Three approaches in designing a mecha

The three approaches to mecha design this blog uses is based on their role and function within fiction rather than in-fiction. The first archetype is the Protagonist, a mecha that functions or acts like any human character and is treated as such within the narrative.

The Protagonist mecha as a character serves an integral role within the narrative. Initially they may seem like simple machines, like the eponymous Mazinger Z, yet they exhibit clear-cut human characteristics in actions and behaviour. Mazinger Z sunbathing in the original series Mazinger Z-series is this exact human-like behaviour the mechas are written with.

Here, the symbolic action of shaking hands is not represent the pilots themselves per se, but the relationship and role of the mechas

These type of mecha can also be explicit characters unto themselves, as it is with the The Transformers and Brave-series. These mecha are only separated from their human co-characters is their nature as giant mechanical beings. In cases like Beast Wars, there is no distinction between characters as such, all of them simply are the characters, but share the main characteristics of being human equivalent in different form.

The Protagonist has a unique role within the story. Not necessarily the main protagonist in itself, often sharing that role with another human character or another mecha. The same categories of heroes and villains apply to these as much as they apply to human characters.

In visual design, Protagonists more often than not share a humanoid body with strikingly human face. Heroman, by all intentions, shared all the previously mentioned points; a human-shaped mecha with human face and sits in a prominent role within the fiction as one of the main characters next to the main human protagonist.

American made in Japan

However, there is extremely wide variety of Protagonist mechas which toy with the concepts and ways to realise the main role. GaoGaigar, for example, in itself has no characters outside as it is an extension of Guy Shishioh; it less piloted as it is a giant piece of armour for Guy.

It must be mentioned that most Protagonist mechas are found in media aimed at younger audiences with healthy amounts of toys, and tend to have connections to the Super Robot side of mecha. This is not to degrade from the fiction itself, only an observation.

Naturally, the opposite of human-like characters would be the lack of humanity, as it tends to be the with the second archetype, the Machines.

The utilitarian approach to mecha design has always been there, though it gained most of its popularity in the 1980’s. While Mobile Suit Gundam certainly paved the way for Real Robot as a sub-genre, shows like Armored Trooper Votoms and FLAG have taken the concept to its more natural direction due to lack of needing to sell toys as much.

FLAG‘s HAVWC, High Agility Versatile Weapon Carrier, is equipment.

Unlike with the Protagonists, a Machine has no nature to speak of. To make a blunt comparison, they are toasters. Their use is largely utilitarian. The form is made and designed for a purpose first and foremost, following the necessities over flavour.

The mechanical design is far more industrial as opposed to organic contours, than anything else among the Machines. Take Heroman above for an example. Most of its shapes are round to further accommodate its humanoid visual. While at a first glace HAVWC would fit this as well, its shapes are equivalent that of a car, lines made to increase aerodynamics. Heroman is not exactly an aerodynamic character, and its not supposed to. That is a tertiary concern at best. In order for it to be more aerodynamic in its forward position, it would require some sort of wind-breaking apparatus around its chest to lessen drag.

However, FLAG is an example of the more more adhered end, similar to Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01, which has been described as equivalent of mechanical pornography due to its attention detailed opening.

The Machine comes in many varieties, all of which share multiple characteristics. Mass production is one, where the mecha can be or is mass produced. Scopedogs are a dime in a dozen in Votoms and are easily replaceable. Round Vernian Vifam is another example of a show, where mechas are tools, and the cast goes through numerous units during the course of the show.

Valkyries from Macross, despite often gaining a prominent role as a single unit or a customised main character vehicle, are all from a production line of similar units. While later entries in the series have made an effort to give most characters their own unique snowflake Valkyrie, in the end all of them are more or less faceless machines that showcase no human characteristics, outside the genre-defining four limbed humanoid shape.

Specialist roles are not exactly uncommon among Machines. Full Metal Panic!’s Arm Slaves, while mostly consisting of non-unique units, the units used by the protagonist Sousuke Sagara deviate from this mould in form of Lambda Driver, which allows the pilot to turn their willpower into physical force. This specialist position, be it due to extra equipment, prototype role or simply because the mecha is a protagonist’s unit, is a common trope. This position does not change them into Protagonists per se, unless human characteristics are applied. It is not uncommon for people, fictional or not, humanise their devices to a large degree and treat them accordingly.

Vehicles technically fulfill this spot,

However, it’s not uncommon to see the the aforementioned archetypes mixed either.

The Hybrid approach takes characteristics from both sides of the fence in a happy mid-ground. Perhaps the most well-known examples of this would be the Evangelion units of Neon Genesis Evangelion. While treated as equipment and something that can be mass-produced, each EVA-unit exhibits overt human-like characteristics from in-universe and in their role. EVA-01 is effectively one of the main characters while still serving the role of a toaster. Its design goes for utilitarian, but only in terms how the EVA-unit itself allows this in-fiction. The base design idea was, after all, a monster barely controlled by humanity.

