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:: LookBack: Tecnosoft's Herzog Zwei ::
There was a game released a long time ago, for a console still in its infancy, by a company largely unknown in North America. The system was the Genesis, the company was TechnoSoft, and the game was Herzog Zwei. Herzog Zwei means "Dukes Two" in German, and it indicates not only that it's a two-player game, it's also the sequel to Herzog - an even lesser known game for the Japanese MSX computer. The original game was similar in concept - fight a computer or human opponent for dominance of the map by building and deploying various fighting units. Herzog Zwei was one of the first - if not the very first - Real Time Strategy games, and those who played it know how amazing it was. At the time, I described it to my friends as a high speed chess game with no grid and no turns. That more or less sums it up, you and the computer or a friend create and deploy units in a frenetic attempt to conquer the map.
Herzog Zwei was an exceptional game, a true classic on a system that arguably didn't have as many classics as it should have. Most people know it only from one single boring picture from an EGM magazine many years ago. Remember that this game was pre-Sonic, so it suffered a low production run since very few players had yet to buy the system. It also received no advertising support and sadly, as the first of its genre, it was hard for gamers to wrap their head around the whole concept. It wasn't at all like the Koei strategy games they knew and it was too cerebral to be called a shoot 'em up, so few people took the risk. Those who did were more than amply rewarded.
The game is very simple compared to the modern realtime strategy game - the object was simply to shoot the other player's base enough that it exploded. Simple, right? Well there was more to it of course, but it was no Starcraft, and it was no Red Alert. There were only eight kinds of unit to produce with no flying units at all, but there were different programs to assign the units, which made for a surprising amount of variety. The game not only defined the RTS genre, it introduced concepts never repeated. As a player you weren't simply pointing and clicking, you were actually on the battlefield. As a transformable flying and walking robot, you could pick up units and place them where they would do the most good or drop down and shoot a few baddies yourself. You couldn't attack the enemy's bases yourself however, which meant you had to get your units in close to fight for you. The game was phenomenally well balanced - you couldn't fly all the way across the map while carrying a something, and your units didn't have enough fuel to make it on their own. This forced you to take smaller steps, clearing and seizing the smaller bases en route to the enemy's HQ.
There were six programs available, and not all units could use all programs. Selecting one was as simply as picking the right icon - nothing complicated. The programs available were varied and useful - a program could have a tank simply sit still and fire at anything close enough, or have it approach the nearest enemy base, or attack the other player's home base. Different programs had different costs, and you had to balance the programming price against the cost of the unit and the money you had available. Making a stack of small tanks that didn't move was cheap, but the same stack programmed to attack the enemy's base would double their cost.
Each unit took time to produce - the bigger the unit, the more time it took. Making a large tank or turret could take more time than you could spare. You could create a unit from anywhere on the map, and pick it up from any of your bases simply by flying over it. Each player was allowed a maximum of fifty units, but the slow speed of the Genesis meant that in reality you'd be suffering slowdown and chop after a combined total of seventy to eighty units was reached.
Capturing bases was easy - if you created four infantry with an Infiltrate program and managed to sneak them inside an empty or enemy base, that base would become yours. Each smaller base you captured increased the amount of money you made, but spread your forces out a little thinner.
The music was phenomenal, as we came to expect from later TechnoSoft releases. Some of my all-time favourite game soundtracks were from this game, and they easily equal tracks the Thunder Force series. The graphics were on par with most TechnoSoft titles, if a little light on the effects. A flat scrolling background covered in sprites was as fancy as it got here, no parallax or pulsing backgrounds to distract you.
The game has aged quite well, far better than most games of its era. The flaws in the computer AI mean that you either play with a friend or you simply count the minutes until your victory - inevitably it would come if you knew the pattern. When first I imported this game, the learning curve was very steep. The the manual was nigh incomprehensible in Japanese, and I spent the better part of a week working out exactly what the hell was going on. Once that was mastered I was digging into all eight maps and four difficulty levels, and loving every minute of it. I recommend spending some time to teach your friends though, as the computer won't keep you puzzled for long.
To this day it's one of my top five games, and with only one exception no one can beat me. This exception has just celebrated over fifteen hundred StarCraft wins, so I don't feel too bad about losing to him. I'll take the rest of you on any time you're in the neighborhood though, so go find yourselves a copy and practice up some. This is Genesis gaming at its finest.