About fifty minutes.
That’s roughly the time it takes for my much-used coffee machine to heat up, gurgle away to itself for a bit, and then politely switch off the handy keep-warm hotplate that sits underneath the huge glass jug now filled with sweet, sweet, caffeinated bean juice. Funnily enough that’s also roughly how long a first timer takes to play Mobile Suit Gundam Side Story I: Senritsu no Blue through to the end credits as well.
That doesn’t sound like a long time, does it? So let’s put it another way: That’s approximately three complete runs through the recently released arcade platformer Clockwork Aquario. Almost seventy-seven unimpressively middling laps of Virtua Racing‘s Forest stage. A touch short of a full all-emeralds game of Sonic The Hedgehog 2.
And it’s not a surprise either.
This was always intended to be the first of three: Not one expansive game hurriedly split into several pieces to satisfy a looming deadline and dwindling budget, nor something artificially extended far beyond its original scope to extract as much money as is legally possible from fans (which isn’t to say Bandai doesn’t engage in that sort of behaviour), but a true sequential trilogy, each one released somewhere around three months after the previous entry. This is episodic gaming before we’d found the words to describe it or even understood something that was possible; the ending even includes a “To be continued in Ao wo Uketsugu Mono” lead in to its own sequel. Not that you need to get that far before you’re made aware of the game’s action-in-instalments nature – the manual makes no attempt to hide the fact that Senritsu is one part of a trilogy (this is mentioned in a short paragraph early on), nor that it’s just five stages long either seeing as it lists them all alongside a screenshot and short description of each mission.
Even so, it’s easy to ask why they couldn’t have released all three parts together (and magically not tripled the price), or if they could include five missions on one disc then why not six? Or seven? Or ten? Or include more than four different kinds of enemy mobile suits?
After playing it for myself I feel questions like that are missing the point. Senritsu no Blue is exactly the right amount of the only thing it was trying to be, and what it was trying to be was an enthusiastically high-speed 3D action game, one whose short running time serves its easy-access simplicity well. There may only be one suit for you to pilot with one weapon loadout (rifle, vulcan, beam sabre), and no ammo concerns beyond a limited supply of hand grenades, but that’s all it needs. Senritsu’s not trying to usurp the sim-tastic Armored Core or Steel Battalion (I do wish someone would dare to try though…), the aim here is to fill the main character’s seat in a Gundam game, to feel what it’s like to stomp around a battlefield from within one of those iconic bipedal machines, to be an enemy shooting hero for a short while.
This is why your best course of action is always to lock-on to the nearest enemy (it is possible to manually turn/aim yourself, but the game’s too fast-paced for such ponderous movement to be of any real use), dash towards them (double tap the d-pad in any direction), and then if you’re not leaping high into the air to try and get a few shots in without destroying the impressively detailed scenery scattered around it’ll be because you’re closing the distance, ready to unleash a devastating slash with your beam sabre. The sights and sounds created as you loom over street lights and tower over tanks, walk on top of parked cars and leap easily over barriers, do a fantastic job of conveying the weight and power behind these extraordinary suits, of making you believe just for a moment that you’re sitting in the cockpit. Even your visible weapon arm dips a little as you land from a jump, the same way it does in all of the very best mech-based games.
There are some missed opportunities though: You’re one part of a small team of three, and brilliantly all three of you engage in pre-battle banter and your friends are (almost) always seen fighting wherever you are. That’s great! The problem is – that’s it. There’s no mid-mission radio chatter, no way to order them to converge on your target or fan out and protect the area – not even any portraits or names are shown on your HUD. It’s also at times shallow rather than simple, with enemies all reacting to your attacks in a disappointingly similar way and the missions you’re given amounting to little more than “Kill them before they kill you“, with an occasional side order of “And don’t blow up the friendly targets by mistake either” (hey, I was excited!). The silver lining here is that while completing these missions is a straightforward job, scoring well enough at them to earn high scores and the top rank that goes with them is not. Better still clearing the game unlocks a level select, allowing you to replay any stage you like and get enough practise in to improve your final grade without having to repeat the full set of stages over and over again. From what I’ve read your military rank can carry over all three games and may have an impact on the miniseries’ ending to some degree, although we’ll have to wait until I finish the third before I can confirm that for you.
If you’re thinking of scooping these up for yourself you should know there are two versions of this (and every other game in the trilogy): a standard CD case/manual/CD release and an appealingly caseless version that neatly stores the disc in the back of a glorified and pleasantly matte hardback manual that brings the original Tekken‘s PAL-region cardboard PlayStation case to mind. Apart from the packaging there’s no difference between the two – no secondary art booklet, bonus disc, altered CD art, or anything like that. So with that in mind I’d recommend buying whichever one you happen to come across first as there’s nothing special about the genteiban version other than looking a little different to all your other Saturn games. If you’d prefer a more modern take on these events this trilogy was remade, reworked, and then included as one part of the PlayStation 3 title Gundam Side Stories, although a quick skim of the images floating around online suggest both the gameplay and cutscenes were heavily altered, virtually beyond recognition.