Spirits of Steel

SRW was the next big step after Evangelion. EVA showed me what the world was, but SRW showed me what it could be.

What is SRW? Super Robot Wars. You know how I like video games right? SRW is my favorite series of games in ALL the games I have played. That’s a lot of games (more than a thousand at least) That should tell you something.

I can give you a brief overview of what it is. It’s essentially a strategy RPG in which a whole bunch of giant robots from various anime series join forces and kick the shit out of the bad guys. It sounds simple but it’s actually anything but.

You see, the principal appeal of SRW is that not only is it a crossover, it’s an incredible well done one. Imagine Star Trek crossed with Babylon V crossed with Star Wars crossed with Sherlock Holmes…and they’re all written well with all the references you expected and all the actors doing their jobs perfectly. It’s a fan’s dream come true.

I still remember watching the screen when I first started playing the games, rapt with attention. All else had fallen from me. At those moments I did not care about my depression, about my family situation, about school or work or anything. It. Was. Just. So. Cool. Hero upon hero faced down insurmountable odds. Missiles were loosed, energy beams flared, swords swung and split apart heaven and earth. People died heroic deaths. Lives and worlds were saved again and again. My eyes widened and widened and then widened some more. I’m reminded of the scene in Gurren Lagaan when Shimon first sees Kamina in action. He just gasps and smiles and opens his eyes bigger and bigger and bigger. That was what I felt.

I wanted to be those people. (in many ways, I still do!) I wanted to be as powerful, as brave, and as strong. To move mountains, to smash through evil with fists of blazing fire. Even if I didn’t have a giant robot of my own (an eternal regret of mine), I would do the best I could.
Of course like most things in life (except Evangelion) it was not so obvious to me at first. All I knew was that I really loved SRW. As a friend of mine put it “Kain is crazy about SRW” to which I replied “No, I am absolutely fucking insane about it.” I collected the drama CDs. I sang the songs. I think at one point (before the franchise got really large) I could sing every vocal song ever in any SRW. I knew the ins and the outs of each story (quite a feat in a world without Wikipedia) and side story and character reference.

Unlike most other fans of the series, it was never really about the giant robots themselves. I had no use for the height and weight measurements and detailed lists of weapons that so delighted the rest. It was something deeper, something faster, stronger, hotter. Even then, without words, I realized what the creators of the robots themselves (both in and out of the game world) knew – that the robot was a metaphor. It was the Spirits of Steel within that I fell in love with, that united with my own, that still remains with me now. I truly believe that would never have come to where I am and write these words without SRW.

A large part of the appeal of it was the music. Generally, SRW uses the themes of the anime series from which the robots are taken. Giant robots? Anime music? One of the greatest (if not greatest) SRPGs ever made! Sign me up!

Where my father was absent they were there for me. Zengar, Domon, Schwartz, Coach, Kamina and others. They taught me how to be a man, and what a man should be. Resolute, strong, competent. Never afraid to express gratitude or to show contrition. Steadfast and loyal. Righteous and strong.

(You owe it to yourself to listen to at least some SRW music. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can just type it out and it will appear, so you have no excuse!)

So SRW! The greatest game series ever, at least to me. It would remain a huge part of my life for the next fifteen years or so, in all its untranslated glory. Yes, SRW was the most Japanese of Japanese games, one that even today has not seen many titles localized. A typical main series title sold about two million units in Japan. The only two games that did appear in English sold about…20k?

How did I actually find the music? Well, it was before the advent of the Internet, so finding anime music was not exactly an easy task. I became a late 90s version of one of the 60s record junkies, scouring the back alleys and hobby and game stores for those precious precious anime and game soundtracks. This was not like walking into a store and just buying music – no sirree. You had to find this stuff, and let me tell you that it was NOT always easy to find! Thank God for Taiwanese and Hong Kong pirates! If not for them I would never have been able to afford any music at all.

I also listened to a fair bit of tokusatsu music, a close relative of Super Robots. What’s tokusatsu? I’m sure you know what the Power Rangers are right? Well, it’s a whole genre of live-action stunts in Japan, encompassing everything from Gozilla to ninjas and other people in rubber suits. I never really got into it. I love big giant robots in primary colors yelling at each other and shooting beams of energy, but I don’t really like spandex-clad gymnasts in primary colors yelling at people in rubber monster suits and jumping around with explosions going off behind them. I don’t know – I’m funny that way.

