5 Pioneering games that time forgot part 4

Herzog Zwei (Mega Drive-Genesis)

Without it we might not have had: Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, Warcraft (and by extension, Starcraft and World of Warcraft!)

What did it pioneer? The Real Time Strategy genre.

I’ve often found Real Time Strategy (RTS) games to be the marmite of gaming. For most people the tedious micromanaging of units and the constant balancing of resources is the very definition of boredom, but to others it represents a gateway to a deep rewarding experience that just keeps on giving. So it’s unsurprising that RTS games have always been a quintessential PC based genre, itself a rather “marmite” platform to play games on these days due to similar connotations. But despite the PC’s (unwarranted) reputation as a “dead format” RTSs are still a pretty big deal, you just need to look at the furore surrounding the release of StarCraft 2 or the upcoming Shogun 2: Total War for evidence of that.

The RTSs continuing popularity is mostly due to its multiplayer components arguably still providing the ultimate contest of wits and skill that can be found in a video game. In a good high end match, each player’s mind is constantly bombarded with a staggering level of statistics and variables that change by the second, all of which require analyses and response in the fastest time possible in order to grasp victory. For better or worse this sort of gameplay often brings out an intensely competitive side of anyone who lets it drawn them in, and if you’ve ever met someone who takes RTSs seriously then you know how deep that rabbit hole can go. At a moment’s notice they can recited so much statistical jargon and specialised lingo that pulls a game apart down to such a base level you would think they built the damn thing themselves.

If you want to see the logical extreme of such behaviour you need only look towards South Korea where RTSs have become somewhat of a national sport, one that can be taken as seriously as a high profile football match would be in the UK. They even have cyber “athletes” who train 24/7 just so they can mine that precious gold/vespene gas a few milliseconds faster than their opponent. Seriously, these guys make fighting game enthusiasts who count animation frames come across as “casuals” with relative ease.

But RTS isn’t just for the ultra-competitive gaming gladiators, without it we wouldn’t have those tower defence games that slowly eat away hundreds of hours of casual player’s lives every day. And if you take a slightly more abstract view, just about any game that requires intensive resource management such as Farmville owe their success to the RTS school of game design.

However the reason I want to talk about it in this article is because the actual chronology of the RTS game as concept is very unique. Most of the time genres develop slowly overtime, with many iterative video games giving us insight into its gradual evolution. RTS on the other hand just kinda popped out of nowhere with Herzog Zwei in 1989 and no one was quite sure what to do with it.

I should say that there are strategy games that predate Herzog Zwei that were indeed “real time” but they’re very far removed from what we would now actually define as an “RTS” mainly due to their very minimal emphasis on resource management and ticks (the pace at which gameplay moves) so long that they were rendered more or less turn based. Herzong Zwei on the other hand is where the RTS as we know it truly began, and for that monumental achievement it is criminally under appreciated.

What was it? A vision of the future

The original Herzog (German for Duke) for the MSX 2 PC was billed by the developers TechnoSoft as a “Real-time Combat Simulator”. The basic idea was that the game world was a narrow linear path with the player’s base and one end at the enemy’s at the other. By using a singular resource that replenished overtime at a constant rate, either side could create several different sorts of units such as tanks or foot soldiers, and If any of those units managed to reach the opposite side of the field then they would deal a certain amount of damage to that side’s base .

You couldn’t actually control any of these units directly, they would simply travel in a straight line towards the enemy base and attack any defences along the way without any input from the player. But unlike most modern strategy games the player actually had a personal avatar, a giant robot called the Land-Armour. Using the Land-Armour you could pick up and reposition units as well as getting personally involved in the combat if you so choose. In effect the whole thing was like a Defence of the Ancients style game that was made long before anything even remotely similar existed. Certainly an intrepid game for sure, and you could definitely see the seeds of what would later become RTS developing in the background. But it unfortunately lacked any real semblance of tactics and there was little to nothing in the way of resource management to be found.

