Category Archives: Column: Roboto-Chan

November 16, 2009

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Gungriffon - The Forgotten Conflict

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.

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July 31, 2009

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Transformers - Robots in Demise

transformers_convoy1.png['Roboto-chan!' is a GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by Ollie Barder, which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This column covers the more recent attempts at making a Transformers game and why the franchise has critically stalled somewhat.]

Like many of my generation, I grew up watching a lot of cartoons. One of which was Transformers and like with many shows of that era many of my childhood friends owned the toys as well. We would play Autobots and Decepticons in our respective gardens, re-enacting the aeon long struggle between mechanical good and evil. Of all the mecha franchises birthed in Japan, Transformers is one that has the greatest amount of cultural common ground in the West; there's an almost implicit understanding of how these fictional living machines operate.

Yet, for all this commonality the vast majority of the games that attempt to re-produce those afternoons of toy robot battling end up being disjointed and functionally quite fractured.

I've already covered something similar about the various Macross games, as that franchise has a very close mechanical linkage to Transformers, but the issue here isn't a technical and logistical one but a cultural one in regards to the ability of learning from what has gone before.

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March 4, 2009

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Virtual Ontaku

['Roboto-chan!' is a GameSetWatch-exclusive column written by Ollie Barder, which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This column covers the history of the cult favourite Virtual On series and why it's one of the few SEGA intellectual properties that still engenders such fan based fervour.]

shirokis_temjin_katoki.pngI first played Virtual On years ago now, originally on the Saturn port in fact. I look back at that with some disdain admittedly, as I later but quickly realised that the arcade original, with its wondrous twinstick control setup, was a far superior game. The arcade version took me a few months of practice to get into, mainly because the nearest arcade was an hour's train ride away and I was still at the tender age that meant I didn't have a driving license.

Once I'd learnt the basics I decided to create a club in a fairly central London arcade (London being in the UK, in case you're wondering). It was imaginatively titled the London Virtual On Club, or LonVOC for short.

It then appeared that my practice had been pretty thorough, as my subsequent skills were rather potent against the new club members (all of whom were keen to best me, but in the non-Xbox Live smacktalk sense). We were also later graced with the only arcade cabinet of Virtual On Oratorio Tangram (M.S.B.S. 5.2) in the UK, which was a lot of fun.

Considering the recent announcement of Oratorio Tangram coming to digital download, it seems only fair to cover a series that made me travel halfway across my native country just to plumb credits into an arcade cabinet (a cabinet I later ended up owning, as you probably know already).

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January 18, 2009

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': A Theory Of Postmechanism

['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?

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November 8, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Bangai-O Origins

['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 origins of the Bangai-O series and why Hover Attack isn't the main creative creative catalyst.]

bangaio_tamashii.jpgThere are few games developers in the world that engender such a fan driven fervour as Treasure. Their games are revered in an almost monolithic sense, beacons of taut gaming functionality they distill the mechanics of a game into something palpably cogent. However, there are a few instances amongst their creative portfolio that have wider cultural leanings.

I am, of course, referring to Bakuretsu Muteki Bangai-O. A series of games featuring the titular mecha, Bangai-O, as it sprays a colourful 2D world with a vast array of homing missiles and lasers. The initial functional impetus for the game was outed as being that of the Sharp X1 title Hover Attack but in a more recent interview, this was merely a partial catalyst as it became clearer that the main influences took on a far greater role.

Specifically, three anime series were cited in the interview; Macross, Layzner and Ideon. For those that have been reading the column regularly, I've already covered the effect of each of these series (here and here). Now it's time to see how these influences actually manifest themselves in a gaming series such as Bangai-O.

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October 23, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Macross Pioneers

['Roboto-chan!' will again be a fortnightly column by the indomitable Ollie Barder, who has returned from the blinking LED encrusted future to warn humanity about the inevitable robot apocalypse. This column covers the problems surrounding making a Macross game and how the series has thus far been portrayed in a functional sense.]

macross_ace_frontier_cover.jpgFirstly, it's nice to be back writing this column again. I've looked on from afar and wanted to take the reigns again several times but real world requirements dictated otherwise. I hope to resume the column on a regular fortnightly basis as well, so at least the wonderful Game Set Watch readership can once again have their robot gaming fix.

