Armored Core (PS1): A Reliquary Review
Disclaimer: Armored Core is over 20 years old. Expect spoilers here.
Over the years, thousands of games have come out across multiple systems. Literally thousands. Some are of extraordinary value monetarily, some are of equal value in terms of content. Some people collect them, hoping to assemble a vast collection of artifacts and items of immense value and power to someone who knows what to do with it. You might say I am one of these people, but I would scoff at the notion. I am not a mere collector, seeking to decorate my shelves with the relics of forgotten consoles and peoples.
I am a Treasure Hunter. I seek items of incredible content value, items forgotten to time, items of mysterious power and origin. I store them in my reliquary.
My Name is Xavier Harkonnen, I seek the treasures of the past so I might learn from them; the gems of yore, the lost treasures, the cursed relics of dead cultures and studios, with each holding lessons within them that we can reflect upon and apply to our own modern design principles. It is my goal to share with you some of the artifacts I have collected, encourage you to seek them out, or to retreat from them should they cross your path. And discover what the hard work of those from the past can tell you to help yourselves and others in the future.
You can see my past writing in this vein here, aimed at helping fellow hunters of the mundane and the magical. But for now let me show you a treasure I value greatly, for said content more than for monetary reasons.
Armored Core, for PlayStation 1
Originally made by the order of monks at the temple ‘From Software’, Armored Core is the first in a long line of mech pilot simulations that Sony consoles tend to brim with. Legends even say that it is somehow also the earliest known prototype of Dark Souls, a very hefty claim indeed. The first game was quite common, however due to the nature of the late 90’s game industry with regards to distribution, the other subsequent games of the PS1 generation being much harder to come by, but I have them. Because of course I do.
Despite analog control slowly rolling out across the PlayStation along with the rumble feature, Armored Core sports no analog control, and wouldn’t until later in the franchise. The reality of the early titles is that you use all of the buttons on the controller for something over the course of play. The face buttons control your dash, attacks, and swap weapons. The shoulder buttons allow you to strafe and control your Y‐axis targeting.
You are yourself in this game, a faceless pilot who has just taken the test to join the most elite mercenary corporation on the post‐apocalyptic Earth. Oh yeah, by the way this, is a post‐apocalypse setting. The corporation in question is called “Raven’s Nest” and its pilots are called “Ravens.” The test isn’t terribly difficult, but if it‘s your first time you may have trouble at first getting used to the Y‐Axis shoulder controls, and using the slide mechanic instead of air boost.
Armored Core leans towards the very difficult. A From Software game, hard?
“Never.” I hear you say.
All the jokes to be made aside, not everyone who plays it will be able to beat it, for one reason or another. Perhaps your kit is simply inadequate for the challenges you face, maybe you simply aren’t good enough, or simply you find it hard to compete against an extremely hostile AI player who is not bound by the same restrictions you are. More on that later.
After passing the test to join Raven’s Nest, you are given a bit of money to get started with. It isn’t much, but maybe you can swap out one of your shoulder parts for something else. The mech you tested in is gifted to you as a starter mech, called an Armored Core. You’ll receive job offers to protect various locations from enemy attacks, attack outposts that you could have been hired to protect, recover lost technology, destroy lost technology, eliminate a new type of living weapon, and more. The jobs you take and the hazards you will face determine your pay rate, with the most dangerous missions being the most rewarding. This is the life of a faceless profiteer.
You’ll receive emails from the mysterious ‘R’ who tells you that he is your friend, and offers you advice and extra information on certain jobs that you’d otherwise wouldn’t have been privy to. He makes contact on your behalf in some cases, and he advises you when you should likely not get involved as things could spin wildly out of control. This is what it feels like to be a mercenary.
You also have the power to buy new equipment and customize your Armored Core — called an AC for short. Each limb is a class of part and comes with dozens of types for each, across multiple styles, allowing total personalization and customization. Hundreds of thousands of permutations are possible. You even have the ability to customize your emblem and the paint job for all your AC’s parts. For once, you aren’t playing the badass pilot, you simply are the badass pilot.
Finally you decide that it’s time to leave the Nest and go kill some fuckers to earn some of that sweet sweet dosh to pimp your ride. You go on a mission and get your ass kicked, but you somehow eke out the win. And the best part is you earned 20,000 credits! Until the deductions screen pops up and you wind up with something closer to 10,000 or less.
