At last, the Dome Screen
By Alex Kierkegaard / February 8, 2007
The night before the new Gundam game started hitting arcades across Japan I was going round in Akihabara, visiting my favorite joints for some Mushi Futari and After Burner Climax action. Though I was vaguely aware that the release of this beast of a game was approaching, it had somehow fallen off my radar, what with the excitement surrounding all the recent brand-new fighters and shooters. So when I noticed that some of the big places like Leisure Land and Hey were clearing up huge amounts of space, I failed to make the connection. And let me tell you, it was quite unsettling walking into these legendary game centers and seeing the staff rounding up loads of cabs and carting them off to God knows where.
The next day it all became clear, much to my relief. Kidou Senshi Gundam: Senjou no Kizuna (Mobile Suit Gundam: Bonds of the Battlefield) takes up as much space as a dozen cabs I reckon, and given how tight floor space is in Japanese arcades casualties were to be expected. It was mainly old games which were thrown out, and though they will be missed, at least their replacement is something genuinely exciting. Senjou no Kizuna consists of four huge spherical pods each roughly the size of Sega's R360: G-LOC (1990), all connected to a pilot's terminal featuring an IC card dispenser, a touch screen, and a large plasma display. Detailed instructions can usually be found stuck to the walls next to it; promotional leaflets are available; lines are forming all day long. It's clear to even ignorant passerbys that this game must be the arcade event of the year.
One thing I want to admit right away is that I haven't yet tried playing it. This is not the kind of game where you sit down for five minutes, pop in 100 yen and give it a go. You need the 300-yen "pilot's card" just to get started, and each session costs 500 yen (in comparison, a go at the Commander cabinet of After Burner Climax is 200 yen -- and that is considered an expensive game). If I were to spend that amount of money on Cave shooters, at a 50 yen arcade, I could be playing for over two-three hours! Now I will certainly play Kizuna extensively at some point and review it, but there are still several other arcade games I am working on, so now is not yet the time for me to delve too deeply into this. However I did spend a couple hours watching games in progress on the plasma screen, and I was even invited to sit inside a pod and make a video of the thing in action (see sidebar), so I got a pretty good idea of what it's all about.
And it's all about that Dome Screen, which works its magic via a front projector mounted somewhere over the pilot's seat. This throws an image on the curved surface in front of you which covers your field of vision, and, combined with the set of sticks and pedals at your disposal, gives you the impression that you are inside the cockpit of a mobile suit. It's a damn cool idea, and a dream come true for the all legions of Japanese Gundam fans.
The game itself, however, is not revolutionary in concept, as one might imagine just by looking at all this impressive hardware. It seems to work like an extemely basic deathmatch game, with players forming into two teams of four and battling it out on a variety of maps. I find it very amusing that these dudes are having so much fun with a game whose concept is purely Western in origin, and not even realizing it. This goes to show that the only thing Western developers need in order to succeed in Japan is the right presentation, and, well, lots of expensive space-age machinery (Taito was the first company to demonstrate this, with their recent arcade interpretation of Valve's Half-Life 2).
Every Senjou no Kizuna pod across Japan is connected online, so most of the players in a game aren't even in the same arcade. What's cool is that next to each player's name you can see which arcade they are located in. Me and the extremely accommodating pilot who took me for a ride were at Leisure Land, and towards the end of the video you can clearly see that two of the other players were at Hey arcade, just a block away, and another one was at the Akihabara GIGO, again quite close to our location. Other players were in game centers I'd never even heard of.
It's worth mentioning that Kizuna's controls resemble those depicted in the early Gundam anime series, and that it's far simpler to play than its intimidating appearance suggests. One pedal is used for jumping and the other for lateral boosting, whereas the sticks control movement and the triggers fire the various weapons. The whole thing seems easy to pick up, and if you have any experience in the Virtual On series my guess is you won't even need to read the instructions.
When I left Leisure Land my interest in this game had waned, I must admit. The designers clearly went overboard with the hardware, but they balanced this out by just recycling a simple, decade-old game concept, instead of innovating in that area as well. Of course I am still glad that they invented the Dome Screen, because this is the sort of direction arcades need to move towards in the future -- you know, stuff that there's no way you can get at home. But the panoramic screen of Kizuna, like the moving seat of Climax before it, is just not enough to do the trick by itself, I am afraid. Deeper and more engrossing games will be needed in the future.