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Friday, November 24, 2017

Twelve Mech Anime That Deserve a (Literal) Second Chance in SRW Part 1

If one can't tell, this year's Mecha Month is rather low-key; I didn't even officially announce it as such. Part of that is because I feel like I hit an end of an era last year when I covered the Matchless Raijin-Oh OVAs, which put an end to me covering that anime (& it's thematic deconstruction Bokurano) every November for the past four years. Therefore, I think it's only appropriate for me to put an end to another Mecha Month tradition that happened alongside the Raijin-Oh-related reviews.

Not sure if this is official artwork or just fan work, but it encapsulations SRW perfectly.

Bandai Namco's Super Robot Wars franchise celebrated its 25th Anniversary last year, and has remained the ultimate love letter to mech anime & the seemingly infinite potential when you combine together various giant robots from across history. Over these 2+ decades of games, more than 150 different mech anime, manga, & even games have seen inclusion in some way or another, but even then it will never be enough; there will always be content from the past, present, & future to include. Therefore, two years ago I listed twelve series (11 anime & 1 game) that had yet to make their SRW debuts, but I felt were still viable for inclusion one day (or at least I really wanted to see...); even today, only one has since debuted (Idolmaster Xenoglossia), but only for a limited time on a mobile spin-off. Last year, I flipped the script & detailed twelve titles that actually appeared in SRW multiple times, but have not returned in over a decade; again, mobile spin-offs aside, none have since returned. So, to finish this trilogy of SRW lists, let's take a look at twelve "mech anime" (read: not all are exactly anime) that were once (& only once) given the spotlight, but I feel deserve a second chance to show their stuff. I'm using the same restrictions as last year's list (at least 10 years since inclusion, no spin-offs, & nothing that Akira Kamiya voiced a major role in), so here we go!

Gundam Sentinel
In the entire history of Super Robot Wars, only one franchise has been seen in every single entry, & that's Gundam. That being said, there are so many different productions in this franchise that it's not surprising that a handful of Gundam stories have only seen a single appearance in SRW. Still, only one has seen inclusion in just a single game, but without any of the actual story being told. Overall told from 1987-1990 in Model Graphix magazine, Gundam Sentinel is a side-story that takes place between Zeta Gundam & Gundam ZZ, focusing on Earth Federation pilot Ryu Roots & his squad's battles against New Desides, a group of rebellious Federation soldiers who side with the Titans' supremacist ideologies. The novel series written by Masaya Takahashi marked the debut of designer Hajime Katoki, who would go on to become one of the most iconic Gundam designers of all time, right behind Kunio Okawara. Today, Gundam Sentinel is one of the most beloved & well known side stories ever written, especially due to its focus on mature characters & treating Mobile Suits like actual military weapons.

Still, Sentinel's only appearance in the iconic crossover series has been in 1995's Super Robot Wars 4 on the Super Famicom. However, neither Ryu Roots nor New Desides are anywhere to be seen in this game. Instead, only the Superior/S Gundam & it's upgrade Ex-S Gundam are included as empty units that you can put any other Gundam pilot into (as seen above with 0083's Kou Uraki piloting the Ex-S); hell, not even ALICE, the AI co-pilot, is included! Sentinel's barely-there inclusion would be maintained for the 1996 upgraded port SRW4 Scramble for the PlayStation, but when Banpresto decided to redo the end of the Classic Series timeline with F & F Final, Sentinel was one of the series that got the ax (alongside UFO Robo Grendizer, Brave Raideen, Tosho Daimos, & Zambot 3). Since then, Gundam Sentinel has yet to ever see a return to SRW, making it the forgotten son of the franchise when it comes to being involved in crossovers.

Chances of Return?: To be honest, I am not familiar with Gundam Sentinel's story, but the basic concept of a renegade group within the Earth Federation going rogue isn't exactly impossible to mix into an SRW story. That being said, this is similar to when I included Victory Gundam in last year's list; yes, Victory has been seen in X-Ω, but that's a mobile phone spin-off. Simply put, there is just so much Gundam out there, and with both the constant potential of bringing back older fan-favorites (like V did with ZZ & Crossbone) & the influx of newer productions (G-Reco & Iron-Blooded Orphans will both get their debuts soon enough, I'm sure), there just might not be any real chance at Sentinel being given a full-on inclusion, complete with story & characters; even if it was just a couple of units, at least it did get included once.

