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Retrospective: Steel Battalion

Don't forget to eject.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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.

Caption 1 - Unlike the adrenaline pumping antics of Armored Core, Steel Battalion's approach to mecha was far more clunky and methodical. Doing a full 360-degree rotation in a first-generation heavy VT could take up to 10 seconds!

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.