They come in the form of fighting robots. The shape of fighting jet fighters. Fighting firetrucks, dinosaurs, and cassette tapes. NO they’re not Zan and Jayna form of-ing and shape of-ing some random watery thing to defeat a minor DC Comics boss. Mechs have been here even before the Justice League. Three years before, to be exact.
TO APPEASE THE GODS: The Greeks should probably get first mech credit with the Trojan Horse (AT-AT anyone?) and Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and a few other SF greats added locomotion later, but they didn’t have detachable brain ships or Guardian mode with torpedoes till Japan got involved.
Last weekend my son had an XBox Titanfall party and we turned it into a table top RPG. It really took me back. I’ve been a huge fan of the battle mech since preteen years and never really thought about why until this week. I figured it had something to do with a childhood obsession or passing image. Heck, the movie Wizards trailer-ed before The Rescuers at the theater when I was kid, haunting me till the advent of the VHS rental. But before Robotech, the only exposure I had to Japan’s breed of awesomeness, was Transformers and Gobots.
And Shogun Warriors.
The dawn of the Japanese Fighting Robot began in 1956 with the remote controlled, giant robot, “Tetsujin 28-go” (“Gigantor” in the U.S.), but grew in popularity with the introduction of Mazinger Z, a giant robot defender of Earth nearly 20 years later. It aired in October of 1972 and ran through 1974 in Japan, with surprising popularity. In the late 70s, a boy growing up in rural South Texas had one choice for Christmas: the Sears Catalog. Which just happened to feature an awesome new line of toys, the controversial, shoot-your-eye-out, spring-loaded missile-fist, Shogun Warriors. Gaiking, Dragun, Raideen, Daimos, Godzilla, Rodan. Mazinga. The cool thing about the Great Mazinga? He had a detachable rocketship brain.
After Mazinger-Z (Great Mazinga according to Mattel), Tonka and Hasbro introduced Gobots and Transformers to the toy shelves, soon to be followed by cartoons and comics. I’ve seen much debate on who came first, Leader-1 (Gobots-1983) or Optimus Prime (Transformers-1984), but I remember Gobot toys being first. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the next year, Harmony Gold USA would turn the middle school warfighting world upside down with Rick Hunter’s Veritech fighter.
Robotech took the sentient robot out of the equation and put man/woman in control. Then added a to-die-for romance arc. I was in love with Lisa Hayes and had no idea why. But it wasn’t until the end of the first episode, “Boobytrap,” that the true nature of the mech was introduced with Rick Hunter discovering Configuration B along with his television audience.
Robotech owned me. I was hellbent on growing up and flying an Alpha or driving a Cyclone. But throughout this evolution of anime-based mech lore, a parallel event took place in a galaxy far, far away, one that would eventually change the way we kids saw giant walking, fighting things. 1980 brought us the Battle of Hoth with The Empire Strikes Back. Everyone went nuts over the AT-AT, or Camel Walker. It was a four-legged tank (sort of), bigger than a three-story house. It walked. It shot. It stomped its way through the battle field and a whole jedi had to take it down. That was the public perception.
Then there were us weirdo nerdy hick kids still playing with Mazinger Z and Dragun dolls after school. We caught a single scene during that historic battle. Only a few frames, but enough to make us perch on the edges of our seats, drooling into the popcorn. In fact, the rest of the movie up to the “I am your father” point, paled in comparison to those two quick seconds of glory. To make it worse, it was months before Lucasfilms even acknowledged the existence by granting toy rights to Kenner.
A two-legged walker with reverse articulated knee joints, sprinting through the battlefield. The AT-ST Scout Walker, or “Chicken Walker” as the Lucas Camp called it. This would have a major impact on future development.
A few random events took place around the same time that changed mechs from anime to armory. First, Rambo fights a Mi-26 Hind-D Russian “Flying Tank.” The Super Cobra and Cobra Command video games hit arcades. Airwolf and Blue Thunder took over evening network slots. It wasn’t so much the helicopters, but their sexy cockpit canopies that sold us.
In 1984, FASA Corp released Battle Tech, a complex, tabletop war gaming system rich with technical and political detail. The humanoid robots looked more like walking tank-football player hybrids than ever, nobody transformed because that was just childish, and one mech especially drove home the realism. The Jenner. A Chicken Walker with a pilot and tons of artillery. The Battle Tech concept joined Hollywood in 1989 with the poorly recieved, Robot Jox, but this was far from the end of the mech trend.
Fast forward to the millennium. Four major breakthroughs have followed the same mecha cycle as before. The Transformer movie franchise reignited our imaginations with sentient, giant fighting robots. Maybe too much as it’s hard not to find an Autobot sticker on every other motosport racer in the theater parking lot. Pacific Rim put a cockpit back in our mecha teamed up against hungry Kaiju. Respawn Entertainment and Electronic Arts gave us a realistic version and put us in the cockpit with Titanfall.
And last weekend, three teenaged boys and a weirdo nerdy hick dad sat around rolling two six-sided dice and subtracting two, multiplying by ten (we couldn’t find a d10 here on Fort Irwin), chasing aliens through ancient ruins and battling for their lives until the final cry of “Titanfall in thirty seconds” set the odds against the wretched Devil Walker and released three imaginations by way of the mech.