Mobile Suit Gundam: Bonds of the Battlefield
This is so cool. A 2006 mech-fighting game based on the Gundam anime series. It brings together some of the features I’ve mentioned in earlier game centre posts for a pretty thoroughgoing Japanese arcade experience. We have a sit-in cabinet like Space Harrier, smartcard sign-in for personalised play like maimai, and nationwide networking like Battle Gear 3. On top of that, we have an extravagant control scheme of pedals and twin joysticks, and a wicked panoramic projection screen.
The pods for this game are always in big groups like you can see in the picture. I discovered them on one of my very first game centre visits. I walked curiously through the incredible noise and bright lights of the UFO catchers and purikura on the ground floor, and was happy enough to find two or three light gun games and a Bishi Bashi cabinet. Kids and couples were having fun, getting lost in some videogames for a while, laughing. Wondering if there might be more, I thought I’d take a look in the basement.
The basement was where the game centre really was. Dark and smokey. Lines of generic cabs with classic games, not frills and novelties to lure in passersby. Players sat with hours-long hunches, beside empty cigarette packets and full ashtrays screwed to the button panels. People inserted member cards, not coins. Pop n Music experts twitched, their skills betraying hundreds of hours in this darkness. It felt like the absolute dregs of teenage life, lived mainly by ex-teenagers. It reeked of extreme — freakish, really — commitment to videogames. And then at the furthest end of the room, two lines of these Gundam pods ran face-to-face with a narrow walkway in between. All their red-illuminated signs showing “Occupied”, the cabinets glowing, they looked like an unearthly incubation experiment from the X Files.
Inside each pod are an adjustable high-backed seat, two stylish joysticks, a set of foot pedals, a few buttons for menu selection, a smartcard reader, a coin slot, and headset jacks for team communication. Bizarrely, for a game so wrapped up in its serious mech simulation, there’s also a load of stickers of fake dials and gauges on the dashboard, just like I saw on that 1985 Space Harrier cab.
The pod has surround sound and a very effective panoramic screen. The wrap-around display is not quite done justice in my photos but works really well. The game itself is essentially an arena-based first-person team shooter. There’s nationwide matchmaking and, according to Wikipedia, international matchmaking with cabinets at a few centres in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
A few little details stood out to me for some reason in my one quick game. First, using a smartcard to load pilot data was the default option, and I had to actively choose to go on as a guest. Good luck if you can’t read Japanese. Second, the tutorial video explaining the pedals featured a foot in high heels doing the pushing. I don’t know who they think their target audience is, but I did not see a lot of high-heels going in or out of these pods. Finally, there were a few buttons not covered in the tutorial. I don’t know if they were there for decoration like the dashboard stickers, or reserved for more advanced functions used by real pilots and not mere guests.
So all in all, Mobile Suit Gundam: Bonds of the Battlefield is a little inscrutable, but it is absolutely worth dropping ¥300 into. You will get a good 10-15 minutes if you go through the tutorials and things and take your time going through the options. If you have a friend, some headsets, and an afternoon to kill, maybe you could make a bit more headway. You can even just about fit a spectator inside the pod, so you could work your way through your first couple of plays together.
I imagine that, like most half-decent online games, what would make this one stand out from the crowd is simply having spent many, many hours in it instead of somewhere else, and knowing it’s where your friends are. Still worth a visit, though, even if you don’t plan to stay.
Next week, I’m going lo-fi, away from this world of twin sticks and pedals, to a game of literally idiotic simplicity.
(See all postcards from the game centre here.)