Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Robotech - Even Older Than Old School

(the convoluted history of 1/200 scaled mechs & why I can't find enough ***'ing models!)

Robotech or (Macross in Japan) is the mack grand daddy of old school robots. Battletech's creation was a direct result of many of the Robotech designs. Battletech was conceptualized and developed as a game using the various plastic Robotech model kits that were available in the early 80's. At the time several small model companies were producing cheap $1.00 model kits under license that could be bought in capsule form from coin op vending machines, much like you could get stickers or bouncy balls etc.

The Japanese slang term for the coin op models is Pitban or Gatacha-pon after the sound the vending machine makes as the product drops out. As with most American translating slang it came out a bit bastardized and are termed as "Gashapon". An in-game reference to this appears in Battletech as there are battlemech engines made by the Pitban company.

When they realized they had a hit product they changed the format slightly so that they'd be sold as a boxed model, that let them put on some cool cover art and it'd help get them a foothold is model and toys shops. Even the boxed versions were very cheap and most still sold for $1. They were all snap fit models that also made use of little metal screws to help hold the kit together without needing glue. Several versions also featured a suction cup attachment so it could be stuck on glass or mirrors etc.

Robotech/Macross stuff was produced under license in Japan so several different companies all produced models from the same mold set, so the only real difference in any of them is the box art and if the suction cup was present or not. Yamato, Arii, Amai, Takahara, Nichimo, and Bandai all produced the early kits. Bandai later would eventually blow up into one of the largest model companies in the world, but that's mostly thanks to them securing the rights to the Mobile Suit Gundam line. The other companies have had a much rockier time and most hovered on the edge of bankruptcy and occasionally release batches of models to keep from having to close shop.

I think Yamaoto and Arii might have merged with or been bought out by Nichimo, but I'm not sure as most of that stuff is quite old info and stuff predating the 90's isn't super easy to find info on, particularly when it's almost all in Japanese. Yes there was a time when the internet didn't exist, shocking I know.

Macross started somewhere in the late 70's it usually takes several years to get animated series up and running so I suspect they were working on stuff as far back as 1978-1979 (or earlier), so it's probably as old as I am if not older. It originally ran on TV in Japan and then was picked up by Harmony Gold for retranslation and export to the US. As with most anime (particularly the older series) there were a number problems with continuity and gaps compared to what we in the US are used to, so the translation team often rewrote dialogue and revised much of the story plotline. 

Between 1980 and 1982 Robotech was shopped around on a few small TV networks on the west coast where it hit big. As a result it was re-aired on larger major networks for several years, and their toy sales exploded. This influenced a big wave of imported Japanese animation and the start of the 1980's giant robots craze giving rise to the Transformers (in 1984). As a kid I was blown away by the series, I also enjoyed the heck out of transformers but the action in Robotech and the sleekness of their designs were so much better.

Once Robotech exploded into popularity their models could be found almost everywhere. Twentieth Century Imports and Gama had licenses under Harmony Gold to act as a US importer to distribute toys and models which is where the early Battletech connection came in. Battletech directly drew upon Robotech designs for the core of their original game Battledriods. A few designs were also used from Dougram and Crusher Joe.

All of the mechs had weapons configurations very close or identical to what appeared in the series. Battledroids quickly got noticed by Lucas Arts Legal for use of "droids" in the title which Lucas owns the copyright for despite it mearly being a contraction of Android (which pre-dates Star Wars by decades). Battledroids changed names and became the old school classic we know as Battletech.

There were metal miniatures produced for Battledriods which were around 1/250 scale, when the line was changed to Battletech they also replaced the original sculpts with much improved versions and reduced the scale closer to 1/320.

That brings me back to the original subject of the models. Multiple companies were producing them, some were being imported to the US directly in their Japanese versions but they were also being sold under some US company names as well. Revell was the largest company and they sold them under their Robotech Defenders Lines and Robotech Changers, they offered a number of scales between 1/200 up to 1/60 scale. The Robotech defenders line also featured mechs from the Dougram and Crusher Joe series.

Testors also produced Robotech models under the Testors R.O.B.O.T. brand.

