The NEC PC-9801 computer: chances are, if you’ve heard of it, it’s because of Touhou Project or the platform’s large library of 16-bit eroge. In an age when seemingly all video games are at your fingertips, the obscurity and language barrier of Japanese home computer emulation has ensured that the PC-98’s software library remains largely unknown in the West.
Among this wellspring of content, unsurprisingly, is no small number of licensed anime titles, including a handful based on the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise. Exclusively released by the company FamilySoft, most of these take the form of turn-based simulation games with varying combat systems. FamilySoft seemed to corner the market for this particular genre of licensed anime game for the PC-98, having also released superficially similar titles based on Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Aura Battler Dunbine, Crusher Joe, and Captain Harlock.
Beginning with Mobile Suit Gundam: Classic Operation in 1990, FamilySoft would release seven core Gundam simulation titles plus expansions. Of these, only three would feature original stories and a pedigree brought by artists that had previously worked on Gundam anime and manga.
Advanced Operation (1992)
The first, and best, of these three is Gundam: Advanced Operation. Set in late UC 0089, Advanced Operation occupies that elusive and underused timeline gap between the Gundam ZZ TV series and the film Char’s Counterattack. You follow the crew of the Pegasus Kai class ship Il Nido as they clash with a force of Neo-Zeon remnants commanded by a hawkish Haman Karn loyalist named Gerald Sinclair.
Sinclair’s mission is to hunt down the representative of a moderate Neo-Zeon faction that seeks to make peace with the Federation: the late Karn’s own younger sister, Serrana Karn. The game features original character designs by Haruhiko Mikimoto of Macross and Gundam 0080 fame. Mikimoto would later create original characters for FamilySoft’s Macross games, as well.
What may be most visually striking about the game, however, is its mechanical aesthetic. Advanced Operation represents the rare occasion outside of garage kits or his own manga where the designs of Kazuhisa Kondo are faithfully adapted, complete with oversized skirt armor and camouflage. The majority of these designs are lifted from Kondo’s 1988 manga Revival of Zeon, which takes place a year before Char’s Counterattack. This makes for some strange possible anachronisms, as near the end of the game–which story-wise doesn’t occupy a long stretch of time–you encounter ground-type Sazabi units. That said, considering that this is a game where you can potentially acquire multiple ZZ Gundams or even an early non-Newtype version of the v Gundam, odds are this continuity peculiarity will be of little concern.
Of the many FamilySoft Gundam games to have “Operation” in the title, Advanced Operation lives up to its name as being the most sophisticated. It is the only game in the loose franchise to employ a zone of control system that gives stat modifiers during a combat action from the placement of allies and enemies relative to the combatants. Experience points come not just from scoring a kill but also from successful attacks and dodges, meaning that even units that usually function in a support role will still level up. By selecting different modes, you’re able to control the way units react and perform in various situations. Because of these features, you feel like you’re actually controlling the outcome of battle and not just hoping an arbitrary random number generator decides in your favor. If you’re playing on an emulator, it means you’ll be cheating less frequently.
Return of Zion [sic] (1993)
The somewhat dumbed-down spiritual sequel to Advanced Operation, Return of Zion takes place not long after its predecessor in UC 0090, where Zeon remnants are taking part in a large-scale operation to consolidate their forces and retreat into space to join Char Aznable’s own nascent Neo-Zeon. The game focuses on a group of Haman’s Neo-Zeon in Africa called “Nightshade,” as they link up with other remnant groups and representatives of Char’s Neo-Zeon to ultimately return to space. Return of Zion’s character designs are handled by prolific Sunrise designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, and fits well into the aesthetic he established with his work on Gundam 0083. Playing up the anime style, each mission is actually bookended with an opening and ending sequence, and even a “Next Episode” card.
While Kondo’s style makes a partial return in the form of many reused sprites from Advanced Operation, he’s succeeded by Makoto Kobayashi, best known in Gundam as the designer of The O. Kobayashi’s contribution is largely seen in the detailed, worn-looking depiction of mobile suits in the game’s cutscenes as well as new mobile suit variations entirely unique to the game. These tend to take the form of reconnaissance and mid-range variations of existing mobile suits as well as non-transformable ground-based variations of the Zeta Gundam. Many mobile suits without explicitly named variations still appear highly customized, reinforcing the idea that the Zeon remnants had to use whatever was on hand for repair.
