['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, sometimes by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. And sometimes not. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers the elusive developer Artdink and their suitably surreptitious return to the mecha gaming genre.]

artdink_logo.jpgIn the middle of 1995 an interesting entry into the mecha gaming pantheon was unleashed upon an unsuspecting Japanese public. It was a mecha game set in the third person that didn’t actually allow you direct control of your creation. Instead, you programmed its AI to fight on your behalf. Now, as I write this several young games designers are probably running for the holy water and garlic, but having a game based around programming actually worked.

The game was Carnage Heart and it was so successful that it spawned a total of four other games. The developer responsible for this otherworldly combination of programmed centric design was that of Artdink, and it’s only until recently that they’ve re-tried their hand at mecha gaming - though this time they’ve had to work within the biggest mecha license of them all.

Artdink came into being in the middle of 1986. Despite the more widely known Carnage Heart series (as covered in detail in a separate column), Artdink's gaming output has been predominantly non-mecha orientated. Specifically, their A-Train games have garnered quite the following in Japan and in many ways define the company in the minds of gamers (though my personal favourite is the titular "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino").

Since the release of the various Carnage Heart games, Artdink hadn't made mecha games and never ventured into the full-blown action orientated gameplay the genre is known for (admittedly the OKE's in Carnage Heart were potent war machines, the player wasn't in direct control of them). This changed recently though when Artdink joined forces with Bandai Namco and were given the opportunity to work within the Gundam pantheon.

As mecha franchises go, Gundam is definitely the biggest and the most iconic. Though like all series, gaming adaptations are often a mixed bag (something that a lot of the Western press relish on when it comes to the poorer entries, overlooking those that are of critical worth). Considering that Artdink had never done anything like this before, it was a big risk on Bandai Namco's part, but it's definitely paid off.

gundam_battle_tactics.jpg At the time of writing, Artdink have released three Gundam action orientated games, of which the latest is still in the Japanese charts and selling well. The only slightly bizarre aspect of these games (a screenshot from the latest of which is pictured) is the platform that Bandai Namco chose to release them on.

The PSP has had a rather surreal existence, vehemently denied by Nintendo acolytes yet still present regardless and even picking up momentum (the recent Japanese sales figures have been nothing short of spectacular). Like all gaming systems, there are good games tucked within its library and despite Sony's immeasurable hubris, there are developers embracing what the platform can offer (which is no bad thing from a gaming point of view).

Each of Artdink's Gundam games have been exclusively released on the PSP (Artdink also did a recent version of Carnage Heart on the PSP too). Interestingly, they were also the first fully action orientated mecha games on the system (even the industry stalwart From Software were unable to release a version of Armored Core with full player control, if anything they went down the Carnage Heart route with their first release of Armored Core Formula Front). Considering the lack of coverage on these gaming gems, I've decided to give them a place in the blogosphere sun.

Gundam Battle Tactics (2005)

gundam_battle_tactics.jpgThis was released shortly after the 2005 Tokyo Game Show and unlike the title suggests, the game wasn't overly "tactics" driven but rather a straightlaced third person shooter with a surprisingly solid multiplayer. Of all the Gundam games that preceded Battle Tactics it's closest cousin would be that of Lost War Chronicles on the PlayStation 2 (which was strangely never released abroad).

In that, the game's speed and lock-on orientated combat were very much reminiscent of Lost War Chronicles. If anything Battle Tactics was faster and offered a finer level of mobile suit control to the player (to the point you were expected to utilise the ballistic arcs of your shots to greater effect).

The game is set resolutely within the One Year War era and is entirely ground based. The player takes the role of a grunt and has to work their way up the mobile suit food chain through successive missions until they are piloting one of the several eponymous Gundams.

Despite the very straightforward but admittedly solid approach to the Gundam series, the more potent confrontations and especially in multiplayer did become moderately tactical as you used the menu of attacks to wrong foot your opponent. Using weaker attacks to lead the target and then set them up for a few well placed beam rifle rounds. So, the "tactics" moniker was an apt one but not something your average gamer would necessarily pick up on, which considering the portable nature (as in short bursts of play time) of the game is hardly surprising.

