Rendering of a Star Wars AT-TE walker

A mech (plural: mecha or mechs), is a science fiction term for a large walking vehicle or robot, including ones on treads and animal shapes.

They are called mecha in Japanese. Mechs often appear in anime, science fiction, and other genres involving fantastic or futuristic elements. Mechs are generally, though not necessarily, bipedal and are best described as a mix between a tank and a robot. Some mechs have arms, hands, and fingers capable of grasping objects. A mech that approximates the shape of a human body may allow the use of martial arts movements and swordsmanship, ceremonial acts of honor, saluting, and other human mannerisms.

In most fiction in which they appear, mechs are war machines: essentially armored fighting vehicles with legs instead of treads or wheels. Some stories, such as the manga Patlabor and American wargame BattleTech, also encompass mechs used for civilian purposes such as heavy construction work, police functions or firefighting.

Some science fiction universes posit that mechs are the primary means of combat, with conflicts sometimes being decided through gladiatorial matches. Others represent mechs 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 fire power with infantry's ability to cross unstable terrain. In other cases they are demonstrated with a greater versatility in armament, such as in the Armored Core series of video games where mechs can utilize their hands to carry a wide range of armament in the same manner as a person, albeit on a much larger scale.

Rarely, mechs have been used in a fantasy convention, most notably in the anime series Aura Battler Dunbine, The Vision of Escaflowne, Panzer World Galient and Maze. In those cases, the mech designs are usually based on some alternative or 'lost' science-fiction technology from ancient times.


Early history

Illustration of a Tripod walker from the 1906 French edition of The War of the Worlds

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. 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."

Mechs were popularized by Japanese anime and manga. The first humanoid giant robot is Tetsujin 28-Go, introduced in 1956. Tetsujin is, however, controlled externally via remote control by an operator. The first occurrence of mech robots 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.[1]

Word origin and usage

BattleMechs from the cover of the novel The Legend of the Jade Phoenix by Robert Thurston.

The Japanese word for mech is "mecha" which is derived from the Japanese abbreviation meka (メカ?) for the English word "mechanical". In Japanese, mecha encompasses all mechanical objects, including cars, guns, computers, and other devices. In this sense, it is extended to humanoid, human-sized robots and such things as the boomers from Bubblegum Crisis, the similar replicants of Blade Runner, and cyborgs can be referred to as mecha, as well as mundane real-life objects such as industrial robots, cars and even toasters. The Japanese use the term "robots" (ロボット robotto?) or "giant robots" to distinguish limbed vehicles from other mechanical devices.[2] The first widespread English language usage of the term was in the animated series Robotech, was an English dubbing and rewriting of three different anime series into a single story. Since then the term's usage in the West has mostly been associated with either robotic (occasionally transforming) vehicles or powered armored battlesuits worn like exoskeletons. There are exceptions: in the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the word is used to describe "mechanicals" (robotic humanoids), as opposed to "orga" for "organics" (humans).

"Mech" typically does not refer to form-fitting garments such as the Iron Man armor. Armored suit mechs tend to be much larger and bulkier than the wearer and the wearer's limbs may or may not actually extend completely into the respective limbs.

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 the BattleTech series (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 (see Other, below).

Mecha in fiction

In manga and anime

In Japan, "robot anime" (known as "mecha anime" outside Japan) is a genre that features the machines as the central plot points. Here, the average robot mechs are usually fourteen feet (4.3 m) tall at the smallest, outfitted with a wide variety of weapons, and quite frequently have tie-ins with toy manufacturers. However, the robots can get up to 500 m tall (as in Bokurano). The Gundam franchise is a prominent example: Gundam toys and model kits (produced by the Japanese toymaker Bandai) are ubiquitous in Japan.

The size of mechs 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) and others can be as tall as a skyscraper (Space Runaway Ideon, Genesis of Aquarion, Neon Genesis Evangelion). There are also mechs which are big enough to contain the population of an entire city (Macross), some the size of a planet (Diebuster) and some the size of a large galaxy (Getter Robo, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann). Some are even implied to be able to be as large as the universe (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: Lagann-hen). And then there are some that are so big the universe they are in collapses and they fight in the space outside (Demonbane).

