I guess it all goes back to the Shogun Warriors. And sure Gobots and Transformers were a full fledged craze in their own right. The fact that Robotech had an actual storyline (butchered as it was) was mind-blowing in and of itself. But if you were playing giant robot games at the tabletop during the eighties, you got something entirely different from the ethos surrounding the toys and television shows. You got BattleTech.
It’s hard to describe how strange this was. The effect was very similar to that produced by Star Fleet Battles. You would sit down to play Federation vs. Klingons and flip through the rule book and marvel at how well it lined up with the old television shows, right down to the inclusion of Larry Niven’s Kzin. Then you might stumble across the old Franz Joseph Designs Star Fleet Technical Manual and be floored yet again: this game was more “real” and more faithful to the source material than anything the movie studios were putting out.
Where was the bedrock of the giant robot genre…? Oddly enough, it was in a line of model kits which conflated the universes of the Macross series with the somewhat more obscure Fang of the Sun Dougram. There was no source material to back up the implied setting of the kits. But the dioramas on the box lids were so compelling, so real… in the minds of American kids that lacked easy access to the Japanese cartoons, this accident of science fiction became the gold standard in all things Mecha.
What do you do when you have something this awesome and you need to bring it to life in tabletop gaming…? Easy. You interpolate into it your pre-existing conceptions of how science fiction should even work. In the early eighties, that still wasn’t going to be the Fake Big Three of Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. It wasn’t even going to be big time movie franchises like Star Wars or Star Trek. No, it was going to be much less ballyhooed works by guys like H. Beam Piper, Poul Anderson, and Jerry Pournelle that would be primary.
So when the guys at FASA decided to create their take on the giant robot oeuvre, you basically got a mashup of Traveller and some crazy cool model kit line. This collision of unadulterated awesome would end up becoming a genre in its own right, distinct from everything that followed. Indeed, a guy bred on BattleTech would be utterly baffled by later gaming products such as David Pulver’s GURPS Mecha, which included extensive advice on translating the anime ethos to the table with its over the top rivalries and love triangles. (What in the actual heck, y’all!)
I know I couldn’t relate. And sure, there was something romantic about the MechWarrior side of the game. And the far future post-apocalyptic techno-feudalism was more of a recapitulation of knighthood and nobility than it was a manifestation of what you’d get in a stage production of Camelot. But face it. The mecha were the stars of the game, not the men that piloted them. That’s just how it was. And the many hours of play that went down before its release don’t change the fact: giant robots did not become real until Technical Readout 3025 was published.
It wasn’t just the gorgeous sketches by “Loose” that went along with each ‘Mech that made this work, though the hard lines, the gross mechanisms, the blocky and thuggish forms did make these monsters come to life in a way that glossy and shiny toys could never be. These were killing machines on a gritty battlefield with more in common with real life MBT’s than Voltron, after all. But it was the fluff text that really did it. And no, it wasn’t just fluff text to a fourteen-year old. It was more real than the cartoons and the games and the model kits put together.
There it was: details of the engineering problems from before the BattleMechs even hit the production lines. Variants and common modifications that you could actually game with– and even more importantly, details of who put them into practice and why. Accounts of which factions used the design and the problems they had integrating them into their forces and maintaining them during a dark age. Glorious battles in which they played a key role. And there was also the final footnote: mentions of the pilots made famous by their exploits in these engines of destruction.
It was the little things that made them real. The names of the targeting system which had absolutely no impact on the gameplay, for instance. We’d spend hours poring over these nuggets, trying to reverse engineer a game from them that didn’t exist. It was all just window dressing for a relatively simple board game with an rudimentary design system that only worked if you didn’t think too much about it. But it didn’t line up with what we were told about the universe. And the universe was actually more awesome than the game itself, so we spent more time attempting to create the game that ought to have been than actually running the game as written.
It was a mess. But we didn’t care! And it’s still the definitive giant robot setting to this day.