In the early days of the first PlayStation, a quirky PC strategy game was ported onto the console and immediately secured a place on my all-time favorites list. That game was called X-Com: UFO Defense, and to this day I have fond memories of hours spent positioning operatives and planning strategies down to the smallest detail in order to eradicate invading bug-eyed aliens from Mother Earth. Rebelstar Tactical Command may not be a directly related, but the family resemblance is impossible to ignore.
The game's story mode tells a very basic, underfed tale about a group of ragtag rebels rising up and resisting alien enslavement of the earth. It's enough to get things moving, but it's not going to win any awards for storytelling. The real attraction to Rebelstar Tactical Command is the slow, methodical, and cerebral approach that's necessary to bring victory home to Homo Sapiens. (And I use those adjectives in only the most positive sense.)
Over the course of 25 missions, forethought and resource management are entrenched as the key tools for survival. Each character is allotted a certain number of points that can be divided among movement, attack, or a variety of other actions as the player sees fit. Set loose into levels made up of urban, jungle, and alien-infested landscapes, line-of-sight plays a key role since enemies that are not visible to your characters are not visible on screen. Within this framework each sortie becomes a tense game of cat-and-mouse, and if death can teach, much will be learned in the first few levels.
After a handful of these lessons, the instinct to play things supremely cautiously soon sets in, and it's to the game's credit that I actually found myself sweating in particularly hostile areas. There were few things as painful as leaving a key member of my squad in an area that looked safe, spending all his action points, and then watching him take a laser to the chest from the hulking green monster hiding in the one doorway that I prayed was vacant.
That sad fate is stayed somewhat not only by learning and using squad tactics that work, but also by the ability to assign characters to "overwatch" and guard an area, giving them the power to open fire when it's the AI's turn. But, since a character can't do much if they intend to stand watch, the choice in balancing speedy movement with secure progress while also constantly positioning the team for either attack or defense at any given time is crucial. In a sea of licensed portable schlock, this tense "start thinking or die" atmosphere was extremely welcome.
Adding even more to the game in terms of options and strategies, characters eventually gain psionic abilities like detecting hidden opposition in the immediate area, or instilling fear in enemies. Without question, Rebelstar Tactical Command goes above and beyond the vast majority of Game Boy cartridges (and most console games, for that matter) to present an extremely challenging, in-depth and engaging experience.
However, I'm not going to lie and say that the game isn't difficult and frustrating. But, the difficulty is redeemed by the ability to save at any point. Without it, I probably would have quit the game, especially since some levels can take an hour or more to complete. Losing that kind of progress is a nickel-plated gut-punch, and not having to start from the beginning of each stage let me keep my sanity after every defeat the game threw my way. (And there were many.) Obviously, Codo must have been paying attention during playtesting.
Gamers seeking to relive the true X-Com experience might be a little disappointed to see that some of the peripheral elements of that series do not exist in Rebelstar; things like reverse engineering alien technology, building bases or responding to hot zones around the globe. I can't say that it really bothered me, though. My SP seemed to be straining as it was, and any extra complexity stuffed into the cartridge might have burst it at the seams. Besides, those who don't remember X-Com won't miss it anyway.
Rebelstar Tactical Command is dense, methodical, and maybe even a little bit unfriendly, but there's nothing else quite like it on Game Boy today. It could use a little polish here and there, but the quality put into designing the game is evident and I give my respect not only to Codo for creating it, but to Namco for releasing it and its sister title, Sigma Star Saga. In the current age of high-end consoles and super-powered portables, these two little Game Boy carts have accounted for some of the finest play sessions I've had all year.