New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine
To this day, 2003's Super Robot Wars Compact 3 features the most unique & curious roster in the history of SRW. Developed & released in the twilight of the life of Bandai's WonderSwan handheld family, Banpresto seemingly decided to include anime that would otherwise never be given the opportunity to ever be included again in the franchise; it wasn't exactly going to be a massive seller in the first place, after all. Because of that, it has a lot of "one-time only" appearances, so these next four entries are all from that specific game. First up, though, is an odd duck, because like Sentinel it's been featured in SRW for units only, but unlike Sentinel it did receive a single, solitary full-on inclusion, so I'll still count it here. Often referred to simply as "the Dunbine OVA", 1988's New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine (also sometimes subtitled Tale of Neo Byston Well) is a three-episode OVA far-sequel to Yoshiyuki Tomino's fantasy mech series from 1983, taking place 700 years after the TV series' infamously fatalistic finale. The OVA details the battle between Shion Zaba & "Black Knight" Rabaan Zaramand, who is attempting to conquer the nation of Baran-Baran in order to rule over all of Byston Well. Interestingly enough, this OVA is not only the only piece of Dunbine to not be directed by Tomino, instead being directed by Toshifumi Takizawa (Samurai 7, Dirty Pair TV), but it's also the only one to never see any release in North America, as ADV released the TV series (& Daisuki streamed it before dying out), CPM did Garzey's Wing, & Bandai Visual USA handled Wings of Rean.

As hinted earlier, New Dunbine did technically debut in SRW4 on the Super Famicom in 1995, but it too was only in the form of units, like lead mecha Sirbine, that Dunbine TV characters could pilot. Unlike Gundam Sentinel, however, Banpresto did eventually decide to actually include New Dunbine's story & characters, though it wouldn't be until nearly a decade later in Compact 3. Shion & his story wouldn't appear until about half-way through the main campaign, and a little bit of fantasy world-travelling hijinks wound up being the reason why Sho Zama could meet with his supposed reincarnation Shion Zaba; time travel is funny like that. Since that game, though, Dunbine in general would outright disappear from SRW, experiencing a decade-long hiatus until 2013's UX on the 3DS, which had Dunbine characters & units appearing "post story" & interacting with those from Wings of Rean. Unlike before, though, New Dunbine was nowhere to be found here, but the OVA would once again see representation in a units-only capacity in 2015's BX on the 3DS. Still, I think this OVA should be given more than cameos.

Chances of Return?: Had you asked me a few years back, I would have said that Aura Battler Dunbine in general might not have ever returned. Since 2013, though, Dunbine has seen a fair number of olive branches, with proper returns in both UX & BX, as well as inclusion in X-Ω. Even Wings of Rean saw a proper debut, and it's not like New Dunbine was outright ignored, either. Still, it would be interesting for New Dunbine's story & characters to be given at least one more game to shine, and having Shion & the like appear alongside Sho Zama & Asap Suzuki would be a really neat utilization of SRW's basic concept; Garzey's Wing isn't really a mech anime, so it can be ignored. How likely is this to happen? Again, a few years back I would have said "No way in hell," but now I could possibly see it happen one day.

[11/2018 UPDATE: Hell has truly (Marvel) frozen over, because New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine will be making its second-ever proper inclusion in the recently announced Super Robot Wars T! I had to make sure of this, but once I saw an image showing a cut-in of Shion & Silky, I knew that this was legit. Unsurprisingly, it's appearing alongside the original Dunbine TV series, but it's great to see this far-sequel finally be used for more than just units again.]

