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  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Nectaris

    Posted on August 29th, 2009 keving 8 comments

    (Military Madness)

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 2/9/89
    5800 yen
    HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Strategy
    PC Engine FAN Score: 22.62 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “This game’s main draw is its approachability for beginner players. All the complexities of the genre have been removed in an attempt to emphasize the core fun of the game. You cannot create your own units, but otherwise the game is very well put together.”

    A game that blazed trails (although Famicom Wars lended it the machete a few months previous) and eventually led to Advance Wars and the “console strategy RPG” genre at large, but wasn’t fully recognized for it until years afterward. The PCE FAN score seems shockingly low, especially when you consider the sort of games that outrated it at the time (such as Sunsoft’s loony RPG Out Live, coming soon to this column). VideoGames & Computer Entertainment gave it a “Best Military Strategy Game Award” in 1990, but that sounds like damning with faint praise, somehow. I mean, what other console military strategy games were released in 1990? Nobunaga’s Ambition?


    Japan was no stranger to serious wargames by the end of the 1980s. Koei was going full-tilt with their historical sims and PC developer System Soft had the modern era covered with its Daisenryaku games — basically straight-on recreations of tabletop wargames, even more grognard-y than Koei’s stuff. Nectaris’ battle system is nowhere near on the scale of either of these games; there are fewer components to it, but every part of it is expertly polished and expertly balanced. And that’s what makes it a classic — the system’s so refined that even beginners can master it. (Intelligent Systems’ Famicom Wars was first with this general concept by about half a year, but I think Nectaris is far more polished than even that game, itself considered a classic in Japan.)

    Even if you ignore the in-game tutorial and feed the instruction booklet to the dog, it only takes a couple rounds to grasp how things work. Essentially, this is a very expansive game of rock-scissors-paper. Ground units are weak against air units; air is weak against anti-air artillery; artillery is weak against ground forces. That’s the basic rule of thumb, but each individual unit has its quirks as well, making it more than a simple “if A, then B” contest. Ground may be weak against air, but some ground units have such overwhelming defense that they can deal against airplanes well enough. You have to be aware of the potential surround effect, the support effect and the zone of control behind each conflict, but the way the game teaches you that without a hitch is remarkable — and also pretty much unheard of in the genre, anywhere in the world.

    Strategy-game maniacs need no introduction to the “zone of control” idea, but simply put, it means the hexes that surround any given unit. If you have allied units next to you when entering combat, the enemy unit’s actions will be restrained, making it easier to gang up on the guy. This means that neither you nor the enemy are free to move units around the map without a care in the world, and that little facet is what provides most of the depth behind Nectaris’ gameplay. Tactics like using one unit to stop an enemy, then sliding another one to the side to launch an ambush, are the bread and butter of the game. To this is added the “surround effect” (if the enemy has fewer adjacent hexes to escape to, its defense will take a penalty) and the “support effect” (if you have an ally adjacent, you get an attack bonus). There’s also the terrain effect, which the lovely battle screen makes self-explanatory at a glance.

    Nectaris Nectaris

    For a strategy game, Nectaris can get surprisingly exhilarating, especially when you gang up on hapless enemies with multiple leveled-up units at once. This holds especially true later on, when you might have three Hunters (the highest-level air unit) wiping out low-level enemy air fighters in one go, or tanks mowing down unarmored soldiers like some kind of Liveleak video.

    Not only do you see it unfold onscreen, but all the calculations are made for you on the bottom before anything happens, so if the enemy’s hopelessly outclassed, you get a rush when you see the numbers. I have an attack of 900 and they have a defense of 8? Hmm. Shame. That said, even weak units have a chance to hold their own (or at least not die) against tanks and such when leveled, and with each map easily graspable in the mind (and with no such thing as unit replenishment), you can’t help but really care about your little guys.

