First Impressions: Throwing Down in Shigeru Miyamoto's Mech Maker, Project Giant Robot

A robot riot

At the very end of Nintendo’s Digital Event at this year’s E3, Shigeru Miyamoto made a brief appearance to announce that he’s been hard at work creating new games that use the Wii U’s dual-screen setup in innovative ways. One of these works-in-progress was Project Giant Robot, an experimental venture that lets players build their own skyscraper-sized robot and pilot it against a series of enemies in city-spanning, sumo-style combat. We were able to take an early demo for a test drive on the show floor, and loved what we played; Project Giant Robot is a fun, simple concept presented with charm, creativity, and a fantastically physical control scheme that feels like nothing else.

Our demo began in the Robot Lab, where we were able to assemble our ‘bot from an array of potential parts. There were several different shapes and styles to choose from for each piece — head, torso, arms, legs, hands, and feet — from Lost in Space sci-fi to retro-toy tin, classy woodgrain to modern mecha. We were able to adjust the length, width, and depth of each individual component, as well as use any piece for any part of the robot — we were free to use legs as hands and torsos as arms, for example. We ended up making a wood-bodied ‘bot with a matryoshka head, human-style hands, and the large, flat feet recommended by our Nintendo rep for balance.

We took our newly minted masterpiece through four ‘Missions’, and each one matched us up against other giant robots — all of which could be made in the in-game editor, we were told — in a fight to stay upright. Power lines cordoned off an urban arena of sorts, and we were free to stomp around and cause as much property damage as we liked while trying to topple our opponents — any robot that hit the ground would fall apart on impact, and our objective was simply to be the last one standing.

True to Miyamoto-san’s vision, the two screens in Project Giant Robot serve very different purposes, and successfully piloting our robot required making good use of both of them. The TV displays a third-person, chopper’s-eye view of the situation — complete with a “LIVE” broadcast watermark in the top-right corner — while the GamePad shows the view from inside the cockpit, with a Metroid Prime-style curved-glass effect, gridded overlay, and handy HUD cheat sheet for the controls.

Though the control scheme feels unusual at first, we came away with the distinct impression that the GamePad is the perfect way to pilot an enormous robot. Instead of moving with the left stick or a twin-stick system, you use the shoulder buttons to shuffle your robot’s feet forward or back — ‘R’ for forward, ‘L’ for back — and the GamePad’s gyroscope to tilt and twist its torso. Moving the GamePad also lets you look around with the cockpit view, aim the head-mounted lasers — fired with ‘A’ — and pull off one of the most important moves in any giant robot’s arsenal: the punch.

The left and right sticks control the left and right arms of your robot, respectively, but simply sticking your limbs out on their own isn’t very effective. To really land a punch, you have to throw the full force of your robot’s twenty-story frame behind it, by leaning into it with the GamePad and twisting the torso as you extend the arm. It’s slow, (un)steady, and delightfully analogue; with no ‘attack button’ to speak of, every successful hit becomes a visceral thrill rather than the result of a simple button press, and triumphing over our automaton adversaries felt more like winning a physical contest than beating a level in a video game.

In two of the stages we played, laser-firing enemy spheres zipped around and provided an extra challenge, as well as an excellent demonstration of the benefits of the two-screen setup. While the other giant robots were easy enough to see in our GamePad’s sights, these smaller foes swarmed in and out of view on the smaller screen; we found ourselves looking at the TV to get an idea of where they were before swinging back to the GamePad to take them out with our laser-eyes, and using both screens felt natural and easy to manage. The second screen also proved useful in targeting specific parts of our opponents. When we were in particularly close quarters with one particularly well-balanced robot, we used the GamePad’s first-person view to aim our outstretched arm into one side of its wide wooden torso, and eventually pushed it over — a triumph of precision targeting over a low centre of gravity.

What we played of Project Giant Robot was undeniably simple, but it was also incredibly appealing. Part of the fun came from getting to grips with the unique controls; our robot felt a bit unwieldy when we first picked up the GamePad, but it didn’t take long to click, and by the end of the first stage we felt like we were really piloting the mech. It’s intuitive in a way that sets it apart from alternative, otherwise-excellent giant robot games like Virtual On, and the slow, deliberate pace makes movement manageable and comical at the same time — we couldn’t help but smile while watching our robot waddle its way to victory.

We also loved the toybox aesthetic, and with vintage robots clomping around a bright, compact, near-past Japanese town, mountains in the distance and clouds drifting slowly overhead, it felt a bit like getting an up-close look at the kaijū battles from Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale. The graphics were technically sound as well, and we were particularly impressed with the lighting effects — sun shone off of panels, buildings, and ‘bots beautifully, and watching the light bounce around from different angles on the GamePad and the TV simultaneously was uniquely captivating.

Finally, a big part of what made stomping around the arenas so enjoyable was, of course, the fact that we built our robot ourselves. While waiting our turn in line, we watched several players create several vastly different robots, from lithe and long-armed machines to tightly-packed powerhouses, and one memorable Brahmā-esque ‘bot made entirely out of different heads. Since every part of the customization factors into your robot’s unique physics, each one played differently as well; our sure-footed and relatively subdued creation was easy to keep upright, for example, but we really had to lean into our punches to knock anyone over with our modestly-sized arms. The player before us, however, had built a giant-handed goliath, and relied on a strategy of flailing their robot’s limbs around and hoping to hit the enemy before being brought down by the weight of their own massive mitts. Another attendee hit on an equally creative technique, assembling a short, squat, supremely stable robot, and ramming into opponents at the kneecaps to bring them tumbling down. The variety in builds and play-styles was impressive, and made for a popular spectating experience as well — each time we passed Project Giant Robot screen at E3, there were two groups of people gathered around the kiosk: one line waiting eagerly for their chance to play, and another group just happy to watch the robot parade.

We still know very little about Nintendo’s future plans for Project Giant Robot — whether it will be expanded into a full game, released as an eShop title, or integrated into another game entirely — but however it eventually reaches our Wii U systems, we’ll definitely be excited to build another ‘bot and jump back in. This demo we played was an excellent showcase for the GamePad’s concept and capabilities, but more importantly it was also loads of fun to play; we loved the customization, creative controls, and simple, enjoyable, sumo-inspired action. There’s plenty of potential in Miyamoto-san’s latest creation, along with a timely reminder of the way Nintendo makes games: Project Giant Robot’s primary directive is to amuse and delight, and it certainly succeeds in its mission.

Be sure to check out our other hands on features from E3 and the post-E3 event in London:

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