The most popular arcade game in Japan is a fighting game, as you might guess. What you maybe wouldn’t guess is that it’s a game developed by Namco Bandai. What you probably wouldn’t guess is that it’s a Gundam game, one in a long series that hasn’t made it outside of everyone’s favorite archipelago since the days of the PS2: The Gundam Vs. series.
Of course, I had those games and you might have played them, too. The original, Capcom-developed Federation vs. Zeon was a revelation, bringing the story of the One Year War to a game console with something all the other games lacked: genuine fun. And while the Gundam games that came out in America went back to being the bad ones, the Versus series has continued in Japan, thriving in arcades and handhelds until late last year, when the newest iteration, Gundam Extreme Vs., made it to the PS3.
Much is the same as it was. This is still a two-on-two fighting game. You still share a health bar with your teammate that is depleted each time you die. Your moves are still limited to ranged, melee and secondary, with the only other options being boosting and changing targets. You will always be moving around whatever you’re locked onto, with absolutely no camera control, which feels weird. But combat has gotten faster, with all sorts of boosts and cancels that came with years of revisions, and camera control isn’t really missed. Playing Extreme Vs. is a tight, frenetic challenge that’s unlike a lot of what’s out there today.
While the gameplay has gotten a tighter in the nine years since Federation vs. Zeon, Bandai Namco’s approach to console-exclusive singleplayer options is more laissez-faire than Capcom’s. That game featured a cool campaign where players fought through the One Year War on whichever side they preferred, building up a stable of mobile suits and participating in the key battles they chose. I guess that wouldn’t really work with a big mashup game like Extreme Vs., so instead they included a trial missions mode, in which you can play through a series of skirmishes, some taken from the shows and movies, others newly invented. All mobile suits are made immediately available and can be upgraded, encouraging you to pick favorites and focus on them, not a bad idea for a fighting game. Trial Missions are overall less engaging than a full-blown campaign, but there’s always some appeal to grinding for better rankings and upgrades.
Also included is the arcade mode, a battle through a variety of paths, all ending with a battle against an Extreme Vs.-exclusive mobile suit voiced by Japanese superstar Gackt. Arcade mode can be played locally with another player, as can the free battle mode. If you’re feeling brave enough, the game does also have online multiplayer, though the American playerbase is probably pretty small at this point, and the Japanese are always an intimidating foe. I’m not brave enough, but it’s neat that it’s there.
Every Gundam franchise you could care about is featured, from Turn A all the way to ZZ. Altogether there’s something like 70 mobile suits in which to play. It sounds like most, maybe all, of the original voice cast provided dialogue for their characters, and the BGM from each series way a hell of a shot of nostalgia for this reviewer. Graphically, I don’t think this game is really anywhere near pushing the limits of the PS3’s six-year-old hardware, although it does run at a smooth 60 frames per second in most cases, which is a huge upside considering the frame rate issues of the PS2 games. Everything looks and sounds like you’d expect it to, considering the game’s arcade roots.
The question is, and always will be (for me, at least) is this a good Gundam game, or a good game? I think it’s really fun, but I’m pretty firmly in the Gundam camp. When I forced friends and relatives to play Extreme Vs. with me, they seemed to enjoy it, but they could just be being polite. Since these games don’t seem to be making it out of Japan these days, in favor of the terrible Dynasty Warriors: Gundam series instead, for now the issue is moot, since the expense of importing means this is for Gundam and fighting game fans only. But someday, when Gundam gets popular in the West, this series will be an interesting one to watch.