Steel Battalion could be one of the most infamous examples of eccentricity in video gaming. Requiring a forty button controller system, this 2005 Xbox exclusive was developed by Capcom Production Studio 4 in collaboration with designers at Human Entertainment, the same personnel that would go on to form Nude Maker, makers of the popular Clock Tower horror video game franchise.
Steel Battalion could be described as something of a mech-simulator, as players were put into a hyper-realistic cockpit of a giant bipedal far-future war machine. It would be an understatement to say the game was designed for a niche audience.
The 200 dollar separate controller was incredibly complex to master. Players couldn’t even jump into battle until they successfully started up their machinery, which required a lengthy, complex sequence of flips and switches. This extreme dedication to immersion was as ambitious as it was misguided, one could say. While the game is regarded as a notable technical achievement in video game history, it wasn’t a particularly successful financial one. Besides the obvious fact that very few mainstream gamers were willing to spend the extra 200 dollars for the controller, the game wasn’t marketed very well, and soon sold out its modest production line, quickly becoming a novelty rather than a phenomena. The 2002 title also only offered a meager single-player offering. Two years later, Capcom supplemented fans with an online-only sequel, Steel Battalion: Line of Contact.
Ironically, adding an online mode to Steel Battalion’s already demanding specifications didn’t make the game any more accessible to players. While the online modes were meant to reach 5 vs 5, most matches only could populate at 3 vs 3 or 4 vs 4, particularly for players not based in Japan. This mainly revolved around the fact that most players at the time could only access bandwidth rates of 100 kB/s up and 300 kB/s down when playing, which further limited gameplay quality, as well. On top of population issues, many players were frustrated by the game’s devotion to realism, requiring players to completely restart their command center every time they wanted to respawn into battle. By September 20, 2005, Line of Contact’s campaign was already taken offline, and even for hardcore players, setting up LAN sessions was a daunting task, where each player would need their own TV, Xbox, Xbox Live account, game disc and hardware to play the game locally.
Many of these issues seemed like they would hold the franchise back from being successful. However, in 2010, developer From Software announced they were taking the helm of the franchise. The developer, acclaimed for their past work with Dark Souls, planned to update the franchise into the Xbox 360 era. However, instead of utilizing the pricey massive controller scheme, they planned to utilize the Xbox 360’s Kinect hardware, a motion-based input system that would use both the traditional controller and the player’s movements to control the game.
Unfortunately, the Kinect hardware integration proved a massive failure, as Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor was found to be virtually unplayable because of the hardware’s inability to properly detect and interpret the player’s movements. Despite the fact that From Software’s past resume with notable successes like Chromehounds and Armored Core made fans hopeful the game would be a success, even the game’s lackluster storyline and unremarkable characters proved yet another disappointment. Many critics consider the game to be one of the worst of all time, and many would agree that it ranks as the worst reboot of a franchise ever made.
Perhaps the greatest insult revolved around the fact that Heavy Armor had been designed as a selling point to get Xbox 360 owners to fork over 149.99 for the pricey Kinect hardware to play the game, not a very ample improvement over the original 200 dollar required hardware. Heavy Armor also revealed many practical issues that Kinect hardware posed in general. Besides a meager launch lineup of available titles, the Kinect required large spatial room, a heftier power supply, and the hardware’s noticeably slower hand gesture recognition obviously presented latency issues that challenged many dedicated titles, not just Heavy Armor.
Sadly, it’s doubtful a new game in a franchise as ambitious as Steel Battalion will make its way to consumers anytime soon, although the concept is still an attractive one, however illogic and challenging it may be to market. As a PC gamer, I have noticed the eccentricity into dedicated hardware building is becoming very much the norm with gamers, these days. It used to be a novelty that racing enthusiasts would craft three-screen mega stations for immersive driving simulations, but as we move further aware from consoles, the audience is growing for these kinds of dedicated setups.
Now, Steel Battalion seems like an eccentric relic of a more gullible decade in gaming, but it’s obvious that the simulation genre hasn’t lost any steam. In fact, it seems like it’s gained quite a bit of steam since Steel Battalion fell into obscurity. Farming simulators, trucking simulators, flying simulators – gamers are becoming more obsessive with immersion than ever, so the idea of a new Steel Battalion game is a welcome one, especially with the advent of virtual reality becoming more relevant seemingly every month developers work with it. However, the issue of developing a competent, successful game that would attract players to spend extra cash on dedicated hardware seems like a fairly large gamble for publishers, in an industry where profit is the first priority in AAA development.