Acrobunch: The Quest for Treasure
Mech anime was experiencing a massive surge during the 80s, which resulted in a ton of productions in that genre. Unsurprisingly, most of them followed Mobile Suit Gundam's lead by being about a war between two forces, either between different groups of humans or humanity working together against alien oppressors. Anime done by Kokusai Eigasha/Movie International Co., though, tended to go against the grain, with its most wild departure being 1982's Makyo Densetsu/Legend of the Demon Land Acrobunch (though, seriously, that alternate title someone added to the ANN Encyclopedia is perfect), which was specifically inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark the year prior. Yes, instead of a war for survival or supremacy, Acrobunch instead followed the Rando Family as they search for the mysterious treasure of Quaschika, while the underground-dwelling Goblin Clan fights them to locate & claim the treasure for themselves. The anime is also notable for featuring the debut of character designer Mutsumi Inomata, who would go on to help define the Tales Series, & was one of the first major roles for the legendary Norio Wakamoto, who voiced Hiro Rando, the oldest of Tatsuya Rando's children.

Obviously, part of why Acrobunch has only appeared in a single SRW game is due to its subject matter; it's easy to implement a war story into a game about tactical battles, but a treasure hunt is trickier. This is made very obvious in Compact 3, as the Rando Family & Goblin Clan appear only in rare instances for most of the game, and you don't get the Acrobunch as a regular unit until 2/3 through the game; in fact, there are only four stages which actually focus on Acrobunch story. Granted, once the Rando Family joins in earnest their titular robot is one of the most overpowered spirit command banks in SRW history, and it's second only to original unit Ialdabaoth in terms of overall usefulness in the game itself. Still, I wouldn't call it impossible to bring back Acrobunch for another SRW outing, and it would still be an interesting & relatively original anime to bring back. Even today, there hasn't been another mech anime quite like Acrobunch.

Chances of Return?: Unlike the prior two entries, Acrobunch is not part of a larger franchise that can at least give it a tangential hope for a return. This anime would have to be worth including on its own merit & it's ability to mesh well with the other series represented in an SRW title. In that regard, I sadly have to say that this anime has a pretty low chance at returning, and it's all because of how it was utilized in the only game it was included in. As I mentioned, Compact 3 only utilized Acrobunch sparingly for the large majority of its campaign, primarily because of the world-traversing story that was more about finding treasure than it was about fighting against evil. There's good reason why this anime was only used in an obscurity-celebrating entry, but I don't want to say it will "never" happen; it's just very unlikely.

The Vision of Escaflowne
It's always important to remember that Japanese fandom doesn't quite match international fandoms, and sometimes an anime can be considered an all-time classic outside of Japan, but in its home country it was nothing more than something that simply came & went. A perfect example of this is 1996's The Vision of Escaflowne (Escaflowne of the Heavens in Japan), which in its home country was a cult hit, at best, but internationally is one of the most beloved anime ever produced in the 90s. The Kazuki Akane-directed & Shoji Kawamori-written anime detailed how high school student Hitomi Kanzaki gets transported to the world of Gaea & gets involved in a war between the various nations of Gaea & the evil Zaibach Empire. The series is notable for following a strong shojo aesthetic & execution, though the two manga produced would come in both shojo & shonen flavors, and that likely was a major factor in why it only achieved minimal success in its home country; it was likely just too different from the pack.

Because of that, Banpresto only implemented Escaflowne for SRW a single time, & as an obscurity choice, at that. Luckily, unlike New Dunbine & Acrobunch, Escalfowne was involved in the story from early on, with the player even being given the option to either go to Gaea or Byston Well in the only truly exclusive (& short) route split in the game. Quite honestly, the Guymelefs mixed in perfectly fine with an SRW title, especially since it was there alongside the likes of Aura Battlers. To be fair, Escaflowne would be rather simple to mix into future entries, as it would follow a similar execution as how the likes of Dunbine or Panzer World Galient are utilized, i.e. alternate worlds that can be visited. The main thing holding it back is that it just isn't all that wanted in its home country.

