Believe it or not, there was a time before the internet when the differences between a game’s Japanese and overseas release were shrouded in mystery. This sticks out for me mostly due to reading a strategy guide for Super Mario All-Stars that gleefully pointed out that “The Lost Levels” were really the lost secret Super Mario Bros. 2. At the time, no one believed me on this matter, but you can’t click three hyperlinks without someone confusing this anecdote for a nugget of legitimate knowledge. The same with the Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games and how the subject of today’s write-up, Herzog Zwei, defined the real time strategy genre way before those scoundrels at Blizzard and Westwood stole all their ideas. The game was just unfairly maligned because gaming magazines didn’t understand the intricacies of the genre and just wondered why their slow, janky fighter jet exploded randomly. Of course, these sorts of statements are pedantic at best, and in the case of Herzog Zwei, entirely wrong. But we here at the The Pre-Sonic Genesis Institute of Semi-Academic Chronological Gaming (PSGISACG) are not here to admonish the past, and while Herzog Zwei is certainly something of a clunker, there is no shortage of heart to be found within.
I find it hard to believe that most people who bought the game just assumed it was a mechanically unwieldy top-down shooter in the vein of the parts of Thunder Force II (Another game Techno-Soft ported to the Mega Drive) that no one liked, but the game certainly doesn’t go out of its way to convince you otherwise. Starting up the game puts you on one of several maps flying your aforementioned fighter jet, and without any guidance one might fly around until they run out of fuel and promptly explode right as they finally find the several dozen tanks the computer had managed to build while your inferior neural pathways soaked in the detailed but muddily colored landscapes. However, good old fashioned button mashing reveals that you can turn into a slow moving robot that controls in the incredibly unintuitive “shoot in the direction you’re moving” style that Commando pioneered. A little bit more reveals a menu densely packed with consonants, and that is where the real meat of the game lies.
You see, when you build a unit in this menu (a two part process of selecting the unit you’d like and the command you’d like to give it, mercifully detailed in the game’s Wikipedia page) a spanner flashes on the screen for a few moments before a thumbs up lets you know that your little soldier is ready to be sent to his death across the map. From there, you have to move your fighter back to the base, pick up the unit, and drop it off. All of this costs money and energy, which can only be obtained by building fragile infantry men with the command to capture one of several vacant bases that litter the game’s various maps. The idea is to manage both your resource collection and offensive effort while anticipating your opponent’s ideas and stratagems. So basically, it is a real time strategy game, with the top-down shooter parts of Thunder Force II no one liked added into the mix.
And like most real time strategy games, single player veers wildly between arbitrarily unfair and devastatingly dull. You can select the computer’s difficulty level, but that only changes the advantage the Mega Drive has over you to begin with. Beyond that, it plays the exact same way ,with the complete precision of a game playing itself. It could just be because I am entirely unwilling to devote the time I needed to learn the intricacies of championship-level Herzog Zwei play (which exists) but even when I was winning the single player campaign was incredibly stifling.
So why does this game regularly show up in the tail end of THE XX BEST GAMES EVER lists? At least partially because of successful myth-building, but mostly because if you can find someone with the same relative skill level or lack thereof, it’s a surprisingly fun multiplayer game. I was entirely ready to write off the game as a textbook example of an over-rated classic before getting a few rounds in with my Non-Plussed Research Assistant/ The Pre-Sonic Genesis Institute of Semi-Academic Chronological Gaming (PSGISACG) Girl-In-Residence Mary It turns out the game is pretty fun whenever your opponent is just as clumsy and frustrated as you are. Is it fun enough to stick out, regardless of your nostalgia? More experienced minds than my own say no. And it’s hard to argue with that. But while it may not be the holy grail or forgotten gem of a beloved genre that some people think it is, there’s certainly some merit in the nano-managed chaos