive porting of STSOS, the game never seemed to attract much in the way of attention at the time or even now. Part of this has to do with the historical context. Star Wars was much more popular in the video game market and easier to develop games for. In addition, when the  ATARI ports came out, it was the Video Game Crash, making the ports of STSOS much rarer than on the home computer systms. While I loved this game at the arcade, I never knew it was ported to the ATARI 2600 until a few years ago, reflecting possibly poor advising at the time. Then there is the other issue: STSOS is simplistic space shooter video game lacking the magic of what Star Trek really is. Star Wars was much more geared to being packaged into space shooter arcade games, and it seemed hollow when applied to Star Trek. If there is to be combat, it needs to be more complex and detailed as seen in tabletop starship combat games released by FASA.

2. Solaris (ATARI 1986)
The wood-enhanced ATARI 2600 was the progenitor of all home video game consoles and it lasted longer than most people think. After ATARI emerged from its financial troubles in 1983, it would keep the iconic, but outdated 2600 with a fresh remodel to match the 5200 and 7800 aesthetic. This version was called the 2600 Jr. and would see new video games being released, they were mostly downgraded 7800 titles. One of the real standouts was the 1986 2600 Jr. only release Solaris. This is one of those iconic sci-fi names and while it has no connection to the 1961 Stanislaw Lem novel, it is one of the best 2600 titles of all time.  It originally started off life as the sequel to Star Raiders and then was attempted movie tie-in title for 1984’s The Last Starfighter. Those were abandoned with the 2600 Jr. getting Solaris and the 8-bit ATARI systems getting Star Raiders 2. The story of Solaris is lacking and it involves finding a pioneer mission to the planet Solaris before the evil alien collective, the Zylons, find and destroy the lost settlers.  Your low-profile mission is to locate Solaris, rescue the settlers on the planet along with killing any Zylons you can.  The game was a classic space shooter in the vein of Star Raiders, due to those games sharing the same creator, and Solaris is viewed as a spiritual sequel to that iconic title.
Your view is behind your space cruiser and you warp from location to location over a massive amount of space that seemed to be the upper limit of the 2600 hardware. To locate the Planet Solaris, you have to hunt through 15 quadrants (map pages) with 48 “sectors” on each quadrant. Limiting your range is fuel and only Federation planets have docking stations. If the fuel station is destroyed, it fucks up everything with the ship controls being reversed. Without a save system, the game was extremely difficult to get through in a single sitting, despite owning this game for my 7800, I never beat it. The game is widely praised today as being one of the best titles on the older ATARI hardware and I agree with them. If it was so praised, why is it a lost title? At the time, the NES was the goliath on the 8 bit home console market and it nearly blotted out the Sega Master System and the ATARI 7800 let alone the older 2600. With the market share for ATARI consoles was small, the market for 2600 games was even smaller.

3. Military Madness (Hudson Soft 1989)
Back in the late 1980's, the era of 8 bit home video game console systems was ending with all of the major companies in the market involved moving on to developing 16 bit systems when one new usurper came to the video game market with a 16 bit system early in 1987: the NEC PC Engine (AKA Turbografx-16 in the West). The system would arrive in the western market in 1989 as the new Sega Genesis was also arriving. By the early 1990's, the Turbografx-16 was battling for market shares with the SNES and the Genesis, with ATARI ending their plans for an 16 bit system called "the Panther". NEC's home console system had limited exposure to the US market and despite being a great system, it was discontinued due to poor sales in 1994 despite several attempts to spice up sales with a portable system and an CD hardware attachment, the first offered for a home system.
I was fully aware of the Turbografx-16 due to a display system at a high-end Tulsa area electronics store and badly wanted one...but, in Xmas of 1990, my father bought a home computer for my brother and I, launching me to become a PC gamer for much of the 1990's. One of the titles that stood out to me, due to the name, at the time of the Turbografx-16's release was Hudson Soft's Military Madness. This noted Japanese software company partnered with NEC to develop the PC Engine/Turbografx-16 system. This meant that a great deal of games on the system were developed by Hudson Soft, including Military Madness (AKA Nectaris in Japan).
This military sci-fi strategy game takes place on the Moon, specifically, the Mare Nectaris region, where the Japanese title originates from. In 2089, a war between the two major Earth political blocs breaks out for control of the Moon, which the Axis side is planning on using as a launching pad for a doomsday weapon so that they can gain control of the Earth. The turn-based hexagon map game is played over 16 missions. RTS games have never been as popular on console as computers, and to make matters worse, Military Madness was released on a unpopular system in the west. This was a double-tap to the head for Military Madness, causing it to fade away along with the Turbografx-16 system.  In Japan, the PC Engine was much more success along with Nectaris with several other games being developed and released in the series.