Ammo cost, repair cost, service tax, special deductions for collateral damage and unintended property damage. This isn’t the glorious legend of a mech mercenary that you signed up for, this… this is like being a real mercenary. You have to learn to budget and shit if you want to get by, although getting better and not getting shot up as much next time is most certainly an option.
-Your First Days-
In the beginning you will find that you are bound by a number of restrictions that are particularly frustrating, like despite being able to load heavy machine guns and massive artillery cannons on your back, you cannot fire them while in motion. You must instead stop moving, take aim, lock on, and fire. Something that just takes too long and leaves you open to enemy fire. The only way around this stipulation is to change your equipment. By switching out your legs to quadrupedal spider legs, or simply tank treads, you gain the ability to fire while in motion, although your accuracy isn’t always the best and you lose the ability to dash.
In the beginning, you will attempt to jump or fly everywhere using your jump jets. You must quickly learn to ignore this impulse, and instead discover the fast‐paced world of Dash‐Slide combat. Holding forward and the dash button will allow you to move more quickly in a direction by sliding. However by combining this with clever d‐pad movement, and the strafe buttons, you become a serpentine speed nightmare, unleashing a torrent of hell fire on those seeking to kill you. At least you do with your held weapon, sure would be nice if you could with your shoulder weapons.
In time, you will find weapons that suit your preferred style and discover what equipment suits the way you want to play and fight. The best part of this franchise has always been its extreme levels of customization. Light and super fast legs or slow but heavily armored legs. Do you opt to be harder to kill with thicker armor at the cost of speed, or do you sacrifice armor and risk being torn apart like tinfoil to dash like the wind? The choice is yours, and you must choose something that works for you.
-The Daily Grind-
As the missions progress, the jobs get more dangerous, more diverse, and come with bigger payouts. However, during a certain part of the game you will find yourself caught in the middle of a war between two powerful corporations: Chrome, inc, and Murakumo Millenium. A particular mission set makes you choose allegiance in the conflict, and determines the path of the missions you receive going forward from there. At one point you will receive the request to attack a certain base, or defend it. This is where you unknowingly pick a side.
The conflict spins wildly out of control as each corporation attempts to throw different types of Super Weapons at one another, from giant‐sized mechs to orbital space cannons, and you’re caught in the middle either helping them or trying to stop them.
…And maybe it would be a bit easier if you could fire your goddamn shoulder weapons while moving! Am I Right!?
Anyway, you’ll eventually make various decisions about your kit based on your average deductions each mission, swapping out solid projectiles for energy weapons to cut cost at the expense of ammo count and stopping power. Changing out your generator to get better output and energy levels, better thrusters for more oomph. Better targeting computers to let you lock‐on farther and target within larger areas. As deadly as your mech will become, you must be vigilant to make it more and more deadly as time goes on, and as new parts become available to you.
You’re forced to think on the fly out on the battlefield, to strategize, and act accordingly to not only achieve mission success, but to do so with minimal deductions from your final pay. You are in a never ending battle with the red ink of the ledger, just as often as enemy mechs. Just like a real soldier of fortune I suppose, although a tedious design choice. It’s certainly an interesting feature that forces you to think about things differently and evolve your approach as the game progresses. One particular load out will not suffice throughout the entire game. You must be flexible. And you must figure out how to fire your goddamn shoulder cannons, while moving!
You would think a game like this would have a super basic story, so you can go out and blow shit up with great gusto, but you’d be wrong. The story in Armored Core is surprisingly complex although not super deep. You live in an era after a cataclysmic war, called the “Great Destruction, that destroyed the surface of the Earth, forcing the population into vast underground cities. It is believed to have been caused by the proliferation of advanced weapon systems and a variety of doomsday weapon used during the war with little care.
Corporations rule over everything in this setting, even the money, CC (Chrome Credits), is named after one of the Mega‐Corps. Each of them has a deep and bitter rivalry as they seek to gain the most power through experimentation, research and development, and recovery of the lost technologies left over from the Great Destruction. All of this comes to a head as one corp wipes out the other in a massive battle that you end up deciding the outcome of with your actions.
After a time you begin doing missions for independent factions as things slow down, but eventually you are charged with a simple sounding mission on behalf of the Raven’s Nest itself.
Remove some explosives from a location.
