The term mecha may refer to both scientific ideas and science fiction genres that centers on robots or machines controlled by people. Real mechas are any "walker" type of Mobile robots.
These machines vary greatly in size and shape, but are distinguished from vehicles by their humanoid or biomorphic appearance. Different subgenres exist, with varying connotations of realism. The concept of Super Robot and Real Robot are two such examples found in Japanese anime. The term may also refer to real world piloted humanoid robots / non-humanoid robotic platforms, either currently in existence or still on the drawing board (i.e. at the planning or design stage). Alternatively, in the original Japanese context of the word (see Characteristics), 'mecha' may refer to mobile machinery/vehicles (including aircraft) in general, manned or otherwise.
The word "mecha" (メカ, meka) is an abbreviation first used in Japanese of the word "mechanical". In Japanese, mecha encompasses all mechanical objects, including cars, guns, computers, and other devices, and the term "robot" (ロボット, robotto) or "giant robot" to distinguish limbed vehicles from other mechanical devices. Outside of this usage, it has become associated with large robots with limbs or other biological characteristics.
While the distinction is often hazy, mecha typically does not refer to form-fitting powered armor such as Iron Man's suit. They are usually much larger than the wearer, like Iron Man's enemy the Iron Monger, and possess a cockpit from which they are operated.
In most fiction in which they appear, mecha are fighting machines, whose appeal comes from the combination of potent weaponry with a more stylish combat style than a mere vehicle. Often, they are the primary means of combat, with conflicts sometimes being decided through gladiatorial matches. Other works 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 firepower with infantry's ability to cross unstable terrain and a high degree of customization. In some continuities, special scenarios are constructed to make mecha more viable than current-day status. For example, in Gundam the fictional Minovsky particle inhibits the use of radar, making long-range ballistic strikes impractical, thus favouring relatively close range warfare of Mobile Suits.
However, some stories, such as the manga/anime series Patlabor and the American wargame BattleTech universe, also encompass mecha used for civilian purposes such as heavy construction work, police functions or firefighting. Mecha also see roles as transporters, recreation, advanced hazmat suits and other R and D applications.
Mecha have been used in fantasy settings, for example in the anime series Aura Battler Dunbine, The Vision of Escaflowne, Panzer World Galient and Maze. In those cases, the mecha designs are usually based on some alternative or 'lost' science-fiction technology from ancient times. In case of anime series Zoids, the machines resemble dinosaurs and animals, and have been shown to evolve from native metallic organisms.
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 (1897). The novel does not contain a fully detailed description of the tripods' (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."
Two of the earliest uses of mecha in the United States were Kimball Kinnison's battle suit in E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman novel Galactic Patrol (1950), and the Mobile Infantry battle suits in Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1958).
Mecha were popularized by Japanese anime and manga. The first humanoid giant robot is Tetsujin 28-Go, introduced in 1956. Tetsujin was controlled externally via remote control by an operator. The first occurrence of mecha 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.
In manga and anime
In Japan, "robot anime" (known as "mecha anime" outside Japan) is one of the oldest genres in anime. Robot anime is often tied in with toy manufacturers. Large franchises such as Zoids and Gundam have hundreds of different model kits.
The size of mecha 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, Code Geass), some may be a few stories tall (Gundam, Escaflowne, Bismark, Gurren Lagann), others can be as tall as a skyscraper (Space Runaway Ideon, Genesis of Aquarion, Neon Genesis Evangelion), some are big enough to contain an entire city (Macross), some the size of a planet (Diebuster), galaxies (Getter Robo, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann), or even as large as universes (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: Lagann-hen, Demonbane).
The first giant robot seen was Mitsuteru Yokoyama's 1956 manga Tetsujin 28-go. However, it wasn't until the advent of Go Nagai's Mazinger Z that the genre was established. Mazinger Z innovated by adding the inclusion of futuristic weapons, and the concept of being able to pilot from a cockpit (rather than via remote control, in the case of Tetsujin). 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.
Mazinger Z 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, Transformers and Nintendo-Monolith'S XenoX from Doll/Skell as transforms) 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.
Not all mecha 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.
Mecha based on anime have seen extreme cultural reception across the world. The personification of this popularity can be seen as 1:1 size Mazinger Z, Tetsujin, and Gundam statues built across the world.
In video games
Mecha are often featured in computer and console video games. Because of their size and fictional power, mecha are quite popular subjects for games, both tabletop and electronic. They have been featured in video games since the 1980s, particularly in vehicular combat and shooter games, including Sesame Japan's side-scrolling shooter game Vastar in 1983, various Gundam games such as Mobile Suit Gundam: Last Shooting in 1984 and Z-Gundam: Hot Scramble in 1986, the run and gun shooters Hover Attack in 1984 and Thexder in 1985, and Arsys Software's 3D role-playing shooters WiBArm in 1986 and Star Cruiser in 1988.
There are a few prototypes of walking vehicles. Currently almost all of these are experimental or proof of concept, and as such may never see mass production.
A "walking vehicle" is a vehicle that moves on legs rather than wheels or tracks. Walking vehicles 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 walking vehicles is arguably higher than that of wheeled or tracked vehicles, their inherent complexity has limited their use mainly to experimental vehicles. Examples of manned walking vehicles include General Electric's Walking truck, the University of Duisburg-Essen's ALDURO. Timberjack, a subsidiary of John Deere, built a practical hexapod Walking Forest Machine (harvester). One of the most sophisticated real-world walking vehicles is the Martin Montensano-built 'Walking Beast', a 7-ton quadrapod experimental vehicle suspended by four hydraulic binary-configuration limbs with much greater dexterity.
Some walking machines such as the BigDog, an autonomous robot, have been designed for the potential military applications. The largest walking machine ever made is the Big Muskie dragline excavator, used primarily in mining operations.
The Dragon of Furth im Wald, a quadrupedal animatronic dragon created for a German festival, was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the "World's biggest walking robot". It is operated by remote control rather than a pilot.
Dutch artist Theo Jansen has created many walking machines called Strandbeest that wander on Dutch beaches.
At the end of 2016, Korea Future Technology built a prototype of a robot called METHOD-1, that could qualify as a Mecha. The robot could walk, and its driver could control the robot's arms individually.