Students, statistics, and bloodthirsty beasts

In 1945 a mysterious black moon appeared in the sky and waves of mythical beasts – goblins, gorgons, naga, and worse – began to roam the land, their only goal to kill, without malice or anger, every human they could before they expired. It’s now 1999. Humans have been erased from entire continents and the situation is now so dire schoolchildren are not only educated in warfare but routinely sent off to battle in tanks, powered suits, and giant bipedal mechs to try and keep the emotionless hordes at bay with no guarantee they’ll make it back alive.

This isn’t a war, it’s an extermination.

As dark and desperate as Gunparade March‘s situation sounds it’s in many respects nothing most of us haven’t seen before (some of my favourite games ever are happy to revel in a lighter variation of this setting), however there’s an attempt to strike a balance between the extremes of “Teenaged friends in matching outfits” and “Everything is doomed and fighting is futile” that helps to keep it feeling fresh. The initial playable character, Hayami Atsushi, as well as their classmates, spend much of their time as ordinary(ish) young people who just happen to be alive and in Kumamoto at the time the game takes place rather than an elite team of dedicated fighters. Teachers with aviator sunglasses permanently welded to their faces may express a quiet sadness over the need for child soldiers and hope peace will one day come before they give an afternoon lesson on ballistic weaponry. It’s clear the astronomical death toll in this grim scenario is always playing on everyone’s mind (it’d be weird if it wasn’t, really) but even so the general impression is that while the situation may be serious normality is still something to be treasured, and there’s nothing inherently shameful or lazy about wanting to spend an hour on the Elemental Gearbolt arcade machine sitting in the local restaurant (sadly this is a described task rather than a playable minigame) or trying to befriend the vest-wearing cat, Boota.

If we had to pigeonhole Gunparade March as anything it’d probably be most accurate to describe it as a stat-raising game: Think of Tokimeki MemorialPrincess MakerMeltylancer and similar, your character’s success in any given task dependent on how their various numbers react to each other, someone else’s numbers, and a range of hidden flags and point thresholds too. What makes Alfa System’s 2000 PlayStation exclusive so remarkable is the way it uses what in other games can end up as a rigid pass/fail checklist to let the game live and breath for itself, using its own seemingly endless stream of parameters to naturally generate content within the game’s loose framework, everything checked against and reacting to everything else. This incredibly complex approach really does bring the cast to life, and your first few in-game days are spent shocked at all the normally impossible or forgotten things Gunparade March is able to do, such as another student deciding they want to talk to you when they see you in the hallway, arguing with each other to the point of trading blows (maybe even over their affection for you), watching everyone move around on their own schedule, and perhaps most shocking of all describing you running up to a group of people to join in their conversation as an interruption, one that may be either warmly welcomed or annoy one or both of the participants depending on how they feel not only about you but also the person they were already talking to as well. It’s humbling – and slightly jarring at first – to realise you’re not playing the role of the main character but another member of the same class, and whether you become something more to any of these people – good or bad – is entirely up to you.

It’s this statvalanche of figures combined with your own personal input that keep Gunparade March feeling like an extraordinary slice of the ordinary: If you want to boost your physical attributes then it’s up to you to walk over to the park’s gym equipment or the school’s punching bag and initiate the session – Will you meet someone on the way? Will they want to go somewhere with you? – and then decide exactly how you’re going to train as well as how long for. Need to study in the library? It closes at 5pm sharp, so you’d better make sure you get there in time. Want to talk to someone? Then it’s on you to find them first (or later on use a handy telepathic option to bring up a menu with everyone’s position on it). Even your belly can grumble at inopportune moments, and depending on what you’ve bought and when you might open your inventory to a bento made fresh that morning from your love, a moldy sandwich you should definitely not eat (as I found out the hard way), or a quick snack bought from the school shop. As omnipresent as the numbers may be ultimately you are always the one in control of yourself even when the unexpected seems to be happening all around you, and even with the sped up clock ticking away in the corner of the screen (four real seconds roughly equates to a single in-game minute) potentially making you late for school, or lunch, or a social or serious meeting you promised another student yesterday.

