So You Want to get into Gundam?
So, you’re bored with everything on TV right now and you want explore something new? I can’t blame you in the slightest and I’m here to help. You’ve seen these weird cartoon samurai looking robot dudes and you’re wondering to yourself, “What’s the big deal? Why do the Japanese build giant sculptures to worship these guys?”
Mobile Suit Gundam is a franchise I’m extremely passionate about and I’m about to break it down for people who are curious, but don’t know where to start. The franchise as a whole has it’s ups and downs and is littered with non-traditional storytelling elements that, I’ll admit, will alienate some viewers, but overall, Gundam is filled with quality trope-establishing works. Buckle up, disperse Minovsky Particles to combat density and get ready to get a crash course
What is Gundam about?
Mobile Suit Gundam first aired in April of 1979 to underwhelming ratings and fanfare. The show told the story of a war for independence fought by people living in space colonies to break away from an oppressive government based on Earth. As technology advanced to allow humans to live in space, so did their weapons. Giant, pilotable humanoid robots called “Mobile Suits” are developed to accommodate the extreme conditions during space warfare. Powering these weapons (and other everyday necessities of space life) are reactors developed by Dr. Minovsky. These reactors revolutionize nuclear efficiency with their compact design, but disperse particles that render radar, radio waves and microwaves useless. Close quarters combat is a requirement for fighting in space, and the development of the Mobile Suit begins.
The space colony residents fall under the influence of a radical political party calling themselves the Zeon. The Zeon twist and pervert the the teachings of a man named Zeon Zum Deikun who preaches that humans born in space are superior to those born on Earth. Many atrocities are committed by the Zeon during the war and the Earth finds itself losing fast. Out of desperation, the prototype Mobile Suit Gundam is developed in secret and in violation of a neutral colony treaty.
The Zeon catch wind of this prototype and attack the colony where it is being developed. This assault forces hundreds of civilians to escape onboard a recently built new warship. The original Mobile Suit Gundam show follows this group of fresh military personnel and civilians as they fight for their lives against the Zeon who wants the Gundam.
Would Gundam Appeal to me?
I think the best response to this question would be another question. “Do you like mecha?” If you answered “Yes!”, then there’s a really good chance you’ll enjoy Gundam. The show is the originator of what many call the “Real Robot” genre of mecha. What this means is that the situations, equipment and people are all explained and thought out with plausible science and logic. Mobile Suits break down because sand gets in the gears, ammunition is limited and main characters unceremoniously die (oh, do they ever die).
One aspect of the mecha that I absolutely love is how logical the technology progression is depicted. For people who geek out over nitty gritty details, it’s really awesome to see the amount of detail put into matching model numbers with designs. Realistic explanations and reasons are given for further development of these combat machines that need to fill certain battlefield roles. The prototype RX-78-2 is too expensive for mass production, so the RGM-79 was born. There is a very long and elaborate family tree for Mobile Suits. A lore geek’s dream.
Another question I might ask you as you’re looking into watching Gundam is if you “like Star Wars?” If your answer is “yes”, we’ve got more evidence that you may enjoy Gundam. Star Wars and Gundam were in pre-production at roughly the same time and share many common elements and character types. Jokingly and affectionately, Gundam is often called the Star Wars of Japan. I’ll just quickly break down some of the more obvious connections:
Char Aznable = Darth Vader
Amuro Ray = Luke Skywalker
Newtype (psychic powers) = Jedi (The Force)
Gundam (special weapon Newtypes use) = Lightsaber (special weapon Jedi use)
Principality of Zeon = The Empire
Operation British = Death Star blowing up planets
If you take Star Wars, remove the aliens and add the gratuitous deaths of Game of Thrones and you’ve got Gundam.
Now, for as much as I love the franchise, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There are a few things that might make the show too hard to stomach for some.
- Animation. Being produced in the late 70’s with a extremely low budget really shows. Later entries in the franchise fix this.
- Pacing. The show can be slow at times. Very slow… there are movie compilations to fix this for some of the series, but not all.
- Drama. The drama is thick and heavy handed in Gundam. People die and it rattles the characters. After the 10th important person is killed, you’d think they’d get used to it.
- Protagonists. The main characters of Gundam are often teenagers or young adults and they act like it. Rash decision making and overreacting emotionally are the norm for Gundam pilots. It will make sense for the situations they are in, but it doesn’t make them any more likeable.
