Mech Games: A History from Battlezone to Hawken


Posted October 12, 2011 - By Dennis Scimeca

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Mech Games: A History from Battlezone to Hawken

Among the common genres we talk about in video games, like first person shooters, side-scrollers, and role playing games, we don’t often hear mech games listed as one of these basic staples of video gaming. We might blame this on the fact that mech games come in such variety, as genre is usually defined by mechanics. Some mech games are in-the-cockpit simulators, some are third-person perspective action games, and some are real time strategy games.

What they all share in common is a core concept of walking war machines with pilots. The history of mech games is surprisingly deep, with hundreds of titles that fit the criteria for inclusion into the genre, such that we’re only going to be able to give you the highlights! We’re also going to stick with North American releases, so as to limit ourselves to games you might have played, or could play if you wanted to take a trip back through mech video game history.

There’s an argument to be had that the arcade game Battlezone is a progenitor of all the mech games. You controlled a tank, not a mech with legs, but in terms of establishing the feel of a mech game you can see the fingerprints of Battlezone over the mech simulators which followed.

The Battletech pen-and-paper tabletop game, which featured giant mechs, was an IP that spawned some of the very first mech games in the late 1980’s. Battletech: The Crescent Hawks’ Inception was a strategy/role playing game released in 1988. Skip to 10:09 on the video to see some of the top-down mech piloting action.

A sequel, Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge, was released in 1990. While the game still had RPG and story elements, this was at heart a real time strategy game, one of the earliest RTS games produced. Players could slow down or speed up time after giving orders to units, and featured a robust set of commands.

for PC was one of the first true mech simulators available in the United States. Also based on the Battletech RPG universe, MechWarrior was published in 1989.

While rudimentary by our standards, it effectively created a 3D mech simulator complete with the ability to form and command squads. Mechwarrior spawned three sequels, released between 1995 and 2002.

Metal Storm
was a side-scrolling mech game released for the NES in 1991, which continues to be a fan favorite. In 1993, another side scrolling mech game for the SNES, Cybernator, became an instant classic among mech fans, and is totally worth checking out on the Wii eShop if you have a Classic Controller.

Metaltech: Earthsiege
, a PC game released in 1994, took the MechWarrior feel and updated it. This series spawned several mech simulator sequels and strategy games, and takes place in the same universe as the famed Tribes FPS series.

Virtual On
was released in arcades in 1995, and while it did see console and PC ports, it’s the arcade version which forged a place in gamers’ hearts. Virtual On is a third-person arena-style mech game that favors quick reflexes, and the game has had enough longevity to have inspired a PlayStation 2 version in 2007.

Mech Games: A History from XXX to YYY

GunGriffon for the Sega Saturn was released in 1996, and was a simulator-type game where players piloted Armored Walking Gun Systems. AWGS units could be very mobile, so this wasn’t a stomp-and-shoot kind of mech game. Gungriffon was quite impressive at the time considering it was a console title, and went on to inspire a sequels on the PlayStation 2, Gungriffon: Blaze in 2000, and Gungriffon: Allied Strike on the Xbox in 2004.

The famous Armored Core franchise premiered on the PlayStation 1 in 1997. The Armored Core action series has spawned titles on six different platforms, and development on the series continues to the present day. The series refers to mechs as Armored Cores, and players control them in third-person mode. Skip to 2:00 into the video to see the original PS1 game in action.

1997 also saw the release of Heavy Gear, which was set in a game universe that, like Battletech, included several tabletop games, books, and even an animated series. The titular Heavy Gear mechs were much smaller than in many of the other games on this list, so the gameplay feels very much like a first person shooter rather than a classic Mech game. To show you what I mean, here’s a clip from the sequel, Heavy Gear II, released in 1999, and considered one of the best mech games of its day:

In 1998, the BattleTech universe returned with a PC strategy title called MechCommander, which felt very much like a successor to The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge. I personally found MechCommander to be punishingly difficult, but a very solid strategy game.

Any good geek knows that the concept of mecha owes a lot to the Japanese, and the idea of piloted mech units in particular owes a lot to the famous Japanese franchise Mobile Suit Gundam. There are a ridiculous number of Gundam video games in Japan, but in order to play them North American audiences had to make adjustments to their consoles or get boot disks.

In the early 2000’s a string of localized Gundam games hit Western markets, beginning with Gundam Side Story 0079: Rise From The Ashes, a classic mech-simulator-type game for the Sega Dreamcast. For the Gundam fans who may have drooled over Japanese Mobile Suit simulators on the Sega Saturn for years, Rise From The Ashes was a huge deal.

The other games in this wave of Gundam titles were Journey to Jaburo, a third-person action game, on PS1 in 2001; Federation vs. Zeon, a port of an arcade title that featured third-person action gameplay in competitive, cooperative, and campaign modes, published for the PS2 and Dreamcast in 2002; and Zeonic Front, a strategy game in which players took the role of the “bad guys” in the original Mobile Suit Gundam universe, published for PlayStation 2 in 2002.

The Front Mission series premiered in Japan 1995, and has continued to produce titles through 2010, currently under the ownership of Square Enix. The numbered Front Mission games, 1-5, are turn-based strategy games, but some of the spin-off titles include side-scrollers, real-time strategy, and even an MMO. American audiences had their first taste of the series with Front Mission 3 for the PS1 in 2000.

Steel Battalion
, published on the Xbox in 2002, is a mech simulator game known mostly for its preposterously large control setup and $200 price tag. The custom Vertical Tank dual-stick controller, which was the only way to play the game, also featured a ridiculous number of buttons, some of which weren’t used very much at all, and also featured a set of foot pedals.

Check out this video to see how complicated the control scheme was. A multiplayer-only sequel, Steel Battalion: Line of Contact, was released in 2004, and in 2010 Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, which will utilize the Kinect peripheral, was announced at the Tokyo Game Show. While you wait, here’s some gameplay from the original:

Front Mission 4
hit the PS2 in 2004, and in 2006 Sega published Chromehounds, a third-person mech game for the Xbox 360. Chromehounds offered single-player and multiplayer campaigns, and a versus mode. The online servers were shut down in 2010, however.

The most recent, big mech game to be released was Front Mission Evolved in late 2010. Unlike most of the Front Mission games, Evolved is a fast-paced, third-person shooter with campaign and online multiplayer modes.

Again, this history lesson has been about showing you the highlights. It is by no means all-inclusive, but we wanted to give everyone a taste of where this genre began, and how it’s developed thus far, because there’s a new mech game in development you may have heard of called Hawken. Appreciating the history of the mech genre is important in order to understand what Hawken may be bringing to the table, and why, if you’re a mech game fan, Hawken may be worth getting excited about.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston, MA. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

Mech Games: A History from Battlezone to Hawken


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