Microsoft’s history with Xbox consoles in Japan is legendary, well-trodden stuff, though mostly because of flops and failures. It’s truly a rabbit hole of culture-clash stories, with one byproduct being a selection of “hidden gem” Japanese games—the kinds that went unnoticed or underappreciated because of Xbox’s cultural mismatch.
If you made me pick one of those games in particular, however, I’d point my giant, mechanized finger—surrounded by eight comically large weapons of destruction—at Metal Wolf Chaos. The game was published in December 2004 by From Software and launched exclusively on Japan’s original Xbox. Back then, From Software was better known for robot-action series like Armored Core instead of its eventual best-selling Dark Souls games.
Fifteen years later, MWC‘s handlers have gone to the trouble of picking up its robo-combat pieces, putting them back together, and loosing them on Western audiences in the form of today’s Metal Wolf Chaos XD, out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC (Steam, GOG) for $24.99. If you’ve never heard of this game, you might wanna sit down for this sales pitch:
You’re the US president in 2004. Your vice president is hell-bent on taking military control of the nation and has staged a coup. He has set you up as a villainous patsy and seized control of the nation’s armed forces. You must stop him… by jumping into a massive black-ops mecha suit, armed with eight individual weapons at any one time, and destroying a substantial amount of the United States’ infrastructure.
Delightful jank, aged like a vintage wine
The resulting game is somehow stupider, zanier, and more fun than that pitch might sound. But Metal Wolf Chaos is interesting for more reasons than its silliness. For one, it delivers some surprisingly competent action from that era and highlights a lot of what I loved from early-’00s open-world action games without too many annoying relics of its day. What’s more, MWC is a fascinating time capsule of what the early-’00s United States looked like to the rest of the world—and a rare example of someone sending up America’s political climate so soon after 9/11.
But before I offer anything thoughtful, there’s no getting around the utter stupidity of Metal Wolf Chaos‘ writing and dialogue. To the developers’ credit, the original English script is incredibly coherent for a team that appears to be entirely staffed by Japanese natives. Still, the original game’s dialogue is as absurd in subject matter as it is in awkward English translations. There are a good 2-3 laughs per minute with ridiculous lines such as, “The enemy is increasing with support from connected areas,” “The pilot is meaner than Satan himself,” and “This battle isn’t for America—this time, it’s personal!” (It’s tougher to convey the belligerently cheesy voice acting, so you’ll have to trust me about moments like the incredibly whiny “Sooooorry!” during one boss’ explosive death.)
That sense of delightful jank extends to the gameplay, which hinges on perfectly passable third-person combat. Much of the time, your oversized robo-armor is impervious to average military firepower, and this affords some delightful, “don’t fret, just shoot” moments throughout the game. A covered truck will drive up; a dozen puny soldiers will pile out of its bed; you’ll pick two of your eight weapons (one for each arm, which you can shoot simultaneously) to wipe them out within seconds; and repeat. (Might I suggest the two-handed combination of a grenade launcher and shotgun?)
When greater challenges emerge in the form of powerful, health-depleting bosses, your suit’s jump and dash abilities are just solid enough to afford you the opportunity to survive some hellish firepower. Essentially, you can move around the visible battlefield nearly as nimbly as Link in 3D Zelda games, albeit without any Z-targeting abilities (but you do have the power to effortlessly stomp over any rubble, plant life, or pesky humans).
All the while, every enemy unit and structure you face has an ideal counter-measure. So you’ll want to cycle through your eight equipped weapons (four per arm) to maximize your impact. This required weapon shuffling is a welcome break from FWC‘s apparent musou-like trappings of “kill everything that moves, and lots of it.” Like, yes, that’s true, but you do have to pick between sniper rifles, flamethrowers, and energy-ammunition machine guns on the fly.
In some ways, MWC looks like a lesser PlayStation 2 relic than its “2004” date might indicate; was the gaming industry’s open-world geometry this angular and simple back then? But in action, the levels’ constructions get something surprisingly right: how to manage walls and open spaces so that players can swivel their camera and rush around stages without getting lost or dizzy. Not every open-world game studio had figured that out by 2004, and this quality helps MWC persist as a laugh-out-loud romp in 2019. (To clarify: this week’s version includes redrawn textures throughout the game. This doesn’t bring Metal Wolf Chaos XD anywhere near modern-gen parity, but it’s a welcome touch.)
