Agress: Missile Daisenryaku

Developed in Japan by Palco System Corp.
Released in 1991 for arcade distribution

Agress: Missile Daisenryaku is little more than a sliding tile puzzle game that has wandered into a digital world, with success and failure told through the events of the First Gulf War. Yes, this is a real thing, unfolding in the days before movies like 300 and Pearl Harbor made the massacre of historical accuracy cool and edgy.  Agress is not the only Japanese game to highlight or draw inspiration from the tension between the West and Iraq, but I’d put down good money that it’s the most bizarre, developed in the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm and contextualizing the horrors of modern war in a match clear puzzle game.

While the solo, co-operative, and versus modes all feature different progress models, Agress is built on the immediate and never-ending goal of destroying incoming ground-to-ground missiles, and the firepower generated by successful matches is determined by missile powerups that lay below the sliding tiles. All the while, your “progress” is catalogued on the top of the screen through an awful map of the Middle East, and measures the “territory” that you have taken.  (When you take all of the territory, the map resets and you get nothing out of it.  I’m sure there’s a political metaphor in here somewhere.)  If you take a direct hit, then you lose a life, a portion of the playing field is temporary mangled, and this is how it goes until you die in the game or you die in real-life.  (The game’s goodies—bombs, extra lives, and a stopwatch—can be used to deny the inevitable.)

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That’s all there is to it.  It may seem like a mechanically uninspiring and aesthetically bizarre premise, one ostensibly designed to capitalize on the popularity of Tetris.  But Agress moves against the will of the competing match clear games from the period, placing the focus on the fast-paced mechanical input that would define the better ones (Magical Drop, Tetris the Grandmaster, Puzzle League) down the road.  Oddly, the controls are “inverted”, and in this game of sliding tiles, you’re “filling the hole” rather than “moving the blank space”. The controls are otherwise sharp and solid, but it’s easy to see why Agress could fall to the wayside.  Regardless of your experience with the genre, the controls will take a couple of rounds to get your head around, in contrast to a genre which subscribes to the phrase “pick-up-and-play”.

But the learning curve comes and goes, and you’re left with a satisfying sense of repetition nailed by the heavy, weighty sound and colorful graphics that come with the shifting blocks.  While nothing is inherently complex about the shapes that you have to create, it’s a little bit like playing tic-tac-toe with a set of boulders, and your most efficient and reliable option is to quickly “snake” your colored pieces through the fracas and into the correct position.  Yes, it’s a lot of work to achieve fairly basic shapes, but certain combinations require more nuanced answers when space is limited and the action can become tense.

Now, all of this may sound fairly basic, but shit, this is a genre where you’re matching colors and shapes together. They are not some kind of benchmark for intellectual curiosity.  My concern is whether the experience is entertaining.  And by that metric, Agress is outright superior to most of the Nintendo-published match clear games following Tetris and offers a sense of mechanical repetition that the early combo-heavy puzzlers do not.  I’ve always championed match clear games which take their cue from fast-paced action games and Agress is no exception to that rule.

Yes, it is still a flawed game, particularly in the one-player mode, with a brutally inconsistent difficulty level and some panel placements almost always requiring the use of the screen-clearing bombs. You can score more goodies in the end-of-level casino slot game, but it’s a poor implementation, and casts even further havoc on the difficulty. It could probably be done away with entirely, and is hardly the immersive complement to a panel-swapping recreation of Saddam Hussein’s butthurt.  But it doesn’t infringe on the superior versus mode and what is a perfectly competent match clear experience, one which deserves more documentation than a handful of web pages which are closer to archival and pictures than criticism or commentary. Well, this is my input. Hello there.

★★★