This weekend, I have no doubt that many of you out there were prepping for titanfall, waging interstellar war across PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. And while Titanfall 2 may seem to have it all - heavily-armed mechs, jet-boosting footsoldiers, alien fauna, killer androids, and more - I can't help but feel something's missing. Something that you could only get from a 14-year old Xbox game that required a $200 controller. That's right, I'm talking about Steel Battalion.
Titanfall 2 and other modern mech games aim to make piloting a giant robot as smooth and as comfortable as possible. But Steel Battalion took the opposite direction, reveling in its convoluted controls and ludicrous, 40+ button controller. Through a combination of buttons, switches, throttles, joysticks, and foot pedals, the Steel Battalion controller brought the fantasy of piloting a mech closer to realization than any game before or since. Hell, you had to flip five switches and push an ignition button at the beginning of each mission just to turn the thing on.
Wielding this thing meant you had to get into the proper mindset. While holding a controller has become so natural for many of us that we can forget we're even holding one, using the Steel Battalion controller and being forced to go through its many motions meant you simply couldn't forget.
But of all the doodads and thingamajigs present on the Steel Battalion controller, one stands above the rest as the most important, the most memorable. Forget about the knobs, forget about the triggers, but never ever forget about the emergency eject button. See, unlike the games that treat your character as some immortal demigod who can just reload the world to an earlier point or die and respawn indefinitely, Steel Battalion took its futuristic vision of warfare seriously. Deadly seriously. No, really. Like, your character could be permanently killed, very easily.
In Steel Battalion, your save file was your character. If you lost a battle but didn't eject before your walking tank went down in flames, poof! No more save file. There's a brilliant tension at work as the game forces you to decide whether your current fight is really worth the risk, then forcing you to physically act if you want to save your ass. There are plenty of games where it's fine to just throw yourself at overwhelming odds with reckless abandon, knowing that if you die, you'll just respawn and get to try all over again, no harm no foul. But with Steel Battalion, you know that eject button is there, and you fear needing to use it.
Look at it, nestled cozily underneath the plastic protective cover, pulsing with red light as you drive your mech further and further past any sane limit. Taunting you. Mocking you. "You thought you were a real big shot in all those other shooters, huh? Well get ready to press me a whole lot. And I'll tell you something: pressing me feels like being dealt the most crushing defeat you've ever been handed, and you have to accept it. Because if you don't, I'll just kill your character and you can start this game all over. So tell me punk, you feel lucky?"
Steel Battalion put you in the cockpit like no other game, and though its controller held more than 40 buttons, one stands above the rest as the pinnacle of design, a fabulous crossover between gameplay and immersion. God do I love it.
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