BY PHANTAGRAM & GENKI, 2002
25 WORDS OR LESS:
Hop in a Scoobee and Rumble your way to success in post-apocalyptic Tokyo.
Robots obey what the children say
There are always one or two genres of video games that however popular they may be to some people, are consensually boring: Chinese strategy games, derby sims, what have you — all pressing on with their distressingly narrow appeal.
Mech games are another such category. They’re either awful like a Gundam title, too complicated like Armored Core or just plain ridiculous like Super Robot Taisen. But why? Why aren’t games about awesome giant robots be accepted on a wider scale? It may be because like its shunned brethren, no one really tries to rethink the mech game.
Yet, in 2002, Phantom Crash stepped toward a rethinking. The Genki team sought out to create a mech game that was faster, more satisfying and actually worth something to a greater number of people, while also being unabashedly Japanese, but in a way different from the flash-bang parading of the anime-based mechs. The results weren’t perfect, but the first time never is. It’s still something worth experiencing.
On the outside, Phantom Crash is just another techno-future tale with that techno-future feeling of relaxation within harshness. We’ve read the books and comics and watched the anime, so there’s not much to surprise us anymore. It’s the year 2031 and Tokyo’s been leveled, with a “Neo Tokyo” filling in. The place is a mess, but some people still find a way to have fun.
“Rumbling” is the sport of choice in these times, where the disenchanted youth opt to make the best of a bad situation by tuning their favorite bug-like walking tanks, running around pelting one another with gunfire to try and reach the top of the heap, so to speak. The mechs are called Scoot Vehicles: SVs, or more affectionately, Scoobees. As a newcomer to the Rumbling ranks, it’s your goal to make your way up through the lower ranks and become the best of the best, meeting some of the most colorfully insane game characters ever along the way, with dialogue peppered with emoticons and the like.
Playing the game is much like any Xbox FPS, which is already a huge gain for a mech game. On the flip side, you are meant to control huge lumbering metal beasts, so moving around doesn’t exactly flow like a Halo session. Strafing can be very sluggish for everyone involved, hence the inclusion of side thrusters to make a quick side dodge with. Frankly, this control awkwardness makes Phantom Crash harder to believe. Scoobees generally clomp or glide along rather swiftly in a straight line, leading the player to expect momentum to be kept once they break that line. The game’s other big black mark is in its level selection: with a grand three arenas to fight in, things can get old rather quickly. On the other hand, you do have less to learn, so gaining the upper hand can be easy for the dedicated player.
Like Armored Core, mechs can be customized, but not quite in the same elaborate way. Scoobee manufacturers each have their flagship models, all with their own specific parts for the head, arm, body, gun, etc. They all add or subtract to your weight, defense and HP Keeping track of your IC — your SV’s computer and your closest friend — is also a good idea, since they dictate the size of your shooting reticule, and some are too narrow to get a successful lock-on.
One important factor sets Phantom Crash apart from other mech games, although it seems like a trivial one: the music. Phantom Crash has a stockpile of licensed music, which many Japanese games still don’t have, especially not the mech ones. Complimenting that is the ability to buy that music ingame and build your own soundtrack playlists. Sounds unimpressive considering the Xbox has its soundtrack feature, which “Crash” doesn’t even support.
But it’s more than making a soundtrack. Phantom Crash is about youth: crazy kids fixing up their underdeveloped scoobees, wearing baggy clothes and listening to crazy music. It’s the future, but there’s less trance music than you’d think, surprisingly. In Phantom Crash’s world, you’ll find pop songs, synth guitar rock, ambient electronica and anything else that might fall under “alternative.” Genki corralled an impressive number of obscure Japanese artists, no doubt all friends or favorites of the development team. The soothing sounds of Anonymass or the hooting melodies of the Kuricorder Quartet don’t exactly seem to fit in with the game’s action, but they all quickly sink in.
Although it touts so much customization and nigh-endless progression, in reality Phantom Crash is a game not meant to be “marathoned.” With its shortcomings in control and variety, players shouldn’t have been expected to get more than two hours out of each session (and even that is stretching it). But it’s fun; it takes a staid concept and puts it into something that actually seems fresh, and that probably made it all the better to be on Xbox. Too bad that ts limits definitely didn’t justify the full price it was released at … which, of course, isn’t a problem these days.
Two years after the game’s release, at E3 2004, Konami had given a fraction of its booth space to “Phantom Crash 2050,” the PlayStation 2 sequel that would eventually become S.L.A.I.. S.L.A.I. gained even less recognition than Phantom Crash, but contending with a much bigger market will do that. But for what they started, Genki managed to accomplish something significant in the game industry: it made a mech game fast, bite-size and generally enjoyable. How about that. —Ray Barnholt