Giant robots need giant sounds. Whether you’re blasting through hundreds of enemies or locked in a lethal grapple with just one, you have to have the tunes to run on instinct and let your big mechanical body take over. This week we look at four games with soundtracks you should seriously bump inside your Entry Plug.
War sucks. Killing sucks. Child soldiers? Technology only designed to cause devastation? Power brokers in an endless game for that last percentage of control? It all sucks. It serves no purpose. There’s a lot of war in mech media. And it’s bad. War is bad.
But the robots—the colossal skyscraper ones, the small, house-sized ones, the ones that could have looked like anything, but we made look like us, even the ones that look like goddamn fax machines?
The robots are extremely good.
This is a tension that every mecha fan has to grapple with and resolve within themselves.
Look, Char was probably wrong to drop the colony instead of finding alternative, long-lasting conflict resolution. But damn is his custom MSN-04 Sazabi sick. The Federation are dicks anyway.
We didn’t choose the mech life, the mech life chose us.
First of all, let’s be specific. When I speak of mechs and mecha in this piece, I’m referring to pilot-driven craft that are most typically but not exclusively humanoid in silhouette, if not outright design. Really, the key here is that these are piloted, not remote-controlled (sorry, Gigantor) or independently operating. Big robot bodies you can be inside, if you will.
There’s a lot of readings, a lot of symbolism and weight we can slap onto mechs. One most obvious being pubescence—a body that is radically more powerful than what we’re used to, being driven by a child, who has to learn how to navigate space, conflict, and their emotional landscape. There’s also related issues of gender, sexuality, and ability. Do mechs allow us to exist outside the scope of gender? Sometimes, maybe, in a way. But we’ve seen plenty of gendered mechs, and one cannot live exclusively inside the pilot capsule. Can a mech be a stand-in for talking about assistive devices, or a body that isn’t just reparable, but far more capable than ordinarily possible? Is that even a worthwhile avenue to explore? And then there’s all the complications around sexuality and sexual development that ties back into the pubescence thing (Hi, Anno, we all see you. Weirdo.)
And what of war itself? Sometimes it’s just war. War is bad, the purveyors of war are bad, everyone is bad. Even when the mechs are very good. We can’t ignore the direction Zeon goes, even when we acknowledge that the Federation is an imperialist nightmare. We may love the Red Comet, but we have to understand the Zaku II is a machine built solely to destroy, and Char’s custom version is purposefully augmented to be so much more destructive. For every goofy facial expression RX-78-2 seems to make and all its heroic posing, it is an instrument of oppression created by rich and powerful men to maintain their lifestyles.
Mechs are messy, complicated, and for as much as we can map onto them there’s always more or so much less than intended. And it’s not always good or fruitful. But the appeal is undeniable.
Videogames were a natural fit for slammin’ mecha-on-mecha action, grafting power fantasy onto power fantasy, like Voltron, to make something colossal and enticing (and for Bandai to profit off of). We love fantasizing about our hot metal bodies blowing shit up. It’s cool. We feel not only powerful, but stylish. These games offer us that with seemingly more control.
We want a mechanical body to buffer incoming trauma for us, and grant us not only the ability to survive what would be devastating, but to act within and upon systems and entities much larger and outside of our reach and control. We want to take over piloting duties of a massive suit of armor that can and will be jettisoned. Mech games allow us to be in the pilot seat, from the safety of our living rooms: Shinji by way of Jimmy Sparks.
So this week I wanted to talk about mechs, and there’s a lot of games I could choose. And I’m sorry if it seems like I have slighted Yasunori Mitsuda once again, but Xenogears just wasn’t on my mind this week.
I wanted the mech games about direct control. Where limbic system kicks in and we act on instinct. Where thumbs become pilot’s hands and synergize with the terrible metal arms of a graceful-against-reason body.
Okay, let’s cut to the start-up sequence and kick out that slammin’ OP. It’s time to “Get in the fucking robot, Shinji.”
(And before you argue with me about Gundam’s politics, go listen to The Great Gundam Project.)
Virtual On: Cyber Troopers
When it was my dad’s weekend for custody, we had this ritual of going to an arcade before he dropped me back off for another school week with my mom. Station Break. It’s what you think of when you think of an arcade. A real ass one.
