When I picked up the SNES game Cybernator (aka Assault Suits Valken) in 1993, I had no idea that it would become a major part of my personal mecha history. As a child of the 1980s, I already had been exposed to plenty of robots in the form of Transformers, GoBots, and Voltron. I fell off robots for some time as my childhood interests shifted to things like TMNT and Ghostbusters.
But by 1993 I was back into robots, starting with the American cartoon Exo Squad and continuing with Cybernator. What I didn’t know at the time was how both of these were priming me for discovering mecha anime in a few years. Konami censored Valken when they released it in North America as Cybernator, and one of their changes was removing the character portraits that accompanied the in-game dialogue. But a lot of anime elements lingered, like O’Neill type space colonies, and ground-pounding mecha with roller wheels and arm punches.
The story of Valken is fairly rote – you play as Jake Brain, a mecha pilot on one side of a devastating war between the Earth’s two major political blocs. The game takes you to multiple locations in space and on Earth, and you’ll find yourself trying to stop a space station from being dropped on Earth, entering the atmosphere unexpectedly and facing off against an enemy ace piloting a red mecha. Sound familiar?
A few years later, when I seriously got into mecha anime and started exploring Gundam and VOTOMS, a lot of elements seemed familiar and I remembered old Cybernator. The anime connections are obvious in retrospect, and the game’s mechanical designer, Satoshi Nakai, specifically cited VOTOMS and Dougram as inspirations for the mechanical designs.
Valken/Cybernator has a tangled history regarding its Western release, which wasn’t uncommon for the day. Developed by Masaya, it was the prequel to the 1990 Sega Genesis game Assault Suit Leynos, which was released in North America as Target Earth. Leynos and Valken each received sequels on the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation 1, neither of which were released in North America. The original Leynos was remade in 2015 for PlayStation 4 and PC by Dracue Software. Although that studio is now defunct, the game is still available and definitely recommended.
In 2023, Rainmaker Productions turned to emulation masters M2 to create Assault Suits Valken DECLASSIFIED, a Nintendo Switch port of the SNES title with the standard retro features of screen borders, graphic options and save states. The game also includes a wealth of bonus materials, including an audio interview with Nakai, a remixed soundtrack and an image gallery featuring full translations of the original Japanese game manual and an 80-page guidebook filled with lore about the Valken world and its mecha. The game itself sports a brand new translation and is uncensored for the first time in North America. I was initially skeptical of the game’s price, but it’s definitely worth it for the sheer amount of bonus materials.
Sadly, the Valken/Leynos series is pretty well dead. In addition to the four main titles, a loose spiritual successor exists in the form of Front Mission: Gun Hazard, a 1996 Japan-only SNES title from Squaresoft. Several former Masaya employees worked on Gun Hazard, and that’s immediately evident in the side-scrolling mecha combat levels. The game, which has since been fan translated, is also notable for featuring art by Yoshitaka Amano and music by Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda. Although the series is rather obscure and flies under most people’s radar, it’s a cherished part of my mecha history that I’ll always look back on fondly.