The world of video game imports was a strange place for me up until around 2001 or so. I knew it was possible to buy Japanese video games and had a list of titles I was interested in. But I didn’t bother until that year when I received a big student refund check. Macross 2036 was one of my first imports, partly based on screenshots I saw in EGM but also because of Macross Plus, which were my first DVDs. There are a number of gameplay ideas present that would have made for a fantastic shooter in a better game. But Macross 2036 seems more interested in telling a story than providing excitement. While solid overall it could have been better.
From the onset you can tell this was a lavish production. Macross 2036 is set in between Macross II and Do You Remember Love and follows pilot Mylene Jenius in her battles against a renegade Zentraedi faction. The plot advances through extensive cutscenes in between each level featuring full voice acting. It’s all in Japanese so it is lost on westerners but you can still appreciate the care put into this production.
That attention to detail carries over into the game itself. This is an exceptionally pretty game and becomes more spectacular as you progress. Each level features multiple layers of scrolling against alien landscapes and space. The reflective water amidst destructible crystal like structures in stage three is a particular standout. The scope becomes larger toward the end as you battle capital ships in the middle of a Zentraedi armada. Slowdown occurs frequently as the sprites are very large but is not intrusive. The boss battles are the most impressive as you assume humanoid mode to battle screen sized mechs ripped from the anime.
The soundtrack is just as fantastic, featuring numerous tunes from the TV soundtrack, all in redbook audio. The dynamic score will adjust depending on the action which is also really cool. The sound effects are also taken from the show which is a nice touch for fans. It all serves to better immerse you in the world of Macross which is more than you can say for some of the dreadful later games.
Now if only that attention to detail were passed on to the game itself. As first impressions go Macross 2036 is underwhelming. The initial level is limited in scope as you are only armed with the standard cannon and missiles. Enemy waves are sparse, with long gaps of nothing to pass the time. It at least introduces the format of boss battles but I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking negatively at first.
Stick with it and it improves. At the end of stage one the game’s true depth is revealed. All enemies shot down grant experience except you aren’t leveling up. Experience grants access to new weapons after every level. You’re not actually spending it either; you just need to reach certain milestones. The armory covers many shooter staples with a few original weapons thrown in. There’s a rotating shield that will also spew lasers at the touch of a button as well as rear firing cannons. All weapons are governed by a heat gauge that overheats with use. The weaker the weapon the slower the gauge fills. In many ways this system is similar to Super Earth Defense Force, down to previously selected weapons becoming unavailable.
For all of its systems Macross 2036 is still only slightly above average in its design. Enemies appear in predictable patterns with little deviation. While the action and set pieces become more intense later it is still very routine. One cool feature is a radar that will alert you to enemies that will appear suddenly, either from the front or back. It’s a feature I wish more games employed. It sucks that you are given such an extensive array of weapons but have little reason to use them until the later levels.
The one area that is consistently exciting is the boss battles. At the end of every level you assume Battroid form. You are limited to the Vulcan cannon but can freely fly around the screen. Both buttons control your rotation; its disorienting but pretty cool. You’ll need to master the controls as the bosses are fast and change their angle of attack frequently. Some encounters even feature two or three in succession. Despite the limited playing field they do an excellent job of recreating the epic space battles from the show.
The difficulty is moderate to hard in my opinion. The game does a good job of balancing the weapons. The later weapons that trivialize the game are gated behind hefty experience requirements. No matter how good you won’t acquire them until the game’s second half. It makes the early stages an actual challenge although that isn’t saying much. Death has little consequence as you keep all power-ups and respawn immediately. Despite limited continues most will have little trouble reaching the conclusion.
It’s kind of hard to sum up my feelings on Macross 2036. The extravagant production values deserved to be tied to a much better game. But at the same time what is here is competent if not enjoyable. As it picks up halfway through you’ll wish the entire game had that same spark. If it did this would have been incredible. As is it will have to settle for just being decent.