Format: Xbox Genre: Mech Game* Released: 2003 Developer: Capcom
I saw the controller for this game before I knew anything else about it. I was doing work experience at CVG at the time, and a leaked internet photo of the extravagant twin joystick/pedal interface (see photo below) caused everyone in the office to gather round and gawp like idiots. Initially I thought it was some sort of joke, but an official press release from Capcom quickly followed – apparently they were serious about releasing a peripheral approximately half the size of the average Japanese living room**.
It’s obvious that the control system was dreamt up by some seriously nuts mech fanboys who wanted to take the mech game experience to its logical extreme – i.e. by recreating an actual mech cockpit***. But this is just what makes the game so appealing and refreshing – it’s fantastic to see someone coming up with such a frankly bonkers idea and then just running with it. I’d love to have seen the looks on the faces of the Capcom execs when the developers were pitching this idea, but huge kudos to the Capcom bigwigs for going with it – most companies would have run a mile when they found out how much the controller would cost. (The controller and game retailed for $200 in the US, and this was in the days before expensive guitar and drum controllers were commonplace. Apparently the game broke even though, and they even made a sequel.)
The array of options on the controller is staggering – it features over 40 buttons, the most notorious of which was the ‘eject’ button, housed underneath a plastic cover on the top right of the console. If your mech (sorry, VT****) takes critical damage, the eject button starts flashing and you have only a few seconds to hit it before your VT explodes in a rain of fiery death. Failure to hit the button in time results in the death of your character and your save game being erased. Yep, there are no second chances in Steel Battalion – this game takes the notion of hardcore gaming to worrying extremes. I’m just surprised that the controller doesn’t give you electric shocks every time you get hit.
As you’d expect from the dazzlingly complicated array of buttons (you can read a full list of what they all do here), there’s a bit more to Steel Battalion than simple arcade-style shooting and dodging. The attention to detail is frankly ludicrous – there’s even a button that washes the camera on the front of the VT if it gets dirty during a fight (yes, that’s right, there’s a button for windscreen washers). Not to mention a fire extinguisher button and no less than 8 buttons that are used solely for starting up your VT (see video below). Admittedly, going through all the rigmarole of pressing these various switches just to get your VT walking is quite entertaining the first time you do it, and adds to the experience enormously. However, I imagine that by the 50th time you play the game, this extended start-up sequence might start to lose some of its lustre… “Come on you bloody machine, start will you! I just want to shoot things!!!”
I say ‘I imagine’ because in fact I only ever played Steel Battalion once, at a friend’s house. (A friend with a very understanding wife who didn’t mind the fact that most of the living room had disappeared underneath shiny black plastic and flashing buttons. Having said that, he didn’t have it for very long, so maybe she put her foot down.)
“What?!”, I hear you cry, “How can you include a game that you only ever played once?!”
Well, I reply, for a number of reasons, chief of which is that this is my blog and I’ll do exactly what I like thank you very much. Hem hem. [Clears throat]
But more to the point, the whole ethos around this game probably gave me more enjoyment than my short time playing the game itself – from the buzz of excitement generated by the first pictures in the CVG office, right through to my friend excitedly telling me that he’d actually bought it. Laying my hands on that fantastically ridiculous controller for the first (and last) time was just the icing on the cake.
If you look at the shelves in any game shop you’ll see they’re heaving with ‘me too’ software – myriad copycat first-person shooters or film-licenced rubbish – so it’s good to know that there are some game companies out there with a bit of imagination and the conviction to try something new. Nice one Capcom.
*I’ve listed this one as a ‘Mech Game’ – I was going to just put it down as ‘Action’ or ‘Vehicle Simulation’, but they’re such vague definitions as to be almost useless. I think mech games occupy a special genre of their own – a heady mix of cinematic action and unbelievably anal stat fiddling. See Armored Core For Answer for a recent example (incredibly, this is the thirteenth game in the Armored Core series – there must be a factory somewhere just churning them out).
**From an eBay listing of Steel Battalion:
I haven’t got the space for this – I only bought it a couple of days ago and my wife won’t let me keep it =(
I can just imagine the look on his wife’s face as he came through the door lugging a controller the size of a fridge. Priceless.
***I just found out that the controller was developed before they even started making the game (see here), which makes sense.
****Curiously, the two-legged metal behemoths are referred to as ‘Vertical Tanks’ or ‘VTs’ in the game rather than mechs.