There are many contenders for the greatest mech sim of all time, but Steel Battalion for the original Xbox has amassed a remarkably intense and devoted following due to the sheer fidelity of its simulation. I refer not so much to the gameplay as to its monster of a controller- 39 big buttons and flashy lights, every last one of which has some important purpose in the game. There’s nothing quite like it- which perhaps explains why twenty years later, the Steel Battalion Online community is still going strong with players from all over the world.

The original Steel Battalion is an interesting oddity, but only a single player again. While many people have heard of it, not so many know that there was a multiplayer themed sequel, Steel Battalion: Line of Contact, with significant changes to the core mechanics beyond just the addition of a multiplayer mode. Fighting with other mechs is now more of a martial arts contest than a shooting one, and the various mechs, or VT for vertical tank, now have substantially different playstyles. A campaign doesn’t just involve fighting, but resource management as players within factions must negotiate with each other over what VTs they want to bring into battle for what purpose, and making sure that as many heavily damaged VTs as possible can limp back to base lest their destruction deal a critical hit to the greater campaign.

The 2004 release only had a year and a half of play for the original Xbox’s official life cycle, even if Xbox Live continued through to 2010. Steel Battalion: Line of Contact left a strong memory on those who had the chance to play it, due to the social emphasis that multiplayer mode puts on skill in terms of mastering the controller and communication with teammates in order to make effective forms of attack.

After 2010, though, playing Steel Battalion: Line of Contact online became a bit more difficult. TheBestaMasta was inspired to create the Steel Battalion XLink Kai Facebook group after seeing continued interest in Steel Battalion multiplayer matches at PAX. By using XLink Kai to tunnel LAN games for System Link mode, members of the group could set up weekly game nights and continue to play. The development of Insignia.Live to serve as a replacement for Xbox Live allowed aficionados of this eras of gaming to recreate all of Steel Battalion: Line of Contact’s original features. Some 1500 members at present are spread across Facebook, Reddit, and Discord- though many are just lurkers who like to keep up to date with what the community is doing.

Steel Battalion: Line of Contact encourages this sentiment, not necessarily for a feature of the game so much as a lack of it- there’s no random matchmaking, as was common for online games at the time. Though random matchmaking is certainly more convenient for players, by its design, it obfuscates the fact that you are playing a game with other actual people. The sheer effort required to organize Steel Battalion: Line of Contact games thus forces an emphasis on friendship and teamwork.

It’s only through the sheer focus of a group like this that the group both learned of and was available to purchase the Prototype controller, a critical missing link in understanding how the game’s complex mechanics work. Another big step in Steel Battalion studies came from RazorStoJ’s efforts to locate an original debug kit- as luck would have it, the creator of the Big Steel Battalion Box had a copy of the debug files in a password protected rar file. The community eventually managed to force their way through it to restore the lost functionality hidden within, with a lot of help from gaming communities and tech enthusiasts all over the Internet, and even the hashcat community, with a boxed Steel Battalion Controller as a bounty prize for whoever hit the right combination. The mystery password, ulti mately discovered by DiscoStarslayer of the makeMHZ crew?

Just xboxrecover. Which is just more of the fun of messing around with such archaic system. You can use a botnet of computers to try and brute force the password. Or you could use a dictionary of predictable passwords, recalling that in the old days, people tended to make passwords they could remember somehow. But beyond the challenge, of course, was the practical benefit of the debug access. With it, QuantX was able to recreate the dedicated Campaign Server and allow for the restoration of online play from the Xbox Live 1.0 days. Playing Steel Battalion online now is consequently as easy as it’s ever been.

But again, Steel Battalion isn’t supposed to be easy. The complexity of the simulation, and the borderline excessive realism of the gigantic controller is immersive in a way modern technology has yet to match. There’s just something very tactile about the sensation of actually feeling like you’re using a piece of very complex equipment. Like so many retro gamers, the community of Steel Battalion Online chooses to play their game of choice not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

William Schwartz William Schwartz (6 Posts)

William Schwartz is a media writer who specializes in South Korean media, but also writes about a wide variety of popular culture subjects- including retro video games.