['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers an overlooked game from the mid-nineties.]

mw1.jpgWhat with the general populace savouring the bug blasting wonders of Lost Planet, it seems worthwhile covering a game from 1995 that bears striking similarities to Capcom's latest opus.

The game was Metal Warriors on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and it was pretty damn amazing for its time too but due to the then recent release of Sony's first PlayStation console it somewhat fell under the radar.

More after the jump...

Era of the Assault Suits

leynos_cover_genesis1.jpgIt's worth prefacing Metal Warriors in the context of its peers at that time; namely Assault Suits Valken. Valken was a pseudo-sequel to Assault Suits Leynos released on the Genesis and it furthered the series quite considerably in gameplay terms. The player controlled a large mecha, by the name of an assault suit, through complex winding environments. Released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System towards the end of 1992, it offered sizeable and rich environments for the player to explore coupled with some exceedingly focused horizontal shmup action (as a quick heads up; Valken was recently ported to the PlayStation 2 but it's best to be avoided).

The assault suit was a rather agile piece of hardware too, it could skim at high speed across a flat surface as well as boost though to a limited extent through the air. Each of its weapons could be upgraded as well, though this was a somewhat arduous affair due to the piecemeal nature of where the power-ups were located. It was also, like Leynos before it, a hard game. The assault suit had a finite amount of armor and whilst it was certainly nimble on its feet the player was encouraged to be less rash with enemy encounters and actually use some forethought in terms of progression.

valken_cover_snes1.jpgValken was released abroad as Cybernator (with a few disappointing edits) in 1993. It garnered quite the following and consequently was one of the main games that helped foster mecha gaming outside of Japan.

In the same year Konami published a LucasArts developed game by the name of Zombies Ate My Neighbors. Two of the main development staff for this eclectic isometric action game were Mike Ebert and Deane Sharpe. They subsequently used the Zombies engine and fashioned possibly one of the finest horizontal scrolling shmups ever created.

Mecha Ate My Neighbors

Metal Warriors was published in 1995 by Konami, confusing fans of Valken that it was some kind of sequel. It received little to no marketing (mainly due to the emergence of Sony's PlayStation console). This was and remains a great pity. Whilst Valken approached mecha gaming as a very linear and focused type of game, Metal Warriors took a step back and actually offered something that was ironically more Japanese in terms of approach.

For one Metal Warriors lacked a HUD. This is any game, especially a shmup, would normally be tantamount to a complete catstrophe of design. Yet, the genre was so implicit by 1995 the removal of the HUD actually worked to the game's advantage. The reason behind this is because Metal Warriors afforded something to the player that Valken did not.

mw5.jpgFor those that watch a lot of mecha anime, you'll know that the mecha themselves are meant as ciphers for the pilots. The pilots are the focal point of the narrative. Metal Warriors approached this from a gameplay point of view by having the player exit their mecha and find another one (this is also something Lost Planet heavily uses with their implementation of Vital Suits). The level design of Metal Warriors was subsequently quite labyrinthine. With the player having to find their way around large levels with tiny corridors tucked away meant for the equally tiny pilot to traverse and activate switches for various doors. Not to mention that many of the levels had hidden areas where the more exotic mecha were tucked away. As such, the level design was layered in a way that Valken just didn't offer, a huge and complex HUD (a la Valken) would have got in the way of that.

Metal Warriors was set across a total of nine very large levels (technically speaking the eighth stage was an unlock, so to many the game may have only appeared to have eight levels). Each of the levels became increasingly complex, with the second level climaxing in the player having to exit their mecha and storm a battleship as the tiny pilot. The plot centered around the evil forces of Dark Axis led by the suitably maniacal Venkar Amon (he even sported a monacle and those are only worn by evil robo-dictators) and their megalomaniacal grip on Earth. This mirrored the events in Valken more than a little too closely in all honesty, where the main evil force was simply known as Axis. Interestingly, Valken seemingly lifted most of its story from Char's Counterattack anyway (where Axis was the large asteroid that Char wished to drop on Earth).

Metal Multiplayer

mw2.jpgThere were a total of six mecha for the player to pilot. You started off with the Nitro, which was a fairly well balanced mecha. Unlike the assault suit, the Nitro could fly quite freely and deposit energy shields whilst airborne. It also offered the more generic beam sabres and guns. The Havoc was much more like the assault suit due to its strength in ground based combat, in some ways it was also quite similar to the Gouf from Gundam due to its melee weapon resembling the Gouf's mecha whip. Then came the mighty Prometheus, this was a very slow but extremely powerful mecha that sported multiple weapons (the flame thrower being my favourite due to its ability to cause "massive damage"), the Prometheus also bore many similarities to the bulky destroids in Macross. After these three came the slightly more exotic mecha, with the Spider being particularly interesting due to its cloaking device and the ability to crawl across any surface. The Ballistic was also another odd mecha, which was a large ball that had could become stationary gun platform. Finally, there was the Drache. This was very similar to the Rafflesia in Gundam F-91 and was able to stay permanently airborne, it also could dive bomb targets to cause, you guessed it, "massive damage". Each of these mecha could also pick up external weapon packs that would attach via hard points. Many of these added considerable amounts of firepower to the proceedings but once used they had a finite amount of time before they ran out. The high poqered rockets also aided level exploration because it allowed the player to literally blast holes through walls and enter previously hidden areas. My personal favourite was the gravity reversal powerup, mainly because it allowed the player to do some pretty interesting maneuvers mid-air.

mw8.jpgThese six mecha afforded an immense variety to the levels and how the player approached them. Though these six mecha really came into their own in multiplayer. Bear in mind though, that Valken and Leynos hadn't offered any kind of multiplayer not to mention that you only had one type of assault suit to choose from. Metal Warriors had six mecha and the ability for the player to exit their mecha and find another. Versus matches were rather raucous as a result, with friends dumbfounded by the cheeky use of other mecha and very twitchy pilot encounters (the pilot carried a handgun, so you could fight one on one without mecha if you so wished, something that happened quite a lot when you had a rather cowardly opponent who liked to switch units mid battle).

Warriors End

In some ways, it's a sad tale that Metal Warriors never really received the recognition it so sorely deserved. Arguably, it was a more intricate and involving game and captured elements from mecha anime that Valken and Leynos didn't even try to. Yet, even today, Masaya's mecha shmups get adulation poured upon them and Lost Planet's multiple Vital Suits are heralded as some kind of second coming. The exclusion of Metal Warriors in such company is subsequently an unfortunate one. However, what with the advent of downloadable gaming in the shape of Xbox Live Arcade and the Wii's Virtual Console, it seems fitting that Metal Warriors be unearthed and shared amongst the gaming throng.

[Ollie Barder is a freelance journalist who's written for The Guardian, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to Japanese mecha artbooks. He lives at home with an ever growing collection of Japanese die-cast robot toys and a very understanding wife.]