Anyway, what with the latest TV series, Macross Frontier, finishing a scant few weeks ago and the new PSP game Macross Ace Frontier being released recently, it seems that now is a good time to talk about a series that has often been given a somewhat unfortunate gaming treatment.

Of all the mecha franchises out there Macross is one of the most badly represented. This isn't because developers want to sabotage the series but more down to the fact that each Macross game is actually comprised of three disparate gaming genres all vying for dominance via one control method.

To clarify, Macross is a series based around love triangles, giant aliens, music and, of course, planes that can transform into large robots. Naturally, each game focuses on these variable fighters, which results in a game that has to offer control for each of it's three modes; fighter, GERWALK and battroid.

To say that that this is a pretty tough undertaking isn't in any way an understatement. It's actually, almost utterly impossible.

With that, let's get on with the column...

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August 27, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Armored Core For Inquiry

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers the announcement of Armored Core For Answer's Western release via Ubisoft and the trials that will face it.]

acfa_360_cover1.jpgI had planned on discussing the various design issues with making a viable Macross game but that will have to wait until the next column. The reason behind this is that the game that many thought wouldn't see a release outside of Japan has finally been picked up by Ubisoft.

The game is Armored Core For Answer and I played both versions extensively earlier this year. It's a remarkable functional achievement as it pits the player in a mecha travelling at 2000 km/h against huge mobile fortresses. Think Shadow of the Colossus meets guns and robots and you won't be far off.

It's also very much a standalone game, as you can't transfer money or parts from Armored Core 4. This is a first for the series, as From Software have normally rewarded long-time players with a distinct advantage over newcomers.

So, it seems only sensible to go into Roboto-chan overdrive and give a low-down on the new game.

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July 8, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': A Windfall of Mecha

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers the relatively new and upcoming mecha designer, Takayuki Yanase.]

mgs4_metalgear_mkII_1.jpgA good few years ago now, I used to live in Japan. Around the time of the original Xbox's launch I was somewhat without games to play. Thankfully there was one mecha game available for it (though admittedly I bought the damn thing on the strength of the as yet unreleased Steel Battalion). The game was Murakumo and whilst it was rather rubbish it did act as a mechanical stop-gap of sorts.

The mecha design though, was of noteworthy repute. Instead of farming out the art to one of the more famous mecha designers out there, From Software turned to their talent in-house. It was there that their unfaltering gaze fell upon the shoulders of one Takayuki Yanase.

Not only did he pen the entire mecha roster for the game he ended up becoming an integral member of the FMV production, creating storyboards and generally using his amazing talents to bring mecha to life.

However, that was as I said a good few years ago now. So, what's he up to these days?

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June 24, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': The Last Boost

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers the brilliantly anomalous by-product of Team Andromeda and Polyphony Digital.]

omega_boost_front.jpgIn 1999 a developer renowned for its pedigree in creating driving simulators ventured into pastures where high speed mecha roam. The developer was Polyphony Digital, the game: Omega Boost for the original PlayStation.

It was possibly the most accomplished implementation of mecha themed space combat yet achieved.

The player had control over the titular mecha, the Omega Boost, and were able to acquire targets in spherical 3D at incredible speed. Considering the aesthetic influences from anime such as Macross, it was unsurprising that Shoji Kawamori helmed the mecha design with his regular finesse.

Many assumed that the game was an offshoot from Team Andromeda's seminal Panzer Dragoon series, as the beautifully insane homing lasers were in similar effect. It became an almost apocryphal tale, that was supposedly wholly without credence.

Well, Yuji Yasuhara would probably disagree...

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June 3, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Zone of the Pretenders

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers the functional issues that have plagued Konami's ZOE games and where they originated from.]

zoe_vo_edit.jpgIn December of 1999, SEGA released a nigh-on arcade perfect port on their ill-fated Dreamcast for Virtual On Oratorio Tangram. Like the Saturn port of its precursor, it also featured a bespoke controller to emulate the arcade version’s original setup: a pair of twinsticks. It was critically lauded by almost all Japanese (and many Western) publications and did quite well in terms of sales too.

