"Gundam" is a series that's synonymous with anime, like Dragon Ball Z or One Piece. Though far from the first giant robot series, the franchise is instead one of the most influential. Not only has it been around for decades, but it's also pioneered the "Real Robot" sub-genre, where the conflict is man vs. man in a battle of ideologies, using more "realistic" mecha instead of the more fantastical designs of "Super Robots".
And while Gundam has had several spin-offs and alternate universes over the years, it all began with the original timeline, Gundam's "Universal Century". And while it can be a bit daunting even for the experienced anime fan, this list exists to make a potential viewer's journey into the original Gundam universe as easy as possible!
10 WHERE SHOULD A VIEWER BEGIN?
This answer depends on the amount of time someone has if they’re interested. If they want the full story, the best answer is to dive right into the original Mobile Suit Gundam television series.
If they want to cut through some of the beginning, they should go with MSG films, as there's only three of them. That said, pretty much everything in the Universal Century is approachable enough to start there with the notable exceptions of Zeta Gundam, Double Zeta Gundam (a Zeta sequel using a different lead), and Char’s Counterattack, which wraps up the story of Amuro and Char.
9 WHAT'S THE ONE YEAR WAR?
The first thing we see of the Universal Century, the One Year War is the most influential part of the timeline. It began when the space-dwelling Principality of Zeon attacked the Earth’s Federation Forces out of a desire to become completely independent of Earth. The conflict caused the creation of mobile suits, and eventually, the experimental robot codenamed “Gundam”.
The One Year War’s popularity resulted in it receiving several series chronicling events within and around it. Where many series would simply focus on “important” characters, Gundam has shown us the One Year War through the lens of multiple people, from a group of exhausted soldiers in the sweat-soaked jungle in 08th MS Team to jazz-loving psychopathic snipers in Gundam Thunderbolt.
8 WHAT ARE NEWTYPES?
The short answer is that Newtypes are “ace pilots”. But that’s a reductive answer and an indictment on how war-focused the characters in Gundam are. In reality, one of the key figures in the space colony-based Principality of Zeon made the assumption that as humankind left Earth to enter the stars, it would trigger a new evolution in humans, resulting in heightened mental acuity and the appearance of psychic powers, eliminating the misunderstandings that occur between humans.
Unfortunately, the never-ending war occurring between humans resulted in these NewTypes appearing most often on the battlefield, and their powers being used more often than not as instruments of war rather than peace.
7 WHO'S THE MOST INFLUENTIAL CHARACTER?
In the same way everyone thinks of Darth Vader when they think of Star Wars, the key figure to this universe’s history is Char Aznable. After his father was murdered because of a political dispute in the Zeon aristocracy, Casval Rem Daikun went into hiding, donning a mask and joining the Zeon army as he believed it was his best chance to get revenge.
Char’s story plays out over three television series (Gundam, Zeta Gundam, and Gundam: The Origin) and a film (Char’s Counterattack), but even that doesn’t begin to cover the ramifications of the character. His popularity both in real life and in-universe has led to their being “Char Clones” throughout Gundam ever since, including in the most recent Universal Century story, Gundam Unicorn.
6 BRIGHT NOA WILL BE YOUR GUIDE
While Char is the most influential character in the Universal Century, the character viewers will see the most in the Universal Century is Bright Noa. When he's introduced, Bright is a nineteen year old soldier placed in charge of White Base, an experimental ship which plays a crucial role in the resolution of the One Year War, as it contains the prototype Gundam suit, and it’s pilot Amuro Ray.
Most other characters in a protagonist role are lucky to survive, and when they do they're so changed by their experience in war they try to get as far from the battlefield as possible. But Bright is a lifer. He's present as a primary character in the first three television series of the Universal Century, and makes appearances in Char's Counterattack and even the television version of Gundam Unicorn as a member of Londo Bell. He'll serve as a constant for everyone while everything around him rapidly changes.
5 WHAT'S WITH THE FILMS?
Gundam didn’t originally go over very well with television audiences. The series was meant to run longer but was truncated due to the poor response it had. Years later however, creator Yoshiyuki Tomino put out three compilation films covering the story of the original Gundam series. Each film essentially retold the story of the series, but with some minor improvements to stay closer to Tomino’s vision for the show.
These films were all box office successes, leading to it becoming the franchise it is now. There’s also a series of compilation films for Mobile Suit Gundam’s direct sequel, Zeta Gundam, but despite some improved animation, these alter so much of the core story that they’re best skipped by everyone other than completionists.
4 WHY SO MANY KID PILOTS?
If you’re watching any mecha series, there’s a better chance than not that the primary pilot isn’t going to be a well-adjusted adult with a family and a full understanding of what they’re doing. But with Gundam, the kid pilot seems to exist as a commentary on how war is indiscriminate in who it affects and can drag in anyone of any age.
The first protagonist of the Universal Century is 15 year old Amuro Ray, and while the ages trend up as the years go on in-universe, the last protagonist is 13 year old Uso Evin. If the ages trending up were a sign that things were getting better, then arguably Victory Gundam makes the statement that things are worse than they ever were.
3 IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TV SERIES AND OVAS?
Most of the Gundam television series for the Universal Century are helmed by series creator, Yoshiyuki Tomino. As such, they're all similar themes and tropes with variations in executions. The lead is always going to skew very young and it’s often as much a coming of age story as it is about the horrors of war.
With the OVAs, the lead character is often either slightly or a great deal older. Additionally, most of the OVAs eschew the existence of NewTypes, focusing instead on the gritty realities of war rather than the hope of human beings who’ve evolved due to existing in space.
2 BE READY FOR A LOT OF CHARACTER DEATHS
One of the things that helps Gundam stand out compared to most other mecha series is that it embodies the idea that anyone can die. Yoshiyuki Tomino was originally known as “Kill ‘Em All Tomino” for his penchant for killing off so many of his characters. The only cliché part about it is these deaths tend to happen at the end of a series, but that mostly just means viewers spend the last ten episodes crossing their fingers and hoping their favorite character makes it to the credits.
Unfortunately, even when they do it’s no promise they have a happy ending nonetheless.
1 IS IT STILL GOING?
For a long time, the Universal Century was basically “done”. Both Sunrise and Bandai seemed far more interested in developing the franchise in alternate universe worlds like Gundam Wing or SEED or Gundam 00. But recently, we’ve seen a resurgence in the original Gundam timeline outside of more One Year War stuff. From 2010 to 2014 we had the Gundam Unicorn OVA, a series taking place after Char’s Counterattack.
And most recently we’ve had Sunrise announce the Gundam NeXT UC 100, which will focus on the next 100 years of the Universal Century, starting with the recently released film Gundam Narrative.