Mecha, also known as meka or mechs, is a broad genre of walking vehicles which are usually controlled by a pilot. Mecha often appear in anime, science fiction, and other genres involving fantastic or futuristic elements. Mecha are generally, though not necessarily, bipedal, with arms, hands, and usually fingers capable of grasping objects. A mecha that approximates the shape of a human body allows the use of martial arts movements and swordsmanship, ceremonial acts of honor, saluting, and other human mannerisms that cannot be performed using a tank or airplane.
In most fiction in which they appear, mecha are war machines: essentially armored fighting vehicles with legs instead of treads or wheels. Some stories, such as the manga Patlabor and American wargame BattleTech, also encompass mecha used for civilian purposes such as heavy construction work, police functions or firefighting.
Some science fiction universes posit that mecha are the primary means of combat, with conflicts sometimes being decided through gladiatorial matches. Others represent mecha as one component of an integrated military force, supported by and fighting alongside tanks, fighter aircraft, and infantry, functioning as a mechanical cavalry. The applications often highlight the theoretical usefulness of such a device, combining a tank's resilience and fire power with infantry's ability to cross unstable terrain. In other cases they are demonstrated with a greater versatility in armament, such as in the Armored Core series of video games where mecha can utilize their hands to carry a wide range of armament in the same manner as a person albeit on a much larger scale.
The distinction between true mecha and their smaller cousins (and likely progenitors), the powered armor suits, is blurred; according to one definition, a mecha is piloted while a powered armor is worn. Anything large enough to have a cockpit where the pilot is seated is generally considered a mecha.
Rarely, mecha has been used in a fantasy convention, most notably in the anime series Aura Battler Dunbine, The Vision of Escaflowne and Maze. In those cases, the mecha designs are usually based on some alternative or 'lost' science-fiction technology from ancient times.
The 1880 Jules Verne novel La Maison à vapeur (The Steam House) featured a steam-powered, piloted, mechanical elephant. One of the first appearances of such machines in modern literature was the tripods of H. G. Wells' famous The War of the Worlds. The novel does not contain a fully-detailed description of the tripod's (or "fighting-machine", as they are known in the novel) mode of locomotion, however it is hinted at: "Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand." Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 serial Starship Soldier, which was later published as a novel under the title Starship Troopers, features soldiers equipped with powered armor exoskeletons.
Mecha was popularized by Japanese anime and manga. The first occurrence of mecha robots being piloted by a user from within a cockpit was introduced in the manga and anime series Mazinger Z by Go Nagai, first published in 1972.
Word origin and usage
The term "mecha" is derived from the Japanese abbreviation meka (メカ?) for the English word "mechanical". In Japanese, mecha encompasses all mechanical objects, including cars, guns, computers, and other devices. In this sense, it is extended to humanoid, human-sized robots and such things as the boomers from Bubblegum Crisis, the similar replicants of Blade Runner, and cyborgs can be referred to as mecha, as well as mundane real-life objects such as industrial robots, cars and even toasters. The Japanese use the term "robots" (ロボット robotto?) or "giant robots" to distinguish limbed vehicles from other mechanical devices. The first widespread English language usage of the term was in the animated series Robotech which was an English dubbing and rewriting of three different anime and the terms usage since then has mostly associated in the west with either robotic (occasionally transforming) piloted vehicles or powered armored battlesuits which are worn akin to exoskeletons. There are exceptions; in the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the word is used to describe "mechanicals" (robotic humanoids), as opposed to "orga" for "organics" (humans).
With respect to powered armor suits, mecha typically do not refer to form fitting garments such as the Iron Man armor. Armored suit mecha tend to be much larger and bulkier than the wearer and the wearer's limbs may or may not actually extend completely into the respective limbs.
The term "mech" is used to describe such vehicles considerably more often in Western entertainment than in Asian entertainment. "Mech" as a term originated from the BattleTech series (where it is often written as 'Mech, short for BattleMech or OmniMech), and is not used in Japan in other contexts except as an unintentional misspelling of "mecha." (One exception is the Japanese version of BattleTech, which attempts to retain the English word.) In Japanese, "robot" is the more frequent term (see Other, below).
Mechas in fiction
In manga and anime
In Japan, "robot anime" (known as "mecha anime" outside Japan) is a genre that features the vehicles and their pilots as the central plot points. Here, the average robot mecha are usually fourteen feet (4.3 m) tall at the smallest, outfitted with a wide variety of weapons, and quite frequently have tie-ins with toy manufacturers. However, the robots can get up to 500 m tall (as in Bokurano). The Gundam franchise is a prominent example: Gundam toys and model kits (produced by the Japanese toymaker Bandai) are ubiquitous in Japan.
