It’s not all that unusual for those important first sequels in an older series to go off in strange and unexpected directions, unceremoniously dumping previously unshakeable core rules while simultaneously shifting their focus towards something else entirely without even considering what such a huge change would feel like to those who enjoyed the original outing: Castlevania did it and it was indeed a horrible night to have a curse. Zelda did it, even if Nintendo try to pretend they didn’t. Fire Emblem did it – and got a remake out of it. Final Fantasy did it, and people still go on about hitting themselves in the face to this very day. Whether you think these games should have… well, that’s another matter. At the very least you sometimes need to see with your own eyes what doesn’t work just so you can truly appreciate what does (AKA: “What it feels like to play Resident Evil 0“). Personally I can’t help but applaud the unpredictable creativity these well-meaning but slightly wonky sequels wield so freely: They come in so early they’re not weighed down by any long-held fan expectations or a pressing need to stick to an established and successful formula, and you can’t help but feel the developers thought any good idea – no matter how far away from whatever worked so well before – has got to at least be worth a try.
Squaresoft’s 1996 Super Famicom game Front Mission: Gun Hazard is no different, moving far away from the SRPG stylings of series-starter Front Mission and stomping over to the mech-action territory so expertly wielded by Masaya’s team almost four years earlier in Assault Suits Valken. A quick comparison of the staff credits reveals why the two games look and feel so eerily similar: The majority of Valken’s staff took up equally key positions in Gun Hazard’s development team, so if a large turret in the later game looks suspiciously close to a large turret in the earlier one then there’s a very strong chance there’s nothing more underhanded going on than them being pixelled by the exact same person. In spite of this clear line through from one to the other it’s important not to try and look at Gun Hazard as being a direct sequel to either Front Mission or Valken, but to view it more as a complimentary alternative take on what 16-bit mech (or “wanzers”, as this series likes to call them) themed gaming can be from a fresh point of view.
To achieve this the game hand-picks key elements from Valken’s side-scrolling action then sprinkles in a touch of the first Front Mission’s RPG-ness, although Gun Hazard shies away from a lot of the conventional stat-heavy aspects of the genre, leaving much of the expected “role playing game” baggage that comes with the label at the door. Gun Hazard instead chooses to treat the term in a more literal manner; doing as much as possible to make you feel like you’re playing the role of a fundamentally good wanzer-piloting person during an unstable time of military coups, cities under attack, and highly-equipped forces trying to exert a malicious form of control over the world.
And this is why the game promises players thrilling wanzer action set in the world of Squaresoft’s well-regarded war ’em up and then opens not with a blaze of gunfire backed up by a Michael Bay’s worth of explosions but some scene-setting text, the gentle sound of lapping waves, and sea birds calling out in the skies overhead without a single enemy in sight – the game isn’t even gracious enough to place a few destructible boxes in your path for some casual target practise. Then in the blink of an eye leading hero Albert’s friend dies before his eyes, everything’s gone up in flames (there’s an unforgettably haunting ember effect used here), and he’s forced to make up an emergency evacuation plan on the fly, escorting the president to a desperate sort of safety while retreating under a hail of gunfire. It feels as exciting and as involved as any of the most heart-stopping scenes in your favourite mech games: partly because of the action itself – Valken always had a wonderfully weighty sort of fine control to it, which Gun Hazard sensibly applies an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude towards – and partly because it’s such a stark contrast to the quiet tension and unremarkable calm you’ve just been forced to walk through; an unexpected twist that doesn’t just alter the stage’s mood but thoroughly shatters it and refuses to give you even a single moment to catch your breath.