4. Oni (Bungie West 2001)

For those of us gaming back at the turn of the new century, we can recall this awesome manga-inspired cover-art. On the heels of success with Myth, Bungie was able to expand, opening a new studio in California called Bungie West in 1997. Their only release before being shut down was the oddity called Oni. Released on the PS2, Mac, and PC; this 3rd person futuristic shooter borrowed heavily from Ghost in the Shell with the Japanese anime opening being a love letter to the world created by the 1995 OVA. That was the hook of the game: western anime beat'em up/shooter with an rocking badass female warfighter with big guns that could be Major Kusanagi's punker little sister. That cover-art wrote a big check that the actual Oni game just could not cash when gamers got their hands on it January of 2001. The game takes place in 2032 where the Earth has been ruined by pollution, forced the formation of an one world government and you take the role of specialized police officer Konoko assigned to special taskforce of TCTF. When she learns the truth, Konoko begins working for the other side and is hunted. She makes use of melee combat and gunplay that all channels your inner John Woo. Once again, it all sounds great, but the final result is a game that did not deliver on the concept or the vision presented in the trailer along with a LAN multiplayer.
The failure of the game caused Bungie West to be closed and Oni piled up in used game stores as a cheap title...then it was forgotten for the most part. There was to be a sequel developed by Bungie West and Take 2 until the failure cancelled the sequel and ended the studio. That sequel was to be called Oni 2: Death and Taxes developed by Angel Studios (Rockstar San Diego today) for PlayStation 2. Some of the work done around 2001/2002 on the sequel has been dug up showing improvement on the melee Martial Art combat being a primary focus, but it was never released and it likely will never be finished.

5. G-Nome (7th Level 1997)
As computer technology increased, so did the promise of bring mecha that  we’d seen in some many classic animes to the realm of video games.  One of those 1990’s mech video games lost to time was 1997’s G-Nome; developed Dallas based software developer 7th Level. This studio only existed for a brief time, but their most known game, G-Nome, was continued onward by other developers after the end of 7th Level. Ion Storm would release a sequel in 1998 under the name “Dominion: Storm over Gift 3” and is the terminus of the series at present due to the massive failure of the game. This was due to the fact that Dominion: Storm over Gift 3 came out the same day has Starcraft. So, what was G-Nome? The central story revolves around several factions’ battle for the control of the mineral-rich planet of Ruhelen in the Omicron Reticuli system. Union intelligence has learned in 2225 of the alien super-soldier program codename G-NOME. Your character has been assigned to hunt down any information on the Scorp Republic G-NOME program.
The mecha of G-Nome are the HAWC (Heavy Armored Weapon Chassis) and much like Titanfall, you can get out of the HAWC and either carryout mission objective or capture a better HAWC.  Sounds solid, but there were issues with the development of G-Nome. The first trailer was revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1994 and fatal delays pushed the game back until winter of 1997. During this, the original developer of G-Nome was Distant Thunder, which was acquired by 7th Level.  This delay caused the initial interest in the mech game to cool and by 1997; the market had changed with Activision’s MechWarrior being established PC mech game. Other reasons for the lack of impact were the actual name of the game itself, some play issues, and heavily pixilation. In the end,  G-Nome’s sequel was developed by another studio and was converted to an RTS with a terrible name.  