Little else has been upgraded for modern systems in terms of sheer gameplay. There’s now an autosave function between levels, which is welcome, but dying in a mission—and this includes accidental jumps into open pits—completely restarts the level, as opposed to triggering a checkpoint. And some of the levels include cockamamie traversal paths that require players to run back and forth through cleared, no-combat zones of levels. Neither of those are dealbreakers; they’re just reminders of the game’s age.
Yes, I’m about to offer deep thoughts about a robo-president
Is it fair to describe MWC as political? On one hand, its use of the president of the United States as a lead character is a bold move (and surprisingly uncommon in the gaming industry; usually, we don’t get much better than mayors as protagonists). On the other hand, the game clearly doesn’t want us taking this president all that seriously. Within seconds of booting the game, we see the president’s robo-suit crash-landing through a jet and onto a military outpost, all while he screams, “Let’s parrrrrtyyyy!”
Still, the real-life comparison points don’t take long to mount. To start, there’s the matter of your hero being named Mike Wilson—as in, the fictional descendant of former US President Woodrow Wilson. It’s hard to think of a sillier satirical send-up of President George W. Bush’s lineage. (Grover Cleveland the Fifth would’ve been a solid option in a pinch.) Perhaps more telling is MWC‘s use of its fictional VP as a fear-mongering villain, just as Vice President Dick Cheney’s hawkish reputation and ties to privatized military forces made him seem like the guy running the White House’s military policy. (From Software offers zero subtlety about this comparison, since it names the game’s VP Richard Hawk.)
What’s more, throughout the entire game, Wilson is pestered by a news anchor who hovers over his missions in a news copter, all while describing the president’s actions as if he’s a terrorist villain and not battling against Hawk’s diabolical plans. Wilson becomes so frustrated with the reporter at one point that he shouts, “Embed that journalist… into the ground.” It’s not entirely clear whether to read this interaction as a send-up of rush-to-judgment journalism or to the Bush regime’s issues with journalistic scrutiny.
Either way, playing Metal Wolf Chaos XD as an American in 2019 is a wild, fascinating look back at a Japanese studio’s interpretation of post-9/11 America. In some ways, it’s a reminder that our nation had temporarily received carte blanche from the world at large to act like a giant, red-white-and-blue mech-suit of aggression. In others, it’s a send-up of exactly what our nation looked like shortly after that universal goodwill began to dry up, as questions mounted over an unpopular military focus on Iraq. MWC sees President Wilson hell-bent on “saving” the United States by blowing up many of its biggest cities. That metaphor may sound as banal as described, but the act of playing this game—of wiping out cars, buildings, tanks, and armed forces in one American locale after another—adds up as an experience.
Frankly, the cognitive dissonance of Wilson’s hell-yeah bravado applied to his destruction of countless American national landmarks has had a more lasting impact on me in video game form than anything in the critical darling game Spec Ops: The Line.
But there’s also something a little too familiar about playing Metal Wolf Chaos XD in 2019. Here I am, unloading mountains of firepower upon rogue, traitorous forces as a G.I. Joe-caliber hero, all while being regaled between missions with narration that confirms I am the good guy. A news reporter offers snippets of context from the future, explaining how I’d actually been saving the United States after all, in spite of public opinion buying into the veep’s deceitful announcements. Now that MWC has been re-released, I can’t help but feel like people on opposite sides of our current-day political fray could read that plot and assign their political bias to the “good guy” role.
Am I reading too much into a game that stars a fake American president strapping into a mech suit, then liberating the White House once it has been overtaken by rebels and renamed the “Fight House”—all before blasting off to fight the vice president in his own mech suit in outer space? Almost certainly. But as arguably the biggest video game to ever star an American president as a city-stomping, butt-kicking, gun-toting hero, Metal Wolf Chaos XD straddles the most peculiar line—between thoughtful political considerations and painfully stupid, low-poly explosions—I’ve ever seen in a video game. I’m not sure a single Jerry Bruckheimer production comes close to that distinction, so I’d call that a point in video games’ favor.