Review: Hudson Soft Military Madness: Neo Nectaris
Though NEC's TurboGrafx-16 video game console was pummeled by Sega's Genesis and finished off by Nintendo's Super NES in the United States, Hudson Soft managed to release a handful of exclusive titles that were enviably well-developed -- games that owners of the other consoles would gladly have purchased had they been multi-platform. Military Madness was amongst them, a turn-based futuristic military strategy game from 1989-1990 that evolved the square grid gameplay of Nintendo's earlier Famicom Wars into a hexagonal form, and Miltary Madness: Neo Nectaris ($5) for the iPhone is a visually updated port of its obscure 1994 sequel.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Military Madness formula, here’s a brief primer: you control one of two armies fighting for control of lunar bases, with 48 individual skirmishes in which each army attempts to capture the other’s base. On a given turn, you have the ability to move each of your deployed units over different types of lunar terrain, then attack enemy units that may be in your way. As examples, Charlie infantry soldiers are relatively weak but nimble, climbing over mountains, while Lenet and Bison tanks are stronger but need to follow roads and otherwise mostly flat paths, and Polars are even more powerful and well-defended, but not as mobile. Up to 8 units of, say, a Lenet are moved at one time, and when they attack a less powerful Charlie, one or both sides may see losses. You win only if you take the other side’s base, and then only after eliminating the typically powerful enemy units that are defending it. Military Madness: Neo Nectaris for the iPhone is, unlike the NEC original, only a one-player game.
Whereas fans of Nintendo’s Wars series have enjoyed numerous sequels over the years, each polishing and popularizing the company’s original formula, Hudson’s games never quite benefitted from the improvements that follow-ups could bring, and as a result, the gameplay in Military Madness: Neo Nectaris feels like it’s trapped in a time warp of simplicity and potentially brutal frustration. No action is required in the battles; they’re purely statistical, and animated for your amusement. The only major factors that you need to consider when attacking an enemy are your territorial surroundings and the other units you have nearby—the more you surround an enemy’s hexagonal space with your forces, and the more elevated your position is, the more of an advantage you’ll typically enjoy. Only in this way is it possible for infantry to stand a chance against tanks, and even then, Neo Nectaris is so challenging that you may well be repeating even the second level multiple times, spending 15 minutes a pop in ultimately unsuccessful efforts to dislodge the last tank from the fortress, since this location gives its occupant an unusually strong tactical advantage. It’s hard, yes, but fun? Ehhhhh.
Other disappointments in Hudson’s port are aesthetic. Last year, Hudson released a downloadable $10 PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii remake of the original game that included a complete 3-D graphical overhaul, a new user interface, and dramatic orchestral music. Military Madness: Neo Nectaris is not that game—it’s not even close. The artwork’s still 2-D, considerably improved from the 1994 NEC CD-ROM release thanks to larger-sized units and more detailed planet surfaces, but the graphics are just not especially compelling by 2010 standards. The highlights of the game are unit-on-unit confrontation scenes that show both sides’ forces firing on each other and taking losses, but even these aren’t especially well-animated or thrilling—they lose the 3/4 perspective of the 1994 title, and revert back to the flatter side angle of the 1989 original. Musically, Neo Nectaris has also taken a step back from Hudson’s 1994 release, losing its CD-quality, epic music in favor of chip synthesizer renditions that aren’t especially great and loop relatively quickly. It’s obvious that little was done to optimize this title for the iPhone; only those who have experienced Military Madness ports to cell phones and missed the 2009 console version will find this to be impressive in any way.
If there’s one thing that we can offer limited praise for, it’s the touch interface, which effectively removes the need for a joystick and buttons by enabling all commands to be achieved through grid-based tapping. One tap highlights a unit, the next calls up an on-screen grid for movement, and the next either ends the turn or confirms an attack on a nearby enemy. Though everything feels like it’s requiring more taps than it should—some dragging might have helped smooth out the action a little—at least there’s no need to move a cursor through the hexagonal grid for every move.
Overall, Military Madness: Neo Nectaris falls short of our limited recommendation—it’s a merely okay port of a 16-year-old game that looks, sounds, and feels beneath the capabilities of the iPhone OS platform, and hasn’t even kept up in gameplay with comparable Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS titles released over the past decade. The two groups of people who might like it are true TurboGrafx-16 nostalgics and military strategy gamers who like their skirmishes to be brutally challenging; old school players will have a lot more appreciation for it than those raised on more gracefully and fully designed releases. A port of the more impressive Xbox/PlayStation/Wii title would have been more appealing.