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Reflections on Carnage Heart (PS1; Artdink, 1997)

There really isn’t any game out there quite like Carnage Heart. Genre-wise, wikipedia lists it as a “mecha-based, turn-based strategy game” or “puzzle, programming sim.” And the great thing is that both of those genre descriptions is accurate.

Carnage Heart was a game where you played the role of a military commander, sent to the moons of Jupiter in order to command armies of robots to fight a war for resources. The only thing was that in this fictional future, the robots were completely autonomous and unmanned, and as the commander, you needed to actually program the robots to act on their own in battle. To reiterate: you, as the player character, have absolutely no control over what the mechs do in battle once they have been mass-produced and released into the wild expanses of the Jovian wasteland to engage in sweet, sweet robo-combat.

So, to the casual observer simply skimming video game box art on the shelves at the local game rental store, this game just looks like another run-of-the-mill mecha combat game. But in actuality, this game is a straight up programming simulator nestled inside a tactical turn-based strategy game.

Due to this shocking (yet revolutionary) fact, the learning curve of this game was extremely steep and likely a huge turn-off to most gamers who wanted to simply pilot the robots in battle. To the 17-year-old me, however, this opportunity sounded novel and intriguing--to essentially become Miles Dyson (the good version of Miles Dyson, who makes good terminators).

That said, I found this game to be extremely engrossing. I dove straight into the game, and my first program essentially made the robot walk into walls and fire his laser until he overheated and self-destructed due to said overheating. It was a spectacular failure, simultaneously funny and disheartening. However, I have come to learn that if I have such failures and I am still laughing and interested, that usually means that I will achieve success with just a bit more concerted effort and elbow grease.

Sure enough, after reverse-engineering some of the sample programs in the game manual, I was able to create a program which could hunt down enemy robots. I summarily named this model “The Hunter.”

So, let’s have a quick look at what exactly constitutes “programming” in this game. I put the word “programming” in quotations marks because it’s not true programming, but rather, the arrangement of true-false logic “chips,” each with tunable parameters, in a logical flow pattern which allows the robot to follow commands and (hopefully) function as intended.

Some of these chips are straightforward (Fire Main Weapon, Jump Backward, Turn Right, etc.). However, the majority of the chipset had branching chips which allowed you to set conditions for branching onto different actions depending on the desired parameters. For example, a “Sense Enemy” branching chip could be set for a forward-looking range of 45 meters, and the conical field of detection could also be tuned to narrow or wide (for this example, let’s say the cone is at 90-degrees). If an enemy is detected within the 45-meter, 90-degree forward-looking cone, then the chip would branch the program flow to one direction (most likely to a “Fire Main Weapon” action chip), and conversely, if no enemy is detected in those parameters, the program flow would branch to the other direction (likely to continue moving, detecting, etc.). Put simply, it’s the “if/then” and “else” aspects of a program. The proper tuning and arrangement of these logic chips was the main determining factor of your success in this game.

Furthermore, this game wasn’t merely programming robots to fight. It was highly strategic. As commander, you needed to not only program the AIs, but you needed to also manage the funds/resources of each base under you control, manage production of finalized robot designs (you could have the best program ever, but without money and facilities to produce the robots, your base would still be defenseless), and give marching orders to your units in the field. Furthermore, in order to upgrade the hardware of your robots, you could go into “Negotiation” mode and talk with weapon contractors from Earth in order to purchase new designs, upgrade old ones, or invest in research and development in order to speed up new advancements.

This game truly was unmanned robot warfare in space (and the management thereof), personified.

Carnage Heart is a truly enjoyable and deep game (despite its atrocious music and lackluster graphics, but that's not the main draw or point of the game, anyway). However, since it is hard to learn how to play and equally hard to explain to others, I had a hard time trying to get my friends to play it with me. And yes, you could in fact play this game with others--there was a versus mode where each player could upload their designs and initiate gladiatorial combat to see who was the bigger programming nerd. Having noted as much, I will happily admit that I forced my friends Darnell and Dan to suffer through this game with me for a whole hour or so before I realized that it was impossible.

I will say, however, that I actually did get my cousins Gavin and Tyler into this game, and after that happened, things got pretty serious pretty fast. Gavin started to brainstorm new logic patterns, and Tyler, well, he beat all of my hard-wrought designs with a simple design.

It had come down to my best design--a flying mech that would hunt down the target and drop mines on their heads--versus his spider robot with a shotgun. All the spider robot did was fire the shotgun once, jump toward the target, and repeat.

What went wrong?

It turned out that the dodging program I had written for the flyer was far too sensitive. Under the constant rain of shotgun shells at range, the dodge protocol took over and locked my robot into a constant dodge dance, all the while Tyler’s shotgun-spider advanced. The closer he got, the tighter the groupings on the shotgun flak, and the more locked up my flyer got. In the end, the shotgun-spider got right below my flyer and point-blanked my beloved flyer to pieces.

I learned from the mistake by taking Tyler’s simply strategy and working that into some of my future land-based designs. The whole fire-shotgun-then-jump-toward-enemy tactic was formidable.

Despite its extreme learning curve, Carnage Heart is a true treasure for those who can really stick it out and learn how to play the game. Sadly, likely due to this learning curve, this game did not sell very well, and in fact, the game is rare and hard to find for a decent price. Actually, the current copy that I own is my second one--the first disc I had broke, and I had to go hunting on ebay to find another, and it was a pretty penny since the game itself is rare. Since the time of its release, there actually have been a few sequels, but most of them have only been released in Japan. Still, if you do happen to have the chance, I would say give this game a fair try. I hope you enjoy it if you ever have the opportunity to really play it.

About the Author

PhD Candidate in Japan, researching Narrative in Games. Responds favorably to Thrash Metal, Karaoke, and Dungeons & Dragons.

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