Mecha Games, Where For Art Thou?

This is a general lament and a confession. For those who haven’t guessed, I am a fan of the mecha genre. If one needs proof, I’m happy to supply photos of my case full of Gundam and VOTOMS kits, as well as the book which started it all for me – a battered copy of the Decision at Thunder Rift which I picked up to read on a family vacation. Moves and floods forced me to purge my copies of Wolves at the Border and Heir to the Dragon by Robert N. Charrette, which I still regret. (I’m getting them back, though).

So, I’m acquainted with the joys of the genre and I still defend it to this day. And, yes, it does require defense. When a writer you quite admire looks at a show and says, “Did you trick me into watching a mecha show? Don’t let this be a mecha show!” then your favorite genre may have some issues. Especially since, to me, the key things which attract me to a lot of post Gundam mecha shows are the drama and the relationships and, shock, the characters. I’ve got friends who are still angry over Gundam 0083 and Lt. Burning…

Most mecha shows have much in common with action dramas. To the point where you can take their tropes, add them to another series, and get a “new” and popular show. (Flamewar start: Attack on Titan is just a mecha show with the numbers filed off! Fan fight!) And I admit, I get a kick out of seeing young folk discover old mecha shows for the first time and fall for them. Or get gatewayed in through new ones. One of my favorite memories of the last month involved a quick stopover at a hobby shop.

This shop carried a very nice selection of Gundam kits, along with gunpla supplies and other model kits. If you believe the stereotype, I should have only found a bunch of neckbeards roaming the isles complaining about how their moms wouldn’t let them go to the ReturnOfKings gathering. (No, this is not a joke. Apparently to some, enjoying mecha shows and modeling is a straight-line path to rampant sociopathic misogyny).

Instead I found two ladies trying to convince themselves they didn’t want to buy the Perfect Grade Gundam Unicorn on display, and distracting themselves from that intensely beautiful model by re-ordering the kits on the shelves based on series. It honestly made me smile. Ladies like this kept the first Gundam series going when the ratings were low, after all, and were responsible for a lot of Garma/Char manga.

Sometimes, though, just watching feels a bit distant. I would like to actually immerse myself in a mecha based story. Or, as a few friends have asked, maybe I could actually run a mecha game for my tabletop crew. I am the guy who takes photos of his Gundam Heavyarms model.

This, though, leads me to a problem. There are very few mecha games (tabletop and digital) which fit my needs, and probably the needs of others.

The Digital Divide

While visiting my friends at Little Fish Comics I talked about mecha games. Mike, the proprietor and one of the best poets I know, mentioned how a good mecha game was hard to find. The few which existed were split.

You would either get very Mechwarrior style FPS games like Hawken or a storyline-based flight sim like Strike Suit Zero.

I’m choosing these two in particular because they are newer examples. And they’re the only newer ones I’ve found so far which weren’t imports or based on an existing franchise. Even those games are a few years old by comparison. But hey don’t fit the niche I was hoping to fill.

Strike Suit Zero is a beautiful looking game. But it makes two bad assumptions: First, that’d you ever want to play anything other than the Zeta Gundam knock-off off in the title. You’re apparently forced into other fighters – as if this is Star Citizen and the flying is the important bit.

Second, the designers assume the storyline would let you overlook the endless waves of overlong missions. If spending hour after hour fighting is more important than actually accomplishing anything, we may have an issue. Or you should dig up a Galaga sim. If a mission interferes with the story, people stop playing. I don’t have six hours a night to spend playing through one mission anymore, in the hopes there will be a decent story revelation.

(You ever want a guide to making interesting, plot driven missions and side quests you want to do just ’cause – Play Borderlands 2. I mean Face McShooty!)

On the other side of the spectrum is Hawken, the latest in the in-cockpit style games where you can build up your own mech, customize it based on your play style, and then head out to rain SRM death on folks (if that’s your thing). Everything about this looks very nice, especially for an open beta, and general reviews are good. But it has these strikes against it:

First and foremost, there is no story mode at all. Or, if there is one, they’re not promoting it. The FPS MMO aspects emphasize death matches, team shootouts, and going against other players for prizes. There’s a basic background on why you’re doing all of this, but none of fights or the grinding seems to have a purpose beyond endless PVP. I like to think I’m actually going somewhere with my games.

