While organic vs industrial design is relatively dry-cut most of the time, I do feel that it’s a subject that needs to be touched upon to give further idea how to put some twists to whatever giant robot you are making.
Most Japanese mechas have a level of organic in them in form of general humanoid shape, but organic design is more about bio, about the smoother, naturalistic lines. This is of course contrasted with harsh corner and straight lines in the design that are almost innately machine-like, produced by human industrial forces instead of nature. Something like a tank or a car can be fully inorganic in design, but more often than not, elements from nature are applied to make it more pleasing to the eye.
There is a constant middle ground between the two, but it’s not exactly biomechanical. Gradual change between organic and mechanic design in giant robots has more to do with the base of general visual, while biomechanical is straight up combination of the two in harmony. There’s also techno-organic design, but that’s sort the same thing. It just has slightly stronger emphasize on the technological side rather than having the two governing together.
To use actual art an example of organic design, Art Nouveau is by its core is tied to naturalistic growth and style. It’s a direct contrast to the industrial style. For example, Gustav Gurschner’s Lampe Nautile, Vers 1899, exhibits the basic loose roles for organic style.
The rules are not hard, and I’ve effectively already mentioned them; curved, flowing, natural. There are no real harsh corners anywhere on the lamp and no visible connection points. Instead of steel gray, earthly bronze was used combined with the pearly look of a shell. From visual side of thing, go check Alfons Mucha, my personal all-time favourite.
To directly to Art Nouveau, Bauhaus’ had many core industrial designs that still affect how things are made, produced and designed. An industrial design is rather the opposite to organic, leaving less room for the organic growth and cutting the chase.
This 1930’s Bauhaus desk lamp shows some of the core elements in the rules; unapologetic in simplicity, not hiding joints or the fact that the form follows function and not the other way around. Rather than an earthly bronze, steel shine is applied to the piece with a brass joint at the base with a white baccelite switch. Even the switch is emphasized with a slight raiser from the base.
The two lamps both would serve in their function as a light giver, but the other fits for more moodier lighting, while the other is more a tool for office use. This relative idea is apparent in mecha design as well.
Aura Battler Dunbine‘s Aura Battlers most likely is the well-known organic mecha from the 1980’s, based on Yoshiyuki Tomino’s work and ideas.
Dunbine’s appearance is based on a humanoid insect. It has a largely curvy body with visible bone white claws. While its colouring isn’t anything out of the ordinary, considering the time, but one of the main points it has for it are the yellow insect wings it has on its back. All that gives is a distinct feeling from previous Tomino’s works, all of which largely used industrial cubic shapes.
Another 80’s mecha that is more or less organic in design is Iczer-Robo.
Iczer-Robo is a relatively early example of a bionic being, composed of both mechanical and biological components. It’s outer appearance has flowing smooth lines, but do carry certain industrial vibes. It is between the two, but inside it is very much organic. We even see Iczer Sigma’s birth in the series in a giant tank without any of its armour, basically saying that Iczer-1’s robot are not as much build as they are grown. In many ways, Evangelion’s concept of having an organic being in an armour restraints controlled by a human inside a cockpit surrounded by a liquid is nothing new, as Iczer-Robo did it first.
To directly contrast Dunbine, let’s go with the King of GMs, Ideon.
Ideon is such a strange design at first, especially when you consider it is formed of three separate units. At first, it’s not particularly pretty mecha to look at, but it grows on you. It’s follows the archetype of a blocky mecha as its body can be broken down to cubic geometrical shapes very easily. Drawing a very rough sketch with just boxes is very easy and good practice. It’s completely opposite to Dunbine’s shapes. Some years later, Makoto Kobayashi actually designed and built an organic Ideon model, and while that is more directly organic being, the contrast is striking.
The contrast between the two is striking, but both are the same core design, just in different style. Not only did it lose pretty much all of its boxiness, but also lost mass here and there. Some elements were changed to fit primordial god theme slightly more, which is evident of its slightly grotesque appearance. Plain red was replaced with broken, earth red instead with the occasional blob of light grey and bright red at joints.
Maybe one of the most famous industrial looking robot in sub-culture is the one that was designed to look like an American car.
Robocop‘s ED-209 is an exceptional example of industrial designed mecha. It’s form follows the function and nothing is really unnecessary. The joints look robust and strong, mechanical. It’s colour is largely that dull gray with a blue hue with black governing top of the main body, red are spared for wires and weapon bits. Steel grey is evident from bits that require to look like bare steel, and you have that yellow-black striping showing what parts to be wary of. It’s a hulking beast that doesn’t have softness to it despite having curves. They’re all cold and designed, rather than organically stemming from the body. It’s a terrific, iconic design.
Of course, there are a lot of things you can do between organic and mechanical design, not just in looks but how the mecha act and move. Zoids are largely designed to look like industrial machines, but their organic nature comes from them acting like animals instead of machines. Shield Liger for example moves like a real big cat and all the joints and the like are designed to accommodate this despite it’s overall industrial look. Just look this PV of MasterPiece-01 Shield Liger and how they made the model itself move.
I’m rather impressed on how they got the side parts to move like it was breathing or moving muscles around
As you can see, you can mix organic and mechanical together rather large degree for various kinds of effects. Just like with every other post in this mecha design series, the best way to look into this is to study actual existing examples. For organic, it’s the body structure and shapes of real life creatures that you could use to make a giant robot. For industrial design it’s much easier, as there are numerous books going over that topic.
Real world is a very good source for examples to learn from, instead of looking into existing mecha design. Modelling a mecha after something real and giving it a mechanical twist, but perhaps in an organic fashion, can lead to interesting and great designs. Or just nab a fighter jet plane and use its elements to make a whole tech three of giant robots.
For the sake of simplicity, mecha controls can be divided into three category; control jokes, direct trace input and mental control. Often these are mixed and matched with each other to produce a more sensible and maybe even a more plausible way of controlling your giant robot, but in the end all of them are just as bullshit. The level of sophistication that’s gone in the design can always be appreciated, but in the end there’s nothing much else to it.
Joysticks or similar handles are likely the most common form of controls. You can find these from pretty much any Gundam outside G Gundam, in Muv-Luv’s TSFs, Macross and so on. These controls rely on the basic idea of any control jokes, and I’m sure most people have played some sort of flight simulator with a joystick to understand the basic functions. If not, get yourself two joystics, one for each hand, and boot up Descent in dual-stick control mode. That, or pick up Twin-Sticks for Virtual-On for some TSF gameplay.
The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known by its nickname Warthog, is an iconic piece of aviation. It entered service in 1976, it is still the US Air Force’s primary low-altitude close air support aircraft. It was designed to counter enemy (i.e. Soviet) armoured units and artillery, nothing less and nothing more. Its core design was to allow it to fly low, take hits and litter the battlefield with bullets. Its high-lift wings have large control surfaces, making the A-10 very manoeuvrable during its flight. It also helps the A-10 has a short take-off and landing allows it to function near the frontlines in rougher environment. These wings also cover the craft’s engines from down below, adding an extra layer of protection. Its ease of control allows pilots to do night missions with just a pair of night-vision goggles.
These engines are General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofans with 4 115kg of thrust. Turbofans were selected over conventional jet engines due to the fact that they gives off less heat, thus making them less vulnerable to heat-seeking weaponry. Their high position gives them an extra layer of protection from ground fire.
