['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, sometimes by Christopher "TOLLMASTER" Bruso, a known procrastinator and giant robot fanatic. And sometimes not. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers Metal Wolf Chaos, a mecha run-and-gun starring the President of the United States. No, seriously.]


metalwolfchaoscover.JPG Informed (or jaded) gamers consistently bemoan Japanese titles which fail to make it overseas. Japan has been, and still is, the center of the console gaming market, and many titles developed for this market are not considered for an international release for a plethora of reasons. Some titles may be too entrenched in Japanese culture to translate faithfully for other markets; other games may cater to niches in Japan which do not exist on the same scale in other countries; and sometimes works are turned down for release simply because it is thought that the overseas market cannot currently support another title in a particular genre.

Thus the English-speaking gamer often misses out on landmark titles such as those in the Sakura Taisen series, which has at least five "main storyline" games, along with numerous side games and constant re-re-re-releases. Despite pressure from hordes of wailing fanboys and even occasional exposure from mainstream games journalists, the games just never make it over.

In Sakura Taisen's case, it's easy to see the reason why: succinctly, it's a steam mecha tactical RPG that is also a dating sim featuring women who are actors in a Japanese theater when not fighting demons. While there may be a niche market for such an experience in Europe and North America, the game could end up being too far out of left field for many gamers, and thus the company doing the localization would be taking a major financial risk. Sakura Taisen can be said to be "too Japanese" to make it to the United States.

The same cannot be said about Metal Wolf Chaos, which features the US President in heavy mecha armor on a rampage across the United States.

The only thing more perplexing about the lack of release for Metal Wolf Chaos in the United States is that it was released only in Japan. Mirroring the inexplicable creation of 1942, an early vertical shmup developed by the Japanese that had a US fighter taking down Japanese carriers and battleships, From Software, mostly known for their excellent Armored Core series (and the mostly unknown by Westerners Another Century's Episode series, covered previously on this column), had created a game perfect for the American market, by making it take place exclusively from an American point of view, and made it for the Xbox, a US-centric console.

But while 1942 made it to the United States, and was merely a strange game for a Japanese developer to make, Metal Wolf Chaos--a game taking place in America, starring the US President, parodying United States politics--was enjoyed exclusively by the paltry number of Xbox owners in Japan.

I mean: did the Japanese get the joke about Florida recounts, or what?

As American as Apple Pie, Except Japanese

metalwolfchaosscreen3.JPGMetal Wolf Chaos' plot is as insane as it is brilliant. You play as US President Michael Wilson, 75% Super Robot anime hero, 25% pastiche of current President George W. Bush, piloting a late model tactical mobile armor somewhat similar to VOTOMS' Armored Troopers. The nation has experienced a coup d'etat lead by your former Vice President, who has taken control of the military and news organizations of the United States.

Instead of fleeing the country or collecting loyalist troops around you, you instead opt to defeat the entire US military in a personal war, city by city. The first stage's opening scene sets the tone perfectly: Michael Wilson explodes out of the Oval Office onto the White House lawn in his mecha whilst screaming "LET'S PARTY! Welcome to the White House!" in B-movie grade English. Control is then given to the player, to literally stomp on US infantry and knock helicopters out of Washington D.C.'s skies.

And yes, the game's voices indeed use English. Not only the President, but every voice in the entire game is voiced entirely in English, and not that weird pidgin English that Japanese actors sometimes speak; it seems people who spoke English natively did all of the voice acting (albeit, kind of badly).

And since most of the important menus are in English, this makes the game one of the very few Japanese imports that are completely playable without any knowledge of Japanese. You'll understand the entire story and can navigate through the menus to do everything necessary to complete the game, missing only some unnecessary flavor text and the mission results screen. Everything else, including mission objectives, is voiced in very comprehensible (but oftimes laughter inducing) English.

Given the plot, action/arcade game friendliness of the title, and that the game was almost already in English, the mind boggles that this never made it across the Pacific. [1] While the game doesn't quite qualify as a political parody, it seems specially designed for the American consumer, given it was created for the Xbox and occasionally pokes fun at semi-recent American political events. Perhaps they're not obscure enough that the Japanese wouldn't know about them as well, but it still seems to make it a no-brainer for an American release.

The "DNN" segments, which mock the news networks' seeming willingness to believe the official party line, is particularly American in nature. And the mix of President George W. Bush's rogue obstinacy with the Super Robot hero paradigm would seem to require the knowledge of both an American political junkee and a fan of anime to really appreciate. With lines like "Nothing is pointless--and the reason is: I'M THE PRESIDENT OF THESE GREAT UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!!!" and "I'll keep on fighting, as long as the America inside my heart is still alive!" it's hard for even the most left-leaning Democrat to not crack a smile.

Perhaps what George W. Bush needs to regain popularity isn't a flight suit, but a mobile suit.

Building Guns and Digging Graves

metalwolfchaosscreen1.JPG While the game's limited fanbase in America consider Metal Wolf Chaos an absolute must-play for the story, there isn't nearly as much talk about the gameplay. And many of the complaints that were listed are unfortunately valid: beyond the innovative story there is a less than innovative game running underneath. While it doesn't play badly by any means, it just doesn't compare favorably with From Software's other mecha games.