Chances of Return?: All that being said, though, the past couple of years have been an interesting new world for Super Robot Wars. Last year saw the Asian English release of SRW OG: The Moon Dwellers, which was the first time Bandai Namco officially translated an SRW game themselves (Atlus USA had previously translated the two GBA games we received), and this year saw the same happen to Super Robot Wars V, the first time a mainline entry ever saw an official English release. While we have no idea how well this gambit worked out, as it was relying on English speaking fans importing a release technically aimed at Asian audiences, it was obviously an attempt to more directly market SRW to people outside of Japan. Therefore, future mainline games could very well put a larger focus on mech anime that's more popular outside of Japan, and if that happens then we could see the return of Escaflowne to SRW. I won't say that it's only a matter of "when" Escaflowne will return, but I would argue that "if" is on the verge of being passed right now.

Super Robot Wars V this year had a number of surprising selections for its roster, and while most put attention towards Space Battleship Yamato 2199, I also found it absolutely shocking to see Brave Express Might Gaine added. For the longest time, the (supposed) word was that (now) Takara-Tomy was only allowing King of Braves GaoGaiGar to be used in SRW, with the rest of the Brave Series being off limits, so seeing the fourth entry added was a shocker & a change in policy. That being said, Might Gaine's inclusion isn't exactly the first time the Brave Series was represented by a different anime than GaoGaiGar... At least if you're counting spin-offs. To finish up the Compact 3 quartet (sorry, Mechander Robo, but as a 70s anime starring Akira Kamiya, you're disqualified), allow me to introduce Betterman, the 1999 TV anime that takes place in the same world as GaoGaiGar but has no major connection to that series (the sole link is that one of the supporting cast is the older brother to one of GaoGaiGar's supporting cast). The anime details Akumatsu Industries' investigation & battle against Algernon, a mutated disease that drives those it infects crazy & violent, and when Algernon creates giant monsters, it's up to the duo of Keita Aono & Hinoki Sai to co-pilot their Neuronoid to combat it. Alongside all of this is Lamia, a mysterious man who can transform into various forms of giant creatures called Betterman to help fight Algernon.

While Betterman is headed up by the same director as GaoGaiGar, it's a vastly different series in execution. Instead of a loving homage to old-school super robot anime, it's a dark hard-science tale, so much so that most viewers might have a tough time with some elements of the story, especially when the science starts getting heavy. Regardless, Banpresto decided to mix this spin-off into Compact 3 without any reference to the anime it spawned off of, and while Keita & Hinoki do join the crew about a quarter into the story, the actual plot of the anime was only handled every now & then. Sadly, whether it was due to Takara-Tomy's supposed restrictions or for some other reason, GaoGaiGar & Betterman never crossed over in the confines of SRW, even when the OVA sequel GaoGaiGar FINAL (which did more directly reference the spin-off) saw inclusion in Alpha 3 & W. Still, whatever reasons Takara-Tomy had such restrictions have since loosened, as GaoGaiGar & Raijin-Oh were both included in BX, & then there's the aforementioned Might Gaine debut. Therefore, I think there might still be a hope for GaoGaiGar & Betterman to properly cross over in SRW, eventually.

Chances of Return?: First off, I don't see Betterman ever being included in SRW on its own ever again; Compact 3 was a special exception due to its very existence in general. However, I think there could always be a chance at it being included as part of a larger storytelling device should GaoGaiGar be included in a larger overall series. In fact, with Might Gaine having debuted in V, I think there's a fair chance that GaoGaiGar might see inclusion in the sequel, and if the "V Series" (because it's obviously the next main series) winds up running for enough games, I could see Betterman included to tie in with its source material (of sorts), and if that was to happen then maybe we could see something done with Project Z. For those unfamiliar, Project Z was the planned sequel to GaoGaiGar FINAL, which would have had GaoGaiGar's lead children Mamoru Amami & Ikumi Kaidou, now in their teens, pilot a new successor mech designed by Akumatsu Industries, and Betterman Lamia would have played some sort of role. Granted, this is going into fanboying for me, but SRW has included never-produced stories before, like with Perfect Victory Daiteioh in Neo, so the possibility is always there.