The thing with the Virtual On series though is that they've always been focused around human multiplayer. In that regard they are practically peerless. As to their singleplayer "experience"; it's almost been an oversight.

Even Hajime Katoki's mecha design was forcibly restrained for the various Virtuaroids, as the 1995 original had very stringent polygon counts which set the aesthetic. The first two Virtual On games in fact are almost exercises in functional minimalism.

Yet Virtual On, as a series, has had a remarkable amount of design-based progeny over the years but in the case of Oratorio Tangram such “offspring” would only be a few years away.

Cue Hideo Kojima…

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March 20, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Zeta no Ronde

['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 problems with releasing games outside the cultural cocoon they were created within.]

senko_360_cover.jpgSenko no Ronde is a game that has caused a fair amount of confusion since it’s Western release on the 360. The traditional shoot-em-up fans think it’s awful, whereas the Virtual On crowd seem to be fine with it. Ultimately, the problem with it is the absence of the pop cultural mythos that gave it context within Japanese arcades, as it’s not trying to be either a shoot-em-up nor a Virtual On clone (though it does bear similarities with the latter).

Like many mecha games it’s trying to give form to something that has never actually existed in the real world. The issue is that without the understanding or knowledge of this inspiration the game is caught partially with its mechanical pants down. This is not to say that Senko no Ronde is unplayable without knowing its functional roots but the learning curve is made far more obtuse than it was actually intended.

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March 4, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Wrestling with robots

['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.

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December 11, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': American Civil War II (Only in Japan)

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, sometimes by Christopher "TOLLMASTER" Bruso, a known procrastinator and giant robot fanatic. And sometimes not. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers Metal Wolf Chaos, a mecha run-and-gun starring the President of the United States. No, seriously.]


metalwolfchaoscover.JPG Informed (or jaded) gamers consistently bemoan Japanese titles which fail to make it overseas. Japan has been, and still is, the center of the console gaming market, and many titles developed for this market are not considered for an international release for a plethora of reasons. Some titles may be too entrenched in Japanese culture to translate faithfully for other markets; other games may cater to niches in Japan which do not exist on the same scale in other countries; and sometimes works are turned down for release simply because it is thought that the overseas market cannot currently support another title in a particular genre.

Thus the English-speaking gamer often misses out on landmark titles such as those in the Sakura Taisen series, which has at least five "main storyline" games, along with numerous side games and constant re-re-re-releases. Despite pressure from hordes of wailing fanboys and even occasional exposure from mainstream games journalists, the games just never make it over.

In Sakura Taisen's case, it's easy to see the reason why: succinctly, it's a steam mecha tactical RPG that is also a dating sim featuring women who are actors in a Japanese theater when not fighting demons. While there may be a niche market for such an experience in Europe and North America, the game could end up being too far out of left field for many gamers, and thus the company doing the localization would be taking a major financial risk. Sakura Taisen can be said to be "too Japanese" to make it to the United States.

The same cannot be said about Metal Wolf Chaos, which features the US President in heavy mecha armor on a rampage across the United States.

The only thing more perplexing about the lack of release for Metal Wolf Chaos in the United States is that it was released only in Japan. Mirroring the inexplicable creation of 1942, an early vertical shmup developed by the Japanese that had a US fighter taking down Japanese carriers and battleships, From Software, mostly known for their excellent Armored Core series (and the mostly unknown by Westerners Another Century's Episode series, covered previously on this column), had created a game perfect for the American market, by making it take place exclusively from an American point of view, and made it for the Xbox, a US-centric console.

But while 1942 made it to the United States, and was merely a strange game for a Japanese developer to make, Metal Wolf Chaos--a game taking place in America, starring the US President, parodying United States politics--was enjoyed exclusively by the paltry number of Xbox owners in Japan.

I mean: did the Japanese get the joke about Florida recounts, or what?

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November 13, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Whatever Happened To Artdink?

['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.

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October 25, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-Chan!': Zone of the Enders: Fist of Mars

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by TOLLMASTER, an individual affected by Mecha Obsessive Disorder since a young age. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars, an inexplicable Super Robot Wars clone for the Gameboy Advance that somehow managed to find its way into English.]

