Over the past month, I have watched 8 Mobile Suit Gundam shows. Televised series, OVAs, and even movies were all on the plate, and I went through all of them. The recent Gundam Extreme Vs. may have been the catalyst for it, but my interest has existed for a long, long time. So, now that I’ve reached an understanding, let me take you on a tour down my journey through Gundam.
It’s an obscenely long tour, so please make judicious use of the chapters as stopping points. Be wary of some spoilers, but I’ll try not to go full blast.
Chapter 1: The Origin
When I was young, I knew Gundam through 2 things: the old dub of the 3D SD Gundam show where mobile suits were sentient and usually shorter than humans, and TV Tropes directing me to the Bikini Babe Assault in Victory Gundam. Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3 was great, but I was too young to absorb anything from it, and I stopped a few hours in due to getting stuck in a grind. Aaaand at some point I watched two dubbed episodes of G Gundam, just cuz’. In other words, I knew nothing.
I had seen enough to know I was into Gundam, but didn’t make an effort to pursue that interest. The Super Best Friendcast was my next touchstone, however small, and it alerted me to the Gundam fighting games and prompted a watch through Gundam Build Fighters, which I loved (despite, again, knowing nothing). I bought a copy of the first PS4 Gundam Vs., and, although I’ve only played the beta, I was in love with it. It’s what finally prompted me to play Gotcha Force, which I’d had my eye on since elementary school. I was smitten enough that during a period last summer where I was picking up all the free and emulated games I could, I rekindled my love of Gundam Vs. with a bit of Extreme Vs. and ZAFT, and a bit more of a total conversion mod for some doujin game.
Was there something else? Uhhh… oh yeah, the “wow, cool robot” picture.
And so we enter 2020, the prime time for catching up on yesteryear’s works. I was jonesing for Gundam Versus real hard when the localization of Maxiboost ON was announced, and my hype was off the charts. When it finally came out, I sat down to only play training mode in my usual weird fashion. I did, however, take a keen interest in the massive roster. And so, in a spur of the moment decision, I finally decided that I want to know what the heck is up with Gundam. A “where to start” web quiz tipped me off to the existence of the movie compilations for OG Gundam, but through means that I cannot remember, I became aware of a more recent OVA series set before them: The Origin. And so, having set out to my grandparents’ on a mini-vacation, I began what would soon become the defining task of last month.
Chapter 2: Newtype Awakening
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin is a six-episode OVA about how Char Aznable, Sayla Mass, the Zabi family, and even mobile suits themselves got to where they were at the beginning of Mobile Suit Gundam. It’s a bit of a weird introduction to the Universal Century timeline, since it does introduce you to all the key players and backstory, but I’d argue that it doesn’t really come together until the second episode. It feels like an easier pill to swallow for someone who started with the original Gundam.
And then there’s the matter of its variable canonicity. While it does cover important events that have been referenced throughout the universal timeline, it also… doesn’t. Ramba Ral, a fan-favourite ace from the original show, is portrayed as much younger here, and he actually quits the army instead of building a reputation as a loyal officer. It seems that they’re leaning towards an alternate interpretation (the novels?) of the original series where he lives, but it’s a bit weird to deviate so hard after putting so much effort into being faithful. It kind of calls the rest of the show into question, too. Well, either way, as long as you’re willing to put in the effort to learn who everyone is over time, it’s a good enough starting point for the franchise.
Of course, you could just start at the start. Next up is the Mobile Suit Gundam movie trilogy, an abridged retelling of the original ~50 episode show released shortly beforehand, and was the prime reason Gundam actually took off. These movies have some real rough editing, but the quality of the writing still shines through. If you’re going by my watch order, The Origin’s villain introductions will make up for the films' lack thereof. A lot of the Gundam’s sillier weaponry is cut, as well as a few iconic villains and some development for the side characters, but all in all it’s still a very good retelling of the show. Can’t complain about keeping the incredibly raw scene of Amuro’s dad dying by tripping down a flight of stairs. Boy, they sure don’t write ‘em like they used to!