    Nectaris isn’t a fully-on strategy game and shouldn’t be compared to them. It’s a matter of scope, after all. Daisenryaku and the rest are very literally war simulators, giving you control over vast numbers of units across an entire ocean or continent or whatnot. Meanwhile, this was the first game you could call a “strategy RPG” — a small stretch of land, just a few units at any given time, the individual building blocks that get stacked together to create, for the first time, a war. It’s neat, it is.

    I am making my own YouTube videos now. Let me know if you think the subtitles (annotations) are annoying or helpful. There’s only one in this video, but…

    Nectaris was not a massive sales success — it broke 100,000 copies in Japan, which puts it in the same realm as a lot of early Hudson HuCards — but it was obviously a game well-loved by its creators, because it keeps on popping up over the years. The game was ported to the PC-9801’s MS-DOS flavor by System Soft, offering much needed mouse support; Hudson themselves created a native Win95 port in 1997 and released it for free on LOGiN magazine’s covermount CD.  (This is still playable on Vista, but if you asked me, the PC-9801 port still handles a lot better.)

    Neo Nectaris (1994) is the direct PCE sequel, one of those games Turbo users wistfully dreamt for but never had a chance of getting; this despite the fact that opinions are pretty mixed on that game in Japan. Hudson released Earth Light and Lunar Strike for the Super Famicom, both of which use the Nectaris system. Military Madness has been on Virtual Console for years now, of course, and a full-on WiiWare update is coming soon as I write this.

    Point bein’, it’s retained a faithful fanbase. And for good reason — it’s both a nifty introduction to the genre and one of its most well-polished examples, even 20 years on.


    8 responses to “[I ♥ The PC Engine] Nectaris” RSS icon

    • As much as I love Nectaris, Famicom Wars came out a year earlier and was probably a more direct predecessor of Advance Wars (and possibly other games):

      Also, you did a pretty poor job at this Nectaris level 😉

    • Never played this game, despite hearing about it over the years. One thing I’m struck by after reading the description of the combat system is that the Gundam strategy game series Giren no Yabou apparently borrowed VERY heavily from Nectaris.

    • I wanted to mention Famicom Wars but never quite got around to it. I think I will add that.

      Nectaris is way better however *crosses arms*

      Also the video was mainly a test of video capturing for me, so I just let it run on CPU v CPU mode while I futzed with things.

    • ..and the music + sound effects are wonderful in Nectaris. One of my pet peeves is when sound effects are annoying. For me, Nectaris has really yummy sfx that I haven’t gotten sick of, even after 20 years. Plus, I think some cell phones borrowed some (or one) sfx for their UI.

      My favorite aspect of Nectaris, from a puzzle-solving perspective, is the role “conservation” plays. Every last unit is precious, and you discover ways to use seemingly useless units (for example, anti-air units can be repurposed after you eliminate your opponent’s air force, if only to block/surround your opponent).

      Consevation won’t win every battle, though. When you do decide to sacrifice some troops, you bite your nails hoping that your calculated suicide run will pay off.

      The challenge ramps up nicely in Nectaris, with Hunters (Death with wings) quickly becoming the bane of a player’s existence. Sometimes, the path of least resistance is to focus on capturing your opponent’s base instead of decimating every last soldier. Needless to say, these two approaches require vastly different tactics, particularly in the later stages. .

    • I like captions a lot, especially for a game that is boring to watch like this one. Your viewers can always turn them off if they’re too much.

    • Whoa, I never made the connection between Nectaris and the Earth Light games before. I wonder if the series shared any significant development staff?

    • > Whoa, I never made the connection between Nectaris and the Earth Light games before. I wonder if the series shared any significant development staff?

      Earth Light: Luna Strike was developed by Kogado Studio. Don’t know if they had anything to do with the other games…

    • yeah, I was surprised by your lack of famicom wars mention as well – because nectaris, though I really love it dearly, is notable to me as one of Hudson’s early attempts at perfecting a genre piece that someone else had started.

      famicom wars – nectaris
      zelda – neutopia
      mario – bonk
      gauntlet – dungeon explorer
      wonder boy – adventure island (though this is a sort of different scenario)

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