It’s the 1990s. The Internet has yet to ruin tabletop gaming, and the game on everyone’s lips is… Magic the Gathering. But if you wanted to play something more sophisticated, there was the Battletech/Mechwarrior franchise. These games combined DnD sensibilities with giant robot action and the overall flavor of the Dune books to create an exciting role-playing universe for gamers.
The only problem was expressing the game world to those playing. It’s all well and good to say “you are looking out of the cockpit of a big robot and walking on people” over a cluttered table while swilling Mountain Dew, but it lacks oomph. The obvious thing to do was to make a video game that simulated the Mechwarrior experience.
Early DOS attempts produced interesting games that were less about combat and more about hiring and managing groups of mech mercenaries. Strategy was all well and good, but gamers wanted to jump into big robots and murder other big robots containing their friends. Of course the was the arcade game, but that was a virtual-reality simulator cabinet monstrosity that couldn’t come home very easily.
The SNES Mechwarrior initially seems very impressive. The engine renders pretty large Mode-7 landscapes, with features like water you sink down in, and jumpjets you can take off with. You can use your war money to kit out your giant robot with an assortment of neat weapons, and choose between different sorts of missions as you pursue your parents’ killers.
The problem is that the gameplay is totally lacking. The water lowers your camera, but you don’t slow down or encur any defense bonus. Jumpjets lift you up, but your enemies can aim up too and there are no environmental encumberments that jets let you skip- the map is totally flat. Every mission basically boils down to “kill everything before it kills you” except for base attack missions, which are more “kill the base and ignore everything else.”
Weapons could lead to good technical variety, but they don’t. The only weapon you need is short range homing missiles, and the more the better. Just waddle your robot up to the enemy and hold the trigger until you win. This strategy works for basically the whole game, and grows more effective as you buy robots with more armor and more room for ammo.
The variability of missions is also a weak point. Aside from the fact that there are only about 10 maps in the game (and again, none of them functionally different) you are penalized for taking too many missions on- neglect the “leads” you get from NPCs too long and you get a game over as your targets escape you. Not that money matters, once you strap on the highest number of missile tubes and buy the biggest mech, you’re done.
The SNES is the first console that could approach true 3D in a meaningful way, and a number of games for it had great real and simulated 3D- Mario Kart, Star Fox 1 and 2, and a pretty competant Doom port all demonstrated that the SNES could do 3D action. Mechwarrior tries valiently, but its neat universe and promising play are undercut by a lack of variety and dull, repetitive action.
If you liked Mechwarrior but want more variety, check out Crimson Skies. No, not the steampunk air pirate game (although that is fun), the WW1 SNES shooter where you have to take down the Red Baron. It plays a lot like Mechwarrior, but with a lot more depth and complexity.