Mecha March is… well, a thing that someone came up with, where we bloggers dwell for a bit on mecha in anime, manga, movies, etc. I’ve never really done it before, and my showing this year will probably be a bit paltry compared to others, but, either way, I found myself bingeing several installments in the Gundam franchise in fairly quick succession, preparing myself to review them this month. As one might expect, I began to pick out all sorts of similarities and differences in the stories, the themes, and the texture of them in relation to one another.
This, combined with watching the latest series, The Witch From Mercury, made me notice how much the technology within the franchise has changed over the years.
It’s hardly surprising, of course. Heck, it is quite obvious that the tech presented within the various Gundam installments has evolved, and it is equally obvious why.
The Gundam franchise as a whole premiered back in 1979, over four decades ago, and there has hardly been a year since that they haven’t been adding to it. The technological wonders of the real world have advanced tremendously in that time, and so it is perfectly sensible to expect that the “super-advanced” technology of science fiction would advance as well. It’s happened with Star Trek, Doctor Who, and the entire genre in general. Our knowledge of what is possible inevitably changes the things which we dare to imagine, either as things which may become possible or which we know can never be but are fun to imagine anyway.
Even knowing this, I can hardly help but find it fascinating! Thus, I indulge myself in a little examination of the tech within each of the series that I have seen, and how things have changed as the real world has advanced.
With that in mind, these are listed in chronological order of their original release date, with exception made for the very first one on the list. I make said exception because it takes place within the same continuity – more or less – as the very first, original Gundam series. I haven’t seen more than a few random minutes of that one, but I can only imagine the tech level is more or less consistent, barring a few tweaks. I may be mistaken, but it still certainly has the lowest level of high tech in the franchise.
8th MS Team
The original idea of a gundam was that it was a particularly advanced and powerful mobile suit in a world where mobile suits are commonly mass-produced by militaries. Thus, it’s not as if gundams here had any special tricks, they were simply stronger, sturdier, and more resilient than other models, and they were piloted by everyday soldiers.
General Tech Level: Very basic and realistic.
Powerful lasers require constant cooling to preserve the weapon and maintain a constant, steady beam
Teams include specialists dedicated to listening in on various frequencies almost like sonar and radar
Particles are often spread to dampen the enemy’s tools of reconnaissance
The intensity of a beam sword can be altered for precision work
Suits can be easily broken if hit in the right place, and are difficult to repair
Suits come with anti-personnel devices, to protect the pilot from ordinary foot soldiers in the event of the suit being so disabled
It has become standard fare now, but back then, it was still new to have robotic suits at all
The use of shields and large guns almost like mobile artillery
Beams swords (also standard fare now)
The enemy’s secret weapon, which can fly, annihilate armies and bases, or shoot precise beams
Instead of being mass-produced for soldiers, gundams became very diverse and personalized to represent their pilot and their home nation. They were piloted based on the physical movements of the pilot, their “Gundam Fighter,” instead of with buttons, sticks, and switches. To my knowledge, this idea has been touched on but never repeated. Obviously, the fighters were all dedicated warriors with martial art skill of one fantastic variety or another.
General Tech Level: Highly fantastic. Technology is magic.
The colonies are basically just floating islands with shields around them
The Shuffle Alliance is practically mystical
Warriors communicate more clearly through combat instead of words
The Dark Gundam is a living, organic, metal monstrosity of madness
Gundams that can suddenly be powered up in some way
Gundams that can transform, albeit a bit more fantastically than in later iterations
The use of small, mobile “bits” which could be controlled like drones to increase one’s firepower. This was before we had drones in the real world. They even refer to a plane that’s used like a drone as, “a pilotless plane.” A bit like automobiles were once called horseless carriages.
Dummy mobile suits, also without pilots, also predating any such thing in the real world
This is where gundams began to be specialized, instead of just diverse, and have specific names. Some could fly in the atmosphere, and others could not. Some wielded huge amounts of firepower, and others got much more up close and personal. Some were better at stealth, and others… really weren’t. And they were all piloted by young men who had been brought up to it and specially trained in various ways, instead of normal soldiers.
General Tech Level: Semi-realistic.