In addition, the A-10 was designed to be largely symmetrical. Many of the parts are interchangeable between sides, including the engines and main landing gear, making it easy to be operated from austere bases with limited facilities.
A-10’s primary weapon is the GAU-8 Avenger, a 30mm gatling gun that takes most of its internal space. Somebody once told me they designed a cannon awesome and big enough that they needed to bolt an aircraft around it. It is the largest cannon ever fitted to an aircraft, and uses both depleted uranium armour-piercing and high explosive incendiary rounds, firing either one 35 rounds per second. In addition, the A-10 can carry a large range of general bombs, cluster bombs, rockets and missiles, including the Maverick anti-armour and Sidewinder anti-aircraft missiles. It can carry up to respectable 7 264kg of additional weapons weight.
This BRRRRRRRRRRRT is a well spread meme
Essentially, the Thunderbolt II flies in, shoots the ever-living shit out of everything, makes the battlefield radioactive with depleted uranium and leaves metal wreckage in its wake, possibly with a distinct smell of napalm.
A-10 Thunderbolt II saw numerous little upgrades to it over the years, like the Pave Penny laser receiver pod in 1978, inertial navigation system in 1980 and the like. GPS systems were installed in 1999, and in 2005 the A-10 fleet began to receive the Precision Engagement upgrades to improve it to the new electronic warfare. This included better fire controlling system, electronic countermeasures, digital stores management, LITENING, Sniper advanced targeting pod integration SADL, VMF, GPS-guided weapons and upgraded to DC power among other upgrades. Now, the A-10 fleet carriers the A-10C designation.
The main difference between a Tactical Surface Fighter and Attacker is their role. Whereas TSFs are all about mobility and Hive infiltration, the TSAs are all about ranged combat with overwhelming fire power. They are, without a doubt, the shield to TSFs’ sword. The A-6 Intruder proved itself in beach landing operations, but due to the lack of Jump Units their role would always be limited. The answer to this was the A-10 Thunderbolt II, designed to litter the field with bullets like its real world counterpart.
The A-10 is essentially designed on F-4’s frame, and it shares its problems with increased bulk and weight. The A-10 balances these out adding even more armour (some optional!), superior Jump Units and sheer amount of fire power it carries. On its shoulders the A-10 carries two GAU-8 Avenger gatling guns in addition whatever weapon they can carry in their arms, like the WS-16 Assault Gun. It doesn’t have any Mount Pylons, but it needs none. In addition, the A-10 has Javelin CIDS Mk. 1 system installed all over its body. These are essentially explosive spikes that can be shot out in an explosive manner to get Tank-Class BETA off its surface.
The role A-10 serves on the field is simple; massive crowd control. Its main role is to keep the smaller BETA strain under control, mainly the Tank-Class, while the TSFs can concentrate on the larger strains. The two comp each other, as A-10 is not terribly good against the larger strains due to its lack of mobility and melee weapons. Their main moment of glory was in late 1983, when Attack Squadron Pit Masters defended Hamburg from BETA invasion. Despite 50% losses, the invasion was halted, and the German civilians gave the craft an affectionate nickname Kanonenvogel after the Ju-87 Bomber.
Much like the real world version, the TSA A-10 gained some upgrades throughout the tears, mainly upgraded to use Operation by Light controls, newer and lighter armour plating as well as access to the Mk.57 Squad Support Gun and AMWS-21 Assault Gun. Much like with the real life version, the TSA has overall better performance after the upgrades.
This TSA has the least of lines out of any piece I’ve done thus far. The main reason for this is the same as with MiG-21; it adheres to the in-universe logic that F-4 was the starting point and directly ascending it or using its frame use its main form. The TSA A-10 follows more the idea of field littering support unit than the form of the craft. This is applied to the armouring as well. Even the Jump Units are unique in that they replicate only the latter part of the craft and one of the sides.
There is very little A-10 in A-10 in terms of clear visual cues. The additional armour gives it more curved surface resembling the aircraft, but outside that it’s very stripped down. I would have preferred to see a more direct adoption of sleek curves from the plane itself instead of opting to follow the F-4 TSFs. At least the legs could’ve used some elements from the landing gears.
First, as a side note, I’ve put up a separate page that lists all mecha and robot related posts I’ve made. You can access it from the list of pages above the changing header image.
Silhouettes are important and overly visited point in character design. To go directly to the point, a silhouette needs to be uniquely recognizable. This has gone to the point that we all recognize a ball with two smaller balls on top of it side by side as Mickey Mouse’s head, and that silhouette cannot be replicated and sold. This applies to giant robots as well, and if you’re into robots, the following ones should look familiar.
It’s not hard to decipher the distinct look from the three above. Roundy, blocky and organicy. We recognize Mazinger Z because of its overall body shape, but it’s head and Breast Fire panels is what makes it stand out the most. For RX-72-2 we see the usual Gundam V-Fin, the shield and that rifle. Proportions, beam sabres and legs also give it away. A lot of Gundams share a very similar silhouette and people can make a mistake, but that’s one thing that makes them a Gundam. For EVA-01 the overall shape stands apart from the previous. Those shoulder pylons are a dead give away, as are the legs and the overall lanky pose. The horn is also another element that gives it away, even thou the overall head shape would be a better signifier, but this image hides it into the left shoulder pylon.
To hardcore robophilist, recognizing silhouettes across the genre is not too difficult. Some are head scratchers. To a person who is just glancing at these, RX-78-2 looks like a Transformer.
There are thousands of giant robot designs out there, Transformers hitting several thousands. All franchises with numerous designs and have run for years, like Gundam, most likely are hitting well over thousand. I’m just throwing these as guesstimates, but it illustrates a problem; not all designs can be completely unique from each other, and often within a series there is a pre-existing elements that dictate certain elements of a design that makes it instantly recognizable. For Gundam, it would be the face or the V-fin, and exceptions do exist. This is also why TSFs look so similar to most people, as they see the silhouettes better than the detailing. A Gundam has colours to make it look different because of their toyetic aesthetics, but a TSF is very mundane in colours in comparison, and due to many factors a lot of them share a similar silhouette by design.
An idea and purpose can dictate the look of the design just fine, but that’s just one initial approach. A method I’ve seen car designers use is start with a scribbled blob of non-descriptive nothing and see what’s in there for them.
I’m not terribly good at this myself, but it does give some good ideas. A friend of mine showed me this some years back, and he can do some nice sketched renders. Do check his Twitter for neat stuff. Out from all those blobs, I lined out one that could be a neat starting point for a head design. This may seem stupidly easy and nonsense, but it does not negate the points of learning how mechanics works. This is a very useful method to test out shapes, and while I didn’t have no rhyme or reason to these, you can make sharper corners, more cubic or whatever tickles your fancy kind of shapes. Whatever suits your needs. Essentially, this is sidestepping the need to look for a shape, when you allow your subconscious to vomit out everything, and after that you just see what you have on paper. Of course, everything from this would need a large amount of detailing, but that’s later when you’ve locked down what way you want your piece to look in overall terms.
