Most mecha games offer a pre-set ride of choice with a suitably fixed weapon load out to boot. Affording the opportunity to literally create your own mecha from disparate component parts, isn’t something that was widely available to gamers back in 1997.
This is where From Software saw an opportunity and after their King’s Field games on the PSone, they thought they had the technology to pull it off. However, to create cogent mecha designs that could be literally built from component parts would require a unique talent. That talent manifested itself in the increasingly versatile Shoji Kawamori, who created a slew of base designs in the knowledge they would be disassembled into disparate parts. Thus the original Armored Core was born.
As a game, the original Armored Core was really quite groundbreaking. Not only could it allow players to build mecha practically from scratch but it afforded a refreshingly manual control setup. It was also fast, really fast. After the slugging behemoths from MechWarrior, the Armored Cores (or ACs) felt like highly tuned sports cars. Sports cars that packed almost preposterously potent weaponry.
The game was set in a far off dystopian future where humanity had ventured under ground after the suitably apocalyptic events of the Great Destruction, rendering the surface of our planet pretty much inhospitable. Over time corporations formed that created the backbone of human society, unfortunately their inevitable and petty rivalry resulted in a new conflict. To match the ratcheting up of military might, muscle tracers (or MTs) were created – a new form of mechanical war machine that was more potent and versatile than previous traditional military vehicles. However, the fixed purpose of each MT rendered them awkward in certain combat situations. The solution to this was to build a cored MT with customisable parts surrounding it, thus the Armored Core was created.
Due to the high maintenance cost of each AC, the corporations had to outsource the use of these machines to mercenaries known as Ravens. This is where the player came in. Taking on the role of an unnamed Raven bent on revenge, the player took on various missions from corporations in order to earn money and ultimately find out how deep the rabbit hole went.
The setup was simple and forced a focused discipline on the player. As every round and hit taken would cost money, as such there was a fiscal onus on the player to learn how to be efficient in combat and learn to be where enemy fire wasn’t. This then fed into the customisation, as new parts could then be bought and utilised. Whilst many have stated that the original Armored Core is a game of two disparate halves (customisation and combat) the truth is that both these elements are intrinsically intertwined. In that, a well wrought design fit for a mission’s purpose would allow the player to be more efficient in combat, in turn earning more money and allowing for further customisation opportunities.
The only issue with this gaming ecosystem, was how the combat controls were handled. Admittedly, the game was released prior to the dual analogue capable DualShock but the means in which the player was expected to track targets – often very nimble ones at that – was by a particularly obtuse control setup.
Specifically, the ability to look up and down was mapped to R2 and L2 (coupled with with left and right strafe on L1 and R1). Whilst the buttons could be remapped, this somehwat thorough approach caused a noticeable spike in the initial learning curve for new players. That said, despite this hurdle, the game found a large fanbase eager to learn the controls for these new mecha. If anything, mastering this control setup almost acted in a rather odd and indirect way into making the player feel more like a pilot than a mere gamer.
As with all learning curves though, the game was more than playable given enough practice. Back when functional standardisation was a far off mundane nightmare, Armored Core was able to approach the genre with something new and expected players to make the effort to appreciate that.
From the extensive number of missions to a very cogent multiplayer setup, Armored Core was a very versatile game. Even the wonderfully enigmatic narrative, told in a somewhat voyeuristic manner via e-mail, beautifully framed the player’s context as a hard nosed mercenary. It all coalesced and managed to distill an interesting dystopian take on the real robot mythos, something that had very obvious and welcome shades of Ryōsuke Takahashi’s work.
Unsurprisingly, its subsequent influence has been far reaching as the mecha genre often references the original Armored Core a great deal. As such it has become a functional cornerstone for the genre as whole. As much as that seems to mystify the somewhat parochial Western gaming press, the original game sold very well across the globe and the multitude of progeny it birthed are still with us to this day.
It’s rare to be able to point at a single mecha game and follow the lineage of its legacy back to the source. Armored Core is one of these such games, a unique entry into the vaulted hangars of mecha and one that has shaped the genre for over a decade. That makes it so very special.
[spoiler show=”Final Mission”]