The samurai have been a vital part of Japanese culture for hundreds of years. Their tales form a rich mythological tapestry that has inspired the imaginations of countless people. Even after the Meiji Restoration, when the samurai’s reign over feudal Japan effectively ended, their grip on the national consciousness remained. Like the knight or the cowboy, the samurai created a culturally specific ideal that continues to find expression in Japanese society – sometimes in the least likely of places.
Samurai regarded their mortal bodies as expendable tools in combat. According to the code of the bushido, it was preferable to die with honor than live in shame; the code even endorsed rituatlistic suicide as a way for samurai to regain their standing in society. Couple their view of the body as an instrument with their often ostentatious armor – including iconic headpieces that sported golden V-fins – and you can probably begin to see where this is all going.
Mitsuteru Yokoyama was the first manga artist to pen what we’d later identify as “mecha” in his 1956 work Tetsujin 28-go. This was then animated a few years later and even made the leap across the globe as Gigantor. However, the simple beginnings of mecha belie their historical influences. The main protagonist, Shotaro Kaneda, controls the eponymous robot from the ground via remote control, but Tetsujin 28-go was very much an extension of Shotaro: The mecha was his expendable body, one practically controlled by his “will” alone. Despite being a radio-controlled robot, Tetsujin 28-go also had, for all intents and purposes, a soul.
Fast forward 20 years and you’ll find the tail end of Yokoyama’s influence, with Go Nagai‘s wondrous super robots striking poses across the Japanese airwaves. In these shows, the protagonists actually sat within their mecha and powered them with ferocious skill and determination. And it was here, in the twilight of the super robot era, that a new program mapped the samurai mythos directly onto mecha.
Mobile Suit Gundam first aired in 1979 with an almost unknown Yoshiyuki Tomino at the helm. It absolutely tanked. It wasn’t until the series was re-assembled into three movies that probably the most well-known mecha franchise in existence came into being. Mobile Suit Gundam dropped the inferences to samurai culture in favor of something more overt. The Gundam mobile suit itself looked strikingly similar to brightly coloured samurai armor; the V-fin atop its head and its samurai faceguard became a consistent design motif amongst the series’ many sequels. But the true core of the series was the advancement of human evolution via spiritually attuned “Newtypes” that treated their bodies as mere vessels for their souls.
It was practically the bushido code set in space.
Since Mobile Suit Gundam, many series have continued to explore the influences of samurai on mecha. Recent anime shows like Mobile Suit Gundam 00 are even more self-aware, featuring characters like Mister Bushido, who pilots a custom mobile suit that is effectively robotic samurai armor, including the iconic faceguard and a pair of katana-esque beamsabers. Likewise, the Wings of Rean anime features an aura battler called the Oukaou that looks like the bizarre offspring of a samurai and a very angry butterfly. (In fact, the show’s mecha designer referred to his creations as “aura samurai.”)
Mecha videogames communicate the same influences as their manga and anime counterparts, but the results are frequently frustrating to Western players. Games are, on their simplest level, a rule set with an objective. Mecha operate within their own rule sets, however, as manga and anime have already given them incredibly intricate parameters. These parameters stem from the fact that mecha are ciphers for their pilots with no innate capabilities of their own; players must embrace a truly fierce learning curve until they reach that threshold where they have the skill to treat their mecha as bodily extensions of their will.
This learning curve is where mecha games get into trouble outside of Japan, as many gamers often prefer to have a standardized rule set to work within with a similarly pre-ordained control configuration. By contrast, many mecha games appear to purposefully avoid such effortless playability. Steel Battalion is perhaps the most obvious example, with its massive controller encrusted with an array of flashing buttons. If you analyze the game’s rule set in a cursory manner, you may feel a gamepad would suffice, but this would be at the expense of the unique experience the game offers: the chance to transcend the controls and pilot a wonderfully huge robot as if it were second nature. Picking up a katana does not instantly make you a swordsman, nor does sitting down at the controls of Steel Battalion give you uninhibited access to the full spectrum of its abilities. Both weapons take time to learn and, with sufficient skill and determination, master.
Other games are more difficult to define in this manner, as their complexity only reveals itself over time. The Armored Core series, for example, initially appears to be quite welcoming to novices, as it employs the familiar gamepad and third-person viewpoint. It even allows players to customize their mecha, furthering the illusion of unencumbered gameplay. But in reality, successfully piloting an Armored Core is actually very demanding. Instead of placing an intimidating control scheme between players and their intended actions, Armored Core opts for a wider scope of environmental rules that players must master in their entirety in order to proceed. As with Steel Battalion, putting forth the effort to become a capable pilot is the actual objective of the game and not the rather facile missions and arena encounters.
Likewise, the twin-sticks) along with an equally simple dash mechanic – that is, until you realize that dashes occur in fixed vectors with a freeze penalty at their conclusion. Combat becomes an attempted tactical wrong-footing of your opponent, since you must find an advantageous dash vector at the precise moment of your opponent’s dash freeze. It’s basically kendo … with guns and robots.
If you were thinking that Western games like MechWarrior and Heavy Gear are somehow exempt from this samurai influence, you’re sorely mistaken. BattleTech was essentially lifted from the anime Fang of the Sun Dougram, and Heavy Gear is very similar to Armored Trooper VOTOMS. Both of those shows were penned by Ryosuke Takahashi, who is particularly fastidious when it comes to his mecha’s operational capacity. So it’s hardly surprising that the already cogent rule set that existed within his animated works mapped so well to videogames.
So, if this cultural baggage is unavoidable, why are mecha games still made in such huge abundance? The simple answer is that Japanese gamers still want them, and the Western gaming community has a rather provincial outlook on the rest of the global gaming populace. It’s not that these games are wilfully awkward – it’s that many Western gamers are functionally prejudiced and cognitively lazy. They’ve forgotten that games are actually about rule sets and not about badly copying the medium of film with a cut-and-paste approach to interface design.
The point of mecha games is to become a capable pilot. They may initially appear similar to first- or third-person genre-based games with human avatars, but they aren’t at all meant to be pedestrian. They are functional ciphers for your skill and a rather ingenious attempt to live life, if only for a brief while, as a futuristic samurai.
Ollie Barder has worked in the games industry for a number of years both as a journalist and within publishing. He now works at the game developer “doublesix” as a Senior Designer. He’s also imported a sizeable amount of games since childhood.