['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 the recent release of yet another Armored Trooper VOTOMS game and the developer responsible for its creation.]

yukes_logo_small.jpgDeveloping mecha games isn’t easy, not only do you require a team of incredibly knowledge individuals that have an almost innate understanding of the mecha mythos but you also need that expertise tempered with a common sense approach to games design. Outside of Japan, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a team that can bring the best out of the genre. Even within the land of the rising ninja, there are a lot of developers that lack the nowse to pull it off.

So when a developer renowned for its wrestling games is slated to develop a game that celebrates quarter of a century of real robot anime, certain negative assumptions are made. In this case, those assumptions were thankfully wholly without merit.

votoms_ps2_cover.jpgYuke’s is a developer that has been around a while. More commonly known for their legion of wrestling games, this particular columnist is more familiar with their third person action RPG by the name of Soukaigi. It’s also probably safe to say that they are a developer of pedigree but most certainly inexperienced when it comes to the treacherous waters surrounding the creation of mecha games.

In a previous column, the anime luminary Ryosuke Takahashi was covered in some detail. It’s clear that his influence has had a palpable effect on the creation of mecha games but on the whole whenever his animated works are converted into game form they very rarely work. In some ways Takahashi’s striving for realism trips up games designers, as they try to interpret that in a more ostentatious manner than it was originally envisioned.

In many ways Soukou Kihei VOTOMS, or translated as Armored Trooper VOTOMS, has defined Takahashi’s mark on the medium of anime, for nearly 25 years its has acted as a beacon for developers to create games based around coherent rule sets. The Armored Core series, for one, would simply not exist had it not been for VOTOMS. As the anime utilises the same rule set that From Software almost entirely copied (as in the customised mecha, with hard points for different weapons and a finite amount of resources at their disposal). Not to mention the series narrative premise; that of a lone mercenary unravelling the web of political intrigue and conspiracy, only to find a large computer behind it all.

votoms_ps2_1.jpgNaturally, you’d think that if a VOTOMS game were to be made then a developer like From Software would be the obvious choice. Well, they weren’t.

For whatever reason, Yuke's was chosen to helm the development of a new VOTOMS game on the PlayStation 2 to tie in with the release of the upcoming series the Pailsen Files.

It's worth clarifying at this point that there have been a lot of VOTOMS games over the years, not including games that feature the mecha, there are are a total of five dedicated games of which four of those were on the PSone. Each of the games, even the Super Famicom iteration, were suitably clunky to control and bizarrely eschewed the simplicity of function portrayed in the anime in favour of something rather obtuse.

votoms_slashdog.jpgAdmittedly, Bandai tried to sweeten the deal over the years by packaging the excellent Takara toys with some of the games (to which Lightning Slash received a bespoke armored trooper) but they still didn't hide the fact that the games were functionally awkward and only really suitable for hardened VOTOMS fans, who would overlook their many faults.

The biggest of which was how the AT's moved and tracked targets. In the anime, the AT cameras are hardwired into the pilot's goggles. Giving them an intense and thorough first person view of their proceedings. In addition, the Gilgamesh AT's had essentially in-built powered roller skates housed in their feet.

The combat choreography was then portrayed as something where sliding around on roller skates at high speed whilst firing off massive calibre anti-AT rounds was beautifully easy.

Well, in the anime the pilot's also had access to pedals and twin control sticks and years of training to pull such feats off. Unfortunately, the older games interpreted the movement of AT's literally without making up for the use of a Dual Shock pad, the lack of pedals and the aforementioned years of training. Consequently the games weren't easy to control and acquiring a target was close to impossible, as you had to manually track them.

votoms_ps2_6.jpgSome concessions were made, such as the move to third person, but the overall focus was on the faithful aesthetic recreation of AT movement; in short the animation took precedence over the design.

Yuke's approached the new version with the opposite mindset; that the controls had to reflect what the anime was doing and the animation would take up the slack. What has transpired, down to this simple reversal of design priorites, is probably the most fluid and engaging mecha game of recent years.

To explain, AT control is based around a lock system where you orbit an enemy. Admittedly nothing overly new there but if your target is visually obscured behind some foliage, your lock is broken. In addition, if they zoom past you at certain angles then again you're lock is broken. The strength of the lock has been perfectly, almost tactilely, gauged by Yuke's. As they've found that threshold that feels right without becoming too intrusive or irritating. Once a target is acquired the roller skating fun can commence and now that the lock has priority over the animation, it feels very natural and ironically looks more convincing as well.

votoms_ps2_5.jpgIn any other mecha game, the above implementation would cement its place amongst the great mecha games. Thing is, Yuke's went further in terms of the game's functionality. In the anime, the AT's aren't very big at all and house the pilot in its torso. They are also fairly uniform in terms of internal controls as well, so in the anime you often see the characters jumping in and out of AT's.

The brilliance of this new VOTOMS game is that not only did Yuke's nail the AT handling but they let the player out of their AT and walk around on foot. You can toggle first person modes too, both in your AT and outside it. It's also oddly rewarding taking down an enemy AT with just a rifle on foot (something that was shown admirably in the anime Mellowlink, a VOTOMS sidestory of a sort).

You can also cheat death as your AT explodes around you by ejecting and looking for another ride whilst you deal with the enemies in your vicinity. It's as close to Grand Theft Mecha as we are ever likely to get and it's also far more focused in terms of level layout as well.

votoms_ps2_3.jpgIf you're someone who's a fan of the original 1983 anime series it's also a nice touch that all the spin off mini-series are contained as unlockables once you finish the main campaign (even the Blue Knight manga series gets its place in the game, though they failed to include the Testa Rossa but that is hardly surprising considering how potent it is in the manga). For a developer not known for their mecha insight, the sheer level of detail Yuke's have gone to i is refreshingly wonderful. As most developers have a habit of thinking they know it all, overlooking the basic problems that can befall the vast majority of mecha games.

At present there are no plans for this new VOTOMS game to get a Western release. Admittedly, the original series is available on DVD in the US but it didn't exactly fly off shelves, so the fanbase is most certainly in the "discerning" category. If you're not averse to importing, then this is something that even non-mecha aficionados can appreciate.

[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.]