Tuesday, 18 November 2014

MSX Games #1

Herzog (1988)
By: Techno Soft Genre: Strategy / Shooting Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: MSX
Also Available For: NEC PC-88, Sharp X-1

The superb MegaDrive is correctly remembered as one of the finest consoles ever and was graced by countless fantastic games. One of its more under-appreciated gems is Herzog Zwei, a real-time strategy game from Techno Soft (yes, they of Thunder Force fame) which is often cited as one of the very first such games ever. Something that is seemingly even less well-known than this slightly obscure game, however, is that it was a sequel to an even more obscure MSX release called... Herzog! For the linguists among you, the name is actually German for 'duke' (no, I've no idea why a Japanese game has a German name) which does little to explain the premise. Unsurprisingly, the backdrop is warfare, namely a conflict between the 'Mercies' (blue) and 'Ruth' (red), and the goal for both sides is to reach their opponent's base and destroy it.

My 'Land Armour' and some tanks advance on the enemy...
This is done across a succession of nine battlefields. The first of these is the Mercies capital city, Vaxan, and the last is the Ruth capital city, Remerje, with the intervening stages consisting of a variety of rural terrains. If Mercies (player one) are defeated at Vaxan or Ruth (computer or player two) are defeated at Remerje, it's game over for the loser, but if either side lose on any other battlefield they'll just go back one stage, and that means only nine straight victories will be enough for a player one victory. In two-player games you start on 'Cabern', the mid-way point between the two capitals. Each stage consists of a long vertical strip of land which is half a screen wide and viewed from above, with the Mercies/Ruth bases at the bottom/top of the battlefield respectively. Both sides start with a 'Land Armour' unit which is basically a mecha that can either fly or travel along the ground and is the most important unit in the game.

The map - look, there's a town called 'Monkey'! :)
It's the only unit under the player's direct control, for one thing, and can be used to attack any enemy unit in real-time (not turn-based), but it is also able to transport your other units around the battle-field. These include stationery gun turrets and foot soldiers as well as four types of ground vehicle (e.g. tanks, armoured missile launchers, etc) which vary in terms of speed, cost, rate of fire, and armour. All of these units besides the turrets will automatically advance on the enemy, engaging as and when they come into contact with any opposing forces. If they reach the enemy base, or are dropped off nearby, they will attack it causing a set percentage of damage depending on the unit in question. Once its damage reaches 100%, it is destroyed and the battle is won. Your enemy has all the same units available, however, and your Land Armour also takes damage the same way, and you don't want to lose that!

Yes, one-player games only use half of the screen...
It's fairly simple to play as strategy games go but, to be honest, when I first started playing it I had little idea what I was supposed to do. I couldn't really read the Japanese instructions after all, so I resorted to YouTube where there are a few videos of it being played. After viewing one I quickly decided the game looked easy, repetitive, and even a little boring, with not much evidence of strategy, but when I tried it myself it quickly became apparent that the video must've been posted by someone who's an experienced and much-practised player - my own progress didn't go anywhere near as smoothly and it took a good few attempts to even win my first battle. My basic objective as well as the means of achieving it - buy a load of units, transport them to the enemy base one at a time until enough damage has been done - was the same as the more skilled player, but it was more interesting to actually do than it had initially seemed.

Victory for the Mercies...
That's once you have worked out a few things though. Accessing the 'shop' screen, for example, is of vital importance but there's not even a hint as to how to get there as far as I can tell (it's alt+space in case you play the game). It's also interesting that you start the game with a fair amount of money and it's automatically replenished at a rate of 20 units per second (roughly) as well, so you can buy a pretty sizeable army if you want to. And who wouldn't?! Graphically, Herzog isn't the prettiest of games but it's not too bad. Apart from the Land Armour the sprites are very small and most of the landscapes aren't very detailed, but they are quite varied. Aside from the capital cities of either side which are... city-like, the stages feature themes like desert (Colna), grass/dusty trails (Senty), ultra grassy (Astec), rocky (Cabern), beach (Meld), snowy (Dolmo), and icy (Lupars) so there's really not much chance of getting them mixed up.

The 'shop' screen is a must before battle commences...
Interest in Herzog nowadays might only be from a historical standpoint for many gamers at least, but that shouldn't suggest it stinks up the place when you try to play it. Its main problem is simply that it's a very early example of a genre that has gone on to much greater things. Despite some spiffy music it is quite repetitive to play through and the restrictive playfield can be irritating (although you get used to it). The pace of the game is very slow too - it takes ages for your units to get to your enemy's base by themselves which almost makes your job that of an armoured taxi service, and your units are destroyed annoyingly easily as well (although this does at least apply to both sides). Whether played as a curiosity or a genuine strategy game though, it's still fairly enjoyable, especially with two players. It's obviously nowhere near as involving as most 'proper' strategy games, but it's held up better than you might expect.

RKS Score: 7/10


  1. Well, shucks. I came in here hoping your review would be glowing. After all, it's for an MSX-based sequel to Herzog Zwei! Oh, well, I'm still glad you gave it a go so the rest of use won't necessarily have to :)

  2. It's not that bad Bryan, it just has a few faults - cramped playfield (for one player), a bit repetitive.... well, the stuff I listed really. I enjoyed it though, I'm definitely glad I played it. Don't forget - my reviews use all ten numbers, unlike many game mags - 7/10 is a pretty good score! :)