Gun Hazard’s flagrant lack of concern with satisfying a standard checklist of mech-related tropes infuses the game with an electrifying frizz of wild possibilities – anything could happen without warning, and it often does. Quiet nighttime missions silently go wrong off-stage, leaving you standing in the dark waiting for the return of someone who isn’t coming back. To actually make players wait for themselves and not hold their hand through an enforced “I’m standing here, passing the time” snatch of dialogue is an extraordinarily gutsy move, trusting in the game’s overall quality and ability to engage to keep the player sitting there while also deliberately giving them absolutely nothing to do with the awesome firepower under their control. The important thing is to notice how this “boring” build-up completely transforms the events that come immediately afterwards: The nervous exploration that follows, feeling torn between wanting to go but knowing you were ordered to stay, the reveal showing your worst fears have all come true… it would have been just another hollow “Oh no, they’ve been captured!” sequence if the game hadn’t taken the time to set the scene – and then make you live through it. Gun Hazard is always more concerned with what’s actually important to Gun Hazard than making sure itchy trigger fingers have been given an acceptable quantity of hostiles to shoot at, the game refusing to treat the story and the gameplay as two wholly separate threads in the way far too many text-heavy titles do (even good ones – even some of my favourites) and instead considering them to be one fluid part of the whole, to naturally ebb and flow between each other as the situation calls for it. This significant blurring between two traditionally walled-off elements allows the player to experience for themselves many scenarios that would typically be left to hands-off chatter: Waltz into an idyllic village all suited up in the latest version of your fancy metal death suit and unsurprisingly nobody will be willing to do much more than panic in your presence – clamber out and walk towards them – exposed and underpowered – like a flippin’ person and they become far more receptive. Of course the game is (as you may expect by now) just waiting to pop another tension-filled balloon and this beautiful, peaceful, village populated by ordinary folk milling around in the sunshine – the sort of place where in any other game a young boy could venture off with a simple wooden sword and kill an endless supply of generic slimes for 2G each – is soon filled with a cloud of toxic gas released by guerrilla fighters and your avatar is now screaming at these tiny NPCs, dropping like flies, to run for their lives while you’re rushing on foot to the safety of your wanzer… the one you left all the way back at the village entrance.
Gun Hazard’s an absolute master at these very human emotional rollercoasters, events that delight in not only in forcing you to deal with unexpected circumstances but an added level of personal investment as well: It’s the oil rig that goes up in flames… and the one friendly person still on there you didn’t bother rescuing, because they were too out of the way and you – the player – didn’t have to help them to proceed. It’s bravely fighting your way to an enemy base… and helplessly watching your allies get obliterated in the background. It’s finally finding someone to save… only to see them gunned down with glee as you watch. This constant and unsettling reminder of how little individual lives are worth during times of conflict is a very useful sense of perspective in a game that screenshots would have you believe falls along the usual lines of nonstop metal-on-metal action and high score tables.
Even the graphics – often as gorgeous as anything found in Bahamut Lagoon – have something to say, conveying a sense of place that just wouldn’t come across as strongly without the phenomenal amount of effort that’s been put into them. There’s no point sending players off to frozen northern locations if they end up somewhere that looks like a palette swap of where they’ve just been, is there? But it’s more than just snow covering the ground and a darker sky in the background; it’s the game’s design allowing the setting itself to be enough for a short while, making players trudge through a snowstorm for themselves as the music cuts out and the Super Famicom’s S-SMP chip fills speakers with nothing but harsh howling winds. This virtual taste of Gun Hazard’s fictional Earth happens a lot: Shafts of light break through the thick jungle canopy as unseen birds chirp in the trees. The bright glare of the desert sun, dimmed only for a moment as it passes behind a mountainous sand dune. Driving rain and dark valley floors. Gun Hazard is always keen to give the illusion – through foreground layers, through sound, through translucent effects that make you weep for the passing of cart-dominated gaming – that the latest area isn’t an entertaining level or some form of wanzer-dressed puppet theatre, interesting things passively scrolling by as you march ever rightwards – but an actual location you are moving through.
I love fast-paced mech action, effortlessly skimming across the sea after an invading fleet and do-or-die missions deep in to the heart of an enemy fortress. Gimme that, as the children say, in my veins. Slow walk-n-talk sections, low enemy counts, scenes where you’re stripped of your weaponry and forced to rely on a pathetic handgun… we collectively know these are bad things that unquestionable spoil a game’s rhythm, don’t we? Not here. Gun Hazard is forever teasing you with brief glimpses of the happy alternative to all this endless conflict, and far from bogging the game down in boring discussions that are noticeably light on the exciting space stations and screen-filling lasers side of things these interactive scenes instead effectively communicate the encroaching chaos far better than any enormous missile-spitting mechanical horror ever could. And this is why Gun Hazard is neither Valken 2.0, nor Front Mission: The Sequel – because it’s not a game about action, or strategy, it’s a game about war: A game that always makes sure you knew the name of the village you’ve just seen demolished before your eyes, that you’re always aware the tiny sprites running for their lives are people – ordinary people unfairly falling to circumstances far beyond their control. Gun Hazard’s willingness to however briefly let you experience the peaceful alternatives for yourself – a quiet starry sky, a bright sunny day – only serve to underline how easily it can all be snatched away.