Sunday, September 20, 2009


To a kid, there's just something insanely cool about robots fighting. When I was young, cybernetics and robots were always fascinating subjects to play with in my head, which more often than not led to a combination of Mega Man and RoboCop And yet, for some reason, I never learned about mechs. It wasn't until Toonami began airing Gundam Wing that I even learned the term existed. Which is a shame because I just know the younger version of myself would have just gone crazy over the notion of giant, bipedal, robotic tanks. But unfortunately, I had no idea that such a thing existed, which is why Konami's 1993 game, Cybernator, completely passed me by. So is the game everything a robot loving kid could ask for or does collapse under its own weight.

The story is about as typical as can be. The world's supply of fossil fuels is running out, which leads to an outbreak of war over not only the remaining supply but also territory rights to the moon. You play as Jake Brain, an AS pilot on the Aerial Cruiser, the Versis. Most of the plot is told through mission briefings, but there are occasional bits of dialogue occur during the levels, which unfortunately halt all the action. They're short, but annoying none the less.

However, despite the over done plot, there was one thing that did stand out. In the opening scenes, narrated by Jake, he makes it a point that he's not fighting for any grand reason. He's not seeking justice or fighting because he's patriotic. No, he's solely fighting to survive and nothing more. He doesn't even paint his his own country as anything but selfish. In a time when most games have clear cut good guys and bad guys, it's refreshing to see a game that's decidedly neutral.

Visually, the game looks great. Jake's Mech is bulky and sturdy looking, as if it had evolved from attaching legs to a tank and then making it humanoid. As a result, the mech feels much more like the powerful, heavy weapon in its design than how they are portrayed in some Animes. Although, it's not a clear cut departure because it definitely took a lot of design choices from the Gundam series.

The enemies are also very nicely stylized and animated. From the other bulky mechs and robots to the humans that scamper about, everything you come across looks right for a mech series. The boss fights in particular are massive and interesting, save the subterranean, robot worm battle, which is mostly just annoying and ho-hum.

The levels themselves are nice as well, ranging from the interior of a space colony and a mobile base hidden in a meteor to the capital city of the enemy country. Every locale feels fresh and distinct from the last. The backgrounds are also nicely detailed, such as the vaguely D.C. looking appearance given to the buildings in the enemy capital. There is no denying that the game looks pretty good, but how does it play?

For the most part, the game plays like you would expect. The player jumps and guns Jake's way to right through waves of enemies and a boss. To help him out, Jake's mech is capable of dashing for a short distance, hovering for a time, or bringing up an impenetrable shield that will block all enemy fire, even if it's coming from behind. This, of course, begs the age old question, "Why didn't they just build the whole thing out of that material?"

There are also several weapons, including a hidden one, at Jake's disposale. Each of the weapons work a little differently. The Vulcan Cannon is one of the starting weapons and the player's standard choice if they want rapid fire. The punch is the other, and though it doesn't look as useful, there are certain situations where it will come in handy. Other weapons include a missile launcher and a laser beam which can be found in other levels. The extremely powerful napalm gun is the games hidden weapon, and can only be acquired by beating the first level without shooting anything except for the boss.

As I've mentioned before, it's all a bit standard, but Cybernator does add something to spice things up. All of the weapons are upgradable, which not only increases damage dealt, but often changes how the weapon reacts. Take the Vulcan Cannon, for instance. When the player first begins, the gun is simply a pure rapid fire gun. It's fast and little more, but add a weapon level, and the bullets begin to ricochet. When the third level is reached, the reload time is cut to almost nothing.

These little tweaks go a long way toward making Jake's mech feel like an unstoppable killing force, which is heightened even more if the player gets the napalm gun. However, getting the upgrades isn't so simple as picking up a quick power up. To upgrade a gun, the player must collect p-chips. The number required to upgrade is listed beside the weapon's energy bar. And though p-chips are plentiful, they disappear fairly quickly, which means the player has to be paying attention or they might miss them.

The game's greatest weakness, though, is in its feel. Jake's mech is heavy and slow to move, which makes the game feel sluggish. In my opinion, this adds a feeling of weight to the mechs and makes it feel more like I'm piloting a powerful mobile suit. But for others the sluggishness, will annoy them as more often than not, it makes dodging much more difficult than it would be in other action games.

On the other hand, the games greatest strength is its willingness to vary its gameplay enough to keep it feeling fresh. The first level of the game is your standard run and gun segment, but the second starts off like a horizontal shooter and finishes in a section of zero gravity, which allows the player greater freedom of movement. There are other sections, though these are the weakest, that have the player's mech rushing across the ground at rapid speed, fighting off enemies and dodging traps. Though they're not all created equal, the varied structures of the levels do a good job of not allowing any one section to grow stale.

Musically, the game is truly great, with its large sweeping songs that are both enjoyable to listen to and very fitting for the theme. The sound effects are also quite good, with the sounds of the heavy steps and landings adding a great sense of weight to the game. The weapons also sound suitably powerful.

In the end, enjoying Cybernator depends on whether the controls feel right to you or not. If they feel sluggish and cumbersome, the player will not enjoy much of their experience with the game. However, if they feel like they fit the setting and add a sense of depth and weight to the game, then one will have found themselves an enjoyable game.

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