['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 one designer who has taken the concept of real robots to their zenith.]

steel_battalion_quasar1.jpgAbout seven years ago I stumbled across some interesting designs within the pages of Newtype. I used to buy Newtype semi-regularly, mainly for my Five Star Stories fix but also because the magazine often held host to some pretty interesting stuff.

The designs that caught my eye were from a soon to be serialised novel by the name of For the Barrel and they were, quite frankly, utterly revolutionary. You see, For the Barrel was a re-imagination of the original Gundam series, except with a far greater emphasis on realism. The designwork was consequently unnervingly palpable.

A few years later, Capcom announced a truly bizarre mecha game on the original Xbox. It would have a monstrous bespoke controller covered in a myriad of happy flashing buttons. Naturally, the mecha designs needed to look the part especially with such a high emphasis on realism for the game.

The common link between the two is a man by the name of Junji Okubo and it's about time his effect on mecha design and the future of gaming was covered.

In some ways saying that For the Barrel merely re-wrote the original Gundam sells it more than a little bit short. Considering that Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, one of the founding fathers of the original Gundam along with Yoshiyuki Tomino, has approached his Gundam The Origin manga with more than a little trepidation only shows the magnitude of the undertaking for outsiders.

forthebarrel_newtype1.jpgFor the Barrel didn't just re-write Gundam it approached every aspect of its setting and re-examined its implementation. From the psychological make-up of the characters to the technology used to power their machines of war. The latter being pertinent in light of what Gundam has done for the real robot mythos.

When I interviewed Okubo a few years ago, he made a very interesting observation in regards to mecha design. He used a word to describe contemporary mecha, that of keren. The word originates from kabuki and means "playing to the gallery", and is basically regarded as indicating excessive theatrics.

In the context of mecha, Okubo was referring to the crazy nonsense of Getta Robo's gattai sequence, as the three craft impossibly morph into one another. Real robots eschewed this emphasis on keren and were consequently more palpable. However, real robots were born from supers and they retained a certain amount of vestigial keren.

izmojuki_industrial_divinities1.jpgOkubo's approach to mecha design is, for all intents and purposes, keren free. The results are some of the most realistic looking mecha designs to date and unsurprisingly with such a great emphasis on realism games like Steel Battalion were possible. From a functional standpoint, the designwork framed the gameplay.

Okubo recently had a book published, entitled Izmojuki Industrial Divinities it contained a lot of his designs for Steel Battalion (including concept sketches) as well as his other non-game work. Apart from the artwork, the book also contains several CG renders of his designs photoshopped into real world locations (similar to Katoki's work on Gundam Fix). This only emphasizes the quality of the design in terms of its real robot focus. They look like machinery that's already part of our daily lives or at least very soon will be.

I mentioned in a previous column how Ryosuke Takahashi's approach to making mecha functional tools in a narrative context has had a noticeable effect on Japanese mecha games. Whilst Takahashi has the right approach, Okubo's designs are the pinnacle in terms of that approach's execution.

okubo_design1.jpgYou see, whilst Okubo is striving for realism in his designs he acknowledges the history that pre-dates that. He made comparisons to his designwork being chimaeran. Multiple facets from the history of mecha coalescing into a form that supersedes its inspiration. This is something that a lot of Western mecha games could learn from, in aiming for realism you need to be aware of the history of fantasy that enshrouds mecha in Japan.

Whilst Okubo has tried to minimise the amount of keren in his mecha designs, he is still in awe of the work that was done on Dunbine and Galient. Two series that embody the fantastical element of Japanese storytelling and consequently have a high degree of keren in their mecha designs.

Real robots were a reaction to the supers and in turn took part of that with them. In making mecha more real, the framework of supers is still apparent though more in its refined and selective absence. The point here is that, Okubo's skill and insight comes from a cultural and historical understanding of mecha. Something that paid untold dividends in the creation and development of Steel Battalion. Maybe it's time that the games industry outside of Japan cottoned onto 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.]