In the eternal, now obscure struggle between fans of “Super Robots” and fans of “Real Robots,” Hardcore Mecha firmly lands on the side of the Real Robots.
You might be confused as to what struggle I’m talking about. If you’ve been a fan long enough, you might remember simmering debates about “Super Robots” versus “Real Robots.” The divide mainly dealt with the way various mecha anime treated their mecha. Super Robots were bigger, and often avatars of their riders, paying little heed to the laws of physics and governed by the rule of cool. By comparison, Real Robots, influenced by Mobile Suit Gundam and other series from later into mecha history, usually treated the mecha as pieces of technology and weapons of war. Putting aside the irony that calling neither Super nor Real robots actually existed, Real Robot shows were thought to be more realistic and grounded.
In practice, though, the distinction was more often used as a way for mecha fans to argue, with some Real Robot partisans getting snobby about “hard” sci-fi tropes and looking down on the often more kid-friendly depictions of Super Robots.
While thankfully Hardcore Mecha doesn’t care for that exclusionary attitude, the game remains an earnest, loving tribute to the Real Robots of its developers’ youth. The story campaign even begins its tutorial with an on-the-nose parody of Super Robot cartoons, with you in control of a towering Mazinger-like mecha, stomping over the cityscape and taking down a giant monster. Once the final blow is struck, the view zooms out to reveal that the robot fight was actually on TV, with the monitor quickly holed through by bullets from a much smaller, more tactically designed assault unit. It’s a fun trick, and an effective mission statement that indicates firmly where Hardcore Mecha‘s inspirations lie.
Like those inspirations, Hardcore Mecha‘s story campaign is a military sci-fi romp, putting players in the control of mercenary Tarethur O’Connell, an ace pilot with the Hardcore Defense Corp., a company working with the United Nations to hunt down some mecha-equipped terrorists. A rescue mission on Mars quickly goes awry, and the game’s eight-to-ten hour campaign quickly raises the stakes, escalating from simple smash-and-grab extractions to an interplanetary war. Narratively, the campaign doesn’t exactly throw curveballs. If you’ve watched a Gundam show or two in your lifetime, or are familiar with the more serious parts of Full Metal Panic! and even other sci-fi, non-mecha anime, you’ll see the twists and tropes coming like you’ve got Newtype senses.
But that’s not really a problem. Considering how sincerely and affectionately Hardcore Mecha evokes its inspirations, having it all feel as familiar as it does was likely the point. That it all makes for a rollicking good time is a bonus. Every mission in the campaign plays out differently, and it even includes on-foot sequences. You’ll infiltrate a heavily guarded enemy base, dismount your mecha to hack consoles, and even take command of a massive battleship at various points in the story.
Of course, the core of the game remains high-speed, agile armored combat. Hardcore Mecha evolves the 2D, free-aiming shooter design pioneered by the likes of Assault Suits Leynos or Metal Warriors (and a number of other mecha-themed side-scrolling shooters released in the years hence). Its hallmark, though, is a boost-assisted emphasis on speed and maneuverability. Shoulder buttons have free command of a boost and hovering system that allows players to float in place while they aim or zip around the screen like they’re reenacting a scene from Macross. Combined with a multitude of weapons both ranged and melee, the fights in Hardcore Mecha are almost as demanding as what I imagine it’s like to actually pilot a fictional mobile suit. I’m not ashamed to admit I ended up bumping the difficulty down to easy to complete the game, but it was thrilling to try to master the nuances of the boost-based combat, and in spots I felt like I was playing a 2D version of a pitched Gundam VS fight.
The missions also have built-in replayability, with a number of optional sub-objectives, other difficulty modes, and a score-based grading system to encourage mastery. Multiplayer modes, both local and online, allow players to test their reflexes, though I only managed to find a few matches online in my time with the game. RocketPunch also plan to add a single-player Survival Mode for procedural fun, but at the time of this writing I can’t seem to access it as of yet. In any case, there’s plenty of content in Hardcore Mecha to sate folks looking to make use of their skills.
Though Hardcore Mecha is a great fit for the Switch, with its bite-size mission structure and replayability, the port isn’t perfect. In both docked and handheld mode I encountered multiple instances of slowdown in hectic scenes. In a game that depends greatly on your ability to react quickly and precisely, these instances were enough to cause me a few otherwise avoidable deaths. The slowdown isn’t widespread, but it also isn’t present on the PS4 and PC versions, which I tested. Further, Joy-con controllers aren’t quite up to the task of controlling the game, thanks to their short analog sticks and the many buttons needed to run all the game’s functions. A pro controller or similar peripheral is recommended otherwise.
Technical hiccups aside, though, Hardcore Mecha stands as a highly enjoyable love letter to the heights of mecha anime. Players looking for a fast-paced mecha fix would do well to get in the robot.