You do so, but find yourself descending down a mysterious elevator shaft, where you come face‐to‐face with the most powerful, skilled, and highest ranked Raven of them all… “Hustler One”. He‘s a total badass, and is impossible to hit even when you lock onto him. You are better off not fighting him, in all honesty. Actually if you just run past him you will beat the game simply by entering the final area. Even if you kill him, you must fight another instance of him in the same mission. Yes, you read that correct. Also you are at a severe disadvantage against him because unlike you he can fire shoulder weapons while in motion!
You see! It can be done!
The ending itself is largely nothing to speak of, despite the greater story of the ongoing conflict, and the things involved are told through mission briefs, pre‐ and post‐mission mailers, and minor dialogue segments at the start of each mission or during moments where the mission parameters are forced to change drastically. There are only three cut scenes in the game, and the story bits you get from them are very vague and not informative.
So the real treasure was the Ass you kicked along the way! ~End
The graphics are typical of the PlayStation 1 era, and even then are not phenomenal by standards. The graphics appear to be as minimal as possible to allow as many models, and the game has a large number of mission types and maps with a soundtrack that can get you super pumped for the fighting action, making you feel cool, or tracks creeping you the fuck out. Such as the music in the long pipe which I swear has someone saying random phrases now and then in Japanese, and it creeps me out every time I hear it.
You are able to fight other players in split screen, and use the oft‐neglected PlayStation Link cable to fight someone on a completely different PlayStation if had all the hardware available. I imagine this would have enabled magnificent tournament bouts and it’s a shame that such organized fights never came about as far as I know in any major shape or form. The ACs themselves are detailed, and the parts are varied enough to let you make your own unique design that isn’t just a rehash of something already in the game. It even allows you to recreate the ACs of the game’s most famous and skilled NPC pilots to take their machines for a spin.
-Should You Even Bother Playing It?-
Yes, you should. I have played the first Armored Core on and off for years, as well as the later entries in the series, and each is quite good. They allow you to experience the type of combat you desire and build badass robots to wreck shit with so long as you don’t mind paying the virtual bill once the smoke clears. I’ve never met someone who played it that didn’t like it, although it is likely they exist. If you aren’t interested in picking up the first entry for some reason, every PlayStation generation has its own Armored Core or three, but there is a great deal of difference between each numbered entry, and the way the sequels are released can be confusing.
If you like it enough to pick up one of the sequels in the same console generation, you can transfer all of your parts, and your character to the next game. This makes playing all three of the first generation games feel like a trilogy adventure, featuring you as your own original character. Mind you, this will lead to discussions of what things are canon and aren’t. But you can sort that out on your own time, it will be more fun that way.
-What Can We Learn From It?-
As someone trying to develop games now, what can a twenty year old game tell us that we can apply to games going forward?
- Graphics Aren’t Everything: Even among people who like Armored Core, the graphics of the first generation, especially the first game, are not great. However, they get the job done. Through the overall presentation, Armored Core is able to get its ideas across quite effectively. You know the difference between all your weapons and parts, you get how the different ammo types change with particle effects, and the HUD is clear to read and easy to understand. While having the best, most advanced, most photo‐realistic graphics is a grand notion on its own, it is an unnecessary expenditure. Making a game as pretty possible can risk putting presentation above the actual quality of play. You can save money and time making sure the graphics are as good as they need to be to get the point, and solidifying presentation to tie everything together.
- Name Brand Soundtracks Aren’t Everything: Many games insist on having a soundtrack full of either original music commissioned specifically for the game in question, with obscene numbers of tracks for every mood, every moment, every situation, or a roster of licensed music from famous musicians, or at least well known artists. While there is nothing wrong with this practice, Armored Core gives you a variety of different music that is original, but seems like it was produced cheaply in‐house as the music works as situational music for the back, and not as soundtrack you could listen to on the go. Armored Core’s cheaper sounding music selection makes you feel creeped out and nervous, as things tend to fit the atmosphere more, and some tracks still get you pumped like you’re in a classic mecha anime. This is another moment where you can save on development costs.
- Control: I have been playing Armored Core for years, and the controls have always seemed a bit weird at first. But once you get used to them, they seem the perfect arrangement to make your AC dance across the screen in a flurry of boost slide strafes and weapons fire. Even in later iterations of the series, the control stayed remained familiar, clearly playing to the interests of the established fan base. Your controls need not be intuitive at first, and its ok for them to seem difficult to acclimate to at first. It’s more important that the controls are perfect for the type of action and motion you want your players to be able to perform during the game, especially at high level play. If your game is fun, or is simply very much up your customers alley, they will adapt to the controls, and they will be especially pleased when they get good with those controls and are able to perform impressive feats. Having the ability to remap buttons, though, never hurt anyone.
