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A lot like the Star Trek franchise, Mobile Suit Gundam was not instantly a hit, but still managed to capture a strong cult following. Thanks to more exposure through reruns and the success of merchandising sales, Gundam began to gain more popularity. In the early 1980s, the TV series was retold through a new movie trilogy (which became the official canon) which then further expanded its domestic success.
Then between 1985 and 1993, Tomino finally provided further continuations to the Universal Century. In 1994, the first alternative universe Gundam series was made with G Gundam, and its success paved the way for other series set in alternate universes. So in this list, let’s explore what are the top Gundam installments since its debut.
10. Mobile Fighter G Gundam
- Episodes: 49
- Aired: April 1994 – March 1995
This was the series that commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the franchise. The series is a tribute/parody to not just Gundam, but old school mechs such as Mazinger Z, and is also influenced from Shounen Jump titles such as Ring ni Kakero (the series that put Shounen Jump on the map in Japan) and of course, Dragon Ball Z.
Like in Ring ni Kakero, nations under the gimmicks of ethnic stereotypes (Tequila Gundam representing Mexico, a prisoner representing post-Soviet Russia, a loud mouth American representing America, a lumberjack for Canada and so on) fight each other in one-on-one battles in a tournament. Like in DBZ, the characters have crazy power up power attacks and Domon’s shining mode is of course a nod to Super Saiya-jins.
The character design (especially the hair styles) also takes influence from old school anime, especially from the great classics of Tatsunoko such as Gatchaman and Tekkaman. The fights are pretty exciting and explosive showing viewers that mech doesn't always have to be centered around lasers and bazookas. The voice acting in the English dub works to a certain minimum for a lot of viewers, but I have always felt this is a series that resonates more effectively in Japanese.
With Chibodee in the Japanese version played by Ohtsuka Chikao (who you may know as Jiraiya from Naruto), I always get a laugh out of every time he calls Domon “Japanese.” And Domon’s power up speeches provided by the great Seki Tomokazu just has this emotion to it where you know it's silly, but you can take it seriously, and just feels “Japanese.” Not to mention, it has a pretty energetic and masculine soundtrack.
9. Turn A Gundam
- Episodes: 50
- Aired: April 1999 – May 2000
After three AU installments, Tomino creates his first Gundam series since Victory and makes his own AU series. Plus, this series was the beginning of what Gundam fans called the post-depression Tomino after years of being infamously (and actually rather unfairly) known as Minna Goroshi no Tomino, or Kill Em All Tomino.
If Jules Verne or HG Wells made a mech anime, this would be it. Tomino’s ultimate purpose of the series revealed in the ending was rather unique and is one of the greatest plot twists in all of anime. The ending was foreshadowed throughout the series (and in the title itself) but it still caught me off guard.
The action is not as explosive as other Gundam installments but it works in its own appropriate ways. The cylinder/circular designs of the mobile suits and their heavier movements perfectly reflect the steampunk-like nature of this series. But what personally appealed to me to was the character designs of Akiman, Yasuda Akira, the character designer for the Street Fighter Alpha, Darkstalkers, and Breath of Fire gaming series.
His bright colorings brings an appropriate tone to the optimistic nature of Loran and the series always portrays sunny weather. And for you Macross and Cowboy Bebop fans out there, the music is composed by Kanno Yoko and brings this soft and melodic instrumentals that represent its upbeat tone. Granted the series will still have some deaths but it demonstrates that Tomino does not always have to tell dark stories to define himself as a quality story teller.
8. Char’s Counterattack
- Episodes: 1(Movie)
- Aired: March 1988
I call this 85% sequel to the original Gundam, 12% sequel to Zeta Gundam, and 3% sequel to Gundam ZZ. Char has made his come back since the events of Zeta Gundam (to see his true ending, watch the ending to the Zeta Gundam PS1 game), and he has reformed a new Neo Zeon under his leadership. Char has become an extremist version of who he was in the Dakar Speech. He is true to who he is, but he is forcing his beliefs on other people.
I recommend exposure to the first Gundam (you can just watch the trilogy, this movie proves that the trilogy as canon through a flashback that is only in the movie, specifically the third one) and Zeta Gundam in order to follow this movie. Their rivalry is still revolved around Lalah, a woman that both Amuro and Char cared about.
The fighting is brutal and it continues to show why conflict is not only cruel, but lives are pointlessly taken away. The animation is superb and despite being 10 years passed the original Gundam, a tremendous evolution is demonstrated with the beginning of 3D animation through the colonies. The designs of the mechs are sleek and the character designs are updated to modern technological standards, but still stays true to its base.
