PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous
GENRE: Real-time Strategy
RELEASE DATE: 12/15/89 – (JP), 1990 – (US, EU)
Herzog Zwei isn’t just the first real-time-strategy game for the Genesis. It’s the first real-time-strategy game ever made. Yes, the genre that spawned such best-selling classics as Dune II, Command and Conquer and Warcraft started on a console; that’s gotta hurt some of the more prideful PC master race folks.
I’ve been a console gamer for most of my life, which means I haven’t crossed paths with the RTS genre very often. When I did – Starcraft and Warcraft III at my friend’s house – I was in awe at the sheer amount of crap the games would ask you to track. These units on this end of the map, those units on the other end of the map. Bodies and buildings exploding, sirens going off. You’re trying to maintain your units’ positions while enemy units do their thing. I don’t know how the hell my friend stayed focused, but it just wasn’t difficult for him.
Herzog Zwei isn’t much different, but as it’s the first of its kind, the strategy is less intense (blessed be). You control a fighter jet that can turn into a mech, and your goal is to take over bases littered around the map. Bases are either neutral (white squares) or controlled by you or your opponent (red/blue squares). You command units to take over bases, create units to defend them, then move on to decimating your opponent’s base camp. Easy as Zwiebelkuchen.
Your transformer is a beast of a machine, but keep a watchful eye on its stats. The top of the screen displays both an ammunition and an energy bar. Ammunition only depletes in raw dog skirmishes with the opposing side. Energy goes down quickly while you’re flying, but when you’re in mech mode, you’re able to conserve. To re-fuel your bullets and energy, just head back to any of your bases and sit a spell.
You can’t win a war without hired guns. Armored cars, tanks, anti-aircraft tanks, boats, stationary cannons, supply trucks, infantry, and motorcycles are all important to build and build some more. To keep them coming, you’ll need lots of money, which thankfully regenerates automatically. The more bases you acquire, the more money you’ll receive.
To build units, enter the main menu, select your unit, enter a command for them (commands also cost money), then wait for the unit to be built. You can build units from anywhere on the map. Once the unit has arrived, however, you have to fly to a base and transport them where you want to go.
Infantry are the lifeblood of the operation. They might be small, but they’re also the only ones who take over bases. Four infantrymen will get you a base, but they won’t be enough to keep it. If an infantryman from the opposing side manages to get into your base, you’ll lose one of your men. Keeping a base surrounded by tanks and stationary cannons is critical to its survival.
There are a handful of menu commands you can issue each member of your squad. Fixed position, for example, lets your unit stand guard by a base and attack anything that comes near. Base takeover is limited to infantry and allows them to, er, take over a base. Units that roam around the map always need a supply truck or two to keep their ammunition and gas refreshed. My roaming units tended to wander into areas where they’d get stuck and then run out of gas. This is obviously a waste of money and manpower, so the more I played, the more I focused on building units with fixed position and limited movement.
The eight maps provided are quaint by today’s standards, but they’re big enough for the game’s purposes. Vulkan takes place in a volcano, complete with flowing lava that will incinerate your units, while Stadt is a town with industrial flim flam coursing through its metallic veins. There’s a desert, a jungle, an icefield. Beat all eight maps and you take over Germany, and by extension, the world. Herzog for no man.
I am enthralled by Herzog Zwei, but I’m also absolutely terrible at it. Even on the easiest setting, the computer knows exactly what he’s doing. His movements are fast and methodical, while I feel like a bumbling intern who’s never experienced war. I’m not sure if the computer starts out with more money than me or just more experience, but he is a unit-building dynamo. Before I can even take over one base, he’s surrounded his bases with tanks, stationary cannons, and supply trucks. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but the fact remains: the computer is a ruthless and worthy adversary.
And just when I thought I was getting ahead of the computer, he’d switch up his tactics. Once, I tried laying a couple stationary cannons by one of his bases. He couldn’t approach the base to destroy them without getting hit, but he seemed obsessed with destroying them. This left me free to build infantry and take over some of his other bases. Eventually, somehow, he destroyed my stationary cannons, then proceeded to make up for lost time. He built his own stationary cannons around his base, then came hauling balls for my base camp. Rather than give him the satisfaction of a well-earned defeat, I took the coward’s way out and reset the game.
Prior to embarking into the heady world of Herzog, I was told by several people to play the game with a second person. To not even think about playing Herzog Zwei single-player. They were absolutely right. Even if only one person is good at the game, at least both people have to calculate their strategy with limited human brains. The computer has no limits, and thus, rips you (or at least, rips me) to shreds every time.
But I don’t care. The low barrier of entry makes Herzog easy to learn – and get addicted. No matter how many times I lost at the hand of the computer, I always wanted more. Whether you’re getting pummeled into the war-torn earth by a cold and calculating computer or laughing with your friend when they input the wrong command in for their tank, Herzog Zwei remains a hypnotic and engaging strategy title.