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The title mecha RX-78-2 Gundam from the popular anime Mobile Suit Gundam The title mecha RX-78-2 Gundam from the popular anime Mobile Suit Gundam

In some works of science fiction, mecha (singular or plural, less frequently meka, mechs (singular: mech) or giant robots) are piloted or remote-controlled limbed vehicles. They are generally, though not necessarily, bipedal.

The term "mecha" is derived from the Japanese abbreviation for the English word "Mechanical" In Japanese, "mecha" encompasses all mechanical objects, including cars, guns, computers, and other devices. English speakers have repurposed the term to mean only the vehicles described above.

In most science fiction stories in which they appear, mecha are war machines: essentially armored fighting vehicles with legs instead of treads or wheels. Some stories, such as the Japanese manga Patlabor, also encompass mecha used for civilian purposes such as heavy construction work, police functions, or firefighting.

Some sci-fi 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.

The distinction between smaller 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.

The first occurrence of mecha in fiction is thought to be the novel The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells where the Martians use tripod walkers very similar to mecha.

Rarely, mecha has been used in a fantasy convention, most notably in the anime series The Vision of Escaflowne and Maze anime. In those cases, the mecha designs are usually based on some alternative or 'lost' science-fiction technology from ancient times.

Contents

East and West

Battlemechs from cover of the book The Legend of the Jade Phoenix by Robert Thurston Battlemechs from cover of the book The Legend of the Jade Phoenix by Robert Thurston

Mecha are quite popular in Japanese manga, and by extension anime. In Western entertainment, they are occasionally seen in video games, especially the action, strategy and simulation genres, but the most well-known Western context for mecha is BattleTech. The original BattleTech - a tabletop strategy game - has been the basis of numerous MechWarrior computer games and a role-playing game and is the origin of the related term "mech". Other products bearing the BattleTech name include a collectible card game, books, comics and an animated TV series. FASA, the company that produced BattleTech, was sued for copyright infringement for using several mecha designs from Macross and other anime series without the proper copyright licenses1 (the first edition of BattleTech, then named BattleDroids, actually included two Japanese 1/144 model kits from the Fang of Sun Dougram anime series). After FASA closed its doors the BattleTech line was sold to WizKids, who now produce Classic Battletech and MechWarrior: Age of Destruction, a collectable miniatures game.

Though designs vary widely in both eastern and western mecha, there is a general difference in style. Japanese mechs tend to be anthropomorphic as opposed to the more vehicular western types, and it is not unusual for Japanese mecha to perform difficult acrobatic maneuvers while some western machines are designed to simply plod forward. Fingered hands are much more common on eastern mecha; western designs often just have upper limbs with permanent weapon emplacements.

However, these observances are hardly a rule. The comparison probably comes up due to the humanoid Gundams being the most iconic of Japanese mecha, versus BattleMechs being one of the most well known American. With a number of the original series of BattleMechs being based off of Macross mecha, it hardly makes gun arms a uniquely American feature. Neither are humanoid types with hands exclusively Japanese (a great amount of Battletech mechs from the Inner Sphere faction have hands), the iconic Sentinels from the X-Men being one such example (although aside from Sentinel Squad O*N*E, Sentinels are technically not mecha, because they lack a pilot). The inverse of this rule applies as well, as Eastern mechs in the Battletech style do exist, mainly in the GunGriffon universe.

The word 'mech' is used to describe such vehicles considerably more often in western entertainment than in Asian entertainment. "Mech" as a term originated from BattleTech (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' (With the exception of the Japanese version of BattleTech, which attempts to retain the English word.) In Japanese, 'mecha' is the more frequent term (see 'Other meanings' below), though in the series themselves they are seldom known as such.

The mecha genre of anime

In anime, 'mecha' is a genre that features the vehicles and their pilots as the central characters. Here, the average mecha are usually twenty feet tall at the smallest, outfitted with a wide variety of weapons, and quite frequently have tie-ins with toy manufacturers. The Gundam franchise is an excellent example: Gundam toys and model kits (produced by the Japanese toymaker Bandai) are ubiquitous in Japan.

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 mecha are capable of transformation (Macross to name but one) or combining to form even bigger ones (see Voltron). Go Nagai is also often credited with inventing this in 1974 with the television series Getter Robo.

History

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 weapons that were activated by the hero calling out their names ("Rocket Punch!"). 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. Getter Robo, for its part, was the first combining robot, something that became a frequent design theme and was aggressively imitated in similar mecha shows.

