“Real robot” mecha animé is a sub-genre usually considered the effective opposite of “super-robot” stories. The usual definition is based around a distinction in tone and theme – stories based on superhero traditions and those based more on military fiction – and can provide a guideline for recommending series similar to each other, but beyond that is a limited definition. Nevertheless, when considered as a way of differentiating series by specific aspects – not as an absolute binary scale with the possibility for a series to be entirely one or the other but instead as a more granular thing which shows the variety possible within the wider genre (for mecha is ultimately a subgenre of science-fiction, and although some series may contain robots or powered armour, the focus is on some other aspect of the setting), it has some value.
Probably the most iconic era of “real robot” animé – in which many of what are now considered the hallmarks of the subgenre were coined – was the 1980s. The eventual success of Mobile Suit Gundam inspiring subsequent derivative series and the general popularity of science fiction animé resulted in the genre expanding rapidly. The most notable examples – those that have retained their popularity among genre fans nowadays – include Zeta Gundam, Metal Armour Dragonar, Blue Comet SPT Layzner, Armoured Trooper VOTOMS, Fang of the Sun Dougram and the Super Dimension franchise of Macross, Orguss and Southern Cross. These examples represent the most archetypal “real robot” series – Zeta Gundam was a direct sequel to the grandfather of the sub-genre, Mobile Suit Gundam, and some elements can be traced in direct derivation across the genre. One such is the three-unit team – arguably a development from Getter Robo‘s three forms of one robot – whereby there would be an all-round protagonist unit, a heavy weapon unit and a supporting unit of some description (Gundam had the Guncannon and Guntank, the latter very visually reminiscent of Getter-3). Dragonar had the melee-focused D-1, artillery unit D-2 and radar unit D-3, while more obscure series Dorvack had its own heavy-medium-light trio of protagonists. That such an archetypal part of what is considered “real robot” animé – something that has been played with throughout the genre’s history with expansion to a four- or five-unit team in Gundam Wing and Gundam 00, or identical units with varying equipment or fighting styles in Brain Powerd or Martian Successor Nadesico – derives from one of the classic, genre-defining super-robot stories thus shows the limitation of the definitions.
What these 1980s mecha animé also coined was a visual aesthetic – not simply the militaristic, jet-fighter-esque designs of Orguss and Macross or the chunky tanklike designs of Dougram and VOTOMS but an entire palette of fight choreography that has become as iconic as the late-80s and 1990s super-robot visual cliches (e.g. the “Obari” or “Sunrise” sword pose, the dragon-like lightning bolt attack effect deriving from Getter Robo G‘s Shine Spark through to attacks for Dancouga and Gravion). There are visual shorthands of mecha dogfighting – trading shots while closing in and circling the enemy, missiles moving in certain curving patterns and exploding with spherical blasts (the “Itano Circus” named for animator Ichiro Itano) and a more physical, inconclusive melee combat of locked weapons and constant knocking back. “Real robots” frequently fight with mobility and hits are more often fatal or severely damaging, while the frequent military themes make one-versus-many or many-versus-many fights the norm. When a one-on-one showdown does occur it is between two pilots of matched skill and it is there that the usual effective attacks – the visual shorthands – are countered and seen on both sides. What the visuals of missile barrages and long-range suppressive fire are good at is showing a skilled pilot dealing with unskilled foes, thus a duel provides a chance for improvisation and more carefully-crafted combat.
Transferring the one-versus-many aspects of real-robot combat to a video game is comparatively easy; a game like Heavy Gear has the constant motion and evasion of a fight from VOTOMS managed well, and Macross video games generally manage to capture the mass combat aspects. Yet ace pilot duels are a harder prospect; Armoured Core, a franchise almost based around one-versus-one or ace-squad duelling has never quite worked for me as an accurate depiction of how the fights feel to watch. The robots are fast and require significant finesse to pilot, and melee is a matter of timing a charge and evading the counter-fire. When mastered it is close to the tension of that fight quoted above, and doubly so when played against another human, but the lack of ability to block – when grappling, shielding and improvising evasion are so key to the best real-robot fights – makes it too detached and distant. Compare this, then, with Zone of the Enders and its sequel; two PS2 mecha games which, more than any other game in this niche genre, make re-enacting the fights of real robot animé from Gundam to Macross possible. The games seamlessly mix mass combat with boss duels without significant change of the engine or mechanics, and the weapons are carefully balanced to be useful in the ways they should be by mecha animé cliché.
The above video shows the first level of Zone of the Enders 2, detailing both how the game shows fights versus rank-and-file and a simple boss fight against an ace unit. The gameplay sections, crucially, feel like the Macross clip shown above; the player has missile-barrages which burn through clouds of weak enemies but against the boss only force evasion and minor damage. The rifle is good against single targets but easily evaded. And, crucially, during the fight against the boss, Ardjet, all the weapons must be used to capitalise on its pattern; the missiles shoot down enemy “Wisps” (similar to the funnel duels of Char’s Counterattack and other late Gundam series), the sword is the main source of damage and ranged attacks suppress the enemy and allow the player to close. This is thematic game design; the entire aesthetic of the game is designed around emulating “real-robot” animé, and this is made possible by the way in which the bosses act and fight. Often trying to emulate non-interactive media like TV or cinema too closely makes games uninteractive – the player’s abilities are restricted to make a fight play out in the desired fashion. However, mecha animé duels are based around unpredictability and using weapons with limitations against an enemy aware of these capacities – it falls to the player to learn the enemy’s fighting-style and weaknesses much as, in Macross, Max learns Milia’s tricks and reacts to them.
Perhaps it is the game’s non-specific setting – a broad pastiche and homage to the mecha genre – that makes this possible; the designers set out to evoke a 20-or-so year span of media while not specifically referencing any one work. Many mecha games feel like poorly adapted flight simulators or third-person-shooters, or are too limiting in trying to ape the fighting styles of units (a case in point is Another Century’s Episode R, which fell into the trap of restrictive preset combos and moves rather than a more fluid fighting style). Zone of the Enders gives the player a mech with a vast arsenal of weapons and encourages constant switching and experimentation – thinking how a fight would play out in animé is the key in some ways to winning.