Game of the Month: Steel Battalion

Game of the Month is an ongoing series that examines critical issues in game design.  Through close readings of prominent, innovative, and experimental games, I hope to explore their structure and aesthetic significance.  The current Game of the Month is Steel Battalion.

Thanks for checking out Game of the Month!  Working with the New School Game Club, I’ve selected a handful of interesting games to use as case studies for this blog.  Every week we’ll post our observations of the game’s mechanics, narrative, or unique characteristics, as well as drawing parallels to other noteworthy games.  The chosen game will also be on display at Game Club meetings, so the community can have chance to experience it firsthand.  We figured we’d start the series with a bang, so last week folks got a sneak peek at this month’s game, Steel Battalion!

A simulation game produced in 2002, Steel Battalion holds the distinction of being exclusively playable on the original Xbox console.  Unlike most other 1st-generation Xbox titles, it’s impossible to emulate Steel Battalion through an Xbox 360—because the game is built entirely around its proprietary controller, a massive 40-button fabrication complete with a three foot pedals and flashing LEDs.  This behemoth is the cornerstone of the Steel Battalion experience:

 Steel Battalion Controller

Steel Battalion falls into the mecha genre of action sims, the same family as games such as Armored Core and MechWarrior.  The player controls a mechanized artillery platform (the game refers to these as VTs, or Vertical Tanks), armed to the teeth with enough high caliber weaponry to single-handedly carve a swath through the enemy force.  Because the available inputs on a traditional controller are sorely limited, most console releases in this genre tend to adopt nimble control schemes and an over-the-shoulder perspective; games such as Zone of the Enders, which handle almost like third-person shooters.   Not so for Steel Battalion!  This game proudly displays the influence of the sophisticated simulation games so popular among PC enthusiasts throughout the 1990s, and as far as I know Steel Battalion is the only console title ambitious enough to try it.

To get a better feel for the game, we have to take a closer look at the intricate dashboard (the word “controller” is almost too limited to describe this thing) that came bundled with every purchase of Steel Battalion.  The dash is built from three weighted hard-plastic blocks, and it carries a terrific sense of presence.  Unit designations and serial numbers are etched into the corners of the plastic, and the buttons are all labeled in military shorthand, some of it practically indecipherable at first glance.  The number of options at your disposal is staggering, an effect that is only possible with a full keyboard (Microsoft Flight Simulator springs to mind) or a controller of this size at your fingertips.  Here’s a closeup of one of the panels:

Steel Battalion Controller Closeup

What commands do the Function Switches activate?  Is the Override button context-sensitive?  Does Tank Detach jettison ammo or fuel, and does this affect how the VT handles?  Steel Battalion is not very forthcoming; it lacks any kind of meaningful tutorial, the manual is next to useless.  Rather, the game presents itself as a fixed object, a blinking array of switches and dials that begs for the player to investigate.  Steel Battalion is inscrutable, and challenging, and I expect that’s by design.  After all, you wouldn’t expect a novice to take to the cockpit of a 20-meter mecha with all the grace of an ace pilot, would you?  Not without a brutal training regimen.

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