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Bushido and Beamsabers

Ollie Barder | 12 May 2009 09:22
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Since Mobile Suit Gundam, many series have continued to explore the influences of samurai on mecha. Recent anime shows like Mobile Suit Gundam 00 are even more self-aware, featuring characters like Mister Bushido, who pilots a custom mobile suit that is effectively robotic samurai armor, including the iconic faceguard and a pair of katana-esque beamsabers. Likewise, the Wings of Rean anime features an aura battler called the Oukaou that looks like the bizarre offspring of a samurai and a very angry butterfly. (In fact, the show's mecha designer referred to his creations as "aura samurai.")

Mecha videogames communicate the same influences as their manga and anime counterparts, but the results are frequently frustrating to Western players. Games are, on their simplest level, a rule set with an objective. Mecha operate within their own rule sets, however, as manga and anime have already given them incredibly intricate parameters. These parameters stem from the fact that mecha are ciphers for their pilots with no innate capabilities of their own; players must embrace a truly fierce learning curve until they reach that threshold where they have the skill to treat their mecha as bodily extensions of their will.


This learning curve is where mecha games get into trouble outside of Japan, as many gamers often prefer to have a standardized rule set to work within with a similarly pre-ordained control configuration. By contrast, many mecha games appear to purposefully avoid such effortless playability. Steel Battalion is perhaps the most obvious example, with its massive controller encrusted with an array of flashing buttons. If you analyze the game's rule set in a cursory manner, you may feel a gamepad would suffice, but this would be at the expense of the unique experience the game offers: the chance to transcend the controls and pilot a wonderfully huge robot as if it were second nature. Picking up a katana does not instantly make you a swordsman, nor does sitting down at the controls of Steel Battalion give you uninhibited access to the full spectrum of its abilities. Both weapons take time to learn and, with sufficient skill and determination, master.

Other games are more difficult to define in this manner, as their complexity only reveals itself over time. The Armored Core series, for example, initially appears to be quite welcoming to novices, as it employs the familiar gamepad and third-person viewpoint. It even allows players to customize their mecha, furthering the illusion of unencumbered gameplay. But in reality, successfully piloting an Armored Core is actually very demanding. Instead of placing an intimidating control scheme between players and their intended actions, Armored Core opts for a wider scope of environmental rules that players must master in their entirety in order to proceed. As with Steel Battalion, putting forth the effort to become a capable pilot is the actual objective of the game and not the rather facile missions and arena encounters.

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