Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Videogame Classics - Herzog Zwei

January 23, 2003

Herzog Zwei
Technosoft for Sega
Sega Genesis

Technosoft was one of the truly great videogame studios. Based in Japan, they are best known for their brilliantly innovative shoot-em-ups, their careful attention to visual detail, and their unforgettable musical scores. They hit their creative peak in the early '90s on the Sega Genesis: the masterful Thunder Force series; the surprisingly clever Elemental Master; a superb rendition of the best video pinball game ever made, Devil's Crush. And early in the Genesis' life span lay a little gem called Herzog Zwei.

Herzog Zwei is very probably the finest videogame you've never played. It is a fiercely competitive strategy game so innovative as to practically create a new genre; easily deserving a place alongside the two other great genre-defining games of its time, Populous and Tetris. Unlike those widely-recognized classics, however, Herzog Zwei went virtually ignored for years. In the American videogame press, it was either dismissed or harshly criticized by reviewers; Electronic Gaming Monthly handed out its lowest scores of any Genesis title.

Why was this game not well-received? I suspect that the reviewers simply did not know what they were facing. Traditionally, strategy games followed a certain formula. They were turn-based, like Avalon Hill's pen-and-paper war games, or Hudson's Military Madness on the Turbografx (also released in 1989). Players separately took their turns moving units and fighting battles. It was all very cerebral, but not much fun. Herzog Zwei changed all that. Players still fought for control of territory, capturing bases and attacking enemy units; but now the action was continuous, like an arcade game. This was no longer just a strategy game, but it wasn't just a shoot-em-up either; it was an altogether new beast. Technosoft had brought the genre into real-time.

Back in Japan, Technosoft was quietly experimenting with melding the war game with the arcade shooter. Zwei is, in fact, the sequel to an even more obscure game called, simply, Herzog. Appearing on the MSX computer in 1988, Herzog allowed players to control a transforming robot who leads his army against an opposing army. The game was simplistic, maybe even a little crude, but a spark was undeniably there. Somewhere in the mix lay the foundation for greatness.

Real-time strategy games have since then grown and flourished, becoming one of the most profitable styles of video and computer games. Dune, Cannon Fodder, Command and Conquer, Battlezone, Starcraft, Age of Empires, Warcraft - all owe their existence to Herzog Zwei.

And yet none have really surpassed Technosoft's classic. Why is that, I wonder? The masterstroke, I believe, lies in the Mech. Most RTS games put the player in the role of general, but not soldier. You cannot march into battle alongside your soldiers and tanks. But Zwei offers you both roles. You know that visceral thrill you get from clearing a roomful of monsters in Gauntlet? That sense of overcoming great odds, and surviving? Herzog Zwei gives you that thrill. There is a perfect, almost Zen balance, between military strategy and arcade action. Relying on only one skill is suicide; success lies in knowing when to play the general, and when to play the soldier.

There are other brilliant qualities to the game. Each of Zwei's eight battlefields is wonderfully designed. Battles take place in forests and caves, across lava pits, over islands, and through a futuristic city. Every map is just large enough to force players to rely on conquering territory (by capturing bases), but small enough to maintain a high level of tension. You are never more than five seconds away from the action. Perhaps the very simplicity of Herzog Zwei is its strength. Only eight different kinds of military units are at your disposal; of those units, only seven different orders are given (mainly attack, defend and supply).

Visually, Zwei is marked with a style that's detailed and varied, almost Zen; the rushing of water on a shoreline, the turning of a tank turret, the way a foot soldier explodes in a wash of blood. It's all very smooth and clean. Even the game's objective is uncluttered: destroy the opponent's home base. Since they cannot be repaired, yet another layer of tension is added. Do you stay and fight on the front lines, or do you fly back to stop that pesky motorbike that's pecking away your home's life bar?

Was this the Genesis' finest hour? Very likely, yes. If asked to name my absolute favorites, I'd choose Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Gunstar Heroes, Thunder Force 3, Gaiares, Fire Shark, and the EA Sports games. Herzog Zwei would top them all.

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