Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Top 10 Best Steampunk Games

     Steampunk is a science fiction sub-genre that presents a beguiling anachronistic vision of the future: where Victorian technology has continued to evolve within its pre-silicon constraints resulting in a world profuse with brass gears, gaskets and valves. The spirit of invention still hangs thick in the air, as does the smog from a smelting forge and the steam from a passing locomotive: familiar modern technologies and their sociological offspring are still apparent, only the computer is a development of Babbage's Differential Engine and the internet a labyrinthine mesh of telegraph wires. There are similarities between steampunk and its cyberpunk namesake: the ironic anti-hero, the dominance of big-business (think more East India Company than Cyberdyne) and the disaffected urban milieu. Like many new genres it found itself at ease within the world of software / computer gaming and though the library of pure steampunk games may be niche its trappings can be found in some of the most successful games of all time: Morrowind, Final Fantasy VI & VII and Bioshock to name but a few. This list will eschew these blockbusters for games some may have missed and others that hold truer to their roots. I am by no means an expert and as always there are probably more classics omitted than presented but I shall shunt off regardless in the hope that some may be intrigued enough to develop their own personal list of coal powered classics. 


10: The Chaos Engine - Amiga / SNES

An early entry in the steampunk cannon, Chaos Engine (known as Soldiers of Fortune stateside) crafted by the British software house Bitmap Brothers, embodies everything explosive about the genre; from oversize blunderbuss to TNT laden automata. The titular Chaos Engine is a retro-engineered steam-driven computer of grotesque proportions that has overridden its own primitive circuitry in pursuit of world domination. Step up six diverse Victorian mercenaries who in search of coin and fame attempt, over the course of four maniacal worlds (each replete with pumping industrial soundtrack), to save the British Empire from this pickle. With an intriguing back-story, gripping two player mode and money driven character customisation; what was ostensibly an overhead shoot ’em up becomes a deep, atmospheric and above all challenging romp through quintessential steampunk territory. The appearance of mutants of varying smell and silliness promotes this title as a member of yet another nascent fiction genre: Genepunk or as it is sometimes known Biopunk.

A beautifully crafted bronze character development screen: yours for just £9.99

Excellent FAQ
Epic Longplay Youtube Video
Download from Edge Emulation
Entry at Lemon Amiga

9: Steel Empire - Sega Megadrive

Taking freely to the skies has been a lifelong obsession throughout mankind's history and it was only in the smog shrouded haze of the industrial revolution that it finally descended from fantasy and into the dirigibles, blimps and propeller driven beasts that populate the skies above the burgeoning steel empires of Earth. Indeed what better way to celebrate mankind's endless creativity than to blast them from out the sky in Hindenburgesque conflagrations whilst ladening your attack Zeppelin with cannons and bombs of all persuasions. Steel Empires would be a typical side-scrolling shoot ‘em up were it not for the presence of the superbly realised industrial backdrop with matching machineries of war, influenced in no small part by the classic Studio Ghibli film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky. By no means the only steampunk shoot ‘em up Steel Empires was one of the earliest to adopt the setting and remains the most fully artistically realised that I've played. There was a painting by Magritte in which he ominously silhouetted in black the strange forms of these new fangled flying machines, presaging their future utility. In pursuit of one of our earliest dreams - to soar as a bird: there loomed beneath our metal wings the shadow of death.

René Magritte, Le Drapeau noir [The Black Flag], 1937

Article at Blame the Control Pad 
Soundtrack at Zophar's Domain 
Download from Edge Emulation
Review at Sega-16

8: The Incredible Machine - PC

Alright, something of a lightweight thematically one may say: but this game and its many progeny embody the state of science and its sprocket laden trappings from around the time of the early industrial revolution (1800). Long before synchrotrons, scanning tunnelling microscopes or any atomic (nay quantum) view of the universe reared its confusing head. Science progressed hand in hand with invention and nowhere in gaming is this can-do approach to progress better emphasized than in the Incredible Machine. Given a seemingly simple objective (i.e. place ball in hoop) and an array of springs, drive belts and fans: the task throughout its many levels is simply to achieve your objective whether through an understanding of classical mechanics or just good ol’common sense: all that matters is the job gets done. It is partially this creative ad-hoc sense of invention that gives steam its punk.