However Herzog Zwei (Zwei being German for 2) took those seedling concepts and fast forwarded their evolution by several years. Suddenly “pop” we had a recognisable near fully fledged RTS on our hands. The battlefields were now wide open environments full of different kinds of terrain, units now had to be given specific orders and your rate of resource gain now revolved around capturing and defending outposts. You could still wade into combat on your own using the Land-Armour if you wanted to, but this time around your health and ammo was severely limited so you were unlikely to make much of a dent in enemy forces on your own. No, to win this game you had to use tactics and ingenuity to build a balanced and sustainable army, something that most console gamers hadn’t been asked to do before.

The level of micromanagement was staggering even compared to modern standards as every unit had to be given individual orders (something that also consumed resources to do) and have their ammo and health supplies constantly monitored. So with up to 50 units of 8 different types on each side it could very quickly get overwhelming even for the most adept of gamers. What’s more, you still couldn’t directly control your units, so all actions had to be performed by interacting with them via Land-Armour rather than the point and click style interface you’d find in a normal RTS. If you’re not sure why that would be a bit awkward, just imagine trying to play an arcade shooter and Command & Conquer at the same time on the same screen. Yeah.

It was as if TechnoSoft had travelled into the future, saw an RTS, returned to their own time, though “Yeah we could probably make one of those” and then fashioned the closest facsimile they could manage with late 80s technology and expertise but somehow ended up building something even more complicated that what they’d originally seen.

Why was it forgotten? Gamers weren’t ready for it and neither was the AI.

Herzong Zwei’s biggest issue was the same thing that made it a pioneer; there wasn’t really anything like it. So if RTS didn’t yet exist as an accepted mainstream genre, then what framework was left for people to judge it by? Well TechnoSoft’s only real claim to fame was their relatively popular Thunder Force series of arcade style shooters and the Mega Drive had quite a few of those already, so naturally people just assumed it was meant to be one of those. Although the cover art probably had a hand in that too.

Of course If you looked at it from the perspective of an arcade shooter it was a pretty shoddy game; your weapons were pea shooters and you died in mere seconds against a more than a handful of opponents. Not only that but would have come across as incredibly complicated for a game where people were just expecting to hold down the fire button while occasional taping the D-pad. <rant> Which just goes to show how stupid it is to judge a game based on how well it conforms to established genres, it means anything original just gets shafted! </rant>

But even those who embraced the tactics and resource managed would have quickly found Herzog Zwei to be lacking. Sure, the game had complex mechanics but the A.I. was so dumb that the developers had to give it a significantly higher number of starting units on each map to try and even the odds a little. In the end you only needed to use minimal amounts of the tactical opportunities Herzog Zwei presented in order to win, that is unless you somehow managed to find a second player who wanted to join in.

So in the end it got dismissed by a vast majority of gamers, none of whom could have possibly known what would eventually become of the style of gameplay that Herzong Zwei pioneered. That said, it has seen somewhat of a revival in recent years as people are finally starting to wise up to how incredibly ahead of the game TechnoSoft had been, but sadly it all came far far too late to save them.

Where are the developers now? Nowhere to be found.

After Herzog Zwei failed to catch on, TechnoSoft just went back to their far simpler Thunder Force games for several years which saw moderate success but little mainstream fame. Eventually it that all came to an abrupt end in 2001 when they got merged with Pachinko developer Twenty One’s R&D division, essentially ending their long but uneventful streak in game development permanently. There were some hints on their (supposedly) official website that they’d be making a comeback in 2006 with a new Thunder Force game, but they haven’t been heard from since and In 2008 when it turned out the Thunder Force IP was now owned by SEGA anyway. But hey, screw Thunder Force! I’m Not sure who owns the Herzog licence these days, but they gotta know that their sitting on a truly legendary IP that’s long overdue a comeback. Herzong Drei anybody?

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