Another mediocre Game Boy release based on an anime. It’s a shame; Patlabor was great, and deserved a much nicer interactive adaptation.

Patlabor: The Mobile Police

Japanese Title: 機動警察パトレイバー: 狙われた町1999
Publisher: Yutaka
Release date: 8.25.1990 [JP]
Genre: RPG
Super Game Boy: No enhancements
Previous in series: None
Next in series: None
Similar titles: Ultraman Club: Teki Kaijuu o Hakken Seyo! [Nova Games/Banpresto1990]

About the game

It’s our friends from Yutaka again. And… another anime-licensed Game Boy game. 

What really kills me about this one is that Yutaka has seized upon a genuinely great license to turn into a mundane blob of portable pixels and something that vaguely qualifies as gameplay. Patlabor, or Kidou Keisatsu Patlabor if you wanna be all like that, is a nearly 30-year-old franchise that began life as a manga and probably is best known for its anime renditions. However, unlike Yutaka’s previous victim, Sakigake Otokojuku, the Patlabor series isn’t nearly so specific to a Japanese audience. On the contrary, Patlabor has been present in English-language versions for years; Viz localized a few volumes of the original manga back in the really old days when they published manga as individual monthly comics. Meanwhile, the anime and movies have all been localized over the years. In fact, it’s one of the few vintage anime series to be available in HD formats in English.

So chances are, you’re at least passingly familiar with Patlabor. Maybe you know it from the fairly loose comedy of the original television series. Perhaps you’re better acquainted with the films, several of which were directed by Ghost in the Shell’s Mamoru Oshii and put a serious, contemplative spin on the offbeat source material, similar to Oshii’s work with Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer. Or maybe you’re old-school cool and have a complete run of Viz’s old monthly comic publications in a longbox somewhere.

Patlabor is one of those few anime franchises that seems perfectly suited for sci-fi fans of broad stripes. It involves people piloting big robots, so there’s that hook. But its scenario takes a more grounded, realistic bent. Yeah, the Patlabors — or Patrol Labors — kinda look like Gundams, but this series is the furthest thing from Gundam’s combat-driven space opera drama. Instead, it draws heavily on Blade Runner… not in terms of aesthetics — instead of depicting a grimy near-future Los Angeles overrun by Japanese corporations it takes place in a bright, clean, near-future Japan. Rather, the commonality comes in the fundamental concept they explore: Namely, to take a speculative sci-fi concept and explore the real-world ramifications of its invention. I mean, that’s supposed to be the whole point of science fiction in the first place, right? Exploring the human consequences of technology?

What Patlabor shares in common with Blade Runner is the window it takes into the future. Both concern the new evolution of lawkeeping in response to technological concerns. Blade Runner centers on a detective who specializes in tracking down rogue androids; Patlabor, on the other hand, goes a bit bigger. In its version of the future, mechanized power suits called Labors have become essential blue-collar tools, and the Mobile Police specialize in countering the misuse and mistakes that go along with this new technology. The Patrol Labors used by the Mobile Police are designed to suppress crimes and preserve the public safety. And, because this is a Japanese media property, it’s about the team and how they work together rather than centering on a world-weary lone wolf.

The nature of the Patlabor franchise lends itself to interpretation. The original manga had a definite comedic element to it, which the television series glommed onto. But the underlying inspiration of the work — the social anxiety and fear of the future that runs throughout much of ’80s manga and anime as a reflection of Japan’s meteoric rise as an economic superpower in the wake of a crushing defeat in World War II — also lends itself to the more fraught take Oshii explored in his films. And then of course there’s the human element, the interplay between members of the Patrol Labor squad.

Patlabor’s creators, a team of creative types operating under the name Headgear, seems to have been pretty heavily inspired by Masamune Shirow’s Dominion: Tank Police, which had debuted two years prior to the Patlabor manga’s debut. Dominion, set in near-future Japan, focusing on the actions of a special division of police who used unconventional mecha to help deal with advanced crime and safety hazards. Sound familiar? Patlabor follows the slightly incompetent 2nd division of the Patlabor group, similar to Dominion’s screw-up Tank Police. And, as in Dominion, Patlabor’s main character is a petite, rowdy tomboy with a special affinity for her mech.

