From Starcraft‘s humble SCV to MechWarrior‘s lumbering BattleMechs, humanoid mech robots have been a staple of science-fiction videogames for years. Mech movies, like Pacific Rim, also serve to show us the fearsome power of these giant walking tanks. Unfortunately for those of us living in the real world, the BigDog, a kind of robotic pack mule, is the closest thing to a mech that the military has ever produced, so we probably won’t be seeing BattleMechs stomping across the battlefield anytime soon. But that’s exactly what videogames and movies are for: making the impossible possible, be it letting you live out your fantasies of crushing tiny men under your ten-ton iron boot in Titanfall, or watching giant mechs fight giant monsters in Pacific Rim.
But that’s exactly what videogames and movies are for: making the impossible possible
Many attribute the creation of the mech to Activision’s MechWarrior series, but the origins of these giant death machines actually go back further, and are from a completely different medium. If you want to get technical about it, the very first appearance of a mech in media was the 1880 Jules Verne novel La Maison à Vapeur (The Steam House), which featured a steam-powered, piloted, mechanical elephant. But mechs as we know them came to us from the land of the rising sun. “Mecha,” from the Japanese Meka (メカ), an abbreviation of the English “mechanical,” is one of the oldest genres of Japanese anime and manga, dating back as far as 1956’s Tetsujin 28 GO, which some of our grayer readers may recognize as Gigantor – its English release name.
You may argue that the robot in Gigantor wasn’t technically a mech, because it was controlled via remote and not a live pilot. For these purists, the first real mechs surfaced with a little known manga called Mazinga Z in 1972. Never heard of it? I wouldn’t be surprised. It saw only moderate popularity in Japan, and never really made it to the West. No-one can argue though, that the real mech revolution started when Mobile Suit Gundam made its debut in 1979.
Gundam is unquestionably the father of modern mechs, introducing the world to pilotable humanoid robots fighting in an intergalactic war. It has spawned countless copycats, spin offs, and sequels. Gundam is so universally loved and recognized in Japan that you can actually visit a sixty-foot-tall life-size Gundam statue in the heart of Tokyo. Gundam also split the mecha genre into two main subgenres – Super Robot, which features robots with magical powers fighting magical monsters, and Real Robot, with mechs that are (slightly) more grounded in reality.
Understandably, some of the first mech videogames were actually Japanese arcade games based on the Gundam franchise. Even the original Metal Gear was released in Japan in 1987, two years ahead of the first MechWarrior, and featured the titular Metal Gear mech. The Japanese were playing with mechs back when the rest of us still thought that tanks and jets were the coolest a war machine could get.
When it comes to mechs in videogames, no developer has greater love affair with the metal monsters than Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima. What’s most interesting about Kojima’s work is that he has worked with both western and eastern styles of mechs. Metal Gear Solid features the very western-style Metal Gears – weaponized military goliaths that are more functional than stylish, but his lesser-known Zone of the Enders franchise clearly draws inspiration from mecha anime like Evangelion and Gundam.
To give MechWarrior credit where it’s due, it was almost single-handedly responsible for propelling the mech into popularity in Western videogames. MechWarrior made its debut in 1989. But MechWarrior is actually based on the BattleTech series of tabletop games, launched in 1984, which were themselves based on Japanese mecha anime such as Macross. While it is true that Western films like Star Wars, with its iconic AT-AT, and Aliens (“Get away from her, you bitch!”) made use of mechs, it wasn’t until MechWarrior that we started to see them become a mainstay in games. Also, as opposed to all the Gundam tie-ins of questionable quality, MechWarrior was a really fun game. Its complex controls, punishing learning curve and advanced (for the time) graphics really made you feel like you were piloting one of the thirty-foot steel monsters in an actual battle.
