Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Turn-Based Tactics/Mech Game Released: 2000 Developer: Konami
It was surprisingly difficult to buy computer games in Japan – in fact, in the two years I lived there I only bought a handful of PS2 games. That’s not so say that games weren’t easily available – my local electronics store was crammed to the rafters with them – but actually finding games that only required a basic understanding of Japanese was a demanding task.
I found that the vast majority of video games in Japan were either RPGs or sports titles: unfortunately, the masses of Japanese dialogue ruled out the RPGs, and sports games have never really interested me (and especially not baseball games, which are hugely popular in Japan). The remainder was made up of popular Japanese series such as Devil May Cry and Metal Gear Solid, along with various manga crossovers (such as Naruto) and creepy dating games. Western staples, such as FPSs and driving games, only constituted a tiny minority, and my gaming diet in Japan mostly consisted of the odd Western import (Medal of Honor, Burnout 3) and a smattering of oddball Japanese titles (Katamari Damacy, Mr. Mosquito 2).
After dejectedly ploughing my way through Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (not recommended), I was in the mood for something a bit different, which was when I came across Ring of Red. I bought it on a whim, and was surprised when it turned out to be one of the most interesting and compelling games I’ve played. It’s set in an alternative version of the 1960s where Japan didn’t surrender and WW2 dragged on into a protracted land war – which inevitably involved the development of mechs (this is Japan after all). After WW2 Japan was separated into Communist North Japan and Democratic South Japan, and the game starts as tension between the two sides is beginning to build (you can read more about the plot here).
The mechs in this game are wonderfully primitive machines, all whirring cogs and smoking exhausts, and their movements are delightfully clunky and noisy, which makes a change from the sleek, futuristic machines found in most other mech games. Battles are turn-based, but each turn is governed by a strict time limit, so the action never really lets up. As with almost all turn-based strategy games, the core experience is basically two sets of stats gradually being reduced until one side has zero, but the game does an admirable job of papering over this with various strategic choices and special moves. One of the best features is aiming the cannon on your mech: the screen switches to the view of a target hovering wildly over the enemy, accompanied by the sound of your heartbeat; the longer you wait, the less erratically the target moves, but wait too long and you risk the enemy firing back. It’s a neat system and it really helps to build tension.
The major downside is the repetition – inevitably the skirmishes get a little samey, although unlocking special moves keeps things interesting as you play on. The most frustrating thing about the game was not being able to understand the dialogue, but I managed to get the gist of what was going on… most of the time at least. Although I’m still not quite sure what happened at the end. In fact, the ending was a little abrupt in my opinion, which was annoying considering the amount of time I’d spent getting there. But then again I’ve seen much worse – the Playstation version of GTA2 springs to mind. It didn’t even have a cut scene at the end, just a black screen with the words ‘Game Over – Thank you for Playing!’
I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that Ring of Red is one of the best games ever made, but then that’s not the point of this list. In an ocean of lacklustre manga spin-offs, endless baseball sims and dodgy games featuring scantily-clad Japanese schoolgirls on their covers, Ring of Red was a beacon of hope – and for that it deserves celebrating.