6. Marathon Trilogy (Bungie 1994,1995, and 1996 )
Today, Bungie is one of the largest and well known video game studios in the world with their current release, Destiny 2 riding high, but this empire all started with two important games: Minotaur and Marathon. While Minotaur is a fantasy game and not covered under FWS mission statement, Marathon is a solid military sci-fi shooter that has been forgotten in recent years. To some of us fans of HALO, the existence of Marathon came as a shocker and seems to be more forgotten as time goes on. Hell, it took an article on HALO 2 in Game Informer Magazine to enlighten me on the mere existence of the Marathon trilogy and I thought I was aware of the major DOOM clones of that time period!
There whose that will read that Marathon was forgotten and laugh because they were all about Marathon back in the day and still boot it up. So, why are the Marathon games classified as "forgotten?" There are four reason I can see. First is that the first game was released in 1994 and only on Apple Macintosh computers. At this time, Apple was in deep financial trouble with a smaller computer market share than the vast array of PCs. While beloved by Mac users upon its release, that many of us PC gamers that had no concept that a solid Military SF DOOM clone had been unleashed. Even when Marathon 2 was released for Windows 95, it was a sequel to a game may on PCs had not played.
The second reason for Marathon's forgotten status is the rise in popularity of Apple products. In the late 1990's, Apple would be turned around and rise to being one of the largest, most profitable companies on the face of the Earth. This might that mainstream software developers were creating for the Macs than ever before, eclipsing Marathon under other releases. Third, is due to popularity of HALO: Combat Evolved. Without Marathon, we would not have HALO, due to the  lessons of Marathon being rolled into HALO and some of Marathon's genetic code can be found sawn into HALO:CE, but it was the crushing popularity and praise that killed Marathon. That wasn't all. Bungie was bought by Microsoft just before the release of HALO:CE and they were not about to have this game released on a Mac when it was eyeing HALO for their new Xbox console. With the massive success of HALO and some similarities between Marathon and HALO, Bungie was out of the Marathon business. The company's resources and energies were turned to making the sequel, not a fourth Marathon game. Adding insult to injury, HALO: CE was ported to the Mac in 2003, hitting the home turf of Marathon directly.
Finally, as stated above, Marathon was not released on a widely popular platform, that included home video game consoles. If Marathon had been ported to a popular home console system at some point in history, it could have increased its longevity. Sadly it was ported to the failed and forgotten Apple/Bandai Pippin. Released in September 1996 in North America, the joint effort of the American Apple Corporation and Japan's Bandai played CD-based software that included a port of Marathon called Super Marathon.
The $599 Pippin would die a quick death in the home console market of 1996 with total sales of 42,000. If you like to learn more of the history of the Pippin, click here.  There have been stories from time to time about the resurgence of Marathon due Bungie still owned the IP rights, but those were around as Bungie was getting out the HALO business and before we knew of Destiny. Marathon is widely available today for download and there was even a physical boxset released on 1997. There was rumors of Marathon being released on the Sega Dreamcast, and some fans have homebrewed a port of the game to the last Sega console.

7. Battle Unit Zeoth (Jaleco 1990/1991)
Back in the 1980's and early 1990's, it seemed that Nintendo could do no wrong and it cornered the market of handhelds with the 1989 release of the Game Boy. Nearly everyone I knew either wanted one or had one. The Game Boy was my companion on long car trips until I was in high school and this was the only true video game system I had in the 1990's during my PC gamer days. It is surprising that I missed a mech-based shooter game during the height of the Game Boy release because it would have been right up my alley. Battle Unit Zeoth tells the story of a united Earth that beat back an alien invasion by the Grein some forty years ago. When they retreated, these aliens hid a self-replicating base that would allow a sleeper cell strike on the Earth at the important city of New Age. To combat this new threat, the military digs up their specialized CLASS-II mecha: the Zeoth.
This side scrolling game changes with odd and even stages from horizontal to vertical platform battling the alien forces in New Age City across five stages. From the reviews, the game is just okay and is good at what it does, but certainly not the best of the original Game Boy releases.Some have criticised the length of the game: it can take as little as 10 minutes to beat.  Developed by Jaleco Entertainment One of the most interesting elements of this forgotten military SF handheld game is that original name was altered for western release to "Jetpack". This was fairly common occurrence in the video game industry, but the name was changed back despite Jaleco believing that the name was too foreign for western audience. The name was one of the most attractive elements of the game along with arresting cover art.

