Friday, January 7, 2011

Genesis Game Reviews: Target Earth

What is this crap? RoboCop's ugly brother SpaceCop?

Our subject today, Target Earth, has a bit of history to go along with it. If you've read my previous posts and you're still here then you know how I like to ramble on about that sort of thing. Prepare yourselves because it's going to be a long one.

First of all, what is Target Earth? It's one of the many hidden gems on the Genesis that you may have never heard of. There's a few reasons for that and we'll get into them shortly. Target Earth is essentially a run-and-gun game but unlike the Contra series you're piloting a giant robot. On the screen it isn't very giant but you get the idea. The design is very similar to a mobile suit from the Gundam franchise. Because of this the controls are a little slower and clunky to give you the impression that you're commanding a lumbering mech instead of a limber commando.

Target Earth was originally called Assault Suit Leynos in Japan and the Gundam and Macross similarities permeate this game in both style and story and they're obviously very intentional. In 1990 when this game was released these super popular anime franchises were screaming for video game translations yet they had only seen very mediocre games so far. With Assault Suit Leynos the people at NCS/Masaya set out to rectify that and even though they didn't have the Mobile Suit Gundam license Assault Suit Leynos was everything that a Gundam action game should be.

That's more like it.

Leynos became the first in what would become the Assault Suits series which continued on in the form of a prequel on the Super Famicom called Assault Suits Valken and made it to the States heavily edited as Cybernator. Since both Target Earth and Cybernator had their names changed, their stories slashed and were distributed by two different publishers, few people in the west put two-and-two together and realized they were related.

The Empire repainted its Star Destroyers a lovely shade of green.

Cybernator ended up with somewhat of a cult following as one of the best action games on the SNES. A fan translation of the original Assault Suits Valken ROM restored its excellent story to its former glory for English speakers. Target Earth on the other hand has stayed more obscure.

Considering the game launched it's own sub-genre of mecha shooter that includes the Japanese title Front Mission Gun Hazard, the much beloved Metal Warriors, the obscure PC game Iron Blood and dozens of other Assault Suits clones on varying platforms either professionally made or home-brew designed it seems a little unfair. Target Earth tends to only remain popular among Genesis fans who are in-the-know.

You're going down, Jupiter.

Part of the reason for its failed popularity in the US is the fact that its publisher was a company called DreamWorks. Don't worry, they have no relation to the movie studio you might be thinking of or even the video game company by the same name that was eaten up by Electronic Arts. It was one of many publishers that grabbed Japanese games and released them in the west as a way of making money. There's still a lot of publishing houses around today that do this even though more and more developers have become self-published. The only problem is that DreamWorks was bad at it and it didn't take long for them to go under and barely remain a footnote in the history of gaming. I tried my best to find out more about them for this review and I failed miserably.

Don't mess with the boys from Ganymede.

DreamWorks screwed things up immediately with a mistake that was far too common back then, releasing Target Earth with absolutely terrible box art. On top of that the cartridge had a boring white sticker that displayed the Target Earth logo and nothing else. The Americanized anime amalgamation Robotech which included the much acclaimed Super Dimension Fortress Macross was still popular at the time so why they chose to forgo the anime inspired robot cover that reflected the in-game art is beyond me. Associating it with Robotech would have only helped in the same way the game associated itself in Japan with Gundam and Macross. Instead we got this weird guy who looked like a badly drawn dollar store version of RoboCop.

Random surprise attacks sure do ruin a weekend.

It was released in 1990 so it was one of the earlier Genesis games but in an era before the Internet had spread to every household and people made their purchases based on browsing store shelves it's no wonder everyone passed this game up for more familiar, better looking and better marketed titles. Something that also may have helped or hurt the game was that the little bit of word of mouth it did generate had this to say: The game was hard.

Sir, yes sir!

Not as easy as it sounded, sir.
Not as easy as it sounded, sir.

Before we discuss its legendary difficulty let's introduce the storyline and how DreamWorks altered it. A grossly simplified version of the original Assault Suit Leynos story goes something like this, please forgive me if I'm butchering things since the story has never been translated.

10-years before Leynos takes place the Earth went through its 4th World War between the Pacific Rim United States and the European Union Asia over control of the dwindling supply of fossil fuels and other resources. This battle is detailed in the prequel Assault Suits Valken.

At the end of Valken a distress signal from a "space probe team" expeditionary force, which was presumably sent out to discover new resource supplies, is received. The message is kind of garbled and everyone was too busy fighting and/or recovering from the war so the message goes unanswered and no rescue is sent out. They're forgotten and left to their own devices.

