It has taken quite some time for me to properly work out why I dislike Gundam Build Fighters Try in comparison to the original first series; for much of the series’ run time I was unsure if the weaknesses I was identifying within it were based on misremembering the merits of the original. After all, both series embodied similar tropes – that of a naturally talented character helping out technically proficient but less skilful teammates in pursuit of the grand prize of a wargaming tournament. Both protagonists fielded powerful units with over-the-top weapons to face dramatic opponents, so complaining about the way in which fights were resolved by means of a finishing-move judiciously deployed seemed inaccurate. Eventually though I realised the problems with Try were as much with its ethos – its whole attitude behind the game-selling message front and centre – and its characterisation as anything else.
What was conspicuously absent from Try was a reinforcement of the message central to the first series – that for all the weirdness, the conspiracy and the attempts at match-fixing by an absurd “Gunpla Mafia” this was a tournament based around a wargame that people of all ages could play, where your force selection, tactics and modelling skill would be judged in a fight where at the end you could shake hands and go home friends. Even at the world tournament levels the series continually reinforced that rivalries were generally friendly ones and everything was fought out on the gaming-table – and what “redeemed” the series’ parody of Gundam‘s beloved Newtype damsel plot was being reminded it was all a game, and her telling the people trying to get her to win on their behalf that. Having fun – not letting games define your life destructively – was shown to be what mattered overall, and that I think was what helped the series sell its product well. Model-building was being shown to be something you should not take seriously, and that people can enjoy in different ways and still get as much of a rewarding experience, so the “sales pitch” was an inclusive one.
The closest, I feel, that the series comes to recapturing that positive foundation behind the commercial message – that of good sportsmanship and having fun rather than letting games rule your life – is in the episode which sees the final showdown between the protagonists and Minato, a rival of the protagonist’s friend Yuuma who has built the amazingly silly and spectacular Tryon 3 (a homage to 1990s super-robot anime). The fight has a good back-and-forth to it throughout, is visually full of wonderful homages and it ends with a restating of the positive message of Build Fighters. Tryon 3 has defeated two of Yuuma’s team easily, and as Minato points out he could win on points by simply running away and hiding until the time limit expires rather than risk losing to Yuuma. Instead, supported by a friend on the sidelines, he decides to risk defeat and throw away an easy yet boring win to have a good game between friends. Tryon 3 loses in the end but both players agree they had a good time, and that one scene really sums up what is lacking from so much of Try.
For much of Try these messages seem absent. The main plot point – the driving force of dramatic tension in many fights – is a new game mechanic called “assimilation” whereby damage sustained in-game is reflected on the gamer. Aside from being a beloved thing of bad virtual-reality and video game scare fiction, it is a complete about-face on Aila’s character arc in the first series. There, being so obsessed with games to the point where it hurt you physically was undeniably a bad thing – antithetical to the idea that games are fun and inclusive. Here, Sekai is held up as a skilful gamer because he can “assimilate” in this way – that putting himself at risk to play what is effectively Warhammer is perfectly natural. People show concern for his health, but at the same time his mid-season robot upgrade is designed to build on his “assimilation” to win more games.
Alongside Sekai’s meteoric rise to success comes what is arguably the downward character arc of what could have been a much more interesting character. Fumina, the girl who introduces Sekai to gaming, begins the series as a diehard Gundam fan, an apparently skilful player and someone who is prepared to browbeat new members of her club with sheer enthusiasm until they try the game. Right from the off that is a good solid message, a positively depicted character of a girl with genuine enthusiasm for a mostly male hobby, who sees off the disdain of other boys who would put her down. The series, however, seems to not let her maintain that status; after losing her machine early in the series she rebuilds it as a support unit whose role is quite literally upgrade parts for the two boys on her team to do better. There are hints of a more interesting arc in this – her losing confidence has led to her relying too hard on her teammates and not playing for herself – but even after her confidence is restored and she returns to being a fighter in her own right her motivations for fighting – in the three rivalries that define the second arc – are reductive and a far cry from the Gundam fanatic, confident wargamer of the first episode. The “Gunpla Academy” are the rival team for the series, and each of their members are an “opposite” to the protagonists. Sekai’s rival is someone he sees as the strongest opponent – a stock but entertaining motivation. Yuuma, the team’s No.2, has a rival he believes defeated him roundly a long time ago and it is time for a rematch. Yet Fumina’s “rival”, Shia, earns her status by being another girl Sekai is involved in an apparently entirely social relationship with. After two typical sporting rivalries – wanting to beat a strong team and wanting a rematch against the person who beat you – a silly girls’ spat being all that the team’s girl is allowed seems an overall negative character progression from someone who at first took no nonsense from anyone who wanted to get in the way of her enthusiasm for playing Gunpla Battle.
Thus the complaints I can level at Try – the ones that most impact my enjoyment of it – are small, odd, thematic things. Even though Sekai’s fighting style is arguably boringly executed at times, and many of the rivals are not built up well (the introduction and defeat of Junya in two episodes, despite his having a massive and hitherto unexplained beef with Sekai, is a massive narrative misstep), it is the little things like Fumina’s decline from interesting character to typical battle anime cheerleader and tsundere love-rival and the way “assimilation” and hyper-competitiveness seem to be being played up more than good-natured fun such that the Tryon 3 episode seems atypical, not typical, that really bother me.