Battling Together With Captain Harlock
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO LEIJI MATSUMOTO
[A new Space Pirate Captain Harlock fansite is online today. The French site is [here] and it’s the product of a collaboration between various Francophone Leijiverse superfans. In addition, it features content by starblazers.com‘s Tim Eldred and a review of a Harlock video game by myself. Since the review on the site is in French, I’m posting below the original English version for those interested. Do check out the site. It’s gorgeous!!]
“…Tochiro finally broke through to where Emeraldas and Harlock were already fighting Commander Nurem. They knew that the Mazone leader would not surrender and that this would be a fight to the death. As it turned out, Tochiro didn’t have to do anything. He just watched as Emeraldas fired one well-placed gravity beam and the Mazone burst into flames, howling as she went. The invasion had been thwarted for the moment, but Miime and Yuki lay dead, never to return…”
No, this is not my feeble attempt at fan fiction. It isn’t a dream I had either (in my dream it’s Daiba that dies). This is actually what I did the other day, playing the game Space Pirate Captain Harlock (SPCH) and beating Stage One in 7 turns, but at a terrible cost!
This turn-based strategy game will be 20 years old in 2012 (it originally came out for the PC-98, if you know what that is). The game was produced under the supervision of Leiji Matsumoto and it shows. It’s extremely faithful to the Harlock franchise and thus bound to be of interest to every fan.
The goal for each side is to eliminate the leading unit of the opposite side (like “checkmating the king” in chess). When playing against the computer there is also a turn limit. If you are unable to achieve victory within the limit you lose, regardless of the situation on the board. This happened to me in the first stage: after 30 turns I was told I had lost even though I was ahead in terms of units and could have won in 4-5 more turns!
Gameplay and Units
The manual compares the game to chess and go. It’s a very loose comparison. Chess is played on an 8 x 8 board and go on a 19 x 19 board. SPCH uses a 39 x 54 board, and even though some of the squares are unusable (walls, rocks, etc) it’s still a huge playing field. The game units have varying amounts of MP (=movement points, how many squares the unit can move in one turn) but the highest MP for a unit is 6 so it takes ages to go from one side of the board to another.
The game recreates the confrontation between the Mazone and Earth, where the Earth forces include a mixture of the Arcadia crew and regular Army elements. You can choose to fight in either one of two settings: Fleet Combat and Hand-to-Hand Combat. The mechanics of both settings are basically the same, but the units look and behave somewhat differently. Since I started playing the game I’ve been focused on the Hand-to-Hand Combat setting, so I’ll review that one here. I will say something about the Fleet Combat at the end of the review.
For each of the two settings you can choose one of two modes: Scenario and Campaign. Scenario Mode gives you a choice of 5 scenarios. Here you can choose to play either the Earth side or the Mazone side (player against player is also possible). Campaign Mode takes you through five stages (similar to, but not the same as the scenarios) and you must play on the Earth side. As you clear each stage your surviving units increase in experience and become more formidable.
Every turn each side gets to maneuver each and every unit as they please. Each unit type has evasion, protection and combat ratings. And most units can do two things each turn: move (1 to 6 squares, depending on the unit’s MP) and attack. Each type of unit has 1 to 4 weapon types, plus all units can fight hand-to-hand if they run out of ammo. In addition, a unit can choose not to attack but shield itself against a possible attack when the opponent’s turn comes. The game shows a lot of nuance in the balance of movement and attack possibilities.
For example, on the Earth side you have Tori-san and Emeraldas with the maximum 6 MP. These units have a lot of mobility. As you can expect, however, Tori has a very low protection rating and can be killed in two shots if the opponent is lucky. Tori doesn’t carry any weapons, either, so the bird depends on getting close to the enemy, attacking and moving out before it gets too hurt.
Emeraldas on the other hand is better protected and has an impressive arsenal: Gravity Saber, Cosmo Dragoon and HT Knife (Hunting Knife?). Tochiro and Harlock have the exact same weapon set but Emeraldas has more ammo. This is balanced by the fact that Emeraldas has less protection.