You can apply this to one part alone, or the whole damn thing you want to make. However, do keep in mind that this is just the very barest of starting points, as you’d still need to collect the shapes together into a cohesive whole and make them look right. That head design, if I were to create a whole linework just based on that, it would have swooped main curves with sharper angles to accent it. You can do as many shapes as you want, and often only a handful can give you some idea what you may want to go with. Much like everything else, you train this as you do it, and you can see I’m not the master of this approach due to preference of scribbling lines from whatever visual image I in my head. However, I do see this a more useful and easier way to approach of How do I get shapes? I guess I’ll use Gundam as an example how to approach a design where there are set rules, thou you could just read the rules in TSF design posts for that.
Try this out if you’re in a block and can’t find the right shape. Sometimes what you need isn’t strict shape and form, but splattered scribble to give you a hand. Y’know, see the forest from the trees.
I’ll be aiming to do a mecha design post once per month. These are nothing major in their nature, as mecha design is really just really industrial design applied for fictional machines. I’ll be tagging all posts as mecha-design, and I’ll go back and tag the old ones as well.
This time I’d like to introduce ten factors that may affect your mecha design, or at least something you should consider about while doodling. Most of these posts will mostly touch on bipedal mechs, but non-humanoid designs should also consider the points in this post.
1; Silhouette size and lowering
Mechas tend to be rather sizable objects. In most cases they are few stories high and making their visible silhouette as small as possible is something you need consider about. Kneeling down often lowers height and silhouette size. Sometimes a transformation is done to lower the mech down and drop its frontal silhouette as much as possible. Lowering your mecha is also important when utilizing large weaponry.
Minimizing the profile of your mecha is not too similar to tank warfare. Certain tanks can depress their cannons ten degrees, and these ten degrees allow them to climb a hill a little bit for further protection, minimizing their visible silhouette from enemy tanks other side of the hill. Having a weapon that can be shot around head height may be a good idea when it comes to shooting from cover. These can range from Guncannon’s shoulder cannons to TSF’s Type-87 Assault Cannon sitting on a pylon.
Speaking of size of your mecha, remember to put up some
Giant robots are a good platform for all sorts of sensor clusters all around. Often these are not incorporated into the visuals of the mecha itself. For example, a 360-degree view requires multiple cameras and sensors to give that visual, for e.g. Gundam often have nothing else but their main camera, “eyes” and second camera in the back of their heads. It’s not too uncommon see a large camera cluster in a mech’s head, but rarely there’s anything that would resemble a sensor anywhere else. However, they are required to be there, and perhaps using certain kind of protective design for them can yield you relatively unique look. Of course, you can go more archaic and have a cockpit that doesn’t have a 360-degrees view. In case of cockpits with a glass dome, like in fighter jets, you may be able to go away with visible cameras altogether.
Having sensors also mean you need instruments in the cockpit to showcase them, from normal camera view to specialized views like IR. Mechas need a mix of instruments to show level of the horizon, energy levels and pressure levels and so on. Warfare units also require ammo count and damage charts visible alongside with numerous tactical views.
Speaking of cockpits, you need to think of
3; Cockpit placement
Where the cockpit is in your mecha changes its nature. Most popular places are in the middle of the chest and in the head. Chest area offers most protection as it is the centre of the mass while head gives smaller pin-point target and supposedly better view. Whatever the placement is, the cockpit needs to accommodate its pilot/s. Often you see cockpits that have a rather straight seat that reminds a fighter jet cockpit to an extent. Fighter cockpits are a good comparison point with mecha in general terms, but seeing how a mecha needs to be quick on its motions, the cockpit needs to have some sort of extra suspension to cushion the shocks. Be it sliding seat that dampens the trashing or suspend the whole cockpit somehow. Evangelion uses LCL to damped shocks and to protect the pilot, as well as give pure oxygen to the pilot. Life support system is important element a well, especially in space, and an emergency ejection system would be a nice thing to have, preferably with a powered armour of some sorts.
Speaking of shocks,
4; Joint reliance
Most mecha have basic metallic joints. Bandai has essentially engineered their designs to the point of replicating their functions in plastic. This is not all that impressing once you start reading on industrial designs and realise that you can design very intricate joints when you don’t need to actually give two shits about reality. Turn A Gundam has beautiful joints that are both well protected and function incredibly well.
However, in-universe you still need to give a reason why your mecha’s joints are not buckling and crackling under all the weight and strain. Having them sturdy material is one thing, something Gundam does almost every time. Another is to have biological component to it and design your mecha to be at least partially organic. Iczer-Robo is mostly an organic mecha, and thus its joints more or less look like pieces of armour. Underneath there is muscle and some sort of super strong skeletal structure underneath. EVA-units do this as well. You can also use artificial muscles that are made of complex composite materials, plastics and rubber to simulate functions of biological components while giving them better shock absorption. One example of this sort of artificial muscle structure can be found in TSFs.
Whatever you decide to do, remember that it all needs to have
5; Stable distribution
While the joints are there to keep your units standing and moving, one thing you need to consider in your design is how stable the design is. Mass is a bitch, and whatever design you have, it requires careful thinking how your mech will be able to stand up. Multiple legs are always an option, and e.g. Ligers from Zoids are very stable because of their four limbs and ability to shift their pose very widely. Bipedal mechs don’t really have this luxury, and this is why you need to consider how much mass can you pack, e.g. into backpacks of your units. If the centre of gravity is too far from the centre of you mecha, it needs to compensate it somehow, either leaning to an opposite direction, to have supports on the extended piece touch ground or opposite weights.
The sensor clusters come into play here as well, as those combined with automatic balancing system should keep the mecha straight without the pilot adjusting it manually. While many say that driving manual car is like piloting a mecha, driving an automatic is far closer analogue because a mecha requires large amounts of automated systems in order to have maximum efficiency. Our walking and running is mostly automated by subconscious, and automated systems streamline the operation to a similar level.
This applies in space scenarios as well, as a motion requires equal or higher countering motion to stop it. In Gundam you have AMBAC, or Active Mass Balance-Control. This system allows the Mobile Suits to shift their limbs and other points of mass to act out as intended. Similarly, your mecha may need some
Most mechas designed have some sort of propulsion system outside their limbs. Some have a secondary mode for wheeled drive, whereas others have thrusters to throw them around. Whereas AMBAC basically allows mecha to act in a zero-G, it can’t move unless something is pushing it forwards.
Attaching a variety of thrusters should allow your designed mecha to do some nice acrobatics. Larger thrusters allow jumps and flight, whereas smaller thrusters can be used to direct the unit better. For example, a small thruster on the front side of the left shoulder would push back at that point. With the help of other thrusters, it can do a faster turn or complete spin than what it would be able to do with just its basic joints. This effect is doubled in air and especially in space, where three-dimensional fighting requires additional abilities. Secondly, a propulsion system also allows your mecha to get on its feed faster and safer. Attitude control on any design is important, however it is realised.
Positioning of your thrusters is important. To push the centre of the mass carefully requires thrusters in the main body of your mecha. Gundam W’s Leos are good examples of mechas with thrusters in their groins, as this is one of the best places to have a thruster to soften a landing.
Going overboard with the thrusters may be a bad idea, as your design still needs to get some
Be it GN-Particles, G-Stone or any other form of bullshittium, no mecha will move without proper explanation how it gets its power. As a mechanical design at giant robot scale, limbs are very inefficient when it comes to power consumption. Whatever power source you have for them, it requires to be strong in order to move them at a reasonable rate. This can be a crux in your design overall, like it sometimes is in Gundam. Minovsky Particles allow large production of power that can be used in many ways and has some side effects. GN-Particles effectively are magic pixie dust that can be used to power things up as well as create anti-gravity.