This gives us our proper, timely introductions to characters that will be around for a while. Amuro Ray is an interesting case where he doesn’t stand out very much now, but he really was one of the first of the young mecha pilot who doesn’t want to fight. Char is enigmatic, but the movies certainly don’t give his talent in a comparatively underpowered mobile suit as much time to shine as the series probably does. Also, the end of The Origin makes him out to be outright malicious towards the galaxy before he met Amuro, and that’s not quite how it ever really was. He’s sociopathic, sure, but he’s primarily motivated by revenge and a bit of Spacenoid activism - at least, that’s how I see him. Captain Bright Noa is great, he’s great in everything he appears in, and his character arc is also great. ‘Nuff said.
And of course, there’s the perennial Newtype Lalah Sune. The model by which so many Cyber Newtypes and enemy aces would take after, this powerful Newtype girl ends up properly introducing us to the ever-vague mechanics of Newtypes. Newtype powers are always given vague explanations; sometimes they’re powerful empathy, sometimes you can link minds and see ghosts, and sometimes you have access to Spiral Energy and can’t be hit by bullets. How much Newtype magic is going on typically signifies where a given series falls on the real robot - super robot scale. This will continue to be relevant.
Gundam is cool because it goes out its way to portray war as realistically bad as it can, and because it makes people talking in rooms important and cool (okay Woolie, I’ll watch Legend of the Galactic Heroes at some point). The tinge of space magic and the fancy bipedal robots make the series appealing, but it’s the writing that ultimately makes it admirable - and dang does OG Gundam end strong. Geez, Char. Geez.
Chapter 3: Believe In The Sign Of Zeta
With my soul free at last from the pull of Gundam’s gravity, I was able to go wherever I wanted - so of course, I chose to watch the main Universal Timeline arc to completion, continuing with Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam. Several years have passed since the Zabi family and the Republic of Zeon fell, the formerly kind-of-good Federation completely giving way to apathy and space racism, birthing the brutal Titans faction. And when I say brutal, I mean “as bad as Zeon got 24/7”. Opposing them is Kamille Bidan, a neglected teen inventor with anger issues. Kamille pretty handily feeds into my theory that all Newtypes are on the autistic spectrum, though to be fair, he’s got a lot of other bad stuff going on.
Zeta Gundam is known for having a more interesting and iconic plot than the original Gundam, and you can see why right away. The Gundam Mk-II doesn’t actually belong to Kamille’s Anti-Earth Union Group faction, he steals it in episode 2. The show then quickly kills both of Kamille’s parents right in front of him (demonstrating how awful his dad is in the process), and starts building up a crew of likeable characters and fellow pilots. Char returns as Quattro Bajeena, and the show makes no effort to hide his presence. Kamille’s lady friend Fa Yuiry, Titan turncoat Emma Sheen, the… interestingly written Reccoa Londe, the good captain Henken, the returning captain Bright, and, uh… Katz, one of the orphans from the last show, round out much of the heroic cast.
Screw Katz. All my homies hate Katz.
I wrote in my notes that I hoped that Katz and Sarah’s manipulative not-romance didn’t become a thing, and it kind of did, and I started to REALLY hate Katz by the end. For the first time in my life, I experienced a feeling of elation when a “good” character died. At least Sarah was a decent pilot who could follow orders. Your team never needed you, Katz. Rest in chaos.
It’s nice to see the passage of time represented in the show as the previous cast trickles in, and it’s very interesting to see Char as unambiguously good for a while. Also neat to see Newtypes as a more generally accepted concept, even if it’s still ill-defined (it will never be well-defined) and spread out. Since it’s just human brains operating in a different way, it makes sense that Cyber Newtypes exist, and you get to see them gradually become more stable over time. ZZ’s Glemy Toto doesn’t deserve much praise, but I will say that his Newtypes are a lot less self-destructive than those in Zeta.
