The Super Robot Wars Z3 Tengoku-hen trailer dropped last last month, prompting me to finally get serious about finishing its predecessor so I can be ready in time for the next chapter.
In the process, I've come to realize that there's a process to playing Super Robot Wars. It's a cycle that I've been through many times; and with only a handful of exceptions (Super Robot Wars A Portable... which was atrocious), it's always played out pretty much the same. It's happening to me right now, in fact!
If you're not familiar with Super Robot Wars, it's a long-running strategy series featuring almost every mecha anime ever made, which I've covered in the past. Shallow and repetitive on the surface, it eventually proves itself to be more nourishing than it looks, not to mention deeply appreciative of its source material.
Nevertheless, whenever I dig into a new Super Robot Wars, I can't shake the feeling that I'm beginning the whole process anew. This is roughly how it goes.
1. The trailer
The Super Robot Wars Cycle begins with Bandai Namco dropping a trailer along with an announcement of which mecha series will be featured. Inevitably, the trailers will feature one showcase animation from each anime, concluding with a montage that never fails to get me fired up; because, you see, I'm a complete sucker for good sprite artwork, and Super Robot Wars has some of the best. Here's the most recent example.
After the trailer, everyone accordingly gets excited. "Oh my god," go the messages on Reddit and elsewhere. "Gundam X is back!" Either that, or they're pissed off because Gundam ZZ is missing now and forever, along with Eureka Seven (RIP). But those animations. It goes on like this for quite a while.
The quintissential example of this phase is the hype surrounding the original Super Robot Wars Z trailer from back in 2008, which featured fantastic new art, a handful of long-awaited debuts like Gundam SEED Destiny, and the promise of a brand new story. It was so good that everyone was even willing to forgive it being on the PlayStation 2.
On the other end of the scale is the most recent trailer, which has been met with widespread disappointment. It looks nice, sure, but it's definitely light on new and interesting series. It's disappointing enough, actually, that it makes me wonder if this isn't the grand finale after all. The fact that the various original characters are being relegated to Day 1 DLC is certainly telling.
And yet, here I am, ready for more. I can't wait to get Gundam X and Turn A Gundam back in the fold. Sixty more hours of robot-y goodness! The trailer is like catnip. Katnip.
2. "Why am I not enjoying this?"
After a few months, the new game finally arrives, and I joyfully load it up in my PlayStation 2/PlayStation Portable/PlayStation 3/Vita. Then I proceed to spend the next five to ten hours being bored.
I'm going to be clear: I really like this series, but it has a real problem with pacing. Early missions take too long to complete, attacks don't do enough damage, and the most desirable series (Gunbuster!) are MIA for long periods of time. It's here that I start to ask myself, "Why do I even like this series? What am I doing with my life?
Once again, the exception is the original Super Robot Wars Z, which had my attention almost from the very beginning. I would even go so far as to say that it's the platonic ideal of what Super Robot Wars should be all about. Split between two paths almost from the beginning, I could probably go back and play what amounts to entirely different story, and still enjoy myself. What a great game.
Anyway, Super Robot Wars eventually breaks out of these doldrums around Mission 20 or so, which is about when the story kicks into gear and all the robots start showing up. The missions start going more smoothly, enemy units take fewer hits to kill, and the depth starts to show through in the customization. And that's where we hit the turning point.
3. The turning point
The point where the game finally turns and begins to show its true colors. Usually, I have a few units capable of knocking out a wide range of enemies in a single hit, at which point the game begins to flow better. There's also usually "that one mission" that makes me go, "Oh wow, that was great."
In the most recent Super Robot Wars, that mission is built around a fight with the Fifth Angel from Neon Genesis Evangelion (the Sixth Angel in the game, since it's following the Rebuild of Evangelion continuity). Evangelion fans may recall the Octahedron that requires the entirety of Tokyo-3's power grid to defeat, comprising the first film's finale. In Super Robot Wars, you have to find a way past its incredible powerful shield while it deals massive damage to your units, all while enemies from an entirely different series (Aquarion, I think) beam in to attack. It's intense, it's challenging, and it's the best mission in Super Robot Wars Z3 Jigoku-hen until that point.
That level was enough to propel me all the way to Mission 43, where I currently reside. Coincidentally, that mission is where the customization become considerably more robust, as it's around that point where you have enough points to significantly upgrade your units, characters, and items. It was also the point where my unit count was high enough that I started to really seriously think about my pairings, Super Robot Z3 featuring a system in which mechs are paired together.
In any case, when you hit the turning point, you'll know it. And when Super Robot Wars flies, it really flies.
4. Finishing the story... and realizing you missed all the secrets
Around Mission 50 or 60, the story begins to wind to a close. Most of the stories hit their climax, the main villain makes his or her appearance, and you find yourself pulling out all the stops against an enormously powerful final boss. Then, after your moment of triumph, you check the Akurasu wiki and realize that you've only played roughly half the game.
That's the thing about Super Robot Wars. There are a huge number of route splits, hidden units, and alternate endings. Most of them are so well hidden that there's little chance of finding them unless you are familiar with the series in question. For example, opening Jigoku-hen's hidden route involves taking a relatively obscure character from Gundam UC and getting him enough kills that he's an ace, then attacking two specific units with Banagher on a particular mission. Granted, it's an optional objective, but the other objectives are just as obscure. You really need to know your mecha to find some of these secrets.
But I suppose that's a large part of the appeal of Super Robot Wars. It's a series that both rewards you for knowing about your chosen series, and teaches you about the shows you've never seen. And if you don't know a series well enough to unlock all of its secrets, there's always the second playthrough, which is kind enough to make all of the secrets automatically available.
More often than not, I end up starting a new campaign, keen to find all of the secrets. But then I see the trailer for the next and, well... you know the rest.