Oct 8 2009 5:53pm

Steampunk Gaming: Getting in the Mood

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.

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Joshua Pfeiffer
1. VernianProcess
Oh no... no mention of Skies of Arcadia? Probably the only JRPG to feature airship combat as a regular feature. Not to mention, the general aesthetic of just about everything in the game falling into a alternate 19th Century style. Shame shame... ;)

All of the Arcanum fanboys will shortly be leaving you their thoughts as well I predict. =)
Cameo Wood
2. Cameo Wood
I hope that tor covers the amazing adventure game Syberia.

An amazingly beautiful art nouveau steampunk game, this is the most immersive steampunk experience I know of.
David Pucik
3. Notmaker
For purposes of length, I kept it to 4 games that I was very familiar with and happy recommending, which I why I'm encouraging folks to write in with their own suggestions and favorites.

I may add a second post with more games and less details if folks request a more generalized shout-out of games.
Joshua Pfeiffer
4. VernianProcess
Oh I know, I was just teasing you. I am thinking of posting a blog with my favorite Steampunk tv show, game, movie, book, and song, or something like that in a few days.
David Pucik
5. Notmaker
Valkyria Chronicles (same developer) is actually in my gamefly queue. If they send it to me in a timely fashion, I be able to review it in time for the month's end. ;)
Joshua Pfeiffer
6. VernianProcess
Valkyria Chronicles was one of the best games made in the past ten years. I played and replayed it multiple times. The anime that is based on it is equally excellent!
Ian Tregillis
7. ITregillis
Arcanum has a nice steampunky aesthetic, too. Why, I'm wearing the Chapeau of Magnetic Inversion right now!
Cameo Wood
8. Harry Connolly
There are also free casual games like Dirk Valentine and the Fortress of Steam, a puzzle/platform game where you have to rescue the Queen from the Baron Battenberg's floating mega-destroyer or whatever.
Alejandro Melchor
9. Al-X
"Thief", IIRC, also started the stealth infiltration genre.

"World of Warcraft", which I've been hooked on again after freeing my soul from it's hungry clutches... the races' technology has been steadily advancing over the game's life, best shown in the Engineering trade skill, where players were later able to build themselves rickety gyrocopters, motorcycles, and explosive sheep... There's airships, a contaminated technodungeon, eerie blends of steam tech and necromancy
David Pucik
10. Notmaker
@ Al-X:

I thought about WoW for a bit to include on this list (since my soul is similarly snared), but given the pre-dominantly Fantasy-theme of the game, it seemed like there were better choices.

Now, if the rumoured expansion about the Titans returning ever drops....
Cameo Wood
11. T-Boy
Might a bit too oldschool for all of you, but hey, this is free:

Retro gaming form, being host to post-modern retro-futuristic fun, with a shot of Kaballah thrown in.

A little hard to get into, relatively short, but considering the fact that it's the work of one guy... pretty good.
Cameo Wood
12. Coamihe
I'm surprised no one has mentioned NeoSteam by Atlus. It's a Steampunk/Fantasy MMO...
David Pucik
13. Notmaker

That game sounds extremely cool. Nice find!


How did I miss this one? So many games, so little time... :P
Luke M
14. lmelior
Loved, loved, loved Skies of Arcadia and Valkyria Chronicles.

Okay, so I suck at recognizing genre games, but I think Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge on Xbox was pretty well steampunk. It was an arcade flight-style game set in an alternative 1930's with lots of zeppelins and various unusual planes, including one that used a Tesla coil as a weapon. Great dogfighting action, and the best reason to have had Xbox Live that didn't start with "Halo."

Luca from Chrono Trigger was steampunk.
Cameo Wood
15. Durandal
Yeah, I'll second that nod to Syberia. Lovely game.

I'd actually say that much of the Myst series has been decidedly steampunk-ish. Lots of gears and widgets, and everything has a sort of handmade-with-Victorian-era-technology vibe to it.

And there's a list as long as my arm of games that aren't straight-up steampunk, but have steamy elements to them -- the Dwarven culture in Morrowind was totally steampunk, for instance, and there's a good few steampunk touches in Thief: Deadly Shadows.
Justin Adair
16. Hobbyns
One of my favorite indie PC games that had pleasing steampunkesque visuals was Project Nomads. The flying machines are very cool and the mixture of machine and magic-style things you could build made for a memorable steampunk experience.
Cameo Wood
17. Drillerty
ooh Crimson skies... anyone wanna play?
Scott Raun
18. sraun
I tend to forget that, on-line, the default "game" is usually "computer game".

Are there any board, card, or role-playing games that any of you would consider steampunk? The only thing that comes to mind for me is Castle Falkenstein, and it's not quite.
Cameo Wood
19. Tom Scudder
sraun: My pencil & paper game knowledge is about a decade old, but I can think of a couple forthrightly steampunk rpgs: Space 1889 and Forgotten Futures. FF has pretty much always been available mainly from its creator on line in various formats; I have no idea what happend to Space: 1889. Also, I'm 99% sure there was a Gurps Steampunk out there.
Jasyn Jones
20. Aperios
Re: GURPS Steampunk

Not just a GURPS Steampunk, but GURPS SteamTech, a manual full of various steampunk gadgets, from guns to robots to mecha. This included gadgets from various Tech levels, including Clockpunk, tech based on wind-up springs and gears instead of coal/steam.

There was also GURPS Scream-Punk, what happens when Gothic Horror meets Steampunk.
Cameo Wood
21. webcam
One of the best things about the steampunk community is that it’s very grassroots-based. Small groups mushroom here and there, people get together to hang out and share ideas, and on the whole, there’s a focus on having fun.

Rob Trotter
22. shadar
@1 had it right. Arcanum probably should have been on this list.
Cameo Wood
25. texduran
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I came across your profile during a search and was impressed with your varied Online Marketing/Gaming background and wanted to reach out to you and network for a Social Gaming Data Analyst position we have open at that may be of interest to you or someone in your network.

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Melissa Duran
Cameo Wood
26. Eden10412
I would probably say that 'Resonance of Fate' is fairly steampunk in some way. It doesn't have the 19th century influence, since it is more dystopian, but there is a lot of similar technology (in my opinion)

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