Mobile Suit Gundam: Where to Start and What's Worth Watching

by Lauren Orsini,

You don't have to be a Gundam fan to get the most out of the latest Gundam series. Iron Blooded Orphans, the latest installment in the franchise, is entirely standalone, taking place in its own setting apart from the larger Gundam multiverse.

If Iron Blooded Orphans gets you on a Gundam kick, however, that's when things begin to get tricky. In 36 years, the Gundam franchise has had plenty of time to craft a tangled timeline of history and mythos. Delve into the wrong show, and you might miss half the context.

You may have seen my article recently on building your first Gunpla, or maybe you've read my reviews of Iron-Blooded Orphans here on the site. I've been a huge Gundam fan for 15 years, beginning all the way back when Gundam Wing first ran on Toonami. This guide is composed of my personal recommendations for fans who want to see what all the Gundam fuss is about, but aren't sure where to start. I'll cover the many Gundam universes, the shows that take place in them, and whether they're worth your time.

Universal Century

What it is: Production-wise, this is the first timeline in the Gundam franchise, kicking off with 1979's Mobile Suit Gundam, the very first Gundam show to air. As the oldest timeline, it has the largest cultural footprint and if you've seen Gundam parodies or imagery, they're likely from here. The bulk of Gundam series take place in the Universal Century timeline.

What it's about: The events or fallout of the One Year War, a conflict between Earth and its rebel space colonies. The Earth Federation is depicted as the good side, while the Republic of Zeon is unmistakably bad, utilizing both Nazi imagery and idealism. Universal Century shows are immediately recognizable by the iconic uniforms the “Feddies” and Zeon forces wear.

What should I watch first? Mobile Suit Gundam, which kicks off the entire franchise.

Shows in this timeline: Here's the complete list of shows in Universal Century (UC) order, with recommendations of which ones are worth your time.

Gundam: The Origin — UC 0068

What it is: An origin story for the One Year War, this original anime video begins when Char is still a child and details the political intrigue that creates the Republic of Zeon.

Worth watching? Yes.

Why: Establishes a fascinating and human face on the political mechanisms hinted at, but never fully explained, during Mobile Suit Gundam. As of this article, only one OAV has been released.

MS IGLOO — UC 0079

What it is: This 2004 three-part DVD release focuses on Zeon's engineering team and their rush to create technology the struggling army requires.

Worth watching? No.

Why: Provides some insight into why Zeon may have lost the war, but isn't required viewing. Its CGI animation makes it a bizarre experiment in the Gundam franchise.

Mobile Suit Gundam — UC 0079

What it is: Starts in media res during the One Year War. Focuses on the rivalry between Amuro and Char, the respective ace mobile suit fighters for the Federation and Zeon.

Worth watching? Yes.

Why: it's not just the basis of the Universal Century, but the grandfather of every Gundam show, introducing the concept of the “mobile suit” weapon that every Gundam show has in common. At 43 episodes and ‘70s era animation, it can be a bit of a slog for modern viewers. Mobile Suit Gundam - The Movie Trilogy is a speedier compilation.

The 08th MS Team — UC 0079

What it is: A One Year War side story, featuring just one unit on the East Asian front.

Worth Watching? Yes.

Why: A side-story with a lot of heart, 08th MS shares the story of ordinary soldiers. While Mobile Suit Gundam outlines what the top brass and aces are doing, 08th MS shows how other people got on during the war.

0080: War in the Pocket — UC 0079-80

What it is: A One Year War side story starring a child protagonist as the horrors of war come straight to his front door.

Worth Watching? Yes.

Why: This series paints the realities of war without getting preachy about it. Just six episodes long, this powerful series is worth every minute. 

0083: Stardust Memory — UC 0083

What it is: After the One Year War, the Feddies turn bad. What happened? Stardust Memory has the answers.

Worth Watching? Maybe.

Why: It's the precursor to Zeta Gundam, which sets up major plot points in the following series. At 13 episodes it's not required viewing and you will comprehend Zeta without it, but fans have received it well due to its powerful action sequences.

Zeta Gundam — UC 0087

What it is: Follows the events of Mobile Suit Gundam with a new protagonist, Kamille, and a new redemption storyline for Char.

Worth Watching? Yes.

Why: Its critique on the Federation's less-than-cool policies after the war, blurring the lines between good and evil in the process of presenting a complex multi-sided conflict.

Gundam ZZ — UC 0088

What it is: A show that takes place directly after Zeta Gundam.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: Poorly received due to the way it converts the dark drama of Zeta into hollow comedy in an effort to lighten the mood. Not available in outside of Japan, so it isn't a problem.

