Friday, November 11, 2011

East vs. West: Veigues Tactical Gladiator (1990)

I never owned Veigues Tactical Gladiator for the TurboGrafx-16 back in the day -- if I recall correctly, the preview video at Babbage's put me off the game at its original $49.99 retail price -- but I recently imported the PC Engine version.  This HuCard-format mech-themed scrolling shooter was developed by Game Arts (of Thexder fame) and Victor Musical Industries, and brought to the West by NEC.  There's nothing really Tactical about the gameplay -- it's a straightforward side-scroller -- but there are some strategic RPG-lite options available as we decide how to upgrade our mech between levels.

There aren't many differences between the Japanese and North American versions -- the same title was used in both territories, although the original Japanese logo is a little more stylish and friendly than the "serious" one imposed on the US version:

Note that the US version did not fix the typo on "PROGRAMED BY BITS", even though a new font was employed:

Beyond the title screen, the only difference is that the Japanese text used to display alert messages has been replaced with English text; this stands out only because most of the game's text is already in English.  And the US translation leaves much to be desired, perhaps because of limited message display space -- when our Veigues mech is too damaged to continue and blows up, the evacuation alert is a bit terse:

The visuals are repetitive -- likely due to cartridge space limitations -- but solid, with no flicker and impressive parallax background scrolling (up to five layers, though only a few planes ever overlap, and during the mech's brief vertical leaps the illusion of depth is compromised.)  The chiptune music is pleasant and appropriate -- there's an intentionally beepy/boopy pure-sine-wave character about some of the instrumentation that fits the robot theme well, and several tunes are memorably catchy.

What's unusual about this release is that this quintessentially Japanese game came to the US in such unadulterated form, with its lumbering red-and-silver mech fighting robotic koala bears:

Veigues Tactical Gladiator does a good job of reminding the player that a giant robot is an unwieldy fighting machine -- we can leap up into the air by pressing up on the D-pad, but these jumps are brief and we plummet back to earth almost immediately.  Unfortunately, this philosophy extends to all the controls -- we can't crouch, because turning left and right requires pressing down on the D-pad to face the other way.  We have two types of weapons, a long-range bullet and a short-range cannon, each assigned to one of the PC Engine's two fire buttons -- but both only fire straight ahead and are not much use against many of the enemies we encounter.  We're out of buttons, so firing our weak auxiliary guns requires pressing both fire buttons simultaneously -- we begin firing at a downward angle, but can press up and down while holding both fire buttons to change the aim.  It's suitably challenging for those inclined to master the controls, but it tends to feel like we've brought a tank to a knife fight a lot of the time -- and the knives are winning.

The game's serious mech theme extends to its damage model -- we can lose the Tactical Gladiator's head and one or both of its arms if they sustain too much damage.  But there's no way to recover these lost components mid-level -- we can fight a boss headless easily enough, but if our arm-mounted weapons are lost we're severely handicapped.

Conserving energy during play earns points which can be used to upgrade various aspects of our mech between levels -- it costs more to upgrade our weapons, less to upgrade our shields, and this does provide for some strategic elements.

But Veigues Tactical Gladiator's controls and gameplay are on the unforgiving side, and the level designs are repetitive.  We march from left to right, dealing out damage as best we can and taking it in turn.  And eventually it's time to put the mech back into storage -- there's no continue mechanism after we lose our one and only mech for good, so once we're down, we're done:

I don't expect to see a revival of interest in Veigues Tactical Gladiator any time soon -- it's not a forgotten classic, by any means, and after a few hours with it I wasn't making much progress, nor was I having enough fun to continue battling the controls.  But it is an example of a certain era in videogame technology and Japanese pop culture, and notable as one of the more unusual PC Engine titles NEC (in its finite wisdom) brought to the US TurboGrafx-16.

Veigues Tactical Gladiator is reasonably affordable if your collection needs an example of early-90s Japanese mech gaming.  You may be able to find a copy for purchase here:

Veigues PC-Engine Hu


  1. It really was a great game--the key was in knowing what to upgrade each level. For instance, on level 2, upgrade the directional chest weapon to its max--you'll take out all those pesky tanks easily. Then next map, remove the upgrades and put them somewhere else. Veigues had a lot of gameplay for a system with only 2 buttons on the controller.

  2. What a fantastic game, a bit difficult at first with a high learning curve and not enough documentation. Once you can get past the learning process, it quickly is one of the best mech games of the era. The game plays like it should have been on a CD.