The protagonist is not named Max
I fell hopelessly in love with Metal Max Xeno Reborn. It was my first time with the series, which has been running in Japan since 1991. It was quite the roller coaster for me. I immediately jumped online and placed an order for some of the series’ early games. I felt the heartbreak of Metal Max: Wild West getting canceled. Then I found love again in Metal Max for the Famicom. Then I reminded myself that Metal Max: Wild West was canceled, and now I’m sad again.
Metal Max has largely stayed in Japan, outside of Xeno and its Reborn cousin. We got Metal Saga on PS2, but that went by without much notice. Maybe we’ll get a re-release on PS5 now that Sony is doing that again. There were many titles that flitted by without our anglophone notice, and I plan on delving through as many as I can get my nimble fingers on. Metal Max is one I can communicate via Famicom Friday, so allow me to share it with you.
Get a real job
I love Metal Max. Famicom RPGs can be a struggle, whether or not they’re a Dragon Quest or a Mother. It was kind of a crappy era for console RPGs. No, maybe that’s inaccurate. It was an awkward era for console RPGs. A great era for PC RPGs, but console RPGs were kind of lopsided. Regardless, I ate Metal Max without any discomfort. Without any boredom.
It helps that a lot of what I loved about Metal Max Xeno Reborn was already true on the Famicom. It’s a post-apocalyptic JRPG that focuses on tanks. The plot is light, instead getting out of your way so you can hunt monsters. The focus is mainly on finding vehicles and accumulating enough money to make them over-powered. The monsters are ridiculous, and there’s this sly, dark sense of humor underlying all of it.
It’s also rather polished for a JRPG of this vintage. I had the option of playing the Famicom version or the Super Famicom remake, Metal Max Returns. I opted for the original, because its art-style is so classic for the system. It’s obvious that, much like other RPGs of the era, it got a lot of influence from Dragon Quest. Characters are squat, backgrounds are sparse, and enemies are enormous. If you like the Famicom RPG aesthetic, it fits the look perfectly.
The gameplay reveals a similar shine. It’s entirely possible for you to overpower yourself, and grinding is an option, but in terms of gameplay loop, it got it down perfectly. You travel the world and hunt down Wanted Monsters. But the Wanted Monsters are only a suggestion; a great way to make loads of money really fast. There are more facets to the core gameplay: find better tanks, find better weapons, and solve the problems of the various towns you cross if you feel like it.
It’s almost open-world. The progression from town to town is largely linear, but it doesn’t have any objections to backtracking or skipping ahead. The Wanted Monsters aren’t bosses. You can proceed without killing them. There are some objectives you need to complete to get let through the gate, but these are largely in the early portions of the game. I suppose it’s more accurate to say it’s an open-narrative game. Character development mostly occurs in your head. You’re given your humble beginnings, but you figure out the motivation. Wealth, money, a kick-ass tank? I’m definitely in it for the tanks.
It’s somewhat strange to call a turn-based RPG “fun.” Menu-based combat is not fun. I guess instead, I will say that Metal Max is compelling. It’s exciting to find new tanks and grab new equipment. It’s satisfying to line up your artillery against big bad monsters. If anything, I wish the world was more reactive. People don’t ask much of you, so they don’t really care about your successes. Towns are largely unchanging and static. Perhaps, that is the price of Metal Max’s polish.
The soundtrack is excellent but also repetitive; not really uncommon for a JRPG. I mean, off the top of my head, I can probably hum Dragon Quest’s overworld theme, and it’s not because I like it. However, there’s a decent amount of music. Every so often, when it’s not beating you with the battle or overworld music, it throws in something new and interesting.
The power of electricity
What makes Metal Max so enjoyable is the progression, but the icing on top is its bizarre sense of humor. Many of the enemies are amalgamations of animals and war machines. The scenarios you get pulled into are sometimes bizarre, like when you need to convince a factory full of flower lovers to give you a vehicle. But a lot of the mechanics are pretty strange to begin with.
You heal at the inn, you resupply your tank at the tank supply place, and when you die, you’re resurrected by a mad scientist. Seriously, whenever a character gets capped, they become a corpse that gets dragged behind the other characters. You deliver their “fresh corpse” to the doctor and he zaps them back to life. So, really, by the end of the game, all the party members are just zombies denied the peaceful embrace of death. If all your characters get wiped, your father begrudgingly revives you, and then you have to round up your dead teammates. It is absolutely the most morbid revival system I have yet to encounter.
One of the things that has really drawn me to the series is its sparse narrative. Not that heavy narrative was really that prevalent in the 8-bit days of the JRPG, but Metal Max amuses me in the fact that you don’t really know who the central antagonist is until you basically trip over them. Then, when it’s all over, no one realizes you saved the world because they never knew it was imperiled in the first place. James Bond probably knows how that feels, but the protagonist here doesn’t even get any congratulatory sex.
Save the world while you’re at it
Metal Max is, without hyperbole, the best RPG I’ve played on the Famicom. Yes, I’d rate it above the Dragon Quest tetralogy, Final Fantasy, and even Mother. It has Mother’s weirdness and the tightness of Dragon Quest. I can safely say that I have never gotten this much enjoyment from an 8-bit RPG.
We didn’t get it over here, though. Most of the series passed us by. To date, we’ve received Metal Saga on PS2 and Metal Max Xeno and its remake/remaster. Why we never got the DS titles, I will never understand. Unless I can convince a few million people to climb aboard the Metal Max Xeno Reborn wagon, I doubt we’ll ever really see them. I’m not confident we’ll ever even see the series again after Metal Max: Wild West’s cancellation.
Fortunately, there’s a fan translation of Metal Max, which you’ll see I used here, as there’s just too much Japanese text for me. I could have maybe pushed through, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much. As I mentioned earlier, Metal Max got a 1996 remake on the SNES called Metal Max Returns, and it also has a fan translation. It’s your call which you want to play. I’ll probably get to the remake sooner rather than later, but I have a whole series that I now need to dig my treads into.