Here the plot takes a turn similar to the Battletech series of table top games and novels (the inspiration for Mechwarrior) where the Star League military leaves for deep space only to develop a new and different culture while building up a military of cloned super soldiers to one day return and re-take Earth for themselves.

In Leynos the antagonists are also a force of cloned soldiers, though the cloning was done out of the necessity, since they probably didn't have enough people to populate a new civilization, and not necessarily to build bigger and badder warriors like the clans of Battletech.

Cool! Backup from an allied space-cruiser!

Oh...

NNNOOOOO! He was my best friend!

Royally pissed off at the people who had left them abandoned and alone without so much as a "sorry", the impressively built-up armed forces of these ex-space explorers and their army of clone troopers set out for revenge and invade an unsuspecting Earth and her colonies.

The world has done some cleaning up since Valken though not everything is completely copacetic as further conflict occurs in the strategy game Valken 2 during the development of the Leynos Assault Suit. The Outer Planet Treaty Organization army is formed to make sure no one country can seize a monopoly on precious resources again and generally keep the peace. You, the player, are part of this force and the leader of an assault suit team stationed on a resource collection station on Ganymede, one of Jupiter's moons. Thanks to this you were spared from the initial attack on Earth. It doesn't take long for for the war to reach you however and the game begins as you scramble to defend and escape a besieged Ganymede to join the effort to retake the planet and repel the invading force. Along the way you discover just who these mysterious invaders are and what their beef is.

Get that bastard for what he did to our buddy!

If it sounds familiar, yes this is basically the plot to quite a few Japanese mecha shows. Space people versus Earth people is a common theme. It still works wonderfully in a game that was surprisingly plot heavy for the action genre in 1990 and sets the stage for an epic robot war.

The US version is slightly disinfected but not nearly as bad as I've heard some purists scream. The basic story is still intact though some random bits of violence (like an ally burning to death in the Earth's atmosphere) and romance are removed. The general plot remains the same except in this version your enemy is a force of mysterious cyborgs called the Chron. Like in Leynos the Chron are survivors from a space expedition sent out one-hundred years prior. Perceiving that they were abandoned and unwanted by the human race this misunderstanding lead them to plot revenge and invade Earth and her colonies. They also planned on improving the human race by turning everybody into Cyborgs like them. Essentially you're not missing a whole lot due to the translation except for the links to the rest of the Assault Suits games, a bit of character development and an exploding ally.

Get to the shuttle!

I never felt the changes were too bad and since I used to not know anything about Assault Suit Leynos I remember the Target Earth story as being impressively fleshed out for the time. Even though the changes were probably made in the English version to de-humanize your enemy you still feel pretty bad for the Chron, maybe since they were originally just innocent explorers. Even though some of the lines in Target Earth border on the realm of campy the story is still developed and enjoyable. As the story progressed I got the impression that the Chron weren't outright evil. Some, not all of them, became cyborgs to survive the harshness of space and truly believed that they were banished from society. What's odd is the story you get on the box and in the manual which basically make the Chron out to be a Borg-like threat that plans to assimilate all humans doesn't completely transfer into the game and your enemies are actually pretty human. You'll also witness allies die and your pilot will even question the reasons for fighting and mourn the loss of a defeated enemy. This stuff is pretty heavy.

This is Rex in Leynos 01, launching!

With all of that out of the way let's start digging into the game with its graphics. The opening scenes are absolutely excellent with giant space battlecruisers and hordes of attacking robots. It introduces the story and the conflict, ending with the enemy flagship approaching your home on Ganymede with Jupiter looking nice and colorful in the background.

The game itself isn't impressive at first glance. The small sprites give it the feel of an 8-bit game although the depth of color and the attention to detail is far superior to anything from the older generation. Things like kicking up dust with your feet or your jet-pack and the subtle effects that some of your weapons give off like an interesting, but mostly useless, shrapnel gun show that a lot of work was put into the art. When you get close to the Earth's atmosphere in one mission your assault suit starts to burn up which really impressed me the first time I saw it. These touches might not wow you but they add a lot of depth that make the game feel more alive.

I'll protect you... oh crap.

The screen is always busy and not just with enemies but allies that fight alongside you. Even though they're pretty pointless and just for show it adds to the feel that you're part of a larger war effort and not a lone soldier which was very unique for the time. The enemies come at you in massive groups and it's really wild to see the Genesis throwing so many sprites up on the screen without slowing down for even a second. It might not mean much to gamers today but if the NES tried something like Target Earth its video frame rate would be crippled.

This is just unfair.

