Mecha, also known as meka, mechs or giant robots, are limbed machines. They are usually—but not always—large, humanoid vehicles controlled by a pilot. Mecha are commonly bipedal, although they come in a dizzying variety of shapes and sizes. There is some debate as to what qualifies as mecha and what doesn't. Much like art or pornography, one knows it when one sees it.
The term "mecha" is derived from the Japanese abbreviation meka (メカ, meka?) for the English word "mechanical". In Japanese, "mecha" encompasses all mechanical objects, including cars, guns, computers, and other devices. The Japanese use the term "robot" (ロボット, "robotto") or "giant robots" to distinguish limbed vehicles from other mechanical devices. English speakers have repurposed the term "mecha" to mean only these vehicles.
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 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." (One exception is the Japanese version of BattleTech, which attempts to retain the English word.) In Japanese, "robot" is the more frequent term. In the Japanese stories themselves, they are seldom referred to as "Mecha".
In many science fiction stories in which they appear, mecha are war machines: essentially armored fighting vehicles with legs instead of treads or wheels. An equal number of stories treat mecha as a proxy for super heroes, with mecha being the super-heroic form(s) of the protagonist(s), or the ultimate level of power for characters who are already super heroes. In many stories, such as Patlabor, mecha are also used for civilian purposes such as heavy construction work, police functions, or firefighting. The Hollywood movie Aliens featured a cargoloader as a civilian mecha, for example.
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 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. However, this distinction is debatable and there are many mecha which exist between being worn and having a cockpit (Appleseed's Landmates are an example).
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 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.
Robot mecha are quite popular in Japanese manga and 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 games and products in other media. 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 licenses (the first edition of BattleTech, then named BattleDroids, actually included two Japanese 1/144 model kits from the Fang of Sun Dougram anime series).
The genre started with Mitsuteru Yokoyama's 1956 manga Tetsujin 28-go (Ironman #28, 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 USA, that were (and still are) very popular with children and collectors. Getter Robo, for its part, was the first combining mecha, something that became a frequent design theme and was aggressively imitated in similar mecha shows.
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 and Gundam is considered the pinnacle of mecha anime in the 1980s, the police-focused Patlabor, and as examples of older shows, Go Lion (Voltron) and Giant Robo as well as Full Metal Panic. 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.
One anime series that drew from the tradition of both super robot and real robot genres while being 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, Diebuster 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 Brave Raideen.
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.
More recent anime titles, such as The Vision of Escaflowne and ZOIDS, introduce variant concepts to the mecha genre, such as organic mecha and upscaled mechanical animals and vehicles.
Mecha in 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, 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. Another prominent tabletop game was Epic Armageddon, which featured monstrous constructs (coined Titans) fighting amongst a retinue of thousands of foot soldiers over thousands of worlds.
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 are the action game Zone of the Enders, the various Armored Core titles, the Virtual On series, and the Metal Gear series. On the remote controlled side of the genre there are games such as Robot Alchemic Drive and Remote Control Dandy:SF. 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 and Xenogears games by Japanese developer Square Enix (who are also responsible for an homage to Super Robot anime with Robot Alchemic Drive). The Front Mission series is seeing increased popularity in America, especially with the third and fourth installments for PlayStation and PlayStation 2. Xenogears’s spiritual successor Xenosaga, by Namco Bandai followed a similar structure, although in a more science fiction-based setting. In TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, the Goliath SD/9 is a giant mecha armed with chainguns and homing missiles.
Some non mecha-oriented games also feature some mecha-like machines, like Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, and Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, StarCraft, Supreme Commander, Warhammer 40,000 and Sonic CD. In addition, Battlefield 2142 features biped mechs as an addition to tanks. The role they play is an anti-infantry, anti-tank and limited anti-air warfare unit. The Gigas in Skies of Arcadia can also be considered mecha of a sort, although at least one of them is actually biological.