Since the dawn of time, humanity has dreamed of seeing giant robots punching each other. While we took the first faltering steps toward making that dream a reality in 1964 with the release of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots (considered by many to be the apex of human civilization), we still have a long way to go. In fiction, however, there is a long tradition of fighting robots, in which my novella Hard Reboot is an enthusiastic participant.
For this list, I’ve tried to hold to fairly narrow criteria: large, roughly humanoid robots, fighting one another, with at least one side having a human pilot, in a visual medium. Within those bounds, I’ve selected my top five by the rigorous scientific method of thinking back to which fights were awesome. Many thanks to my anime co-conspirator Konstantin for helping me brainstorm.
Speaking of anime: this list is all anime. I tried to find a token American example but Japan is just completely dominant, giant robot-wise. See honorable mentions, below, for some close calls, including the one you’re probably thinking of.
Gundam Barbatos vs. Mobile Armor Hashmal — Mobile Suit Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans (2015)
You can’t talk about robot fights without talking about Gundam. The original Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) essentially created the giant robot genre as we know it today, moving away from mystical hero-robots like Grendizer and treating the robot as a “realistic” weapon of war, analogous to a fighter jet or a tank. The franchise now includes dozens of series and the wider genre has hundreds of copycats and homages—you could do this list many times over with Gundam alone. I’ve restricted myself to a couple.
Iron-Blooded Orphans is one of my recent favorites. It’s not in the main Gundam continuity, so it stands alone, and it wraps up a complete storyline in 52 episodes. Our heroes are a bunch of teens enslaved by a private military contractor and used as child soldiers, until they rebel and fight off their former masters and the authorities, forming a mercenary company to go into business for themselves. In this arc, our heroes take on an automated monstrosity left over from the great war.
This fight highlights one of the main reasons giant robot battles are great. The robots have the scale of giant war machines, smashing mountainsides and levelling buildings, but because of their humanoid shape the fighting is much more “legible” to us than a battle between planes or tanks. We instinctively understand, at least a little, what’s going on when human-ish figures move or clash. The giant robot battle lets the show operate at both a human and an epic scale simultaneously.
The Daedalus Maneuver — Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982) / Robotech (1985)
Macross, also known as “the first third of Robotech”, is the other wellspring from which the giant robot genre springs. While using Gundam’s more realistic take on the robots, Macross’s mecha kept the transforming abilities of their hero-robot ancestors, shifting between humanoid, plane, and “gerwalk”/”guardian” half-and-half mode. In the “Daedalus maneuver”, the SDF-1 (itself transformed into a giant humanoid robot) punches the enemy ship, and its arm—made out of a warship called the Daedalus—opens up to reveal a horde of smaller robots who fire their missiles inside their opponent. Classic stuff.
Full Armor Gundam vs. Psycho Zaku — Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt (2015)
Back to Gundam. Thunderbolt is a short series in the primary continuity, which by now spans decades of future history, all of which are full of giant robots fighting each other. This one is limited in scope, following an ace pilot from each side through their repeated confrontations. A high budget gives it some of the slickest Gundam fighting yet animated, along with a jazz soundtrack that ties into the characters’ backstory. Here, the two antagonists meet for their final battle inside a derelict space colony ruined by the ongoing war.
Evangelion Unit 02 vs. Mass Production Units — The End of Evangelion (1997)
Evangelion was a turning point in multiple ways. Hideaki Anno’s flawed, frustrating masterpiece turned the straightforward war story of the giant robot genre into a deeply psychological character story, and reignited a whole new generation of robot stories. It also served as the entry point to anime for a huge number of American fans. Asuka’s tragic battle against the mass-produced units during the movie finale—one of the few times we get to see her really cut loose—delivers both the creepy, gooey robot action and the emotional gut-punches that made Eva resonate.
Gurren Lagann vs. Anti-Spiral — Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007)
The circle of genre, as ever, eventually comes full round. Gurren Lagann pushed back against the darker Eva-inspired narratives and the “war is hell” stories that had come before, and built an over-the-top celebration of sheer awesomeness, throwing any pretense at realism over the side in favor of style and hewing closer to the hero-robots of five decades earlier. Beginning with a subterranean tribe’s discovery of a small robot, the story expands and keeps expanding, from a local rebellion into a battle that transcends the universe itself. By the final confrontation, the robot (actually a robot, combined with a bigger robot, piloting a bigger robot, piloting an even bigger robot which is also the moon, piloting an even bigger robot) uses galaxies as shuriken to defeat the antithesis of life itself.
Here are some other fighting robots that, for one reason or another, I couldn’t put on the list proper.
Jaeger vs. Kaiju — Pacific Rim (2013)
Because of course. Guillermo del Toro’s spectacular mecha vs. kaiju slugfest is the best robot action live-action cinema has produced. (Sorry, fans of 1990’s Robot Jox.) I only left it off the above list because the robots fight the kaiju and not one another. (Some of you may be saying something about the sequel, but that’s weird, because there was no sequel.)
YF-21 vs. X-9 — Macross Plus (1994)
This sequel to the original Macross takes place on a peaceful Earth, with two test pilots who confront a killer AI. It has some of the best air-to-air combat animation ever, but I disqualified it from the list because while they can transform the mecha spend most of their time as planes. (It was loosely based on the USAF’s Advanced Tactical Fighter competition.
The Death of Optimus Prime — Transformers: The Movie (1986)
The movie version of this Saturday morning cartoon featured a shocking amount of death and destruction. What was intended to be a relaunch of a toy line with new colors and designs ended up traumatizing a generation of children who had unexpectedly developed an emotional attachment to the characters.
Major Kusanagi vs. Alakuneda R3000 Spider Tank — Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Mamoru Oshii’s cyberpunk classic redefined what animation could do and drove the genre into new territory. The final battle, with the Major facing off against an enormous spider-like battle tank, is a virtuoso action scene. It felt like it didn’t quite belong on the above list, though, because the Major is technically a cyborg, and the tank is non-humanoid and pilotless.
If you’re a fan of robot action, deep future weirdness, and fluffy scholar/scrappy pilot romance, Hard Reboot may be up your alley. I’ll make a Twitter thread with some other great robot fights—drop me a line at @DjangoWexler with suggestions! Information about all my books is at my website.
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Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in creative writing and computer science, worked in artificial intelligence research and as a programmer/writer for Microsoft, and is now a full-time fantasy writer. Django is the author of The Shadow Campaigns, an epic fantasy series for adults, and The Forbidden Library, a classic fantasy series for middle-grade readers.