Left Alive has been released this past week to harsh reviews and studio backpedalling, signalling another failure in the rare people-in-robots genre of game. Sam Brooks back at the storied history of these games.
It’s not a good sign when a studio forbids a game from being streamed mere days after its release. It’s the gaming equivalent of a movie not being screened for critics and it’s what you do when you know you’ve got a money-burner on your hands. You want to make sure as many people buy it before they find out it’s bad.
Such is the fate of Left Alive, the latest release from Square-Enix and their attempt to revive the once critically-acclaimed and now dormant Front Mission series. A survival action/stealth game, it’s a departure from the series’ strategy-RPG roots, but it seems to have failed on all fronts with its outdated graphics, sluggish gameplay and an incomprehensibly convoluted storyline. It even fails at its main goal as a person-in-a-robot game (as I’m labelling it) which allows a player to live out the childhood fantasies of smashing shit up, especially since most of it apparently takes place on foot!
So, in the wake of Left Alive (and frankly Anthem as well), I’m looking back at the storied history of people-in-robots games, and where and why these games have been successful?
Ghost in The Shell (1997)
What is it? For some reason, this game was on a demo disc that I played and I remember it being a weirdly visceral and immersive experience, even for a blocky, you-can-count-the-polygons experience. Based on the wildly popular anime and manga series, which was later turned into a problematic Scarlett Johansson star vehicle, Ghost in the Shell played hard into the shell part of that title.
What did it get right? It put you in a spider-robot, and it allowed you to feel the power of that – you strafed around, shot up other robots. It made you feel powerful, and for a game in 1997, that’s quite an effort.
Front Mission 3 (1999)
What is it? Although Left Alive purports to come from the Front Mission series, it hasn’t felt like there’s been a true entry in the series since Front Mission 3, which is inarguably when the series reached its critical and commercial peak.
That’s wild for a game that’s about as remote as it gets – it’s a tactical RPG where most of the tension comes from how badly you might’ve screwed up your last move and how bad you get punished for it. Also, there’s a character whose butler joins her in battle in his own robot, which is pretty ridiculous.
What does it get right? Despite not being visceral at all, Front Mission 3 sets up two things incredibly well.
One: it sets up a believable and compelling narrative where robot warfare is the most common way for people to beat the shit out of each other. The political landscape of the Front Mission universe is as complicated and hard to follow as Australian politics in general, but the third game made it seem both immediate and important.
Two: if you’re into the nerdery around fiddling with what weapons, armour and accessories are attached to your robots, then Front Mission 3 is here to deliver. t’s not the easiest game to find anymore, but it should be on one Playstation storefront or another.
Zone of the Enders (2001)
What is it? Unfortunately, this game’s popularity seemed to come from the fact that it came packaged with the demo disc for Metal Gear Solid 2, the other Hideo Kojima game where the plot revolves around world-destroying robots.
Despite that, it’s a game that’s absolutely worth checking out on its own. It follows a boy, Leo, whose colony is attacked by an army, and he ends up running into a factory where an experimental human-operated robot is being kept. One thing leads to another, and suddenly our eleven-year-old is blowing through an entire army in the cockpit of a robot called Jehuty.
Also, the cockpit for the main robot looks like a dick.
What does it get right? Whereas Ghost in the Shell and Front Mission seem to focus on the bulky weight and power of the robot, Zone of the Enders focuses more on the speed aspect. Flying through the air feels fluid as hell, even in this near two-decade-old game.
Ring of Red (2002)
What is it? This is undoubtedly the most obscure game on this list, coming at the very start of the PlayStation 2’s life cycle, way back in 2000. It’s set in an alternate history version of Japan where, after their loss in World War II, are occupied by both Soviet Russia and the United States where tensions are heating up. Oh, also in this history, the main form of warfare are slow-moving walking tanks. As one does.
I have a soft spot for this game. I’ve spent maybe 100 hours on it without ever beating it because it’s pretty hard and I’m pretty bad at video games. It’s the kind of weird game that probably wouldn’t get made now. It’s a blend of an incredibly punishing strategy game and a slightly less punishing strategy shooter, and when you layer an incredibly dense plot on top of that, it doesn’t exactly scream million dollar seller.
What does it get right? It’s a blend of what made Ghost in the Shell great and what made Front Mission great: it’s the all-powerful feeling of controlling a problematic weapon of war with all the tactical planning and deep world-building that makes that all-powerful feeling lived-in.
Dynasty Warriors Gundam (2007)
What is it? The second Warriors spinoff (depending on if you consider Samurai Warriors a spinoff of Dynasty Warriors or its own series) it was at this point where Koei-Tecmo realised that their one man against a thousand men hack-and-slash gameplay could work for literally any franchise. (See also: Zelda, One Piece, Fire Emblem)
What does it get right? It lets you beat up a thousand robots while playing as your own robot. It’s also incredibly fun if you find the Warriors games fun, which I very much do.
And now, on a technicality…
Metal Gear Solid 4 (2007)
What is it? Metal Gear Solid 4 is a ridiculous, overstuffed, heavy-handed game about war in a modern age, clones, ageing, traumatized women being shoved into robots and leading private military companies, and also a guy who pisses himself a lot.
However, the best and most fun part of the game is when you, as Snake, get to pilot Metal Gear REX and fight off against Metal Gear RAY. This is the part of the game I’m referring to, even though I’m a big fan of the rest of it as well. For brief context: Metal Gear REX is the nuclear warhead wielding manned robot from Metal Gear Solid 1. It is a walking tank, and also it makes dinosaur noises for some reason.
Metal Gear RAY is the nuclear warhead wielding manned robot from Metal Gear Solid 2, and was built as a deterrant for Metal Gear REX. It is also a walking tank, also makes dinosaur noises, but looks more like Lugia from Pokemon.
What does it get right? It puts you in a massive robot and allows you to fight another massive robot. You feel the full weight of each robot’s power. You feel massively in control of each movement. Each hit feels visceral, each movement feels considered. You believe you are in control of the robot that could destroy the world. It’s a rush.
Also, the only thing it needs to get right, the only thing that any of these games, even Left Alive needs to get right, is that it’s really undeniably, fucking fun.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.