You also need to consider why these things are used just for your mecha. Are they hard to produce, do they require certain size that hasn’t been miniaturised, is it an alien tech that normal people don’t have their hands on or is it just power of the soul? Whatever it is, consider how well such energy source could be used in more conventional vehicles, or rather, how would a conventional vehicle act with such a source and where it would be located. Don’t forget about the lubrication and other fuel for thrusters and such, if needed.
All this of course needs to have
Outside superweapons, mechas are large targets. Having a mixed amount of protective systems in your design is a good idea. These range from such simple things as wielding a shield to anti-personal weaponry to active anti-missile targeting systems. There are designs that are naked in this sense, but often they have sturdy armour to compensate, are fast enough to dodge things or have some sort of beam shields surrounding them. Depending on the role of the mecha you’ve designed, you might want to give their design some level of visible protection, even if it ends up being active layer that blows outwards.
These elements can be also made into weaponry or assist in other ways. TSFs’ Type-92 Multipurpose Supplemental Armour, i.e. shields, have a top part that can turn 90-degrees and contains hexagonal reactive armour plating, which can be punched into a BETA’s face and explode it. Sometimes shield have serrated edges to cut things, or house missiles or beam sabres. Spaced armour can be another option.
Whatever protection you have, you also need to consider
This isn’t a huge concern in fiction, unless you are aiming to some level of realism. Having the most complex design may not be the best of idea, as the more complex something becomes, the harder it is to maintain.
Consider old cars. They are rather straight in their approach how they can be fixed, there’s not much high technology in their engines or other systems. They are rather simple things to drive. Modern cars on the other hand have a large amount of tech thrown into them that a normal street walking mook can’t even lift the engine cover off anymore.
The same applies to mecha. The more complex systems, the more time and effort it will take to maintain it. Shape may not necessarily make the maintenance harder, but production of spare parts and the like may be affected. Thus, considering in-universe how certain elements are used and developed may be necessary. Armour panel lining may also showcase maintenance access hatches and the like, which you may have in your design. It’s been a fashion for some time just to fill the surface with all sorts of lines and have them lit up, even thou there’s absolutely no goddamn reason to have them.
Maintenance of course is easier if the mecha has a well-defined
Have a clear role in mind for the mecha. To use a real world example, the F-35 Lightning II was to be a multi-purpose fighter, but it really sucks in every field. It can’t turn well enough, it can’t climb, it can’t run away, it’s special shape and coating doesn’t make it all that stealthy, it’s heavy as hell, its thrust-to-weight ratio is lower because of this and the 20 tons of thrust puts an extreme stress on the engine components. Its fundamental design flaws keeps it being better than last generation of fighters. I love the TSF design, but the real fighter is slightly too fat for my taste.
The same applies to mecha design. Having too many elements to cover on one design will make it a clusterfuck and an eyesore. A transformation elements may give it an edge, but only if the transformation is smooth and well thought out, and we’re not going to touch transforming mecha designs anytime soon, because people have hang me from my balls when they hear me saying how Macross has essentially milked the exact same transformation scheme for thirty years now with slight changes here and there.
Fast mechas tend to have aerodynamic shape, supporting mechas have big guns and defensive ones are fat in armour. It’s like basic rock-paper-scissors. Role should be your starting point with the basic idea what you want, because all design ultimately stems from a need, to find something that fulfils a needed niche.
This is something that needs to be emphasized; a good mecha is design starts from an idea of something. A character like robot, a hero, a villain, the sniper or the like. These starting points give you a direction you to go, and when you have its role clear, then you can start thinking of the details.
[Update, 25.08.2015] This post has been awarded a Review of the Month status. It’s original title was Metal Gear; where old designs are more advanced than new ones
With Metal Gear Solid V coming to our way sometime in few weeks, I’m taking a topic from the backburner that I haven’t been doing even if I have planned this for some time. Let’s give a look at the designs and the design progression Metal Gear franchise has.
Let’s straight about this; the design flow in Metal Gear is screwed up. This is due to two things; Kojima’s own lack of desire to follow his established continuity and Shinkawa’s REX becoming a fetish that permeated the whole franchise, essentially making it stagnate to one design and its variants.
If you were to play the franchise’s main series in production order, the design progression would be valid and make sense. However, the moment you take into notion the canon order of events, things just sink into a black hole. This is due to apparent weird technological progression, where the 70’s and 80’s have better technology than in the 90’s. In-universe, that is.
An argument that has been thrown around to explain this weird technological schizophrenic schism is that all this tech has been for black ops, and thus never seen in the daylight. This is more or less bullshit, as black ops technology has always seeped into real world, especially those that have made world a much easier place to live or have made incredible leaps in sciences. Like creating wormholes that are safe to travel for a human being without extra gear, or perfect holographic projectors, or batteries that can power aforementioned piece for immense amounts of time. These examples would not just vanish as they are beneficial not only to the people, but to governments everywhere. An example of this can be seen in-universe as well, with cyborgs becoming an everyday thing around MGS4 and further in MG Rising.
Speaking of cyborgs, it’s comedy gold in retrospect that Snake’s Revenge got panned by Solid fans because it turned Big Boss into a cyborg, a thing Kojima just went with Gray Fox anyway and other characters in the series. An example of duality, if nothing else.
In order to properly showcase how screwed the whole design deal is, we’ll use the production order of the games rather than the canon order of the story.
As Kojima based Metal Gear on western movies, so does the first Metal Gear reflect the American sensibilities when it comes to mecha. Without a doubt there’s a strong hint of Ed-209 from Robocop, just with less gasoline guzzling elements. As it was designed by the Japanese who had more or less no technical knowledge, the first Metal Gear looks like it could topple over if somebody shoved it. Top heaviness is nothing new to Japanese designs thou, and the more industrial look they were going with doesn’t make it more realistic.
Some do argue that Metal Gears are one of the more realistic mechas out there, but the best you can do to this is to laugh. This was the first of its kind, and everything that would come down the line would base themselves on it. Things that would carry over would be the placement of the main weapon on its right shoulder, the basic tri-pointed feet design where you have one toe back, two forwards, additional weaponry near the groin and armless design.
Metal Gear D is a perfect successor in terms of visuals. It takes what was iconic to the first one and gives it a wholly new flavour. It’s not a unique departure, but that’s fine for a direct sequel. Similar bi-pedal positioning, weapon placement is roughly the same and the overall silhouette is similar enough to be recognized to be in the same line. It’s a more refined, a more detailed design that, most importantly, gives an idea of progression.
Metal Gear D does have a stronger Japanese flavour to it, but it’s a bit more downplayed quite a lot thanks to the attention to the realism the wanted to have with it. It still looks top heavy, and the scrawny chicken legs don’t seem too trustworthy.
There was a mass-produced model in Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear G, but it never appeared in-game so we’re going to skip that.
Metal Gear REX was designed around the limitations of the PlayStation. It’s far blockier than either of the previous ones because of this, with more sleeker flats all around. While it shares bi-pedal similarities with the two previous Metal Gears, REX is a departure. The familiar silhouette is gone and replaced with a more bestial visage. This is not necessarily a bad thing at all, and the design does carry certain recognizable elements. REX is a departure from some of the ideas of how Metal Gear should look like, and shows that it doesn’t need to look the same as long as its gets the job done. Which is funny, as no Metal Gear has ever done their intended job properly.