Subsequent installments into the MechWarrior series refined the mech genre of videogames. MechWarrior 2 in particular is often considered one of the greatest mech games ever made. Players had to manage the legs and the torso of the mech independently, keep an eye on heat gauges, and tactically account for the mech’s slow movement and maneuverability. It was like a flight simulator, but for mechs. Unfortunately licensing issues with BattleTech arose shortly after 2000’s MechWarrior 4, and forced the series into an indefinite hiatus (though it has recently resurfaced with MechWarrior Online).
It was the sheer complexity and attention to detail of MechWarrior that led to Capcom’s Steel Battalion. Steel Battalion looked at MechWarrior‘s complex control scheme and thought: “how can we one-up those guys?” The answer was with a $200, dual-control-stick, forty-button controller. Several of those buttons were dedicated solely to the mech’s start-up sequence, which had to be done at the beginning of every mission, as well as whenever your mech overheated in battle. On top of that, If you turned a corner too fast, your mech would actually fall over. Still not hardcore enough for you? If you took too long to eject from your mech when the game prompted you, your character would die, erasing all save data and forcing you to start over from the beginning of the game.
The role of the mech in games has moved away from the hardcore simulations of MechWarrior and Steel Battalion. Right now, all eyes are on Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall, a multiplayer-only title revolving around combat between free-running pilots, and agile mech suits called Titans. Titanfall is particularly interesting for mech fans because it seems to be a weird blend of East and West. The titans in Titanfall are very clearly based on the Japanese Gundam or Armored Core style of mech – humanoid, agile, and not gigantic, but the game itself is a very western-style first person shooter.
The role of the mech in games has moved away from the hardcore simulations of MechWarrior and Steel Battalion.
What we’re looking at here is “infantry scale” mech combat, where the foot soldiers can still hold their own against the mechs. Titanfall‘s Titans are no longer the fearsome “ultimate battlefield vehicle” mechs have been in the past, but just another tool to be used by the troops. Just like the tanks in the Battlefield series, seeing a mech drop shouldn’t make you think “the game is over, free kills for the enemy,” but “how can I take this guy down?”
Respawn is headed by Jason West and Vince Zampella, who created the Call of Duty franchise and made Call of Duty games back when the series was redefining the FPS, rather than regurgitating it. If West and Zampella’s track record is anything to go by, Titanfall should become one of the definitive multiplayer shooters of the next generation.
Guillermo del Toro, director of Pacific Rim, takes Titanfall’s West/East fusion idea even further. Pacific Rim is a kaiju vs mecha film. Kaiju directly translates to “strange beast” in Japanese, but due to its usage in films such as Godzilla has come to mean “giant monster.” Kaiju vs mecha is a very Japanese genre, and is the backbone for the wildly popular Super Sentai franchise (which was adapted into Power Rangers for the West). Del Toro’s aim with his film is to provide Western-style big, beautiful, and sophisticated visuals that would satisfy the adult crowd, while introducing the Japanese kaiju and mecha genres to a new generation of children. It’s an homage, love letter, and original property all in one, and it should be a nice change from the typical “super-brooding, super-dark, cynical summer movie,” as del Toro himself puts it.
Now that you’re pumped up talking about the history of mechs, it’s time to let you in on a little secret. There is a private company in Japan (where else?) that manufactures a series of commercial mechs called the “Land Walker,” which you can purchase for the low, low price of 36 million yen (that’s around $360,000). The Land Walker seats one, moves at a neckbreaking 1.5 km/h, and sports two air guns that fire soft cushion balls. It’s just over 3 meters tall, so you won’t be crushing any houses with it, but can you imagine the envy of all your friends when you cruise down the street in your very own mech? The producer, Sakibara Kikai, hopes that mechs like the Land Walker will soon be used in paintball-style wargames.
So let’s all take a moment to thank Gigantor creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama, for showing us the pure awesomeness that is giant humanoid robots, Yoshiyuki Tomino, for refining the genre into the mechs we know and love with Gundam, and even Activision, which, back when it wasn’t pumping out yearly installments of Call of Duty, brought the genre to the West with MechWarrior. Here’s hoping that the genre isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. There’s something immensely satisfying about being at the helm of building-sized robot with more firepower than an aircraft carrier.