The music is dramatic and depressing, and the performances of Ikeda Shuuichi, Furuya Tooru, and the late great Suzuoki Hirotaka still shines after many years of playing their respective roles as Char, Amuro, and Bright.
7. Gundam 0080 War in the Pocket
- Episodes: 6
- Aired: March 1989 – August 1989
The first Non-Tomino Gundam series and the first Gundam series to serve as a side story. The series tells a war story from the point of a child, Al. Initially, he and his friends just think of the war between the Federation and the Zeon as just a game without any regard to the real situation at hand, and some kids think one faction is cooler than the other just because of the design of ranking emblems, or that the Zaku looks cool.
The featured soldiers are not near invincible or super human like a newtype. So by using regular rookie soldiers, the action is more centered on guerrilla tactics and they always express a sense of fear in their cockpit. It is a bit more slow paced but appropriately makes it suspenseful. Both the dub and Japanese versions are excellent. For the dub, the actor who takes it is the voice of David Hayter, the voice of Solid Snake from the Metal Fear Solid gaming franchise, as Bernie.
In the Japanese version, test pilot Chris MacKenzie is voiced by the legend herself, Hayashibata Megumi. The character designs by Mikimoto Haruhiko, who is more famous for Macross, are an excellent treat to look at and their believable expressions just takes you into their world, and the music defines the innocence.
P.S. If you want to see how the ALEX would have turned out if Amuro got it, I recommend the strategy game Giren’s Greed (available for Saturn, Dreamcast, PS1, PS2, and PSP).
6. After War Gundam X
- Episodes: 39
- Aired: April 1996 – December 1996
Not just an underrated Gundam series, but an underrated anime altogether which was pointed out in our top underrated anime list. Due to being in competition against Evangelion and having its broadcast time changed, it did not achieve any popularity as its predecessors and was cut short. Thankfully, DVD sales in Japan have revived interest in this amazing installment.
Aired after Gundam Wing, some of the designs of the Gundams in this series will take from it but still provides a unique and excellent Post-Apocalyptic story. The story is dark but Garoad, the hero, is a very upbeat kind of guy despite making a mere living as a junker and something of a thief, but still has a sense of ethics. The concept of newtypes is reintroduced and redefined in this series, too.
The characters are all useful and the development is very wonderful. The Frost Brothers as villains are pretty cruel, but their motivations are clear and understandable. The action is intense, the music is awesome, and the performance of Takagi Wataru (voice of GTO himself) as Garoad is brilliant and probably his best. So this is a must see for people who want to see more Gundam.
5. New Mobile Report Gundam Wing
- Episodes: 49
- Aired: April 1995 – March 1996
This was the series that made Gundam a brand name in America and also help established Cartoon Network’s Toonami Block, which played a significant role in building the anime fan base in the early 2000s (despite airing in Japan 5 years before). Plus, it was one of the first anime in America to have an unedited midnight broadcast in which it added swear words and kept blood in certain scenes, thus paving the way for adult swim.
The story is straight to the point, its large cast of characters are distinct and easy to follow, various mech and diverse character designs, high octane action sequences, and awesome music. You see how the casts interacts with one another and they all get their development you can connect to. Heero and Zechs’ rivalry is a consistent driving force and a very entertaining element in this series, but the reasons behind their rivalry will change to always make it fresh.
The English voices are all excellent counterparts to the original Japanese cast members and the Japanese version contains a list of big names in anime such as Midorikawa Hikaru, Koyasu Takehito, and Okiayu Ryoutarou. The action, politics, and development are all equally balanced and not too complex which is probably why it is the most universally appealing series.
4. Gundam Unicorn
- Episodes: 7
- Aired: February 2010 – May 2014
Based on a novel series, Unicorn in a way brings the story of the Universal Century full circle. Just like how Captain America The Winter Soldier serves as a political thriller for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Unicorn does the same for the Universal Century. Despite not being created by Tomino, in some ways, I felt that it was. In addition to being a continuation of Char’s Counterattack, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, the character designer of the original series does the designs of this installment, too. His art style excellently holds up and yet I feel a sense of consistency to the art of the original Gundam.
The mech designs are unique and the power gimmick to the Unicorn adds an original twist. Ikeda Shuuichi as Full Frontal, the Second Coming of Char, still delivers a great performance. One character from the original installments who plays a big role is Captain Bright. However, despite Narita Ken’s excellent performance in capturing the commanding presence of the character, to me, it's still not the Bright that Suzuoki Hirotaka gave the world.
