Editorial: Celebrating 10 Years of Steambot Chronicles
A Decade of Great Romantic Junk
05.26.16 - 5:26 PM
Picture, if you will, an Open World Mech Combat Long-Haul Trucker Action RPG VS Billiards Adventure that's also a Musical. It sounds like I'm just pulling your leg — an overly complicated joke born from a games-related issue of Mad Libs — but it's very real.
On May 23rd 2006, Atlus introduced Western audiences to a little-known Playstation 2 adventure from Irem called Steambot Chronicles. Known as Ponkotsu Roman Daikatsugeki: Bumpy Trot ("Great Romantic Junk Adventure: Bumpy Trot") in Japan, Steambot Chronicles was advertised as a cute and colorful take on the mech combat genre, but defining it as such would do it a great disservice: It is, in fact, a deep and complex open world adventure the likes of which had never been seen before, and hasn't been seen since. Allowing players the choice to follow the main story, go exploring, or just build a quiet life in town, Steambot Chronicles is game that proudly defies classification into one genre.
Taking place in an idyllic 1920s-style world that, having recently finished its industrial revolution, has started to settle into modernity, Steambot Chronicles shows us a society in which steam-powered, manually-driven bipedal vehicles called Trotmobiles have become commonplace. As those familiar with Mecha fiction would expect, Trotmobiles are employed by law enforcement and the military to keep the peace, but in an unusual turn for the genre, they're also used for any number of functions and services, including firefighting, logging, construction and even everyday civilian use.
The protagonist, Vanilla Beans, is one such civilian, who finds himself in possession of an abandoned Trotmobile after waking up on a beach without his memory. Vanilla's textbook amnesia isn't just a plot device in this case, as it also functions to allows the player to tailor his personality to their liking, and occasionally even fill in the details of his past. The choices are myriad — Vanilla can be played as an all around good guy, a jerk, a hopeless romantic or a naive wimp. Vanilla's attitude will affect his reputation around town and how other plot-centric characters will react to him.
Vanilla soon becomes fast friends with a young singer named Coriander (Connie, for short) and her band, the Garland Globetrotters. Vanilla joins them briefly to play harmonica at their concert, and from there the game opens up, allowing the player to follow the Globetrotters as they trot across the country, or pursue any number of activities. Vanilla can compete in arena battles, excavate fossils to donate to the museum, trade goods between towns and out-of-the-way outposts, and even run a taxi service, complete with the opportunity to run into a spooky phantom hitchhiker. Steambot Chronicles is perhaps the only game to date that has ever shown us this quiet and dignified civilian aspect of Mecha, and it happens to be a very enticing and charming portrayal indeed.
Your Trotmobile has a wealth of customization options available that can offer a range of valuable functions. As long as you have the cash, you can supply and fit an assortment of melee weapons or firearms to get the upper hand in the arena or against the bandits outside town. There's also a range of options with more specialized effects: There's the drill for the aforementioned excavation, but you can also outfit your Trotmobile with a ship's hull to allow sailing across bodies of water, a fold-out stage for the Globetrotters to perform atop, a donation box for when Vanilla's fallen on hard times, or a cuckoo clock for... well, why not?
Despite "Steambot" being right in the game's title, Steambot Chronicles doesn't limit the player to 'bot-related activities: If you'd prefer to see what's happening in one of the game's three large cities, you can park your Trotmobile and take to the town square on foot, or by penny-farthing, to play pool against a host of opponents, take up busking, play the stock market. buy a fancy suit, get an afro, become a journalist, cook a meal, or rent and decorate an apartment and invite a lucky lady over for an intimate session of ear swabbing (er, don't ask).
The amount of side content in Steambot Chronicles is absolutely staggering, and players who opt not to stray from the critical path are sure to miss the game's best and most unique content. Unlocking the ability to traverse water alone opens up a number of varied sidequests: You can dive deep into a watery ruin, fighting through a procedurally-generated dungeon in search of treasure and secret bosses, or sail across the sea to an isolationist village untouched by modern technology, where you can convince the mayor to allow a new railroad to connect it to the rest of the world.
