Giant robots, a mecha corps, and AI-driven simulations that draw on contemporary gaming; United States of Japan is a spiritual sequel to The Man in the High Castle that imagines what the late 80s would be like if Japan had conquered America.
The massive mechas serve two purposes; destroy rebellious Americans, and deter the Nazis from invading and seizing the USJ, particularly as they have their eyes on the Texas oil fields. While many of the robots are completely AI driven, many are controlled by human pilots as they’ve often been able to make mincemeat of the purely robotic fighters. And as I took inspiration from Japan, they’re called mechas rather than the Western-styled mechs.
These are ten of my favorite mechas from the land of the rising sun when it comes to everything robot/mecha/AI related. I’m limited myself to Japanese influences as Western-influenced mechs deserve a list of their own.
I fought hundreds of mecha battles on my Sega Genesis for a game with one of the strangest titles of the 16-bit era. I didn’t know Herzog Zwei was actually German for “Duke Two,” instead thinking it was a code name for some kind of secret project within the game (it was a sequel for Herzog taking place in the Aria Republic). Playing as a transforming mecha, it was robot wars as RTS, a strategic volley that had me obtaining outposts, garnering units, airlifting them into place, and navigating the unique terrain of the eight battlefields.You could play split screen, or against the AI, and it took me months to finish the entire campaign, competing against the robot behind the robot. War took on all new permutations as I juggled resource allocation, defensive maneuvering, and all out suicide runs to try to get a slight edge. It was one of those games no one I knew at the time had, making it feel like my own personal covert op against the Supreme Commander One, Herzog Eins. Who knew arias of laser fire could be so melodic?
The opening scene is cinematic genius and is arguably ingrained into every 16-bit mind that experienced it when it first came out. I still remember the three Magitek armored characters walking through the snowstorm, two guards mystified by this “sorceror” who had burned fifty of their armored soldiers. They were on their way to investigate an esper from the War of the Magi a thousand years ago. While you could argue they were more exosuit than mecha, they were uniquely designed to harness magic and unload fire beams at mystified foes in the comfort of your own personal magitek armor. The game would go on to create shockwaves in the medium, pushing the narrative envelope in a way very few games have been able to match. Those opening mechas were the bridge there.
I’ve enjoyed plenty of Japanese-designed games that have let me take on the role of a mecha; Front Mission, Metal Storm, and the Lost Planet series. But getting to actually drive the Metal Gear Rex from the original PS1 Metal Gear Solid was the perfect way to connect the fourth game in the series to the older titles while making it clear it was weaving its own course. This colossal Rex was what so many soldiers had killed and died for, and though you’d fought against it multiple times, you’d never controlled the machine. It was the perfect metaphor for aging, the outdated Rex driven by a dying Old Snake versus the sleek Metal Gear Ray controlled by Liquid Ocelot. Very few games have made me feel old. I loved the design of the original, and back in 2000 or so when I was first learning Maya, it was one of the earliest 3D projects I undertook (clip above of that Maya model I built for practice). There’s so much I could do better now, and just looking at it now makes me ponder on the passing of time. In MGSIV, the whole trek back to Shadow Moses Island reminded me how much had changed since the crude polygons of the PS1 game. Like the game, my own expectations had matured and evolved into something a little more solid.
I’ve fought and watched all types of mechas throughout the years, but never a gigantic pig mecha that killed the Rocket Knight with a single touch. After a mad dash through the level, avoiding the frenetic march of the goliath pig, you get a pig mecha of your own. The first few blows are easy, but then your enemy adapts, hesitating, waiting for your attack. There’s a sophistication that epitomizes the brilliance of designer Nobuya Nakazato (who designed many of the Contra games), making you compete in a battle of swine wit. It’s one of the most underrated titles on the Sega Genesis with intuitive physics, vibrant characters, and a variety of design choices that will rocket you into the gaming stratosphere. It has a special place in my heart for pushing the quirk factor of technology.
