Developers of tabletop board games and role-playing games are known for developing a setting for players to romp around. Dream Pod 9 is no exception. Each of their lines, Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicle, Gear Krieg, and Tribe 8, have detailed settings and history, with the worlds involved detailed, down to politics, food, and fashion. In particular, Heavy Gear had many supplements printed, detailing the various factions on the world of Terra Nova and how the world was preparing itself for the return of the Earth forces that were beaten back once already. The game itself was originally created as both a tabletop war game* and as an RPG, allowing players to command armies or to be one of the pilots in the titular Gears.
With a rich setting, the game was seen as prime fodder for being adapted into a cartoon, much like what happened with the BattleTech game in 1994. However, instead of mixing traditional with CGI as with the BattleTech series, Heavy Gear: The Animated Series was completely computer animated. In 2001, Sony Pictures, along with Mainframe Entertainment, produced the series. The story centered around the Shadow Dragons, a Gear dueling** team from the Southern Republic***, the team’s rookie Gear pilot, and their dealings with the Northern Light Confederacy’s team, the Vanguard of Justice.
The original plan was to showcase the teams in a tournament, then, once a winner was determined, have the Earth forces arrive to retake the planet. However, Sony aimed the show at a younger audience than DP9 aimed the games and wanted to simplify the storyline. Out went the Earth invasion, since the younger target might not wrap their heads around the sudden switch from villain to hero by the Vanguard. The series remained focused on the tournament format for the entire run, even with tourney having been after the first dozen episodes.
The problem with the adaptation is that it was aimed for the wrong crowd. The game was played by an older market; in fact, DP9 had to redo the war game rules because restrictions in lead use, affecting the miniatures line.**** The attention to detail of the minis, the fine motor skills required to both build and paint them, would be slightly beyond Sony’s target audience. On the RPG side, character generation was somewhat involved, requiring a non-linear point expenditure. While the Gear combat did look good and was representative, the plot itself was flatter than expected given DP9’s own work on the setting, with game books having a year printed on the cover to indicate where on their timeline the supplements were. Gone, too, was the idea that all factions on Terra Nova had their good and bad sides. The Northern Vanguard of Justice were the villains, period.
There were a few outstanding moments, though. One of the Southern pilots was a shout-out to Oddball, Donald Sutherland’s character in Kelly’s Heroes. And DP9 didn’t ignore the series’ existence. Instead, the show is mentioned, in-universe, as entertainment for the masses.
Next time, still with science fiction.
* Complete with a line of miniatures for all factions involved.
** There are three types of dueling on Terra Nova: military dueling, done for the honour of a regiment; professional dueling, which focuses on the skill of the pilots and was the type of dueling featured in the cartoon; and underground dueling, where anything goes and it’s a bad day of no gear is utterly destroyed.
*** One of the two superpowers of Terra Nova, the other being the Northern Light Confederacy.
**** All miniatures companies were hit at the same time by new regulations limiting the amount of lead in a product. Companies switched over to pewter, causing some price increases. The 1:87 scale of the original line of /Heavy Gear/ minis was scrapped in favour of a 1:144 scale.