I’ve never had fun with PVP, much less PVP in FPS games which rely on me getting dumped into a pick-up group with a bunch of strangers. I can’t assure the relative maturity level of the players. Listening to some of the YouTube videos, it seems like most anyone who’s 15 and has a twitch stream is playing this game. They’re also reviewers…

And that’s another concern. It was bad enough when I had to deal with griefers in my MMO days, but on competitive games like this I do not want to burn time fending off some rabid GamerGater threatening to SWAT me because my connection died at an inopportune moment. I play to get away from insane politics.

This may be an unkind view of the Hawken community, but my time – and frankly my job – are precious to me. It it highlights the big divide in games.

You either play Wing Commander in a mech with endless missions, or you play Call to Duty in a mech, with no storyline and a kid born when you got out of college threatening to call ICE on your family because you missed a rail-gun shot. There’s no neutral ground, and not a lot of choices if you want to play something built in the last decade.

But, wait, what about tabletop? Surely with everything out there.

Machines of Imagination

Alas, the pen & paper game is feeing just as thin as the digital game these days. There was a brief time when the shelves did have quite a few games out there, but it was never able to compete with fantasy based RPGs. But, for a while, we had Mekton Z and its spin-offs, Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles and Big Eyes, Small Mouth. Add to that the venerable RPG wing of Battletech and you had materials out there.

But as time went on, the pickings got thinner and the games struggled to maintain an identity. Dream Pod 9’s games were very tied to miniature rules, like Battletech’s Mechwarrior. They also forced the games to be tied to a general RPG system after a while, which just made things more complex. I now folks who prefer the ease of use of the 2nd edition to the 3rd. That’s also true with Jovian Chronicles.

These games show my first issue: dependencies. You want to play the game? You’re dependent on the setting, or on another game. A good example of this is a game called Remnants. The setting is an intrinsic part of the story: a post apocalyptic game where characters find remnants of a lost age via their self-sustaining war machines. If you want to play in this world, or one of the set worlds of other games, you’re good. If not, you’ve got a lot of rewiring to do.

That brings me to my second issue: bolt-on generics. There are a lot of “generic” systems out there these days – FATE, AGE, BRPS, Cypher, Cortex+, even the anime-based BESM, they usually offer some kind of option to play a mecha game. And while they’re worthy systems, to me it’s sometimes obvious they were built to do other things and the mecha game is an add-on for folks asking, “Hey, can I play this.” I’ve yet to see a well-developed system, one that really addresses the genre on its own, and not as 3 pages in a larger book.

Are there any generic mecha games out there? Right now, there’s the aptly titled Mecha game by Chris Perrin. It’s gone through two editions, has some supplements and a few fans out there. Honestly, I’m still digging through it to see how it feels. But so far, he’s come closest.

What about Mekton? Well, I’m one of the folks who’ve gotten burned on the Mekton Zero kickstarter. As for Zeta, while I do love the book in a lot of ways, the time it takes to build a mecha in it. Frankly, the calculation time involved would be better used designing the real thing. Which is a shame, because some of the supplements put out for it really did a great job of catching the feeling of a mecha show.

So, if there ever was room for a good system out there which lets you build the mech show you want, with just the right amount of crunch, that doesn’t force you to buy mini’s for combat, we could use one now.  The same holds true for the video games. I’d love to see a combination of the sleekness that Strike Suit Zero showed in its background, and the emphasis on storyline, but with the first-person controls of Hawken available. But I’m guessing until there is more demand… I’ll have to find some way to make do.

Which, in my long-winded way, is how I arrive at two asks. If you see a project which really catches the feel of a mecha show -either on paper, or in digital format- feel free to post it in the comments. We speak VOTOMS, Escaflowne and Gundam here, along with more obscure dialects. And ask the creators out there: speak up for mecha. It’s got a lot to offer, there are fans out there, and we’re eager for a chance to weep like children as we realize our best friends have betrayed us…

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