Patent Refused

Download from Abandonia
Wikipedia Entry 
Article at Hardcore Gaming 101 

7: Wachenroder - Sega Saturn

From the same stable of tactical thoroughbreds; as Vanguard Bandits, Vandal Hearts and Shining Force, comes Wachenröder: a lesser known beast, having never been officially translated into English (though a high quality fan translation is available) and appearing only belatedly on the Sega Saturn. Your countless isometric battles take place in a stunning fog shrouded island world where steam power rules supreme; powering exotic weapons, all manner of transportation and a hodgepodge of gadgetry of which the bearded inventors of old would have been proud. The main city is divided, a’ la Metropolis, into two class dependent levels: with the proles left to wallow in the cess of the upper-class’s excess. It is in this mire that the protagonists sister develops a fatal condition that prompts his revenge laden tactical quest against the tyrannical King Wizar. The art direction is superb throughout (the game coming packaged with an exclusive industrial art-book) and it is this quality that staves off some of the tedium inherent in the endless succession of missions (though I find them strangely compelling). Bonus points are also awarded to a reference to Mervyn Peake’s masterful Gormenghast trilogy (one character being named Titus Groan).

Kasparov, stop kidding yourself: you know this is better than chess.

Review at Defunct Games
Complete English Script
Download from SnesOrama 
Wachenroder Art

6: Skies of Arcadia - Sega Dreamcast

A well loved RPG that first surfaced on the Dreamcast with a subsequent and slightly improved release on the Gamecube. Aside from familiar RPG tropes, Arcadia dazzles with incredible art direction and an exciting aerial world of floating cloud capped islands; home to lost cities, treasures and unreasonable monsters: reachable only by those magnificent men (or Buffon haired monosyllabic boys) in their flying machines. The setting is a Verne inspired world of high adventure and naturally the only way to travel is in your Zeppelin: battling rival ships and their crew as you go. Disembarking on occasion to peruse a passing dungeon, explore a town, and when you feel like it, to advance the plot. Discovery plays a key role in proceedings, many lands are uncharted and their whereabouts are worth bags of doubloons, courtesy of the sailor’s guild. Although suffering from a glut of random encounters the games strength is in the setting and no matter how many irksome bands of Dung Fly’s thwart your progress the desire to explore never leaves. Perhaps owing more to the age of adventure than the technology fuelled world of invention: Skies of Arcadia still packs a distinctly steam driven punch.

"Man overboard! . . . erm."

Ares Arcadia - Comprehensive Fansite
Download from SnesOrama 
Walkthrough's at GameFAQ's 
Skies of Arcadia World Forums 

5: Transarctica - PC

The locomotive, that great talisman of the industrial revolution has been perverted by greed beyond its visionary intent into a vast rail-bound corporate HQ, laden with ill gotten wealth and resources, guarded by corporate militia and steaming off towards noting less than total dominion of the globe. Yet this globe is not the pleasant Gaia we know and love, the sun has disappeared from the sky, plunging the world into an indefinite ice-age and more pressingly the woolly mammoth has re-emerged from its 10,000 year slumber to wreak terrible revenge upon mankind (only partially true). All that holds civilisation together are the vast rail networks monopolised by the ruthless Viking Union. This is a unique and compelling steampunk setting derived from the French novel La Compagnie des Glaces by Georges-Jean Arnaud: all the elements are present and accounted for; evil conglomerate, a Victorian technology ingeniously extrapolated and a desperate fight against the system. Having hijacked the armoured train Transarctica you are put in command of its resources (including much needed slave labour), weaponry and route management as you traverse the continent in an effort to rekindle the sun. Later appearing on PC, Atari and Macintosh the game has a cumbersome interface and a rushed English translation but these defects are more than compensated by the sheer imagination of the piece.

Aboard a train, under the doleful gaze of a mounted walrus: a man considers suicide. 

Entry at Home of the Underdogs
Download from Abandonia
Transarctica Forums 
Useful Gazetteer
4: Space 1889 - PC

Based upon an earlier pen and paper campaign setting, Space 1889 (perhaps a play on the similarly unlikely Space: 1999 TV show) is an RPG that posits the age of empire and adds the space race in for good measure. The British and other European powers have established permanent bases on Mars and Venus whilst the Japanese and Americans have secretly assembled subterranean technological enclaves. After setting off to solve the mystery of King Tut your six customised characters are whisked away on a solar system spanning adventure taking-in, Mercury, Venus and the Moon by way of the four mysterious corners of the Earth and Atlantis just for fun. Computers in principle yes, robots OK but space travel?! Surely this is one steampunk fiction gone too far: well yes and no. At first it seems that liftwood a rare anti-gravity material found only on Mars (and incorporated in the visiting Martian sky galleons) is the only expedient to other worlds but soon the ingenious Earthlings have cobbled together their own vast steam-driven sky barges capable of interplanetary travel, making use of the real (if fallacious) early scientific theory of luminiferous ether to make plausible their excursion. Verne, Wells, science and adventure: Space 1989 is a deep and captivating work of steampunk fiction.

Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the . . . vacuum.