The genre started with Mitsuteru Yokoyama's 1956 manga Tetsujin 28-go (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 robots being piloted by the hero from within a cockpit[1] and weapons that were activated by the hero calling out their names ("Rocket Punch!"). 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."[1]

This led to his creation of the Mazinger Z, which featured giant robots which were "piloted by means of a small flying car and command center that docked inside the head."[1] 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/mech 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 mechs are capable of transformation (Macross, Zeta Gundam) 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.

The mecha genre, one of the oldest genres in anime,[3] is still alive and well in the new millennium, with revival OVAs like Getter Robo: Armageddon and Mazinkaiser from the Super Robot tradition, the recent Mobile Suit Gundam 00, Macross Frontier, Code Geass, Basquash! and Rideback from the Real Robot genre, and Reideen, a recent remake of the 1975 hit series Brave Raideen. Other recent anime series in the mecha genre include Heroic Age and particularly Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, a Super Robot anime with a few elements from the Real Robot genre.

Not all mechs 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.

In film

Perhaps the most well-known example of mechs in Western culture are the Walkers such as the AT-AT and AT-ST from the Star Wars series of films.

The Hollywood movie Aliens featured a cargoloader as a civilian variant of a mech. The film Robot Jox, featuring two giant mech fight scenes, and the Japanese live-action film Gunhed are other examples.

In Matrix Revolutions Captain Mifune leads the human defense of Zion, piloting open-cockpit mech-like machines called APUs against invading Sentinels.

In Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, mechs with rapid-fire, machine gun and flame-thrower arms were used near the end of the film, and were under the command of the main character, Johnny Rico.

Mechagodzilla, from the Godzilla series, is a giant robot rather than a mech.

In James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar, mechs are used as instruments of war called AMPs.

A heavily weaponized powered exoskeleton that envelops the operator is featured in the 2009 film District 9, and aptly named the Exo-suit.

In games

Metal Gear D in the Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake cover illustration by Yoshiyuki Takani.

Mechs are often featured in computer and console video games. Because of their size and fictional power, mechs are quite popular subjects for games, both tabletop and electronic. Mechs 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,[4] various Gundam games such as the first-person shooters Mobile Suit Gundam: Last Shooting in 1984 and Z-Gundam: Hot Scramble in 1986,[5] 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.

A popular classic of mechs in games is the MechWarrior series of video games, which takes place in the Battletech universe. Another game, Heavy Gear 2 offers a complex yet semi-realistic control system for its mechs in both terrain and outer space warfare. Armored Core is one of the more popular Japanese franchises today, combining industrial customizable mech designs with fast-paced action. Rivalling Armored Core is Front Mission, a Turn based tactics series of games by Square. It features Japanese mech designs with more realistic physics, reserving the lightning speed common in the Japanese mech genre to special machines. Older American Tabletop games, Battletech, uses hex-maps, miniatures & paper record sheets that allow players to use mechs in tactical situations and record realistic damage, while add RPG elements when desired.

Mech-like bipedal tanks called Metal Gears are a recurring element in the Metal Gear series. Iconic Metal Gears of the series include the Metal Gear D in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Metal Gear REX in Metal Gear Solid, and Metal Gear RAY in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The most common feature of a Metal Gear is the capability to launch nuclear missiles, though this feature is absent in the two newest models in the series; Metal Gears RAY and GEKKO. Unlike in many mech-featuring series, Metal Gears are not numerous or widely used (except the small, unmanned GEKKOs). Most of the Metal Gears featured in the series are prototypes. In the series, they are usually called "the ultimate weapon" and "the missing link between infantry and artillery".

In the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000, the Tau use Mech Battlesuits while the Imperium as a whole use Dreadnoughts (for the Space Marines) and Sentinels (for the Imperial Guard) as walkers, as well as huge Titans. The Orks also use huge, ragtag mechs called gargants and smaller-sized Deffdreads and Killa-kans, which are basically walking scrap metal with varying types of ranged and close combat weapons (killy bitz) and a wired-in driver. The Eldar also use their particular version of titans, which are often more agile and compact than their Imperial counterparts, as well as the smaller wraithlords (although the latter does not have a pilot as such, they are controlled by the spirit of a dead Eldar contained in a 'soulstone').

Another example is in the game Battlefield 2142, in which mechs fight alongside conventional military units such as infantry, tanks, gunships, and APCs in the European Union's and Pan-Asian Coalition's military forces.

