I’d managed to avoid playing it for the first five months I lived here, but it taunted me every time I walked into an arcade. I knew that once I tried it, I’d be hooked. A 3D Gundam deathmatch played inside a P.O.D. (panoramic optical display), Internet-linked to play against players across Japan and complete with dual joystick controls and foot pedals. It looked like crack cocaine to a Gundam fan like me and a week ago I finally took my first hit.
Much like Capcom’s notorious Steel Battalion for the Xbox, Gundam: Bonds of the Battlefield is a game based around an impressive controller. The initial draw of Bonds isn’t the surprisingly solid Gundam game it includes, but the experience you get by stepping into the P.O.D. and controlling your Mobile Suit with twin control sticks and foot petals, watching the action unfold on a giant “dome screen” projected on the inside of the P.O.D. The appeal should be obvious to any Gundam fan, because it is the closest you will come to being a Mobile Suit pilot in real life.
Despite appearances, the controls of Bonds of the Battlefield are straightforward and easy to figure out. The two control sticks are used to move and turn your robot, while the foot pedals let you jump or boost. Each control stick has a trigger for firing weapons and a thumb button for locking on to opponents. The result is a control interface that doesn’t take long to get used to, but provides an infinitely more interesting experience than the single joystick and buttons found on regular arcade cabinets.
What really stands out is the impressive “screen”, actually an image projected across the domed interior of the P.O.D. While it lacks the detail and crispness of now-common HD displays, the dome screen more than makes up for it with sheer size. It’s so big that you’ll have to get used to turning your head to look at information on the periphery of the display and track enemy targets.
I finally took the plunge one night last week, after a few disappointing rounds of pachinko. Wandering around an arcade in Shinjuku with a friend we eventually found ourselves in front of Bonds of the Battlefield. My friend was the one who suggested playing it, even though he’s not a big fan himself (he says it makes him nauseous). He’s the kind of guy who’s played just about every arcade game once, who has a wallet full of arcade memory cards and if you asked he could tell you which horse racing games are worth your time and which aren’t.
One of the reasons I’d managed to put off playing Bonds of the Battlefield was the apparent complexity of getting started, although it turns out creating an account is quite easy. Like lots of other arcade games nowadays, Bonds uses a micro-chipped memory card to save your progress, which costs 300 yen. My friend helped me through the process, which requires you to select a side (Federation or Zeon), enter a name, select a Normal Suit design and a few other small options. The entire process is done through the pilot terminal, a touch screen console separate from the P.O.D.s themselves.
Stepping into a P.O.D. for the first time is a strange experience; the dome screen is almost overwhelming in its size. Closing the door turns the noise of the outside arcade into a dull hum, further muffled by the blasting Gundam theme music as you insert your memory card and deposit the 500 yen required to play. That 500 yen will get you about eight minutes of game time spread over two matches, not to mention the time you’ll spend waiting for the game to set up and what you’ll spend navigating menus before matches. Most arcade games rarely cost over 200 yen to play, but it’s easier to justify the price when you realize you’re getting a gaming experience you can’t find in other arcade games and certainly not at home.
As I had selected the Zeon when creating my account, the only Mobile Suit initially available to me was the venerable Zaku II. Experience points built up playing games goes both towards unlocking new Mobile Suits as well as new weapons and upgrades for the Mobile Suits you have. After a few more games I’d find myself with a new bazooka for my Zaku II and an Accguy amphibious Mobile Suit, but for the meantime I was stuck with the Zaku II and it’s regular machinegun.
After my first two matches I was getting a handle on the controls and was proud of the fact I’d managed to place highly in both games. It wasn’t until later when my friend informed me I was playing against computer opponents that I realized maybe I wasn’t as skillful as I thought.
Getting used to the controls allowed me to begin focusing on the game itself, which is a straightforward 3D shooter, not unlike the arcade Gundam VS. games or the Gundam Battle series on the PSP. In truth the game itself doesn’t offer much to differentiate itself from other 3D Gundam games, but it manages to stand apart thanks to the P.O.D. Unlike the previously mentioned Steel Battalion, which saw an impressive controller overshadowing a mediocre game, Bonds of the Battlefield’s core game works well enough to provide an satisfying experience. The key here is the overall package; a solid online 3D shooter with a unique control interface and an awesome screen makes for a game that’s a lot of fun to play.
It’s worth pointing out that the core formula of Bonds of the Battlefield is based around the classic online first person shooter formula: A fun experience that’s easy to hop into, played online against other players or bots with a microphone headset for communication, an active developer supporting the game and a running stat system to track the best players. It’s a formula that countless first person shooters have used to great success and it’s interesting to see it succeeding so well in Japanese arcades despite the fact that similar games have done so poorly in the Japanese PC and console market.
Despite being over a year old, Bonds of the Battlefield still manages to pull in large crowds and trying to play a few games during the evening often means waiting in line. Bandai-Namco has been releasing regular updates for the game that include new Mobile Suits, new maps and tweaking the balance when it’s discovered units are too powerful or too weak. These updates have apparently kept the game interesting enough to keep fans coming back, proving that despite the elaborate hardware, it’s more than just a gimmick.
I’ve been playing at least a couple matches of Bonds of the Battlefield every day since I first took the plunge, so it’s safe to say my fears of possible addiction were justified. While the high price is a turn-off, the experience and elaborate hardware helps me justify the cost. Games like Gundam Vs. Gundam might offer similar mecha combat at a cheaper price, but after the immersive experience of Bonds of the Battlefield, it’s hard to go back to a regular arcade cabinet. I struggle to imagine a Gundam fan that wouldn’t love this game, yet even without the Gundam license it would still be worth playing. It does a great job of reminding you how cool arcade games can be, in a way that’s been rarely seen since consoles caught up with arcade hardware long ago.