The game excels at selling the feeling of being underdog Zeon soldiers, and encourages you to resort to guerrilla tactics as you’re frequently outgunned early on. In a direct connection to Advanced Operation, one of the remnants’ recurring adversaries is the Pegasus class Il Nido, though staffed by mostly new faces.
Unfortunately, Return of Zion drops Advanced Operation’s zone of control system, reducing much of the combat to attacking and hoping for the best. Low hit-rates on both sides can result in tedious, seemingly arbitrary combat, and the new ability to turn off battle animation is surely a response to that. Advanced Operation’s myriad of unit modes have been streamlined to just five essential options: normal, full speed, assault, sniping, and supply/capture. The overall game is simplified, but the net effect is a diminished feeling of control.
A Year of War feels like a game of transition for FamilySoft’s Gundam titles. Abandoning the relatively untapped story gap between ZZ and Char’s Counterattack that the previous two games inhabited, it returns to the now well-worn ground of the One Year War from the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Most material that plunders the One Year War period is guilty of overstuffing it with an improbably high number of Gundam variations or secret Zeon prototypes, but A Year of War suffers from the opposite problem: your team of original Zeon characters essentially act as ineffectual witnesses to major events of the 1979 Gundam series. As such, it’s a game that wants to have things both ways: to be an original story while simultaneously being a straightforward adaptation of an earlier work.
To its credit, the first few missions take place before the events of Mobile Suit Gundam proper begin, seeing your crew (without even a special squad name!) taking part in early One Year War actions like Operation British, the Battle of Loum, and the initial Zeon operation to land troops on Earth. In those early missions, your only opponents are Salamis and Magellan class battleships. Ironically, because the game divides attack types into anti-ship and anti-mobile suit, your Musai cruisers actually tend to do better against enemy battleships than your mobile suits.
In the first two missions, your Zakus are only effective against ships due to them being equipped with nuclear bazookas. In these early battles, where mobile suits were supposed to have made such a huge impact, A Year of War portrays them as worthless unless they’re packing nukes. You can even create an anachronism by upgrading two particular pilots’ Zakus into Rick Doms ten months before they should even exist, but the lack of a nuclear armament actually ends up making them a downgrade.
Once your team arrives on Earth, the story skips nine months ahead to Garma Zabi’s funeral, as seen during the original anime. From this point on, each mission becomes survival challenge for a set amount of turns or running to one specific space on the map, usually to witness a key moment from the show or to escape from the Earth Federation forces.
Most of the gameplay system is carried over from Return of Zeon, retaining the same flaws. However, there’s no mobile suit sprite-based combat animation; rather all combat is reduced to the faster, but less impressive, quick battle system. This belt-tightening extends to the rest of the game; art that includes mobile suits, with the exception of the opening cutscene, is of a much lower quality than art of the game’s original characters. Kawamoto returns as character designer with a somewhat softer style that anticipates his work on The 08th MS Team, but tellingly there’s no dedicated mechanical designer this time. A surprisingly charming addition, however, are quaint mini-cutscenes of full sprite animation depicting key scenes of brutality such as the Solar System obliterating mobile suit forces at Solomon or the death of Gihren Zabi.
FamilySoft would take a break from Gundam and release several Macross games before returning to the franchise with Multiple Operation in 1995 and Stardust Operation the following year. These were straightforward adaptations of Mobile Suit Gundam and Gundam 0083 respectively. Both eschewed the systems that were established in this spiritual trilogy for their own distinct, somewhat convoluted combat systems, and neither had any notable guest staff.
The new characters and situations presented in FamilySoft’s original Gundam works seem to have fallen largely into obscurity even in Japan, with perhaps one notable exception: Serrana Karn and Gerald Sinclair from Advanced Operation were both given minor roles in Hiroyuki Kitazume’s manga, Char’s Deleted Affair.
Advanced Operation Gallery
Return of Zion Gallery
A Year of War Gallery
FamilySoft Cover and Catalog Gallery