A lot of the tokusatsu singers also sang Super Robot songs, so there was considerable overlap. It didn’t matter to me – I just sang them all. They were so different from boring pop songs on TV and the radio! They sang of life, of hope, of dreams, of the blue sky and the stars and victory over endless odds. At that time I didn’t realize a very simple truth – Japanese pop songs are VERY DIFFERENT from American pop songs. Music differs from culture to culture and from genre to genre. There’s no real need to discriminate. But as an angry youth I discriminated fiercely.

Part of it was the fact that I REFUSED to listen to any songs in English for some time. The blame for this (like most things) rests squarely on my Mum, who took every opportunity to denigrate the music I loved as “kiddy” and “cartoonish.” Now if I only I was a proper teenager (ignoring the fact that the whole point of teenage is not to be proper in any way, shape, manner or form) I would listen to Radiohead and Nirvana and go disco dancing. And then afterwards to university and then marry a nice Chinese girl and settle down and…you get the picture.

I should tell you a little about my mother’s conception of teenage. According to her all teenagers listened to the radio, dressed smartly and went clubbing and to the disco. When she was younger she was Singapore’s first female DJ (a fact she repeated over a hundred times through the years) and she quite obviously wanted to mold us into her image. She seemed often puzzled by our behavior and once told my sister that she understood our friends a lot better than she understood us.

But returning to music. The days of Napster came (omg I feel old again) and boy did I spend a lot of time there looking for music. I was into Jpop for a fair bit for a while – obvious considering my love of anime music and Japanese. For the most part though it was just (except for a few old favorites) far too bubblegum for me. These were the days that finding the opening song of a certain late 80s mecha series was cause for great delight, joy and general jubilation. Some days I still can’t believe I can just type whatever I want into Youtube and have it appear (in both languages!)

I used to write FAQs for SRW and I garnered a fair share of fans from them as well. I remember Warren Subianto from school mentioning that a friend he knew couldn’t believe he actually knew the Kain that wrote FAQs.

People wrote in to thank me for my FAQs and translations and request some of their own. I was pretty happy to receive the mails and they cheered me up considerably during my depressive periods. I remember this one Indonesian guy who refused to be called by his normal name and wanted to be referred to as PurifiedSoul. He signed off with “gambare Kain! Tatakae, SRW warrior!” (Do your best Kain! Fight, SRW Warrior!) A man after my own heart.

There was Satch, (obviously not his real name) my Saudi Arabian friend. He emailed me at one point or another and got to talking and then we became friends. He introduced me to heavy metal and that sort of led me to playing the guitar down the way at one point. We used to be really good buddies and spent a LONG time chatting to each other on various messaging services. He showed me a totally different aspect of the world (people in the Middle East see the world very differently!) and sent me a bunch of rare mecha anime when they were hard to find. I really appreciated that.

I lost contact with him after he got married. His real name was Abdul and…yeah, good luck trying to track down someone named Abdul in the Middle East without more to go on. Allah bless you my friend.

SRW would continue to be a huge part of my life for a long time. Having each major release come out was like celebrating my birthday. I think the anticipation was sometimes even better than the game itself. But then I would actually play the game and sing the songs and see the attacks and I would realize that I was wrong.

I can’t quite talk about SRW without telling you about the formation of the blade. We all need something to get us through the hard times. The battles onscreen and the steel that I saw and sang about led to another kind forming within my heart. Was it just a mental construct? Did I just fancy myself one of those warriors that I read about when younger and saw on the screen every day? I didn’t know at first but I grew to understand that it was far, far more than that.

You’ll see it mentioned more as my story continues – what I used to fight the demons that I could not initially defeat. A blade of spirit stronger than any steel – though I could not quite believe that at first.

SRW was a big (huge!) part of my life for…fourteen years? The robots. The pilots. The music. The voice actors (I never played the handheld SRWs because there was no voice acting.) The stories. Everything about them was good and something to love.

The discussions I would have on message boards, trying to figure out why they would include (or not include) each series. Tracking down the obscure references and seeing where they came from. Guessing at what kind of interactions the characters of each series would have with each other…ahhh, I must have spend hundreds – no, thousands! – of hours on these pursuits and more.

How to end this chapter? I think Mizuki Ichirou (probably the most famous singer of SRW and anime songs in general) himself said it the best in an interview on BBC once. He said that when he sang, he sang with a “hero heart”. It took a long time for me to grow enough to realize that the hero we are searching for is within ourselves.

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