Three approaches in designing a mecha

This is the first part in mecha design series of this blog. See the rest of the entries, specialised and not, here.

When we consider what ultimately goes into designing a damn giant robot, we really have three spots to start from; Character, Utilitarian and Hybrid.

First, we have the classical Character type, which is unique in and out of the series its designed for and is most likely used only by the main character. This includes examples like Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, Galient, Voltes V, Godmars, Zeorymer, Iczer Robo, GaoGaiGar and the like. All of these have their unique position in the story and are treated as character as well. Transformers and the Brave series, where the robots are alive. Well, most robots in the Brave series. Most of the times these Characters are portrayed as Heroes as well, which could be described as a subcategory of the approach, where the intention is to make a Heroic Character mecha design. The aforementioned GaoGaiGar is a good example of a character machine, that’s depicted mainly as a Hero. Zeorymer on the other hand is a questionable hero, but is certainly a character in itself. Almost all of monster-of-the-week shows include Character mechs in the opposing side, and Mazinger Z alone is filled to the brim with more or less completely unique enemy characters. Then again, we have some blatant Mazinger clones in their ranks, but why wouldn’t you want to copy your nemesis’ designs? Worked for Dr. Wily, right?

Clearly Character approached
Clearly Character approached

Then we have the second type of approach, which I call the Utilitarian or the Weapon type. Shows like Gundam are basically a good example of this, as most of these type of mechs are mass produced to an extent. They still have that main mecha that is most prevailant in the series, but overall the main mech isn’t all that special. To further use Gundam as an example, it is laster accompanied by the GMs, which in principle are mass produced Gundams. The Gundam monicer is also shared across the board in the series by many different units, and even in-universe they can have Gundam against another Gundam, further degrading the unique status the unit may have. Other examples next to Gundam are Valkyries from Macross, Scopedogs, Aura Machines, Govarian, Dragonar units, those tanks in Godzilla films and so on. These kind of mechs do not exclude the Character approache’s image from their use, but overall they can and will get a beating and in most cases they can be trashed completely like in Vifam. They’re disposable and can be re-used for other things, and unlike the Character approach, these do not really showcase super powers as such. Exceptions exists, like some of the units in Full Metal Panic.

Here you might ask whether or not there are mechas that have no character and are all about the use, and the answer is a strong yes. Macross’ Valkyries are a good example of units that are not characters of any sort. They do not act, they do not show emotions on themselves nor are they treated as characters. They don’t bask in the sun with other Valkyries, like Mazinger Z did with Texas Mac. They’re faceless machines that serve only to be the weapons of the show. It works as long as the design is applied properly.

I do like Star Mirage
I do like Star Mirage

The third approach, which was and is perhaps the most popular currently, is the mixed approach. All in all, this approach has seemingly become more a staple than anything else in genre, which makes a distinction between series and how they work a bit messy. This is what some people call Hybrids of Super and Real (terms I tend to avoid when it comes to designing the mechs.) Hybrid is a decent term here, but another term I’d like to throw here is Deviants, after some of the giants in Attack on Titan. This is because while a mech might seem like Characters with Utilitarian thing in there, it showcases abilities from both parts and does something on its own. Evangelion units are pretty good example of this, especially EVA-01, where it’s basically the Hero type in definition, but showcases large amounts of being used as a yet another unit in the bunch.

Jehuty overall follows the ideas of both approaches in a nice unison
Jehuty overall follows the ideas of both approaches in a nice unison

These are somewhat arbitary terms thrown out there, and in reality within the series the mechs usually keep jumping across the board, but these are just to allow the designer an approach when coming up a design for his giant robot on making.

Then what when you’ve decided how to approach your design? Do you just start throwing lines on the paper of the visage you have? To be honest, this works sometimes, and this is often the way I blow out some steam. However, it’s purely luck if your design will be of any value this way. The best way to do anything is research. For example, let’s say you’ve decided on making a mech based on Greek gods. Character approach works the best here, as you can go all wild how the mech looks and how it works. Naturally, this would also set the mech in the Super side of the argument. The natural step would be to read on the gods and the mythology they’re involved with in order to understand what is expected from the design. There are some gods that work as a great mould for mech designs. A boring example would be Zeus and his thunder, but it just works. By checking the overall Antique design and architecture you most likely would be able to find multiple things to use in designing your Thunderous Zeustron. While designing your giant robot, you might want to start thinking of its weapons. Mazinger Z was designed fights in mind first, thus a lot of things actually serve only to compensate the needs of the fights, like the Rocket Punch. Flying fists are awesome weapons. Nevertheless, depending how you have decided to make your mech look like, you might end up something like the Zeus Gundam from G Gundam. Not terribly inspired design, but it works where needed. G Gundam was a silly show anyway.

