Okay. If there is any reason to sink thousands of yen into an arcade game (besides UFO catchers and, erm, purikura), this is one of them.
I first saw Kidō Senshi Gundam: Senjō no Kizuna on my first trip to Japan. It looked incredible. Four white pods sat in a silent group, the volume of each approximately the same as a Smart car. Peering inside, I could see a projector displaying an image across a screen that near encompassed a person’s peripheral vision. Two joysticks, covered with buttons, were deployed in an ergonomically pleasing way. Two steel foot pedals jutted from the floor.
A single terminal stood to attention nearby, displaying a giant LCD screen showing a real-time battle in progress. I checked the price – 300 yen for a pilot card, and 500 for a game session. Eep.
When I arrived in Japan for JET, my fellow ALTs asked me if I had played the “Gundam Game”.
I immediately knew what they were talking about.
First off, I needed to get a pilot card. This is easily done at the pilot terminal near the pods for 300 yen. Tapping はい multiple times and typing in a pilot name seemed to be the most logical progression. Eventually I got one of these:
The card shows information like your pilot name, rank, accumulated points, confirmed kills, and the platoon that you have assigned yourself to. This gets updated every time you finish a session and insert your card into the pilot card terminal. Pretty nifty.
The pods hadn’t changed since I last saw them:
The pods are networked with other pods all over the country, but they are also linked locally – players can communicate with the other three pods using the headsets supplied. The seat is adjustable and has a slight bucket shape to them so you can sink into them easily. Speakers are placed on either side of your head so you know when your Gundam is getting pummelled by a Zaku’s axe. A side mic is also fixed into the seat for text to speech.
There’s a panel of headset jacks above the coin slot – it looks like you can bring your own headset and plug it into these jacks, if you so wish.
The game itself is played against other players against Japan. As expected, you start off with a lowly training suit and go through the rigours of the game’s tutorial, playing against bots and getting a grip on the controls. As you complete more battles and earn more XP, you unlock more Gundam suits, armaments, inventory and defence / offence modifiers.
The controls are quite straightforward, almost (rudimentary). One pedal controls horizontal boost (aka dash), and the other pedal controls vertical boost, so you can scale buildings. The joysticks control similarly to Virtual-on: pushing both sticks in the same direction will move / strafe your mech in that direction, pushing them in vertically opposing directions will turn your mech, and pulling them both away from each other will execute a “tackle” manouvre to stun your opponent.
One thing that I noticed about the controls was that the movement speed of your mech was almost frustratingly slow, yet refreshingly authentic as a result. I mean, we’re talking about giant fucking hulks of steel, oil and fuel with a shitload of guns welded on. They’re not going to be executing commando rolls and backflips while unloading volleys of missiles and firing lasers akimbo. They are going to lumber along as best they can, and add a bit of thrust vectoring to get out of the way of machine gun fire. Think Mechwarrior, but with a shitload more jump jets.
Targeting acquisition is straight forward – it will aim at any nearby mechs, and a thumb-button press will lock-on, allowing you to rain 100mm death. Cycling through multiple targets and cancelling the lock are both thumb button presses.
Attacking mechs up close is a little more intricate – depending on the mech, it may be equipped with a melee weapon, be it an energy sabre or an axe. Combos can be used to great effect here – timing the blows with trigger presses is key to success, rather than pulling the trigger madly. The combo system can be abused by practised hands, where a combination of tackles, combos, and thrusts can take out a single mech in no time at all. These are usually shown in spectacular fashion on the replay screen outside.
Game modes vary as you progress through the ranks – initial games start with a base defense game mode, where you and a team of up to 7 other mechs attempt to reduce the opposing team’s bar to zero by destroying their base or killing their mechs. This is quite similar to tickets in Battlefield, except higher value mechs and more powerful wargear will reduce a greater number of points. Makes sense.
Other game modes include point control and straight up robot deathmatch. I have a feeling that deathmatch is only unlocked at higher tiers of play, because watching the replays on the big screen shows some pretty bad ass mechs.
After every match, you return to the pilot terminal and insert your card to update any unlocks you have achieved, as well as select the next item to spend your XP on. You can also view things like Achievements, your ranking in your platoon, the mechs that you have already unlocked, and so on.
All of this doesn’t come cheap. 300 yen for the pilot card, then 300 yen for a single gaming session (which includes two matches lasting for approximately 10-15 minutes). Sometimes there are specials, like 500 yen for two sessions, but in the end it’s not a cheap hobby.
But given the scope and depth of game play, the number of suits, the constant updates, and the country-wide player base, you’ll be left with the feeling that you want to get better at this game.
And that’s the hook.