Due to the game's success, Bandai Namco funded a sequel and Artdink duly accepted the challenge. Though this time things wouldn't be quite so rosy.

Gundam Battle Royale (2006)

gundam_battle_royale.jpgFollowing on from the success of Battle Tactics, Artdink improved the game engine further and included a more power gaming/RPG centric foundation to the action based missions. Conidering that the first game had been far better than many had expected, Artdink did have their work cut out for them. Especially considering that Armored Core Formula Front International was now available and offering full "manual" control to the player. Resting on their laurels wasn't really an option.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much what they did. This isn't to say that Battle Royale is bad just really unbalanced. Specifically, the new RPG element where you accrued points to upgrade the abilities of your mobile suit was a tad harsh on the player. Admittedly, a similar system was available in Battle Tactics but it wasn't as potent and most importantly didn't massively penalise the player for the lack of necessary upgrades.

It was entirely possible to be placed in a mission where one shot from the enemy would mean death and you lacked the firepower to return the favour. This resulted in the player having to die repeatedly to earn enough points to reach a critical mass in upgrades so as to progress.

Though once you got to that point the game did open up but it wasn't long until all your hard work was thwarted once again, when you ventured into the Zeta Gundam story arc.

Unlike the first game, Battle Royale covered more of the UC timeline which meant there was a gaming cut off point after the One Year War finished. Stripping you of all your upgrades and to go through the whole "die repeatedly to progress" process all over again.

The game did sell but many were concerned with the unbalanced nature of the upgrade system, so Artdink went back to the drawing board and started work on the next entry in the series.

Gundam Battle Chronicle (2007)

gundam_battle_chronicle.jpgThis was released in October of this year and has been, quite frankly, selling bucketloads. Artdink learned from Battle Royale and massively toned down the upgrades system and even produced a training mode to help newer players. Consequently, players returned to the series in droves. It also helped that Battle Chronicle covered a sizable chunk of the UC timeline narrative this time around and even included the lesser known side-stories such as Gundam Sentinel (which hadn't been given a gaming treatment up and till this point, an unfortunate omission considering Hajime Katoki's effect on gaming with his designwork for the Virtual On series).

Admittedly, you now have to play through the whole One Year War and Zeta story arcs again, with a lot of the missions being fairly similar (despite the graphical improvements obviously) - but it's not the chore it was in Battle Royale. If anything, they built upon what made Battle Tactics so compelling and distilled that down further as well - as adding a huge amount of content in the game's backend.

In addition, the multiplayer improved exponentially due to the volume and variety of mobile suits on offer. Overall, Battle Chronicle is the definitive entry in the series and Artdink have managed the host work better than a lot of the in-house Bandai Namco teams to boot.

fin

Considering that the appalling Target in Sight is in many ways similar to the Gundam Battle series, Artdink proved that games development is also about implementing your design properly and in a way that people can appreciate (note to Bandai Namco: don't release a game at a console's launch that operates at less than 15fps, it makes people's eyes bleed).

Like with all good mecha games, the above don't have a Western release date set. Admittedly, Battle Royale isn't exactly something that gamers should be worried about missing out on but the other two titles are something that the PSP's library could do with abroad.

It's also worth pointing out that due to Artdink's success, Capcom followed in their footsteps and ported the successful Gundam SEED arcade game to the PSP. In many ways Artdink - a novice in the mecha action genre, don't forget - proved that the PSP was a viable gaming platform for mobile suits to stomp around on.

[NOTE: For those that are wondering who did the eyecatching box-art to these titles, it was none other than Naochika Morishita.]

[Kurokishi is a humble servant of the Drake forces and his interests include crushing inferior opponents, combing his mane of long silvery hair and dicking around with cheap voice synthesisers. When he's not raining down tyrannical firepower upon unsuspecting peasants in his Galava aura fighter he likes to take long moonlight walks and read books about cheese.]