No more lasers that needs coolant, though super-weapons need time to charge and can strain the structure surrounding them
Specialized mobile suits tailored for land, sea, air, or space
The colonies were circular structures that spun around a central spindle, creating artificial gravity at the rim, which was the ground people stood on
Fighting in space is not like fighting in the atmosphere, though that was given only minimal attention
Gundams can transform again, but more as a shifting between modes than a complete shape-shifting, a’la Transformers
Evolution of the “dummy” idea, as advances in programming paved the way for drone-like “mobile dolls,” though such could not properly tell the difference between friend and foe
Energy shielding tech applied to individual mobile suits, instead of entire colonies, with floating devices slightly reminiscent of the “bits”
A computing system so advanced it bordered on precognitive artificial intelligence, and could easily drive a pilot insane with visions
At the start of the series, the trend of specialization continued within the gundams and in all mobile suits in general, each nation fielding their own models that were custom-made for various environments, and many of which could transform. Oddly, though they became ever more diverse to look at, specialization seemed to eventually go by the wayside in favor of overwhelming power – such as the Freedom – or quirky little tricks that amounted to very little – such as the Impulse. The pilots are of particular note here. A normal person could pilot a gundam, but it becomes a true super weapon in the hands of those who have been either genetically modified before birth or physically enhanced afterward with inhumane procedures
General Tech Level: Highly advanced, nearly fantastic, with token realisms in the background
Gene therapy and the practice of physical and mental modifications to normal humans, including the erasure of specific memories
Jammers which can nullify nuclear technology, and also anti-jammers which allow nuclear engines in specific devices
Colonies that look like hourglasses
Various weapons of mass destruction which can be explained with science but are still very much, and very fortunately, fantasy
Haro! Haro! This is where the Haro robots, now almost as much a staple of the franchise as a masked antagonist, made their first debut, though they were more like cute little pets than anything else.
Cloaking tech that makes one gundam invisible, instead of just hard to see
Physical shielding that repels energy attacks back at aggressors
Multi-targeting systems that enable a pilot to precisely aim for numerous targets simultaneously, far more than any human would be able to properly track
Floating “bits” that act as additional blasters, paired with said targeting system
SD Gundam Force
The gundams are robots. Just robots. Human-sized. They and their foes, the Dark Axis, hail from various dimensions, one with high technology, one with magic, one with samurai fantasy martial arts, that sort of thing. One is powered by a soul drive, which strengthens them due to a connection formed with a young kid.
General Tech Level: Fantastical high tech
Most machines are alive
A wide array of fantasy tech, including how outright magic and science can interact just because it’s cool
Robotic self-healing with nano-skin armor
Diverse worlds make for diverse robots, including ones that eat and breed like organic creatures
The “bits” return more blatantly as floating drone-like laser guns all around the enemy commander
Oh, there is a small use of the G Gundam idea, for one small samurai who comes to possess a gigantic robot like an exoskeleton, with a bit of magic putting him in a space where his movements are mirrored by the giant’s
The gundams remain diverse and specialized, but a bit less distinct from each other. By that, I mean that one specializes in really big blasts, one snipes from afar, one can strafe and bombard the enemy, and one mostly uses swords. However, in terms of firepower and whether or not they can fight at close or long range, they are relatively identical: they all have lots of powerful guns. Anyone can pilot them, though the better pilots are either military aces, child soldiers with lots of practice, psychic super soldiers, artificial humans, or just plain specialists like snipers.
General Tech Level: Advanced, with a fantastic take on realistic technologies
Three orbital elevators support a massive solar array that provides all the energy in the civilized world
Regeneration chambers are often used to heal wounds
Several laser-based weapons of mass destruction, and a huge ship meant for interstellar journeys has an invisibility cloak
Several Haro robots act as assistants to their humans as data hubs, maintenance workers, and the like
Solar reactors of endless, though not limitless, energy and mobility
Solar particles excite psychic activity to create fields of shared telepathic consciousness
A quantum computer that predicts the future
The “bits” return as shields and additional laser weapons for one Gundam, whilst their enemies often have “fangs” which fly fast and agile to barrage them from multiple directions
Gundam Build Fighters
I haven’t really watched this show, but there is one major innovation I want to mention, being the first time I’ve seen it in the franchise, but not the last, and especially because of how real-world technology is fast developing it:
Various gundams from across the franchise are able to fight each other in all sorts of environments within table-sized devices, all by the power of holograms. Star Trek may have always had holograms, but the Gundam franchise did not.
