In an air-conditioned chrome trailer sitting across the street from the Los Angeles Convention Center, Masanori Takeuchi watches patiently as I boot up a game he produced nearly 15 years ago. Now the senior managing director at FromSoftware, a legendary Japanese game studio most known for the Dark Souls series, Takeuchi has been with the company since long before it made the video games that vaulted it to worldwide fame.
That includes a time in the studio’s past, in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, when it didn‘t primarily make cryptic action RPGs, but was best known for making the beloved Armored Core mecha games. Those featured large armored war suits inspired by Japanese anime like Mobile Suit Gundam. And in 2004, FromSoftware was tasked with making a mecha game for the original Xbox. Microsoft was desperately trying to break into the Japanese market and compete with dominant homegrown platforms from Nintendo and Sony. Making a mecha game could help it do that. (In theory, anyway. Microsoft never did quite become dominant in Japan.)
So it was in that traditional style that FromSoftware made Metal Wolf Chaos, an absurdly over-the-top take on American politics that blended the best the Japanese mecha genre had to offer with a hilarious mishmash of Hollywood stereotypes. The game, which came out in 2004 for the original Xbox and only in Japan, is re-releasing worldwide for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC later this year. The announcement, at E3 earlier this week, was met with excitement from longtime fans who’ve turned the game into somewhat of a meme, with its tongue-in-cheek script and its main character, Michael Wilson, a vengeful mecha pilot who happens to be the president of the United States. It is often talked about with a devout faux-patriotic fervor, and copies go for hundreds of dollars on eBay.
The re-release, as Metal Wolf Chaos XD, is only happening thanks to Takeuchi’s involvement and a small and passionate team from independent game publisher Devolver Digital. Devolver is working with its partner Kakehashi Games, a Japan-based company that helps indie games release their titles for the Japanese market, and a porting company called General Arcade to bring the full game to modern consoles, including with its original English voice acting.
“Before even Devolver contacted me, I heard rumors about Western gamers clamoring for the game,” Takeuichi tells me, through a translator. But he was skeptical. He couldn’t understand exactly why so many people would want to play a 14-year-old Xbox game they had never played before.
But playing just 15 minutes of the game, I could give you a pretty reasonable answer. It is because Mecha Wolf Chaos is great, in every way imaginable. The opening sequence sets up a coup d’etat within the American government, led by its vice president, that robs President Wilson of his power. So he dons a giant armored robot suit to singlehandedly save democracy.
The combat is fast and fluid in the way of many of the best Japanese mecha games, but with hilarious American stereotypes thrown in at every opportunity. President Wilson arrives on the scene with lines like, “Let’s party,” while his stash of firearms includes a huge double-barreled shotgun that slots into place from two rotating caches stored in his suit’s giant shoulder blades. When dispatching large numbers of traitorous military soldiers, your assistant will pipe in with great quips like, “I guess they‘re not voting for you next election.”
Takeuchi explains that the inspiration for Metal Wolf Chaos came from wanting to give Microsoft a product that blended ideas from the East and the West. “So the original idea came that first of all, the number one thing we thought was we weren’t trying to recreate Armored Core,” Takeuchi says. “We wanted to make something different. Because Xbox was from Microsoft, an America company, we wanted something that represented America.”
And what better representation of America than the president himself, for better and for worse? “Not only does he have political power, but he’s a character that represents the United States. I thought it was a funny idea for the president himself to be the main character,” Takeuchi adds.
He explains that, at the time, FromSoftware’s offices were located close to Microsoft’s Japan offices. So the development team would often walk over and get Microsoft’s feedback, for both game design reasons and to get some perspective on American culture and humor. As FromSoftware marketing manager Yasunori Ogura explains, it was even a Microsoft employee who suggested the game have a rhythmic, three-word name like Metal Wolf Chaos, as it might resonate with Western-focused audiences in the same vein as the American-inspired franchise Metal Gear Solid.
And though the name Donald Trump looms over our conversation, Takeuchi does not mention him directly. Yet ironically, 15 years later, it’s FromSoftware’s decision to make an absurd American president — one who speaks in stereotypes and who thinks he alone can save the country — the main character of Metal Wolf Chaos that may be most resounding with Western gamers today. (It’s no surprise then that Devolver’s promotional website for the game is MechAmericaGreatAgain.com.)
Two and a half years ago, as the US presidential election was just beginning to intensify, Devolver got the ball rolling with a tweet. It contained the hashtag #FreeMetalWolf along with an image of the game and the line, “Count us in to help Metal Wolf Chaos get out to more gamers if FromSoftware wants some help.” The tweet went viral, and now has thousands of retweets and likes.
It also began a long conversation between Devolver and FromSoftware, with the overwhelming fan reception being the reason Takeuchi even considered the project in the first place. “When the tweet happened and there was a major reaction, it became a little more real,” explains Zach Huntley, the business manager and founder of Kakehashi Games. Now, the game is in the early stages of being ported over and polished so it can run in HD and even in 4K for the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X.
Beyond that, neither Devolver or FromSoftware aren’t interested in changing anything. “This isn’t a remaster, we’re not touching the game code,” Huntley says. “We want people to experience the original game as intended.” He says there is the possibility for add-ons like additional story missions, but that getting the core game out takes priority. “Anything beyond [the main game] potentially would be only after you completed the game first.”
For Takeuchi, who’s consulting on the port with a small handful of about a half-dozen other FromSoftware veterans and employees, the response has been welcome. “I’m very pleasantly surprised by the reaction and the size of the reaction,” he tells me. When the announcement first happened on Sunday evening, Metal Wolf Chaos began trending in both Japan and the US on Twitter, as well as in Brazil.
Takeuchi received a flood of messages from former colleagues and friends, showing the game trending all over the world. “At first, I thought they were photoshopping the screenshots,” he says with a laugh. But no, people are just that excited to assume the role of mecha warrior President Wilson and save the country from evil — if only as a way to relish in the absurdity of the actual state of current American politics.