The design process doesn’t really change with the other approaches. With utilitarian you need to make more work to get it just right, and if you’re aiming for more realistic depiction there’s a need to further indulge yourself in sciences and physics as well as research outside these, like cars and tanks as they give very good idea what works in real life and what doesn’t. Naturally, giant robots are rather unrealistic thing as it is, but that’s where suspension of disbelief steps in. As such, to successfully design things kind of mech takes both time and effort. To use a Character mech example here of research, most of GaoGaiGar’s science is theoretically sound, because the staff did their research properly. This is further showcased in Betterman, where the science might go all batshit insane, but it all just applies a bit too well in-universe, both from biological and mechanical point of view. It’s creepy because of this. Or you can always go the Gundam 00 route and use an existing template to work on and slap pixie dust magic to make your mech work.

Research is the key on both cases anyway, unless you have intentions of pulling something out of your ass and call it original. Generally speaking, a lot of people out there seem to think that it’s interesting to design your own Gundam and call it day. Unless you’re working to Bandai and your work is to design a new Gundam, it’s somewhat redundant thing to do unless you’re able to do something really extraordinarily good, which happens once in blue moon. Most fan-designs are garbage for a reason, and most often the reason is lack of research or just generic dumbfuckery. Creating an original design takes research and more research what works and what doesn’t. Simply observing and watching mecha anime doesn’t guarantee you that you’d be able to design the next big thing; on the contrary, you’d be involved in a downwards spiral where you only copy and paste existing trends without remorse.

As you can see, industrialised plagiarism exists in this way as well, where designs are basically ripped from existing sources and just tweaked to avoid lawsuits. For every original design there’s at least two or three copies of Gundam and Mazinger. It doesn’t serve any purpose to use someone else’s work, unless you’re trying to assimilate their style and learn how to do things.

Recently I got myself a laptop, a Lenovo X61. It has a Wacom drawing screen, and the machine fit just barely into my monthly budget. Because of this I have tried to get more into this whole digital drawing business people are buzzing about, but I have very little experience with digital drawing, thus I ended up having a a scan of Lemon People cover to practice on. How to do the lines, how to colour, how to work with colours and so on. It was more or less mechanical practising over anything else and it served its purpose very well. The picture I ended up with looks decent for a free-hand trace and I like how it came to be, but that’s just the start. Now I need to step away from that start making my own images with what I’ve learned thus far and further improve myself. Hopefully I’ll be able to draw with this laptop as well as I with normal pen and paper.

In the near future I’ll be going through some Tactical Surface Fighters to further illustrate some of the interesting design choices made in the franchise.

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11 thoughts on “Three approaches in designing a mecha

  1. “I’m convinced that Gainax stole the design from me three years prior Gurren Lagann’s airing, because I was working on a story of my own with basically same looking mech as Gurren Lagann, but with a cape and even head crest. I wish I had saved the picture to show it to you.”

    Oh yeah well I created a design the Sunrise stole and turned into Gundam four years before Gundam.

    1. Check the reply I gave to wat just below here. Anyhow, what kind of Gundam did you design that Sunrise wanted to brainscan you and steal it?

      1. THE Gundam, man. The one that’s a 1:1 statue now. Based it on samurai armor because I always thought that looked cool. Haven’t gotten a single bit of credit or royalties. Fuck Okawara.

        1. Motherfuckers! Then it’s true that the Japanese anime industry IS brainscanning everybody for ideas and stealing them. Man, you gotta go underground and fast, there’s not telling what’s going to happen to you if they get the word you’re on their trail.

          /joke

  2. This is high level stupidity here, seriously.
    I actually am quite interested in your whole article until you claim that Gainax somehow plagiarized your design. That is just out of nowhere and dumb

    1. You do realize that’s a joke, don’t you? The hidden point, to which I will be returning, that people using similar ideas and points in the beginning might end up with almost, if not exactly, similar designs. Happens in the car industry quite often actually.
      The design was inspired by Getter Robo similarly to Gurren Lagann, thus the end result was highly similar. Hows and whys are a thing we’re not going to find out unless you own a Tardis and are willing to take me for a spin.

      1. You played it a bit straight for a joke man. Sarcasm rarely translates well to text posts, especially through the filter of the internet. Next time you go for crazy devianart conspiracy theorist satire, go all out. Great piece by the by.

        1. I’ll take that into notice. Next time if and when I’m writing a personal joke, I’ll think thrice before deciding whether or not it works.

    1. No. I prefer keeping older posts as they are for archival purposes and give them complete overhauls from the ground up if necessary. This one could use such a revision, but whether or not it’ll get one is another thing altogether.

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