In the Twitter thread I was writing my notes in, I was near constantly begging the show to send Kamille to a councillor, since I’ve seen how kids like him turn out. The wartime trauma and constant guff from his crew ended up doing him some good, but man that boy has issues. Speaking of which, you’re looking at the scene where chairman Wong kicks Kamille in the stomach after the kid insists that violence is wrong (remember how his rivalry with Jarid started with him going feral after a passing remark? From across a room?). This show has a lot of great moments like that that you’d never see in modern anime. Pre-2000s Gundam is pretty darn raw, in every sense of the word, and it makes for some fantastic meme material. “He is a CHAR,” “I came to laugh at you,” “DANGAR,” and “I’m an autistic child” are all beautiful little moments.
Paptimus Scirocco was a very unique and well-written villain, and I don’t really have much more to say about him as he’s usually a facilitator for events, and only fields himself when he feels he needs to. His mind crush right at the end is another moment that’s too raw for modern anime; like, everybody dying at the end is a well-worn trope, but you don’t expect the protagonist’s sanity to join them. Reccoa, the other person attached to Sriracha, was written terribly, and every time she started talking about gender I cringed out of my skin. That didn’t hold up aaaat aaaall. Get some help and tell your crewmates what you mean, lady. Don’t blame them for the millions of people you killed. Gosh.
The other villains range from the Cyber Newtypes, which… were what they were (Psyco Gundam’s cool), to Yazan and Jarid. Yazan is the original vicious ace-but-not-a-full-rival, the one that many others imitate. His mech is cool, his outfit is cool, and he’s darn good at what he does. I’m shocked that he actually survived all of his appearances and remains at large, but that does happen.
Can’t say the same about Jerid, but he racks up a lot of sympathy points over the series. You really understand why he hates Kamille; the poor guy is mourning his friends and lovers. He also goes through so many mechs that of his three in Gundam Vs., two are mushed together as a team unit. Also, why is he piloting the Newtype-oriented Baund Doc in his last appearance? It demonstrated how the writers didn’t know exactly what to do with him after he survived beyond where he was supposed to, but the audience is still with Kamille crying for him in the end, so it’s fine.
Haman Karn rounds out the cast. As Kamille points out, there’s a lot of female pilots now, and that’s nice to see. Not every Gundam show has this many named girl pilots, but it’s refreshing to see them pop up this early in the franchise. Haman is the most badass of them all, able to keep up with whatever OP main character stands against her. She doesn’t do as much piloting in ZZ, but even with a weird romantic Newtype link dragging her down and an older Qubeley model (hands-on-hips flight raw), she still puts up a good fight. I did realize while watching that because Gundam anime existed and was popular in Build Fighters, it really didn't make sense that people couldn't figure out that a Qubeley model was using tiny funnels. Ah, well.
This Zeta Gundam section is really going, huh? I’d best wrap this up. The part in the final stretch where Kamille absentmindedly lifts his helmet visor while standing in deep space is yet another of Zeta’s beautiful little moments. The show took its limiters off during the last two episodes, and briefly took a hard left into super robot tropes so hard that the last episode opens with someone telling Kamille to take their life force. Considering the brain ghost war that proceeds, he may have done just that. Finally, I prefer the rockin’ 80s’ anime vibes of the first opening to the second.
Man, I did not expect my notes on Zeta Gundam to take up a whole two pages of this thing, but I feel pretty strongly about it. Even though I like ZZ more, Zeta is better crafted and has more interesting things happening throughout. It’s noticeably better than the first show, and even though the initial main villains are the most mustache-twirlingly evil sons of guns in the early Universal Century, the Titans still manage to assemble a compelling roster of baddies to fight the AEUG. Haman and Neo Zeon coming in near the end to mix things up was a great idea, and I’m glad all that’s been thoroughly explored and resolved. On to ZZ!
Chapter 4: Anime Ja Nai Is A Bop
Starting Mobile Suit ZZ Gundam, I was immediately struck by how unlike a Gundam show it was. It was like a comedy from writers used to drama mixed with a watered-down version of… the original Gundam, I guess? If I wasn’t so entertained by the antics of the new cast, my marathon might have stalled here. It takes several episodes for an enemy pilot to actually die, and even then they’re given a proper funeral. Both arc villains in Side 1 (as well as Yazan) are goofballs that fit cleanly into the lighthearted lower deck feel of the arc, appropriate for a literal junkyard colony that appears to have largely avoided the last decade’s warfare by virtue of being unimportant. It’s very unique, but the writing problems are still gonna’ be a stumbling block for a lot of people used to old Gundam.