Much of this and more is explained in the double-sided manual, the one that’s thick enough to have its own flat spine with the game’s title neatly printed on it like a book. Read it in the usual (English) way with the spine on the left and it’s a thorough eighty-plus page tome covering all aspects of the game and how to play it. Read it in “reverse” with the spine on the right and you’ll take in over thirty pages of school life from a more personal point of view, looking at the layout of the main building, the intricacies of relationships, and similar. As intimidating as all that information may sound Gunparade March is careful to introduce these elements to new players one at a time and then explain them well (in-game this is usually via be-goggled classmate Youhei), including what has to be the first ever line of sight system for conversations. Anyone – even Boota the cat – may gaze with purpose at someone nearby, an animated beam of coloured light to make it easy to tell who is looking at who. Get “caught” by a character projecting this beam yourself for long enough and a response menu pops up: How do you respond to their stare? Do you act shy? Smile? Wink? Ignore them? Do something else? How best to respond depends on their social status and current mood as much as it does their general personality, and after you’ve committed to one of these actions you’ll get to look at a little chart showing where the two of you independently sit on a friendship scale (the descriptors running up this scale will change depending on who you’re reacting to), whether they actively hate your guts, consider you someone harmless who sits in the same class, or think more fondly of you. Friendships on positive equal footing can unlock new battle techniques and other unique events, although balanced relationships at any level are always considered more healthy than someone fawning over another character that would happily shove them into a puddle, an unreciprocated tidal wave of adoration just as unproductive and emotionally blind as open hostility.

As you may now expect from Gunparade March these personal relationships are tightly intertwined with everything else, leading to situations where building up a relationship with Boota may prompt classmate Mai to not only ask Atsushi if he liked the cat but then go off into a heartfelt monologue, visibly shifting between embarrassment, sadness, and relief as she finally worked up the courage to say something out loud about her fondness of the capricious animals while awkwardly peppering her speech with little fragments of what sounds like a painfully cold and pragmatic upbringing. More generally a quiet moment between lovers may be spoiled by a loudmouth friend running over to obliviously ask what they’re talking about, and that one kid who always buys lunch will not join in when someone (and it could be anyone in the room) proposes everyone sits together at lunch time – which could be in any one of around half a dozen potential locations. Strike up a conversation yourself and you’ll be presented with a short list of categories, subjects, and training suggestions – how they’re doing, what they’re up to – rather than specific lines of dialogue, giving you enough control to ask about a particular topic (be warned though that people do remember previous conversations and repeating the same choice, even a positive one, too often will irritate them) while still putting up enough of a barrier to prevent people from attempting to FAQ their way into someone’s affections with an obvious “Select to get answer Y” scenario.

And just when you think you’ve got the hang of it all new features and mechanics may be introduced by the growing cast themselves, as if you’re actively learning from your peers. These encompass anything from new tactical abilities to relationship complications to the possibility to collect – and I’m not kidding – socks. But even with so much going on Gunparade March never feels as complicated to play as it must have been to design. The numerous stat, skill, and social lists you can peruse are there so you can see what’s going on and (try to) make informed decisions – or at the very least see what’s going up and down when you perform certain actions – but the game as an experience is only ever trying to be as dynamic and organic as possible; even to the point of tracking how the atmosphere of a room changes when different people are present, which in turn influences what you can and can’t do at that moment in time. Thanks to this unbelievable effort your days are highly varied sequences of events as opposed to coldly calculated IF>THEN flowcharts, maybe tying you up in distinct morning and afternoon lessons with a lunch break in between (the actual amount of time you as the player have to spend sitting listening to lectures on weaponry is mercifully just a few text boxes long), some days leave you free to train or chat as you please, some seem the same as any other until the sirens go off and you’re thrust into battle (and the frequency of these random skirmishes again depends on other factors the game’s keeping track of), some throw you into combat before you’ve even had a chance to buy a cheeky hot dog from the school shop.

