['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by TOLLMASTER, after an extended leave of absence involving issues economic, legal and medical. Fear not, for his BURNING SPIRIT is now aflame! The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers Bumpy Trot, localized in the United States as Steambot Chronicles, a particularly charming PS2 game with a unique sense of exploration and friendliness towards less hardcore gamers.]

t1g1rc.jpg Recently, at the Tokyo Game Show, a small video game company namedIrem showed footage of a new title, Bumpy Trot 2. Except, those of us with keen memories will know that this is not a new title at all, but one that was playable at last year’s TGS, and now only exists in preview video form—possibly because of the jump from the intended platform of the PS2 to the PS3. The new graphics look fantastic, but when compared to the other next-gen games previewed at the show, Bumpy Trot 2 didn’t stand out.

However, it was never the graphics that a small but obsessive number of fans raved about. Bumpy Trot 1, released in the United States as Steambot Chronicles, was a typical Atlus release—that is, an interesting title with an excellent localization but was woefully underproduced and largely unrecognized by gamers at large.

With Irem’s affirmation that a sequel is indeed in production—that the game wasn’t cancelled, which many assumed from the year long silence—but being redesigned for the PS3 (alongside a PSP “sidestory” type game for those gamers without the underperforming PS3 console) I thought it would be prudent to discuss the PS2 original, and why this game, made by a company known mostly for creating R-Type back when arcades still existed, deserves a second chance at stardom.

SCHOLARLY DISCUSSION ABOUT GAME DESIGN, OR: THE PART NO ONE READS

There are two principal theories of game design: that which has been called “addition through subtraction" game design, where each game element exists to bring out or emphasize a narrow list of gameplay actions, and “addition through addition" designs, which adds more features and more forms of play in order to create a fuller product. In more simple terms, a game can either focus upon a single core experience or focus upon additional experiences and add additional details. Shadow of the Colossus and the modern Zelda titles have much in common, but embody different ways of constructing a game: Shadow of the Colossus has one main set of actions, that is, slaying the Colossi, while modern Zelda titles focus not only on combat but on dungeon exploration, solving puzzles, playing minigames, and the like. One game attempts to make a single, main experience better through focus on that experience to produce a better game, while the other produces a better game by adding more content for the player, and the player’s experience is not of one set of actions, but of a combination of many.

fighto.jpgMecha games tend to be in the “addition by subtraction" set. After all, the purpose of most mecha games is to recreate the action scenes in mecha animation in a playable form; it makes sense for the design to be limited in scope to make this experience as good as it can be. While many mecha fans play mecha video games to feel more involved in their favorite stories’ events (there are about as many renditions of Mobile Suit Gundam’s Battle of A Baoa Qu as there are FPS versions of the storming of Normandy) the main goal of these games is to recreate the colorful, fast and adrenaline-producing action scenes of mecha shows. While the genre these action scenes are recreated in can vary from 3D flight sims to turn-based tactical games, the common thread that links most mecha games is the reverence for these battles—and thus it is no surprise that mecha games tend to focus on making this one element better, rather than adding more elements which would detract from the mecha battles.

Perhaps the most “evolved" mecha game is the Armored Core series, which has been discussed in this column before. Armored Core’s concept is to deliver a very concentrated mixture of mecha fighting and mecha building. You do not walk around and talk to NPCs to get missions, but merely go to a heading on the main screen to get to the action. Accept a mission, and instead of controlling your robot and traveling there yourself, you drop immediately into the fray. The story is conveyed through your mission objectives and events that happen during missions, rather than being a separate element to itself. Armored Core games tend to have a rich backstory, but it’s more meant to be read between the lines of the gameplay than to be a part of the gameplay; I’ve known people to finish RPGs “for the story" after finding they hated the battle system, but no one plays Armored Core for the story. They play because they are gearheads, dyed-in-the-wool mecha and action game enthusiasts with a thirst for metal-on-metal action—and anyone else who finds their way to an Armored Core title is promptly hammered down with a high level of difficulty and extreme complexity. Armored Core titles receive tragically low scores in the gaming media not because they are bad games, but because they are reviewed by mere humans, as happened when God Hand, perhaps the best action game in years, received a 4/10 score from IGN. The focus in Armored Core is so extreme that it alienates a good number of potential players.

But: what about a mecha game created with the other theory of game design—a game that would have action, but wouldn’t only be about action? What about a mecha game that would please mecha enthusiasts, but be accessible to nearly anyone in terms of its difficulty and theme? What if, instead of viewing giant robots as futuristic weapons of war, a game was created that featured mecha as more mundane tools to be used for a variety of purposes by the player?

Irem, a company known mostly for creating R-Type and, uh, urban disaster survival sims, came out of nowhere and created the mecha game for everyone. When a game’s full Japanese title can be translated as “Junk Romance Great Action Bumpy Trot," you know that you’re in for something that is going to break outside of the norm. (The American release is called Steambot Chronicles—though I hear “Relaxing, Nonlinear Action Game: Be A Bad Guy If You Want" was considered during localization.) While I generally hate the term “sandbox game," that’s about what we have here—the mecha in this game, Trotmobiles, aren’t simply weapons of war but can be used for a number of things, such as carrying lumber or mining for fossils, and instead of an intense focus on fighting, the gameplay of Steambot Chronicles is largely what you make of it.

