Thoughts on the Armored Core Franchise


Debuting in late-‘Ninety-Seven/early-‘Ninety-Nine (depending on the region), Armored Core jumped on the train led by the MechWarrior series and the first Virtual On, and quickly carved out a niche somewhere between the two.  It’s had a long history—but one that’s been riddled with stagnation, which hasn’t been helped by the localization rights being passed around from company to company like a corporate version of the kids’ Hot Potato game.

That niche it carved out was one that it was more or less forced to stay in throughout its life.  It was less complex than MechWarrior and far more complex than Virtual On.  the plots of each game were mostly identical—you generally took control of a Raven, a mercenary working for a group of mech pilots (with bases named things like Raven’s Nest, Raven’s Ark, and so on, depending on the individual title), taking jobs for anyone at all who can pay your fee.  The series is set in a dystopian future where humanity has started branching out a little into the solar system, where governmental rule has fallen and corporations rule.  That’s basically every game in the series, right there.

Another main tenet of the plots in the titles is that the aforementioned corporations tend to squabble and hire the player’s character to do things like destroy a rival’s warehouse, steal someone’s prototype part, or whatever else.  By the end of it, a corporation is discovered to be involved in something truly diabolical, and throws everything they have at the player to keep them away—and they usually have a lot to throw.

The fans didn’t come back to the series for the plot, because after they played their first game, they had a decent idea of what to expect from every other title in the series.  So what drew gamers back?  The game play.  From the start, they handed you a large machine (originally, the term “core” only referred to the torso, but the term has since come to mean the mech as a whole) and let you customize it however you wanted.

You could apply any color combination you wanted to it, you could swap legs and arms and everything else, and you could even pick—or, better yet, design your own—emblem for it to wear.  It wasn’t a cumbersome system, either; it was actually rather intuitive, great for min-maxers who would spend hours studying every stat to come out with the perfect mech, as well as the more casual player who’d just glance at the stats.

Most games also had some variant on what was dubbed in the first game as Human PLUS, where you unlock extra abilities.  For example, your generator (what it sounds like; the part that provided power for your mech) became more powerful, you could fire a laser wave from your Laser Blade, and quite a few others.

What made this interesting was that, in nearly every other game on the market, players unlock such powerful abilities by some complex string of tasks, not opening four chests out of a thousand, or paying real money for downloadable content.  In the first Armored Core, however, you unlocked them by failing.  A lot.  Fail enough and your mech pilot essentially gets experimented upon, with a new ability granted to them.  Do this six times, and you can become incredibly powerful.  Of course, since later enemy Ravens seem to be completely PLUS as well (and a few displayed abilities that the player could not, under any circumstances, obtain for themself), it’s not really as game-breaking as it might seem.

There’s a Let’s Play of the first game available where the Let’s Player goes through the game with a PLUS pilot and details the abilities granted, for the curious.

As mentioned before, the localization rights changed hands incredibly often.  Sony Computer Entertainment America handled the localization to the West for the first game, Agetec handled the PlayStation 2 titles, then Sega came back for another round with Armored Core 4 for the PlayStation 3 and X-Box 360, and Namco-Bandai will handle Armored Core V, when and if it ever comes out.

The reason why the rights were passed around so much?  Money.  As said before, the series has always been more of a “niche” series; it was never really going to be the mech genre’s Halo or Final Fantasy.  One main reason for that is the aforementioned stagnation.

By the time of the first title’s release, the PlayStation controller didn’t feature the analog sticks now completely expected by gamers.  The Dual Shock controllers debuted in Japan in late ‘Ninety-Seven, and most other countries got them the next year.  As such, they were still coming into vogue, so plenty of games didn’t even use them, Armored Core included.  You moved with the D-Pad, and looked up or down with the shoulder buttons.

That was perfectly fine for the first game, even alright for the second—but this is a control scheme the series has kept for most of its run, even long after games that didn’t really need to switch to using the analog sticks did so anyway.  It wasn’t until Armored Core Nexus, released seven years after the original, that the analog sticks were used fluidly (technically they could be kind of used before, but it was never fluid, or you couldn’t use them for movement and aiming at all, and they weren’t usable, period, in the first two titles)

As such, while the series was originally well-received, you can track a slow decline.  It’s not quite a straight line, of course; imagine it more like a graph with peaks and valleys, but a clear beginning point near the top and a ending point near the bottom.

So, to recap—for the longest time, the control scheme was wonky and there wasn’t a whole lot of major deviation between the titles in terms of plots.  Therefore, it was never a major money-maker, and so companies handling localization had a hard time keeping the desire to work on the series.

There have been a lot of game play tweaks over the years, from the introduction of “heat” (and the required radiator to cool back down before you overheated), inside parts, the ability to dual-wield firearms, and a lot more.  Those changes were actually received by some as welcome additions, yet by others as over-complicating a set-up beautiful in its straightforwardness.  (Though that’s more a case of not being able to win for losing, in my opinion.)

Yet, the series continues on, like the little franchise that could.  As mentioned before, the fifth major game (like Final Fantasy, you have your “main” series, and then a variety of off-shoots and sequels) is slated to be released soon, sometime this year in Japan, and sometime next year everywhere else.  The series continues to bring gamers a fast-paced action game blended with a mechanized dress-up game.  Who knows where the series will go?  It’ll be interesting to find out, as the franchise continues to plug right along.

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