An MS-06F Zaku II from Mobile Suit Gundam, this Zaku II has an additional, non-standard handheld shield in its left hand An MS-06F Zaku II from Mobile Suit Gundam, this Zaku II has an additional, non-standard handheld shield in its left hand

The appearance of Gundam in 1979 is considered to have broken the mecha genre into two subsets: the super robot show, which focused on ultratech mecha that often had elements of mysticism and tend to use a "monster of the week" format; and the real robot show, in which the mecha are shown as tools rather than semi-mystical creations, and the focus is less on the machines and more on the pilots. The introduction of Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979 introduced a sort of paradox: a war show about giant war machines that was in fact anti-war at heart.

Other notable series include but are by no means limited to The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which in its modified Robotech form led to the breakthrough of anime in the USA, Hideaki Anno's Gunbuster, which along with Macross is considered the pinnacle of anime in the 1980s, the police-focused Patlabor, and as examples of older shows, Go Lion (Voltron) and Giant Robo. Macross was especially noteworthy as it showed mecha fighting under combined arms tactics, ranging from the infantry Spartan MBR-07-II to the jet fighter VF-1 Valkyrie and artillery Monster HWR-00-II as well as Full Metal Panic.

One anime series that drew from the tradition of both super robot and real robot genres while being completely unique was Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion. Considered by many to be the spiritual successor to Space Runaway Ideon, Evangelion was highly successful and quite controversial, similar to its would-be predecessor.

The mecha genre in anime is still alive and well as the new millennium came, with revival OVAs like Getter Robo: the Last Day and Mazinkaiser from the Super Robot tradition, the new Gundam Seed series from the Real Robot side, and RahXephon, a successful sci-fi anime series in the vein of Evangelion.

Arguably, the concept of piloted mecha goes back decades before Tetsujin-28. The tripods featured in The War of the Worlds, with advanced weaponry and dedicated piloting stations, are perhaps the forerunners of modern mecha.

Games

Because of their size and power, and the resultant potential for massive property damage demonstrating that size and power, mecha are quite popular subjects for games, both tabletop and electronic.

Tabletop games centered around mecha include Dougram, Metal Gear, BattleTech, Mekton, Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles, Gear Krieg, Mecha!, OHMU and many others, and they appear regularly in other epic-scaled games such as Rifts. Mecha are also major elements in some fantasy games, such as DragonMech and Iron Kingdoms, and although they appear in Exalted, they are not a major element of the game's setting.

GDI’s Mammoth Mark II, a four legged mecha, shown just before an assault against a Nod installation GDI’s Mammoth Mark II, a four legged mecha, shown just before an assault against a Nod installation

Mecha are often featured in computer and console games. One notable console title that focuses on the mecha anime genre is Banpresto's Super Robot Wars series (also known as Super Robot Taisen), which in each installment of its games depict an elaborate crossover of popular and less-known mecha anime series. Also popular is Zone of the Enders, an action game, and the various Armored Core titles. Many game adaptations have been made of various popular mecha franchises, including Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space, many Macross games, and even American titles like the MechWarrior and MechCommander series, the Earthsiege and Starsiege series, Robotech: Battlecry and Robotech: Invasion. Also, there are the Front Mission, Xenogears and Xenosaga" games by Japanese developer Square Enix (who are also responsible for an homage to Super Robot anime with Robot Alchemic Drive), which are seeing increased popularity in America, especially with the third and fourth installments for PlayStation and PlayStation 2. Some non mecha-oriented games also feature some mecha-like machines, like Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun and StarCraft.

Scale Models

Assembling and painting mecha scale model kits is a popular pastime among mecha enthusiasts. While many model kits are not produced for distribution to the West, foreign fans can acquire them through comic book shops or online retailers that cater to imports. Like other models such as cars or airplanes, more advanced kits require much more intricate assembly.

Others enjoy building Lego mecha, whether to reproduce existing designs or create their very own. Lego mecha construction can present unique engineering challenges; the balancing act between a high range of motion, good structural stability, and aesthetic appeal can be difficult to manage. In 2006, the Lego company released their own somewhat manga-inspired mecha line with the Exo-Force series.

Grammar

The word "mecha" is both singular and plural, it specifically covers the Japanese aspect of the genre (because they refer to it as "meka"). The word "mech" or "mechs," singular and plural forms respectively, can refer to American mechanical design (such as BattleTech, though many of that game's early graphical designs were actually Japanese in origin). However, it is grammatically incorrect to refer to all such machines as "mechs" and/or "mechas".

