For a game that’s been remade and remastered as often as Front Mission, it’s fitting that Forever Entertainment’s Front Mission 1st: Remake got me thinking about what, exactly, “remake” even means in terms of games. In the wake of truly dramatic re-imaginings of old classics, Front Mission 1st: Remake is closer to what folks might call a “remaster” these days. That means that while Forever Entertainment has brought the game to modern platforms using contemporary presentation, it’s kept many things the same under the hood, for better and occasionally for worse.
If you’ve never played Front Mission before, Front Mission 1st: Remake will serve as a perfectly decent introduction to the venerable tactical series. The game originally came out on the SNES in Japan, then received an updated rerelease no less than three times before 2022: On the Wonderswan Color, the PlayStation, and most recently the Nintendo DS. The DS edition was the first official English-language release, and is the version from which Remake takes its cues.
Front Mission 1st: Remake is a dark war story taking place in an alternate near-future. Global power blocs fight it out using armies of mecha called “Wanzers” (short for “WanderPanzer”, which means “Walking Tank” in German). A cold war is getting hot on the island of Huffman, which is split between two Pacific rim supernations: The Oceania Cooperative Union (OCU) and the Unified Continental States (UCS). Like the DS edition, Front Mission 1st: Remake includes two campaigns: The original, focused on the OCU, and the additional UCS campaign added for the DS update. If you’re new, I recommend starting with the OCU Side.
In the main campaign, players control Royd Clive, an OCU Wanzer pilot who loses his fiancée during a mission gone wrong that reignites the war over Huffman. Made a scapegoat and disavowed, he’s ejected from the OCU army, only to be drawn back into the war as part of the mercenary squad Canyon Crows. Recruited to turn the OCU’s declining fortunes around, Royd reenters the fray to seek answers and a bit of payback. The ebb and flow of the war forms a grim backdrop to Royd and the Canyon Crows’ operations, as they encounter signs that they’re just a small part of a larger, brutal conflict that leaves little left in its wake. The UCS campaign stars UCS pilot Kevin Greenfield. Compared to the OCU campaign, the UCS storyline is shorter and more restrictive, but it cleverly lets you view certain key moments from a different perspective. It also digs a bit deeper into the questions raised during the main story, fleshing out the image of the war-torn world.
If the narrative is a standout element, much of Front Mission 1st: Remake‘s gameplay fades a bit in its glow. That’s thanks in part to the fact that the game is almost mechanically identical to the DS version. In terms of raw stats and gameplay, it’s so close to its inspiration that you can even use guides written for the DS version over a decade ago, as-is, without any issue. Even the map layouts are identical, down to the stair-step representation of terrain height.
In essence, the most novel feature of Forever’s remake is cosmetic, rendering the battle scenes using modern 3D graphics. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Back in the day, a game “remake” was generally expected to be remade on a cosmetic level only, with minor adjustments for convenience or balance. That’s pretty much what happened here. The missions are the same as back then, the dialog is mostly the same (with tweaks here and there to the localization), and the content is the same.
What’s at issue is that the game’s design itself is showing its age. Moreso than any other Front Mission title, the original Front Mission, and by extension, Front Mission 1st: Remake, has aged the least gracefully since the mid-1990s. You’ll take turns with the enemy moving to points on the map, and engaging in small cutscene-like battles where your Wanzer and the enemy’s trade blows. The main factors at play are the weapons you’ve equipped and the stats of your Wanzer’s many parts. A Wanzer’s parts can be damaged in battle. Getting one’s legs taken out can reduce movement speed, and a destroyed Body part is an instant kill. Losing both arms means a Wanzer can’t even attack. Weapons also have different ranges and firing patterns. Machine guns will spread their damage at random over various parts, while rifles concentrate all their damage into a single bullet that can miss. Melee weapons can hit hard, but melee strikes almost always go last in a given exchange of attacks. Finally, long-range weapons like rocket launchers can fire without suffering retaliation, but run out of ammo quickly.
Between battles, you’ll customize your squad’s Wanzers, buying individual parts and weapons, and mixing and matching them to your heart’s content. Customization is a huge part of Front Mission 1st: Remake‘s play experience, and you’ll be doing it a lot over the dozens of hours it’ll take to clear the campaigns. The early game can be particularly punishing, as your Wanzers are weak and can be taken out easily, thanks to the often randomized nature of damage distribution. There’s no permanent death, but Wanzer repairs can drain your early funds.
All of Front Mission 1st: Remake‘s ideas are strong, even seminal ones. The issue is that they don’t go much farther than that baseline. The game was novel at the time, but in the years since, various other titles have gone on to take and build on its achievements. Players unaware of that context will find a game that feels and plays like a very old strategy title. Even the game balance is a bit off and easily exploited, just like before. You can freely grind away in the arena to make more money than you’ll ever need, and make all your pilots into powerhouses before you even leave your first few missions, if you have the time and mental fortitude.
There’s only so much a fancy new graphical upgrade can do. Even the “Modern” gameplay mode available to choose is more cosmetic than mechanical. You can spin the camera, and Wanzers move more quickly, skating around the field. The new graphics are attractive, with a nice “tilt-shift” effect that makes it look like you’re moving miniatures around a diorama. You can also choose between the original and remastered music.
That’s all fine, though. Front Mission hasn’t aged amazingly well, but it’s a good game in its own right, so long as you keep its context in mind. More frustrating than slightly crusty mechanics is that Front Mission 1st: Remake doesn’t go quite far enough in modernizing the user experience. Though the UI elements themselves have been optimized to take advantage of higher resolutions, with more info readable by default, there are a number of points where updates could still have been made without compromising fidelity to the older mechanics.
For example, there’s no way to save a Wanzer setup, or easily transfer and compare parts in your inventory with parts in the shop. With upgrading to new parts and weapons being such a regular occurrence, you’ll need to change out parts one-by-one for every Wanzer in your squad. This can be a big chore when some missions have you fielding up to 11 Wanzers in a single fight. You can equip parts to a Wanzer straight from the shop menu, but if you want to check if you already have a part you’re looking at in your storage, you have to back all the way out to the base menu. Little inconveniences like this add up, and bog down an experience that already feels a little slow by modern standards.
These are minor gripes, though. The game remains a solid revisiting of a years-old game. And it serves as a good way for folks to experience one of strategy and mecha gaming’s foundational works on a current platform. Front Mission 1st: Remake won’t set hearts aflame with novelty, but it is a satisfying return to first principles, with a promise of more to come.
Front Mission 1st: Remake is available on the Nintendo Switch.