Battletech produced a 1/200 line under license through TCI, which are identical to the Nichimo models except they were packaged with the Battletech brand name. Each box contained two different models, English instructions along with a set of scenario pages for the Battletech game featuring the mechs that were included in the kit. Several of the kits also used mechs from Dougram and Crusher Joe which weren’t originally part of the Robotech model line. I believe (but not 100% certain) that these are also the only versions of those mechs that were made in the 1/200 scale as the Revell versions are all 1/144 or larger.

The original models from Nichimo & Arii date back to 1983, Revells Robotech Defenders date to 1984,  the Battletech plastic kits date to 1985-1986.
FASA had set up their license with TCI and that’s what would later start the ball rolling on the FASA/Harmony lawsuit. FASA thought they had a direct license for the images and rights to the designs to use for their game art as well as miniature designs. TCI folded up and what FASA didn’t know was that that their license for the Battletech had been a sub lease which was non-transferable by the terms that TCI had originally set up with Harmony Gold. FASA continued on making stuff until Harmony Gold came knocking and saying they never had the proper rights to begin with.

Harmony Gold never had a problem making money off of the TCI lisc before, but what had changed was that FASA had just made buckloads of cash off of their partnership with Activision to make the Mechwarrior video games. Suddenly Harmony Gold wants to re-negotiate the terms of their lisc to get more money from that pie. That resulted in a huge legal battle which has been going on for almost two decades. FASA has since folded largely due to internal embezzlement and was later bought by Wiz Kids and then became property of TOPPS.

As indirect fall out, all of the US production on these kits dried up and disappeared years ago. The Japanese kits weren’t in much better shape as the Macross rights are still being hotly contested over by three separate companies, (Harmony Gold being the largest).  Harmony Gold currently controls the classic series where two different animation studios who had split from Harmony own some rights to the newer movies. (Frontier and Zero)

In 1984 the Macross movie was released in Japan which was a feature length film with updated animation and was based on the story for the American Robotech series. Later with the 15th anniversary edition of the Macross movie Nichimo saw opportunity to re-release their model kits. The models were identical to the original model designs however they were repackaged with new art work featuring a white background and now offered two kits per box instead of the single kit that the older lines had featured. They had a price increase to $10, but you now effectively got twice the kit.

There was also a second much smaller Nichimo re-release in 2007 alongside the movie release for Macross Frontier. I am hoping that they will do yet another release on the next Macross film as the models are increasingly difficult to find. Most copies I’ve found were on ebay and a few in trade forums on Battletech websites.

(Tobey Maguire of Spiderman fame has a production company that's secured the rights to do a live action version of Robotech, which willhopefully re-ignite the interest in doing another model release.)

Macross has remained a very popular line in Japan, Bandai and Kaiyodo continue to crank out new models in the 1/144 through 1/60 scales. Strangely however 1/200 scale models haven’t gotten much love in the Japanese market since the 80’s. I personally prefer the 1/200 scale as it’s very close o Railroad N-Scale which is an ideal choice for using railroad terrain and buildings to help make table top gaming boards.

The 1/144 scale models are a bit large to use for table top, and the 1/100 versions even more so.

To my knowledge there are three kits that have not been made in 1/200 scale, the male power armor, female power armor and the Spartan Destroid.

The 1/200 scale Mac II Monster, far too large to be considered a "proper" Gashapon kit it was released by Amai back in 1983, it was also re-released in 2004 with a very limited run. The original set didn’t sell well as it was a fairly expensive model when compared to the cheap Gashapon kits. When it was re-released  in 2004 they grossly underestimated the demand  and I’ve read reports that the distributors sold out of kits in the first day. The second run sold retail for $40, there’s a few that show up on ebay but they typically go for close to $300. A number of bootleggers have copied this kit in resin which sells for $100-$150.

Edit: The Monster had a re-release in the summer of 2012. Same kit same box but now with a 30th anniversary sticker. HLJ has it listed at roughly $18 USD.

A die cast metal Spartan Destroid is available from the Robotech Exo Squad line that was made by Matell. It may not be a true 1/200 scale and might be 1/170 scale like some of the Arai model kits, but if you need a Spartan for collection purposes it might work. The Exo squad line also has all the other destroids available.

There’s a 1/200 version of the female power armor available in the Bandai mission series, it’s not a model kit but it’s at least in proper scale with the various Robotech kits.