Word origins and usage

In Japanese, the word mecha (or meka) is an abbreviation of the English "mechanical" and used to refer to all mechanical objects, real-world or fictional. 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. In Japanese, the term "giant robots" is used in the similar context that English speakers have repurposed the term "mecha."

This is far less frequent among English speakers. 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).

Mecha as practical war machines

The question of whether mecha could ever be used in the real world as practical war machines is a widely debated topic on many mecha forums (usually among mecha enthusiasts vs. utilitarians). Due to their intended purpose, mecha are usually compared to tanks (or, in the case of Gundam or Macross, fighters).

Mecha as a replacement for tanks

The major advantage usually cited promoting mecha over tanks is the mecha's use of legs, which emulates a human's ability to traverse almost any kind of terrain, thus giving a mecha superior all-terrain capability. In reality, a mecha would not be able to traverse terrain nearly as well as tanks because of their very nature. The use of legs means that all of the machine's weight is focused on two relatively small points. Considering that most mecha are depicted as very large and heavy, this could cause severe problems if the mecha were to traverse any kind of soft terrain where its legs could sink into the ground, or get stuck in light foliage, and inhibit movement. This is in contrast to a tank's treads which spread its weight out over a much larger area, reducing the weight burden on any given point. In addition, the tank's treads emulate the method a caterpiller uses to move, which gives it excellent all terrain movement.

Also often pointed out is the agility of a mecha, which can in theory move in an unpredictable manner to present a more difficult target and/or dodge incoming fire. In the context of 21st century projectile weapons, dodging such attacks would be just as absurd as any human being able to do so, unless the distances involved were huge. It is possible, however, for mechas to reduce their targetability through agility. In order to accomplish this, a mecha would need to have a range of motion very similar to a human being. This range of motion precludes the battlefield use of the vast majority of mecha depictions, which tend to be limited in range of movement (like BattleTech mechs) or which have mechanical control systems that limit the range of movement by limiting the range of controls.

Linear top speed is another restriction upon mechas, as they would be limited both in how quickly their legs could cycle while running, and by the amount of stress the legs could take from impacts on the ground while doing so (to say nothing of how the ground would react!). This restriction could be mitigated by the use of an alternate mode of travel, but the frequent depiction of flying as this secondary mode would likely turn a battlefield into a trap shoot for opposing units. Another solution would be the use of a secondary means of locomotion (in addition to walking), such as feet mounted wheels or treads, as seen in Front Mission and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, or the SMS, or Secondary Movement System of Heavy Gear.

Another proposed advantage is the higher clearance a mecha has compared to the relatively low profile tank. Hypothetically, the higher vantage point allow it to see farther into the horizon, shoot farther, and at better angles. However, this is also a huge disadvantage, as a mecha presents a much larger target profile as a result of its stance. Raising a mech's clearance increases its frontal projection area, making it a very obvious, and easy to hit target especially by aircraft. The stance of a mecha also means that the use of armour for protection-by-deflection would not be of use, as armour plates are more likely to be "square on" to incoming fire from the ground. Oddly, the opposite could be said to be true of incoming fire from the air. However, a tank firing directly at a mecha could very easily take out the lower limbs, but would have a hard time firing "square-on" at higher portions of the body.

It is also pointed out that a mech's leg drive system would be far too complex and costly to be practical on the battlefield. Simply destroying a leg in combat, (a relatively easy thing to do, considering its size compared to a tank's tread), would also render the mecha immobile. This is in contrast to a tank's tread system, which is easy to repair and replace should the need arise. Unlike a tank, however, a damaged mech could easily pass on its weaponry and ammunition to another working unit. Another criticism involves a mecha's inherently poor stability. A tank is very low, and close to the ground which not only makes it harder to hit, but makes it very stable. A mecha is tall and can easily fall down, making it extremely vulnerable if not completely useless. Because of this, recoil becomes a serious factor when mounting high caliber weapons on a mech. The M1 Abrams tank mounts an M256 120 mm gun which produces considerable recoil. Such a weapon mounted on the chassis of a mech could possibly knock it down. This limits the potential arsenal a mech can carry, which is in stark contrast to mecha depicted in fiction where their arsenals are usually more varied and powerful than their tank counterparts. Depending on how weapons on a mecha are mounted, the mech could dynamically adapt leg and body posture and body weight distribution to absorb the recoil energy progressively and dynamically (ie. laying down prone or bracing the recoil with a wide stance). However this solution means the mecha typically can not move while bracing for recoil, unlike a tank which can shoot and move at the same time, putting the mecha in a severe tactical disadvantage. These problems with recoil effectively removes the possibility of mounting large caliber weapons on a mecha, leaving it unable to outrun, or outgun a main battle tank. The only weapons a mecha could mount are small caliber armor piercing weapons such as a 20-40mm (approx .66 caliber -1.30 inch) cannon, though these weapons are typically reserved for light armored vehicles or troops and are ineffective against tanks.