Anime Ja Nai is great, I don’t know what everybody’s been making a stink about. My favourite part of ZZ Gundam's opening is definitely when a disembodied human skull fades into the center of the screen at the beginning of an "evolution of man" sequence. Said sequence does do a good job of showing the passing of the torch between Amuro, Kamille, and Judau. Kamille even literally passes his will on to Judau at the beginning of the show. It’s a nice gesture, and helps the audience feel a little better about Kamille’s condition - even if Judau really doesn’t care for a while.
Judau Ashta is very unique by Gundam standards, as he’s a happy-go-lucky scamp who’d rather sell his Gundam than pilot it (for his friends’ and family’s benefit, of course). Bright correctly pegs him as another “man of destiny” (even while out of character and flirting with a single woman, Bright is still showing the fruits of his development here), and eventually manages to get Judau’s whole friend circle to come along. Again, Bright hits the nail right on the head, as the entire group (save for Judau’s sister Leina, who proves herself in other ways) end up becoming competent soldiers and eventually co-piloting a spaceship of their own. They’re an entertaining, spunky bunch that demonstrate what a less angsty (and I guess less realistic, but I’m not bothered) Gundam can look like. I, for one, welcome our new cast of stumblelords and bumblekings.
Of course, they learned from the best. Of the few pilots still on the Argama after the end of Zeta Gundam, Fa Yuiry, Kamille’s girlfriend, remains the undisputed king of the jobbers. Sure, Katz ran into a wall and died, but the Methuss has been completely destroyed multiple times. It was a prototype for the Zeta, and it showed. And after Fa finally landed a decent hit on the first arc villain of ZZ (who is a boob, as we’ve covered), she sortied for the last time in the Job-bot - without its legs. They end up drifting off to the literal junk heap that is Side 1. Alive, sans dignity.
ZZ may not have all of Zeta’s meme moments, but it’s got plenty of good stuff, especially after it got better 10 episodes in. The advent of the Zeta Zaku was wonderful and pure, and I'm so glad that one-off joke has been immortalized in Gundam Vs. alongside the time Haman Karn piloted an Acguy. The part where they visit the Moon-Moon colony is… less of a good time, and its bizarre setting is one of the biggest knocks against ZZ in my book. The Neo Hong Kong colony later on is a neat bit of worldbuilding that fits in the Universal Century, this does not. It’s just a couple episodes, though, so no big deal.
When the Double Zeta was introduced, I was worried that the stock footage transformation would get annoying, but the creators clearly knew that and took measures to circumvent it. Once again, the obvious two traitors who are only interested in money for the first half of the series should have been thrown in the brig and kicked off the ship, but that’s a-Gundam.
Speaking of halfway through, ZZ Gundam got better AGAIN at episode 20, AKA the part where ZZ Gundam became Gundam. The story gets a fair bit darker at this point, while never quite losing the levity brought by the main cast. It’s this tone and these characters that really make ZZ Gundam for me, and Judau stands out for the fact that his upbringing has left him far more independent than past MCs. A couple episodes are devoted entirely to him infiltrating the main Neo Zeon base alone. This is how we’re introduced to Elpeo Ple, one of the first lolis to “grace” anime. She’s very little sister-y, but that doesn’t make me feel better about her outfits and love of baths. Yikes.
The second half of ZZ is very strong, and while the love-hate relationship between Judau and Haman feels forced (it kind of is in-universe thanks to Newtype links), it does lead to Judau winning the real war but losing the ideological one, which is a very appropriate ending. Leina’s not-death was a pull that really ought to have been hinted at in the episode where she supposedly died, and they really should have made up their minds as to whether this series was relevant to Char’s Counterattack or not. Still, eh, I liked how it all turned out. And Judau is a smart man to peace out and let the Federation sort out itself. Think that’s it.
Oh yeah, Roux is a badass, and Glemy is a bastard.
