To commemorate Steampunk Month at Tor, I thought I would wrangle up a list of some of cool games in the Steampunk setting. Given the elusive definition of steampunk, your mileage may vary, but I’ve greatly enjoyed all 4 of the games on this list, and I feel that each of them has contributed to the expression of steampunk in gaming in their own ways. This list is by no means comprehensive, more to get folks in the mood, so feel free to chime in with comments about your own favorite steampunk games.
I’ll try to keep this as relatively spoiler free as possible, but readers should be prepared for minor spoilers.
Final Fantasy VI (Squaresoft, 1994)
Okay, this one is a bit of a no-brainer, but up until its release on the SNES in 1994, Final Fantasy games had more or less restricted themselves to medieval fantasy-like settings with the occasional airship thrown in. In FFVI, however, the steampunk setting isn’t just the backdrop for the action, it actually provides the primary plot impetus, as the world’s technological advancement comes only at the cost of worldwide warfare. The plot develops around harsh, lever-and-piston oriented technology called MagiTek, powered by stolen magical energy, and used in a brutal campaign of world-domination by an Empire built around the abuse of technological power.
One of the things I like about this game was how, as opposed to the relatively character-centric plots of other FF games, each of the regular characters contributes their own perspective to an overall tapestry of events set in motion by the war. Terra struggles to find a balance between the bioweapon she was trained to be and the person she was capable of being. Locke’s
thieving treasure-hunting ways are both an expression of his acceptance of the current status quo as well as his desire to overcome it. Edgar, king of techno-utopia Figaro, represents a kind of technological purity, demonstrating that the corruption of the Empire stemmed from its lust for power, not the machines it used for war. And that’s just three of twelve.
If, somehow, you’re reading this and haven’t had a chance to play Final Fantasy VI, you may be a little out of luck. Though Square re-released FFVI on the PlayStation in 1999, and on the GBA in 2006, both releases are well out of production, and are only available from out-of-print vendors for exorbitant prices or as a lucky find in Gamestop’s used pile. There are other, ah, romantic options, but you should probably do your own research on those.
SkyGunner (Atlus Games, 2002)
Released on the PS2 in 2002, SkyGunner is a 3D-dogfighting simulator set in a quirky, cartoon world where planes look like hybrid re-designs of the Wright brothers’ plane with WWII-era propeller planes powered by steam-powered clock-engines strapped to the back. In a high-tech, low-tech pastel world, the only thing standing between Ventre’s zeppelin air-fleet and world-domination is Ciel and his two friends, Femme and Copain, but even Ciel may not be enough to defeat the world’s best pilot, Rival (yes, yes, I know, the names hurt).
While this game is far from the deepest, or most technically impressive, game that I’ve ever played, its dedication to its own quirkiness and focus on creating a light-hearted, yet fast-paced, atmosphere went a long way towards endearing it to me. Hunting down war zeppelins with bizarre, clockwork flying contraptions is entertaining enough. Throw in missiles that resemble flying champagne cork-removers that sink into their targets then explode when you shoot them? Pure genius.
Like FFVI, SkyGunner is no longer generally available, but can be purchased from rare game vendors at very high prices. Folks with modded/Japanese PS2s with easy access to Japanese game vendors in your local Chinatown/Little Tokyo may have a little more luck picking this up at a reasonable used price.
Rise of Legends (Big Huge Games, 2006)
Rise of Legends is the relatively unknown sequel to the 2003 real-time strategy hit, Rise of Nations. Moving away from RoN’s Civilization-inspired setup historically-accurate setting, Rise of Legends instead depicted a fantasy world caught in the throes of a three-way low-intensity war between the Vinci, an industrial steampunk civilization whose technology was inspired by (you guessed it) DaVinci, the Alin, a magical civilization based on Arabic/Middle-Eastern mythology, and the Cuotl, an alien-human civilization whose technology and visual design greatly resembles ancient Mayan architecture.
Interestingly, while RoL follows RTS standard practice in having the player assume control over all three factions as the single-player campaign progresses, the game focuses around a single main character, Giacomo of Vici, whose technological, and even biological, capabilities change as the story continues. The plot focuses on how an ancient alien starship went down over the planet, breaking into 3 pieces, each of which helped influence the birth of the three civilizations.
While only one of the civilizations is definitively steampunk, one of the recurring themes in the game in the adoption and modification of anachronistic knowledge to develop advances far beyond what any of the three civilizations would have developed normally. Within each faction, different sub-factions are involved in gaining control of this knowledge, and it falls to Giacomo to determine who this interplay falls out.
Rise of Legends was released for Windows, and should be available through most retail outlets.
Penny-Arcade: On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness (Hothead Games, 2008)
Released in two separate episodes in 2008 on
Xbox Live Arcade almost every major platform under the sun, Penny-Arcade: On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness is a delightful blend of turn-based role-play, twitch gaming, Lovecraftian settings, and the irreverent, often crude, humor that the Penny-Arcade webcomic is known for.
The game’s plot enlists the player, as a custom-created avatar using comic artist Mike Krahulik’s style, as a miserable victim of circumstance, caught in the crossfire between the dark agents of the, ah, fruitful unknown and paranormal Victorian-age investigators Gabe and Tycho. Feeling maybe a mild ounce of guilt for their part in your debilitating circumstances, Gabe and Tycho bring the player along with them in their quest to stop the root of all (as they see it) evil.
This game is like one giant meta-anachronism; battles use a simple turn-based gameplay, but special moves all require a familiarity with twitch-based gameplay more regularly found in Mario Party and Warioware. The setting of the game is clearly Victorian-age America, but filled with modern pop culture references. Some characters speak in late-19th, early-20th century lingo, while others (Gabe in particular) don’t even bother. The fact that the characters are more or less genre aware (and some even seem aware that they’re in a game) lends a lot to the overall atmosphere. And the mimes, oh god, the mimes.
This is an easy $15 price (per episode) for folks who are fans of RPGs and Penny-Arcade. This is really the boys at their best. The gameplay is fun, the story is giggle-worthy, and the pop culture jokes are cackle-inducing.
Folks who don’t like (or don’t care about) Penny-Arcade may not be as amused, but I highly recommend getting the demo for whatever platform you prefer, and then make your decision from there.
That's it for my quick list, but that was hardly every decent steampunk game that’s come out, even recently. If you’ve got other notables you’d like to chime in with, or would like to debate the suitability of what makes a game a “steampunk game” (Bioshock is getting its own post, just to head that one off :P), please leave a comment below.
David Pucik wishes he had a giant steam-powered zeppellin with a clock-work computer console, but is afraid it might not meet the min reqs for the latest games.