The size of mechas can vary according to the story and concepts involved. Some of them may not be considerably taller than a tank (Armored Trooper Votoms, Megazone 23), some may be a few stories tall (Gundam, Escaflowne, Saber Rider) and others can be as tall as a skyscraper (Space Runaway Ideon, Genesis of Aquarion, Neon Genesis Evangelion). There are also mecha which are big enough to contain the population of an entire city (Macross), some the size of a planet (Diebuster) and some the size of a large galaxy (Getter Robo, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann). Some are even implied to be able to be as large as the universe (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: Lagann-hen). And then there are some that are so big the universe they are in collapses and they fight in the space outside (Demonbane).
The genre started with Mitsuteru Yokoyama's 1956 manga Tetsujin 28-go (which was later animated in 1963 and also released abroad as Gigantor). Its inclusion is debatable however, as the robot was controlled by remote instead of a cockpit in the machine. Not long after that the genre was largely defined by author Go Nagai, into something considerably more fantastical. Mazinger Z, his most famous creation, was not only the first successful Super Robot anime series, but also the pioneer of the genre staples like robots being piloted by the hero from within a cockpit and weapons that were activated by the hero calling out their names ("Rocket Punch!"). According to Go Nagai:
"I wanted to create something different, and I thought it would be interesting to have a robot that you could drive, like a car."
This led to his creation of the Mazinger Z, which featured giant robots which were "piloted by means of a small flying car and command center that docked inside the head." It was also a pioneer in die-cast metal toys such as the Chogokin series in Japan and the Shogun Warriors in the U.S., that were (and still are) very popular with children and collectors.
Robot/mecha anime and manga differ vastly in storytelling and animation quality from title to title, and content ranges all the way from children's shows to ones intended for an older teen or adult audience.
Some robot mecha are capable of transformation (Macross, Zeta Gundam) or combining to form even bigger ones (Beast King GoLion and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann). Go Nagai is also often credited with inventing this in 1974 with the television series Getter Robo.
The mecha genre, one of the oldest genres in anime, is still alive and well in the new millennium, with revival OVAs like Getter Robo: Armageddon and Mazinkaiser from the Super Robot tradition, the recent Mobile Suit Gundam 00, Macross Frontier, Code Geass, Basquash! and Rideback from the Real Robot genre, and Reideen, a recent remake of the 1975 hit series Brave Raideen. Other recent anime series in the mecha genre include Heroic Age and particularly Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, a Super Robot anime with a few elements from the Real Robot genre.
Not all mechas need be completely mechanical. Some have biological components with which to interface with their pilots, and some are partially biological themselves, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Eureka Seven, and Zoids.
The Hollywood movie Aliens featured a cargoloader as a civilian mecha (although this instance blurs the line between being a mecha or an exoskeleton). The film Robot Jox, featuring two giant mech fight scenes, or Japanese live-action Gunhed are another examples.
In Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, mechas with rapid-fire, machine gun and flame-thrower arms were used near the end of the film, and were under the command of the main character, Johnny Ricco.
Mecha are often featured in computer and console games. Because of their size and fictional power, mecha are quite popular subjects for games, both tabletop and electronic. One popular classic of mecha in games is the MechWarrior series of video games, which takes place in the Battletech universe. Another game, Heavy Gear 2 offers a complex yet semi-realistic control system for its' mechas in both terrain and outer space warfare. Armored Core is one of the more popular Japanese franchises today, combining industrial customizable mech designs with fast-paced action. Rivalling Armored Core is Front Mission, a Turn based tactics series of games by Squaresoft. It features Japanese mech designs with more realistic physics, reserving the lightning speed common in the Japanese mecha genre to special machines. Older American Tabletop games, Battletech, uses hex-maps, miniatures & paper record sheets allows players to mech in tactical situations and record realistic damage, while add RPG elements when desired.
Mecha-like bipedal tanks called Metal Gears are a recurring element in the Metal Gear series. Iconic metal gears of the series include the Metal Gear D in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Metal Gear REX in Metal Gear Solid, and Metal Gear RAY in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The most common feature of a metal gear is the capability to launch nuclear missiles, though this feature is absent in the two newest models in the series; Metal Gears RAY and GEKKO. Unlike in many mech-featuring series, metal gears aren't numerous or widely used (except the small, unmanned GEKKOs). Most of the metal gears featured in the series are prototypes. In the series, they are usually called "the ultimate weapon" and "the missing link between infantry and artillery" (paralleling the missing link between men and apes).
In the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000, the Tau use Mecha Battlesuits while the Imperium as a whole use Dreadnoughts(for the Space Marines) and Sentinels(for the Imperial Guard) as walkers, as well as huge Titans. The Orks also use huge, ragtag mechs called gargants and smaller-sized Deffdreads and Killa-kans, which are basically walking scrap metal with varying types of ranged and close combat weapons (killy bitz) and a wired-in driver. The Eldar also use their particular version of titans, which are often more agile and compact than their Imperial counterparts, as well as the smaller wraithlords (although the latter does not have a pilot as such, they are controlled by the spirit of a dead Eldar contained in a 'soulstone').
