Videogames have always had the capacity to spark anger, fear and joy in me, and although I've never been so enraged as to damage a controller by hurling it, I have felt the exhilaration of an epic Street Fighter win and the agony of a crushing boss defeat. But one thing games have never made me do is cry. Aeris' death made me feel a slither of remorse, but nothing game-related has ever persuaded me to secrete anything from my lacrimal gland. With one notable exception.
A long time ago - two years prior to the very first Guitar Hero, in fact - there was a peripheral-driven game that managed to bring me to a profound state of hysteria, and that game was Steel Battalion. When it was first announced for global release, it seemed like Capcom was taking a substantial risk. Although Japan's obsession with mecha guaranteed its success in the East, quality mech sims like Heavy Gear and Armored Core had only secured a niche following in these parts. The only obvious difference with Steel Battalion was the bundled cockpit. The, uh, whu...
Even before playing it there was no denying that the behemoth controller was the star of the show. It made the comparatively feeble Virtual On twin sticks look like designer amateur hour, bristling with buttons, joysticks, switches and peddles. Who could forget the first time they went through the lengthy start-up sequence, involving no less than three buttons and five switches, before shifting into first, grabbing both sticks and then edging shakily out of the hanger to take down their first Vitzh Vertical Tank (VT). It was the first tear of gaming ecstasy I ever shed.
But alas the euphoria wasn't to last, as once you began the campaign mode a number of critical flaws emerged. Archaic design. Pitiful draw distance. A perfect example of the latter is on the third mission where you're tasked with breaching a city, only to find that said city is populated by N64-grade buildings which only become visible at close range. Add to this the fact that half the screen is taken up by various gauges - especially on the first-generations VTs - and Steel Battalion virtually demanded a 30+ inch widescreen setup. There was also atrocious wingman AI, a wafer-thin plot, and a bland selection of missions that rarely deviated from "destroy enemy forces".
Yet despite these issues, Steel Battalion was all about the simulation experience, and in many ways the steep learning curve is as hardcore as they come. You can start a mission with confidence, only to run out of fuel and ammo halfway, and as replacement VTs cost supply points, and running out of supply points means you have to start the game from the beginning, developing an effective strategy wasn't as simple as hitting 'continue'. Then there was the penalty of a failed ejection: complete loss of progress. Tear number two.
But for those willing to take on the challenge there was a real sense of accomplishment at the end of those 10 initial missions. You really had to work to get there. By taking down the Juggernaut VT you'd gone from a rookie who had to keep checking the manual to a fully fledged mech pilot who knew their own capabilities. It was like passing an automotive test and in the end that's part of the appeal, because if you take the controller away Steel Battalion is a poorly designed game with terrible production values. With it, the game offers an unrivalled level of mech immersion.
The decision to make Steel Battalion a solitary experience meant the final challenge after completion was either getting a good trade-in price or finding somewhere inconspicuous to store it. But when the promised expansion did eventually arrive a year later, it felt as though Capcom had taken something hardcore and made it even more exclusive. Steel Battalion: Line of Contact was one of the first Xbox games to be "Xbox Live-only", and arrived at a time when online console gaming wasn't nearly as popular as it is today.
Nonetheless, if you were privileged enough to own the expensive controller and a large telly, in addition to having an Xbox Live account with a decent broadband connection, the opportunity was there to battle other VT pilots in the online campaign mode. And this in itself was an interesting proposition, as players had to enlist with a faction, each with a different range of VTs, before fighting for territorial control of a fictional island. But despite claims of 5v5 matches the netcode often struggled unless all players had a flawless connection. Something which didn't happen often.
With Line of Contact also supporting System Link a lag-free game was still technically possible. The largest LAN session I ever participated in was with three other players all crammed into a small living room, each with their own Xbox, TV and Steel Battalion controller. Amazing scenes. Despite taking ages to sort out the effort paid off, as with the unlock code enabled we were able to play 2v2 matches with access to all 31 VTs. Needless to say, knocking out an unsuspecting friend with the Gauss emitter from a third-generation Earthshaker doesn't get old quickly.
So then, Steel Battalion. The game that came with an Allen key. Its style of mecha is less anime and more military with a colossal sense of scale and ambition, and although those initial photos of the unfathomable controller never went on to fulfil all our dreams, the end product was at least better than many gave credit. A sequel seems extraordinarily unlikely, but with thousands of controllers collecting dust all around the world I'll never give up hope. I'm just not going to cry about it.