['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 gives a brief rundown of two main design features that have been responsible for the enduring success of Japanese mecha.]

garland_henkei1.jpgThere are two facets of the mecha pop-cultural mythos that are synonymous with it being pant wettingly awesome. They've spawned toys that have caused riots due to their subsequent demand and more importantly forged tenets of mecha design that survive until this day.

These are the respective abilities of combination (gattai) and transformation (henkei). In game playing terms these abilities are also something of note, though we have yet to see Japanese gaming truly catch up in terms of useable functionality.

More after the jump...

In 1972 Go Nagai penned what would be one of the first super robots, it was Mazinger Z and it utilised the now famed rocket punch attack and also had a detachable cockpit. Following on from this modular approach, Nagai went onto create an equally important series that of Getter Robo in 1974.

gattai_kanji.jpgGetter Robo was important because it actually featured three fighter planes that combined into three different robots. This was the first "gattai" sequence in anime and despite both Nagai and the animators fudging the sequence (as in having the respective parts grow and morph in a rather organic manner) it started the ball rolling nonetheless.

It wasn't long at all until the eponymous Raideen undertook the first ever "henkei" by transforming into the fearfully fast God Bird. The transformation differed from the gattai due to the Raideen not needing any further parts to change, but merely performed a set of movements that utilised the innate abilities of the mecha.

raideen_main1.jpgTechnically speaking though, most gattai sequences involve a fair bit of henkei. Take Combattler V for example, each of its five component parts need to perform a mild form of henkei in order to successfully complete the overall gattai. This is also true for almost every gattai sequence in anime and manga history.

Amongst fans this often causes fierce and suitably wild-eyed debate, in that gattai and henkei are actually the same ability. In some instances this is partially true but on the whole the abilities are disparate. Simply because the henkei used in gattai are partial ones and not full on functional mode changes (unlike the Raideen's God Bird for instance).

Both of these abilities have impressive though obviously problematic gameplay implementations. In terms of direct control, mecha that have different functional modes are an inherent headache. In the case of SEGA's moderately recent Macross game on the PlayStation 2, the engine was based of the Aero Dancing series.

henkei_kanji.jpgSo whilst the flight control was superb for the multi-mode variable fighters, with subtle and refined control expected from a flight simulator, upon transformation the engine had to compensate in a rather clumsy manner for the other two modes of GERWALK and battroid.

Battroid was given a very rigid lock-on system, that whilst serviceable was incredibly overt and lacked the finer precison of the fighter. Whereas GERWALK was simply a mess, with neither fighter or battroid controls having priority leaving the player to muddle through.

The depressing thing is that SEGA's Macross game is actually one of the better entries into the mecha gaming pantheon and at least attempted to cover the henkei in moderately useable gameplay form (you honestly don't want to know about the VF-X games).

dancouga1_main.jpgThe more common approach is to either create mecha with similar abilities between their respective modes or to take away player control almost entirely. In the case of the former, the Capcom beat-em-up, Choukou Senki Kikaioh features a gattai themed mecha piloted by two boisterous boys, called the Twinzam V it flicks quickly between the modes performing the gattai in lightning fast time. Whilst the gattai has occurred it wasn't a controlled manoeuvre merely one that was triggered.

The latter case is that of the Super Robot Wars games where mecha like the Dancouga combine beyond the reach of the player but reward them nonetheless with a heroic pose for the camera followed by the brief though impressive act of raw mechanical carnage.

Few games nail henkei let alone gattai sequences, even those with a robust anime license acting as a helpful guide. This is not to say that it's impossible but the fault doesn't lie with game developers so much the fact that Go Nagai et al faked the abilities so as to maximise their visual impact.

This is something that was belied by the various toys released that were unable to accurately mimic their animated counterparts. Gaming suffers a similar affliction due to the nature of game engines being built upon real world variables.

Admittedly, there are games that are forced to look at these abilities as a whole such as From Software's Another Century's Episode franchise and even the ill-fated Gun Metal approached henkei in a similar manner (though with the latter creating your own mecha does afford a greater amount of freedom in building the engine, however without suitably iconic design it doesn't always pay off, something that Battle Engine Aquila subsequently verified).

Eventually, gaming will catch up and accurately reproduce anime-esque henkei and gattai sequences in full blown form but until that day we shall have to entertain ourselves by simply shouting Change Getter...a lot.

[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.]