Combat is slow and unresponsive as opposed to the fluidity of, say, Armored Core; the game's challenge is unbalanced and varies wildly; many mission objectives are somewhat repetitive; and while it's not necessary to obtain them, the amount of pickups and hidden objects in the stages reminded me somewhat more of a late Nintendo 64 platformer than a mecha game about a rampage across the United States.

The mission objectives are perhaps the most upsetting of these flaws. Most missions have reinforced towers set up across the map that you usually have to destroy to complete the level, and bringing these down is simply boring and unchallenging. For whatever reason, the rebel US Army only placed guns on one side of these fortifications, and it's never any trouble to simply move to the other side, stand still, and fire your weapons for what seems like an eternity.

Destroying those towers is so monotonous and breaks the "flow" of the game so much I can't understand why they were ever included. Luckily, these flaws are never serious enough to make the entire game feel like a chore, but for many gamers, especially those used to other games from, uh, From Software, it's a bit disappointing.

And along with the common criticisms, I also believe the game is misunderstood by many, much like, and in the same ways as, the Gungrave series for the PlayStation 2 was misunderstood. Gungrave and its sequel, Gungrave: Overdose, share quite a bit in common with Metal Wolf Chaos. Both feature incredibly powerful player avatars with self-regenerating armor when not currently being being attacked, but lack many of the movement options and escapes that both modern mecha games and modern action games often include.

A particularly skilled Armored Core player can see many attacks coming and, if skilled enough, avoid them completely; however, in Gungrave and Metal Wolf Chaos, dodging many attacks after they have been made is either hard or impossible. Instead, gameplay is based less on reaction timing than it is about pacing; knowing how much more of the enemy you can take on with your current lifebar, knowing from what direction to press your attack from, knowing when to retreat to regenerate your energy bar, and when to use your limited use super move are more critical.

In short, it is not so much about having good reaction skills, but being able to tell when to generally be more aggressive and when to retreat. Metal Wolf Chaos doesn't compare favorably to other titles because they shouldn't be compared at all; the style of Metal Wolf Chaos' gameplay aims to do something very different, and has to be looked at as its own experience.

metalwolfchaosscreen2.JPGAnd again like the Gungrave games, Metal Wolf Chaos' appeal also lies in the fact that it is simply a lot of fun to go on a rampage. In an action game, you want the player to feel that they are a badass bringing destruction wherever they go, but there is a fine line that has to be walked here. If you make the player character too weak, you of course lose that badass feeling; but when the player character is too strong, the game becomes a mindless bore.

Gungrave's solution was to include an over-the-top protagonist, a vast number of enemies onscreen, and a "chaining" system that rewards the player for living dangerously and not stopping to regenerate their armor between enemy groups. Metal Wolf Chaos includes all of these, and also makes the player a walking arsenal: your mecha's backpack somehow has room for up to eight oversized weapons you can change between in real-time [2], and you usually carry two at once, one for each hand. Nothing says "badass" quite like two tank cannons strapped together in one hand and a helicopter chaingun in the other.

Between missions you can research and buy new weapons in several general fields, with each field having its own particular strengths, weaknesses, and use, so that backpack of yours will never feel too empty. With the massive selection of overpowered weapons, it's simply fun to run around turning battalions of Abrams tanks into scrap metal. And special mention has to go to the secret weapons, which include improbable armaments like a shotgun that fires confetti and money amid cheers from an offscreen crowd, and a grenade launcher that fires rounds that are shaped (and bounce) like American footballs.

Touchdown

With an insane plot and copious amounts of testosterone-fueled carnage, there's no reason for a mecha or action game fan to not pick this one up. It's the first game with a story this author was able to play to completion in Japanese with no translation, so with the extreme import friendliness of this title I would also suggest it to gamers interested in making the plunge into import titles but for whom a full language barrier seems to be a chilling factor.

And while there are more polished games, Metal Wolf Chaos' gameplay is still unique, refreshing, and simply fun enough to justify a place in any gamer's library. In a way, it's the simple arcade run-and-gun updated for a new era, and even without the depth of an Armored Core or Devil May Cry it remains an engaging experience. And, really: any game that includes Air Force One taking off from under the Washington Reflecting Pool and grazing the Lincoln Momument is worth at least one playthrough. While not perfect by any means, Metal Wolf is enough of a different beast that it's worth looking into for a little variety alone (if, somehow, George W. Bush in a mecha didn't sell you on the game already).

[1] A few news sources did orignally claim that it was planned, and one Frenchman told me that it was going to be retitled as "War President" for the US release, and Frenchmen--especially ones who have translated the "Death Note" manga as a story about FAQs of obscure Konami games--rarely lie.

[2] In an example of a game being before its time, in addition to real time weapon changing there was a battle against a giant enemy crab in the New York mission. Its weak point, which you can hit for massive damage, is located in Times Square.