Char's Counterattack — UC 0093

What it is: A movie that redirects the focus back to Char and Amuro and completes their arc.

Worth Watching? Maybe.

Why: With an unlikeable protagonist who takes up valuable screen time, this is only a so-so movie on its own. Still, fans who are invested in the Gundam franchise's most iconic rivalry will want to bear with it to see how the story ends.

Gundam Unicorn — UC 0096

What it is: Actually starts in UC 0001, as a sort of origin story. Follows the last scion of the Republic of Zeon, and serves as a capstone to the Universal Century.

Worth Watching? Yes.

Why: With a super slow release schedule starting in 2010 and not concluding its 7 episodes until 2014, it has some of the highest production values in the Gundam franchise.

Gundam F91 —  UC 0123

What it is: Focuses on the frontier colonies as they rise up against invaders from Jupiter.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: Originally planned as a 50 episode TV show, then a 12 episode TV show, and finally released as a movie, the pacing is very poor. But if we ever get a Crossbone Gundam TV show in the West (fingers crossed), this will ramp itself up to required viewing, as it explains the origin of that particularly piratelike suit.

Victory Gundam — UC 0153

What it is: A 13-year-old must pilot the Victory Gundam in order to face off against the formidable Zanscare Empire.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: One of the major criticisms is that this show doesn't appear to fit into the Universal Century. We never hear about the Zanscare Empire before or after this and it occurs so far after the One Year War it doesn't seem related to anything else in this timeline.

G-Savior — UC 0223

What it is: Earth and the colonies battle over food shortages.

Worth Watching? A thousand times no.

Why: You don't want to watch this. This live-action movie with poor acting and a worse plot. Unfortunately it's not “so bad it's good” so it's better to just forget it happened. This isn't available in the West anyway (even though it was filmed in Canada) and that's for the best.

After Colony

What it is: This timeline launched in ‘95 in Japan and ‘00 in the U.S. Its position on the Cartoon Network Toonami block helped to popularize mecha anime with a new generation of westerners.

What it's about: Like in the Universal Century, Earth is at war with her space colonies. However, this time it's the space colonies viewers sympathize with. Each space colony develops its own mobile suit (the better to sell more Gunpla). Combined with a masked adversary (a la Char), it's a heavily altered retelling of the Universal Century with similar themes. The title may include “after” but the colonies are alive and well—it refers to after the colonies’ creation.

What to watch first: Gundam Wing, if you must.

Shows in this timeline:

Gundam Wing

What it is: Five male leads pilot unique mobile suits at the forefront of the colonies’ rebellion against a hostile Earth. As the series progresses, the pilots become allied with one another more so than any cause, and choose their own reasons to fight.

Worth Watching? It hurts me to say it, but no.

Why: Members of the Toonami generation may remember falling in love with Gundam Wing, but we didn't know any better. With poor pacing and a weak plot, the Gundam Wing older fans remember has not aged well.

Endless Waltz

What it is: A movie that follows the events of Gundam Wing while revealing souped-up suits and new details about the main pilots’ pasts.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: While certainly a better story than Gundam Wing itself, it's not a good standalone. You need to watch that series’ bloated 49 episodes before you can understand this one.

Cosmic Era

What it is: This timeline launched in ‘02 in Japan and ‘04 in the west. For the first time, Gundam featured characters with a more modern moe look, complete with enormous eyes, waifish figures, and likewise elegant mobile suits.

What it's about: “Naturals,” who are regular Earthlings, must battle for the right to survive against the genetically modified “Coordinators,” who live in space. Did I mention this one also has a mysterious masked adversary?

What to watch first: Gundam Seed, which comes first chronologically.

Shows in this timeline:

Gundam Seed

What it is: One young Coordinator chooses to ally himself with Earth instead of space. Follows the formula set up in Gundam Wing in which five attractive pilots generate a female audience.

Worth Watching? Maybe.

Why: SEED has many similarities to the original Mobile Suit Gundam, while bringing modern pacing to the table. However, it suffers from wooden dialogue and a failure to surpass the original. On the other hand, it boasts some of the best music in Gundam.

Gundam Seed Destiny

What it is: A dark follow-up to the events of Gundam Seed. It attempts to be the Zeta Gundam to SEED’s Mobile Suit Gundam, though neither of them really get there.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: Too dark, too light, and no balance. The curtain rises on an explosion, a bloody arm lying on the ground, a crying child nearby. Later: a hot spring on the warship. What? Why?

C.E. 73 Stargazer

What it is: Three episodes under 20 minutes all released on the Web. Focuses on the Phantom Pain—a group of side characters from Gundam Seed Destiny.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: Mostly irrelevant to the storyline, plus not available legally in English.