Unlike the predecessors, REX’s body is more balanced. The large, wide and low key legs carry the two-segment main body in a far more ideal fashion. The feet change the toes a little bit, where it has two spikes in the front to give traction to said legs. This can be regarded as a solution to how the predecessors were a more rigid in design. Indeed, the way REX has been animated in the games makes it act and function like an animal to the extent on having it open and close its ‘mouth’ for roaring. It’s stupid really, and a sign how certain sentimentalities from Japanese pop-culture had already seeped in. Otacon’s line about things looking like his Japanese animes does apply the rest of the designs in the franchise.
Perhaps it should be mentioned that Metal Gear Solid was the first Metal Gear game many people played, not either version of Metal Gear.
Metal Gear RAY’s design was to reflects that what a Metal Gear is became a fluid thing in Kojima’s head. The thing Metal Gear was supposed to be was a bi-pedal tank with nuclear capabilities, but authors can’t twist and give excuses to name anything however they want. As such, RAY lacks all of the established qualities it takes to be a Metal Gear, a thing that you can over analyse to fit Kojima’s intention for the narrative Metal Gear Solid 2 carries.
RAY’s organic and sleek nature reflects it amphibious nature, and is an antithesis to REX’s blocky and sleek design, further playing into its whole anti-Metal Gear nature. It’s a bit over-designed, with the whole four-jointed legs and circles everywhere on its red-brown parts. It has much more relation to Zone of the Enders in this sense, and it wouldn’t take much to convert RAY into an Orbital Frame. The organic elements still had their function, as RAY had more nanotech in form of nanopaste that would fix its artificial muscles it used. There is a mass-produced model for the US Navy with complete reddish brown colour, dull point knees and far smaller tail. Otherwise the overall design is the same.
There’s Arsenal Gear too, which has nuclear capabilities, but it’s a goddamn underwater battleship and not a bi-ped. It doesn’t play in the frame what a Metal Gear is, however author intent tries to force the idea of changing warfare in with it. However, we will touch upon the Shagohod, because its design does play in how Metal Gears and their approximate mechanical designs formed.
The Shagohod, in many sense, fits as the first step towards what would become the basics of a Metal Gear. While Big Boss MGS games are basically just big retcons, the Shagohod’s existence doesn’t break anything in the design line as such. It’s a bit more traditional tank than a Metal Gear despite it being a screw propelled. Screw-propelled tanks were a thing, but overall their usage is relatively limited, but they can make decent amphibious vehicles that should be able to traverse difficult terrain.
Despite Shagohod not being a Metal Gear, it the same base elements that the first one established, as well as showing the first signs of REX fetishism. You can find the nuclear launcher on the right shoulder as usual, secondary weapons between legs, or screws in this case, with the radar dome placement on the left, which is a carryover from REX’s design. That’s not the only thing that Shagohod carries over REX thou. The two-segment design makes a return, and for whatever reason Shagohod can sort of stand up so that the tip of the screws are digging in to the ground , raising the level of the first segment. While the overall design looks neat, you are able to see how the first segment also resembles REX’s head segment.
Whether or not the Shagohod’s design represents the mid-1960’s is a good question. The angularity the first segment represents wouldn’t be widely seen until T-55 in real world tanks, but the second segment is almost too bulbous and shapely to fit any tank overall. Outside these the Shagohod almost could fit the era very well, if we take these very loose definitions and terms of general military science fiction into consideration. I would almost say that the Shagohod is almost the most sensible design that has come from the Metal Gear franchise.
With Metal Gear jumping to PSP, a mainline game would come down the line sooner or later. Like it or not MGS Portable Ops is a valid entry in the series. Metal Gear RAXA was a prototype for Intercontinental Ballistic Metal Gear, which we never see in action in the game itself, but we can assume the two look essentially the same. You would think RAXA would be free of influence from REX, but if you look close enough towards its middle section, you see the same T-shape head from REX repeated. At this point one thing is clear; the design progression in Metal Gear is not valid in its own universe. It only makes sense on a meta-level like this.
RAXA is once again a weird thing for a Metal Gear. The ICBMG is capable of nuclear strike for sure, but both of them move on four legs. Or rather, float in the air and fly. It’s better just to ignore what a Metal Gear is supposed to be and just go whatever is named as one. Then again, we could also ask why were all the powers so keen in developing a Metal Gear when every single one had failed before. Anyway, there’s not much to be said about RAXA, outside that outside its wings, it does follow a sensible continuation from Shagahod, outside the whole REX elements. There’s few bits that are a bit too advanced for its time even, but this being SF story, we’ll let that slide.
The Gekkou isn’t a Metal Gear, but as it follows the same design continuity as REX and RAY, we’ll handle it relatively shortly. The idea for Gekkous was to take REX’s head and modify it with RAY’s leg parts. MGS2 was the moment where Metal Gear as a franchise took itself towards more 2000’s science fiction with nanotechnology and semi-biological components as opposed to hard hardware machinery based ideas, and Gekkou juxtaposes the two into one being.
While there are few variations of them, like suicide Gekkou, the above example is as simple as it gets. It still carries some elements standard elements, like the radar dome on its right shoulder, thou it is far more in the centre than previously. There is also a sensor unit between its legs. Speaking of legs, there’s like six joints in there, which Kojima put in relatively heavy use on how the Gekkou’s move. Three toes also make a return here, just in different order than usual. Unlike the Shagodog, the elements from REX and RAY are very prominent, but that can be coined to normal technological progression. However, even then something more unique could’ve come from Gekkou’s than recycle and mash REX and RAY together like this. There is an idea in there, thou it’s up to individuals if Gekkou’s should’ve been more distinctively unique.
Metal Gear MkII and MkIII will be omitted because they can be summed as Metal Gear’s head as body, screen as launcher.
While the AI Weapons are not counted as a Metal Gear, they are a design step. However, they all run on a relatively sophisticated Artificial intelligence, breaking whatever illusion you had about the design and technological continuity the series had. Still, they carry certain elements from past designs that make more or less sense, outside Cocoon. Cocoon’s just a big damn dumb tank with absolutely no redeeming value in itself. Its design is messy, overblown and something a five year old would like to see. It’s all around awful and they should’ve disregard this from the get go. Pupa, however, is basically a jacked up Shagohod. Now that makes sense, as it’s more mass produced version with a bit more streamlined with tracks rather than screw-drives. Extra weapons and the stupid boosters fir the overall design just fine.
Chrysalis can be seen as an evolution of RAXA, but it makes little sense how it flies. It also carries a rail gun, something that was supposed to be completely new and ground breaking for REX. At least this time they went away with the REX elements with both of these, resorting to a far more basic industrial look. It works and sets itself apart among the AI Weapons, and not just because it can fly. It may be a small thing, but switching the rail gun’s and radar’s placements is a change that gives it slightly more characters. Well, as long as you disregard that both of them are lifted almost directly from REX.
