A typically poor attempt to milk money from the Gundam franchise, this time by making it a callow Dragon Quest clone.

Lacroan Heroes—full title SD Gundam Gaiden: Lacroan Heroes—is as bad in its own way as fellow Gundam spin-off Kunitori Monogatari. It also demonstrates just how badly Bandai overextended the Gundam brand. This is, after all, a sub-spin-off of Gundam spin-off SD Gundam… but this SD Gundam spin-off has nothing to do with the SD Sengokuden spin-offs we’ve already seen.

On the contrary, Lacroan Heroes was the most inevitable video game adaptation of Gundam ever. Where SD Sengokuden is based on a weird sub-franchise in which Gundam mobile suits take on the roles of key figures during Japan’s Warring States era [see Nobunaga’s Ambition], Lacroan Heroes is instead based on the European-tinged Knight Gundam iteration of the SD Gundam line.

As the name suggests, Knight Gundam is a giant mobile suit that is, somehow, also a living knight in the service of the queen of Lacroa, a realm reminiscent of medieval Europe. The thing is, though, Knight Gundam’s faux-England isn’t based on actual history such as Arthurian legend or anything; instead, it’s presented as a parody of Dragon Quest. Not only that, but Knight Gundam appears to have been specifically designed by Bandai and animation studio Sunrise as a sort of multimedia brand.

By 1990, more than a decade after the debut of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s original Gundam concept, the franchise’s central thrust had followed along the same path as Star Wars: The central product of the franchise had long since ceased to be the anime and films. Somewhere along the way, they had become props to support the lucrative Gundam merchandising business. So, the Knight Gundam cartoon came into existence to provide a new line of model kits… and games like this. 

The SD Gundam Gaiden anime to which this game serves as a supplemental tie-in appeared in four original video animation releases between March 1990 and March ’91. This related game, Lacroan Heroes, debuted at around the midpoint of that run: Oct. 6 1990. That’s only half a year after SD Gundam Gaiden’s launch, which is an impossibly short amount of time to put together a decent role-playing game. And that surely explains why this ranks among the worst of the Dragon Quest knockoffs to spring up in Japan in the late ’80s and early ’90s. 

Dragon Quest knockoff,” by the way, is not really a criticism of the game, since that was the intended goal. The title screen looks like Dragon Quest’s logo, and the main theme sounds like a mix of the Dragon Quest theme and “Greensleeves.” Lacroan Heroes isn’t good, but on this level, at least, it works as intended.

The idea of an RPG revolving around giant mech suits could be pretty unique—in fact, that’s basically what Tetsuya Takahashi’s Xeno games are. Lacroan Heroes, however, lacks any real ambition, or any sort of rigor of thought as to what it means for a role-playing game to involve enormous mechanical suits. The Gundam mobile suits themselves become the characters here, lacking pilots, so rather than getting any sort of wild sci-fi concepts with humans struggling to make their mechs work in an age of swords and sorcery, you basically just have a Dragon Quest clone with cute robots taking on the roles of standard RPG tropes. And even that’s not consistent: The first monsters you fight are Goblins and Slimes, which are in fact chubby little monsters rather than chubby little monster-looking versions of mobile suits.

Admittedly, I played very little of Lacroan Heroes. This is one of those wretched 8-bit RPGs designed to pad out a scant story with endless grinding for experience points. At experience level 1, your party can only realistically take on a single monster at a time. You’ll find yourself dying repeatedly as you stumble into groups of two or more monsters until you can grind up some levels by lucking into a rare manageable battle. Get a manageable random encounter, save, repeat. The game is balanced in a way that it’s entirely possible to enter a permanently unwinnable state, since you have to pay to heal, pay even more to resurrect a fallen comrade, and some of the early mobs yield no cash despite being able to ruin your party before you even take a turn.

In looking ahead at other people’s footage of the later game, it becomes clear that nothing ever really changes. Each meager bit of progress you make immediately greets you with a meat wall of stronger enemies, which means more grinding. It’s such a miserable take on the RPG that despite sitting at the intersection of RPGs and Gundam—two of the most enthusiastic and devoted Venn diagram circles of fandom imaginable—no one has bothered to create a fan translation of the game. The only guidance that exists in English is a comprehensive walkthrough; and as you might expect, it could easily be a description of every generic 8-bit RPG ever designed. You go on mundane fetch quests for people in order to open up new roads for progression. Your inventory consists of things like medical herbs and magic spells, with only the occasional acknowledgment that, oh yes, you’re piloting a giant robot suit through medieval England. Those concessions amount to rust being a negative status condition, and your strongest magic attack being a callback to the Solar Ray super-weapon from the original M.S. Gundam series.

Otherwise, though, it’s all walking around castles, talking to people, buying equipment, and slowly grinding your way through sloppily balanced enemy encounters in the wilderness. We’ve seen several role-playing adventures on Game Boy to date, and this is by far the least competent or interesting of them all. Final Fantasy Legend had its weirdness going for it; Ayakashi no Shiro made a genuine effort to transplant RPG tropes into feudal Japan; and The Sword of Hope combined RPG and graphical adventure elements to fascinating effect. Lacroan Heroes, on the other hand, is nothing more than a lackluster paint-by-numbers Dragon Quest clone, cynically designed from top to bottom.

Who do we blame for this disaster? We can direct that primarily at Bandai and Sunrise. Again, they clearly created this soulless exercise in exploiting children’s love of Dragon Quest and giant robots in the least admirable way imaginable. Probably less culpable was Human Entertainment, the developer on this joint. As a studio, Human repeatedly demonstrated its love of weird, interesting ideas when left to its own devices—see also the likes of S.O.S., The Firemen, Clock Tower, and Monster Party. This, however, was a contract job for Bandai, a company notorious for blasting the market with a rapid churn of tie-in projects as quickly and cheaply as possible. Even Human’s work-for-hire projects could be quite good, as we saw with HAL Wrestling. But HAL is a publisher that cares. Bandai was a publisher that, again, favored quick and cheap. And Lacroan Heroes definitely qualifies as quick and cheap.

If there’s a silver lining to this game, is that it reaffirms the Game Boy’s place as the handheld counterpart to the NES and Famicom. The same trite crap that flooded Nintendo’s home console found purchase here, too. Not the brightest of silver linings… but it did mean that Game Boy could potentially play host to worthwhile console adaptations, too, from time to time.