August 20, 2007


Hoo boy. Too Many Words on why mechas are stupid

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Engineer's Disease at 09:54 PM | Comments (24) | Add Comment
Post contains 11 words, total size 1 kb.


Entirely right.

The best realistic depiction of mecha I've found out there was FASA's Battlemech game... the original table game, not the videogame series or the more recent versions of the tablegame.  Everything you talk about in your post is addressed, and is reasonably explained with a minimum of phlebotinum... but there is still enough to make a battlemech completely unworkable.

The one thing in the game mechanics that DOES make sense, though, is the heat factor.  Each mech has x number of heatsinks that try to deal with overheating; the best place for a mech to fight is in a lake or river... that lets the heatsinks clear more heat away.  It's no surprise that the most advanced anti-mech weapon in the game is a heat-seeking missile.  A pilot can (and often does) kill himself, or cause the mech's ammo to cook off, via overheating.

The largest mech weighed 100 tons and stood 60' tall... not terribly huge as mecha go.  Arms and legs were moved by 'myomer bundles' that replicate human muscles, just a lot stronger.  Again, not impossible to contemplate, just... well, the whole game really fails the fridge test, eventually.

Sure was fun to playtest back in 1982, though...

Posted by: Wonderduck at August 20, 2007 10:20 PM (CJ5+Y)

2 I just made a couple of edits. I forgot to remove my notes from the beginning; they're gone now. And I found a better example of engine power than a diesel locomotive. The P-51 Mustang's Merlin engine produced 1500 horsepower, more than a megawatt. Obviously a building-sized mecha is going to need a hell of a lot bigger power plant than that.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 20, 2007 10:41 PM (+rSRq)

3 It has to be said that giant transforming/combining mecha are really cool - if you're a boy between 8 and 12. Which is, after all, the target audience of the original mecha shows like Mazinger Z, Combattler V, and Voltes 5.  And of course the granddaddy of giant robot shows, Gigantor.

I think the series with the multicoloured mechanical panthers might be Voltron as well.  I've never seen it, but the first Voltron series was adapted from an anime called Golion, and the components of the giant mecha are apparently mechanical lions.

Also worth noting is that the creator of the mecha (as opposed to giant robot) genre is the same man who invented the magical girl transformation sequence, the incomparable Go Nagai.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at August 21, 2007 01:24 AM (PiXy!)

4 Giant anthropomorphic robots are cool.  That's pretty much the underlying consideration.  The useless bits make them look like knights or (more commonly) samurai.  In many ways, they're the modern equivalent of stories of King Arthur's knights in full steel plate armor when the best soldiers within a thousand years on his "reign" would have been running around in scale, chain, or breastplate/chain at best.

Now, back to reality, I do believe that we will see power armor, possibly in the next couple of decades.  But anything not literally built around the human body will tend to look less and less human.

As for Battletech, the original designers were intentionally trying to create a somewhat plausible world where anime-looking mecha could slug it out.  Along the way, they drastically lowered speed (200kph is almost unheard of, 50-80kph is the most common), and weapons ranges (the best laser--ever--has a max range of 750 meters, slightly less than the longest-ranged ballistic weapon).  For me, at least, it was the design of the "universe" rather than the mecha that sucked me in and hooked me to this day.

Posted by: BigD at August 21, 2007 06:48 AM (JJ4vV)

5 Although Steve will probably never get around to watching it (mecha), but Armor Trooper Votom went out of its way to depict a realistic use of mecha (they're essentially one man tank) and how they could be use in warfare. However, its length (52 episodes, that includes 3 recaps) and the sometimes unrelenting grimness of the story (essentially how an almost unemotional soldier gets humanized by love and friendship while essentially battling the entire Galaxy).

Posted by: BigFire at August 21, 2007 07:58 AM (i5qPG)

6 Anime-"looking"? All the original Battletech mecha were literally pulled straight out of Macross. (There's some entertaining copyright dispute in there somewhere, eventually resolved - I recall one of the later Battletech mecha guides having Victor Entertainment copyrights on all the Macross-mecha pics.)

The real problem with mecha, as opposed to powered armor, is that anything that would make a mecha possible could also be put in a tank. Lower profile, much better armor coverage per weight ratio, much less complicated, many fewer vulnerable parts. If you're ever confronted with a big mech, go for the legs - they can't possibly have the same thickness of armor as the front of a tank!

An awful lot of mecha shows have the mecha using some kind of super-armor that just doesn't get torn up like normal. Okay, fine, but wouldn't it be cheaper to make a bunch of tanks with the same armor? Flat armor plates are way easier to manufacture than curved ones.

The only advantage to the mecha style is that it can act like a Really Big Infantryman - hugging cover and fast reactions on the flanks. But that makes a lot more sense with powered armor suits (which really are Big Infantrymen) than with huge robots.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at August 21, 2007 08:55 AM (LMDdY)

7 I think someone's going to get a mop to clean up all these catgirls that were killed from all that physics discussed in relation to anime in that article.

