If you've seen anything with a giant military-style robot or so much as the word “mecha” in it, chances are it owes something to the Mobile Suit Gundam series.
The mega-franchise has been at it for 43 years now, and it's kept strong through those decades of market booms and busts without missing a beat. And not just in its cultural influence, which looms so large that Gundam villain, Char Aznable, is nearly as much a household name as Darth Vader in some places. But, in all that time, the Gundam series has hardly ever stopped putting out new stories, each with its own spin on a military space opera.
In fact, the series has as strong a worldwide presence now as ever, with Gunpla (Gundam model kits) in particular absolutely exploding in popularity over the last few years. And that's hardly a surprise given the series' stars – the titular Mobile Suits and Gundams, some of the most iconic “giant robot” designs of all time.
But, like with any franchise with such a long history, that legacy can look daunting to a newcomer.
The Real Villain of Gundam: Decision Paralysis
The problem with getting into the Gundam franchise is that with over 4 decades of history, there are a lot of potential on-ramps. Ask two different Gundam fans where to start, and you're likely to get conflicting answers. In fact, one of our staff members once wrote into an anime podcast for advice about getting into Gundam; the answer he got took up 30 minutes of airtime and left him more confused than when he started. To avoid that issue here, we'll start with the basics.
The Gundam series is split up into multiple timelines/universes. We divide these into two categories:
- Universal Century (UC): This is the original Gundam timeline that began in the 1970s and continues to this day. It contains some of the most iconic scenes and characters in the franchise. The downside is that it's the most convoluted plotline in the franchise due to its massive scope. At its core, it tells the story of the conflict between The Federation and the Principality of Zeon for control of Earth's colonies in space.
- Alternate Timelines: Since the 1990s, the Gundam franchise has released several series set in alternate timelines. While these series share thematic elements in common with UC, each is set in a self-contained universe. Also, they are written by different writers than the UC timeline and contain unique casts of characters. Most of the alternate timelines reach a definitive conclusion after two seasons whereas the UC story is ever-expanding.
With that little bit of background out of the way, we present the decision tree below to help you choose a starting point based on your taste in anime.
Mobile Suit Gundam 1979: The Grandpappy
For some people, you just have to start at the beginning.
While it's no spring chicken, there's still plenty to love about the very first Mobile Suit Gundam series; maybe it's finally seeing where all your favorite mecha tropes got their start, or maybe it's the surprisingly nuanced take on war for a half-hour cartoon. Or maybe you just want context for that one cameo in Ready Player One. Whatever it is, if you have the taste for a truly classic sci-fi series, the 1979 original is still as iconic as it ever was.
If you don't quite have time for all 42 episodes of the series, its footage was later re-cut into three theatrical films, condensing the most critical and iconic elements of the stories down to a more digestible runtime.
The Origin: The Revenge
Granted, nearly everybody in the original series has their share of flaws – but what does that say about the supposed “bad guys”?
Gundam: The Origin faithfully recreates the now-retro feel of the original series, but with a flair that lets Char's smarmy charisma truly shine. This 2010s OVA turns Gundam's most iconic villain into a Count of Monte Cristo, wedging his way into the Zeon Federation's ranks to sow the seeds of one of anime's most enduring revenge plots. If you ever watched a Transformers cartoon and thought “wow, the Decepticons are the way more interesting characters here”, then this is the series for you.
Note: This series was originally produced as a set of six episodes, each an hour or more in length – this version can be found on Hulu. The series was later re-cut into a 13-episode TV series, which is the version present elsewhere. Both versions are viable ways to enjoy this story.
08th MS Team: The Hardy Front Line
Release Date: January 1996
Length: 12 1-hour+ episodes
Where You Can Stream It: Hulu
This one is an in-house favorite of ours. While it technically takes place in the same setting as Mobile Suit Gundam and The Origin, their stories are so far removed from 08th MS Team that you can come in with fresh eyes and not miss a beat.
The main appeal of 08th MS Team is in its sense of scale; on one hand, it focuses on a small unit of ground troops, giving everything a more tense and weighty feel. But at the same time, everything tends to feel bigger, with the titular Mobile Suits often coming across more like walking artillery than the “super robot” acrobatics as seen in other series. This one does dip into melodrama at times, especially with its leading couple, but it also contains one of the best action sequences in the entire series. If you prefer your robots big, stompy, and in need of constant maintenance, the 08th MS Team is your crew.
Iron-Blooded Orphans: The New Kids on the Block
Iron-Blooded Orphans (IBO) is our go-to pick among the alternate timelines for two pragmatic reasons:
- It's the most recent fully-completed series in the franchise.
- IBO is the most widely available Gundam show on streaming platforms.
On top of that, IBO is written by prolific anime screenwriter, Mari Okada. Her intensely emotional character-driven style offers a nice contrast to the more political and hard sci-fi focus of the UC timeline. Iron-Blooded Orphans tells the story of a group of child soldiers who break away from their overseers in hopes of finding peace and freedom for the first time in their lives. Over the course of two seasons, you'll experience dramatic highs and lows as the young crew becomes embroiled in an interplanetary power struggle.
On the Horizon: The Witch from Mercury
Release Date: October 2022
Length: TBD (likely 50 half-hour episodes)
Where to Stream It: TBD (likely Crunchyroll)
We don't know much about this upcoming series yet, but that puts everyone in the same boat! Right off the bat, this series is noteworthy for being the first to feature a female Gundam pilot as the protagonist. Other than this one basic detail, we can only speculate about The Witch from Mercury at this point. However, since this series takes place in a new timeline, it could be a good starting point for newcomers. If you'd like to have weekly watercooler chats with other fans as new episodes come out, keep an eye out for this one later this year!