In terms of mecha gaming vintages, 1999 was definitely an exemplary year. From Omega Boost to Virtual On Oratorio Tangram, punters had access to some of the finest mecha games ever released. Then there was the final entry to the PlayStation Armored Core saga; Master of Arena.
In development for almost two years, the game had a substantial engine overhaul as well as some of the most revolutionary aspects the series had then seen. It was also a truly massive game and aptly named, as one whole disc (out of two) was solely dedicated to a new arena setup that had been introduced in the prior title, Project Phantasma. In short, it is simply one of the finest and best entries into the Armored Core series.
Following on from the previous games, especially the first, Master of Arena’s narrative was based around the resurgence of a Raven known as Hustler One who piloted the terrifying Nineball. Now at the end of the first game, this was revealed to be an AI controlled unit that did the bidding of an unseen but positively deified intelligence. Naturally, being a mecha pilot you riddled said AI avatar full of holes and, supposedly, brought an end to the machine god that pulled all the strings of future human society. Turns out, things weren’t that simple and pulling the plug did very little to undermine the plans of whatever was still in power.
Over the course of the game, the player would learn what Nineball truly was and that there were in fact scarier monsters lurking in the depths of our world. The missions themselves were subsequently quite polished and lean, making great pains to help bookend the narrative that had started in the first game. The missions were also substantially more of a challenge than those in the previous games.
The name of the game wasn’t just for show either, as most missions ended with an AC encounter and progressing further through the game meant you had to beat a certain number of separate arena opponents first. The big addition was the Ex Arena on the second disc, which featured a dizzying number of opponents. Many of which were tournament winners recreated in AI form. Compared to the relative walkover of the arena opponents in the previous game, the new Ex Arena antagonists were a lot tougher.
However, the most intriguing and ultimately quite revolutionary feature that facilitated all this arena based arse kicking was the all new Ranker Mk mode. This basically allowed you to build your own AI AC from the ground up, using the same tools that were available to the development team.
So on top of having a very polished set of missions, a vast number of arena opponents you also had the ability to create your own roster of opponents. Despite the delay in its development, with the amount of game on offer it was worth the wait. This is not to say that all the core customisation and balancing hadn’t been reworked extensively either, as Master of Arena was one of the most visceral entries into the PSone saga.
Master of Arena’s legacy is then an important one. It took a risk in extending the development cycle to polish its core content, something that hasn’t really happened since, as well introducing a near limitless almost Carnage Heart-esque AI creation framework. In the case of the latter, this new AI setup fed into numerous games in the series since. All these reasons aside though, we still love Master of Arena for its reveal of Nineball Seraph and the subsequent squaring off against the player. Whilst Seraph has appeared in a fair few games since, we still have very fond memories of finally reaching the end of the mission with barely enough AP to take it down.
In summation, Master of Arena is one of the few defining mecha games that have shaped the genre. It’s also one of the few PSone games that have stood the test of time, remaining as playable today as it did when it was originally released. As such it is one of the few true mecha gaming classics and comes thoroughly recommended to the discerning gamer.
In truth this is not the first time we’ve reviewed this game, as back near its release we also penned a similarly glowing review.