['Roboto-chan!' is a (hopefully) fortnightly column formerly ruled with an iron fist by Ollie Barder, but recently stolen off him by Christopher Bruso, alias TOLLMASTER - it covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers Activision's 1995 PC title MechWarrior 2, a simulation-style mecha game that somehow became a hit in a time long past, practically introducing mecha games to the Western audience.]

mech2box2.JPG Americans love big things. Americans are a radically diverse people, but wherever in the United States you go, you'll find an appreciation for scale, even in unlikely places such as the South (I, for one, consider the monster truck fan to be a relative of Homo mechotakus, or the giant robot anime fan). It was only a matter of time before the United States would notice similar appreciation for size in their neighbor across the sea in the genre of giant robots, and attempt to create a work in that genre, combining both Japanese and American elements.

Add to this humanity’s universal penchant for war and explosions, and you got a game called MechWarrior 2, many Westerners’ first experience with the mecha video game genre, and one that is still fondly remembered those gamers lucky (or wise) enough to have played it.

The story of Mechwarrior 2 begins with BattleTech, a American tabletop wargaming and role-playing game series by the FASA Corporation. Battles were decided between hulking giants of metal called BattleMechs (‘Mechs for short), bristling with beam weapons and more standard fare such as cannons and missiles, in addition to more familiar units such as tanks and infantry.

BattleTech was hardly a unique concept; its early history included lawsuits due to similarities with some of their ‘Mechs and to the mecha of Japan’s Super Dimensional Macross (you may know it better as Robotech) and Fang of the Sun Dougram. In fact, Dougram’s boxy look can be seen as having had a major influence on FASA’s artwork despite the removal of infringing material. But despite these close aesthetic similarities to, and obvious inspiration from, Japanese mecha, BattleTech was its own beast.

The ‘Mech might be a powerful weapon, but they were still fairly limited in power compared to some of Japan’s realistic robots, such as the ever-popular Gundam. A team of ‘Mechs would often be supported by other vehicles, such as aircraft or tanks, and these were at least somewhat comparable to ‘Mechs in terms of firepower; meanwhile, tanks in Gundam were useless antiques with less a chance of survival than your average Star Trek redshirt. America did not have the “Super Robot” television shows where a single heroic mecha would save the Earth from an entire evil empire, and thus could hold a more realistic interpretation to what these humanoid war machines might bring to a futuristic field of battle.

This lack of firepower compared to their Japanese counterparts, however, did not make them any less appealing. Instead of specific mecha, fans grew attached to the political and military entities that fielded these weapons, setting the stage for a complex plot. And by happy coincidence, many of the early 3D computing games attempted to simulate vehicles in a realistic manner. For the obsessed fan, it wasn’t a far jump from a program simulating real-life tanks and aircraft to a program simulating a walking humanoid robot.

While the more fantastic Japanese anime of the time would have to wait for more processing power and a long series of failed game designs to create simulacrums of their frenetic dogfighting, the down-to-earth BattleTech design must have seemed perfect for a three-dimensional game at the time. The ‘Mech was fantastic, but real enough for the imagination—programmers’ imaginations—to grasp. Thus, the conditions for a successful computer game based upon the franchise were all there, just waiting for Activision to create what would become a legendary game among PC enthusiasts and giant robot fanatics alike.

MechWarrior 2 is one of those rare examples of a game that got everything right, by filling an open niche with a game designed to fill that niche exactly. There had been, of course, 3D vehicle simulators, and you may guess from the number in the title that MechWarrior 2 was not the first BattleTech PC title. But it was the first game to enthrall a mass audience. The combat engine looked great for the time, and was advanced enough to portray the massive robots in a way that made them feel “solid”—you were not just a robot, but a 100-ton walking death machine who rained down fire and brimstone upon your enemies.

Combat was relatively simple to learn but deep enough to be engaging. Missions were more complex than “destroy all enemies” and could take a few attempts as you tried to figure out the best way to tackle your objectives. In the exact opposite of Doom and other popular games at the time, it had a rich backstory that explained the various factions and their philosophies (pulled from the political and military maneuverings of rulebook “fluff” material and official fiction). It even had primitive multiplayer support in later editions, which was a rarity at a time when modems were measured in now obscure terms such as “baud.”

