Retro robo rumbles: Remote Control Dandy

Human Entertainment’s output over the years can be politely described as interesting, encompassing everything from rightfully lauded classics to games that should be rounded up, encased in cement, then abandoned at the bottom of the sea. So where does their 1999 ‘Robot Control Action Game’ Remote Control Dandy fall in this broad spectrum? Let’s take a look.

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Like Patlabor: Game Edition Dandy’s neatly compartmentalised into distinct visual novel and 3D battle sections with events unfolding in a completely linear fashion, your only real influence between skirmishes coming down to deciding which upgrades to buy for your small selection of jet, coal, nuclear, and battery powered giant robots. A quick glance over their designs reveals a game that’s clearly meant as a love letter to classic robo-manga like Tetsujin 28, right down to the young boy operating his inherited machine via remote control, and… this is where it all starts to fall apart.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The storytelling parts are visually of a high quality, using character artwork that boasts animated transitions between their various (also animated) expressions and actions. It’s a small but important detail you don’t realise you’ve been missing until a game that’s mostly about fighting robots comes along to show everyone else how it’s done, and I can’t think of a single game that uses this sort of ‘waist up, talking directly at the screen’ layout that wouldn’t be better off for copying Dandy’s approach here. Unfortunately the same high quality doesn’t extend to the writing, with all the glorious genre hallmarks like evil relatives and sudden alerts at inconvenient moments consistently dragged down by a young lead who starts most of his sentences with ‘…’ and ends the rest of them with ‘…yeah.’. One morose robo-pilot's enough to last anyone a lifetime, and the lead ‘hero’ here does too good a job of killing the mood, aided by equally scene-destroying tutorial-spewing scientists and shouty women chiding him over the radio for damaging Tokyo’s skyline.

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Once you reach the bit of the game you parted with money to experience you’ll find yourself butting up against endless interactive tutorials that cover everything from delivering devastating hammer blows (fun) to walking forwards (not so much fun) – unfortunately something of a necessary evil as the control scheme is both Dandy’s biggest gimmick and also it’s greatest flaw.

I’m sure we’ve all played games with fiddly mech controls before - Virtual On has never been considered an easy game to get to grips with and Steel Battalion is either the zenith or nadir of robo-warrior manipulation depending on how you feel about the vast array of buttons, knobs, and switches on its enormous three panel controller – but Dandy adds a surprising layer of tedium to what should be the highlight of the game by forcing you to literally order each leg as an individual unit to left/right/left in slow laborious strides just to move forward in a straight line. Backing up requires the same individual leg orders as before, but this time using L2/R2 rather than L1/R1. Turning isn’t done ‘tank’ style (L1/R2 or R1/L2) but by pressing down both shoulder buttons on one side to circle to the left or right respectively. This also takes forever and will no doubt result in some damage to the surrounding buildings as you stomp/adjust/stomp/back up/adjust/finally go where you want to go, and that damage will be deducted from the money awarded at the end of the mission.

The opening mission does little to make you feel like you’re being overly critical of this unique control scheme, featuring as it does a stationary truck leaden with explosives that will detonate if stepped on, instantly failing the mission. It sounds simple enough on paper - all you have to do is walk towards the truck, crouch down, pick it up (arms are also separate limbs on the controller, and the d-pad is used to freely rotate the upper torso), then walk to a nearby designated area to allow the bomb to detonate safely – a straightforward job that somehow still takes an eternity to execute thanks to the perfect hell of awkward controls tied to an incredibly unhelpful camera system and topped of with a maddeningly slow pace. An uncomfortable truth dawns on you soon after - moving jet-powered giant robot Vordan around isn’t some quaint ‘retro’ idea or an interesting but imprecise mechanic, it’s a bloody chore. Even moving around empty streets with no enemies or obstacles in sight is a huge faff of constant repositioning (yourself, and the camera, and Vordan), accidental damage to everything around as you slightly mis-judge Vordan’s angle, and the sinking realisation that you’ve spent five minutes doing something that in any other giant robot game would’ve taken five seconds. Dandy is a slave to the shows the designers clearly adored in their youth and there’s nothing wrong that in principle, but at the same time the game’s living proof that not every good manga makes for a good game.

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The idea of controlling a giant robot via remote isn’t all bad though, and the idea of having to switch between all-powerful robot and extremely squishy human scurrying out of the way while massive robots duke it out is an interesting one, if only the end result wasn’t you starring as the world’s most rubbish camera angle in a game that’s supposed to be about you bravely saving Japan from mysterious evil robots. Gazing up at your shining behemoth makes for some fantastic screenshots (and Human’s metallic-effect textures are absolutely stunning) but they’re not all that useful it you want to see where you’re going, where your opponent’s going, or for doing much other than gazing up at giant robots. So the obvious solution is to move your sullen little boy character further away… which often leads to the action being obscured by a tree or safety barrier, and reducing what should have been an exciting metal-on-metal tussle for the safety of Tokyo to a backyard scrap at the opposite end of an empty street.

Remote Control Dandy is ultimately a game that never commits to any of its central ideas strongly enough for you to forgive the game its weaknesses: It doesn’t revel in its retro setting the way games like Supercharged Robot VULKAISER do, yet still clings tightly enough to its classic-era ideals to refuse to replace the laborious control scheme with something more to do with knocking evil robots flat on their backs than learning how to turn a corner without decimating a set of luxury apartments. Simply copying the past for the sake of it is not enough, and the central hook of hand-controlling a robot isn’t complex enough to feel as satisfying as learning how to fire up Steel Battalion’s VTs and yet also fails to offer the more immediate thrills of Zone of the Enders Jehuty or Assault Suits Valken’s, um, Valken. It’s entirely fair to say that there are many PlayStation games - import or otherwise - worse than Remote Control Dandy; yet when your game’s on a format that hosts everything from truly bizarre gems to all-time classics it doesn’t take much effort to find one better either.