- Time Investment. Imagine watching the Empire Strikes Back without having seen A New Hope. It was good, but it was a little confusing since you don’t have full context to what is going on. You decide to go back and watch A New Hope to get the full story. Now imagine that A New Hope is about 17 hours long. Now imagine you need to watch 5 more 17 hour long movies to understand everything that’s going on. That’s the amount of potential content Gundam has.
If you want to start watching the Universal Century era of Gundam, you are going to have a lot of content to consume. If you want something a bit more consolidated, some of the other timelines might be more your speed.
Different Timelines? Like Comic books?
Correct! Over the years, the main timeline of Gundam (Universal Century) got fairly robust and hard to keep up with. For many reasons, but I suspect to attract new viewers, the Gundam name was applied to other shows. These alternative eras ranged from being similar in theme, but with different characters, to completely different Dragon Ball Z ripoffs. There are quite a few choices when it come to these alternative timelines, but they generally involve space warfare and a giant robot called a Gundam. I’ll give more details below.
There’s so many shows! What should I watch? Where do I start?
You’re absolutely right! At the time of this writing, Gundam has been going strong for nearly 40 years and I can easily see it continuing for another 40. Knowing where to start can be daunting and confusing. I recommend starting with the Universal Century timeline and watching it chronological order to the events of the show. This is not 100% necessary and can be a bit jarring when animation quality fluctuates drastically, but from a story perspective, it’s really interesting to see the conflict start to finish.
So to answer the question of where to start, I’ll say… it depends. Gundam shows have a lot of variables that might make you prefer one to another. So what I’m going to do is pick a handful of my favorites and give you a little micro review below.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam
Pros: The original. To fully enjoy every other UC show, knowledge of the events and character is required. Compilation movies available to shorten view time.
Cons: Very dated animation. Can be slow at times. Whiny protagonist.
Show: Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam
Pros: Decent animation quality for the time. Very in depth plot that advances the universe significantly. Cool mecha and fight scenes. Compilation movies available to shorten view time.
Cons: Animation still a little dated by today’s standards. Heavy handed drama combined with teenage angst. Protagonist might be Autistic (not a joke. A very prevalent and believable fan theory)
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ
Pros: Different comedic tone. Cool mecha. Lots of world building.
Cons: Different comedic tone. First half is slow and the rest of the key events are packed at the end. No compilation movie so you have to watch all of it. Slightly dated animation.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack
Pros: The payoff of the Amuro and Char conflict. Single movie and easy to watch. Awesome animation.
Cons: Requires extensive knowledge of previous shows to fully understand.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket
Pros: Different tone. Short series. Memorable and tragic story.
Cons: Not a lot of action. Show is pretty depressing.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam F91
Pros: In the UC timeline, but you don’t need to know previous events. Just one movie. Great animation. Fan favorite.
Cons: So different it might as well not be in the UC timeline.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory
Pros: Awesome animation. Lots of action. Sets up the events of Zeta Gundam. Cool 80s Top Gun flair.
Cons: Some of the events seemed like they never happened in later shows even though they seem important.
Show: Mobile Suit Victory Gundam
Pros: Likeable cast. Completely new scenario. Interesting and different mecha.
Cons: The show is the result of extreme depression on the creators part. The creator hates the series now. Lots of people die.
Show: Mobile Fighter G Gundam
Pros: Tons of action. Similar format to your typical fight anime.
Cons: Having to listen to the main character’s monologue and watching his transformation sequence every episode. The show is pretty much just Dragon Ball Z.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
Pros: Cool, over the top Gundams. Complex highly political plot. Badass protagonist.
Cons: Listening to Relina. Tons of worthless characters.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team
Pros: Most realistic depiction of mecha combat in the series. Great action and animation.
Cons: Weird Romeo and Juliet love story drives the protagonist. Totally a side story and of no consequence to the UC plot.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam 00
Pros: Lots of action. Poignant politics for the post-9/11 world.
Cons: Strange character motivations. A bad guy named “Ribbons”.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn
Pros: Amazing animation and action. Incredibly in depth story.
Cons: Heavily reliant on full knowledge of all past UC Gundam shows.
Show: Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin
Pros: Awesome animation. Very interesting look at the events that lead to the One Year War and the beginnings of Char.
Cons: Not a lot of action (the amount that is there is awesome).
Mobile Suit Gundam is a franchise that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s not perfect, but I’d say the good outweighs the bad by a longshot. If you’re looking for a new universe and fandom to sink your teeth into, Gundam is a great place to look. The franchise continues to pump out quality content with the currently running Iron-Blooded Orphans. Give Gundam a try. The only things you have to lose are lots of money and your social life.