Another example is in the game Battlefield 2142, in which mecha fight alongside conventional military units such as infantry, tanks, gunships, and APCs in the European Union's and Pan-Asian Coalition's military forces.
The Monolith Productions game Shogo: Mobile Armor Division blended Mecha game-play with that of traditional first-person shooter games. The game was divided into a series of missions with some having the player play on-foot as in a normal first person shooter while also having missions where the player could select through a variety of Mechas (referred to as "MCAs"in the game). A similar concept appears, although much less developed, in the game Quake 4, where the player can drive Mechas as well as other vehicles while the game is still primarily focused on ground based human combat. Dark Horizons: Lore Invasion took gameplay aspects of first-person shooter games such as Unreal Tournament 2004 and blended it with that of traditional Mecha simulation games.
In real-time strategy (RTS) game Red Alert 3, a number of the vehicles of the Empire of the Rising Sun are referred to as mecha, since they are capable of transforming from ground or sea units to aerial fighters, granting them additional flexibility in battle. One such unit is called the Mecha Tengu. Another RTS with mecha units is StarCraft, with mechas called Goliaths.
In the game Supreme Commander, the player takes control of a mech know as the Armoured Command Unit (ACU). The player uses the ACU to build up armies. The ACU is upgradable and can defend itself. Due to its power source, the ACU sets off a thermo-nuclear explosion when destroyed. Other units in the game are also mechs ranging in size and firepower.
The commercially successful Square title (re-released by Square-Enix) Xenogears also featured mecha, called gears. Mecha appear in the game as a prominent part of the convoluted story line and part of the game's innovative combat system as well as a mini-game fighting arena.
A more recent game was the Chromehounds video game developed by From Software for the Xbox 360. This game featured a more 'realistic' take on mecha, with much slower speeds and realistic modern weapons payloads. A large feature of this series was the heavy customizability of the Hounds, as they are called.
- The Great Spirit is a forty million-foot-tall robot from the Bionicle mythos. Though not necessarily made as a vehicle, it houses the Matoran Universe, a whole system of continents and oceans. There are also various other characters and species (such as the Exo Toa and the Bohrok) which can be considered mecha on a tiny scale.
- The Exo-Force line featured humans and machines battling each other in mechas, better known in the line as "Battle Machines".
Real Mecha and Walkers
There are a few real prototypes of mecha-like vehicles. Currently almost all of these are highly specialized or just for concept purpose, and as such may not see mass production.
- Landwalker: A machine developed by Sakakibara Kikai with intention of giving the impression of a bipedal mecha.
- T-52 Enryu: Translated name "Rescue Dragon", it is a 3.5 meter-tall hydraulically-operated robotic vehicle developed by Tmsuk. The vehicle has two hands, which copy the controller's movements. Its intended application is to open a path in the debris for the rescue team.
In the Western world, there are few examples of mecha, however, several machines have been constructed by both companies and private figures. Timberjack, a subsidiary of John Deere built a practical hexapod walking harvester.
A common type of mecha is a walker, which is a vehicle that moves on legs rather than wheels or tracks. Walkers have been constructed with anywhere from one to more than eight legs. They are classified according to the number of legs with common configurations being one leg (pogo stick or "hopper"), two legs (biped), four legs (quadruped), and six legs (hexapod).
While the mobility of walkers is arguably higher than that of wheeled or tracked vehicles, their inherent complexity has limited their use mainly to experimental vehicles, primarily robots. Such difficulties have let them be primarily known in fictional works. Real life, larger manned walker vehicles have existed, however, with examples being General Electric's walking truck, the University of Duisburg-Essen's ALDURO, and John Deere's hexapod Walking Forest Machine.
One-legged walkers, hoppers, have been built with some success, but currently the more common walkers are toys like the bipedal QRIO and ASIMO, and the quadruped AIBO. Some walkers such as the BigDog are designed for use in the military. The largest walking machine ever made is the Big Muskie dragliner.
Notes and references
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Mark Gilson, "A Brief History of Japanese Robophilia", Leonardo 31 (5), p. 367–369 .
- ↑ 
- ↑ http://web.archive.org/web/20040529091606/http://www.dra-mata.com/manga/nagai/gn-mazingerz01.jpg
- ↑ http://www.sakakibara-kikai.co.jp/ Sakakibara Kikai website (Japanese)
- ↑ A video on YouTube demonstrating the Landwalker
- ↑ Timberjack Walking Machine on YouTube