INTRODUCING THE MECHA ACTION/ADVENTURE/RPG/DATING SIM/ECONOMIC SIM/POOL/RHYTHM GAME, STEAMBOT CHRONICLES

Do you remember Shenmue? It was originally billed as a “Virtua Fighter RPG", and I guess that description kind of works. You could beat up and talk to people, yeah, but you could also play Outrun, collect Sega figurines from vending machines, look for sailors, feed kittens, race forklifts, and explore mostly real locations. People who wanted to play a game where you just kick dudes in the face were sorely disappointed, but those players who plumbed the depths of Shenmue found a huge game with so many elements that it felt more “real" than any other game to date.

fossils2.jpgSteambot Chronicles is a lot like that: if you play it straight through to “get to the ending" then you probably won’t enjoy it. But if you spend some time exploring the world of Steambot Chronicles, you’ll find yourself drawn into an entirely different existence, where another, totally different avenue of gameplay lies just around the corner. It’s not about following a path, but exploring off the path that makes Steambot Chronicles worth remembering.

Steambot Chronicles is a game of open secrets—you can get through the game in less than 10 hours if you play it straight through, but if you do really explore what the game has to offer, you can easily spend 30 hours on one playthrough—and still be missing about half of the game’s content. Those who disliked Steambot Chronicles tended to play it to beat it, rather than to treat it as an interactive world to have fun where fun is a goal unto itself. This, combined with the low production values, contributed to only-better-than-average review scores, and thus the game flew under the radar for many gamers.

It IS a mecha game, and you’ll find yourself outfitting your own personal mecha for combat, of course—but mecha combat is only a small part of the game. The first two hours offer enough opportunity to get together a setup you can reasonably beat the game with; many of the game’s battles actually allow you to lose, with no real repercussion, if you chose to enjoy the rest of the game and thus didn’t have a good fighting robot yet or if your skills simply weren’t up to snuff. The story will lead you across many boss fights, and there are combat arenas where mecha can duel each other to make those uber mecha part configurations useful, but the game isn’t about the combat, so much as it is a game whose main component (of many components) happens to be combat.

Instead, Steambot Chronicles offers a staggering multitude of things to do. The plot is far less concerned with the robots than it is about peoples' lives in a world that happens to have robots. Your character eventually finds himself joining a traveling band, where you have to play music in a Guitar Hero-esque minigame (but without the awesome peripheral). The standard instrument, the harmonica, is for tone-deaf evil fiends like myself who know more about mecha than music, but there are a large selection of instruments, each with a different method of playing and amount of difficulty. Good performances even earn you money, in contrast to the arena battles, which actually cost you money, in a strongarmed hint by Irem to get you to enjoy the rest of the game.

And while mecha combat isn’t emphasized, the mecha are still the stars of the title. The game’s world is a country in the throes of an Industrial Revolution, and you’ll use your mecha for far more than facing down ace pilots. You can try to find areas where goods are sold cheaply and where they’re in demand, in a Privateer-like cargo hauling system, or haul people across the rough terrain instead as a kind of taxi with legs. Or you can go dungeon diving for treasures that can be sold and displayed in a museum (although some dungeon hackers might not enjoy the fairly simple mechanics). If you are anything like me, you’ll stir up memories of Animal Crossing as you dig for valuable fossils in a rock canyon. Or you can simply poke around the landscape, looking for one of the game’s numerous secrets—usually in the form of a small vignette where you help a character adapt to the changing landscape of the Industrial Age.

I actually got fairly addicted to the stock market game. You can buy and sell stocks of various companies, either for dividends (paid daily) or to just buy low and sell high. The interesting thing is that the market is based on what’s going on in the plot, and what you’ve been doing lately, and so the stocks will rise and fall accordingly. If you take a sidequest to clear a tunnel of bandits, you’ll see the transportation company’s stock skyrocket; hauling iron ore will give a slight increase to the mining and steel companies. While you can’t “take over" a company, it’s a lot of fun to make a killing by only completing sidequests that help companies you’re personally invested in. It also reinforces the idea that Steambot Chronicles isn’t just a mecha game, but a simulation of an entirely different, breathing world.

REALER THAN REAL

loc6.jpg The mecha in Steambot Chronicles being used for tasks other than combat make this title somewhat unique. Again, most mecha games focus on combat, with the Armored Core series being a concentrated dosage of this principle. And on the face of it, Steambot Chronicles is obviously inspired by Armored Core, or at least the “put parts together and make a robot thing and have it fight it out against similarly constructed robots" genre (which seems to have existed for time immemorial; the earliest title I can think of would be Mail-Order Monsters); a game that is about combat. You put a robot together, putting say a drill on this arm and a shield on the other and give it mechanical horse feet and police lights and start causing trouble in an arena or showing traveling bandits what-for.