That's not to say that the main quest isn't just as complicated and content rich: Vanilla and friends eventually learn of a hidden society called the Bloody Mantis, a terrorist cell with designs on a violent coup d'etat. The Bloody Mantis take center stage as the main antagonists of Steambot Chronicles, as Connie and the Globetrotters ask you to band together to stop this menace before it does any real damage. That doesn't mean you're obliged to listen to them; in fact, Vanilla can join the Bloody Mantis, to spend the rest of the plot carrying out villainous actions, culminating in a violent siege of the nation's capital. This choice has some severe consequences, which you'll have to live with, however it's fascinating that Steambot Chronicles allows Vanilla to go full villain, and provides a lengthy campaign, to boot.
On a technical level, Steambot Chronicles was, unfortunately, a total mess. Rough even at the time of its release, the game was plagued by constant framerate dips and slowdown. Perhaps worst of all, the game's world was just too big for its engine: Although it appears vast and open, each area in Steambot Chronicles is divided up into small chunks, each separated by a significant load time. Getting from one end of a city to the other will result in no less than five load screens, which can be a bit exhausting, especially if you find that you've accidentally gone the wrong way. Still, what it lacks in technical expertise it makes up for in oodles of charm, and going "the wrong way" might just introduce you to an out-of-the-way NPC with a quest for you.
Steambot Chronicles enjoyed a quiet cult following in the West, but was evidently successful enough in Japan to warrant a sequel. Bumpy Trot 2 was first announced for Playstation 2 at Tokyo Game Show 2006, before development was shifted over to the Playstation 3 the following year. Trailers for the game were screened both years, which showed a boy and a girl piloting a Trotmobile through a snowy landscape to reach a wintry city and stop in at a cozy tavern. Bumpy Trot 2 seemed to improve on Steambot Chronicles in every way, offering all of the things fans loved about the first game, alongside added activities that included skiing, deep sea diving, fishing and firefighting, among others.
Ominously, after the 2007 trailer, all news on Bumpy Trot 2's development went silent. Director Kazuma Kujo occasionally chimed in that the game was still being worked on, though no further screenshots or trailers would be released. Finally, in early 2011, Irem announced that they would be cancelling Kujo's other major project, earthquake survival game Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 4 (Disaster Report/Raw Danger) as a sign of sensitivity to those affected by the recent Tōhoku Earthquake. A few scant weeks after ZZT4's cancellation, Irem revealed that they would be cancelling all in-development games, including Bumpy Trot 2, as they transitioned into the Pachislot industry. A sad end for a game that looked to hold much promise.
Although its fully-fledged sequel was canned, Steambot Chronicles did receive two spin-off titles for PSP before the franchise was put to rest. The first, Blokus Portable: Steambot Championship, was a tie-in between Mattel's titular board game and Steambot Chronicles. A minimized version of the Japan-only PS2 game Blokus Club with Bumpy Trot, Blokus Portable locks the protagonist in a hotel resembling RPG Maker's default assets, in which the cast of Steambot Chronicles have assembled to take part in a Blokus tournament (think Tetris meets Reversi with four players). One wonders how this baffling and disparate mix of commercial properties came about, but considering how bizarre Steambot Chronicles is, it's almost fitting.
The second spin-off, Steambot Chronicles: Battle Tournament, was a much more appropriate use of the license: You play a young man or woman who has ventured to Orion City to take part in its titular tournament. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the PSP, there's little more to it than that. Although Battle Tournament added ad-hoc four player battles, where's the fun if you're not hauling barrels of clothes dye from one end of the country to the other, stopping at a farm to eat potatoes along the way? Battle Tournament did have a small city to explore and many sidequests to complete, but the cut-down nature of its design lacked much of what made Steambot Chronicles so special.
Seeing how hard they pushed it in Japan, Irem seemed to have a lot of faith in Steambot Chronicles as a franchise, which makes it doubly sad that they chose to cancel its true sequel. However, all hope of seeing a new Steambot Chronicles one day is not lost: In late 2014, Kazuma Kujo revealed that he was able to purchase the rights to Zettai Zetsumei Toshi from Irem. In November 2015, against all odds, Kujo's studio Granzella formally announced the remake of ZZT4 for PS4. Although there's been no word on a Steambot Chronicles revival, stranger things have happened, and you never know what the future might hold for Granzella and Kujo.
Most open world games today, though technically impressive, are satisfied to base their player verb-sets around driving or killing, with little in between. Steambot Chronicles and its wealth of diverse, nonviolent activities, on the other hand, dared to be different in a way that its contemporaries still do not. Though it was not always successful in what it set out to do, Steambot Chronicles remains as one-of-a-kind today as it was in 2006.