20th Anniversary of Front Mission: 1st Retrospective

Jerry on 2023-10-23
The ambitious science fiction role-playing game Front Mission, released exclusively in Japan in 1995, was Squaresoft's first foray into the turn-based strategy genre on the 16-bit Super Famicom.

The commercial success of Final Fantasy IV proved that Square could leverage the hardware capabilities of Nintendo's home console to create iteratively more ambitious fantasy titles. However, the untested prospect of venturing into near-future science fiction storytelling carried significant new risks.

Front Mission 1st: Remake trailer by Forever Entertainment - Microids Consoles Trailer.

A Minefield

According to developer interviews translated by Shmupulations, the concept for Front Mission originated as a planning document titled "Hundred Mission." Representing the six-person team at his company G-Craft, the concept was pitched by Toshiro Tsuchida, a veteran of developer Masaya. Tsuchida had served as producer on the influential sidescrolling mech title Assault Suits Valken, released in the West as "Cybernator."

Reportedly, Shinji Hashimoto at Square was reluctant to place a risky financial bet on partnering with an outside contractor. A military-themed narrative might not resonate with Square's preexisting customer base. However, discussing the proposal in greater detail with Final Fantasy IV director Hironobu Sakaguchi, Hashimoto warmed up to the creative possibilities.

Sakaguchi's role as supervisor on Front Mission extended to key decisions influencing the creation of the soundtrack. Seeking an experienced game composer for the music score, he recommended Yoko Shimomura join the design team.

Manifold Irons

Front Mission 1st: Remake features HD touch-ups of Yoshitaka Amano character portraits.

Shimomura had previously contributed music to Capcom's arcade games, including the majority of the score for the immensely popular Street Fighter II. Speaking with the composer in 2009, Shimomura stated that she sought work at Square with the goal of scoring narrative-focused home console titles. At Capcom, she had worked in the arcade department and was not afforded the opportunity to compose music for the Breath of Fire series.

As the composer was already assigned to scoring the high-profile Super Mario RPG, Shimomura wished to turn down the request from Sakaguchi to join development on Front Mission. However, she was reluctant to disappoint company president Tetsuo Mizuno. Despite her reservations, Shimomura wrote iconic music for the strategy title. "Take the Offensive" was treated to an orchestral performance for her 2008 arrangement album "Drammatica: The Very Best of Yoko Shimomura."

Front Mission was the first full-length soundtrack undertaken by co-composer Noriko Matsueda. (The musician's "Boss Battle 1" theme appears in Square's Super Nintendo role-playing game Chrono Trigger.) Together with Shimomura, the two musicians left an indelible mark on the science fiction franchise. Balancing out the uptempo battle tracks, the sound team established a somber, meditative tone of repose to settle the player's nerves between action sequences.

Reflecting the staying power of the Front Mission score, an arrangement of "Kalen" produced by DJ KAYA was selected for inclusion in the Square Enix Military Tune project in 2010. Broadening the instrumental palette, Sébastien Poncelet utilized Native Instruments’ Kontakt software to introduce female vocal samples to Matsueda's elegiac "Kalen" theme in the remake.

Also released in 2010, a downbeat electronica arrangement of Matsueda's ending theme "Within Living Memory," arranged by Okadada, appeared on the Square Enix compilation "Chill SQ."

Introductory track "A Minefield" composed by Yoko Shimomura, re-orchestrated by Sébastien Poncelet.

Canyon Crow

An emotionally-charged ambivalence toward technology, marked by fascination and anxiety, permeates the storyline of Front Mission. The opening montage set to Shimomura's "A Minefield" sets the tone, juxtaposing text from classified military documents with microscopic renderings of neurons. Character art found in the Super Famicom strategy guide names the protagonist "Roid Clive," calling to mind Philip K. Dick's dystopian science fiction novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano was tasked with creating concept art, informed that a fierce conflict between two warring nations would serve as a central motif. In a 2006 interview with Amano, conducted by Haruwo Sato for the "World Historica" reference guide, Amano explained that he drew inspiration from the Battles of Kawanakajima waged during the 16th century Sengoku period, characterized by political upheaval.

