Phantom Crash | Developer: Genki | Publisher: Genki, Phantagram | Year: 2002
Phantom Crash NTSC-U Xbox art showing a a giant robot pointing a gun

Phantom Crash

After finally ripping myself away from Halo in mid 2002, I developed a sudden fondness for games featuring giant robots. Gun Metal and MechAssault got played that year, and I even tried Robotech Battlecry despite my unfamiliarity with the anime show. Phantom Crash is another 2002 release, and like some of those titles I mentioned, this one stayed exclusive to the Xbox.

Reviewers were not wildly enthusiastic about Phantom Crash back in the day. Whilst it is rightly lauded for having impressive graphics, it was also considered very niche, with its quirky Japanese narrative and odd, if occasionally charming, design decisions.

It all takes place in a futuristic Tokyo where pilots called “Wire Heads” compete in televised battles called “Rumbles” from within their giant mechs called “Scoobies.” Are you keeping up so far?

Memorising the nebulous jargon isn’t really necessary, as the actual mechanics of play are more straightforward. Players must steadily win battles on a league calendar before facing an “Area Ranker” boss, and after defeating all of them, they’ll fight the “First Ranker” champion to claim final victory and end the game. Simple.

Whilst some Rumbles have special conditions, the gameplay is always the same. Players enter their customised Scoobies into one of three different arenas and try to shoot down (from a first-person or third-person view) as many rivals as possible using machine guns, lasers, and rocket launchers, or by carving up their prey with bayonets and chainsaws.

The word “prey” is especially relevant here because of optic camouflage, which makes your mech invisible exactly like Predator. Invisibility is deployed at the click of a button and typically lasts a few seconds only, but considering the devastating power of most weapons, a few moments of stealth is sometimes all players need to score a KO.

Walking around uncloaked leaves a mech exposed and vulnerable, but at the same time, activating optic camouflage disables any incoming missile locks. Therefore, most successful engagements involve turning invisible at the right moments, launching attacks, and then hiding behind cover to let the camouflage recharge. It almost feels like a laser tag contest between giant robots.

The simulation elements are what really matter though. Players have space in their hanger for several mechs of their own design. The arm weapons, shoulder cannons, legs and body are all fully changeable, with weight limits, modules and even the odd paint job adding more layers of customisation.

Earning cash to build mechs is the high point of Phantom Crash. Players can tailor their creations for speed, stealth, and durability, and they do this by tuning their mech parts to be lighter or heavier. Lighter legs, for example, increase a mech’s speed, whereas a lighter gun carries more ammo at the expense of stopping power.

Weight limits and durability values can create problems if parts are upgraded too far in one direction. Tuning every weapon heavy to achieve maximum damage, for instance, might make sense when fighting a lone boss, but it also means ammo clips will run dry quickly in the arena battles where players shoot at dozens of enemies for the duration.

While the following remarks shouldn’t be made flippantly, it does feel to me as if Phantom Crash is a well-balanced game at its core. It’s actually a little rough on newbies in a way because it isn’t always obvious which part should be upgraded first or what level or direction a part should be taken to in the first place.

Players are also presented with an hour’s worth of tutorials at the beginning, with the presentation being so overwrought to make you want to skip to the fun part pretty quickly. The talky cutscenes are the most divisive area in this sense because they feature a lot of inconsequential (and sometimes creepy) conversations between mostly static characters who are difficult to care about.

Individual character stories don’t adhere to a single theme (though several of them obsess over ageing for some reason), but most of them are rather dull. I hated these scenes when I first played Phantom Crash, but after reflecting on them years later, I will admit there is at least some emotional depth in there. In retrospect, the stories of Tienxia, Roy, and Shinku do have a timeless coming-of-age quality to them, and I’m sure some players will appreciate the plot’s lower stakes and the writers’ unconventional fondness for lifestyle banter.

These scenes are quite heavy on lore as well. There’s talk about the environment Tokyo has become; the futuristic currencies used; a full history of the AI chips and the rights people are entitled to regarding their sentience. An effort was certainly made, it’s just the mind-numbing presentation creates a disconnect. A small mercy was the developers including a button command to skip the cutscenes altogether; something even the most open-minded player will need at some point.

Various gameplay screenshots from Phantom Crash

Translation errors in the weapon descriptions are somewhat countered by the fun of experimenting with new acquisitions. Even after beating the First Ranker, a player can technically keep playing forever. Secret mechs go on sale after achieving a “Clear” save file to incentivise post scenario play.

Phantom Crash wears its Japanese quirk with pride, whether it’s via sentient AI chips rendered as cute animals, the J-Pop soundtrack, or the strictly useless modules that promise to “decorate” a mech’s cockpit with miniature statues or other bits of flair you’ll never actually see!

The sights players can see are very nice though. The art style has a practical quality, with the high-poly mechs and arenas looking quite realistic. The aforementioned optic camouflage has transparency effects that look remarkable to this day. However, the lack of widescreen support is a shame because a wider area to spot foes would be super useful. Equally, the frame rate can get very choppy during skirmishes, especially ones involving hover mechs that constantly blow dust particles everywhere.

I never use hover legs for this reason, although there’s not much incentive to diversify considering the arenas themselves are so limited in scope. For one thing, there’s only three of them featured in the Story mode. Each one may be vertically dense with enemies and ammo drops, but they also feel static and lack potential.

Almost every Rumble follows the exact same formula: survive against an endless wave of enemies, shoot down a boss, then reach the exit. Combat is always dangerous and healing crates are in short supply, so knowing when to cash out your winnings is the trick here. You can push your luck by staying in the arena to multiply the eventual payout, or you can rush the exit earlier to avoid any nasty repair penalties for being shot down yourself.

On a little side rant, I hate how the healing and ammo crates are accompanied by blue crates containing bonus dollars. When I’m desperately hunting for more bullets or a timely repair, the last thing I need to see are a few unhelpful bundles of cash being urgently drop-shipped to my location. I got so aggravated by this during a recent session I may have shouted: “You can bury me with those blue crates!”, which neatly sums up my feelings on that morsel of game design.

Getting back to my original point: the deathmatch formula at work here is fine, but it’s all players ever do. There’s very little nuance: it’s always the same rules in the same three arenas and it gets tiresome. One Rumble may take place in the day and another at night, but aside from having a poorer view in the latter instance, nothing changes.

More than anything else, Phantom Crash needed more modes of play. Capture the flag, king of the hill, team play; anything like this would have improved on what little variety is shown once combat begins. A local multiplayer mode has players importing their mechs for some versus action, but once again the arenas are limited and the formula doesn’t change so it gets boring fast.

Players will get more satisfaction optimising the weight of their mechs and learning the subtle intricacies of upgrading weapons way more than the repetitive battles. The customisation elements aren’t even a hugely innovative system, but it’s certainly deep enough to keep players thinking and it’s all the better when tied to such a solid theme. When players can be tweaking their camouflage cooldowns to the decimal point one moment and later be upgrading weapons with hardcore names like “T23•SV-ATC” or whatever, it is easy to get into the spirit of things.

Even with the gripes, Phantom Crash is still the sort of enjoyable, in-depth experience the Xbox needed more of, and I will always remember it fondly for that.