Front Mission

   Some series are notable for quality. Some for innovation. Some for being just plain bad. The saddest of the lot are those few which come so close to being great, have all the right stuff to be a classic, but fall short due to a fundamental flaw. This is one of those games with a chink in the armor.

   Front Mission was a 1995 strategy/RPG developed by G-Craft and released by Square, in Japan only, for the Super Famicom. It was set on the fictional South Pacific island of Huffman, a contested territory in a future war between the Oceana Community Union, aka OCU, (consisting of Japan, Australia, and nearby regions) and the United States of the New Continent, or USN for short. In this future, the face of warfare has been changed radically by the introduction of Wandrung Panzers to the battlefield: bipedal humanoid assault vehicles with immense destructive power. Giant robots, basically. Not Gundamesque giant robots, not Voltron-style amalgam robots, but more primitive and "realistic" ones.

   Front Mission places you in the role of Roid Clive, the bold and brave OCU operative. The game begins with a horrific flashback scene, wherein Roid, his friend Ryu, his fiancee Kalen, and a pair of generic mooks are sent on an illegal mission to scout out a USN factory. The mission goes horribly wrong, ending with Kalen's capture by Driscoll, the sinister USN commander and obligatory evil nemesis. Oops. The game then picks up a year later, when Roid is recruited by the mysterious and Olson, who puts Roid in charge of Canyon Crow, a special OCU-funded strike team.

As the game progresses, you learn more about Driscoll's plans and what happened to Kalen; there are dramatic rescues, betrayals, and so forth.

    Nothing especially compelling, quite honestly. It's a step up from Beat the Evil Demon King, but it's still about as ambiguous as the Mortal Kombat movie. Along the way, you meet up with other Panzer pilots, most of whom join Canyon Crow, eventually swelling your group from the initial three members to roughly twenty fighting machines. Plus Peewee. Peewee drives a truck. Peewee looks really, really stupid. He's a bizarrely obese little putz with a little beret on. He's clearly intended to be comic relief, but in the middle of a gritty, realistic-for-a-giant-robot-game adventure, he sticks out like a sore, pudgy thumb.

    The character designs were done by Yoshitaka Amano of Final Fantasy fame, and while some of them are quite good, notably the haunted yet evil Driscoll and helmet-sporting Hans, the rest range from the generic and derivative (Natalie is Generic Amano Heroine Design #3 to the outright laughable - like Peewee).

   The music in the game is generally mediocre, but the sound effects are considerably better. Many sound extremely cool; if not realistic, then at least entertainingly fake. The flamethrower in particular is a triumph for the SFC's sound chip, sounding better than any similar effect I've heard in a game before or since. This author ended up outfitting most of his Panzers with flamethrowers whenever possible, regardless of utility, just because they sounded really nifty.

   Front Mission isn't a particularly original game, as far as gameplay goes. It uses a 3/4 overhead view of the battlefield and turn-based combat, cutting to close-ups of the Panzers shooting and hitting each other when you perform an attack. Initially, attacks randomly impact on one of four locations on the opponent: Left Arm, Right Arm, Torso and Legs. Each has its own batch of hit points, and can be upgraded individually. Reduce the HP of a given part to zero, and it counts as "destroyed", which has varying effects. Destroying an arm means that all weapons stored on the arm are unusable, which cuts the unit's offensive power in half. Destroying the legs reduces the unit's movement to one per turn - de facto immobility. And if you're lucky enough to blow out the torso, the whole unit goes down, regardless of the status of the other limbs.

    In most games, the solution would be simple: shoot the torso, right? Well, as noted before, attacks impact on each of the four areas randomly, so you often need to hope for the best when making your attacks and pray that all enemy attacks hit your legs. Later on, you can develop a variety of special Skills - like Aim, which give you the option to aim your attacks wherever you please. Hint: torso torso torso. There are other types of Skills which allow pre-emptive strikes or special effects upon weapon impact, but the Aim skills are the ones that actually matter.

   Weapons come in three main stripes. There are Long-range weapons like missiles and bazookas. These have dodgy hit rates but hit from a long range, which is Good. There are Short weapons, which have ranges of one or two squares, and usually come in the forms of machine guns, rifles, or my personal favorite, flamethrowers. Last come Melee weapons, usually tonfas, little metal sticks that your Panzers whack enemies around with. However, the problem with Melee weapons is that using them automatically puts you as the second attacker in combat (even if you instigate the attack) unless you have the appropriate Skill.

   Back-up weapons include repair items, shields to protect you from harm, and grenades that theoretically blind the enemy or protect you from missile attacks, but have never done a damned thing for me. More useful is Peewee's supply truck, which joins Canyon Crow fairly early on. If you spend a turn near the truck, you gain a bunch of new options, including restocking your missiles, fixing destroyed limbs, and repairing battle damage. This is immensely useful.

   Where the gameplay falls down and breaks its nose is the relative usefulness of missiles. Even moreso once you have the supply truck handy, they are easily the best type of weapon in the game. Boss enemies, from the start of the game clear to the end, are beaten by one method: stand back and shoot missiles. There is literally no other way to beat bosses, and moreover, there's no drawback to this method. Had resupplying been difficult or impossible, this wouldn't be such an issue. As it stands, it reduces all the major conflicts of the game to huddling your units at long range and bombarding the enemy into oblivion, and that's really, really lame.

    All told, Front Mission's not a bad game at all. It's competent, if unexceptional, in many ways, elevated by a slightly superior plot and great sound effects, but marred by a gameplay imbalance that transforms what should be exciting battles into tedious rocket fests. The Front Mission series has yet to grace US shores; and while each game in the series is enjoyable, each has also fallen prey to a single, crucial gameplay flaw. The series always seems to fall one step short of greatness - such a shame.

Retrospective by Allan Milligan, GIA
Front Mission
Developer G-Craft
Publisher Square
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium Cartridge
Platform Super Famicom
Release Date

Walkthrough, Gameplay Description, and Weapon List
16 assorted screen shots
Characters and Vehicles
Book and Box