Zone_of_the_Enders_The_Fist_of_Mars_Coverart.jpgWhen you talk about mecha games, the conversation eventually turns to the Super Robot Wars series. I don't think there is anything quite like it anywhere else in fandom; you can make a comparison to superhero crossover fiction, but while that gets bogged down by conflicting themes and confusing plots, the Super Robot Wars series just barely avoids these problems by realizing exactly what it is: fan wish-fulfillment.

But as epic as Super Robot Wars is, I'd prefer to ease my way into talking about it, so I thought I'd today pay attention instead to a red-haired stepchild of Super Robot Wars, based on Hideo Kojima's red-haired stepchild of a mecha series, Zone of the Enders. Most people know of the first game as 'the free PS2 game that came with the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo' and many never realized a sequel later appeared, and even fewer know that there was a Gameboy Advance turn-based strategy game based upon it. So today the spotlight's on Zone of the Enders: The Fist of Mars, a game whose existence no one can rationally explain as anything other than 'Hideo Kojima is a rabid mecha fanboy in disguise.'

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October 2, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Steambot Chronicles Gains More Steam

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by TOLLMASTER, after an extended leave of absence involving issues economic, legal and medical. Fear not, for his BURNING SPIRIT is now aflame! The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers Bumpy Trot, localized in the United States as Steambot Chronicles, a particularly charming PS2 game with a unique sense of exploration and friendliness towards less hardcore gamers.]

t1g1rc.jpg Recently, at the Tokyo Game Show, a small video game company namedIrem showed footage of a new title, Bumpy Trot 2. Except, those of us with keen memories will know that this is not a new title at all, but one that was playable at last year’s TGS, and now only exists in preview video form—possibly because of the jump from the intended platform of the PS2 to the PS3. The new graphics look fantastic, but when compared to the other next-gen games previewed at the show, Bumpy Trot 2 didn’t stand out.

However, it was never the graphics that a small but obsessive number of fans raved about. Bumpy Trot 1, released in the United States as Steambot Chronicles, was a typical Atlus release—that is, an interesting title with an excellent localization but was woefully underproduced and largely unrecognized by gamers at large.

With Irem’s affirmation that a sequel is indeed in production—that the game wasn’t cancelled, which many assumed from the year long silence—but being redesigned for the PS3 (alongside a PSP “sidestory” type game for those gamers without the underperforming PS3 console) I thought it would be prudent to discuss the PS2 original, and why this game, made by a company known mostly for creating R-Type back when arcades still existed, deserves a second chance at stardom.

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September 18, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Mobile Suit Metroid

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers yet another Gundam tie-in but one that excels with its controls in a similar manner to that of the latest Metroid.]

sensen_cover1.jpgAfter the hellish release of Gundam Target in Sight, gamers (outside of Japan) still perceive Gundam tie-in games to be something wholly evil; a mechanical plague of functional mediocrity if you will. This ill-conceived point of view was covered in a previous column by my forbearer Ollie Barder, showing that there are a number of excellent Gundam games available.

Gundam MS Sensen 0079 was released for the Nintendo Wii and it has very quickly earned its place amongst the more accomplished Gundam games. Developed by Team White Dingo (who were also responsible for the Blue Destiny trilogy on the Saturn, Rise from the Ashes on the Dreamcast and Lost War Chronicles on the PlayStation 2) Sensen 0079 uses their signature first person approach to mobile suit control and like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, the use of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk is superlative.

More after the jump...

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August 7, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': King, King, King Gamer!

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers a recent TV anime series where the skill of one gamer literally saves the human race.]

overmanad.jpgThe real robot revolution led by Yoshiyuki Tomino had a pretty bleak narrative outlook for most of the eighties and nineties. All the series he created invariably had the entire cast summarily bumped off, to the point he was given the nickname of “Kill ‘em all Tomino”. He also went a bit weird towards the end of the nineties.

Exiting that chrysalis of weirdness into the new millenium, Tomino started to create real robot shows that were markedly different from his previous apocalyptic visions (for a start a lot less people died). If anything Tomino became more innovative and open to newer ideas from the younger generation. One recent series in particular, that of Overman King Gainer, actually went so far as to have a super hardcore gamer as the nerdy protagonist.

