A month or two ago, a friend and I got to talking about older games that had passed beyond the fringes of my memory and into mental deep storage. Some of these were old and obscure enough (not unheard of, mind you, just seldom spoken of these days) that I was genuinely surprised to find another of my circle of friends had heard of them at all. He also admitted that he’d always longed to play the incredible Steel Battalion… a game I still had in my closet.
Steel Battalion is one of the most ambitious games, from a ‘trying to sell this idea’ perspective, that’s happened in a long time. And the reason for that is that it cost $200. It cost $200 because it couldn’t be played without a very large special controller that provided two joysticks, three pedals, a stick shift, five toggle switches, a radio tuning knob, and a vast sea of blinky buttons. And every last one of those did something meaningful (if not always useful). In spite of the price tag it sold extremely well, and the limited runs of them were quickly gobbled up. I was one of the lucky few to get my hands on it. It was, it has to be said, an incredibly awesome waste of money.
So when I was reminded today of that conversation and hauled the old XBox out of the attic to let said friend borrow it, I had to fire it up and play a while. Took a bit to remember all the controls (“OH GOD WHERE’S THE RELOAD BUTTON” was an actual quote… it’s labeled “Magazine Change” and is lower-right on the center block) but it came flooding back. I was quite surprised when, after frantically searching my memory to dredge up the method for sidestepping that incoming missile, I realized I’d just done it already. Muscle memory, even from a game I haven’t played in probably 7 years, is a powerful thing.
But the game is incredible even in spite of its huge pricetag audacity. I’ve rambled on at tremendous length about the importance of a game providing immersion, but until you’ve finished a mission and are kicked back out to a loading screen you don’t really realize how thoroughly you just tuned out the outside world. The gameplay is complex, far moreso than you ever got out of a Battletech game, no matter how many buttons your joystick had. It reaches into flight simulator levels. And that certainly means it’s not for everyone. But it’s definitely for me. I’m a nerd like that.
I could say something inane right now about how shameful it is that they’ll never try something this bold again, but you know what? Someone probably will. This specific formula will never work again, of course. Even Capcom, who made it, pussied out and did their next great giant robot game (Chromehounds) halfassedly, then pulled the plug on the hardcore fans so that they couldn’t play 80% of the game after two years. A shame. But someone out there right now has an idea for the best fucking game in a long time, that we’d all love and talk about for years.
I hope to hell he or she can find funding for it.