Another week, another bout with past gen nostalgia. I played my SNES well into the late 90’s while everybody else had a PlayStation and I didn’t get a PlayStation until the PS2 was about to come out. It wasn’t until the original Xbox was released in 2001 that I finally got to be on the cutting edge of gaming, and there were some pretty great games there to greet me.
With the likes of Halo, Morrowind, and DOA 3 to keep me company, it was a solid first year of gaming for Microsoft’s venture into the console market, but with every new console eventually there comes a drought where you want to play something else and you don’t know what. In the past, when in doubt I’ve often picked up a mecha game. You can always rely on those. Building and tweaking your own death machine and then blowing stuff up is what insane testosterone-fueled dreams are made of.
I have wonderful memories of Mechwarrior, but there haven’t been a lot of mecha sim titles released in the past couple gens in America aside from the Armored Core series. And no, the Dynasty Warriors: Gundam games don’t count. Chromehounds for the 360 was alright, but the experience was ruined by the game I’m going to be reminiscing about today that stands as my favorite example of the genre: Phantom Crash. In it you play a pilot in dystopian Old Tokyo, where mech rumbles are used both as a professional sport and as a creative urban renewal strategy.
So why is this obscure and extremely Japanese Xbox-exclusive my enduring gold standard for mecha games? The personality and the strategic chaos. Most mecha games are extremely straightforward: build and upgrade robot, pilot robot, blow shit up with robot, repeat. Phantom Crash did away with the standard military missions in favor of a persistent free-for-all “rumble” tournament format full of colorful characters. Also missing were the plodding pace and emphasis on armour for defense. In this game, you moved at breakneck speed and relied on strategy, finesse, and stealth to maximize the effectiveness of your firepower.
The diversity of the SV’s (Scoot Vehicles) that serve as the combat machines in the game was already a win. Just deciding between the stability of tank treads, the mobility of legs, or the awesomeness factor of hover jets made each machine you built the best kind of dilemma. Finding the perfect balance of firepower, defense, and maneuverability from the parts offered by the various brands in the store to suit your desired gameplay style was a joy in itself even before the satisfaction of combat and earning more currency for upgrades presented itself. Plus there were the AI “animal chips” which were pretty much Cortana in animal avatar form, granting various benefits and providing status updates and advice based on their individual personalities. Fully built SV’s were also available for the less ambitious gamer, but that way lies lameness.
When it was time to deploy, you chose a ranked rumble to test your mettle in and what followed was the most delightful brand of anarchy. You and the other characters were dropped into a massive arena where the aim of the game was to blow everyone else to hell. You got paid for every kill and the object was to make as much money as you could and then get out of there before you got wrecked to minimize repair cost and maximize profit. Every venture into the arena was a new experience and a calculated gamble and like the old song says, you had to “know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run”. Once you’d destroyed every other player at least once (they respawned regularly so the arena roster was always full), the champion of the arena would suit up and emerge and if you were the one who took them out, you earned your way to the next rank.
In between rumbles, the player was treated to dialogue from various characters from in and out of the arena scene, including male groupies forming fan clubs around female combatants and other quirky little scenes. In addition to this refreshing addition, the soundtrack to Phantom Crash remains one of my favorites ever. It was a delightful and eclectic mix of moody electronica, industrial, melodic electro-pop, J-rock, punk, futuristic EDM, and even some jazz. And yeah, you could customize your SV’s personal sound system to create your own combat mix from the dozens of choices and buy more in the store. It all added up to a really unique feel that made the game feel like a breath of fresh air.
The combat was fantastic, of course. Not the usual wars of attrition you could expect from most mech sims, this game required situational awareness and skill. The game’s developer, Genki, was actually better known for its racing titles, and they brought that experience to bear to make this a really different kind of experience. With a swarm of SV’s in the arena and plenty of room to operate, it was all about identifying and pursuing your target while evading everybody else’s sites at the same time. Each vehicle had an active camouflage stealth system that could be used to lie in ambush or evade pursuers. So what resulted was a refreshing game of cat and mouse where everyone is both the cat and the mouse, alternately launching themselves into the air and weaving through cover waiting for the stealth system to charge with opponents in hot pursuit and seeking targets of their own to blast.
At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself “sounds like a great online multiplayer game”. Unfortunately, coming out early in the original Xbox’s life cycle, Xbox Live wasn’t quite up and running yet so no multiplayer was available. I consider this to be extremely tragic. Still, even as a single player only game with limited story, Phantom Crash was a blast and extraordinarily well-balanced in its combination of challenge and accessibility in spite of its hardcore approach.
Rumbles were seldom too easy unless you were playing lower ranks and you usually ranked up just as you started becoming comfortable. It stands to reason that fighting the same opponents while you constantly upgraded your SV would see you become overpowered, and I have to admit that when I could finally afford that laser cannon I felt like the god of war one-shotting the other combatants at will. But then when I beat the champ and got to the next rank I found waiting for me a higher grade of machine with comparable armaments and very quickly found myself in a smoking heap rethinking my strategy.
The alternating of frenetic strategic combat and upgrading, reconnoitering, and occasionally entirely rebuilding vehicles while always striving for that next rank made for a really great and addicting game. But being an extremely Japanese game on an extremely American upstart console doomed Phantom Crash to poor sales and cult status. However, a sequel was released for the PS2 after Konami bought the property, the oddly-named S.L.A.I.: Steel Lancer Arena, which I didn’t know existed due partly to said name not resembling the original game in any way. This one featured online multiplayer, but apparently failed to set the world on fire as a Sony exclusive as well, thus sending the promising series to the scrap heap.
Like I said, mecha titles aren’t exactly all the rage these days so the odds of a revival are slim at best, but what goes around comes around and I’m still hoping that somebody out there will remember how fun this game was and endeavor to give us something comparably memorable in the genre at some point in the future.