I was always a fan of the Risk board game as a kid, and Herzog Zwei was kind of like Risk if you infused real time action, mechas, and intense futuristic tank battles. An obscure gem for the Sega Genesis, it released in 1990 from Technosoft and happens to be one of the best strategy mecha games ever developed.
Cited as an inspiration for games like Warcraft, Starcraft, Dune II, Command & Conquer and even Brutal Legend, Herzog Zwei was a surprisingly deep experience for its time with its streamlined controls and numerous tactical possibilities. I used to play this game for days on end because it was so much fun. At the same time, it wasn’t mindless entertainment, but the kind that required strategic precision and a whole lot of careful planning.
The battles of Herzog Zwei take place in the Aria Republic, a fictional country that was enslaved by the dictator, Herzog Eins. An opposing leader, Ludwig, leads the rebellion in a fight against the “war machines of General Balsaga.” Normally, I’m really big on story as I feel a fight with characters you care about gives battles more meaning. But with Herzog Zwei, I let my imagination fill in the empty spaces. Basically, it boils down to two commanders fighting each other across eight battlefields.
As high commander, you control a mecha that has three forms; a mecha infantry soldier that can attack enemy units; a jet that is useful for flying over the entire map and conduct reconnaissance; and transport mode which allows players to treat any of their units like cargo and take them where they need. This means that you’re not just some distant deity directing your units from afar, but you’re actually thrust into the thick of it. Both regular units as well as the enemy’s high commander are susceptible to your gunfire, and vice versa, and it’s that mix of real time strategy and shooter action which makes Herzog Zwei’s battles so compelling. Death results in your explosion and a respawn back at your main base. You have to refuel and start anew, causing a little more chaos for your foes as you advance your own forces.
There are eight different types of units you can build that cover everything from support units to attack tanks. They each have meters like a damage gauge, energy (fuel), and gun level (ammo) that need to be maintained with a supply truck. The most important defensive unit is the powerful stationary cannon, the GMR-34A which also has missiles and are deadly for the opposing commander. I’d surround my base with the GMRs, have some TAX-52 tanks to provide additional shielding and prevent the enemy commander from carrying out a sneak attack. Since the GMR cannons were so expensive, I had to deploy infantry to acquire every outpost I could get my hands on. The more of those smaller bases you have under your control, the more production resources increase, allowing you to purchase additional weapons (the cap is fifty units per side).
Instead of directly controlling these units, you program them with a set of simple commands that range from the BDF-1SD that keeps your unit stationary and in guard mode, to the AF-001A that causes the chosen unit to patrol the area. The command I used the most was the BA001C which meant unleashing a full on assault on the enemy base.
If it seems like I’m geeking out on the details, it’s because I cherished the tactical nuances of the game.
I didn’t actually have Herzog Zwei growing up. A friend of mine did and I’d go to his house, stay over the weekend, and play against him and his brother. They were much better than I, but I couldn’t stop competing. Herzog Zwei’s split screen combat is really where the game shines. When I finally got my own Genesis, they let me borrow the game and I went through all eight campaigns at their four difficulty settings, playing anyone who was willing.
Obviously, a human opponent is a completely different beast from the AI. Since enemies have a direct avatar in the mecha commander, it made battles more persona. We’d often spend time hunting each other down rather than focusing on the battle between our units. Since it was split-screen, you could look over and see what they were planning and where they were. There was a code of honor that we weren’t supposed to, but no matter who I was playing against, one side would, resulting in loud protestations of outrage. The best moments would be catching an enemy commander while they were in transport mode carrying valuable cargo. Blow them up then and they’d lose the unit they were carrying. Hearing them curse angrily as a result was part of the competitive joy of the experience.
The eight battlefields switch up the gameplay with geographic differences. Some have canyons and lava pits that aren’t easy to cross and necessitate strategic planning in your deployment. The Strand is one of the most interesting as it’s a series of tiny islets you battle over, requiring the active use of water units. There’s so many combinations and ways to fights, your strategy has to be malleable. Do you go for the direct route, dropping off as many of your units as you can directly at the enemy headquarters? Or do you slowly invest in the minibases, which in turns equals more money to spend on units to overwhelm the opposition?
The music complements the war theme perfectly and the visuals depict futuristic warfare with a nice blend of grit and sleekness. Beating the game means you defeat the AI opponent on all eight battlefields on all four difficult levels. If you are victorious on the Republic’s side, you learn the rebellion’s commander, Ludwig, kills himself and is buried with “due respect.” If you beat the game as Ludwig, he creates a New Republic of Aria and implements a series of reforms that makes life better for its people. While emerging victorious in the campaign was a feat in itself, the proudest moments I had were beating friends in one-on-one matches.
This is one of those special games that those on the know cherish and I can’t recommend it enough for fans of RTS games. I saw a buddy at Tokyo Game Show two years ago and we bonded over memories of Herzog Zwei, expressing a mutual wish that the new Genesis/Mega Drive Mini might have the game and allow players to duel it out online. I don’t know if it’s a possibility but at the least, the battles would be epic.