I know it’s been a while but we’ve finally got to the point where we can discuss the other side of the game; the whole “battling hordes of monsters determined to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth” business. These are large scale (often a dozen or more units on each side) skirmishes using a mixed turn-based system (the exact order is defined by speed as well as the action any unit – friend or foe – is trying to execute) set on abstracted 3D maps. You’d think vast stretches of cubic green-ness with a few triangles on top would end up feeling a bit bland but it was quick and clear to navigate while still retaining interesting tactical issues to do with range, height, and line of sight. The infrequent “Battle Relay” cut-ins give you enough visual information on the shape and size of enemy and ally units to help you get a feel for where you are and what’s actually happening, and the idea to direct these scenes as if they were live footage – the camera always too close or with the subject not quite in frame, the image often shaky or suffering from snowy interference – is nothing short of genius. You get enough context and drama to see a “Z” floating above the battlefield and think “Oh heck“, but never so much you’re forced to spend more time watching than playing.

Each round of combat begins with an “Action Input Phase” where you decide exactly what your unit will do (in keeping with the idea that the cast are individuals imbued with their own personalities, you control either a single character or, in a twin-seater mech, a team of two) followed by a “Main Phase” where your orders are carried out – enemies potentially scooting themselves just out of range or you making a brave/stupid dash in before they have the chance to react. In its simplest form you’ll be using Auto mode to move, attack, and maybe unleash a hail of missiles on your enemies (always within clearly defined area of effect cones and circles), but anyone brave enough to switch to Manual – and these conflicts are really designed with this mode in mind – gains access to a bewildering array of tactical Action Codes that make up for their fiddly detail with their strategic impact. These codes are assigned to every possible action – from turning on the spot to jumping to reloading to abandoning your mech and running around as a little scout unit with a submachine gun – with longer codes generally relating to more powerful/arduous actions. The physical length of these codes also needs to be considered, as actions only activate once they’ve reached their final letter. At it’s simplest a four letter code takes double the moves of a two letter code to activate, giving enemies more chances to attack or move away first.

Why letters? Why not a countdown timer instead? Because the first and last letters of Action Codes can overlap, taking fewer turns to activate the same moves. Saving even a single letter can potentially allow you to fire twice on two different targets in a single turn, or get yourself into position and defend rather than leave yourself exposed. While not quite the same thing (Gunparade March’s firing, for example, still allows you to choose who within your current cone of fire you’re going to shoot at and ultimately if you still want to shoot at all) the restrictions/costs reminded me a little of Faselei‘s programming.

After reaching one of several possible endings you get to pick from a small pool of previously NPC-only characters to play as on your second run through (it’s actually possible to play as any of the twenty-two named teenagers via a combination of cleared data and a button cheat, although apparently this was deliberately hidden away as it couldn’t be properly tested/bug fixed before release and you will run in to problems if you use them) our old lead Atsushi now just another student and a few significant details changed to once again upend everything you thought you knew.

Gunparade March is a game that’s constantly refreshing itself and expanding its own horizons, always finding new ways to surprise you (and itself), the flexible and highly interdependent nature of its many, many, systems allowing new situations to manifest in the same way a butterfly flapping its wings may end up creating a hurricane. There is a concern that such freeform design, everything from teenage love to life-or-death battles happening at a fuzzy whenever, could leave Gunparade March feeling like a whole lot of stuff without any real content, but in practise there is so much to get on with, so many different roles to voluntarily cast yourself in – the class troublemaker, the reclusive ace pilot, the schemer, the role model – and so many ways for life to get in the way that it only ever feels like living in the moment, the consequences of each day naturally blending into the next on and off the battlefield, the previous day’s promise to play perhaps blossoming into friendship or an unexpected workload transforming the same event into an argument. There’s a lot to do (so much so that in spite of the length of this article I’ve still not been able to cover everything here), a lot you don’t have to do, and everything you do (and don’t) do has a direct impact on everything and everyone else. Two decades on and Gunparade March still feels like an incredible achievement, to the point where if this was given a visual facelift with the underlying mechanics left entirely as-is it would either be hailed as a wondrous vision of our interactive future, so great is the gulf between what this game achieves and what we’ve come to believe having relationships with NPCs to mean.

[I truly couldn’t have covered this game without the help I receive through Ko-fi! Thank you to everyone who made this possible!]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s