“By the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, freedom was dead in America.”
This is the opening line of Metal Wolf Chaos. But before the player can decide whether or not such a statement was prophetic back when this bullet-spraying action game came out 14 years ago, the 47th President of the United States, a man called Michael Wilson, erupts from the White House in a fully-armed battle mech, shouting: “OK! Let’s partyyyyy!”
The strangeness and humour of this half-forgotten game by Dark Souls creators From Software is clear from the start, and it raises two questions. How did we miss it? And how did it end up being remastered by Devolver more than a decade after it was made?
The first question is easy. Metal Wolf Chaos was only released in Japan, and only on the first Xbox. It’s set in an explosive future in which the jingoism and efficacy of the Oval Office must be backed up by a heavily-armed mobile armoured ops suit. An alternate reality where the president is a mechsuit pilot and competent killer of faceless goons. A coup d’etat has occurred, you see, and he’s been ousted from office by his vice-president, a man called Richard. Such an assault on democracy will not stand.
The remaster was announced this summer at E3. In the early 2000s, however, if you weren’t an Xbox owner in Japan, there was one other way to taste a little Chaos. This involved buying issue 39 of Official Xbox Magazine, loading up the demo disc, and holding left trigger while pressing: left, X, Y, up, A, Y, B, up, down, down, Y, right, right, right, back. Well done. You’ve just unlocked the hidden demo for an obscure Japanese action game, secreted away behind Forza Motorsport and Conker: Live and Reloaded (this unlock code was revealed in the following issue of the magazine).
Meanwhile, in Japan, the game had released late in the year – December 22, 2004 – and despite this it was well-liked and gained a small following. But it wasn’t a massive money-maker.
“It wasn’t a huge commercial success by any stretch of the imagination,” says Zach Huntley of Kakehashi Games, the team who handle all Devolver’s business in Japan. He’s showing me the opening of the game in a posh trailer I found in a car park outside the LA Convention Centre, and is filling me in on the history.
The offices of From Software and Microsoft, it turns out, were only a few minutes apart. Masanori Takeuchi, a producer of From Software, remembers how Microsoft schmoozed with the Dark Soulser-to-be. They saw Armoured Core, one of From’s other games, holding its own as a PlayStation exclusive, and they wanted something similar. From Software said: Sure, we’ll do you a robot game. But they didn’t want to just make Armoured Core again. They wanted to make a game in which members of the executive branch of the US government fought each other with 100 guns compacted inside a giant military futuresuit.
The game would be more arcade-like, and it would have over-the-top characters. And a story. Yes. Let’s give it a story, decided From Software. A story about a battle for the presidency in a combustible 2020s America.
Of course there was a problem, says Huntley. By the time it was ready, Metal Wolf Chaos, as the game was now called, was coming out at “the tail end of the Xbox’s life cycle”. The Xbox 360 had already been announced and Microsoft was focusing on their new beast. The decision was made not to release From’s rambunctious presidential rumble around the globe, even though that had been the plan all along. Now it would release it in Japan only. There it became a lesser-known but well-liked action game among the relatively small number of Xbox owners who bought it for Christmas and afterwards.
“Fast-forward 11 years,” says Huntley. “Devolver does a joke tweet.”
Yes. Even though the game was little-known, the bods at Devolver remembered it fondly enough to do a joke tweet about bringing it to the world. In jest, they told of a willingness to finally release the then 11-year-old game in the west (“...if From Software wants some help”).
The tweet didn’t stay a joke for long. Devolver, seeing how many people really liked the idea of a HD remake, decided to seriously pitch their plan to From Software. They even included the tweet itself in their pitch, as proof of interest. They had one person in particular to convince - Masanori Takeuchi. The producer of the game, who had led the team to create Microsoft’s jingoistic answer to Armoured Core, was still at the company.
Takeuchi was skeptical at first, says Huntley. He knew the game had a cult following, that it was well-liked. But he didn’t think many people would actually pay for a game this old. As a creator, he was happy to see people still interested in his studio’s old work. But it had been 11 years, and he was also a businessman now, so he was cagey about a re-release. It was only after seeing the tweet, and coming round to the idea that a buying audience really existed, did he start to take the pitch more seriously.
“From there it was a lot of going back and forth,” says Huntley, “trying to find the right timing, [seeing] whether or not it would work out. And now here we are today, with Metal Wolf Chaos XD.”
