A couple of years before Sonic sprinted onto the scene for SEGA, hell bent on taking on Nintendo at their own game, the Mega Drive was already showing that it could become a platform for pioneers and new genres. With so many games of the 8 and 16 bits generations sticking rigidly to one genre, learning the rules of those genres and focusing on implementing them well, it was rare to see games that broke the mould and crammed two or three genres into one game.
But Technosoft did...and went and developed a couple of seminal games that were to have an indelible imprint on the RTS genre.
The original Herzog was quite a linear affair with bases on either side of a long vertical strip and the victor being determined by destroying the opposing side's base. The game's currency increased automatically - 10 credits every half second - so although resource management wasn't a primary consideration by any stretch of the imagination, there was a degree of flexibility in terms of unit construction. You essentially took control of a Land-Armour unit - a hovering mech - and created units that would charge out towards the enemy bases, attacking foes on the way, occasionally speeding things up by zipping units further down the track with your mech to press home the victory. It was simple stuff, but it spawned a sequel that would establish a number of RTS conventions for decades to come.
Then came Herzog Zwei. It got things right straight off the bat by again putting you in control of a giant, flying, transforming mech, but now the battlefields were much larger, you could select command directives from a list and issues orders other than just 'charge'. Like a cross between the Land-Armour in the first game and the variable fighters in the Macross series, the Commander unit was what made the game so unique, splicing together elements of both RTS titles and SHMUPS, allowing you to send tanks and attack boats and mobile AA vehicles and scurrying infantry forth into battle, or defending a base, or patrolling the area, but you could still also get stuck into the action yourself.
The evolution in gameplay from even the first game, itself a pretty big step up, was incredible. The Commander came strapped with three delicious: airborne fighter, Megatron-style ground brawler and unit transportation, and you'd need all of them. The appeal of the fighter jet is obvious to anyone who's ever seen Top Gun. Fighter jets are cool, and you'd need it to fend off the aerial attacks of your enemy. It was also pretty speedy which was handy because every bit of micromanagement needed to be done hands-on style. No pencil-pushers here, but no delegation either. By far the best part of the game, though not the most important in terms of legacy but we'll get to that, was the fact that at any given moment you could transform into an enormous robot and lay waste to everything around you.
Battlefields took place across large maps from a top down perspective, with a main base each at the far ends and incidental strongholds in between. Capturing the bases meant a higher rate of income, a chance to restock, resupply and replenish. You'd create units, ship them out in the Commander, issue some orders and blast away in support. But there was more to it now...you could set up ambushes as well as powerful barnstorming raids. You could now actively support your units rather than just sending swathes of them in on suicide missions, and flanking was an actual possibility now. Tactics could now play a part, in real time, with real consequences, and they had to - the nature of the game meaning that if you didn't set up your units to protect themselves, or issue orders, you'd be stuck doing absolutely everything yourself.
Of course, it might have just been my youthful inadequacy, but I wasn't the only one who found it was also ridiculously hard. You know how in Mario Kart the AI seems to have an uncanny knack for being right on your tail even when you've just burned through three golden mushrooms, hit a double shortcut and skipped half of the track? Well the AI in Herzog Zwei had the advantage of being able to create units much much faster than players, of often being several steps ahead. It never quite managed to find a middle ground and I always found myself either hurling the game pad around the room in frustration or luring the AI into the same trap every time.
Against a human opponent, though, the game absolutely shone. True, you could see what your adversary was planning (an option also available in singleplayer mode against the computer too), but it added spice to the gameplay. The fact that your nemesis could see your moves as well made for some excellent back and forth outmanoeuvring. Herzog Zwei was a decent singleplayer experience, though the AI could have been a little better. But as a multiplayer title it offered a depth that was pretty unprecedented on the Mega Drive.
Herzog Zwei has a legacy that lives on to this day in every point and click RTS and it conveys a positive response to the question regarding whether or not real time strategy games can work on consoles. Look at series like Supreme Commander and Total Annihilation and the legacy is clear, although not even those games allow for a command unit quite as versatile as the Commander. Technosoft's effort was arguably too ahead of its time for the critics of yesteryear who branded it overly complex for a console that had risen to prominence on the back of arcade success. It certainly wasn't an arcade game and pretty much no-one bought it. But Technosoft would be proven right in the end. EGM gave Herzog Zwei 4.25 out of 10 on release, but would later rectify that by pronouncing it as one of the Top 100 Games of All Time nearly a decade later.
With good reason too.