As befits Patlabor’s more grounded vibe, heroine Noa Izumi isn’t nearly as short-fused and temperamental as Dominion’s Leona Ozaki, but they both possess exceptional piloting skills, both appear obsessively focused on their work and mecha, and both tend to inspire unrequited affection by the most soft-hearted male characters on their respective teams. Noa’s even given her mech a nickname, Alphonse. Just like Leona’s Bonaparte. They weren’t really being subtle with this.

Despite these similarities, they’re tonally quite different as creative works. Pretty much everything in Dominion is played for laughs, but Patlabor makes a greater effort to explore its characters’ inner lives, even those of the secondary cast. Its unique combination of character development, near-future speculative sci-fi, and occasional forays into all-out action or high-stakes drama make for an intoxication mix that satisfies a lot of tastes.

Naturally, exactly none of this comes through in the Game Boy game. 

Credit where it’s due: This Game Boy adaptation of Patlabor certainly looks the part. The minimally animated character portraits of familiar faces, like division captain Gotoh, translate perfectly to the tiny screen. So, too, do the Patrol Labors themselves. And… well, that’s about it for the good.

In action, the Game Boy rendition of Patlabor offers very little to do. It takes the form of a free-roaming RPG-esque game, but don’t mistake this for a true RPG. Yes, you wander around a top-down map and encounter enemies that need to be fought by way of turn-based battles, but this lacks even a hint of the depth that would justify the “RPG” appellation. The game advances through stages, breaking your top-down map into tiny regions that simply need to be cleared of bad guys before you can venture on ahead any further.

Anyway, play works like this: You bump into rogue Labors from the top-down view and enter combat, which is seen as a one-on-one face-off, with your Patrol Labor to the left and the enemy on the right. Rather than working as a fighting game, though, the battle system uses a turn-based system. Basically, you have a handful of menu options to use in battle: You can use a direct strike, a short-range melee weapon, or a consumable item, or one of the special skills that you can buy from Noa, such as a powerful Labor revolver or the seemingly useless “persuade” command. From this limited palette of skills, you have to cue up several consecutive actions for your turn.

Once you’ve selected your choice of attacks, your Patlabor dishes them out while the enemy takes its own turns. Your attacks will either strike or miss, with some actions by both your mech and the foe appearing to cancel out the other. Maybe all of this makes sense and I simply don’t grasp the mechanics because the text is all presented in Japanese, but the whole thing feels rather haphazard. The need to preset multiple actions feels especially annoying here given the unpredictability of combat and the incredibly limited range of options.

Also, the annoying requirement that you queue up actions in advance causes the turn-based battles to bear a remarkable resemblance to the ones in Ultraman Club: Teki Kaijuu o Hakken Seyo!, released three months before Patlabor. I’m sure this is a random coincidence, but who knows? Ultraman Club was developed by Nova Games and published by Banpresto, whereas Patlabor exists because of Yutaka. But don’t forget, up through the end of 1989, Yutaka was a Bandai subsidiary called Bandai Shinsei, and Banpresto has long been connected at the hip to Bandai… so it’s entirely possible that both games were developed according to some corporate spec sheet for how to handle anime game adaptations.

On the plus side, despite its randomness in battle, the game doesn’t feel particularly punishing. Between each encounter, you can simply head back to the squad’s base of operations to heal up, and outside of the “boss” encounter in each section you’ll rarely find yourself in any real danger. And… that’s the first stage. I’d like to be able to offer an analysis of the rest of the game, but it won’t let me advance.

Every time I take out all the mechs on the first level, I reach the goal and receive a passcode before getting kicked to the title screen. But, weirdly, the passcode doesn’t actually work, so I can only play the first level. So, who knows, maybe I’m taking too long to beat the stage, or revisiting the garage for repairs too often? But it’s pretty much impossible to beat the labor guarding the stage goal without building up cash to buy a service revolver, so it seems like a bit of a no-win scenario.

In any case, everything about Patlabor feels like standard Game Boy licensed property fare, which is to say it doesn’t honestly feel worth the effort to figure out. Minimal game design, some mild fan service, and 30 bucks wasted. My advice: Use that money instead to pick up one of the films or a season of the TV series on Blu-ray. You’ll enjoy it more.