The Monolith Productions game Shogo: Mobile Armor Division blended Mech game-play with that of traditional first-person shooter games. The game was divided into a series of missions with some having the player play on-foot as in a normal first person shooter while also having missions where the player could select through a variety of Mechs (referred to as "MCAs"in the game). A similar concept appears, although much less developed, in the game Quake 4, where the player can drive Mechs as well as other vehicles while the game is still primarily focused on ground based human combat. Dark Horizons: Lore Invasion took gameplay aspects of first-person shooter games such as Unreal Tournament 2004 and blended it with that of traditional Mecha simulation games.

In real-time strategy (RTS) game Command & Conquer Red Alert 3, a number of the vehicles of the Empire of the Rising Sun are referred to as mech, since they are capable of transforming from ground or sea units to aerial fighters, granting them additional flexibility in battle but making them closer to robots then to true mechs. One such unit is called the Mecha Tengu. Command & Conquer 2 Tiberian Sun features more conventional/realistic mechs including the bipedal Wolverine, Titan and the 4-legged Mammoth Mk2. All 3 take the role of armored vehicles on the side of the GDI. The Wolverine is a light anti-infantry vehicle. The Titan with its 120mm gun and heavy armor is essentially a walking main battle tank and as such the primary combat unit of the GDI. The Mammoth Mk2 is a heavily armored super-unit with railguns of which the player is only allowed to have 1. Another RTS with mech units is StarCraft, with mechs called Goliaths. In StarCraft II, the Viking and Thor mechs are introduced. The Viking is primarily an Air-to-air fighter which can transform to a ground mech, similar to the Goliath. The Thor is a powerful, large assault mech.

In the RTS game series Empire Earth, the last epochs in the games allows players to build mechs.

In the game Supreme Commander, the player takes control of a mech known as the Armoured Command Unit (ACU). The player uses the ACU to build up armies. The ACU is upgradable and can defend itself. Due to its power source, the ACU sets off a thermo-nuclear explosion when destroyed. Other units in the game are also mechs ranging in size and firepower.

The critically and commercially successful Square role-playing video game (re-released by Square-Enix) Xenogears also featured mechs, called gears. Mechs appear in the game as a prominent part of the convoluted story line and part of the game's innovative combat system as well as a mini-game fighting arena.

A more recent game, Chromehounds was developed by From Software for the Xbox 360. This game featured a more 'realistic' take on mechs, with much slower speeds and realistic modern weapons payloads. A large feature of this series was the heavy customizability of the Hounds, as they are called.

Konami's Zone of the Enders is a series of action games centred around mech combat for the PlayStation 2. In this instance the mechs are at a skyscraper scale and employ energy weaponry only. There is one level in its sequel in which the player battles a fleet of airborne naval frigates under the guise of the BAHRAM military coporation, which is the developer of Orbital Frame technology and the general antagonist. The commander of this coporation, Colonel Nohman, is the primary antagonist. The most intimidating Orbital Frame, Anubis, is his frame of choice in his mission to eliminate the universe. Orbital Frames can be taken from ground to air to space and beyond.

Also worth noting are the Sega games Metal Head, a 3D first-person shooter, and Virtual On, a series of fast-paced, one-on-one, mech fighting games.

In television

The version of the Iron Monger featured in Iron Man: Armored Adventures is much larger than most other versions, about as tall as a six story house. During its test, it was referred to as mecha.


  • The Great Spirit is a forty-million-foot-tall robot from the Bionicle mythos. Though not necessarily made as a vehicle, it houses the Matoran Universe, a whole system of continents and oceans. There are also various other characters and species (such as the Exo Toa and the Bohrok) which can be considered mechs on a tiny scale.
  • The Exo-Force line featured humans and machines battling each other in mechs, better known in the line as "Battle Machines".

Real walking vehicles

A quadruped walker on display at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum

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).[6]

Some walking machines such as the BigDog have been designed by the military. The largest walking machine ever made is the Big Muskie dragline excavator, used primarily in mining operations.

See also

Portal icon Anime and manga portal
Portal icon Speculative fiction portal

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c d Mark Gilson, "A Brief History of Japanese Robophilia", Leonardo 31 (5), p. 367–369 [368].
  2. ^ "Anime glossary". [not in citation given]
  3. ^[dead link]
  4. ^ Vastar at the Killer List of Videogames
  5. ^ Carlo Savorelli, Z Gundam, Hardcore Gaming 101
  6. ^ Timberjack Walking Machine on YouTube

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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