Platform: GBA
Developer: Olivier Denis
Publisher: Atlus for USA? & Neko Entertainment for Japan?
Release Date: March 2005
Genre Keywords: Arcade, Shooter

So I saw this thing from Atlus that looked vaguely like Choplifter, or perhaps Sopwith Camel, that beautiful CGA graphics game for my 8088 PC. So simplistic, so fun, and so utterly vicious in the latter levels - if I had to pay for it with quarters, I'd be broke. Realizing this about Atlus' offering, there was no way I could resist.

Picking up games at complete random based on a short blurb and a publisher known for quirky games is a certain recipe for ... uncertainty. Couple that with Neko Entertainment's (makers of such fine titles as Champion Sheep Rally) unknown involvement, and a completely unknown developer, well... It's a bit like Christmas, you know never know what you're going to get - is it going to be socks, or a shrinkwrapped combat-ready F-15 Eagle fighter jet?

With Super Army War, it's the latter. In fact not only do you get the jet, you also get a chopper, tanks, heavy artillery, cruise missiles and an army of troops at your command. But first you have to earn it, and the game is a throwback to the old skool arcade design of bloody hard games.

You start the game at the controls of a combat helicopter; you get 8 rockets and an unlimited supply of ammo, although the cannon's firing rate drops if you expend it all - you have to let it recharge. Your task for this mission is simple: protect your troops, tanks and jeeps as they make their way from your base to the enemy's, capturing bunkers on the way. On the other side of the "map", your implacable enemy is doing the same thing, chopper included - he will rain terror from the skies on your armies as well.

The map is a simple line from left to right, stretching across desert, snow, island, or a mountain range - the difference here is purely cosmetic. One one side is your base, on the other side the enemy's; in between are neutral bunkers which yield resources when captured. If occupied, they have to be "neutralized" again - either a tank or a rocket/bomb can do that. This is very reminiscent of Battlefield 1942's territorial control gametype - except in 1 dimension instead of BF1942's 2 (air doesn't really count as a dimension ... well, maybe in Tribes).

Troops issue from your base at a steady rate; you can't alter that rate in the early missions as your role is simply that of combat support. The first missions acquaint you with the combat controls of the helicopter and the plane, and they're joyfully responsive and intuitive - except for landing the fricking plane. I've reached mission 6 just by NOT LANDING, but circling and strafing the enemies once my bombs ran out. Obviously this won't carry me into the advanced game, but it shows that the game is pretty versatile regarding how you can win each scenario. The chopper is easy to control, with the direction pad providing movement; you fly forward tilted downwards, as a real chopper would - this makes it fantastic for strafing. To land, simply cease forward motion and descend. The plane requires a landing strip and some speed to take off; releasing the forward button slows you down, and holding down reverse will allow you to pull a 180° turn. You can go up and down, but alas, no loops. To land, approach the landing strip level and let go of the forward button. When you start to sink from loss of speed, flare (push upwards) and push B to brake as soon as you land (no sooner!! or you'll fall too fast). Note that going too fast while landing will cause a crash; falling too fast will cause a crash; going the right speed but too level will cause a crash (must be flared). Yeah, it really is frickin' hard.

In addition to strafing (A button), rocketing or bombing (B button) (and evading those deadly Anti Aircraft jeeps), you can (once you get the basics behind you) earn superweapons (either a V2 rocket or a Big Wave of paratroopers - there's more later but I haven't reached it yet), rescue civilians, and build and deploy troops (much later). Juggling your income, your combat duties and timely deployment of appropriate forces (too many tanks incoming? build an artillery unit. Choppers giving you a hard time? Build some jeeps) becomes a difficult task. Fortunately the missions are challenging enough (read "frickin' hard") that you will have ample opportunities to polish each aspect of the game before it gives you something new.

There's also a lot of small touches that add up to a cohesive whole. Loaded choppers will fly slower than empty; damaged vehicles move slower; jeeps explode into showers of parts; tanks, on harder difficulty levels (yeah, right!) can only be hit from the back, flocks of birds scattering when you approach ... lots more. The game's obviously a labor of love for the sole developer.

To sum up: great controls (except for landing!), a serious incline in difficulty, 16 tough missions to hone your skills on, multiple modes of play (not only chopper vs. plane, but also combat vs. strategy), superweapons, decent graphics, fantastic sound effects, and an unlockable mode which lets you switch the graphics from a Korean war era to a modern war era - this is a good bit of bang for your 20 bucks. While certainly not the length of Fire Emblem or Advance Wars, the brisk, responsive action will keep you coming back. That, and the challenging difficulty.

There are only two blemishes on Super Army War - one is that extremely unfriendly landing model (but it is possible to master with a lot of practice), and the second is the lack of a save option. Each mission earns you codes so you can resume where you left off, but a save would have helped to make this progress easier, and to let you see how you fared against your previous effort. Codes are so NES-era, and I doubt saves would take up much space; this is nearly unforgivable in terms of utility. Need save, badly!

Finally, if so inclined, you can take the game as a commentary on current world events. Both sides embroiled in this war here look identical - they're just moving in the opposite direction.

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