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Column: Roboto-Chan

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': An ode to Sandlot

December 5, 2006 8:00 AM |

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers the rise of cult developer Sandlot and their unique viewpoint on mecha gaming]

sandlot_logo.jpgAs promised, here's my low-down of a rather wonderful Japanese games developer by the name of Sandlot. Officially formed in March of 2001, they approached the genre of mecha gaming with quite literally a new perspective.

In 1953 a budding manga artist, by the name of Mitsuteru Yokoyama, penned a series that would be responsible for laying the foundations of a pop-cultural phenomenon that has now lasted over half a century. The series involved a young boy remote controlling a giant robot by the name of Tetsujin 28-go (translated as Iron Man 28 and released abroad as Gigantor). This focus of the boy controlling a huge mecha from ground level was clearly an inspirational one in the case of Sandlot's genesis.

For almost all but one of Sandlot's games they have a very similar gameplay implementation in regards to the player viewpoint, that of a boy on the ground looking up at an immense mechanical behemoth (or at the very least a discernable sense of scale to the gaming proceedings).

It's also interesting to note that this mechanical inspiration has consequently spawned a more successful series of games.

More after the jump...

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Gundammit

November 21, 2006 1:10 PM |

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column addresses the misconception about the quality of Gundam games in light of the recent PlayStation 3 launch]

amuroray_crying.jpgI had planned on talking about a developer called Sandlot for this edition of 'Roboto-chan!' but events have transpired that encourage me to postpone the aforementioned retrospective and cover a more recent matter that has come to light (though I promise to cover Sandlot in the next column).

One of the PlayStation 3's launch games, that of Gundam: Target in Sight, has drawn a fair amount of flak for being, well, rubbish. This criticism is wholly justified however but the consequent reasoning that all Gundam action games are rubbish is fallacious at best.

Like all licensed games, Gundam has had a chequered history in regards to gaming quality. There are some truly appalling entries into the gaming canon but there are also some equally fantastic entries too, it's just unfortunate that the former receive more attention than the latter. As such, I think it's only fair that the good Gundam games get their chance in the sun.

More after the jump...

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Size Isn't Everything

November 7, 2006 9:02 AM |

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers a little known game that pre-dates the likes of Chibi Robo by a good few years]

boku_pom1.jpgThe year was 2002 and you need to understand that Japan in November is cold, very cold indeed. At the time, the only thing between pneumonia and me was a faulty kotatsu and a kerosene heater that doubled as the fire spewing gates of Hell (it was more of an anti-personnel heater than anything usable for people without fire retardant gear). One way to take my mind off imminent hypothermia was to make a brief trip down to my local games shop and browse the surprisingly expansive collection (whilst loitering next to an electric heater obviously).

The next game I was predominantly focused upon was that of Armored Core 3 Silent Line but seeing that it wasn't available until January the following year, I needed something mechanical to keep me busy. That something jumped out amongst the mess of the store's shelf "organisation" (the owner mixed all the games up from various platforms, a nightmare for actually trying to find something you wanted but great if you just liked to browse). The shop keeper told me that they had something that had arrived a few months earlier that I probably would like but couldn't remember what it was called or where he'd put it.

The following box art caught my attention and I showed it to the shop keeper, to which he responded "that's the one!". I decided to part with the required cash and take it back to a loving, though very cold, home.

boku_cover.jpg

Its name was Boku wa Chiisai (literally translated as "I am small") and it turned out to be a rather wonderful little game. The cover of a little robot clinging to a lampshade was immensely endearing but the premise of controlling a super dinky robot within a Japanese household was an interesting one.

boku_pom4.jpgInteresting because most mecha games feature massive robots that are gigantic weapons of some kind. This game was almost the antithesis of that and had a tiny protagonist who really wasn't that potent at all (he actually got left behind, so if anything he was the robotic equivalent of the kid with braces and thick rimmed glasses).

Pom to the rescue!

The game was peddled as an action adventure but it's more a platformer with puzzle based leanings. The story is based around the Space Force Petitmen, who are cute little alien robots that act as a space based police force. They are trying to track down a rather nasty Space Pirate, called Silver, who looks like some kind of demonic octopus. The game's protagonist, Pom, is left behind on this mission because he's a trainee but it isn't long before his comrades call for help and Pom rushes to their rescue (I did a little video of the opening to those that are curious).

Upon reaching Earth, Pom finds out that the inhabitants are actually giants compared to the Petitmen and that Silver has placed powerful explosives around the house. It isn't long before the explosives detonate and fracture time, sending Pom back a day giving him enough time to thwart Silver and save his friends.

boku_pom2.jpgThe game isn't a bad one really; each time you find one of the Petitmen they lend you their abilities allowing you to traverse the massive house with greater ease whilst also dispatching with the Space Pirates infestation. In addition, Pom has to find "Time Pieces" so that he can return to his time otherwise he gets stuck Groundhog Day-style.