Chapter 5: It’s Just Getter Rays? Always Has Been
Rounding out the classic UC story arc is the movie Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack. Fortunately for all of us, I have less to say about this one. It was good on a whole, but I needed a minute to process the ending. As far as "saved by magic" endings go, it was better than a lot by giving you play-by-play reactions from the cast, but BOY was that some Spiral Energy/the Lifestream. We did get Char and Amuro going down screaming at each other like they’re half their age, which was an underrated moment. Bright continues to be on top of everything, which I’m afraid I can’t say for his son Hathaway. Big oof, Hathaway. Big oof.
So, that leaves us with the big question. If Char had succeeded in committing genocide against Earthnoids, would future warfare be mitigated? Would a certain far-flung series happen in that timeline? We can't say for sure. Considering what the colonies are like and how militarized the world has become, I'm feeling no. The Axis Drop could have removed humanity's biggest place of refuge, so even if the Butterfly was delayed a few hundred years, they may have been left high and dry anyways.
And good grief, that’s it for the original story arc. Ended a little weaker than I’d hoped, but was still worth going through. It may be 2020 and I may be an adult, but I’ve reached an understanding of Gundam. It’s filled with hypocrisy and paradoxes on a production level, glorifying war and weaponry even as it condemns them and shows the horrors they can create. It condemns inflexible, selfish adults, and yet often focuses on children who are much the same, only more erratic and lucky; not to mention how valuable some of the good adults end up being. And also, uh, child soldiers out the butt. Glemy’s cloning horrors are just the peak of the mountain, there’s plenty of cliffs below.
Now, with that all out of the way, let’s get to my favourite series!
Chapter 6: And Then It Got Better Again
Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, set after Char’s Counterattack, is a 7-episode OVA about mechs with super modes, Newtypes, politics, and finding out what’s in the box. It’s gorgeous, it’s well-written, the fights among even nameless characters are great, and, best of all, it’s a reason for seasoned Gundam fans to watch ZZ all the way to the end. Yeah buddy!
Unicorn has some incredible character and mecha designs. I'm shocked that a straight-up dragon mobile armour made its way into the Universal Century. Also shocked that the basic white Unicorn Gundam still looks good. No wonder it got a statue IRL! Even though Gundam Vs. spoiled me on most of the mechs here, I was still thoroughly entertained by them from start to finish. I was also hoping that we might finally get a Cyber Newtype protagonist, but no, that’s not the reason for that flashback. Ah, well. I guess the ending wouldn’t make sense otherwise.
Gundam Unicorn feels like a reward for everything I've watched up until now. A perfect optional cap to the Universal Century. Because of that, I CANNOT recommend this as someone's first Gundam. It's better if you go through the other shows like I did. I know the presence of shows set after it dampens Unicorn's stellar ending, but like I said, the cap is optional. I think it’s a much better end to the whole UC arc than Counterattack, at any rate!
Next up is Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt, a fantastic short Gundam show where each season is about an hour long. It’s more blunt with presenting its mature tone, though it maintains a wry sense of cheer in spite of all the awful things happening. The first season can be viewed as a standalone that's great for (adult) beginners, and the second is leading into an unreleased third. The antagonist idea presented in season 2 is also interesting, and makes a surprising amount of sense.
Cooler robots, more horrifying war. It evens out, kind of.
Chapter 7: Golden Autumn
You could also say the inverse about Turn A Gundam (NOT THAT I’M SAYING THE TURN MECHS AREN’T COOL), my current favourite Gundam show. In a franchise shared with G, SD, and Build Divers, Turn A may well be the most unique show in the series. In spite of throwing out a lot of the space magic other series relied on and using reasonable amounts of nanotech to explain the rest, it strikes an oddly mystical tone with plenty of tribal chanting, small town festivals, ancient lore and prophecies, and a focus on nature and uncovering the ancient past. It’s great.
This may be the wildest ride yet, while also being the slowest. Episodes occasionally lack fights in favour of personal drama and worldbuilding, and the fantastic cast keeps things moving steadily throughout the show with a breath of subtle characterizations and different motivations. Everyone is trying hard to fight a not-war, because being able to continue human civilization is an issue - one that some people recognize more than others.