Megazone 23
Coming out just barely a month after Compact 3's release in July of 2003, Super Robot Wars D for the Game Boy Advance is another curious entry in the franchise. Tonally, it's one of the darkest stories ever told, with Victory Gundam (of all things) being one of the lead stories, so much so that a lot of the Zeta & ZZ characters have already been killed, & Char Aznable from Char's Counterattack joins the heroes, putting aside his own wishes to destroy humanity on Earth to help save everyone. Gameplay-wise, it introduced the idea of chaining together attacks across multiple enemies, but an error in robot stats resulted in super robots no longer being the damage-taking tanks that they usually are; in short, the real robots are much more useful in D, while the supers are all glass cannons. In terms of roster, though, it featured both some notable debuts as well as some "final" appearances. The Big O (complete with the infamous original theme!), Future Robo Daltanious, Getter Robo Armageddon, & Macross 7 all made their debuts here, while Gundam Wing TV & Rokushin Gattai God Mars would make their last appearance until they both returned eight years later in Z2, and Victory Gundam has yet to be in a traditional SRW game since D. Speaking of the Z Series, those games eventually utilized nearly every anime that was in D, minus Victory Gundam, Daltanious, & one other anime that has only appeared a single time in SRW...

Considered the anime that started the OVA boom of the 80s, 1985's Megazone 23 is an iconic piece of sci-fi storytelling that, to this day, is often considered a direct influence to movies like The Matrix. Telling the story of how Shogo Yahagi finds out that the 80s-era Tokyo he lives in is actually a fake environment controlled by the government while it quietly battles aliens bent on killing all of humanity's space colonies (which Shogo's home city is one of), this OVA was originally planned as a TV series, and unsurprisingly has a non-ending that would be detailed in the 1986 sequel Megazone 23 Part II; there was also the two-part Part III in 1989, but people tend to not talk about that one. While not exactly a mech anime, Shogo does get a transformable motorcycle named the Garland that has a humanoid form, & the government forces lead by B.D. do have mechs of their own, so in 2003 it was added into SRW D's plot, though it was technically Part II's plot mixed with Part I's character designs (as they did radically change between productions). Admittedly, Megazone's concept of the populace not knowing the truth of their situation does mix well with Big O's amnesiac populace of Paradigm City & D's original plot of humanity not knowing that the Earth has been sealed away from the rest of the galaxy. Interestingly enough, due to the game's infamously bungled super robots, the Garland wound up becoming one of the absolute best units, due to its small size giving it insane evasion. In fact, Megazone 23 wound up being included simply because series producer Takenobu Terada is a giant fan of it, and has admitted to trying to bring it back, so what's the problem?

Chances of Return?: Sadly, while Terada is the main man in charge of Super Robot Wars, that doesn't mean that his every wish & whim can be granted. Simply put, Megazone 23 has yet to appear in another SRW simply because the higher ups at Bandai Namco haven't allowed it to return. While the people at Banpresto (now B.B. Studio) obviously put their priority towards telling a story & putting in the anime that fit their plot well, the executives at Bandai Namco prioritize choosing a roster first, mainly for promotional purposes, & having the developers make a story that can fit all of them together. Megazone 23 was in D because the story that was being told allowed it to fit in perfectly, because it was likely conceived with this OVA in mind, while since then there really wasn't much of a point in promoting an old OVA, even when it was given an HD remaster on Blu-Ray relatively recently. Still, the idea of bringing back smaller mecha did see a resurgence with Armored Trooper VOTOMS being adapted into the Z Series, & with AIC successfully crowdfunding promo videos for both Megazone 23 XI (pronounced "sai"), a new story taking place in the same universe, & a full-on remake titled Megazone 23 SIN, there may eventually be good reason for the original OVA to appear in Super Robot Wars once again. Even if it was only to help promote these new productions, should they actually get made, I'm sure Takenobu Terada would cherish the opportunity to once again work with one of his favorites.
This brings an end to Part 1 of this list recognizing those anime that only once were given the SRW spotlight but deserve more. Check back at the end of this month for Part 2, where we look at series featured only in MX, GC/XO, W, & K!

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