Enter the 1/200 Gashapon pre-painted figures

Back in 2004 Bandai released a limited run of 1/200 Gashapon Macross figures these were marketed under the “Macross Mission” line which proved very successful. The initial set consisted of an Tomahawk and 3 Veritech Valkyries. First Mission supposedly had a chase figure for the Mac 2 – Monster which was approximately 1/500 scale, it’s not included with the normal set but you got it if you’d bought a case at the time of the release or something. I've never seen one but it’s talked about like a legendary white whale on the Battletech forums.

Macross Second Mission featured a Zentraedi Regult Soldier alongside yet more Valkyries. Typically the Zentraedi don’t get much support with models or toys and the ones that are released have been kind of crappy. The second mission Regult is one of the best sculpts and that made second mission a really high demand item and hard to find as a result. Typically this set sells for 5x what the other sets will. From what I hear the scale on the Regult is a bit small, but everyone raves about the sculpt detail being excellent.

Macross Third Mission features both the Officer’s Pod and the Female Power Armor along with 6 valkyries 4 of those are Super Valkyries or Strike Valkyrie models which makes for an incredible set. The print run on it was much higher so it’s surprisingly affordable despite having eight models, with the two most sought after Zentraedi models. What is most notable about this set is that it’s the only place to get the Female Power Armor in a 1/200 scale. Every other version made by other companies is 1/144 scale or larger.

Kaiyodo and Takahara have also released two sets of 1/200 scale gashapons under the “Super Dimension Figure” line, reference to Super Dimensional Fortress aka the SDF-1 battleship. These are much more dynamic than the Bandai ones, but their scale is a little bit loose as the figures all vary a bit and some of the Veritechs look odd when placed next to each other as their height varies a fair amount. Sculpt wise they look incredible and they have much better factory paint than the Bandai versions.

Set One has a Regult pod as part of the four figures and it’s a great sculpt, the scale is larger so it measures in at about 10cm which s probably slightly too big, but being oversized is much easier to forgive as the Zentraedi pilots are as tall as the veritechs. This set suffers a bit from the just more veritechs syndrome, one saving grace is that the veritech is at least featured in all three modes, batteroid, gerwalk, and fighter.

IMO the only figure that really stands out is the Regult pod. And due to it’s presence it of course is the most sought after and expensive of the three sets.  When will these companies learn that having a Regult means lots of sales!!! Seriously they need to make them available in sets of exclusively compose of Zentraedi models that way people can arm up on the hordes of them they need as they always outnumber the veritechs by like 5 to 1 in battles.

Set Two has two just damn amazing models, the Armored Veritech and the Tomahawk both of these have amazing sculpts for starters and part of what just takes then to new levels of awesome is that their missile bays open and close. Like every other set it has 3 more veritechs, this at least has Roy Fokker’s skull leader batteroid and fighter.

Revoltech Figures
Kaiyodo and Revoltech have put out some absolutely amazing models lately, they are all pretty much 1/100 scale so they don’t work well for gaming but I mention them because they are incredible pieces. They have a new patented ball joint system that gives them insane amounts of poseability surpassing even Mobile Suit Gundams. It’s not the standard vinyl  ball joint that’s found in Bandai kits but a new joint system that gives a really wide range of motion

On top of that the sculpt detail is just amazingly good, Macross/Robotech has long suffered from kits looking like they belonged solely in the 80’s . At the time they were released they had some really cutting edge injection quality but that’s typically where they stayed at as there wasn’t much demand to bring them up to current modeling standards.

Bandai has had some decent kits but they still seemed a bit lacking compared to their Gundam line which has always showcased just how far you can take injection molding.

In 2008 Revoltech stepped up and started delivering some seriously cool figures, their sculpts are modern and fresh and they are incredibly well painted compared to most toy lines.

Best of all they have a totally killer Regult pod which is by far the best rendition of it that I’ve seen; model or toy. It has the parts to be used as a heavy missile or as the soldier pod. I picked up one simply to have it on display as it’s just plain cool. Hopefully they will do the Glaug Officers Pod and make versions of the Scout and Light Missile pods as I’d buy those in a heart beat. They also cover the whole range of veritechs including all the custom versions like Max and Miryia Sterling and Fokker’s Skull One and Strike Valkyries.

1 comment:

  1. This is an awesome post. You really know your robotech lore, man!