Armored Core: Master of Arena (Playstation, 2000)

Another standalone expansion pack. As the name suggests, From must have gotten a lot of feedback (rightfully) telling them that the arena in Project Phantasma was a great addition, because they went all in on the arena for this one. Even the story is about the arena! This time around there are 19 missions plus a (better balanced, more enjoyable) standard arena mode making it superficially comparable to the previous game, but that’s before you consider the second disc featuring 8 “extra” arena ladders and a tool for making custom arenas of your own.

On the one hand it makes me wonder how the data for a bunch of arena competitors — basically the list of parts used to build their mech, some AI settings, a short text description and a smal pixel art emblem for each — could possibly take up enough space to warrant the manufacture of an entire second disc. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with the actual value the disc provides. There’s a huge variety of stuff in there: specialized arenas limiting every competitor to a specific leg type, designs submitted by fans, editors for Japanese gaming magazines like Famitsu, designs based on the competitors in a tournament held for the previous game, the personal designs of From Software employees, and a murderers’ row of competitors designed to be as challenging as possible. The arena maker is interesting too, though I didn’t really touch it myself. I wonder if there’s an underground community based on swapping memory card files with custom arenas on them somewhere out there.

Looking back on it, I think this might actually be my favorite Armored Core game. As the most advanced iteration of the first generation it occupies a sweet spot in the series. As an expansion to the first game that doesn’t change the core ruleset at all, MoA is insulated from the piling on of complexity and cruft that inevitably comes from a long list of sequels. At the same time, all of the most egregious balance issues from the previous games have been resolved, and the sum of all the parts from the previous two games plus a few new ones make for a huge array of viable options when it comes to designing your mech. Put that next to the massive list of arena competitors that I spent the last paragraph raving about to test yourself against and you’ve got a winning combination.

Plus, there’s just something oddly compelling about the strange atmosphere created by the extremely stark visuals interspersed with bright, eye popping colors and really echoey sound effects of the first generation AC games. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for this era of games, but there was a certain dullness or malaise that started to set over the PS2 entries for me, and these first generation ones managed to avoid it.

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