['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers the Another Century's Episode games.]

amuro_nu_ace2.jpgThose of you may remember my low-down of the Armored Core series and a nod to the developer, that of From Software, who created it. As of 2005 From Software have branched into more licensed gaming fare and whilst that may sound like terrifyingly bad news, they've approached the task with similar otaku fervour and created a whole new franchise that epitomises their nerd-like stranglehold on all things mecha.

More after the jump...

getter_robo_promo1.jpgLots of people around these parts know about Banpresto's seminal strategical wonder that is the Super Robot Wars series. As the title implies, the game covers covers "super robots" rather than "real robots". The difference between the two is an important one in terms of how mecha are classified as a whole.

Super robots are pretty much responsible for the genesis of modern Japanese mecha culture. Almost indestructible pieces of machinery, they can summon immense power capable of drop kicking planets and are piloted by almost feral teenage boys with thick unkempt hair. The structure of the narrative that often frames these fearful robots is that of strength through immense adversity and an almost indomitable sense of honour.

The drawback with supers is that they lack a more tempered human sincerity in terms of the setting that surrounds them. Towards the late seventies, the super robot template had been pretty much saturated. Many were getting sick and tired of the total lack of realism and more importantly the blatant glorification of apocalyptic warfare.

gundam_promo1.jpgCirca 1979 Gundam entered the public view and the real robot was born. One of the reasons Gundam and it's real robot ilk have been so successful is down to complex characterisation, a more believable narrative and most iconic of all; robots that actually get destroyed. Real robots are fragile, very fragile indeed. So the complex tapestry of neurotic war-hating characters fighting for their very survival makes for compelling storytelling.

Banpresto nailed the super robot in terms of gameplay but repeatedly failed when they branched into the realm of real robots. In 1995 SEGA created the first Virtual On game, very much inspired by the lateral approach to real robot dogfighting it managed to capture the sense of piloting a potent yet fragile mecha. Banpresto, along with many others, decided to outright copy Virtual On's vectored based combat mechanics and released Real Robots Final Attack at the beginning of 1998 on the original PlayStation.

voot_tem_surf1.jpgIt bombed, horrifically in fact. This wasn't helped by Virtual On Oratorio Tangram's then imminent Dreamcast port released in the same year, showing up the derivation even further. In all fairness, Banpresto were onto something but it took them another 7 years to cotton on to that.

Cue Hideo Kojima's desire to enter the mechanical fray with the Zone of the Enders games. Again, very heavily "inspired" by SEGA's Virtual On it managed to offer something a bit more coherent despite having a broken implementation of linking melee and distanced combat (something that Virtual On's fixed length dashes originally negated).

What probably caught Banpresto's attention in regards to ZOE was Konami's fevered attempt at hyping the series further by creating anime tie-ins to the games. The real robot had come of age in games; it was now producing anime as a consequence of its success.

All the while From Software were producing successively successful iterations of its Armored Core franchise. Shortly after the release of Armored Core Ninebreaker, From Software announced an alliance with Banpresto where the latter would act as a publisher to the former's development of a real robot action game featuring mecha from close to 15 years of anime.

Another Century's Episode (PlayStation 2)

ace_cover.jpgReleased at the beginning of 2005, the first Another Century's Episode (or just ACE) featured real robots from 9 different series and movies (including some of From Software's and Banpresto's own back catalogue). The gameplay was comparable to that of Konami's ZOE but greater emphasis on a more rigid boost system and consequently a more ballistic approach to weapons fire.

Now, this may sound more akin to Virtual On but it's considerably more subtle than that. Virtual On was based around fixed length dashes that offered homing attacks if the player fired a weapon mid-dash. The dashes also could be linked together to position the player in range for melee attacks.