Naturally, this crossover of contemporary gaming pop-culture into the world of robot related anime is something that warms my black heart.

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May 23, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': You Got Your Mecha in My Wargame

['Roboto-chan!' is a (hopefully) fortnightly column formerly ruled with an iron fist by Ollie Barder, but recently stolen off him by Christopher Bruso, alias TOLLMASTER - it covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers Activision's 1995 PC title MechWarrior 2, a simulation-style mecha game that somehow became a hit in a time long past, practically introducing mecha games to the Western audience.]

mech2box2.JPG Americans love big things. Americans are a radically diverse people, but wherever in the United States you go, you'll find an appreciation for scale, even in unlikely places such as the South (I, for one, consider the monster truck fan to be a relative of Homo mechotakus, or the giant robot anime fan). It was only a matter of time before the United States would notice similar appreciation for size in their neighbor across the sea in the genre of giant robots, and attempt to create a work in that genre, combining both Japanese and American elements.

Add to this humanity’s universal penchant for war and explosions, and you got a game called MechWarrior 2, many Westerners’ first experience with the mecha video game genre, and one that is still fondly remembered those gamers lucky (or wise) enough to have played it.

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April 24, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Super Ultimate Power

['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 effect of the animated series Ideon on the future of gaming.]

ideon_waveleader1.jpgIt’s safe to say that ninjas are suitably potent. In the aeon old conflict with their natural adversaries, the eyepatch wearing pirates, ninjas have a distinct advantage due to their ability to channel real ultimate power. However, much like with mecha, you have two sides to ultimate power; real and super.

To commemorate my final entry into the Roboto-chan pantheon, I feel it necessary to cover the arbiter of super ultimate power and its effect on gaming as a whole. For those who are concerned about my imminent departure, fear ye not! Similar to the super robot shows from the 70’s, I have sourced a plucky replacement with hot blooded fists of justice. He will pilot the column with equal skill and insight (think Hot Rod rather Ultra Magnus in terms of competence). Naturally, as of the column's next edition he shall light our darkest hour.

Anyway, on with my final contribution to the column...

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April 11, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Redesigning the Barrel

['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 effect of one designer who has taken the concept of real robots to their zenith.]

steel_battalion_quasar1.jpgAbout seven years ago I stumbled across some interesting designs within the pages of Newtype. I used to buy Newtype semi-regularly, mainly for my Five Star Stories fix but also because the magazine often held host to some pretty interesting stuff.

The designs that caught my eye were from a soon to be serialised novel by the name of For the Barrel and they were, quite frankly, utterly revolutionary. You see, For the Barrel was a re-imagination of the original Gundam series, except with a far greater emphasis on realism. The designwork was consequently unnervingly palpable.

A few years later, Capcom announced a truly bizarre mecha game on the original Xbox. It would have a monstrous bespoke controller covered in a myriad of happy flashing buttons. Naturally, the mecha designs needed to look the part especially with such a high emphasis on realism for the game.

The common link between the two is a man by the name of Junji Okubo and it’s about time his effect on mecha design and the future of gaming was covered.

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March 27, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Shooting the Core

['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 frequent Western misinterpretation of what mecha games set out to achieve.]

ac4_ss_rank_small.jpgNow with the release of Armored Core 4 abroad, reviews and forum discussion are a mixed bag. The main problem is down to a misinterpretation of what mecha games set out to achieve and consequently offer in terms of gameplay. Fallacious comparisons are often made to other types of gaming genre as a means of categorising the quality of whatever mecha game is currently under the spotlight. So, I think it’s time for a little cultural clarification…

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March 14, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Welcome to the Circus

['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 effect of two Japanese animators on mecha gaming.]

itano_circus1.jpgWhen people look at mecha games, outside of Japan, they often overlook the main sources of influence. After all, from a pop-cultural standpoint Japan is literally immersed in mecha. From anime to manga, mecha is all pervasive and has been around for over half a century.

There are consequently two very important figures in anime that have inadvertently shaped the last twenty years of mecha gaming and will continue to do so for a good long while to come. And so we shall talk about them!