And oh, they all have Hatsune Miku singing as their voice. I don’t have anything against Miku, but vocaloid has no place in Metal Gear. Then again, the franchise has gone more or less full anime since MGS, so it’s easy to explain. Plus Miku was at the height of popularity at the time, and it seems Peace Walker was developed to cater to Kojima’s son. Metal Gear had gone from being a view of western action movies to a view of western action movies filtered heavily through Japanese pop-culture.
Peace Walker on the other hand is just weird. Carrying what essentially is Shagahod’s launcher on four legs that are resemble strongly armourless REX legs. The other box is a more traditional missile launcher. Initially it was supposed to look like REX and have a similar hangar, but that was reserved for ZEKE. Peace Walker is a strange mixed of bags. On one hand it’s pretty neat, but on the other hand it’s absolutely retarded. The big ball there is basically its head and the AI pod seen on other AI Weapons reside next to it. The overall design is a lanky transformer, as the four-legged mode had to act like some dog or similar mammal, whereas the two legged mode acts like a theropod dinosaur, again making a connection to REX.
REX’s elements had been popping up everywhere after its initial appearance in MGS. Metal Gear ZEKE is basically where Kojima tells that games before that doesn’t matter, as ZEKE’s design was to look like on of the future Metal Gears, but older and rougher on the edges. ZEKE ended up being essentially a stripped REX. The design differences in details are plenty, but the silhouette could be mistaken by an unrehearsed eye. Weaponry placements, radar, the flat head minus the leg of the normal T-shape, legs, they’re all from REX. In meta this makes sense, but in continuity it makes zero sense. This Metal Gear we have here is essentially at the same level as REX in overall technological status, with more or less functioning AI and a goddamn rail gun. While the player has to destroy AI weapons over and over again in order to produce ZEKE. As such, some parts can be switched around to make it look less like REX, but the basic frame will always be the same. While that basic frame is balanced, it should just tip over because of that rail gun.
With The Phantom Pain being released soonish, I’m not going to pretend this variant of REX doesn’t exist. This isn’t even funny, just sad. Much like ZEKE before it, this Metal Gear ST-84 is technologically more advanced that its two successors will be. It’s even got more technical design than REX had with vents on the sides of its head and relatively smaller silhouette, thou the changes make it more frontal heavy. Unlike REX, the ST-84 is unbalanced, but it will be animated to look like an animal again. Perhaps those two elements on either side of the frontal section are arms, so it can be four-legged again. Then again, perhaps those are arms for its humanoid mode. I’ll be leaving that image linked rather than outright posted if this turns out to be true, but I have my doubts. Why would you have a upright standing Metal Gear? The sheer amount of technology to make it more feasible without artificial muscles as with RAY and Gekkou is immense. It’s a much larger target as it is now with incredibly high profile and useless scraps around its body. If Metal Gear as a franchise tried to take itself seriously before, The Phantom Pain has made itself very schizophrenic with the harsh themes it goes for and… a goddamn humanoid Metal Gear.
With that, the mainline Metal Gear games come to a full circle, as Metal Gear V leads into Metal Gear. I’ve been saying since Metal Gear Solid 2 that there needs to be a remake of Metal Gear 1 & 2 because of how the narrative has changed, new events and technologies have been introduced that do not mesh well with the previously established continuity. Big Boss’ games are essentially big retcons in themselves, and despite MGS3 and MGSPW being pretty decent games, one can’t ignore how laughably bad the continuity is between the older and newer titles. It would have taken a lot from Kojima to stay restricted with what he had done in the past, but as we’ve seen along the years, he is a man who does whatever hell wants without caring one bit how that affects anything else, even if it is a franchise he became famous for.
There are Metal Gears in the franchise that use elements from all the ones seen above. Some are more unique, some are just convoluted. We’ll most likely return to those some other day, starting with Metal Gear 2 from Snake’s Revenge.
When discussing Tactical Surface Fighters designs both in and out of universe perspective, we have two points that we have to notice that absolutely breaks the previously discussed basis for the core ideas of TSF designs. These two points are the early first generation TSFs and late third generation TSFs. We’ll concentrate on first generation TSFs and direct descendants of the F-4 lines that share similar design points this time and return to late Third generation and F-5 line at a later date.
The first mass produced Tactical Surface Fighter, the F-4 Phantom, is an awesome, heavy piece of shit that set the standard in which its immediate predecessors would follow. This is due to TSF being mainly one line of design that branches off to multiple directions rather than multiple lines of designs you see e.g. in Mobile Suit Gundam with its Zakus and GMs. That’s where the argument that TSFs look the same falls short and has some basis at the same time, as the TSF tech tree is more comparable to GM or Zaku tech tree than the whole variety of designs from multiple points.
The early TSFs mirror this very well. The F-4 is a basis the rest 1st Generation Surface Fighters simply modify. The Soviet Union MiG-21 Balalaika and Japanese Type-82/F-4 Modified Zuikaku are good examples how the basic design of the F-4 was taken a step further while still basically using the same core frame and design. This is also why, to certain degree, the discussed observable rules of TSF design does not apply to them fully. The exceptions here are F-5 Freedom Fighter and the line it gives birth to. This is to give a consistent line of evolution to the tech tree. We are ignoring plane elements in this post, as the focus is set how all and any early First generation designs we may get in the future has to adhere to certain things F-4 has laid down, except if it follows the F-5 line.
While the F-4 essentially has a whole family of variants that look different only in weapon loadout and paint on the chassis, the Soviet’s spun their versions, the F-4R , into development of MiG-21. In real world the fighter was only nicknamed Balalaika, but here it seems to hold as its official name for whatever reason. Anyway, the MiG-21’s design stands very close to the progenitor F-4 while streamlining some components. The MiG-21 was designed to enter and exit combat at higher speeds than the F-4 as well as engage in melee combat. As such, the MiG-21 follows multirole ideology for a surface fighter rather than just sticking the American doctrine to shoot or nuke everything that moves from afar.
Needless to say, it tickles some funnybone I have to think how Russian and Chinese TSFs have direct elements from F-4 because of all this.
While the silhouettes between F-4 and MiG-21 are similar, the key differences are in the aforementioned smoother design. The head has seen mostly changed from chin up. The grooved sides have been replaced with much more low-key sides, whereas the top has an additional communications antennae. MiG-21PF has a different antennae found in the forehead and a smaller rudder-like at the back of the head. This versions was produced in more limited numbers and was designed to function where heavy metal clouds would interfere with communication. We’ll be seeing some of this unit in Schwarzesmarken.
The torso and shoulder units between F-4 and MiG-21 govern both Surface Fighter’s to a large extent and the two are basically the exact same. The only difference the arms have is the change in the angle of the knife housing, the so-called Blade Sheaths. Outside that the two could be switched without anyone noticing the difference outside paint application.
Legs are the point where you can see designers dropping the first heavy armouring the F-4 has. The smoother and more streamlined legs also mean that the weight has been distributed higher in the Surface Fighter, a trend that would continue with most mainline designs, at least visually. There’s few interesting points going on with the F-4’s feet with those additional support pieces both sides of the calves, something that no other new design that wasn’t a direct F-4 variant didn’t use. We can assume that this is both a slight remnant of YSF4H-1, the prototypical test piece that was developed into F-4. That, and the fact that F-4 was most likely heavy enough to warrant these pieces to need additional weight distribution.
