March 14, 2007 1:37 AM | Ollie Barder
['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 effect of two Japanese animators on mecha gaming.]
When people look at mecha games, outside of Japan, they often overlook the main sources of influence. After all, from a pop-cultural standpoint Japan is literally immersed in mecha. From anime to manga, mecha is all pervasive and has been around for over half a century.
There are consequently two very important figures in anime that have inadvertently shaped the last twenty years of mecha gaming and will continue to do so for a good long while to come. And so we shall talk about them!
Many may know of Yoshiyuki Tomino's Gundam saga and it is often regarded as a canon influence for mecha games. However, Gundam is a far more general catalyst when it came to the real robot phenomenon. It merely showed that mecha were fragile and where piloted by actual human beings (rather than feral posers with unkempt hair). Yet, the finer details in Gundam were often brushed over or even worse given fudged physics (Minovsky particles for instance).
There are two other people that gave greater definition to mecha, not only from a technical standpoint but also a kinetic one.
Very much the foil to Tomino, Takahashi approached real robots as something that could almost be created within the context of present day technology. As such the design work and the subsequent realistic treatment of said designs gave the rest of the narrative a more believable and subtle edge.
Take the cult classic Aoki Ryusei SPT Layzner, very near the beginning of this epic yet deeply poignant series the protagonist Eiji is faced with a major problem. After stealing the prototype super powered tracer (or SPT) Layzner from the Grados invading forces, he's now faced with the need to re-fuel. He thus waits amongst the ruins of a military base on Mars with barely enough fuel remaining for simple movement; in the hope another SPT will search the ruins for him.
He switches all his systems off, so as not to broadcast his position and waits. Faintly in the distance you hear the noise of another SPT walking slowly in Eiji's direction. For a moment you share Eiji's terror of not knowing where the enemy will appear, after all his radar has been turned off. Eventually the enemy SPT comes within range and it's clear he can't see the Layzner. Eiji quickly strikes and uses his remaining fuel in an attempt to cripple the enemy SPT without destroying it (thus removing his chance at re-fuelling). The elation that you share with Eiji as he succeeds within such a strict rule set is almost palpable.
The important point about Takahashi's focus on technical veracity is that defines a very distinct rule set for the characters to work within. Compared to Tomino's more freeform approach, Takahashi's is far more suited to gaming and helped switch on several developers within the Japanese games industry that mecha could be treated as something with finite resources (with From Software being relevant in this instance, especially with their vocal admiration of Takahashi's animated works).
Takahashi's approach to mecha isn't wholly intentional either; more that his main desire is to portray people and the events surrounding them in a gritty and believable manner. The mecha fall very much into the background of the work and are treated more as tools rather than anything spiritual in significance. Admittedly, in many instances, Takahashi's animated works often hold titles named after the eponymous mecha (such as Layzner and Galient) but that's more of a marketing decision really.
Itano is an interesting chap, he worked on the original Gundam movies and has been pretty much joined at the mechanical hip ever since. Unlike Takahashi, Itano has a more specific skill set in regards to animation. Whilst Itano has sat in the director's chair more than once his trademark is more action orientated. If you've watched much anime, especially anything from Macross, then you'll be familiar with glorious dogfights and beautifully animated volleys of missiles, as their vapor trails arc across the sky like hyperactive gossamers.
This aerial ballet has a name and one that venerates its creator, called the Itano Circus it has in many ways defined the capabilities of animated mecha. Like a beacon of possibility, other animators and games developers have looked to Itano for inspiration. Whilst Takahashi gave credence to mecha, Itano made their movement almost aspirational. A good example of what I'm talking about is illustrated here, here and here (with a downloadable version here).
Now, one of the big problems developers face when dealing with Itano's work is that to look at it's an amazing spectacle. However, the characters within the anime are often legends in terms of piloting skill. When you transfer an approximation of those controls to a gangly teenager, it doesn't always work out. A good example of what I'm talking about is that of the various Eureka 7 games. Eureka 7 is basically the anime Stanislaw Lem would have wrote if he ever had a penchant for transforming mecha that surf through the sky. The anime created a unique rule set to allow the mecha, called LFO's, ride invisible energy waves whilst airborne. The problem is that this rule set wasn't really explained that clearly and subsequently that let the animators off the leash in terms of the aerial combat sequences.
Visually, said dogfights are literally jawdropping in their audacity but transferring that into gameplay form isn't really manageable short of some kind of neural interface. Which is why Itano's legacy is aspirational to developers. They see the Nirvash swooping through streams of missiles and want to afford a similar visceral thrill to the player (after all, many developers want to be the riding the trapar waves themselves).
A powerful dichotomy...
These two figures in Japanese animation capture two almost diametrically opposite aspects of mecha that developers strive for; a fixed rule set to denote a level of realism and the ability to dodge missiles whilst striking multiple poses. It's this dichotomy that has produced games like Zone of Enders, Armored Core, Virtual On and a slew of others. Whilst Takahashi's and Itano's influence are by no means overt, most developers cite their respect for these animators on a particularly common basis and their subsequent games often bely a level of admiration that's hard to ignore. Both gentlemen are still busy creating new animated works however and their influence will continue to be felt in games for a long time to come.
[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.]
Categories: Column: Roboto-Chan