gungriffon_highmacs1.jpg['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 lesser known and decidedly under appreciated Gungriffon games by GameArts.]

As a developer GameArts are known most for their work on the wondrous Grandia games as well as their input to the Silpheed series, but they've also produced a rather well wrought selection of mecha games too.

Specifically, the four Gungriffon games that have graced multiple consoles over the years. These games pre-date From Software's perennial Armored Core series but due to a number of factors, both cultural and financial, the games have never quite garnered the appreciation they so sorely deserved.

This is not to say that the Gungriffon games haven't been critically lauded over the years but they haven't reached the broader appeal that something like Heavy Gear did for instance, despite both series sharing similar base rulesets for the mecha. Amusingly, the design of mecha themselves has often been mistakenly attributed to be Western in origin, despite the obvious linkages to Ryosuke Takahashi's VOTOMS series, something that again Heavy Gear shares. As such, we'll delve into the series as a whole and examine what has made these games remain such a cult hit.

Gungriffon (Saturn)

gungriffon_cover1.jpgIn March of 1996, a new kind of mecha game was released to the world. Set in the first person, the player worked within the cockpit of an Armored Walking Gun System (or AWGS) mecha as they traversed massive battle fields also teeming with similar enemy units. As Saturn games went Gungriffon was graphically particularly advanced for the time and, despite a moderate learning curve with the controls, quite tactile too. Heavily inspired by the functional parameters seen in VOTOMS, the AWGS mecha in Gungriffon utilised rollers in their feet but unlike the AT's in VOTOMS could also fly for a short period as well.

Unlike Virtual On, which was then 6 months away from a console release, Gungriffon was a very straightforward and direct mecha game. Where the player basically just had to point and shoot for the most part. However, unlike a standard approach to an FPS, the mecha retained their mass and subsequent momentum. Managing the additional roller and flight elements also added an extra layer of depth as well.

On paper, this sounds like an instant gaming hit and it had also gotten the drop on the first Armored Core by a good 18 months. In addition, it received a swift release across the world. So what went wrong?

The main issue with the original Gungriffon's lack of sales was mostly down to the console it was released on. Despite all of its graphical veneer and functional prowess, the Saturn's lack of popularity left the first Gungriffon almost dead on arrival. It garnered a selection of very positive reviews though and the Western press, for once, actually appreciated what the game was trying to achieve. However, the more mainstream gamers failed to take stock of the game's existence. This was especially true outside of Japan.

Gungriffon II (Saturn)

gungriffon2_cover1.jpgReleased two years later, Gungriffon II had a long list of improvements in the form of additional control features as well as 4 player multiplayer (if you linked your Saturn's together). From the optional usage of Virtual On's twinsticks to the ability for two players to control one AWGS. GameArts added a fair amount to the already existing game. Unfortunately, the game hadn't moved on graphically at all and some even thought the game had regressed visually. This significantly harmed the game in terms of sales in Japan, though it still retained a favourable critical response in light of its functional improvements.

Ultimately though, the game remained as taut as its previous offering but unlike the previous game this iteration wasn't published by GameArts. Instead ESP stepped in and covered off the financial backing. This might explain why it was rushed to release, as ESP probably wanted to make good on their investment before the Dreamcast was released later in the year. This would have explained the obvious lack of visual polish prior to release. This wouldn't be the first time that a separate publisher sullied the Gungriffon series either.

Gungriffon Blaze (PlayStation 2)

gungriffonblaze_cover1.jpgAfter the lacklustre sales of the Saturn games, GameArts obviously decided to put Gungriffon on a console that had a greater number of units in the marketplace. Gungriffon Blaze was the game that followed this thinking and was launched on the PlayStation 2 very near to the console's release. Admittedly, they took a gamble but the reasoning that the PlayStation 2 would follow on from the success of the original PlayStation was suitably sound at the time. They'd also put more development time into this sequel and the subsequent polish was self evident.

Consequently, Blaze did very well and not only garnered further critical acclaim but also reached gamers the prior two Saturn efforts had wholly failed to. Unfortunately, Armored Core 2 was released literally a week before Blaze in Japan so this was the first and only time the two series battled it out on the same platform. Despite it's quality Blaze was pretty much eclipsed by Armored Core 2 on launch, which is obviously unfortunate but Armored Core had greater momentum as it had secured a bigger and more loyal fanbase in the years earlier.

That said, Blaze is possibly the finest iteration in the Gungriffon series. As its speed and responsive controls made it a truly visceral arcade experience, though some argue this was down to Capcom's input as they published the game in Japan. It's also one of the most accessible iterations as the controls, compared to the Saturn games at least, used dual analogue inputs. This was something that Armored Core, the Gungriffon series' main rival, wouldn't match for another four years until Armored Core Nexus was released.

It's hard to fault Blaze on functional level, though there were a few annoying control issues these were mostly irrelevant after a very brief learning curve. A learning curve considerably less foreboding when compared to Armored Core 2. Yet in spite of all these obviously accessible features, Blaze still couldn't quite make a dent in its competition.

Gungriffon Allied Strike (Xbox)

gungriffon_alliedstrike1.jpgOn paper, Allied Strike offered considerably more than Blaze could have ever hoped to. Online multiplayer was one major element but the player could finally utilise both a first and third person camera now too. However, Allied Strike was a completely travesty for the series.

Functionally whilst quite precise, the overall game ran very slowly. This is not to say its framerate was in any way lacking but that the AWGS's themselves moved at a slower pace. In addition the flight controls from Blaze were quite noticeably directionally limited, as was the rolling functionality. So you were locked in more in terms of your basic movement. A lot of this may have stemmed from the new online multiplayer focus, so as to keep multiplayer matches more tactical and balanced, but the singleplayer game suffered quite noticeably as a consequence.

The most bizarre fault of Allied Strike though was how badly it looked. Considering that this was released four years after Blaze and on more potent hardware, you would expect a bit of a visual facelift. At the very least a much greater level area and draw distance, things that would actually functionally matter.

Unbelievably, Allied Strike looked worse than Blaze did for the most part and had a far shorter draw distance to boot. Again, fingers have been pointed at Tecmo as they acted as the Japanese publisher for the game and that they actively encouraged feature creep to keep the game competitive with successful Western FPS games at the time. Though in typical fashion they probably still expected GameArts to hit their release date, so again the developer focused on making the game work at the expense of the visual polish.

Allied Strike was critically panned on release, mostly down to how painfully dated it was and that the immediacy seen in Blaze was long gone. In some ways, Allied Strike tried to emulate a simulation type of approach, which didn't really fit the series' lineage.

It's a sad footnote for a series that has, despite its best intentions and innate quality, been undermined by factors like the host hardware and shortsighted publishers. That said, there's still an opportunity here for GameArts to make something more considered for this generation of consoles, as Blaze is evidence enough that the Gungriffon series can deliver. Whether they'll seize that remains to be seen though.

[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.]