Located in this dilapidated strip mall on Grace St. near my alma mater Virginia Commonwealth University, it was dark. I mean real dark. Very few literal children frequented it. Someone (or several someones) was always smoking weed. There was a large Tom Nook man with a jangling quarter dispenser on a belt, because the coin machine was always dead and rarely getting repaired.
And what started with feeding Super Hang-On and Afterburner turned into X-Men and Mortal Kombat and, in 1996, Virtual On: Cyber Troopers.
I’m going to be One of Those Games Journalists for a minute and say, if you didn’t get to play Virtual On under those conditions on the two-seater, twin stick machine, you haven’t really played Virtual On. Grabbing those twin sticks and slinking back into the hard plastic seat lit only by the dazzling colors reflecting off my face as I dashed and blasted my way through whoever dared sit next to me was an incomparable thrill.
This is what anime promised.
And hoo boy. The soundtrack. Arcade games often struggle with competing against one another, creating a cacophony of attract modes, and dudes howling after getting their ass beat down by a 9-year-old girl who knew Street Fighter II Turbo better than they knew anything, and had made that pretty narcissist Ken an extension of herself (seriously, you didn’t want to fuck with her—but she taught me to love Mr. Masters). Virtual On: Cyber Troopers cut through all that with powerful speakers and Kentaro Koyama’s furious anime beats. These synths will scorch your ears at times. It’s the kind of shit that would give birth to the dauntless, slick J-Pop production that spawned us Ayumi Hamasaki at her most effervescent.
And like, of course, these are big, bright, colorful mechs. They’re custom Gunpla done over with the Testors model car paint set intended for use on ridiculous Italian sports cars.
One of the mechs, Fei-Yen (my fave, natch), shoots HEART BEAMS. OK? HEART. BEAMS. I wrecked so many grown-up, aggressively heterosexual men with those heart beams as I Michelle Kwan’d my way around the arena.
There’s even a secret track pulled from the game that is a 100% not remotely clearable rip-off of Sailor Moon. Because of course there is.
Now, Sega, when are we getting the proper sequel with Perfume and Capsule on soundtrack duty?
Armored Core 4
Look. We weren’t getting out of here without me putting Armored Core on this list. When it comes to mech games, this franchise is probably my true love. And of course, why wouldn’t it be. From Software has developed a certain set of studio sensibilities that touch all of their games in some way or another, and those work on me.
If you want a mech game that has the broody opacity of Soulsborne, filled with half-truths and skepticism about organizational and individual power, and a fiddliness about builds and loadouts, this franchise is probably the best in class.
There are a lot of Armored Core games. They span multiple generations (though tragically, not this current one) and console brands. They’ve had time to try things out, get weird with the formula, make new fans and piss off grognards (who all inevitably become the same people). But most importantly for our purposes…
There’s a lot of soundtracks to choose from.
And they all slap.
From the straightforward electro of the early ACs to Last Raven’s “Zero Point Five,” which evokes Tricky by way of KMFDM by way of Future Sound of London, I could have picked anything and walked away fine. But Armored Core 4 does something that, as the remade Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater takes hold, I think we need more of: hella sk8r bass.
Sure, there’s that classic From Software choir, and plenty of electronica and metal. There’s even a thinly-veiled nod to Elvis Costello with “Pump Me Up” and its unexpected VOX Continental organ hits. There’s a track that starts basically borrowing the riff from the Peter Gunn theme before going off on a voyage. But as charming as the ‘90s alternative and the occasional dip into emo riffs or early ‘00s J-Rock, and all the weirdness of influences brought to bear on this score, it’s that damn skater bass that runs throughout like connective tissue which makes it arguably my favorite.
And this is where I get to be weird and float that we actually need more of this. Way more.
1. More sick sk8r jams in general mech games.
2. Tony Hawk’s Mech Skater (don’t @ me).
Really, we need a mech game with an opening as sick as Log Horizon’s “Database,” but that’s another story entirely. Either way, I’m right about all this.
It’s not the Armored Souls we deserve. You probably haven’t played it. You might not have even heard of it unless you have a deep fixation on random From Software titles from the Dreamcast era.