Heliograph's Resource Site 
Official Space 1889 Homepage 
Download from My Abandonware  
Home of the Underdogs Entry 
3: Thief II: The Metal Age - PC

One of the most respected series on home computer Thief II departs slightly from the castellated setting of its predecessor and introduces a techno-cult (the Machinists) infatuated with the power of steam and its ability to infuse all manner of lumbersome contraptions with the semblance of life. Here the anachronism is even more pronounced as instead of transposing industrial technology into the future it makes its debut in the past, some 500 years before the invention of the motor. Nevertheless it blends in splendidly amidst the trebuchets and complex pulley systems of the medieval age and somehow seems less jarring than the organic monsters of the original. Already endowed with a superb engine, gameplay, characterisation and an original setting to be proud of, Thief II raises the bar higher still, granting those of a stealthy disposition ample reason to celebrate. Donning the cloak of Garret, master thief and sniper; you sneak, snoop and steal your way through the homes of nobility in an effort to garner both personal wealth and unveil the secret behind this new dark age of technology.


Thief: The Circle
Repository of Fan Missions 
Download from SnesOrama 
Through the Looking Glass Forums 
2: Ultima Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams - PC

The second and last in the short-lived Worlds of Adventure spin-off series from Ultima, Martian Dreams plays something like Space 1889 only with more emphasis on character, less on science - and perhaps an even more ludicrous premise. A note is found describing strange events at the legendary Crystal Palace World’s Fair circa 1851: Percival Lowell (the famous astronomer) loaded a space cannon with many pre-eminent figures of the time; Sigmund Freud and Marie Currie to name but two and mistakenly blasted them to Mars: where they promptly encountered an intelligent and industrious race of plants who after having abused a dream machine find themselves inhabiting another dimension, well I’m sure you can predict the rest . . . Your character creation is undertaken on Sigmund Freud’s couch and as the game unfolds, discussion plays as great a part as exploration, as you are blasted to Mars in a new design of Nikola Tesla’s invention to uncover the fate of those illustrious travellers. Dripping with quality dialogue Martian Dreams enacts an original and highly entertaining steampunk story with some camp 50’s sci-fi thrown aboard for good measure.

Having a favourite game map could just be the most pathetic thing in all history . . .

Martian Dreams: Lets Play Journal 
Download from Abandonia
Game Opening at Youtube 
Resources at Worlds of Ultima 
1: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura

This game oozes steampunk from every gasket yet its adherence to the genre is not why I place it number one. Possessed with a game world of ludicrous depth and notation, Arcanum deposits you amidst a world fractured between the emerging tenets of science and the old methods of magic: here necromancers rub shoulders with medics whilst alchemists loose precious business to chemists. Set loose in these confused times you must specialise in the fading mystical arts or embrace the new rational order as you are left to wander the vast and fractured landscape in search of a new life. Into this heady mix throw the world of Tolkien: with Orcs, Elves and his classic assortment of diminutive misfits, found lining the gangplanks to board Zeppelin or choosing to remain hidden in their fairytale retreats. Not only are technology and magic ideologically opposed, their very existence seems to frustrate the efficacy of the other. Magic users are forced into taking third class seats on trains, not simply due to technocratic bigotry, their very presence disrupts the workings of the engines. It is as if two dimensions with alternative natural laws had irrevocably collided. Massively open ended, yet with satisfying characters, concepts and plots around every corner, Arcanum is a tour de force.

Two hour commute sitting next to an orc . . . the banal side of fantasy.

Terra-Arcanum Resource Site 
Walkthrough at Mike's RPG Center
Download at SnesOrama  
Article at Brass Goggles


    Steampunk straddles many genres: the innate aesthetic value of hulking brass and copper gadgets (when machines were synonymous with craftsmanship) makes the setting an irresistible artistic backdrop to action. The historical, scientific and technological underpinnings allow for both an informative and unusually deep game world. The final ingredient is the sense of exploration and discovery, taking as its cue the stories of H.G Wells, Jules Verne and the exploits of empire. Like cyberpunk there are close ties with Japanese animation, Steamboy, Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Age of Wonder are but a few deserving mentions. Novels I’m familiar with include The Land Leviathan, Perdido Street Station and Titus Alone (perhaps even Erewhon) and from the realm of cinema I would mention Metropolis and The City of Lost Children. Like cyberpunk, steampunk is above all a technologically fuelled genre: stipulating a scientific advance and watching how humanity reacts to increasingly inhuman and remarkable circumstances. Thus it should come as no surprise that steampunk's place amongst the computer hardware of the present is secure: were it not we would have to travel back in time and invent it.


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  4. Don't forget about Flying Heroes!

    The game is plagued by bugs, but if you can get past that, it's one hell of a game!

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