Yattaran has a solid weapon, the Cosmo Percussion M78, and he is extremely tough, with more protection than any other unit in the game. But he is very lazy and can only move 2 squares per turn. Kei Yuki carries the M-78 plus an HT Knife and can move 4 squares at a time but she is far less protected than Yattaran. I could go on, but I think you get the picture!
To add to the complexity, a fight between two units is influenced by the surrounding area. If Harlock attacks a Mazone trooper who has nearby support, the enemy will evade him more easily. If Harlock is surrounded by the enemy (as in the screenshot above) he will have a higher chance of being hurt every time he is attacked. This encourages units to move together to increase offensive and defensive power.
Reinforcement and Recovery
Every turn that passes each side accumulates reinforcement points. For some reason the game calls them VP (victory points?). Players need to keep track of their VP and make difficult choices: should I use a lot of VP and introduce a strong unit? Use two turns to bring in 2 weaker units? Each side has special units (regeneration centers and man-eating trees for the Mazone; hospitals for the Earth side) that can bring in reinforcements. These units may also serve as recovery zones. You can have your wounded units go into a hospital (Earth) or a regeneration center (Mazone) and nurse themselves back to health to fight again. Recovering doesn’t cost points, but there is a limit to how many units can be in a recovery unit at one time.
The most confusing aspect of the game is this issue of leaders, reinforcement units and recovery units. There is a lot of overlap, but it all depends on the stage/scenario. There is one scenario where the Earth side has no hospital. After a lot of clicking and checking, I discovered that in that case Harlock is both the leader and the reinforcement unit, and there’s no recovery unit!
In the first stage of Campaign Mode Commander Nurem (who featured in episode 5 of the anime, if you recall) is both the Mazone leader and the reinforcement unit, with no recovery unit available. The Earth side has a hospital that serves the three roles of leader (!), reinforcement unit and recovery unit so presumably in that stage killing Harlock does not mean automatic victory for the Mazone. The aliens must destroy the hospital. The manual doesn’t go into any of these things so it’s really trial and error for the player.
The Campaign Mode is particularly challenging because the best units on the Earth side (=the crew of the Arcadia) are all, except Tori, irreplaceable. If Miime dies in Stage One, you are forced to keep playing without her. As a consolation, units that survive improve in evasive abilities and I imagine a better player than I can do better than to lose two key members in the first stage!
Graphics and Sound
The game is old and it shows, but it does very well with what it has. When an attack is in progress you get to see both units using their selected weapons. My favorite is the Hallucination attack that all of the high-ranking Mazone units possess (Lafresia can fire off 20 of them!). It reminds me a lot of Daiba’s struggles with the devious Lola 😀
The soundtrack consists of a series of screeches, annoying beeps and your typical MIDI background track. If there were something I could change in this game it would be the sound.
I’ve only played this a couple of times, for two reasons: I prefer to concentrate on one setting before I jump into the next one; I prefer animation with pirates and Mazones shooting at each other over the ships in space. But I suspect I might be in a minority in this regard, so let me describe Fleet Combat briefly.
Most of the units are spaceships, from Cosmowings to the Arcadia, and from the Zoness to Queen Emeraldas. Even the Stanley Witch turns up as a Mazone unit!! An interesting aspect of Fleet Combat is that units like the Arcadia can hold several smaller vessels, and one possible strategy would consist of hiding your weaker units in the battleship, carrying them to the enemy and then releasing them for maximum damage. You cannot do that in Hand-to-Hand Combat mode because, well, hospitals don’t move.
Stage One of Campaign Mode is a great example of how faithful this game is to the dynamics of Leiji Matsumoto’s universe. The Earth side begins with only two units: Queen Emeraldas and the Arcadia. Between those two units are 20 Mazone ships!! The pirate ships are so strong that often you don’t have to attack a Mazone ship to destroy it. When a ship attacks the Queen Emeraldas, for example, the pirate zeppelin’s (automatic) counterattack is usually fierce enough to destroy it. I almost suspect you could make yourself a sandwich and watch the pirates destroy the opposition while you eat!