- Story: Your storyline need not be immensely deep, it doesn’t necessarily need a large cast of diverse and interesting characters with interesting character designs, and the overarching narrative doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around your main character. That story can simply be that of a person who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and is now wrapped up in events beyond them, whether they like it or not. A minimalist story can be told simply through briefings, post‐ and pre‐mission communications, and simple five second dialogue bits. At the end of the day, it is the player’s story. It is up to them to play it out and interpret it as they see fit. Your story can be simple, or quite complex with minimalist presentation. Either can work so long as the game is fun and can capture and hold the attention of the player. A story just needs to facilitate a player’s engagement.
- Game play: Game play is the central focus of Armored Core. You are a mercenary mech pilot, with all the pros and cons that go with it. However, you have the ability to grow more skilled in your ACs handling and your own skills by changing your kit, and with extra practice (a practice mode is available to test new parts). The game presents itself in exactly the right way to get its ideas across without confusion, the action bits get you pumped even if considered simple by today’s standards, the quiet tense moments are tense as well, and mission variety keeps thing interesting. No matter how good your story or interesting your characters, if your game isn’t very good or very fun then no one will care. Whatever angle you pursue in terms of game play type, it must be fun enough for your target demographic above all else. Thus you must have a clear understanding of your target audience and what they like. Scratch their itch, but don’t pander.
- Difficult Isn’t a Dirty Word: Armored Core is a very difficult game. I have only beaten it once, and even then I was unable to defeat the aforementioned Hustler One. As a result I was never able to attain the top ranking spot, and the fabled title of “Nine Breaker”. From Software have been making exceptionally difficult games since long before Dark Souls was a glimmer in a designers eyes, and they have created wonderful games with fascinating stories despite minimal presentation. A clear knowledge of their target audience and what that group wants or responds to was clearly central to some of these design choices. These choices are what turned Armored Core from a strange single player game from a developer you likely never heard of, to a power house franchise and helped make From Software a household name.
Within the Armored Core story, you will hear tales of modified human pilots implanted with various cybernetics to make them better and tougher pilots. This is referred to as the Human Plus program, with the pilots who are modified being referred to as a “Plus”.
There are eight modifications that you can gain: the ability to use a long range radar grid without a radar attachment equipped, Missile and Elevation indicators for the radar, increased turning speed, increased movement speed, increased energy meter cap, reduced booster energy consumption, the ability to fire sword waves from your energy sword, and the ability to fire shoulder weapons while in motion using humanoid and reverse jointed legs.
So all you have to do is become a Plus. How so?
You become a Plus by being shit at the game. No lie. You use up all your ammo, and get your AC destroyed several times, racking up over -50,000cc in debt. Upon reaching this number you are treated to a cut scene confirming that because you are such a shitty pilot that they are going to make you a Plus. Repeat several times to get all of the Plus upgrades. You get one per completion of the goal of losing -50k.
You are now the ultimate badass, with cybernetic handicaps allowing you to fire more quickly and maneuver more effectively while still bringing heavy weapons to bare.
Plus status carries over with your game save to the sequels. You might think that losing badly at the game to get upgrades to make it easier is kind of like creating an easy mode. You’d be right. And yet… almost every Armored Core player does it! You’ve made the game infinitely less difficult because now you don’t have to be so thoughtful in your attacks and advancing.
The ability to slide longer, harder, faster and stronger while maneuvering changes the game drastically. Suddenly precision control is far more important as you fight with your own momentum and movement to keep your AC facing the enemy and locked on while you dance around the battlefield and unload on them. While this might have been the case to an extent before, it is now even more important and at play. Git bad, then git gud. Make your mech dance, and allow your to guns sing.
-In the end‐
Seems needless to say after all this, but Armored Core is most definitely a solid addition to anyone’s collection and I highly recommend playing it at some point. You can find Armored Core on the PSN for the price of a McDonald’s combo meal, and PlayStation 1 emulates quite well if you find a physical copy. So you have very little excuse not to at least give this one a go, even if you lack a PlayStation 1.
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