I’m not going to say Frame Gride is good, or that you should rush out and find a copy. But honestly, it’s pretty okay. And unless you’re coming with me on the Dark Souls 2 is a mech game reach that I will argue into the fucking cursed ground of Drangleic, it’s kind of the closest we’ve got to an Escaflowne-like.
Frame Gride is the weird hybrid of King’s Field fantasy aesthetic with Armored Core duels. It’s a one-on-one fantasy mech fighting game. If that doesn’t sound cool, I can’t help you. And sure the control scheme is byzantine and it honestly looked a little dated when I imported it in 1999 based off a preview in Next Generation magazine for the sum of … like an entire week’s paycheck, only to spend a month struggling through the menus because any high school Japanese I had learned was long gone.
But come on, it’s a fantasy-themed Armored Core approach to Virtual On.
[Pause for emphatic “YOOOOOO!”]
The soundtrack is an underappreciated gem that feels more in line with JRPG scores of the time than a mech fighting game. But with From Software, veteran Armored Core composer Kota Hoshino has never shied away from stretching the boundaries of the expected score. There’s martial drums and icy, reverberating synths. Woodland themes, you know, like that starting forest zone you inevitably end up grinding in to buy those first upgrades. It’s never high energy, there’s nary a drop of techno, but it hums along with a life of its own from the dramatic to the officious. These are lo-fi beats to chill out in your mecha isekai to.
That I could literally only find one instance of it on YouTube, without timestamps, or really anything is tragic. Please love this game. At least give the soundtrack a listen.
Anyway, like, shout out to Russia for letting me bring this to you.
Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner
I’ll be honest with you. 99% of the The Second Runner’s soundtrack is just okay. It’s fine. It totally gets the job done. It borrows from the Harry Gregson-Williams school of incessant urgency too often, and does little to distinguish itself from track to track. But it’s cohesive. And none of it is flat out bad. This is workman-like cinematic trance mixed with driving horns, strings, and relentless percussion. And some of the boss fights are pretty good.
But that’s not why we’re here.
We’re here because despite that the OP fucking SLAPS.
Listen. Akihiro Honda, Toshiyuki Kakuta, and Norihiko Hibino do a fine job making passable anime techno background music. You could drop some E and dance all night to this in a Slovakian bomb shelter turned nightclub and you would still have a great time. You could drive really fast on I64-W at 3 a.m. in your mom’s Jetta and feel like a hero despite crushing depression (sorry, Mom). It absolutely works for the game. But it wouldn’t make this list. Not yet, not until we’d really started exhausting the history of game soundtracks.
Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner is here almost entirely because Maki Kirioka wrote one of the most banging mecha anime OPs of all time. She just so thoroughly dominated this soundtrack with one song it’s all we really think about.
I’ll put “Beyond the Bounds” up against “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” any day. It might not win. But it has a shot, and it’d be a fight worth leading into with Decisive Battle.
Thankfully, I don’t believe in hierarchical ranking, so let’s just say this opener, which blends heavily-accented English vocals with gibberish quasi-Finnish in a staggeringly effective manner, fucking soars. If the other tracks provide a functional, ignorable backdrop to the frantic mech-on-mech-on-mech-on-mech-on-and-so-on action of the gameplay, this song imagines, sonically, the feeling of that gameplay.
The wind-up of ignition sequence. The railgun launch that cuts to the streaking, searing violin across the sky as water vaporizes in the afterburner. Boosting beyond the clouds and spiraling down in dogfight like swallows. The hyperkinetic slam of metal into mechanical fist like a fast ball in a catcher’s mitt, crunched then slammed into metal bodies. Missiles, lasers, hundreds of them. Explosions. An arrhythmic heart(beat). And the graceful figure skating by way of rhythm gymnastics where vocals and layers of string blend with a delicate ferocity as they build heat and aggression darting through asymmetrical swarms of enemies, refusing to stop to watch the fiery bursting behind you in stop-motion. Only acceleration. Until the true prey is finally subdued, and you can leave this Orbital Frame behind, hopefully for good. The cicada’s husk—finally done protecting us while we struggled to learn how to exist.
This track rips.
Go play more mech games and think about the politics of your hot metal body and what it all means.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.