Gundams are an older technology, the relics of a war some time past, and only six dozen of them were ever made. Other suits don’t seem to have advanced very far beyond them, but the gundams still seem more violent in a primal way, rather than anything sleek and shiny. The gundam’s best advantage is the piloting system, in which a man-machine interface system enables the pilot – in this case, a young, uneducated orphan and child soldier – to operate the machine on a level above that of those who lack it, which gives them an edge against enemies who are better trained, better equipped, and more numerous. It comes at a hefty price, though, as the system taxes the body until it ceases to function.
General Tech Level: Advanced, but in a vicious, brutal way
Melee weapons have a larger, heavier theme to them, less elegant and more savage
No beam weaponry of any kind, with one exception…
…because mobile suits have a kind of armor which severely dampens the effectiveness of beam weaponry, so they got more creative with all that physical melee weaponry
Thrusters provide speed and agility, but not flight within the atmosphere
Actual heat shields so mobile suits can enter through the atmosphere
Other series have mentioned terraformation as a concept, but this is the first that I know of which actually has another planet, Mars, terraformed and growing crops
The reactors which power ships and mobile suits can also create artificial gravity
An nanomachine interface between human and machine can be implanted along the spine in children whose bodies are still developing, giving greater awareness of the mobile suit and its surrounding environment, making for finer control and human-like movement
This interface seriously strains the body, especially in pushing a Gundam to its limits, severely damaging and even killing the pilots
Retinal projection in addition to surrounding screens in the cockpit
Is this the first Gundam series the to have robotic war machines that can operate entirely independent of humans? The Dark Gundam operated on its own but still required a pilot, while the mobile dolls needed human programming and direction, but the Mobile Armor was entirely independent once it was operational.
The Witch From Mercury
This is the one that’s still in progress, and there is, I think, a lot still to be explored and revealed before the grand finale. So, speaking a bit more generally instead of specifically:
The gundams in particular, and mobile suits in general, have changed dramatically over the years. They began as simply a more powerful weapon which could be mass produced, and they have become widely diverse and specialized. A bit like how our military technology has evolved in real life, going from, “That’s a tank” or “That’s a plane” to “That’s (insert specific make and model name and rattle off unique capabilities and quirks).”
Pilots used to be garden variety soldiers, but they’ve become more and more like super heroes for the most part, somehow special in their training, upbringing, modification, or even their creation. While the main heroine here seems to be not only unremarkable but even lacking in almost every “special” sense, she happened to bond with the gundam at the moment of its first “awakening,” making her much more potent in battle than one would expect of such timid girl.
Certainly, a gundam is very special in this story. They’re piloted with buttons and switches, but also seem to incorporate a technology originally intended for medical purposes, to help humans survive the hazards of space. The GUND format, as it is called, wirelessly connects their nervous system and consciousness to the machine around them, an alteration of the idea behind Iron-Blooded Orphans, including how lethal it can be when limits are pushed. This lets them move the gundam like it was their own flesh, a potential repeat and evolution of the G Gundam idea some thirty years after the original.
There is clearly some kind of childlike artificial intelligence within the gundam, perhaps some sort of collection of them, which the pilot feels are like family to her, and which aid her in combat. Judging by the reaction of another pilot, this may be especially unique, even among gundams. Speaking of which, there is indication that the memory-erasing technology from Seed has made a return, though in exactly what capacity, and for what purpose, has not been revealed yet.
The “bits” are back in spades, being not just a weapon, but the gundam’s primary weapon, which can act like a horde of mobile blasters to barrage enemies, or assemble into a hand-held blaster, or a shield. Other suits use similar bits to create obstacles or emit a field that shuts down an enemy’s mobile suit. The bits might still be fantastical tech, but it is much more realistic than it used to be.
Add in the application of holograms for training exercises, the use of crowdfunding to start businesses, and how everyone uses smartphones for everything, including as keys to their mobile suits, and this anime is clearly drawing on the technology of today more than most others in the franchise. Of course, there are also lasers and shields and space travel in play, as well as several terraformed planets and facilities sometimes built into local asteroids. Heh, considering that the story takes place a few centuries in the future, I have to wonder if the use of smartphones, specifically, is the most or the least realistic tech in this show.