Steel Battalion


Source // MobyGames

Some of the games on the 1001 list were always going to be hard to play. Arcade exclusives, obscure consoles, digital games lost to the world, that sort of thing. And then there's Steel Battalion, the Xbox Mech piloting simulator that requires a 44 button, two joystick, three-pedal controller set up.

I could drop a hundred-odd pounds on getting a secondhand set, but then I'd be short of an Xbox and a copy of Steel Battalion itself, which are definitely required to play. This one will definitely be a game to watch at this moment in time, and not a game to play.

So what's the fuss all about?

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Fun Times

Mechs, or Vertical Tanks (VTs) in the Steel Battalion universe, are somewhat nerdy pieces of military hardware. They may be simple to conceive, but to pilot one requires considerable skill and knowledge. Enter the Steel Battalion controller...

Each and every mission requires you to successfully boot up your VT before even be able to play. One button launches the operating system, another gets it fired up, five more turn critical systems on, and starts your fuel flowing and arms your weaponry, and a final button lets you actually move - if you press the button at the right time.

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Pedals allow you to walk and dash, and joysticks rotate your torso and point your weapons. Triggers, obviously, fire your guns. I've no idea what the other buttons do. There's a lengthy manual that tells all to the hopeful pilots out there.

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And you're all hopeful pilots. It's an intimidating setup, but I just want to jump in and see how far I get before blowing up - and blow up you will. Steel Battalion is so attentive to detail that there is a covered Eject button, to be used as a last resort. If incoming fire proves too much (or maybe if you fall over like an idiot on uneven terrain), flip the latch, punch the button and watch yourself get ejected to safety, ready to fight another day.

If you don't eject, you die. If you die, your save game gets deleted. No pressure.

Source // MobyGames
Source // MobyGames


I've seen a couple of videos, and as exciting as it is to try to get to grips with the controller, the difficulty looks to be on the absurd end of the scale. VTs are claustrophobic things, with most of your screen taken up by readouts, gauges, and rear-facing camera feeds.

The view of the battles you have isn't actually a window, but a screen complete with targetting and lock-on displays, helping to inform you (hopefully) of various bits and pieces of info - whether you're in range, whether you've pushed your VT too hard, and so on.

One of the VTs you can pilot doesn't have as fancy a screen as the others. Murky greens, greys and beiges are replaced with harsh black and white. Does it feel like a different mech to the others? Most definitely. Will I be ejecting from the cockpit after a few minutes bumbling around? Most definitely.

Source // MobyGames

Final Word

Well, I can't say for sure, of course. Much as I'd like to play Steel Battalion (and I really would), I'll have to try and work out where I'd fall based on previous mech, joystick and keyboard-heavy titles.

When it comes to mechs, I've got my head around what they are. Big, hulking tanks, weapons for arms, maybe a jet-pack based jump or a dodge. I'm good with Mechs, I should be good with VTs.

Joystick games could do with a little work. Flight sims are the obvious ones here, and it really depends on the game whether I was any good at them. Sometimes the sensitivity doesn't gel with what I think is going on, sometimes the buttons catch me out, pressing one whose location I don't actually know... Oh, boy, if that's the case, how am I going to cope on that front...

Previous mech games, the Mech Warriors of the past, are the closest comparisons to Steel Battalion then, and I wasn't brilliant at them. I've gotten better at gaming with a keyboard as this blog has gone on, but it helps if the keys make sense, or are customizable. The Steel Battalion controller isn't customizable but is clearly labelled, and it seems that many of the buttons aren't used in the heat of the moment anyway. It looks like it makes more sense than assigning the various things to keyboard keys.

So it's a bit of a mixed bag. I think I'd be able to move and shoot, but not strategically, and not well enough to survive. I'd probably get really good at flicking open the eject button, though, and just that act alone - that attention to detail - is why Steel Battalion needs to be played.

Pressing a keyboard button to eject doesn't cut it. Pressing a controller button definitely doesn't either. Flipping open a protective cover that ensures you don't accidentally hit the eject button means you are committed to hitting the eject button, and if you're committed to hitting the eject button, you're probably in deep shit.

What other game offers that? Not the feeling of being in deep shit, the feeling of having one clear tactile option with distinct connotations associated with it. Arcade games maybe, but I don't know which, and I bet they don't have forty other buttons to worry about.

I don't know the plot, the story, the setting, and I don't know if they're worth knowing. I suspect the focus of the game isn't the plot at all, and it's the experience of piloting that sells the game. If it's the simulation experience you want, there may be nothing that can touch Steel Battalion.

Can it be played and enjoyed even if you're not a fan of mechs? Probably not. The target market for this type of game was already slim before a ridiculous controller was added, but its inclusion makes the game stand out and live long in video gaming history, if not for commercially successful reasons, then for sheer devotion to the experience.

If you're able to play Steel Battalion, enjoy it, and know that I envy you.

Fun Facts

The game was partly made to show what video gaming could offer that other entertainment couldn't. Unusual, peripheral based experiences, not huge profits.

Steel Battalion, developed by Capcom Production Studio 4, Nude Maker, first released in 2002.
Version watched: Xbox, 2002 (GameplayArchiveOrg, Hard4Games, Super Best Friends Play)