Devolver’s man in Japan describes the job of porting it as “crazy difficult”. The porting team at General Arcade have “really had their work cut out for them” he says. The original Xbox had a 4:3 aspect ratio, so they’ve had to sort that mess out, to make it fit on modern monitors and televisions. They also had to port all the original code over to a new engine, one that would work on modern consoles. All this work only truly got underway at the start of this year, so the polishing job is on-going.
From Software will be publishing the ‘XD’ version in Japan as well, he says. Which means Masanori Takeuchi is looking at each build, sending notes and feedback about the porting team’s progress. It will be a carefully-made remaster. Although, Devolver don’t like using that word.
“We think about it as a ‘Japanese import’ that we’re bringing to modern consoles,” says Huntley. “We’re not rebuilding things, we’re not touching the game code at all. We want people to experience the game as it was meant to be played.”
So the visuals are getting polished, basically. The original version had full English voice-acting (since it had been intended to release in the US) and true to their vision of an unaltered Japanese import, they’re keeping that. That Devolver are treating this bonkers game with the reverence of a gang of historians shouldn’t come as a surprise given the publisher’s keenness for everything retro, but it’s still weird to see them acting as a preserver, when they’re more often found harvesting nostalgia with new games that act as modernised throwbacks.
As for the game itself (which I get to play a little) to say that it has “aged well” would be too simple of a statement. Its age looks only to have added to its oddness. The gunfights are simplistic, thoughtless bullet tempests, and the levels are boxy prop-filled corridors. It's easy, uncomplicated, and - mechanically speaking - nothing special. But this just makes it seem more like a worryingly accurate pastiche of its own era. The over-the-top daftness also matches Devolver’s sensibilities with worrying accuracy. If you told me this game never existed in 2004 and this was all a massive hoax, I’d probably believe you. All that said, I laughed an awful lot.
I’ve already told you about the melodramatic narrator. But when he delivers his ridiculous prologue (“Micahel Wilson… boldly waged his own personal war…. To take back…… America’s freedom!”) our demo guide speaks along, line for line, like any fans of the Big Lebowski or Withnail and I. When both the mech’s shoulders open up, revealing a rotating belt of weapons, including an M4, a bazooka, and a gun that shoots money and confetti, I cannot help but laugh. The game has dedicated taunt buttons, mapped to the d-pad. There is no mechanical reason for these to exist, other than to let the player shout the same few lines as they gun down countless traitorous troops. “Dead end!” shouts the President. “Swiss cheese!” “Bring it on!” “You’re toast!” “Oh my god!”
Devolver mean to add extras, even if they are determined not to mess with the canned laughter of the game itself. They’ve talked about adding a ‘New Game+ mode’ with harder difficulty, and unlockable skins for the mech.
“We think there’s a lot of potential there,” says Huntley. Given Devolver’s record of putting crossover material in their games (the masks of Hotline Miami and Ruiner showing up in Absolver, for example) I wouldn’t be surprised to see some familiar appearances here. Except now they also have the option of coaxing a Solaire of Astora mech skin out of Takeuchi.
The idiocy of the presidential mech assault continues. The dialogue of the game is so hammy it could be a fully spitroasted hog. “Well looky here! More guests!” says Judy, a disembodied, secretarial voice in your ear, as more enemies arrive. And after you gun them down: “Well, I guess they won’t be voting for you next term.”
It doesn’t end. “Just another day at the Oval Office” she says, as Air Force One takes off from beneath the Lincoln memorial. As the president flies away, hanging from the bay doors of the plane, he sees the man who’s behind this all. Of course, it’s the vice-president.
“Michael!” shouts this antagonist, with an evil laugh.
“Richarrrrd!” the president shouts back at him, in what could be interpreted either as an angry cry, but sounds more like an impassive call for attention, like he’s just across the street and wants to catch his mate’s eye. There’s something hugely amusing about hearing two of the most white bread names imaginable being hollered at length against the backdrop of Washington DC.
“It looks like this party,” says Judy, “is just getting started!”
The whole thing seems like an exercise in joyous, purposeless, Americana. PC players will get customisable controls and sliders and so on, Huntley tells me as we wrap things up. And there’ll be 14 missions lasting 30 mins each. Describing it like this makes it clear what a product of its time Metal Wolf Chaos is. I wouldn’t be surprised at this point if Huntley handed me a list of the guns that feature in the game.
Today, we don’t really need a fictional videogame to depict the United States presidency as a hyperbolic omnishambles. But there is something refreshing about this particular image of the great power’s government. The 14 years that have passed only seem to have made the game funnier, intentionally or not. Sign me up, Judy, I’m joining the party.
Metal Wolf Chaos XD is due out some time this year