J-8 being a MiG-21 variant shares the same body, it just has a new head. The J-8 was also optimised for close combat and thus the Type-77 Close Combat Battle Halberd was born. The J-8 doesn’t strike as a close combat unit, but combined with the Type-77’s heavy topped cleaver it could easily strike down even a Fort-Class. Whereas the Type-74 PB Blade Japanese use should be mainly used with two hands as per the whole katana thing it has going on, the Type-77 CRBH’s heaviness allows a good striking power with just one hand. The recovery time is worse thou due to the very same reason, but it is a preference between power and balance. I can see a J-8 doing TSF kung-fu and doing precise strikes to take down any and all BETA with one large swing. Then again, the the Type-74 PB Blade is depicted to go through BETA like knife through hot butter, so we can assume Type-77 CRBH does that, just better with heavier swings.
The MiG-23 spun the MiG line to its own unique direction with elements fusing elements from the F-4’s line, especially from F-18 Hornet and F-15 Eagle, leaving Zuikaku as the last unit that uses clear elements of the F-4 line. Whenever we get to Su-37 Terminator in the TSF comparisons, we’ll have to take account similarities with the F-15.
However, let’s return to Zuikaku for now. TSF Type-82 Zuikaku is essentially a variant of F-4J Gekishin, a variant of F-4 Phantom itself. As such, Zuikaku is essentially just a modified piece of a modified piece and it shows. Zuikaku’s design follows the F-4 nicely with new twists. The head unit is still the same with additional rudder shoved at top back of its head and rabbit ear winglets at the sides.
The torso is overall the same, with the hole replaced with a line on its chest. I haven’t seen any explanations what these are, but seeing how TSF cockpits are closed with no windows, they’re most likely just interesting pieces of design to break the monotony on the chest. Zuikaku also has additional intakes just below and before its armpits.
Zuikaku’s shoulders overall follow the F-4 line. However, there’s some extra armouring to hold thrusters. Outside that, the overall design is the same. The energy indicators are of different design, but that’s a small change. Arms still use the stock F-4 pieces with slightly elongated Blade Sheaths, but then again they are the lightest and most effective pieces F-4 had. It’s interesting to notice that Second generation TSF have relatively lightly designed arms, and the Third generation then returns to the heavy handed designs.
The F-4 line always had thunder thighs for legs, and Zuikaku follows the suit. While the Zuikaku strips some bells and whistles off from the F-4, the most important change is with the lack of extra supports in the calves. This would signify to us that Zuikaku is lighter than the rest of the F-4 line. This is due to Japanese being unable to realize their own original design and had to opt to take combat data from European Fronts from the late 70’s, and modify existing units to emphasize close combat similar to J-8. Naturally, the output was also higher, allowing the Zuikaku follow the set Japanese doctrine of hack n’ slash with some shooting in there. However, despite it being a good upgrade over the base F-4, it still suffers from being based on that heavy frame. Shiranui and Fubuki are early Third Generation TSFs, and it took Japanese that long to realize their own design that would serve them as they saw fit. During that time the Americans and Soviets had produced their own designs by large loads, while Europe mostly opting to importing those and making modifications to those as needed.
With the rather recent news of India and Qatar purchasing Rafales from Dassault Aviation to bolster their airforces, and the more recent new of Schwarzesmarken getting animated later this year, it’s pretty good time to celebrate the more obscure side of Muv-Luv a little bit, if obscure even is a thing when it comes to this franchise.
Rafale, the fighter, is pretty damn neat. It’s a multi-role fighter to some extent, able to do both short and long range missions, dogfight, attack land and sea targets and if necessary, enact a nuclear strike. It’s a fighter bred and born in France, developed by major French defence contractors. There is something French in the shape of the fuselage, with all the slight curves one would want to caress with interesting details to explore. It should be noted that prior to Rafale’s development, French Air Force and French Navy had a need for a proper next generation fighter. Due to this fact, it was chosen to combine the two projects into one, which would explain why Rafale is Duke’s wet dream coming true, able to fight in the land, sea and air. Still, the original project fell through due to multiple nations being part of the project, which is without the doubt why French took it to themselves to tackle the project. Nevertheless, the Rafale is a successful result despite all this and essentially has been replacing numerous different fighters the French forces have been using, including classics like F-8P Crusader.
The Tactical Surface Fighter mirrors the real life fighter in this nature. France was part of a multi-national project to replace Second and earlier generations TSF, that could not meet the need to tackle BETA to the needed extent. The European Front is different from America and even from Japan. It’s more akin to Kamchatka we saw in Total Eclipse, with constant threat from BETA from everywhere. There’s not much water to use in the middle of the continent, whereas Japan is a set of islands that can make use of Navy when needed. The rivers and lakes aren’t the best place to bring your naval support. Just like in real world, French dropped from the multi- national project because there was a disagreement on the engines of the Jump Units.
The Rafale and EF-2000 Typhoon share a lot same elements, as they were built from the same set of data and all that. The Rafale as a TSF has curved surfaces to it than the Typhoon, though the two have comparable performance in how they slay BETA. Indeed, both of them were built to kill them invaders by the dozen, and combined with the A-10C Thunderbolt II squadrons, both Rafale and Typhoon are pretty damn effective in their intended role of kicking ass and taking names. Their high-mobility design puts them well on par with the rest of the third generation machines and a good Surface Pilot could do whatever insane stuff is needed to weave through the enemy lines.
However, as Rafale is designed to fight the BETA, it lacks any notion of stealth. Stealth is useless against BETA, but against human targets it offers good leverage. I could see a future where Semi-fourth generation and actual Fourth generation European TSFs would employ stealth as one of their secondary capabilities just to counter the the possible battles they would have against the US forces. Knowing how much the US wants to fuck with the rest of the world for their own ends, there’s very little doubt that at some point after Alternative we would get at least minor wars between human fronts using TSFs.
Outside what reads on the chart, there’s not much to say about Rafale’s design. Its groin guard lacks the fighter’s nose, but outside that it incorporates all the elements the archetypical TSF takes from the planes. I would argue that the torso the design has should be more shaped to looks similar to the plane. While the EF-2000 Typhoon is related to the Rafale in visual concepts, the torsos are far too similar and making Rafale smoother with curved surfaces would’ve made a larger impact on the viewer. The geometry is more complex to create, but that would’ve been a small price to pay. It also lacks the flight refuelling probe, but there wasn’t much they could done with it with the TSFs, and as it is removable, it was dropped.
There’s few things I’d like to put out there. I aim to use illustrations from the books as much as possible as not all TSFs or TSAs have sprites. In case of Rafale I could have used some of the sprites, but for uniform look I’ll stick with scanned illustrations, if possible. Secondly, despite I wanted to to write about the Falcate Sword the Rafale works, but that’s just slightly out of topic. There will be a post or two about TSF weapons at some point, as they could make a decent post on whether or not they are actually practical. For Falcate Sword, I’ll just say that’s it’s pretty damn retarded weapon, and that scythes don’t do too well on the battlefield due to obvious reasons.
Next time in TSF comparisons we’re going back in time to check out either MiG-21 or branch off to TSAs and check out what sort of elements the A-10 Thunderbold II has.
