Alternate History: Shogo: Mobile Armor Division [Guest Post]

There is too much gaming history to be covered by one man. Fortunately, jefequeso offered to help by contributing this guest piece on Shogo: Mobile Armor Division, the 1998 first-person shooter by Monolith. Read on for his thoughts on the game.

Monolith is something of an enigma. While FPS developers such as Valve and id have signature styles that permeate their classic titles as well as their new releases, it’s hard to see the Monolith that created Shogo: Mobile Armor Division going on to make games as gritty and brutalized as Condemned and FEAR. Shogo is a lighthearted, funny, entertaining, addictive, broken, infuriating, borderline unplayable gem of an FPS, about as far removed from FEAR’s visceral gunfights and Condemned’s disturbing imagery as you can get.

At its core, Shogo is about Anime. It looks like Anime, it sounds like Anime (thanks to a ridiculously cheesy J-pop song that plays over the introduction), and it FEELS like Anime. The well-acted storyline throws out goofy names and organizations and increasingly convoluted plot twists to the point of becoming completely indecipherable… just like Anime! You spend half the game engaged in over-the-top mech battles that take place in mysteriously barren cityscapes… just like Anime! NPCs include a mysterious ally who claims to be a “friend of a friend,” a take-charge but oddly submissive female love interest, a strict and gruff admiral, and a sleazy “inside man” who can’t be trusted… just like Anime! My backpack, Anime. Wrist and chain, Anime. Everything Anime!

Err…that is to say that Monolith obviously knew the ins and outs of this venerable cult genre, and took great pleasure in poking fun at its various inanities. Which brings me to the subject of the game’s sense of humor. Although comedic FPSs are hardly unheard of, Shogo sets itself apart by being relatively clever most of the time. Sure, you have a few ubiquitous ham-handed “satirical” references and low-brow puns, a la Duke Nukem, but for the most part the humor relies on precise tone-of-voice delivery and some weird and wacky situations (which I won’t spoil here). And it’s FUNNY. I seldom find myself laughing out loud at videogames (Portal being a notable exception), but I found a few moments and lines in this game to be quite chuckle-worthy. Even the end credits are worth watching, since they contain some random asides from the Monolith staff, as well as a surprising twist on an early in-game scene (not to give too much away, but it involves using military-grade explosives to express mild irritation, which is ALWAYS comedic gold).

Shogo’s gameplay is evenly split between on-foot shootouts and in-mech shootouts. The latter plays out exactly as you would expect —- you duke it out with other mechs (and occasional hapless humans) in various cityscapes with a variety of gleefully ridiculous weaponry (this is the only game I know of that gives you a fully automatic rocket launcher). Nothing too deep, but I found that these segments end up being a lot of fun, even though I’m not usually a fan of videogame mechs. The on-foot firefights are, however, an entirely different story. Some helpful Shogo fan on GoG said “The combat is kind of like an old west shootout. Whoever has the fastest draw wins,” and I think that’s actually a pretty doggone good way of describing it. Now, the more astute readers out there probably picked up that this means “you round a corner and instantly die from a few rounds delivered by ESP-aided foes.” And yeah, that’s also a pretty doggone good way of describing it. You see, Shogo is one of the few non-simulation FPSs that makes you just as fragile as your enemies. It only takes one or two good shots for even a basic grunt to kill you. As you might expect, this can sometimes be…frustrating. However, it also lends shootouts a certain feeling of desperation. Racking the slide on a shotgun, reloading a clip, or even just taking time to move your sights from one side of the screen to the other all take on new weight and tension, since any wasted second could give an enemy the opportunity to squeeze off a few rounds and send you back to your last quicksave. The addition of “critical hits” which give you a health bonus help to smooth over some of the frustration, and keep the game from being a complete exercise in trial and error.

But, as my polarized summary in the first paragraph implies, all is not candy and incense for Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. And first on the list of major problems are the game’s copious number of bugs. I mean, having played games like STALKER and Fallout 3, I thought I’d seen every possible glitch that a FPS could sling my way. But I have to admit that Shogo’s impassable open doors caught me off guard. Yes, in order to get through this game you actually have to use no-clip mode to pass through some of the doors that you open. No, I’m not sure how this got through QA either. Less severe but no less noticeable bugs include the ability to turn and shoot during cutscenes if you press ‘esc,’ water that mysteriously goes away when you swim in it, dialogue options that don’t appear on the screen, and NPCs that can be shot but still talked to. And apart from the bugs, the combat sometimes strays too far into “trial and error” land. I’m of the opinion that an FPS should technically be able to be completed on the first try without dying. Practically, of course, no good FPS would be that simple, but I think that player deaths should come from a mistake of the player’s, not from them not knowing where enemies are going to be. And it’s pretty much impossible to complete Shogo without dancing the same old “run into a room to see where enemies are then quickload and actually try and defeat them” dance. And then there’s the graphics. Ok, granted, this is a 1998 game, so it’s unreasonable to expect it to look good by modern standards. And the relatively bland environments and unimpressive lighting can all be forgiven. But the character models… good golly, the character models. Take one of those wooden bendy guys that artists use, paint him red, and that’s a pretty good representation of your character and his friends. I guess this is more a quirk than a real flaw, but it’s worth noting.

Overall, though, Shogo has that mysterious property that a lot of more modern games seem to lack: charm. It’s absolutely a charming, endearing game, and despite its flaws it ends up being a fun (albeit somewhat short) ride from beginning to end. If you have any sort of passing interest in Anime or mech battles, or you just like irreverent humor, I’d give Shogo a try. And if you can get past the cheap deaths, popsicle stick character models, and numerous bugs, I think you’ll find out why the game has such a cult following.

Shogo: Mobile Armor Division is available for $6 on GoG.com, fully tweaked to run on modern systems.

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