But the most impressive feat that MechWarrior 2 performed, and why MechWarrior is still remembered today, is that it was a simulation. Arcade-style games featuring mechanical humanoids were and are a dime a dozen; just replace what would be a human character with a robotic-looking human, and you’re set. But MechWarrior 2 wasn’t a simple action game. There were controls for more than just turn, aim, fire and speed; to master the game, you had to learn how to twist your ‘Mech’s torso, order your weapons into groups to deal with changing circumstances on the battlefield, watch your heat levels as you fired energy weapons, and even override your own shutdown mechanism to get that precious extra shot in before your unit exploded into a nuclear flame.

The default first person view, with critical information appearing in your cockpit's HUD, added to the realsim. And if the various ‘Mechs weren’t to your tastes, you could edit them between missions, giving your unit more missile ammo at the expense of a few lasers. This simulation-style gameplay may have turned off a few users who were used to Doom’s simpler control scheme, but Activision had given computer players the impossible by allowing players the chance to pilot a fictional vehicle.

MechWarrior 2 is still, unfortunately, only one of a small number of mecha-oriented games which took this simulation approach. Other than the other games in the MechWarrior series, there are the Heavy Gear PC games (also developed by Activision, and also based upon a Western company’s wargame/role-playing game property), the excellent Armored Core series, Earthsiege/Starsiege, the Gungriffon series, and the Xbox’s Steel Battalion—which actually shipped at the retail price of 200 dollars, because Capcom apparently felt the simulation experience necessitated the largest peripheral controller for a console ever.

Robot Alchemic Drive for the PS2, developed by Sandlot before they became internet-famous for the Earth Defense Force games, could also be counted as a simulation, but it might more accurately be called a meta-simulation, given that you control a character who controls a robot rather than just the robot directly. But today, most of the mecha games produced focus more upon the action and drama of the anime series they are based upon, acting more like distant relatives of 2D “bullet hell” shooters than true simulations of what those mecha would be like if they truly existed. Mecha simulator games are one of those genres that may never die, but whose glory days have certainly passed.

Every few years I try to get MechWarrior 2 to run on a modern Windows system, just as fighting game fans will plug in their SNES once in a while to play Super Street Fighter II and remember the “good ol’ days” before other genres pushed our own favorite genre out of the limelight.

While the genre itself might be on life support, it’s good to know that MechWarrior 2 was an important step forward for gaming. It was one of the first PC games to combine a powerful narrative with complex mission objectives, and this legacy is carried on today in the more complex first person shooters, which tend to have a good amount of backstory and objectives that are more than “kill the enemies” or “the bad guys are out to destroy the world.” Mechwarrior 2 was proof that a large audience could tolerate a story inside an action game.

And while playing Mechwarrior 2 over the net was an option exercised by only a few people due to the connection speeds and lag times of the period, MechWarrior 2 was certainly a major step forward in the expectation that major PC releases would have some form of internet play, and one of the first instances where closely-knit groups would gather together and form team-based tactics, opposed to more traditional “deathmatch” oriented clans. Being able to edit your own ‘Mech’s parts helped popularize customization style games, making Gran Turismo a possible relative of MechWarrior 2 on the video game family line.

Finally, while the simulation style of gameplay has all but died off, many popular computer games now include deeper levels of sophistication, with more options leading to a greater variance in the number of possible strategies. Even if the game and the genre it belonged to are almost forgotten by the mass audience, Mechwarrior's legacy lives on in the more complex game styles of today.

If you'd like to see the game in action, nice people on Youtube have been able to record videos of the game, illustrating the slower pace of the simulation style gameplay. The methodical pace of the robots would probably not feel right when compared to the "instant action" games made today, but the simulation feel is what made the game so memorable and fun. If you're going to pilot 100 tons of steel, it should feel like 100 tons of steel, and the first time you accidentally run into an enemy 'mech you WILL get caught up in the simulation and flinch.

As far as playing the game itself, the original Mechwarrior 2 will run on XP for some people, but others like myself have to load up DOSbox and a hack just to get the game running, and a bit slowly at that. The good news is that the system requirements are fairly low (I ran it perfectly back in the day with 120 mhz and MS-DOS) and a working CD shouldn't be too hard to find.