Gaming Obscura: Herzog Zwei

Robert Grosso / September 24, 2015 at 10:00 AM / Gaming, TR Originals   /   Comments

One of the sad truths about video games is that it is hard for some games to just simply be noticed. A lot of factors play into this, from their date of release, the genre they are categorized into, to even just the system they are on. These sort of factors play into the popularity of some games and their continued or diminishing returns thereafter.

Let’s face it, tastes in gaming change over time. The heydays of puzzle platforming are behind us, while FPS titles are starting to suffer from fatigue. What the next popular genre will be is anyone’s guess, but as tastes change so does the appetite for certain classic games.

Take, for example, today’s game: Herzog Zwei. Released by Technosoft in 1989 for the Sega Genesis, Herzog Zwei was a unique game in a time dominated by platformers and action-shooters. Part real-time tactical, part action-shooter, Herzog Zwei was a strange duck in its heyday to say the least, yet was not given its due, being critically panned at the time, with magazines such as EGM offering a paltry 4/10 score.

Yet is the game all that bad as EGM implies? The truth though is that Herzog Zwei has a lot more going on with it. It’s a unique game to be sure; a sequel to a Japanese-only release titled Herzog on the PC-8801 and MSX. Both titles are real-time tactical games centered on giant mechs as hero characters that coordinate an army of tanks and soldiers to take over bases. You win the game when you overtake the enemy base with your troops, while fighting off the opponent at every turn.

Herzog Zwei took this formula and pushed it further, making the player character a transforming mech that can drag and drop troops on an open battlefield. You can toggle between your jet form and your mech form for combat and mobility, and travel pretty much anywhere you wish on the map. Your mech uses fuel to travel, so they must refuel every so often to continue the fight or to repair damage. If you are destroyed, you respawn after a few seconds.

The game offers eight full blown maps to play on, each of them with their own design and environmental effects. Some maps have lakes and waterways that allow you to use boat units, while others actively hinder your troop movements or cause your mech to use more fuel to travel the map—an attempt to simulate different environments. This forces to player to take more care with their troops and strategy; even the terrain is an obstacle that needs to be cared for.

The full control also includes rudimentary commands for your army, a total of eight unit types that have various strengths and weaknesses. You have a total of 50 units that can be on the field at once and have them patrol, attack, defend or even occupy bases across the map. This provides some flexibility for the player, giving them options to plan their attack against their opponent while simultaneously protecting their own holdings.

Suffice to say, the gameplay found in Herzog Zwei is more involved than most games released in 1989/1990. With a lineage from Japanese PC games, the Genesis release for the game is certainly a strange one, considering the Genesis was a primary place for Sega-exclusive arcade games in the early days. Titles such as After Burner, Golden Axe and Altered Beast populated the early history of the system and had more playability and value due to their recognizable, pick up and play game styles.

It also didn’t help Herzog Zwei that the game’s A.I was fairly weak. The strategies employed by the computer opponent are very basic attack and forget patterns. To help compensate for the weaker A.I, the developers did give enemy units more health, but it’s really a negligible difference in the end. 

What does make Herzog Zwei impressive is the two-player mechanics, which allow for frantic, even strategic battles.  The combination of tactics, strategy, and shooting combat make Herzog Zwei an early example of a video game blending several genres together, something we see more and more in the modern day. In fact, retrospective reviews have been more positive, arguing that the mechanics of the game are not only deep and engrossing, but serve to the one the most groundbreaking console strategy games ever made.

The legacy of Herzog Zwei, despite being a fairly basic strategy game, cannot be understated. It should be noted that it was not first game to combine real-time strategy and action combat; that honor goes to titles such as Electronic Arts Modem Wars or Sir Tech’s Rescue Raiders, which employ similar mechanics. That said, Herzog Zwei is a direct influence to more famous console and PC RTS titles, including Dune II, Command & Conquer and Brutal Legend. Another genre, at least tangentially, has also been attached to Herzog Zwei, and that is the MOBA genre.

True, this may be hindsight pinning MOBAs to the game, but some elements are similar to titles like League of Legends or DOTA 2. Even then, retroactively assigning Herzog Zwei as a proto-typical example of a newer gameplay type is still impressive when it fits. The open-world, hero character you control, the various units deployed to take over enemy bases—all of these are major hallmarks of a typical MOBA in the end, giving credence to the argument that Herzog Zwei is an early example of the MOBA genre.

Regardless of its status, Herzog Zwei has certainly paid its dues. Despite little to no fanfare when it was released, Herzog Zwei is now one of the most influential games of all time—living proof that some games do get better with age. As time changes our tastes, some games like Herzog Zwei will become more and more prominent as time goes on, giving us new experiences that would be previously overlooked.  

So I hope you enjoyed this weeks episode of Games You Never Heard of. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or send me a message on twitter @LinksOcarina. See you next time. 

Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.

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