Our hero Loran Cehack is probably the most heroic character in the franchise, with a grand total of two confirmed kills in the whole series. He’s always pushing for peace, and he’ll take care to use the most powerful mech in the setting, and maybe the franchise, to achieve it. His dedication to using mobile suits as multi-purpose tools is impressive and more than a little memetic, and I’m glad he got his ideal ending.
I’d just like to sound off a bit on some of the great characters before I enter a SPOILER SECTION.
I again express my love for Mr. Cehack as the truest almost-pacifist the franchise has ever featured, but he’s joined by a cast of greats. Diana and Kihel made for a great pair, and much like how I was surprised Loran was never marked as some sort of chosen one, I was shocked that there was no explanation why they look almost identical. The writers were correct not to try. Their champion, Harry Ord, is a particularly charismatic member of the cast, with plenty of hammy moments and grandiose shows of badassery. I was surprised again once I put together that he was very specifically a send-up to Quatro Bajeena, Char’s good guy disguise from Zeta, rather than Char himself. In my mind, Harry is strong enough that the only character he’s competing with is Corin Nander, who really shapes up in the last few episodes. Aside from that, it’s nice to see a bunch of adults out of their element and being more difficult and annoying than the younger main characters, Lily Borjanno is great, and I feel bad for Sochie, but that’s life.
Now, on to the spoiler section! SPOILERS FOR TURN A START HERE!
I knew about Turn A’s place in Gundam canon. I knew about the Moonlight Butterfly, why it was made, and what it resulted in. Those spoilers were absorbed well before ever thinking about watching the show. But I was not prepared for when the Turn X used Shining Finger. I wasn’t prepared for namedropping the Universal Century while showing footage from Gundam Wing. And I definitely wasn’t prepared to see the Nether (Windmill) Gundam for the first time in a serious sci-fi political drama. I feel like I have more of an impetus to watch Wing now that I’ve seen Corin’s flashback to it (even though he’s not gonna’ show up, but at least he got a good “It’s a Gundam!” before he went).
On a more serious note, it’s interesting to consider that the default destination for a Gundam show, unless stated otherwise, is Turn A. Really hammers home just how bad war and inflexible ideologies are. At least the Butterfly only destroyed civilization, and wasn’t a straight-up Halo ring. You can totally block it if you hold down-back. Also, headcanon that Loran impressed a heroic personality on the Turn A, and that's why it didn't try to cocoon him like the Turn X in the end.
SPOILERS END HERE.
So yeah, Turn A Gundam is a fantastic show, from concept to credits. Great setting, wonderful characters, a tone that isn’t likely to be animated again (unfortunately…), and it actually feels like it hit the anti-war message better than the older Gundams did. And one last point for it, the titular Gundam is actually left in a state where the cockpit is inaccessible when the antagonists store it on their ship. Somebody has to jump from the top floor to get in. First time I’ve seen in the friggin’ series a real security measure was taken. Oof.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
And that’s where we’re leaving off for now. As I understand it, these are most of the highlights of the franchise, so if you’re looking to get into Gundam, retracing my steps (minus Build Fighters, that’s obviously better with context too) is a great way to get into Gundam. You learn the ropes in the Universal Century, you hang ten with Char and Amuro, and then you get to go… basically wherever your heart desires. And you feel like you earned it, too.
I’m not 100% sure what’s next for me and Gundam, but I suspect G, 00, and Build Divers will be greeting me in the future. Finally watched Build Fighters: Battlogue while I was writing this, and that’s the most insane hour of animation in the franchise. There’s lots of good stuff left to see before… Wing and Seed. But who knows. Maybe I’ll have dropped off by that point. Maybe I’ll only know them through the fighting games. That wouldn’t be too bad. Lots of manga, too. Crossbone won’t beg to be adapted by itself. And heck, Gundam is a pretty good jumping off point for mecha anime in general, so I could go anywhere from here. The future looks bright!
And thus, I leave you off with my current Gundam tier list. Feel free to share your own below, and good night, everybody.