['Roboto-chan!' is a column written by Ollie Barder, which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This column covers the recent shift in gaming that's included a greater aesthetic, rather than functional, approach to mecha.]

gundam_musou2_logo.gifThe Koei and Bandai Namco-created game whose logo is to the left is very much a branded Gundam title. You've got the V2 Gundam high fiving the Nu, whilst roundhousing twenty Zakus in the face. Yet, despite the presence of these mecha the game is functionally very much divorced from the pantheon it's visually representing.

When people define genres of gaming, like a platformer or a racer, they're specifically highlighting what those types of games functionally offer. The mecha gaming genre is no different in this regard; as it's offering a selection of playable rules that have been honed from over half a century of pop-cultural references. Games like Virtual On and Armored Core are trying to interpret the abilities of mecha rather than just anything superficially aesthetic.

So why does a game like the one I've been talking about, the Dynasty Warriors/Gundam crossover Gundam Musou, even exist and how should it be viewed in relation to the history of gaming?

Mobile Suit Salarymen

First off, it's worth clarifying that the Gundam Musou games aren't the first (or the last) that have offered playable mecha but without the attempt to re-create their abilities. However, these games are mistakenly thought of as being part of the mecha gaming genre. So that little chestnut needs some analytical distinction.

To the layman, it may appear that if a game contains a robot it's therefore trying to represent that in a functional form. Historically, this was the case but what with the increasing popularity of the mecha mythos both in Japan and abroad, gaming has had to keep up with a greater range of people who may just want something less functionally literal.

People, for instance, who grew up on Gundam but don't want to learn how to actually pilot a complex machine. This then creates a new kind of game that has the visual trappings that punters are familiar with but lacks the complex abilities that gamers would normally expect.

The Gundam Musou games are a very good example of this trend. As the Musou (Dynasty Warriors) series of games by Koei are basic stress relief for frustrated Japanese salarymen. They just want to hit lots of things but without the need to be overly dexterous or cognitively gifted. The design of those games is catered to specifically allow a relatively casual gamer to enjoy themselves without putting in too much effort.

So Gundam Musou uses that design to appeal to salarymen who remember watching Gundam as a kid. Yet, the game allows you to destroy hundreds of enemies at once. Something that never occurs in the original series (at best Amuro only ever managed to take out nine enemies in a single skirmish with the RX-78-2 and that was over the course of five minutes, not in a single beam sabre swipe). So this inaccuracy is acceptable, as is the simplified controls. They just want the visual feedback.

gundam_musou2_1.jpgThis screenshot perfectly encapsulates what I'm describing. In the foreground you have Kamille Bidan in his Zeta Gundam facing a swarm of mobile suits and the massive Psycho Gundam Mk. 1. This kind of face off would have never happened in the series, as Kamille wouldn't want to get into a situation where he'd be this massively outnumbered. In Gundam Musou 2 however, it's not a problem as the rule set has diverged enough from the host work to make this kind of skirmish feasible. It treats the mecha as though they were the functional equivalent of a Musou series protagonist, rather than as the fragile real robots they actually are.

The interesting thing is how the line blurs on other games that utilise designs from other genres whilst still retaining the visual mecha based element.

Capcom vs Gundam

A few years back, Capcom released a Gundam arcade game using Naomi hardware. It was an arena fighter essentially, with ranged and melee attacks. This may sound as though we're going down the Virtual On route but whilst SEGA's seminal mecha series had fixed vectored dashes interlinking the combat, Capcom opted for a far simpler and less faithful approach.

Capcom used a combat system not all that dissimilar to the orbital approach seen in Zelda Ocarina of Time. So the quick stepping, ground based, approach was merged with how Capcom allowed mobile suits to move.

Unlike Musou, the Capcom games did try (albeit simply) to mimic certain functional traits of mobile suits. Treating more like real robots that could only really handle one or two enemies at a time, all of which would be equally armored and equipped. Even the simplified movement, had enough restrictions to feel as though you were piloting a machine rather than an invincible mythical super being.

The series has evolved over the years and whilst it briefly flirted with space based combat (it used the ground based movement system, so it didn't really work), it's the latest iteration that I want to talk more about.

gundam_vs_gundam_1.jpgGundam vs Gundam was released about a year ago in the Japanese arcades. It was similar to the original games and retained that focused arena based multiplayer combat. What was odd was how the narrative of the game had been explained and why all these disparate Gundams were facing off against one another. In short, the opening intro shows the old Gundam arcade machines becoming sentient due to the resurgence of the Devil Gundam. Only by combing their efforts can they thwart the Devil Gundam and return to their respective timelines. Now this may sound silly but it shows that Capcom know what these games fundamentally are in terms of functional complexity.

This is very much confirmed in the game itself, as each of the Gundams offer a special that is massively out of context. For instance, the Nu Gundam can call down the asteroid Axis from orbit to glide across the map, damaging whatever is unfortunate to be in its way. Even support units teleport into existence when called. The final stage is also a weird mix of virtual reality visuals and the sprawling mass that is the huge Devil Gundam.

The whole game is a post-modern nod to the fact that these arcade games are functional allegories to the Gundam franchise. That they aren't trying to recreate anything in a truly mechanical sense (after all games like Senjou no Kizuna are already catering for that).

Super Postmodern Wars

The final series of games I'd like to cover is that of Super Robot Wars. Since 1991, Banpresto have merged the respective anime series in an orgy of turn based strategy where Getter Robo can give covering fire to the likes Overman King Gainer, a mecha from a series that was created a quarter of a century later.

srwz_king_gainer1.jpgOn the surface, the Super Robot Wars games look more allegorical than Gundam Musou above. In reality, Banpresto go to great lengths to recreate the abilities of each of the mecha as well as the skills of the pilots that sit in their imaginary cockpits. Whilst the games are in the strategy genre, the presence of the mecha is by no means an aesthetic consideration. Even the animation sequences for each of their attacks are painstakingly recreated from the host anime. To the extent that the older mecha retain the earlier stylistic approaches to animation.

The spin off Another Century Episode games probably demonstrate this subtle blend of postmodern functionality better. As they offer direct control of the disparate mecha available. Despite the narrative that justifies why the Nanajin aura battler is pitted against Gradosian super powered tracers, the abilities of the Nanajin are lifted from the series it was birthed from. You also require a greater level of skill to operate the Nanajin in ACE2 or 3 than you would the God Gundam in Gundam Musou 2.

Yet the control system is still "one fits" all, which denotes both series as being outside the mecha genre. As the YF-21 from Macross Plus utilises a brain control interface and I doubt From Software would want to pioneer that gaming peripheral.

Post Mechanical Theory

So what is game that sits in the mecha genre then? Is it a game that just features robots or one where it affords the player to control a robot with a unique and thorough approach to gaming functionality?

Containing robots isn't enough to be part of the mecha genre (that is if you follow the logic that genres represent gaming functionality). This is not say that these games are mecha themed and getting that right is important, after all if the mobile suits depicted in Gundam Musou all wore pink tutus, I doubt many Japanese salarymen would fork out the cash to play them.

The point is that games like Virtual On are trying to re-create something that is functionally inspired from the mecha mythos. Gundam Musou et al are just trying to make money via aesthetic association.

[Ollie Barder, formerly a freelance journalist, is now a senior games designer at doublesix. He also spends a sizeable amount of time playing robot games and dusting an ever growing collection of Japanese diecast robot toys.]