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February 27, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Rebuilding Virtual On

['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 foibles of owning an arcade gaming classic (all photos were taken prior to cleaning, just in case you are curious) and special thanks to Saur and Trevor for their fearless assistance in the rebuilding.]

vo_cab_11.jpgA few years ago I managed to acquire a Virtual On arcade cabinet. One of the slightly more difficult aspects of owning an arcade machine is that you sometimes have to move it around. Considering that this particular cabinet weighs nearly half a ton and is pretty sizeable, it doesn’t exactly travel well.

Basically, to get the machine anywhere means it has to be completely disassembled and then rebuilt in its new abode. Two weeks ago, some friends and I did just that.

More after the jump...

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February 13, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Lost Warriors

['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 an overlooked game from the mid-nineties.]

mw1.jpgWhat with the general populace savouring the bug blasting wonders of Lost Planet, it seems worthwhile covering a game from 1995 that bears striking similarities to Capcom’s latest opus.

The game was Metal Warriors on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and it was pretty damn amazing for its time too but due to the then recent release of Sony’s first PlayStation console it somewhat fell under the radar.

More after the jump…

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January 30, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Aces High

['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 Another Century's Episode games.]

amuro_nu_ace2.jpgThose of you may remember my low-down of the Armored Core series and a nod to the developer, that of From Software, who created it. As of 2005 From Software have branched into more licensed gaming fare and whilst that may sound like terrifyingly bad news, they’ve approached the task with similar otaku fervour and created a whole new franchise that epitomises their nerd-like stranglehold on all things mecha.

More after the jump…

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January 15, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Gattai and Henkei

['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 gives a brief rundown of two main design features that have been responsible for the enduring success of Japanese mecha.]

garland_henkei1.jpgThere are two facets of the mecha pop-cultural mythos that are synonymous with it being pant wettingly awesome. They’ve spawned toys that have caused riots due to their subsequent demand and more importantly forged tenets of mecha design that survive until this day.

These are the respective abilities of combination (gattai) and transformation (henkei). In game playing terms these abilities are also something of note, though we have yet to see Japanese gaming truly catch up in terms of useable functionality.

More after the jump…

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January 2, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Brothers in Arms

['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 investigates a fascinating Gundam arcade game]

senjou_gameplay1.jpgI had planned on doing a “best of 2006” list, much like the rest of the online throng. Yet, whilst on holiday in Japan, I feel compelled to cover something more pertinent. We all know that the Japanese arcade scene is still moderately thriving and suitably extreme in terms of hardware. However, some of the more interesting and unique arcade games often lack coverage.

One of these is the recently released Gundam Senjou no Kizuna. It’s a fascinating game purely off the back of its insane cabinet, which features a panoramic display (that you literally sit in), two joysticks and two pedals.

Immersion is a word oft misused in describing games but Senjou no Kizuna really fulfils that description in ways that traditional games simply don’t.

More after the jump…

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December 19, 2006

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Armored Hardcore

['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 epic Armored Core series]

aclr_game.jpgWhat with Armored Core 4’s release a scant few days away, it seems only sensible to write a retrospective on possibly one of the most successful mecha gaming franchises ever created.

You’d think that a dedicated gaming intellectual property that affords immense creative freedom on the part of the player would be championed outside of Japan as well as within. While the latter is certainly true, the former is sadly not the case.

Admittedly, From Software's Armored Core games have often received rather disappointing localisations and non-existent marketing but some balk at the series’ ongoing complexity, both in terms of the controls and intricate customisation.

The truth is that these games have a very traditional learning curve in effect and not just as a series but for each and every game. In the current climate of zero effort rewards maximum enjoyment, Armored Core is decidedly antagonistic in its approach on making the player learn the game. In many ways, the Armored Core series is the spiritual successor to games like Assault Suits Valken.

Armored Core 4 does look to change this slightly but more of that later. Anyway, here’s more history on Armored Core than you shake a reinforced ceramic composite stick at (oh, and each of the gameplay screenshots double as links to in-game footage for this edition of the column).

More after the jump…

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December 5, 2006

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

['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…

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November 21, 2006

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Gundammit

['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...

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November 7, 2006

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

['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.]

October 23, 2006

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

['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.]



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