Mecha as aerospace combat vehicles

Another use for mecha, as opposed to replacing tanks would be for them to function in a similar manner to aerospace or conventional fighters, as is depicted in various Gundam shows or Macross. The notion of a "flying robot" is sometimes considered absurd, until mecha enthusiasts point out the Mecha's ability to take advantage of reactionless maneuvering acomplished through a mecha's use of its arms and legs (known as AMBAC in the Gundam UC universe). However the ability to properly debate how such a machine would function in the real world is currently impossible due to an inability to test it. Mecha enthusiasts argue that freeflying, (a derivative of parachuting) is a very similar real world application of humanoid maneuvering in mid air. Using their arms and legs, freeflyers are able to have full control over the three flying axes (roll, pitch, and yaw). While planes are able to do this, it is possible that the movable arms and legs of a mech might be able to perform the maneuvers faster. This is ideal for close ranged air combat where the positioning of forward arc of the machine could mean victory or defeat. This idea of reactionless maneuvering is also useful in space combat where there is no air for an aerodynamic plane to use flaps for maneuvering. In such an environment, changing facing is only possible through thrust vectoring or AMBAC. Despite that, some point out that even if AMBAC were to work, its concept would be better utilized in non-mecha designs. In addition, these advantages are mostly useful at close range which is rare in modern air combat. While it is possible to make a fighter or mecha very fast and maneuverable, it is easier to make a missile even faster and more maneuverable. Utilitarians also argue that creating an atmospheric flying robot is impossible in the first place. Mecha would have to possess fictional technology that allows continuous lift without wings or rotors, which makes debating the points previously mentioned completely irrelevant.

Other proposed uses for mecha

A Gear from Heavy Gear is a good example of small mecha bordering on powered armor. A Gear from Heavy Gear is a good example of small mecha bordering on powered armor.

It is also speculated that, rather than replacing tanks, a mech could be used for urban combat scenarios in an infantry support role. Such a mecha would probably only be 5-7 meters tall and would be verging on power armor. The size of such a mecha would enable it to carry heavy weapons such as a chaingun that would otherwise be unavailable to an infantry squad, yet its legs would allow it to maneuver more freely than a tank in the close confines of an urban environment. Furthermore the presence of actuated arms would allow a mecha to deal with infantry that manage to get into direct physical contact with the mech, something that tanks are currently unable to do. In addition it would grant several enhanced prehensile attributes unavailable to vehicles and improved over infantry capabilities. The paved roads of an urban environment would also negate the problems of weight distribution. Despite this, a mecha in an urban environment faces the difficulty of maneuvering; the sheer amount of clutter that can be present in urban terrain might prove too much for a mech's gyroscopes to handle. And also due to its much smaller size, an urban combat mecha could be blocked by tank traps, and other kinds of barricades.

Another consideration for military use of mecha would be for non-combat support functions. The example in the movie Aliens is one such depiction, where the vaguely humanoid shape allows for an unmatched versatility in manual labour tasks. Under these circumstances, where development of such a mecha was undertaken for other reasons, it might be worthwhile for a military service to arm them after the fact. Indeed this is already seen in existing militaries as evidenced by the IDF Caterpillar D9. All of the above issues would be mitigated by the fact that combat would not be the mecha's primary role, but would instead be a secondary function only used when circumstances are dire. This would naturally point us towards the development of mecha for purposes other than military (heavy police action, industrial firefighting, mining, etc.). If this were to take place, no doubt some military service would apply the concept of mechas to a fighting force, were some other sector to take the cost of development upon themselves.

In light of all these disadvantages, many consider the price of even developing a working prototype would be far too costly for something not even practical today.

Notes

  1. The related lawsuits were settled out of court, and later products of BattleTech do not use the designs under contention.

External links

Real-life attempts at building mechs


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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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