Video games constantly evolve. Early on, graphics involved simple dots and now, they provide highly realistic, movie-quality images. Music originally consisted of bleeps and buzzes, while soundtracks now contain fully-orchestrated symphonies. My favorite evolution involves modifications to video game controllers, which began with simple joysticks, then morphed into complex control pads, and currently require nothing more than the player’s own movements. In my experience, no game displays this evolution more completely than Capcom’s Steel Battalion.
In 2002, video game console controllers were fairly standard—one or two analog sticks and a directional pad for movement, at least four buttons for running, jumping, and shooting, and a pair of finger triggers. Hardcore PC gamers often purchased ornate controllers, especially useful for shooting games, but even these generally boiled down to joystick-controlled movement and several firing buttons. When Capcom released Steel Battalion for the Microsoft Xbox, all that changed. This game’s controls created a new gaming experience.
In this combat simulation game, the player pilots a heavily armored vertical tank known as a “mecha.”Able to walk upright on two legs, a mecha assaults military bases and pursue fleeing enemies. The player spends the game directly inside the cockpit of a mecha, and the game’s controller brought this simulation to an entirely new level. Instead of seeing a mecha’s complex controls displayed on the screen, the player physically handles the equipment. Composed of three large panels that curve around the player, Steel Battalion’s controls consist of two full-sized joysticks, a large lever, and approximately 40 different buttons and dials. Additionally, the player works with a separate foot panel with three metal pedals. While other games of the era relied only on graphics to pull the player into a fantasy world, Steel Battalion brought its highly realistic world directly to the player. Ten years later, this is still the most complex set of controllers ever produced for a home console game.
A few months ago, Capcom released the game’s sequel, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, for the Xbox 360 Kinect. The game went from one extreme to the other. Using the Kinect’s motion-controlled technology, Capcom reduced its massive controller to practically nothing—no special buttons, no pedals, no joysticks; only the player. The game is almost completely motion-controlled. The player does use the basic Xbox 360 controller to augment the motion sensor, mainly for shooting at enemies, but operating the mecha’s internal controls requires only the player’s own body movements. How’s that for evolution?
Motion detection is widely hailed as the future of video gaming. Beginning with the Nintendo Wii and continuing with the PlayStation Move and the Xbox 360 Kinect, players currently use their own bodies to actively play their favorite games. Despite this, Steel Battalion fans almost universally agree that the original controller, itself an amazing evolution into realism, allowed them a more immersive experience. What new innovations wait around the corner for video game controllers? Will we continue on the motion-sensing track or revert to tangible forms of control? I for one can’t wait to find out!