was one of the truly great videogame studios. Based in Japan, they
are best known for their brilliantly innovative shoot-em-ups, their
careful attention to visual detail, and their unforgettable musical
scores. They hit their creative peak in the early '90s on the Sega
Genesis: the masterful Thunder Force series; the surprisingly
clever Elemental Master; a superb rendition of the best
video pinball game ever made, Devil's Crush. And early
in the Genesis' life span lay a little gem called Herzog Zwei.
Zwei is very probably the finest videogame you've never played.
It is a fiercely competitive strategy game so innovative as to practically
create a new genre; easily deserving a place alongside the two other
great genre-defining games of its time, Populous and Tetris.
Unlike those widely-recognized classics, however, Herzog Zwei
went virtually ignored for years. In the American videogame press,
it was either dismissed or harshly criticized by reviewers; Electronic
Gaming Monthly handed out its lowest scores of any Genesis title.
was this game not well-received? I suspect that the reviewers simply
did not know what they were facing. Traditionally, strategy games
followed a certain formula. They were turn-based, like Avalon Hill's
pen-and-paper war games, or Hudson's Military Madness on
the Turbografx (also released in 1989). Players separately took
their turns moving units and fighting battles. It was all very cerebral,
but not much fun. Herzog Zwei changed all that. Players
still fought for control of territory, capturing bases and attacking
enemy units; but now the action was continuous, like an arcade game.
This was no longer just a strategy game, but it wasn't just a shoot-em-up
either; it was an altogether new beast. Technosoft had brought the
genre into real-time.
in Japan, Technosoft was quietly experimenting with melding the
war game with the arcade shooter. Zwei is, in fact, the
sequel to an even more obscure game called, simply, Herzog.
Appearing on the MSX computer in 1988, Herzog allowed players to
control a transforming robot who leads his army against an opposing
army. The game was simplistic, maybe even a little crude, but a
spark was undeniably there. Somewhere in the mix lay the foundation
strategy games have since then grown and flourished, becoming one
of the most profitable styles of video and computer games. Dune,
Cannon Fodder, Command and Conquer, Battlezone,
Starcraft, Age of Empires, Warcraft -
all owe their existence to Herzog Zwei.
yet none have really surpassed Technosoft's classic. Why is that,
I wonder? The masterstroke, I believe, lies in the Mech. Most RTS
games put the player in the role of general, but not soldier. You
cannot march into battle alongside your soldiers and tanks. But
Zwei offers you both roles. You know that visceral thrill
you get from clearing a roomful of monsters in Gauntlet?
That sense of overcoming great odds, and surviving? Herzog Zwei
gives you that thrill. There is a perfect, almost Zen balance, between
military strategy and arcade action. Relying on only one skill is
suicide; success lies in knowing when to play the general, and when
to play the soldier.
are other brilliant qualities to the game. Each of Zwei's
eight battlefields is wonderfully designed. Battles take place in
forests and caves, across lava pits, over islands, and through a
futuristic city. Every map is just large enough to force players
to rely on conquering territory (by capturing bases), but small
enough to maintain a high level of tension. You are never more than
five seconds away from the action. Perhaps the very simplicity of
Herzog Zwei is its strength. Only eight different kinds
of military units are at your disposal; of those units, only seven
different orders are given (mainly attack, defend and supply).
Zwei is marked with a style that's detailed and varied,
almost Zen; the rushing of water on a shoreline, the turning of
a tank turret, the way a foot soldier explodes in a wash of blood.
It's all very smooth and clean. Even the game's objective is uncluttered:
destroy the opponent's home base. Since they cannot be repaired,
yet another layer of tension is added. Do you stay and fight on
the front lines, or do you fly back to stop that pesky motorbike
that's pecking away your home's life bar?
this the Genesis' finest hour? Very likely, yes. If asked to name
its best games, I would choose Gunstar
Heroes, Sonic 3 and Knuckles,
Thunder Force 3, the EA Sports games,
and maybe Fire Shark (for sentimental
reasons). Herzog Zwei would top them all.