8. Time Soldiers (Alpha Denshi 1987)
Soldiers battling over time rather than across the stars is fairly common in science fiction and even seen in the classic arcade games like Time Pilot. Another arcade game that used time travel as a plot device was 1987's Time Soldiers. Developed by Alpha Denshi as "Battle Field" and published by SNK, the game was an arcade run-and-gun in the same style as the awesomely hard Ikari Warriors. It was released by Romstar outside of Japan in the arcades, ported to the Sega Master System, the ATARI ST, Commodore 64, and Amiga computer systems. The goal of the time traveling warfighters is to rescue fellow members of the Earth Command that have been scattered throughout Terran history by the evil Gylend.  The game cycles through four historical settings and even the future modern day. These time periods are:  Ancient Rome, prehistoric (complete with cave men and dinosaurs), War World II, and “the age of wars”. Often cited as a tough game, Time Soldiers was designed to suck down your quarters rather than focusing on a Military SF story. Like many arcade games that do not achieve the status of iconic status like Pac-Man, Double Dragon, and After Burner; Time Soldiers simply melted away among the masses of other arcades released in 1987.

9. Vajra and Vajra 2 (Data East 1990's)
As I said above about NEC’s TurboGrafx-16 and Military Madness applies to the mecha-shooter series of Vajra only seen in the States on the most insane home console of all time: the Pioneer Laser Active. While widely unknown at the time of launch and nearly completely forgotten about today due to the price and rarity, it is damned interesting. At its heart, the Pioneer Corporation LaserActive system was intended to be a hub for all manner of entertainment options with the ability to be an laserdisc player, karaoke machine, play multiple video games over a variety of systems and media types, along with being a platform for future development.  These feats were accomplished via changeable “PAC modules” that allowed for the LaserActive to play games from the TurboGrafx-16, Sega Genesis, and possibly PC games via the Japan only PC PAC module.  The base system sold for an insane $970 in 1993, which is over $1600 in today’s money. Ouch!
That did not include the PAC modules that allow for the owner to play Sega Genesis/Mega Drive/CD games nor the TurboGrafx- 16/NEC games. Those were $600 a piece in 1993 or $1100 today’s money. The Karaoke PAC module is still the cheapest and the Japan only PC PAC being the most rare and little understood by Western collectors. The LaserActive was on sale in America from 1993-1996 with limited sales and thus making the games themselves rare and forgotten.  There were two military SF mech-shooter games called “Vajra and Vajra 2” that featured you controlling various mecha, represented by a crosshair, going up against other hostile mecha in various full-motion backgrounds. Little is available on the game or its story, but it was a DataEast LaserDisc game designed for the NEC PAC Module that sells in the neighborhood of $200 today for Vajra. The second game was designed to be used with the 3D visor system and seems to sell for a much higher price, over $500! If you want to know more about the system, click here.