In his evocative illustrations, the fictional locale of Huffman Island, formed by volcanic eruptions, resembles an alien planet. Huffman's battlefields are blanketed with overgrown foliage, traversed by svelte camouflaged soldiers and lumbering Wandrung Panzer mechs. Wanzer designer Kow Yokoyama designed three-dimensional dioramas, situating pilots and engineers around and within the bidedal tanks, helping to convey a sense of scale.

"Kalen" theme Military Tune arrangement, produced by DJ KAYA. (2010)

Destructive Logic

Front Mission 1st: Remake features a Modern mode with free camera control in battle, alongside a locked-camera Classic mode.

Front Mission's innovation in prominently featuring an international cast of characters seemed destined to appeal to an overseas audience. The player recruits Wanzer pilots hailing from around the world: Keith Carabell was born Australia, Ryuji Sakata is the heir to a family-run Japanese megacorporation, Yang Meihua from China travels the world with her brother, and J.J. is saving up to support his family in South Africa.

When compared with the scenarios of Final Fantasy series installments, one strategic advantage enjoyed by the Front Mission design team was the license to make popular culture references without breaking immersion. When Canyon Crow hacker Hans detonates three explosives on a bridge to capture a U.C.S. cargo train, he betrays his fondness for Japanese animation—as computer engineers are wont to do—by labeling the charges "Nene," "Sylia" and "Priss."

These are the names of a trio of characters from an animated video developed in 1993, to which Yokoyama contributed mech designs. The remake's "Bubblegum Crisis" trophy, awarded when the player retrieves the valuable cargo, makes the anime reference explicit.

U.C.S scenario's Theme Of BlackHounds, re-orchestrated by Sébastien Poncelet.

On October 23rd of 2003, following the merger of Square and Enix, the developer released an expanded port for the Sony PlayStation. Front Mission 1st included a new scenario, introducing sympathetic characters from across enemy lines. While the U.C.S. scenario is designed to be playable independent of the original, the missions are more varied to appeal to experienced players.

A dozen Internet sources erroneously claim Hidenori Iwasaki served as composer and arranger for the U.C.S. scenario's score, despite his name not appearing in the staff roll. According to the composer, the assumption is likely based on a blanket credit found on the cover of the compilation album "Front Mission 4 plus 1st Original Soundtrack."

Protagonist Kevin Greenfield's scenario allows the player to strike up conversations with team members between each mission, affording broadened opportunities for character development and plot progression. Glen Duval from Front Mission 5: Scars of the War makes a cameo in the introductory tutorial of the Nintendo DS port, depicted in a character portrait illustrated by Yusuke Naora.

Within Living Memory

"Within Living Memory" arrangement by okadada from the compilation Chill SQ (2010).

Matsueda returned to serve as solo composer on Front MIssion's direct sequel, released for the Sony PlayStation in 1997. With the publication situated between spinoff titles Gun Hazard and Front Mission Alternative, Matsueda provided stylistic continuity by revisiting a number of her previously composed music tracks. For instance, the "Shop" theme belonging to the Wanzer supply warehouses of Front Mission 1st is treated to new instrumentation. Titled "Counter Bar," the music track plays in the jazz clubs of Front Mission 2.

Featuring character design by Brandish series illustrator Jun Suemi, Front Mission 2 takes place twelve years after the Huffman conflict, shifting locations to the People's Republic of Alordesh. Ash Faruk, a Wanzer pilot enlisted in the Muddy Otters battalion of the Oceanic Community Union, attempts to find a way out of the country amidst a violent coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Ven Mackarge and the Alordesh Army.

The remake by Forever Entertainment, in collaboration with Storm Trident, launched earlier this month for the Nintendo Switch console. The high-definition adaptation includes added options. Among them are a free-roaming camera, modernized battle scenes and in-game effects with faster load times, and localization in nine languages.