Generally speaking, it’s not often that licensed video games are seen as deserving critical scrutiny in their own right. Why should they be? If they’re not already the object of nostalgic fervor, then it’s easy to dismiss them as the failed products of much larger forces like merchandising and transmedia strategies which are themselves worthy of serious critical analysis. And at first glance, SD Gundam: Operation U.C. seems to fit that bill. Released on the WonderSwan Color in late 2002 (right around the time Gundam SEED first started airing), the Gundam franchise had already seen nine television series, eighteen movies, countless games, OVAs, and every other form of merchandising. This isn’t even considering the bevy of fan produced material since the series’ 1979 inception. In light of all this information (along with the first half of the game’s title being SD Gundam), Operation U.C. looks more like a minor embodiment of the success the Gundam franchise had garnered by this point than it does an artistic endeavor in its own right.
In spite of all this, I don’t think these are sufficient grounds to dismiss the game. Poke around a bit, and you’ll soon learn that the game’s a compilation/adaptation of four Gundam series: Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta, ZZ, and Char’s Counterattack. As straightforward as that sounds, it’s worth remembering that this is a WonderSwan Color game, meaning these narratives are relayed to us through a significant degree of abstraction. This raises some important questions on the extent to which games can adapt these media, and what sorts of messages they’re good at communicating. To be more specific, I want to look at the structural limits the game’s choice genre and medium place on its ability to relay the anti-war ideas in Gundam. That isn’t to say the game doesn’t have its successes. Operation U.C. clearly has a firm grasp on what its source material was trying to communicate. It’s just that for one reason or another, the game inevitably has trouble communicating those same messages in video game form.
As for how the game tries to communicate those messages, Operation U.C. follows in Neon Genesis Evangelion’s footsteps by creating a shot-for-shot remake of the original story. But where Evangelion deploys a variety of gameplay styles in service of that goal, Operation U.C. only ever uses one. Each episode (the action’s presented like episodes in a TV show) sees you piloting your Gundam through space/sky/ocean/forest/desert/etc., shooting and slashing at what few hostile entities impede your progress. Compared to similar games, this game feels notably pared back: no fancy power-ups (save Newtype powers, which are severely limited in use and not always as useful as you’d like), no elaborate enemy formations, barely any dense clouds of projectiles to navigate, and only flat, barren planes to pilot your Gundam through.
As mundane as all of this might sound, it’s a format that lends itself well to many of the demands the stories can make toward the game. For example, the sparse enemy encounters afford the game a wide degree of narrative control. Now I’ll admit that the game doesn’t actually use that control as much as I’d like – its interest in remaining faithful to the source material often translates into scenes without any real emotional character behind them – but the moments where it does exert control demonstrate what strong, immediately palpable story beats the game is capable of creating. Sometimes, you’re given very little time to acclimate as you’re thrust into conflict after conflict. Depending on your circumstances, these can either be something you have no trouble adjusting to (because most of your opposition goes down in a couple of shots) or a relatively tense struggle (because you may be worn down to the point where the same can be said for you). Other times, a battle will feel overwhelming no matter what, whether that’s because you’re facing a legitimately powerful enemy or because of special environmental cues (the eerie, foreboding music that plays leading up to Lalah’s death).
Yet most of the action will feel downright banal. Your sluggish Gundam heaves across the screen, and most models (each story uses a different model of Gundam) can only fire one slow-moving bullet at a time. From a military perspective, these restrictions make a certain amount of sense, but looked at as a game, Operation U.C. isn’t the type of game that’s easy to enjoy. If there is any power behind the machines you pilot, it’s not a power you can easily harness.
Be that as it may, this approach to the Gundam franchise has its limits. In fact, it’s a strange (or at the very least incomplete) way to handle these narratives when you get down to it. It’s common knowledge that Gundam is an anti-war story, but what allowed the writers to tell that story wasn’t a focus on the machines themselves, but on what war does at the individual level. They wanted to show how war serves the interests of those already in power instead of coping with life somewhere in the middle, and to that end, they gave special focus to the compromises people were forced to make in wartime (Miharu doing spy work so she could feed her siblings), or to the long term psychological damage war can wreak on a person’s psyche (Amuro’s emotional breakdown in the military hospital). Even the mecha battles had an uncomfortable human quality to them, as if the show’s animators were refusing to let the viewer abstract the violence they played witness to. This last aspect, at least, survives the transition to video game form.