ACE approached dashes as a very fast but of a much longer duration. In addition, the player had less control in terms of the turning circle, due to the increased acceleration. This meant you had to boost at the correct angle to allow your shots to connect. It also links ranged and melee combat in a far more efficient manner compared to that of ZOE, due to the player's focus on achieving a stable firing solution in relation to their target.

ace_nu_gameplay.jpgIn many ways it's a subtle change over Virtual On's initial implementation and more akin to the anime combat that inspired SEGA's real robot franchise in the first place. In many ways, ACE picked up the gameplay torch from Virtual On. Interpreting the rigid, almost digital, dash system in an analogue form.

The original ACE had its faults though. Melee combat had to be initiated on the same level of the target you were attacking and the game speed was a little on the slow side, which effected the overall responsivity of the combat.

Regardless of these faults, ACE was a successful release for both Banpresto and From Software. So successful in fact that many of the anime series featured in the game were given new leases of life, with Metal Armor Dragonar's subsequent releases of a DVD boxset and several artbooks being a notable example. Now realising that they were onto something, Banpresto decided to commission yet another game.

Another Century's Episode 2 (PlayStation 2)

ace2_cover1.jpgThis was released the following year and despite appearing to have the schedule of a very hasty sequel, ACE2 was a considerable improvement over the previous game. Addressing the two main faults of the original, the game made allowances for initiating a melee attack from a greater distance regardless of whether the player was level with their target and the game speed went a bit, well, bonkers.

In addition, the game's scope was far greater. In that, the mission roster was far larger and there was a very potent levelling up system in place. In the previous game you only levelled up abilities at the expense of others, ACE2 instead offered a far more linear progression of upgrades, which produced some interesting consequences in game.

As you played through, you would invariably come up against mecha from series that were actually of a higher level than you, which meant that you were at a disadvantage pretty much all round (attacking the GP-02 up close early on in the game is a bit suicidal because Gato can counter pretty much most attacks you throw at him). Consequently, you could return to said missions once you had ubered up a favourite mecha and kick much ass. This was unlike the previous game due to enemy hero mecha being treated as outright bosses, so they were always tougher than you were.

ace2_dragonar_gameplay.jpgThe HUD also got a considerable re-working, mainly due to the addition of a larger menu of attacks per mecha and the presence of "combination attacks". These were linked to chaining enemy kills, which consequently maxed out your combination attack meter. If you had one or two wingmen then you could initiate a powerful attack that would do "massive damage". A nice touch with this was that certain pairings of mecha produced wholly different animation sequences for the attacks. Admittedly, the attack itself produced the same damage but the effort that went into the eyecandy was appreciated by this particular gamer.

There is one major fault ACE2 suffers from though, is that it is almost too focused on combat. The original had very varied mission objectives that were a more cerebral affair in terms of how you approach them (in that protecting a palace during a political speech but without being seen by the press helicopters, because death robots make for bad PR). Many of the missions in ACE2 are full on combat with little else, admittedly the respective series' narrative is framed more competently (with lovely cel shaded renditions of the pilots) but from a pure gameplay point of view ACE2 did err on the side of being a tad repetitive.

This may sound somewhat damning but considering the wealth of work in other places within the game, the repetition can be oddly satisfying and the huge roster of mecha to choose from does add further diversity to the omnipresent combat

High fiving for the win...

Much like Super Robot Wars the main allure of ACE is to have mecha from disparate series high five their way to victory. As such, knowing where each of the mecha come from often helps in appreciating the game more. This is not to say the game can't stand on its own merits but that it was always meant to be subservient to the various anime licenses the game almost tearfully champions.

In all fairness, the series is a young one, barely even two years old, so it may seem a bit presumptuous to be covering it now. That being said if Armored Core and Super Robot Wars are anything to go by, the fact that the two ACE games currently available really hit the mark in terms of gameplay it's safe to say that this tie-in series will be around for a long time. Considering From Software's unique insight into making robots explode, I have absolutely no problem with that.

[Ollie Barder is a freelance journalist who's written for The Guardian, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to Japanese mecha artbooks. He lives at home with an ever growing collection of Japanese die-cast robot toys and a very understanding wife.]