['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 frequent Western misinterpretation of what mecha games set out to achieve.]

ac4_ss_rank_small.jpgNow with the release of Armored Core 4 abroad, reviews and forum discussion are a mixed bag. The main problem is down to a misinterpretation of what mecha games set out to achieve and consequently offer in terms of gameplay. Fallacious comparisons are often made to other types of gaming genre as a means of categorising the quality of whatever mecha game is currently under the spotlight. So, I think it's time for a little cultural clarification...

On the whole, the Halo series of games are something that elicits a series of responses from people. On the one hand the singleplayer level design and narrative are criminally poor, especially after Bungie's Marathon games, and on the other the controls and multiplayer are sublime. Almost everyone now thinks that all console FPS games should utilise a similar configuration, this is also true for most third person orientated action games too.

ac4_promo3.jpgIn terms of the evolution of gameplay this approach to acknowledging a superior means of control, as a means of improving other games, is a shrewd and insightful one. Well, for the most part. If, for instance, the focus of the game is the complexity of the controls so as to emulate the experience of piloting a monstrously large robot then a Halo-esque set of controls will miss the point of what the game is trying to achieve (try to imagine Steel Battalion without the controller).

Naturally, if a game goes out of its way to force a deep and complex set of controls upon the player it often puts most gamers backs up. With the advent of the blogosphere and a general increase in the potency of the vox populi, a game that seemingly runs in the face of (Western) opinion is going to get itself into trouble at some point or another.

ac4_promo_1.jpgArmored Core as a series of games, outside of Japan at least, has always had a tough time of wooing the journalistic throng and punters alike. On the one hand you have the people who think the game is clumsy and difficult to control and then you have, well, ninjas who take to the games like mechanical ducks to water.

From a Western perspective, Armored Core is a third person action game that has restrictive environments, hideously complex customisation and counter-intuitive controls. Alternatively, in Japan at least, the games are thought to be very focused in terms of their level design, contain comprehensive customisation and very thorough controls.

The emphasis in games such as Armored Core is empowering the player through their own effort and understanding of how the game works and how it should be played. The environments are meant to be boxed in to denote a level of futility to the player's progression. After all it's very common in anime series to have the protagonist strategically set-up by the enemy and have them survive overwhelming odds. This approach to having a limited environment and forcing the player to commit to a difficult encounter is the gaming equivalent of what occurs in an anime narrative.

ac4_promo_6.jpgSubsequently, the player is expected to learn how to build a suitably potent mecha and how to get the most out of it during combat, after all that's what anime protagonists have to go through so why shouldn't the player as well? The onus is entirely on you and the rush upon enduring a monstrous battle against overwhelming odds is palpable, well if you actually put the effort in to get to that point.

Much in the same way that God Hand received mixed responses for having seemingly clumsy controls and odd camera angles, few people sat back and tried to examine what was trying to be achieved. In the same vein, games such as Virtual On and Armored Core are rife with what can only initially appear as utterly bizarre design choices.

To look at, a game such as Virtual On is a third person shmup. When actually it's a vectored based combat game with a heavy emphasis on strategy. Look at the controls, Virtual On uses two sticks with two buttons each. Why this configuration? What is it trying to achieve?

Well, firstly it's not trying to purposefully irritate anyone. The twinstick setup has two purposes, one functional and one pop-cultural. The latter is to offer a vague approximation of mobile suit control from the Zeta Gundam era, whereas the former is to allow a fast response to enemy weapons fire and more precise control of your virtuaroid (something that the Saturn and Dreamcast ports proved with the limited control via their respective pads).

ac4_promo_5.jpgArmored Core 4 is no different in its approach to mecha made polygonal flesh. It's trying to encompass the control of a very complex piece of a machinery and offering enough player input to give the sense that, yes, you are an ass kicking pilot. However, it doesn't just give that control away without the expectation that the player will work at it.

You see, games like Armored Core and Virtual On aren't made for people who want maximum gaming empowerment for zero effort. In addition, they aren't meant to be played without the understanding of their pop-cultural context (much in the same way Lego Star Wars loses much of its charm if you neither like or care about Lego or Star Wars). Mecha games are made for people who like mecha and want to pilot the damn things, mainly because as you've probably noticed they don't exist yet.

In the same way that I am not a Greek god, a cyborg super soldier or a spy. Games offer those virtual opportunities but for me to misinterpret, in a gaming context, a Greek god as a cyborg super soldier who should be spying is a bit bloody stupid. There are reasons that Armored Core has survived over a decade, it might be worth re-examining as to why.

[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.]