10. Iron Soldier (Eclipse Software Design 1994, 1996, 2000)
The history of ATARI is one of the most tragic in video game history complete with a great rise and an epic crash that sent riddles throughout the entire video game industry even to this very day. Up until the announcement of the new Ataribox console, the last gasp of ATARI as a home console company was the “64 Bit” Jaguar that ATARI had put all of their eggs into. When the console failed soon after launch in both the US and Europe, ATARI was cooked. While the Jaguar story is well known with some excellent “history of” videos on YouTube, there was a few military science fiction titles to discuss here that were considered the best of the much-maligned system: ALIENS vs. Predator and Iron Soldier. While the first-person-shooter ALIENS vs. Predator is widely known, the Iron Soldier series is not. Three games would be released in the first-person giant robot/mecha shooter series that was developed exclusively for the ATARI Jaguar by Eclipse Software Design, who was a German software company that had worked with ATARI for their ST computer line. The plot is rather simple, the Iron Fist Corporation is plotting worldwide domination in the dark future were urbanization has taken over much of the Earth’s surface. To aid their conquest is their 42 foot high mecha known as “Iron Soldiers”.
The only hope is that an early prototype of the mech has fallen into the hands of the Resistance, and you are the pilot on a holy quest to destroy the evil megacorporation. The first game was released in 1994, the second year of the Jaguar’s short lifespan, and was one of the few Jaguar games that nearly fulfilled the promise of the hardware and the "Do the Math" ad campaign. Over the course of 16 missions, you roamed the 3D environment fulfilling objectives while engaging all manner of Iron Fist forces, from mechs, to attack helicopters, to tanks.
The first game was praised by critics and even the retrogaming community that often ranks Iron Soldiers among the best. Even at the time of release, the relatively popular title was one of the bright spots on the system. Its sequel, Iron Soldier 2, was rarer that the original release...with good reason: it was for the Jaguar CD add-on hardware. This 1996 game came at the end of the lifespan for the Jaguar and the CD add-on hardware machine was a royal piece of shit that has been well documented via the Angry Video Game Nerd and the Spoony One. This meant that the second Iron Soldier died a lonely death and Atariage.com ranks it as an 7 out of 10 on the rarity scale.  After the Jaguar died quicker than a NEXUS-6 Replicant, the last game in the Iron Soldier series, Iron Soldier III, was published by Telegames instead of ATARI and ported to the rival original PlayStation in 2000. Given the rash of retrogaming YouTube personalities, the ATARI Jaguar is a popular subject and nearly every video that discusses the games has Iron Soldier on their list of being one of the best. However, until the research phase of this blogpost, I never knew of the other two games, making them the more forgotten games than the original.

Next Time on FWS...
FWS says it over and over again: military terminology is a trick thing and often sci-fi creators get it wrong. Well, FWS is here to help! And next time on FWS will be exploring and explaining the word "marine", the history of these sea-based warfighters, the current status of marine units, and the future of marines. Of course, we will be discussing space marines again in full detail.


7 comments:

  1. Wow, I remember Oni, loved that game. I feel like there could be a hundred games on this list. Stuff like Incubation, the Crescent Hawks Battletech games, it goes on and on.

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  2. I thought it would be a good series and it is interesting to see "the what ifs" of gaming. I've never heard of Incubation, but I added to Volume 5!

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  3. I remember reading about Iron Soldier in Electronic Gamer Monthly back in the day, I did forget that mecha title existed nor did I know it actually had sequels until now.

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  4. Gnome and it's RTS part Dominion were the games I wanted the most when I was a teen. But I don't know if Dominion ever was published and as you said G-Nome was a bad game when it final made it on the market - I played a Demo Mission and the look and feel gave me a headache.

    Incubation btw was a X-Com Derivative made by a German developer (can't remember who)

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  5. Gnome is *fine* from the reviews and game play videos, it came to the market too late and was underwhelming. I never knew iron soldier had sequels until the research phase of this blog post. Thanks for all of the comment!

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  6. For what it's worth, Military Madness received a remake on the Nintendo Wii. It was a download only title, though.
    http://www.nintendolife.com/reviews/2010/03/military_madness_nectaris

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  7. Nice list Ive hope in Vol.2 got place for Project Snowblind
    That game it meaned to be Deus Ex sucessor but later droped that idea and make fast action FPP shooter with usning nano agumentions.

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