Add to the mix some colorful levels, impressive parallax and a great cinematic opening and ending and by 1990 standards you've got a pretty attractive game. It's not as amazing looking as the legendary shoot'em up game M.U.S.H.A. which was released in the same year nor is it the graphical feast that its prequel Cybernator would be on the SNES but thanks to the little details the developer included it's certainly fun to look at.

Gameplay is the all important aspect of any title and this is where Target Earth becomes very "love it or hate it." Those who can't handle difficult games or become frustrated too easily should probably check out here though there are built in cheat codes for invincibility and unlimited continues if you just want to play through the game. Those who love a challenge will find this an excellent title to sink their teeth into.

Some of the large assortment of weapons.

Your assault suit controls much like you might expect a giant robot to control. You're not the most agile thing in the world but you can aim in most directions. A jet-pack add-on you acquire eventually gives you some more mobility and certain stages have you floating weightlessly in zero-gravity.

The missions aren't straight forward. Your objective is not just to get to the end of a level. There's usually a target you need to defend like allied shuttles or to destroy like an enemy battleship or some other special objective you need to execute. This system gives the levels a lot of variation and gives the game a lot of character. There's so many memorable details I can gush about like waiting for your allies to board an escape shuttle while holding off invaders or rushing towards the enemy flagship in the middle of a huge space-fleet battle.

Yes, all of them are trying to kill me.

Although there's only eight levels most of them are long and difficult and each one is unique. Depending on how well you achieve your objectives you'll be rewarded with new equipment such as weapons and armor.

Accomplishing these mission objectives won't be easy. The enemies will swarm you and you'll take damage quickly. Luckily you can regenerate health when not being attacked, but finding a respite in the battle to allow yourself time to recover is rarely easy. Expect to die a lot as the enemy AI can be downright cruel with some of your foes attacking you head on while their buddies jump over your head to flank you. Though you've got allied assistance from NPCs sometimes, and it's a good idea to try and take advantage of it, their help is pretty marginal.

This reactor boss has some neat graphics.

The game will probably never become simple for you but it is beatable and worth beating thanks to the great ending sequence and a rewarding sense of accomplishment. Once you get the hang of it you'll learn which weapons in the vast arsenal you unlock are good for what situations and how to make use of your patience and ability to hide to allow your assault suit's self-repairing systems to recover your health. Because you need to decide what weapons and equipment you're taking with you beforehand there's a mix of strategy and twitch shooting here that isn't quite as present in the other Assault Suits games. Target Earth's gameplay remains a unique challenge that keeps bringing me back to it time and time again.

We've got a sweet new battleship and we're coming for you.

Finally we've reached the part where we talk about the sound which is pretty average. If you love the Genesis sound chip as much as I do you'll find a lot to like in the upbeat music but it's nothing that really stands out or becomes memorable. Like many games in the Genesis library the sound-effects are just there and they do their job admirably. You're probably not going to hear the music most of the time because you'll be too busy trying to concentrate on staying alive. For what it's worth the music isn't bad and while it may not add much to the game it would probably be worse off if it wasn't there.

I know.

So what do I think about Target Earth overall? Despite its maddening difficulty it's one of the best games in the early, pre-hedgehog years, Genesis library that was unfortunately overlooked thanks to its poor handling by DreamWorks. It made made a big enough impact to launch its own series and a rare but well loved sub-genre. If you're a fan of Cybernator, Metal Warriors or any game of that ilk, this is where it all started and it's worth a look for that fact alone. If you're willing to put in the effort to learn its nuances it's an extremely fun and rewarding title especially if you like mecha anime along the lines of Mobile Suit Gundam. This is probably as close to Gundam on the Genesis as you're going to get.

Down goes the enemy ship!

As a side note: besides Cybernator/Assault Suits Valken the series also continued with Assault Suit Leynos 2 which appeared on the Sega Saturn with a lower difficulty curve and excellent graphics. There's also an Assault Suits Valken 2 on the Sony PlayStation but it's a strategy game instead of an action game. The original Valken was ported to the PlayStation 2 but the transition was poorly done and it was critically panned.

Bringing out all our firepower.

Scoring:

Presentation: 8 Ignoring the poor box art since I like to keep this category reserved for in-game presentation; this game does an excellent job for a 1990 title that still fares pretty well today. The story is a little edited in parts but well presented and somewhat retains the themes and portrayal of the unfortunate consequences of war present in the Japanese version. The ending and opening sequences are incredibly well done.

Gameplay: 9 Though it loses a point for being so damn difficult the varied mission structure, the multitude of weapons, the cool addition of allied NPCs and the nicely designed feel of controlling a giant robot all make this one of my favorite games to play on the Genesis.

