Set in the year Universal Century (UC) 0087, eight years after the events of Mobile Suit Gundam (0079), the series follows a rebel group called the Anti-Earth Union Group (AEUG) as they try to defeat the Titans, an elite task force of the Earth Federation designed to hunt down Zeon remnants but which ruthlessly kills anyone demanding equal rights for the space citizens in cold blood.
The story of Zeta Gundam is told through the viewpoint of Kamille Bidan, a civilian teenager and amateur mobile suit pilot whose parents are engineers working for the Earth Federation and the Titans. While traveling to the Green Noa colony to meet his parents, Kamille is insulted by and strikes a Titans officer named Jerid Messa. Following an AEUG attack led by Quattro Bajeerna on the colony to capture a trio of Gundam Mk-II mobile suits undergoing field tests, Kamille takes the opportunity to steal Messa's Mk-II to repel the attack and follows Quattro back to the AEUG mothership Argama. The Titans, under the order of Bask Om, take Kamille's parents in an attempt to force the return of the stolen Gundam Mk-II's. Jerid, unaware of the hostage plot, mistakenly kills Kamille's mother. Because of this, and many other reasons, Kamille eventually joins the AEUG.
As the war escalates, Kamille encounters people from all sides of the conflict, including brainwashed Titans, artificial Newtypes and the leaders of Anaheim Electronics, who are secretly funding the AEUG. The AEUG eventually launch a full-scale attack on the Earth Federation's assembly at Dakar, leading to an Earth Sphere civil war. Quattro reveals himself to be Char Aznable and presents evidence of the Titans' tyranny including using G3 nerve gas on a defenseless colony. The Earth Federation court soon rules the Titans' actions to be illegal and backs the AEUG in hunting down Titans leader Jamitov Hymem.
After losing the support of the Earth Federation, the Titans turn to their original enemy, remnants of the Principality of Zeon now known as Axis Zeon, to form an alliance to regain control of the Earth Sphere. Axis Zeon's leader Haman Karn contacts the AEUG, using the civil war of the Earth Federation at hand to politically ask for the control of Side 3, the former Zeon colony.
Axis involvement and Jamitov's assassination by Jupiter Fleet commander Paptimus Scirocco soon leads to a battle over the colony headquarters of the Titans, Gryps, which has been modified to be a colony laser. The war ends when Kamille, piloting the titular mobile suit Z Gundam, kills Scirocco in battle and the AEUG sinks Scirocco's flagship and most of the Titans' fleet. However, Kamille himself is psychologically broken and although survives without any physical harm to him or the Zeta Gundam, becomes mentally unstable with signs of memory lapse and/or insanity.
The series concludes with both the AEUG and Earth Federation, after suffering considerable losses over the course of the war, facing the full force of Axis Zeon, leading into Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ.
A manga adaptation of the series was released by Kodansha under the Comic Bon Bon label in 1994, three volumes were serialized. An official manga remake was also made entitled Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam Define (機動戦士Ζガンダム Define, Kidō Senshi Zēta Gandamu Define). This remake was written and illustrated by Hiroyuki Kitazume and serialized in Gundam Ace in June 25, 2011.
In celebration of Gundam's 25th anniversary (and also the 20th anniversary of Zeta Gundam), the 50-episode series was compiled into a movie trilogy called Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam: A New Translation. According to Tomino, the movies were created to fix some of the problems he identified in the television series and to bring it into a 21st-century context for a new generation now experiencing the increasingly commercialized series, such as Mobile Suit Gundam SEED. The first movie, Heirs to the Stars, opened on May 28, 2005, followed by Lovers on October 29, 2005, and Love is the Pulse of the Stars on March 6, 2006.
The compilations digitally remastered the television series of Zeta Gundam with new footage. Around 33% of "Heir to the Stars" was remastered footage, with 70% for "Lovers" and almost 80% for "Love is the Pulse of the Stars". However, several major plot events from the TV series were either edited or removed to allow the films to flow more smoothly, unlike Tomino's previous Gundam film compilations. Likewise, the fate of some characters in the television version were entirely changed, notably Kamille's — in the original, his final battle renders him into a vegetative state, while he remains physically and mentally fit by the end of the movie trilogy. In addition, mobile suits belonging to the Gundam timeline, but designed after the television broadcast of Zeta Gundam, were also placed into the movies.
Shigeaki Saegusa's musical score from the TV series was reused for the films, with the addition of new songs by J-pop artist Gackt. A music video for the first film's opening theme "Metamorphoze" featured Gackt singing inside a mobile suit cockpit during battle.
Majority of the original TV voice cast returned to reprise their respective roles. Yō Inoue, who died in 2003 - was posthumously credited, as an archived recording of her voice was used for a cameo appearance of Sayla Mass in the third film. There were some changes to the voice cast - namely Yukana replacing Saeko Shimazu as Four Murasame, Satomi Arai replacing Miyuki Matsuoka as Fa Yuiry, and a few others. This change sparked controversy among fans, who suspected that Yukana used her relationship with sound director Sadayoshi Fujino to land her role. The films were a box office success in Japan.