Unfortunately, many of Gundam’s larger ideas don’t. The problem lies at a conceptual level: by shifting focus away from the now-non-existent human characters and toward conflicts and the machines that are used to wage them, Operation U.C. inverts the original model. On the one hand, this can result in awkward moments of drama that come to a close well before you’ve had time to digest them. Yet I see that as a symptom of something else: the distance the game creates between the player and the events depicted on screen. It’s difficult to put into words, but by only alluding to the human characters’ presence, it’s hard to believe the action on screen is affecting anybody of importance. You start to feel like a neutral observer watching the action from afar where nothing can touch you. The game’s narrative strategies offer a perfect example of this. You’re only ever given the facts: Person A did thing B which caused event C. Narration like this obviously serves its goal of relaying the events that make up these stories, but it also feels stiff and impersonal, like you’re reading a military history of the war (a history that’s only worth something from a military perspective).
Paradoxically, the player’s direct involvement in many of these events only solidifies the issue further. After all, you’re not a neutral observer witnessing Amuro or Kamille deal with these events all on their own; you’re an active agent who re-enacts those events for them as they’re happening. Even if the story you’re re-enacting is pre-determined, you still play a significant role in that re-enactment; certainly enough that each one will play out slightly differently from all the others. In addition, it’s unlikely that any player will approach these scenarios from the exact same circumstances that a Gundam pilot does. This raises some interesting questions regarding what circumstances the player is approaching the game from, how they differ from Amuro’s or Kamille’s, and how this interacts with the stories the game is telling.
Although no two set of circumstances will be an exact match, we can analyze the game for clues regarding which ones it assumed the player would bring to the experience. Operation U.C. was released as a WonderSwan Color game, IE as a portable video game one was meant to play on the go. Developing that thought, portable games weren’t often built with sustained play sessions in mind. That’s why you can beat Super Mario Land in half an hour, for example: because these games were meant to be played in short bursts, whether that was on the bus or during lunch or just after getting home from school. This assumes that whatever situation a game presents us, it’s one we can adapt to fit our own lives. It’s a form of entertainment we use to distract from whatever stresses and worries life might throw our way. And to that end, we’re given a certain amount of control: we choose to enter this world at our own discretion, meaning we choose to what extent that world overlaps with our own. In theory, they’re easily compartmentalized.
That’s not really how Gundam works (or at least not how it should work). In addition to the humanistic focus, another part of Gundam’s thematic project is depicting war as a pervasive state of being. Only a small percentage of people (IE those at the top of the social order) have the luxury of ignoring the damage these prolonged military conflicts can wreak. Everybody else doesn’t have a choice. War is forced upon them; they have to organize their lives around it, no matter what role they play. Needless to say, it’s the opposite situation the player faces, which might explain why a lot of the conflicts have a feeling of normality to them that they shouldn’t have. Where Amuro’s first battle is a stressful affair, and where he has trouble adjusting to life in the military, my first battle feels like business as usual. Having played many similar games in the past, I can move onto the next Zaku without any problem. Of course, that could also be because the environments exist only to facilitate these conflicts. They have a sort of orderly and planned ambiance to them, their large open spaces beckoning somebody to fill them with activity. Even if the battles are chaotic, it’s a chaos the world can easily accommodate.
True, you could say that technical limitations prevented the developers from capturing that level of detail, but I’m not sure how well that argument holds up to scrutiny. Another option would have been to focus on one or two stories in greater detail and break up the action with visual novel-esque cinematics, thus allowing the game to explore its human characters without sacrificing any of the action. Operation U.C.’s choice to tell four stories in relatively broad detail precludes such a strategy.
I think many of the game’s problems stem from its mission on capturing the events of these narratives above all else. It’s not that hard to understand why Operation U.C. chooses this course of action – plot points are both easy to replicate and immediately recognizable to fans of the series – but it does risk overlooking why that specific chain of events was chosen in the first place. For this reason, I also have difficulty imagining the game’s developers as reinterpreting that chain of events to fit their own unique vision. How would they realize that vision when they’re so preoccupied matching it to somebody else’s? What we’re left with is a game that meets its intended goal, but maybe should have aimed its sights a little higher.