MSV: Astray

What it is: Two five-minute short films packed in with Stargazer.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: Not legal and not notable.

Our Century

What it is: This is the only group of Gundam shows said to take place in the same universe as the viewer. The characters are humans with generally normal abilities who happen to be Gundam fans.

What it's about: In the near future on Earth, people of all ages build Gunpla—plastic Gundam models—and use high-tech arenas to make them battle for fun and profit. Oh, and there's a mysterious masked adversary, but you guessed that already.

What to watch first: Gundam Build Fighters.

Shows in this timeline:

Gundam Build Fighters

What it is: The story of two friends teaming up to become the best Gundam Build Fighters in the world.

Worth Watching? Yes.

Why: It's easy to write this off as a half-hour commercial for Gundam toys, but a compelling plot and engaging characters keep it interesting. There are lots of inside jokes, cameos, and references to other Gundam shows, so it's even better if it isn't your first.

Gundam Build Fighters Try

What it is: This time, three friends team up to become the best Gundam Build Fighters etc. etc.

Worth Watching? Yes.

Why: While certainly not as well received as its predecessor, Try is a show made by Gundam fans for Gundam fans, and the creators’ passion for the product shines through in every scene.

One-shot Centuries

What are they: Some Gundam shows take place in their own timeline totally unrelated to any other Gundam show—except for the whole giant-fighting-suit-and-masked-adversary thing. It's not necessary to grasp Gundam tropes to fully understand and enjoy these Gundam shows.

What to watch first: It doesn't matter. These all work alone! Check out the centuries and their one-shot series, in no particular order, below:

After War — Gundam X

What it is: On a post-apocalyptic Earth, a young thief only looks out for his own survival. But when he meets a mysterious girl, he decides to pilot a mobile suit to save her life.

Worth Watching? Maybe.

Why: This isn't legal yet, but with an upcoming English release and several Gundam Build Fighters nods to build up the hype, this could be one ‘90s relic that transcends its decade.

Future Century — Mobile Fighter G-Gundam

What it is: The space colonies agree to hold organized “Gundam Fights” in place of war. The victor earns his or her colony the right to govern all of the colonies for the next four years. One young fighter represents Japan while on a global search to find his brother.

Worth Watching? Maybe.

Why: In most cases it'd be irresponsible to recommend an anime full of unrealistic, exaggerated characters and over-the-top cultural stereotypes (some of which border on uncomfortable). On the other hand, G-Gundam’s quick pace and intentional camp value—a horse Gundam piloted by a horse, for example—make it an unexpected fan favorite.

Anno Domini — Gundam 00

What it is: Three factions are at war over limited resources. In order to disrupt the balance of power, a fourth group called Celestial Being creates a massive superweapon—surprise, it's five Gundams.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: This show starts off with a lot of promise, but slowly decelerates into a confusing mass of unlikeable characters and Deus Ex Machina plot points. The first season is salvageable, only to propel you into the abysmal second season. Despite that, the show was successful enough to merit a movie, Awakening of Trailblazer, which also is not worth watching.

Advanced Generation — Gundam AGE

What it is: A story told in three time periods, following protagonist Flit as a child, as a man, and as a great-grandfather with increasingly crazy hair.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: This show was heavily anticipated by fans because of the involvement of videogame company Level 5. The character designs are expectedly great, but this was one show that didn't benefit from the addition of a game-like storyline.

Regild Century — Reconguista in G

What it is: Humanity has entered a time of universal peace based on an anti-tech religion. One young man decides to pilot a mobile suit of mysterious origin, and changes his life forever.

Worth Watching? No.

Why: The storytelling is so confusing, it may take the entire series for you to figure out what's going on. Allegiances are constantly swapped, and nobody seems to have a clear motive for their actions. This feels like the sequel to a story that doesn't exist.

Correct Century — Turn A Gundam

What it is: Earth is a peaceful, if somewhat backwards, frontier until the high-tech moon colonists that everyone has forgotten about make a surprise homecoming.

Worth Watching? Yes.

Why: With music by Yoko Kanno and mecha designs by Syd Mead, the concept artist behind Blade Runner, Aliens, and Tron, this is one of the most unique visual and audio Gundam experiences in the franchise. On top of that, it's got an earnest, likeable protagonist and a plot that should resonate with everyone who's ever wanted to discover a new world.

I've shared my opinions, but there's no reason our tastes won't differ. If anything, I hope this guide has given you a starting point to plot your Gundam journey. With 28 shows and counting, there's something for everyone in Gundam.

What was your first Gundam show? If you could go back and start with any Gundam series, which would it be? Let us know in the comments!


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