['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 investigates a fascinating Gundam arcade game]

senjou_gameplay1.jpgI had planned on doing a "best of 2006" list, much like the rest of the online throng. Yet, whilst on holiday in Japan, I feel compelled to cover something more pertinent. We all know that the Japanese arcade scene is still moderately thriving and suitably extreme in terms of hardware. However, some of the more interesting and unique arcade games often lack coverage.

One of these is the recently released Gundam Senjou no Kizuna. It's a fascinating game purely off the back of its insane cabinet, which features a panoramic display (that you literally sit in), two joysticks and two pedals.

Immersion is a word oft misused in describing games but Senjou no Kizuna really fulfils that description in ways that traditional games simply don't.

More after the jump...

IMGP1285.JPGEvery single Gundam themed game since time immemorial has tried to capture the sense of the player actually piloting a mobile suit, or at the very least savouring the Gundam mythos first hand. These games are purely fuelled by that player urge that they too can be a Newtype pilot like Amuro Ray and pretty much kick mechanical ass across multiple lagrange points in cis lunar space.

Senjou no Kizuna approaches this desire by offering the player the chance to literally sit inside a mobile suit cockpit and use nearly identical controls to that of the original anime. The left pedal affords you a decent jump, the right a lateral boost in whatever direction you choose. The sticks control movement and the triggers the weapons. Movement and weapon usage is akin to an analogue Virtual On basically, in that you have to acquire your target manually.

The objective of each match is to shoot and kill the opposite side, be it Federation or Zeon, and this is represented in an overal team point loss (indicated as a vertical health bar on the left hand side of the screen). Attacking the enemy team's base and successfully destroying results in a massive loss of points for the enemy.

This brings me onto one of the more arcade throwbacks the game's design has. In short, killing anything with any of the playable mobile suits is a very tricky task. Not because the skill of the players are in any way ninja but because weapon damage is close to nothing. The reason behind this is down to the arcade's need to take money from punters, giving a discernable means of victory runs counter to the business model the game works under.

IMGP1284.JPGSo whilst the machine is guzzling your 500 yen coins there is another major incentive the game throws at you. To even play the game you need a pilot card. These are 300 yen a piece and are dispensed via the machine you see on the left. After each battle and depending on your success, you'll be award points that will eventually level your pilot up. Once this happens you are instructed by the voice of a nice Japanese woman to insert your card in the pilot terminal. If you're lucky, you'll get a new mobile suit but even the more powerful suits also come with a catch; if you die your team loses more health. So you have to be confident in your piloting skills before you commit to the cockpit.

The game's also got one other major aspect to it; it's online. Every single machine is networked across the whole of Japan. So whilst I maybe be playing in an arcade in Nagoya, my teamates and enemies could be as far away as Hokkaido or Okinawa. In a cool move by Banpresto, the pilot terminal also dons a nice plasma screen showing a live camera of a random online match.

It goes without saying that this is a popular game. Considering the cost of these cabinets, most arcades have four or more and they seem glad with the purchase. I even saw multiple couples look inside the cabinet and ending up buying pilot cards for use at a later date (the queues are quite long at the weekend you see).

Senjou no Kizuna has also birthed a new One Year War era mobile suit, that of the GM Striker. This has gone the gameplay rounds recently, being featured in the light-gun game Spirits of Zeon and the steaming turd that is Target in Sight. Bandai have also released a High Grade Universal Century kit of the speedy beast.

orbs01-1.jpgThe story behind the cabinet is an interesting one though. Back in 2001, Namco were in the process of making a sequel to the classic Starbalde. Entitled "Starblade: Operation Blue Planet" it was going to boast a new panoramic cabinet by the name of O.R.B.S. (which stands for Over Reality Booster System, another acronym too far). The game never made it out of the prototyping stage, despite cruising a few trade shows, and considering the subsequent merger with Bandai, a Gundam arcade game using the same technology (now called P.O.D., short for Panoramic Optical Display which is much better) was a given.

In light of the eclectic cabinet and controls, there's little chance Senjou no Kizuna will receive a console based port. Though this is by no means a matter to get disheartened over. Without the cabinet the game just wouldn't be the same, it wouldn't feel right. In any case, what with Gundam Musou on the way keeping Senjou no Kizuna in the arcades would be a good idea. After all, when any Musou game hits the Japanese shelves a veritable swarm of gaming locusts descends upon them. Couple that with the massive popularity of the Gundam franchise and a suitably themed Musou game will end up being a tad epic. Anyway, for the brief time I had with Senjou no Kizuna I was enraptured and felt that, finally, the Gundam universe hade been adequately given gameplay form.

[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.]