A some sort of purple mom bot

Another method to give mecha character is by keeping the core mechanics itself intact in terms of its role though the use of Artificial Intelligence. Jehuty from Konami’s Zone of the Enders series of games is exactly this.

Jehuty in itself has no conscience or awareness within fiction, no character to speak of. Its actions and behaviour are determined by its pilot and support AI, A.D.A. In principle, A.D.A. could be embed into whatever Orbital Frame would support the addition.

These three approaches are more or less starting points, more or less. While at first it may seem arbitrary to make a category of three, one of which is effectively just combining the first two, they serve their role in setting the proper mindset for design work. That is, the nature of the mecha rather than the end-visual the designer ends up making. That is up to the designer’s own style and research into the subject materials.

For further reading on expanded subjects, such as combiners, basic design tips, controls and similar, please visit the Robot Related Materials section.

Review of the Month; design progression in Metal Gear franchise

[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.

TX-55 Metal Gear, the first one until retcons
TX-55 Metal Gear, the first one until retcons

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, a solid evolution
Metal Gear D, a solid evolution

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 Fetish Fuel
Metal Gear Fetish Fuel

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.

MGRAY
Metal Gear Ray, a further departure

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.

Not really two legged, but a step towards it
Not really two legged, but a step towards it

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.

Screenshots because RAXA lacks any properly well done renderitions,
Screenshots because RAXA lacks any properly well done render

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.

Moonlight walker
Moonlight walker

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.

From left to right; Pupa, Chrysalis, Cocoon and Peace Walker
From left to right; Pupa, Chrysalis, Cocoon and Peace Walker’s two modes. Not to scale

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.

Oh lord...
Oh lord…

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.

amiami wonfest
Metal Gear REX 3.0. Or 4.0, depends how you want to count it

Rex_Prototype[1]

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.

Short and quick review; Zone of the Enders HD Collection

I found Zone of the Enders HD Collection for 20€ new in my local store. I’ve heard many things said about how the collection is jerky and the frame rate suffers in many occasions, but as always I gave it a chance because I liked ZoE2 and I’ve played it through in several occasions. Actually, every summer I try to beat it once in a sitting just because.

I really wish the worst thing about this version would’ve been the cover art.

While the games themselves are identical in gameplay terms, the HD doesn’t add a thing to the experience. I can’t say that it has any better audio either. So in all actuality, the HD in this case causes the games’ frame rates fall in action intensive scenes, which is rather often for ZoE. The first game fares well and I got exactly one bad frame rate drop, but against Viola, one of the bosses, inside a room filled with boxes the game suddenly not only became smooth, but extremely smooth. Then I realized that the rest of the game outside this one battle had been running at a lower rate than intended. This really takes you out of the game. ZoE1 is a frustrating game as it is, and knowing that it could be played a bit faster really eats you a bit afterwards.


Jump into 7min mark to see the mentioned fight. Footage is from the PS2 version, which is more worth your money than the HD edition

However, Second Runner is the real ugly duckling of this package, and this duckling won’t grow into a swan. The very first minute you get into the proper gameplay, the game’s frame rate falls into slight stutter. After playing the first game and directly jumping into ZoE2, the difference is dramatic and insulting. Comparing it to the original PS2 it’s just… Damn, I paid too much for this collection.

ZoE2 isn’t unplayable, but it’s a far cry of what it was on the PS2. It’s comparable to when you’re sitting in a traffic because somebody in the front is driving 60km/h in a 80km/h zone. It frustrates because you know everything could go smoother, everything could look shinier and everything could be so much better than this. High Voltage Software was responsible for the porting, and they did a lousy job, but then again this also shows that Konami doesn’t care enough about the series to give it a proper treatment.

I want to emphasize that ZoE series was never popular. It sold moderately and has a strong and rather large cult following, but it’s a far cry what it was on the PS2. It’s comparable to when you’re sitting in a traffic because somebody in the front is driving 60km/h in a 80km/h zone. It frustrates because you know everything could go smoother, everything could look shinier and everything could so much better than this. High Voltage Software was responsible for the porting, and they did a lousy job, but then again this also shows that Konami doesn’t care enough about the series to give it a proper treatment.

I want to emphasize that ZoE series was never popular. It sold moderately and has a strong and rather large cult following, but the games do not really cater to the large audience. Anime doesn’t sell, it never has. Zone of the Enders embraces the anime roots it has, and this is why it sells only so much. I hope ZoE3, if it ever comes about, will go more for the Metal Gear route with western design to it all, at least in appearance.

If I had to make a choice between the PS2 games or the HD collection, I’d take the PS2 original in a heartbeat. I really wish they will patch the collection some day, but it’s unlikely. This will my first and last HD Collection I buy.

Zone of the Enders HD Collection shows that HD only takes resources away from what’s important.