In 1985, Bandai released a special boardgame based on the series. Designed for two to four players, Mobile Suit Gundam: Take Off MKII has a paper map and 12 miniatures of various AEUG and Titans mobile suits, plus game rules and mission files. Kidō Senshi Z-Gundam: Hot Scramble followed in 1986. the first Gundam video game for home consoles, Hot Scramble featured first-person and side-scrolling stages. this would be followed by a 3D-fighting game, Mobile Suit Z Gundam, for the Sony PlayStation in 1997. Featuring remastered cutscenes from the series, it comes on two discs, allowing players to experience the series from the viewpoints of Kamille and Char. Bandai later added the series' mobile suits as part of Gundam Vs. Zeta Gundam in 2004.
In addition, Tecmo Koei and Namco Bandai have included the series in Dynasty Warriors: Gundam franchise ever since the first one came out in 2007, and it's still going strong up to this point.
The show has been placed on rerun on the anime satellite television network, Animax, across Japan and later its respective networks worldwide, including East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and other regions.
In 2004, after almost 2 years of delays and failed television and merchandising deals, Bandai released a limited edition Zeta Gundam boxset with dubbed English and original Japanese audio tracks. The box-set includes pencil sharpener collectibles and a 48-page booklet and poster. The English dub was done by Ocean Production's Blue Water Studio based in Calgary in Canada. Due to Bandai not having rights to the theme songs outside of Asia, the opening and closing sequences were altered.
The English subtitles were criticized as inaccurate and appeared to be based on the script for the English dub, rather than a direct translation of the original Japanese script. Bandai corrected the subtitles to a properly translated version for later DVD releases in 5 cases with 2 discs each. Each disc contained five episodes.
In 2006, Bandai Entertainment acquired the rights to the US release of the "A New Translation" movie trilogy, originally slated for release on June 22, 2010 but was later changed to July 6. The series and movies have been out of print, following the closure of Bandai Entertainment.
On October 11, 2014 at their 2014 New York Comic-Con panel, Sunrise announced they will be releasing all of the Gundam franchise, including the Zeta Gundam TV series and movies in North America though distribution from Right Stuf Inc., beginning in Spring 2015.
A majority of the series background music was written by Japanese composer Shigeaki Saegusa. The melodies of the two opening themes and sole ending theme were written by American pop singer/songwriter Neil Sedaka. The first opening song used is called Zeta - Toki wo Koete (Z・刻をこえて, Zeta - Transcending Times) which was performed by Mami Ayukawa, and used for the first twenty-three episodes. Zeta - Toki wo Koete was based upon the song "Better Days are Coming" from Sedaka's 1972 album Solitaire. The second opening song used is entitled Mizu no Hoshi e Ai wo Komete (水の星へ愛をこめて, From the Aqueous Star with Love) and was performed by Hiroko Moriguchi, this second opening song is used in episodes twenty-four to fifty. The song "Mizu no Hoshi e Ai wo Komete" was derived from an unreleased song entitled "For Us to Decide".
The sole ending song used for the series is called Hoshizora no Believe (星空のBelieve, Believe in the Starry Sky) which was sung by Mami Ayukawa. "Hoshizora no Believe" was adapted from the song "Bad and Beautiful" from the 1976 album Steppin' Out. In addition to the opening/ending songs an insert song was also made called Gin'iro Doresu (銀色ドレス, Silver Dress). This song is sung by Hiroko Moriguchi and is used in episode twenty.
The opening and ending songs differed for the North American release version as opposed to the original. The opening song used is called Zeta no Kodō ~ Zeta Gundam (Ζの鼓動～Ζガンダム, Zeta's Pulse~Zeta Gundam) which was composed by Saegusa, while the song used for the endings entitled Gurīn Noa no Shōnen ~ Arata na Sekai (グリーン・ノアの少年～新たな世界, Boy from Green Noa ~ A New World) was also written by Saegusa.
The songs used for the three movies that came out of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam were all performed by Gackt, and were compiled and released on his tribute album 0079-0088. The first movie Heirs To The Stars uses two songs; Metamorphoze is used as the opening song while Kimi ga Matteiru Kara (君が待っているから, Because you're Waiting) is used for the ending. The second movie Lovers uses just one new song called Mind Forest for the ending song. Mind Forest is also featured on Gackt's album called "Crescent". The final movie made Love is the Pulse of the Stars uses two new songs. Love Letter is used as an insert song followed by the song Dybbuk which is used as the ending song.
Yoshiyuki Tomino crammed his frustrations into Zeta Gundam. He created the anime with the idea of telling viewers "Hey, watch my new Gundam, youngsters. Why are you not so lively like them in Z?" Tomino has mixed feelings about Zeta Gundam. Tomino did not like the series and believes he should have ended the story in the first TV series. However, at the same time he noted that thanks to Zeta the franchise became more popular.
The review website Mania.com gave the anime an overall 'B+' rating, regarding it as "one of Yoshiyuki Tomino's greatest works." They stated that the "lack of an A/A+ is that this is recommended for fans who are already familiar with the Universal Century storyline," recommending that audiences view "the original movie trilogy" first before watching Zeta Gundam. The reviewer Chris Beveridge of Mania.com gave certain volumes of the series a full 'A' rating, describing the last ten episodes as being "the huge payoff episodes" where "you can almost feel the characters being rushed around a bit and moved through the paces. But at the same time, it all comes so fast that it's simply enjoyable to watch so much happen and change so quickly."