I have to admit that I have personally grown tired of the term mecha. It’s way too broad and really encompasses anything mechanical. It’s an imprecise and unpractical term if you know what you’re talking about. Robot animation on the other hand is more precise, and we can be more precise with additional terms to this, like Human Robot animation (Tetsuwan Atom) or Giant Robot animation (Mazinger Z) and so forth. Westernfandom of course uses the mecha-term simply to note that the show is about some sort of mechanical robots. Then again, it seems that people are using that particular term as a sort of loophole to include bunch of series that have no giant robots to speak of, vetoing to the Japanese use of the word… which then really is anything mechanical. However, I do admit that I use mecha very freely in its western context, but for the sake of this post I’ll have to narrow it down to giant robot. Perhaps giant robot sounds too childish to some.
So, to be exact, I’ll be going over a bit more about giant robot animation designs this time. We’re going to check how giant robots changed at certain point from all-around cartoon characters to more industrial thing.
At some point in the 70’s there was a paradigm shift in giant robot animation, where the creators of these series began stepping away from the older style to a new, more modern direction. This paradigm shift introduced us industrial design in robot animation and comics, which has led to an increased numbers of gimmicks and details in every robot produced since then. The exact moment where this changed happened isn’t really easy to pin down, but I’d guess Combattler V is one of the first giant robots that was more a complete machine than a cartoon character.
We can assume that this shift was mostly due to the need of marketing robot toys to the children. Overall it’s much easier to overdesign something than keep it clean and simple. Mazinger Z is a notable example, and there’s a reason robots like Ga-Keen and Gouwapper 5 Goudam was forgotten.
Toy design is a branch of industrial design, so it’s not really anything special to note that when toy companies notices how well Mazinger and Getter Robo toys were selling, they wanted in. Thus, the amount of detail and attention on how the giant robots would and should function increased, and continued to increase further during the next few decades. Incidentally, this also lead into a certain level of isolation, where giant robo animation got its own stigma within the general fandom where every design began looking the same. For example, any design that followed the “real robot” principles laid down by Gundam looks different only because of its added details. This is actually rather large problem, as it just creates a large gray mass of robots where everything looks more or less the same without notable differences, which then translates into lack of interest from the general public who has more money than the core group.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Gurren Lagann became a sort of phenomena. Looking back at the show, it follows more in the lines of cartoony robots rather than what its age usually produced. It doesn’t stress the viewer as much to see acartoony robot as it does to see ahighly detailed machine hulking on the screen. The best example of this would be the live-action Transformers movies. To take amore objective approach to those, they really are some damn fine designs. The amount of attention to the detailing and how the Transformers move is astonishing and has no rivals. By all means this is the highest peak the giant robot design has achieved, but also shows the problem that this isn’t what the audience wants. They’re too detailed, there’s too much too see and keep track of most of the time. Personally, I have no difficulties on following them on-screen, but I recognize the problem. It’s the complete opposite to what Mazinger Z is, where all the shapes and details are rather simple outside the head, which is both the most important aspect of the design and the most difficult to get down just right. Perhaps this is where the super/real robot thing comes into play, as most “super robot” shows are more cartoony than those we call realistic. However, there’s a thin line here, and I still stand by the idea that super/real difference can only be done in Super Robot Wars games and within the show itself.
Cartoon/industrial is a troubling dilemma. On the other hand the older audience wishes to see more detailed robots both on screen and in model form. Then again, making too much details will make the animation harder, even if it’s through 3D modelling and producing more detailed toys will cost more. Then again dropping the detail level lowers the cost of both animation and production, but it also might not sell nearly as well. In addition, the older audience might not like more simplified designs, so the whole thing may change the target audience. Thus, it’s more important to know your target audience and design accordingly.
Then again, we have Mazinger Z, which has broken pretty much all barriers and could and should be enjoyed by all ages. This is another problem in addition to cartoon/industrial, where the designer is required to juggle between the themes and tone of the series the robot is meant to be in. This is where cartoony robots shine much more than highly detailed ones, as they can be pretty much anything when portrayed just right. Industrialised designs often start acting funny and strange, and even change proportions to add to the comedy, thus breaking the strict design they’re in. Mazinger Z can be very lighthearted, just like the original series was and it can be a full-out drama like Shin Mazinger Chapter Z is. Could Gundam be a comedy with it’s machines? No, it really couldn’t. All the comedy would come from the human characters. SD Gundam is Gundam with intentional design choices to change the show to make it a complete comedy. For Mazinger Z such changes are unnecessary as the design already allowed the design to be used in comedy.
While Combattler V can be counted where the industrial design took hold of the design where the giant robot genre would go with its designs, and Macross then stepped up the game even further with VF-1 Valkyrie. The reason to this is that often the toy of the robot was rather different than in the show if it had a transformation gimmick. If the transformation was simple, then it could be replicated in the toy, but for its time Valkyrie’s transformation scheme was complex. On top of that, the transformation was completely replicated in the toy. However, this also meant that Valkyrie’s design wasn’t a cartoon character in any form anymore, but an industrial design. After Macross, almost every giant robot afterwards was industrially designed, thus enforcing certain direction there shows went. There are high number of exceptions where the marriage of cartoon and industrial design is mixed very well together, like Xabungle, but to an extent very few series have been able to survive to this day.
We can also question the need of cartoony robot design nowadays. Animation has changed drastically since Tetsuwan Atom and Tetsujin-28, but even then we need to ask why haven’t these iconic designs been dethroned? Why is that there’s a statue of the original Tetsujin-28 rather than its FX version? I’m not the best person to give an answer to this, as I am not either Japanese or lived long enough to see Tetsujin’s evolution since its birth to the current day.
What Japanese animation (and my Little Pony) has proved that adult people are going tovalue awell-made children’s cartoon even thou they’re not in the target group. Overall, wouldn’t it be for the best to create designs that would appeal to all? Well, this is impossible to do. However, it would be for the best to balance between all possible target audiences within one design, and do more targeted design and series only occasionally. This is why a lot of giant robot show have been failing; it’s not that there’s audience to be grasped, but because these shows keep cannibalizing the exact same audience over and over. This isn’t the design fault really, but the whole genre’s overall. If the giant robot genre would be able become more broader once more, then things could look more bloomy. However, seeing how Japan’s birthrate’s are down, giant robot genre is in larger trouble than most.
To design a cartoon character is actually very difficult. Designing a robot through industrial approach really isn’t. Industrial design is hard only when you’re not really accustomed to draw within what I call function set-rules, which at its core is function before form, but after than all that follows in that design is to compensate the function with the form. Cartoon characters do not really need to follow this, because they exist in the rules of the cartoon world.
Personally I think that modern comics and cartoon overall have gone far too much into the realm of realism in many ways both in stories and how they look. Lately I have found myself enjoying older comics simply due to their appearance as opposed of modern look. The logic also functions a bit differently as well, and even the most serious stories manage to maintain their comic-like approach.
There’s something I often hear; the modern designs are more prettier and detailed, they’re more pleasing to look at. This is due to the paradigm shift, and how it has integrated itself to the general mind. Giant robots are not thought nor treated as characters in their respected series, but just another machine. Not to say that this is a bad thing, but it has made the genre far too homogeneous, where all machines are machines. In Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, the main robot of the show, Machine Caliber Chamber, is more or less a character and is unique to all others in the series, but the machine itself is still industrially designed. There has been other interesting designs for some time now, but nothing what we could call new. I hope that during the next five years we will have a new breakthrough series that will not only bring in something new but also would slowly give way to a new paradigm that we’re sorely needing.