What exactly is Xenogears? A philosophical odyssey disguised as a videogame? Or a videogame masquerading as a existential conundrum wrapped in religious metaphors? Either way, its prophets are the mechas (called gears), wielding their message with wanton destruction. Fei Fong Wong’s journey is as provocative and convoluted as the huge machines he battles with, and the revelations are as mystifying as his retrograde amnesia that strip away the layers of his story. If only I could remember what I was just talking about…
I sucked at Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, and any other arcade fighting game you can name. I wasn’t much better at Cyber Trooper Virtual-On, but I loved the arcade styled mecha/virtuaroid combat enough to stick with it. Each of the giant machines had three weapons, and their specialties gave them a distinctive feel. I loved how during the continue screen, a group of technicians would be busily at work, trying to fix your parts. As a kid, I dreamed of mecha fights with toys assembled from cheap kits on the rare occasions I’d have enough money to afford one. Cyber Trooper Virtual-On was like living out that robotic sandbox, only with better graphics in a virtual battleground.
Aside from Virtual-On, most mechas in gaming felt stiff and constricted. Enter Zone of the Enders whose controls made mecha piloting feel like a totally new experience, or rather, the one I’d always wanted. The story was a tad melodramatic and the cliffhanger ending was disappointing, but the physics, the navigation, and the feel of driving Jehuty were sublime. You could move the “frame,” Jehuty, in all directions, bound only by your skills. It felt like you were a mechanical samurai, swift and deadly, able to blow enemies away or close in for an energy sword attack. Designer Yoji Shinkawa jokingly placed the cockpit in the literal crotch/cock area, though he later moved it back up to its head. Talk about getting into the zone.
Biblical intonations always add gravity to epic battles. Patlabor 2 had very few mecha battles. The conflicts were more cerebral, the stakes, while grand, were also very personal. A lot of the poignancy came in moments of little dialogue or action; rather contemplation, incredible music by Kenji Kawai, and characters stirred by hidden motives, pain dripping from the animated contours of their eyes. Mechas in this case weren’t as important as the humans they embodied, the physical manifestation of the internal struggle vitalized, oiled, and crafted into labors. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
One of my old leads at LucasArts introduced me to the series and told me it would change my life. I could not stop watching as Angels came to destroy both Earth and every spare minute of my time. Neon Genesis Evangelion in many ways ruined other anime for me as it was so good. You might be asking why this or that title didn’t make this list, and it’s probably because I watched or became aware of the series after Evangelion. Shinji Ikari is an unlikely hero, at times, frustratingly passive. But together with Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu, they form a triumvirate of destruction that makes the Angels face their robotic demons in the form of Evangelion units. The characters are distinctive, the plot is full of mysteries that evoke questions at every turn, and the disparate elements connect in a seamless canon of myth and technology. The mechas aren’t just machines; they’re living, breathing, beasts, syncing to the nervous systems of their pilots while rapidly destroying anything in their path. Neon Genesis is arguably one of the greatest series ever developed and its ambitious storytelling has been one of my biggest inspirations. The mechas in the USJ could probably counter any of the previously listed machines, but wouldn’t stand a chance against the evangelions. At least not for another couple of decades.
Inspired by Top Gun and Aim for the Ace!, Gunbuster is also considered the spiritual predecessor to Neon Genesis Evangelion (Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, who animated on Gunbuster, was the character designer and main adaptor of Neon Genesis Evangelion) and was one of my very first introductions to the world of anime. It wasn’t just about mechas and robots; it was the pilots, their romances, rivalries, and ambitions. The science epilogues gave it an element of realism I hadn’t seen in the cartoons I had grown up watching. The final act, the ultimate sacrifice, is to set off Jupiter as a black hole bomb to destroy the space monsters. Its play on the ramifications of time versus light always mesmerized me. Traveling at light speed might mean a few minutes of flight for them, but would equal months, even years, back on Earth. The Gunbuster pair’s final sacrifice involves them losing 12,000 years in Earth time to save humanity. I feel this odd bit of synchronicity, looking back on the original Gunbuster that engendered my love of anime, and now having the chance to write about a world full of mechas in the United States of Japan almost two decades later. It’s a time warp, and I’ve always wondered what happened in that world 12,000 years later, just as I wondered where I’d be twenty years from watching the series. I’ve heard there’s a sequel called Diebuster that has to be seen. You’ll please excuse me while I go ponder the future of both worlds.