Through Bright, the series will direct that teenage men just happen to become Gundam pilots, and the series does minimally explore on that cliché in addition to somewhat making fun of it. Plus, the soundtrack is full of hot J-pop stars like Kylee, who is from my family’s home state of Arizona, and Kuriyama Chiaki, who you may know as Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill and the nut stabber school girl from Battle Royale.
3. Mobile Suit Gundam
- Episodes: 43
- Aired: April 1979 – January 1980
Prior to its debut, mech anime was more one-on-one battles against other robots or maybe giant monsters. With Gundam, Tomino wanted to take the mech genre in a more militaristic setting and tell a war story, or a sci-fi version of World Wad II with bits of Vietnam.
In addition, the space colonies featured were inspired by the O’Neill Cylinders, a theory by Gerard K. O’Neill, an American physicist, in 1976. But it's not just a war story, it's also a coming-of-age story for Amuro and the rest of the White Base Crew, a story about loyalty, proving one’s manhood, and revenge and redemption story for Char.
Naturally, the outdated animation quality will not appeal to everyone and not everybody can shake their booty its disco beat soundtrack, but I feel its intense and realistic approach to its action brings a sense of fear and tension. And Char just has such an awesome song, Char Ga Kuru. However, in terms of design, I do feel it holds up. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, the original character designer, is still contributing to the designs of Gundam the Origin, a movie serial presently being released upon publication of this list.
However, if you play some of the games such as Journey to Jabrow or Giren’s Greed, some of the scenes are re-animated to modern animation standards and it shows it artistically holds up after 35 years in terms to design.
2. Gundam 08th MS Team
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 1996 – July 1999
Not just a great Gundam series, but a great anime. It tells the story of a bunch of rag tag down on their luck soldiers. The selling appeal of this series is that it is told from the point of view of your average soldier but with a mini-Romeo and Juliet side story. Unlike Amuro who was forced by circumstances and unlike Heero who was raised to be a pilot, the members of the team are pretty much fighting by their own choice. Despite that, the series does portrays the members as human each with their own dreams after the war.
As an extension to being about regular soldiers as opposed to newtypes, the fights also masterfully represent this quality. Rather than just firing missiles, bullets, and lasers with the occasional beam saber duel, this series is more about guerrilla tactics (with the occasional balls of steel from Shiro) where the slightest mistake can make the difference between life and death.
The soundtrack is superb and excellently fits in tone with the series of overcoming the odds and about friendship and unity. Both the original Japanese and the English dub are equal in terms of performing qualities and I feel I could switch between them and still feel a consistent sense of rhythm.
1. Zeta Gundam
- Episodes: 50
- Aired: March 1985 – February 1986
One of the most acclaimed series within the fan base that is claimed to not be only just the best Gundam series, but probably the best anime ever. Although it is a sequel to the original series, Tomino transitions to this series off the heels of Space Runaway Ideon and Aura Battler Dunbine, two animes that are also notorious for being dark. The qualities in those series he brings to Zeta Gundam.
It is more intense than its predecessor and it was making instant random deaths cool before Game of Thrones. And it made attacking on titans cool long before Attack on Titan if you get the joke. However, the fact it was a dark series actually did turn off viewers during its initial broadcast that Tomino’s own family complained about it. But the series does age like fine wine (in context to the Japanese fan base) and fans began to understand the point that it's a war story and that it can't be all sunshine and rainbows.
The mech designs are sharp and sleek and allows for fast paced and exciting battles. I feel they are a very excellent reflection of new type abilities. In addition, it is the series that also introduces the full 360 cockpit which allows for full visibility. Beyond the countless deaths, the characters are all memorable in their own distinct way and offer their own contribution to the story.
The percussion and orchestra based background music is really in your face with the emotion and further sucks you into the moment. The original Japanese version is excellently performed and you will love Tobita Nobuo’s performance as Zeta Gundam. As for the dub, my only exposure was through the English version of Gundam vs Zeta Gundam for the PS2 and I couldn't get past that.
As much as I wanted to include Gundam the Origin, it is only one episode upon publication of this list and I feel that one episode shouldn't qualify as a top 10 just yet, but so far, a very honorable mention. Other honorable mentions to this list are Gundam 0083 Stardust Memory, Gundam Formula 91, Recoguista in G, and Victory. Until then, pray that one day that we can see the cosmos and fly in giant robots. So for you fellow Gundam fanatics out there, what is your top 10?