It's a lot of fun to play and the story is quite amusing and threaded nicely, with each of the human family members having their own little plot. There's also a nice addition of the retro-styled Time Patrol, who turn up later on to find out what has fractured the timeline.

As a game it has its faults but whilst the camera can be a little quirky at times the pacing of the game doesn't cause any real problems in this area (this isn't the kind of game that requires ninja response times on the part of the player).

The only downfall I can think of is that the game wasn't really marketed at all and consequently didn't do that well, which is also why few people even know of its existence.

It's a shame that such a sweet and enjoyable game didn't really find many owners but I can personally say that something good came of it; playing this made me forget the cold Japanese winter and that's no easy feat.

[Ollie Barder is a freelance journalist who's written for The Guardian, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to Japanese mecha artbooks. He lives at home with an ever growing collection of Japanese die-cast robot toys and a very understanding wife.]

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Fear the Final Cougar 10/23/06

October 23, 2006 1:15 PM |

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. The first column discusses how Japanese video game series Super Robot Wars actually has palpable continuity effects on the classic Japanese robots it features within it.]

Final Dancouga

We haven't long to wait until this majestic piece of poseable plastic makes its way into retailers (in Japan). The thing is, the history behind Final Dancouga is a bit complex. Roll back to 1985 and a new super robot anime TV series is in its heyday, by the name of Choujuu Kishin Dancouga it features four mechanical animals that combine to form the eponymous Dancouga itself.

The show was different than most super robot fare, namely it being released in 1985 and not 1975 and the fact that the Dancouga didn't appear until half way through the series (not to mention that the initial combination was a total disaster and almost resulted in the mecha's total destruction).

Oh No, Black Wing!

The second and more controversial aspect of Dancouga was its uber upgrade. This was the Black Wing, a large and transformable plane, that ultimately was to hitch up with Dancouga and form the somewhat kickass Final Dancouga. Unfortunately towards the end of the series Alan Igor sacrificed himself and the Black Wing, leaving millions of Japanese children sitting silently aghast in front of their televisions.

As they got older, some of these children eventually went to work for a company called Banpresto and decided that it was their remit to write anime history as it bloody well should have been. Almost every instance that Dancouga has appeared in a Super Robot Wars game has resulted in the upgrade to Final Dancouga along with a menu of uniquely potent attacks, even as recently as Alpha 3 and J. To the point now that a demand for this game only version of an anime heirloom be given toy form.

Licensing is a funny beast in Japan (or in this case five transforming mechanical beasts). Super Robot Wars is a series of games that started in 1991 and was basic anime otaku wish fulfilment; place mecha from disparate series in one turn based strategy game and let them high five their way to victory. Super Robot Wars has since grown and endured off this premise and has matured into a varied and vibrant series of games.

Super Robot Geeks

The secret with this license is that each of the mecha are unique and consequently have specific attributes that can be given gameplay form. Having all the different anime series produces often hundreds of units each with vibrantly diverse attributes. In addition, knowing the anime they come from often adds to strategic planning, for instance the Ideon feeds off the destruction of its compatriots and subsequently unleashes the full horrific wrath of the Ide.

Do you knowingly sacrifice your units to awaken this horrific power or use other means to vanquish the forces of evil (consequently the Dancouga feeds of the destruction of enemy units, which is from the anime as the pilots get angrier so the Dancouga becomes more powerful, so there's balance at work here).

Super Robot Wars also has fed itself back into the anime fold; both Mazinkaiser and Shin Getter Robo originally appeared in Super Robot Wars games before being graced with their own anime series.

Comebacks Through Robot Wars

Super Robot Wars has also acted as a catalyst for the revival of certain shows. Take Dancouga for example: you play through a game such as Alpha 3 and have the story from that series laid bare in concise chunks over the course of several stages. Follow that on with using the Cougar and laying majestic waste to a veritable robotic army and you crystallise the interest in the host work.

This then has the affect of said players going out and buying (or trying to buy, some aren't readily available these days) the series. They then go back and play the next game and understand more of the narrative references, as well as the now nuanced capabilities of that unit. Alternatively, if you're me, you buy the series and then the Soul of Chogokin toy (obviously for real world re-enactment purposes).

This wouldn't work obviously if there wasn't a palpable passion to re-create something like the Cougar in such a gameplaying context. I mean some of the 2D animation in these games is absolutely astounding and painstakingly accurate in almost all instances (it's one of the main reasons 3D Super Robot Wars games don't work that well, due to the lack of visual accuracy and finesse).

The point I suppose I have is that licensing isn't all bad, so long as you have insightfully geeky and anime folklore obsessed enthusiasts at the helm (preferably clenched fisted cosplaying enthusiasts with a penchant for striking poses).

To finish up, it's worth pointing out that a new Dancouga series is on the way in 2007; entitled Dancouga Nova. I'm sure it won't be long until the original Cougar and the newer iteration team up in a Super Robot Wars game.

[Ollie Barder is a freelance journalist who's written for The Guardian, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to Japanese mecha artbooks. He lives at home with an ever growing collection of Japanese die-cast robot toys and a very understanding wife.]