Graphics: 8 The attention to detail put into the small sprites is very impressive. The parallax in some levels adds a layer of depth that blew away the 8-bit competition Sega faced at the time. It didn't have the best graphics but there was certainly a lot of thought put into their quality.

Sound: 7 The music is upbeat and serves the purpose. The sound effects don't go out of their way to impress but don't impede anything either. If you like most Genesis music you'll like the music here.

Lasting Appeal: 9 I revisit this game pretty often because it's both fun and difficult and I like giant robots. You'll play it a lot before you're finally able to beat it and you may want to challenge yourself to try and do better a second time.

Overall Average: 8.2/10

Recommendations:

Collector: Because this game is relatively unknown and it's one of the older Genesis titles that spent most of its time in bargain bins you can find it pretty cheap. It's high on many Genesis aficionado "must have" lists and is essential to any collection for the console. It also has some historical relevance as being the first game in the Assault Suits series and the first game to utilize some unique gameplay quirks that others have cloned. The original Japanese version is also rather affordable and has much nicer box art for display purposes.

Gamer: If you think you're hardcore then give this one a shot. If you like giant robots or Gundam specifically you owe it to yourself to at least try it out. Barring Assault Suits Valken 2 I highly recommend the other games in the series as well along with Metal Warriors. They're all great action titles.

8 comments:

  1. Ahh.. Target Earth. This is my all-time favorite game for any system.

    Thanks for this very informative review that also goes into the differences between it and Assault Suit Leynos. I've learned a couple new things!

    I don't agree with your assessment of the box art, however. I absolutely love the addition of cyborgs fighting and ships buzzing in the background because it evokes a grand feeling of a major space battle, as in the game itself. In comparison, in spite of its anime influences, the original cover art looks bland and derivative and does a poorer job of capturing the excitement of the game.
    Nevertheless, I concede that the Assault Suit Leynos game manual was the better one.

    The music, "serviceable?" I thought the game had one of the catchiest soundtracks in the entire 16 bit generation. I never tire of the music in Stages 1, 3, 5, and 7...

    Aside from those two differences in taste, the game certainly was unbelievably fun, challenging, had great parallax effects, and a wonderfully fleshed out storyline for its genre.

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  2. I had a question. Where did you get the plot for Assault Suits Leynos? I have reason to believe that the plot details (Axis IV and an angry forgotten space colony that returns for revenge)are all wrong. Did you get them from Syffer Bidan's review?:
    http://www.gamefaqs.com/genesis/586520-target-earth/reviews/review-55157

    It sounds like it. I don't know where Syffer gets his information but I most recently got my friend (who is a native Japanese speaker) to translate Assault Suits Leynos for me and there is certainly nothing about an Axis IV or a colony that attacks Earth once they get closer on their orbit.

    In fact, the plot of Assault Suits Leynos has very much the same plot as Target Earth (an abandoned space expedition that returns for revenge) with some minor differences.. Besides what you mentioned (censorship, downplayed romance), instead of being cyborgs like in Target Earth, the space expedition in Assault Suits Leynos is made up of cloned humans. After being abandoned in space they cloned themselves to survive. That was how they had such huge numbers.

    Anyway, I can go on and on but I just needed to bring all this to your attention so that misconceptions about the game's storyline don't keep spreading around. Should you want to, I don't mind going into this in more detail...

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    Replies
    1. It seems you're right, as the secret message at the ending of Valken leads directly into Leynos.

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    2. I asked around for some translation help and got a bit more about what's going on in the game in the context of the Assault Suits universe and edited my review accordingly.

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  3. I'm gonna have to check this one out. I don't know how I've overlooked it for so long.

    Just isn't one of those games that's frequently mentioned among "retro fans."

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  4. Unfortunately, I may just be one of the very few fans left of this vastly underrated game.

    Should you ever confirm the plot details of Assault Suits Leynos yourself, I think you will find them interesting!

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  5. One of my favorite Genesis tiles, very difficult and inexpensive game even when new. I wish I still had my copy as I gave it to a friend who had no games to play and needed one he wouldn't finish in a day. heh

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  6. tis game is my best mecha games ever. i recall in summer 1996, its my first time seeing tis game in rental near my new house(well i live in small country, and sega genesis game is sparse cept for mainstream games, and love it too much, spend many times only to be beaten in stage 3. years after, only somekind of emulation that let me finish tis game with save states to tackle finite credit. but seriously, leynos is mu first ever mecha that allows my skill to create mecha artwork until now, it is like my first date with scifi genre, especially real robot genre. and inspiring me much to create similar story in my game now :p. ah yes, the box art, japanese box art is the best imo, especially those monoeyes. such a lovely thing to remember.

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