But while Armored Core is complex and depends on its deep parts system, and how it interacts with combat, to work as a game, Steambot Chronicles is much more laid back, with a lot of the fun being elsewhere, with efficient designs not needed to beat, or even be very successful in, the game. Instead of being dropped right into combat like in Armored Core, Steambot Chronicles allows you to roam around the countryside, picking up boulders, exploring various nooks in the landscape, or waiting at stoplights in cities. Both Armored Core and Steambot Chronicles are based on similar mechanics, but there is far less pressure in Steambot Chronicles. It’s a relaxing form of Armored Core, one that thinks it’s Shenmue. You might spend as much time playing a guitar on a stage built onto your mecha as you might spend using that mecha for combat, if you so choose.

Steambot Chronicles is the anti-Armored Core. Same basic concept—walking robots with customizable parts that can fight—but opposite interpretations.

And the fact that Steambot Chronicles’ mecha—here called trotmobiles—are common pieces of technology also makes it mostly unique. The “real robot" genre deals with (comparatively) more realistic giant robots, where mecha are not unique creations but massed produced in factories, but either through habit or good storytelling they usually have strong elements of the “super robot" genre; that is, the hero’s robot may be a special prototype, or he may be an ace pilot of almost supernatural (or just plain supernatural) ability, which is used to explain why the good guy (usually) wins. Mecha video games follow that tradition heavily, where it’s not uncommon to have to shoot down two dozen or so enemies to win. Even Armored Core, which is seen as being very “real robot" in genre, makes it clear that the titular Armored Cores are “special" units piloted by an elite set of individualistic mercenaries, and regular grunts are stuck piloting more primitive variants of these high-spec machines.

Steambot Chronicles portrays the trotmobile as a common technology, one spun off from automobiles when it was found that automobiles had trouble navigating through the land’s bumpy terrain (and here you thought the “Bumpy Trot" part of the game’s Japanese title was just bad English, huh!). And trotmobiles are only retrofitted as, rather than born, weapons—guns and swords are too large to be held in the trotmobile’s small hands (designed to pick up boxes and rocks) and actually have to be comically bolted onto the side of the robot’s arm. The hero’s mecha isn’t an advanced prototype, either, but an abandoned vehicle found discarded away from the road, standing in a few feet of water. (Luckily for the player, trotmobile combat is mostly one-on-one.) This portrayal makes Steambot Chronicles seem more “real" than most entries in the “real robot" genre, placing it within the very select company of Patlabor (which featured police units stopping construction robots piloted by angry drunks and the like) and Votoms (a sidestory of which, Armor Hunter Mellowlink, dealt with a Rambo-like badass who took down that series’ piloted robots--on foot.

Consequently, I found that Steambot Chronicles didn’t show up on most mecha fans’ radars, which is a damn shame. I feel that while Steambot Chronicles is a game that everyone can enjoy, that there is still a lot of content here for the mecha fan. You still have the option of getting together a badass robot and becoming King of the Battle Arena if you so choose, and since it’s a unique interpretation of the standard mecha game formula, it won’t feel like yet another half-hearted rehash done to quickly cash in on an popular anime series. I have a ten year old little brother who watches me play Armored Core or Zeonic Front in absolute amazement because he can’t understand what’s going on, but Steambot Chronicles was something the two of us could bond over and enjoy together.

BUMPY TROT—SMOOTHING OVER THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MAN AND MACHINE

My purpose in writing this article—other than to talk about the game when the news of the sequel was still hot—was to present a game in this article that is accessible. My forerunner in this position did an excellent job in explaining the mechanics of the better mecha games, so I wanted to take a different approach from him, and also showcase mecha games that are more familiar to the average gamer.

Anime licensed games tend to be trash, but also the raw enthusiasm for these animes sometimes inspires developers to take a step forward and present a game that breaks the mold. The general audience doesn’t play mecha games because they don’t know which ones are drivel and which ones are good, and are scared off by the common roots that mecha gamers share, which almost form a kind of mythology. But in doing so, they miss out on unique and exciting games in a time of also-rans and Halo-killers and Grand Theft Auto clones, and unique and exciting games are at a premium.

Steambot Chronicles is a game that is playable by anyone. You’ll never feel threatened because you don’t know Japanese Cartoon X well enough to understand the story because it’s a stand-alone game with no license. Anyone who can learn to play Katamari Damacy can learn to play Steambot Chronicles. And Steambot Chronicles is easy and varied enough that it won’t scare off the common gamer from the genre forever. I write this article not just to tell you about my favorite game released in 2006, but in the hopes that this will open inroads into seeing the mecha genre of games as accessible to a less hardcore audience. Just do yourself a favor and avoid Gundam: Crossfire and you’ll be okay. I promise.

[Images unceremoniously stolen from Atlus' official Steambot Chronicles page.]