For those who were paying attention, yesterday included a minor miracle. Bandai Namco actually released a Gundam game in the U.S.
Granted, it was another entry in the tiresome Dynasty Warriors Gundam subseries, which is now on its fourth (!) entry. But for those of us still following Gundam here in the west, it's nice to know that they still care.
After all, it's been tough times for newtypes and mobile suits here in the west. Bandai has long since halted new releases, among other things permanently killing the chances of a Turn A Gundam release here in the west. The trickle of licensed games have likewise dried up. Dynasty Warriors Gundam is about all you'll see from the series here in the U.S. anymore. And for the ten of us who still care, that's a real shame because there is a really great Gundam out there just begging to be released. It's called Gundam Extreme Versus, and it's one of Asia's top arcade games.
If you go to any Japanese arcade, it's practically impossible to miss. Gundam Versus machines often occupy entire floors in Akihabara, and they are inevitably packed with players waiting for a match. Tournaments are held through the country culminating in Tokyo's Premium Dogfight, which crowns Japan's top champion. Similar competitions have popped up in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. Two versions have now been released on the PlayStation 3, and a sequel that makes use of the PlayStation 4's architecture is expected soon.
Though it's never made it out in the west, the series has managed to develop a small following here consisting primarily of those who have imported the game for the PS3. Most are drawn in by its attractive graphics, wide selection of mobile suits, and deep mechanics. The gameplay is outwardly simple, with the controls consisting only of shoot, boost, and melee buttons, but the learning curve is steep. The action moves at an almost absurd pace, and matches often end in just a few minutes. Savvy players know how to manage their boost gauge, the importance for squaring up for a shot, and when to move in for a melee combo or special attack. Top players are almost untouchable, capable of effectively zoning out opponents and catching them with devastating attacks at just the right moment. And then there are people who can do stuff like this:
What really sets the series apart though is the teamwork that it demands. Every match is 2v2, and the best players are often only as good as their partners. Each team shares the same life bar; and with mobile suits costing variable amounts of points, teams have to be carefully coordinated. True, you can just go all out and drop in the Destiny Gundam and the Unicorn; but with both of them costing 3000 points, two deaths is all it takes to end a match. It's much better to pair a 3000 unit with a tiny 1000 unit, or two mid-size 2000 units. In fact, mobile suit synergy is so important that a match can almost be lost before it even begins if the wrong suits are chosen.
I'll admit to being terrible at Gundam Versus myself. I've done my best to learn, but its tough for a caucasian gal to pick up a partner in a Japanese arcade. Most of the high school kids and salarymen take one look at you and run the other way because they assume they'll lose. Either that, or they'll happily team up against you for a crushing 2v1. I've had more success playing the import version here in the U.S.; but alas, despite having been playing the game since 2007, I'm still not that great at covering my partner or winning those crucial one-on-one encounters. I tend to be at my best when I'm running around in a 1000 unit like the Black Tri-Stars and shooting people in the back while their attention is elsewhere. Otherwise I'm just more meat for the grinder.
As bad as I am though, I still have a lot of respect for what Bandai Namco has accomplished with the series. It's possible to describe it as a kind of hybrid of Zone of the Enders and Virtual-On, but there's really very little else like it in the world of fighting games, which makes it a shame that it doesn't get more attention over here. Granted, it had its own little corner during EVO 2013, but it amounted to little more than a group of friends getting together and streaming some of their matches during the tournament. If it had actually made it to the main feed and received some decent commentary, it might have gone over well.
That's not going to happen though until Bandai Namco decides to take a chance with a western release for the series. With the degree of crossover between anime and fighting game fandom, not to mention the continued growth of eSports here in the west, it feels like a no-brainer. Even if it doesn't take off overnight (which it probably wouldn't), it'll still enjoy good reviews and a small but vocal core of boosters in the fighting game community. It certainly has a higher ceiling than Dynasty Warrior Gundams, which inexplicably continues to enjoy the favor of Bandai Namco to the exclusion of everything else.
Gundam games continue to get a bad rap over here due to the flood of really awful licensed titles in the early 2000s, and we're a long way from the heyday of Gundam Wing in the late 90s. But Gundam Extreme Versus is more than another licensed game; it's a very good fighting game in its own right. Its conspicuous absence in the west is depressing, particularly in the light of the continued support for Dragonball Z and Naruto games. With the growth of eSports, the explosion of streaming, and a PlayStation 4 release for Gundam Versus no doubt on the way in the next year or two, the time is ripe for the best of the licensed Gundam games to make their way west.
Do the right thing Bandai Namco. Make it happen.
* I'm aware that a couple Gundam Versus games have been released here in the west. But those games had no online suppport and focused primarily on the less popular Universal Century shows.