Category Archives: Mech Game

#39: Ring of Red

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Turn-Based Tactics/Mech Game Released: 2000 Developer: Konami

It was surprisingly difficult to buy computer games in Japan – in fact, in the two years I lived there I only bought a handful of PS2 games. That’s not so say that games weren’t easily available – my local electronics store was crammed to the rafters with them – but actually finding games that only required a basic understanding of Japanese was a demanding task.

I found that the vast majority of video games in Japan were either RPGs or sports titles: unfortunately, the masses of Japanese dialogue ruled out the RPGs, and sports games have never really interested me (and especially not baseball games, which are hugely popular in Japan). The remainder was made up of popular Japanese series such as Devil May Cry and Metal Gear Solid, along with various manga crossovers (such as Naruto) and creepy dating games. Western staples, such as FPSs and driving games, only constituted a tiny minority, and my gaming diet in Japan mostly consisted of the odd Western import (Medal of Honor, Burnout 3) and a smattering of oddball Japanese titles (Katamari Damacy, Mr. Mosquito 2).

Infantry are key to success - your mech is almost helpless without their support.

After dejectedly ploughing my way through Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (not recommended), I was in the mood for something a bit different, which was when I came across Ring of Red. I bought it on a whim, and was surprised when it turned out to be one of the most interesting and compelling games I’ve played. It’s set in an alternative version of the 1960s where Japan didn’t surrender and WW2 dragged on into a protracted land war – which inevitably involved the development of mechs (this is Japan after all). After WW2 Japan was separated into Communist North Japan and Democratic South Japan, and the game starts as tension between the two sides is beginning to build (you can read more about the plot here).

Some of the mechs are capable of melee combat.

The mechs in this game are wonderfully primitive machines, all whirring cogs and smoking exhausts, and their movements are delightfully clunky and noisy, which makes a change from the sleek, futuristic machines found in most other mech games. Battles are turn-based, but each turn is governed by a strict time limit, so the action never really lets up. As with almost all turn-based strategy games, the core experience is basically two sets of stats gradually being reduced until one side has zero, but the game does an admirable job of papering over this with various strategic choices and special moves. One of the best features is aiming the cannon on your mech: the screen switches to the view of a target hovering wildly over the enemy, accompanied by the sound of your heartbeat; the longer you wait, the less erratically the target moves, but wait too long and you risk the enemy firing back. It’s a neat system and it really helps to build tension.

One of the long-range artillery mechs - basically a massive gun on legs.

The major downside is the repetition – inevitably the skirmishes get a little samey, although unlocking special moves keeps things interesting as you play on. The most frustrating thing about the game was not being able to understand the dialogue, but I managed to get the gist of what was going on… most of the time at least. Although I’m still not quite sure what happened at the end. In fact, the ending was a little abrupt in my opinion, which was annoying considering the amount of time I’d spent getting there. But then again I’ve seen much worse – the Playstation version of GTA2 springs to mind. It didn’t even have a cut scene at the end, just a black screen with the words ‘Game Over – Thank you for Playing!’

Tsk.

The lightweight mechs rely heavily on infantry support.

I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that Ring of Red is one of the best games ever made, but then that’s not the point of this list. In an ocean of lacklustre manga spin-offs, endless baseball sims and dodgy games featuring scantily-clad Japanese schoolgirls on their covers, Ring of Red was a beacon of hope – and for that it deserves celebrating.

Lewis

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Filed under 2000, Konami, Mech Game, Playstation 2, Turn-Based Tactics

#31: Steel Battalion

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**.

Steel_Battalion_Coverart

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.)

steel battalion controller

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.

steel battalion screenshot 1

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!!!”

steel battalion screenshot 2

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]

steel battalion screenshot 3

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.

Lewis

*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.

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Filed under 2003, Capcom, Mech Game, Xbox