I enjoy mecha shows for the most part, but I also can turn off that part of my brain that causes Engineer's Disease (plus chemical engineering doesn't usually come into play into anime, which helps).

Two of the biggest reasons that usually annoy people about mecha shows are the fact that the robots look like people. Allow me to read from Mekton Zeta in response why these are the way they are.

Regarding the human shape (including why they have a nose): "These mechanical giants were shaped like men ... Shaped like men so that the alien blasphemers would know that it was Man who defeated them."

The fact that the robots are human shaped lets the audience identify with the robots. They, however, have to look very different from humans (see the giant shoulder pads and bright colors) because it's been proven that things that are only slightly different from humans are much more horrific than things that are very different. Please see for more info.

Posted by: Cyndane at August 21, 2007 09:41 AM (NBQEO)


Another killer that you missed is ground pressure.  How many mecha are drawn with feet that are hollow rims around a jet exhaust, or worse yet with spiked heels?  So our contact with the ground is a few square feet at most, and we're supporting hundreds of tons on that?  Even if the materiel the mecha is made of could do that obviously the ground, roads, rooftops(!) and such that you commonly see mecha standing, running, and leaping on wouldn't.

From a purely military standpoint, powered armor would be great, since it lets the individual warrior carry more firepower, armor, and supplies, while hopefully retaning mobility, the ability to take advantage of concealment, etc.  If a giant mecha could really move the way they are shown to in anime, this being able to go places neither a tank nor hovercraft could, it would be a viable platform, but unfortunately it would be even more affected by the weight problem than a tank  is.

The most interesting study of a "future weapons platform" from a mobility standpoint was one that had big armored wheels with a huge surface area out on arms, kind of like a spider.  But this is still basically a tank, not a mecha.

Posted by: David at August 21, 2007 10:58 AM (K0q+2)

9 David, it's even worse. A lot of those robots with the relatively tiny feet tend to take flying leaps and land hard. In reality they'd sink into the ground up to their thighs; it would be like hitting soft soil with a pile driver.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 21, 2007 11:31 AM (+rSRq)

10 One example of a plausible futuristic mecha is the spider tank from the "Ghost in the Shell" movie. It's got legs instead of tracks, but it's got 8 of them.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 21, 2007 11:32 AM (+rSRq)

11 Shirow regularly did through-the-surface landings in GITS and Appleseed, but that was generally robots/cyborgs jumping; the Fuchikomas didn't tend to bust through stuff. Of course they're not really that armored, but they have to weigh something, right?

My big problem with the spider design is that you can't armor the legs worth anything, and there's a LOT of exposed leg there. About the best you can do is have a redundant amount of them... but how much damage can you take before you're stranded? (And they're a lot harder to repair than a busted track or bogey!)

There's always Bonaparte the tank, too... there's a little articulation in the treads.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at August 21, 2007 11:48 AM (LMDdY)

12 I think it is pretty obvious to anyone with a brain that mecha just aren't at all viable weapons.  I'm not an engineer, and it is obvious to me...I still like mecha shows and use mecha in practically every 'Science' Fiction RPG I run.  They're just cool.  Sure, sometimes I'll complain about how little sense they make...but, well, whatever.

Posted by: Arson55 at August 21, 2007 01:29 PM (/JGtb)

13 A lot of franchises, anime, TV, movie, and game, have things obviously engineered by the art department.  Look at the ships of Star Trek / Star Wars, for example;  they've been refrigerator-tested to destruction.

I think the reason for using humanoid mecha is that it allows you to have action movie-style fight scenes against enemies that no lone human is capable of fighting.  It may not be sound tactical fighting even for people, but visually people want up close and personal combat with dirty hand to hand fighting and acrobatic dodges to behind cover.  Modern armor warfare doesn't lend itself very well to cinematic violence.

Posted by: Civilis at August 21, 2007 02:54 PM (UZyiT)


I think there's more to it than that. First, it's obvious wish-fulfilment.

Second, if the giant robot is humanoid, then the animators already know how to animate it. If it's something else, they have to learn how.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 21, 2007 03:12 PM (+rSRq)

15 And Fuchi/Tachikomas notwithstanding, it's dang hard to anthropomorphize a tank on TV (IRL, it seems to be a bit easier).  A humanoid design evokes human instincts and empathy more than something shaped like a brick, even if both have a pilot inside, and the storytellers can cheat out the wazoo by using human-like cues to show the emotion of the pilot within while remaining focused on the action outside.

Posted by: BigD at August 21, 2007 03:50 PM (JJ4vV)


Wonderful gedanken experiment, Steven. There are still some puzzling things in the world, though, such as Supersaurus, thought to have been a land animal 130 feet long, as much as 50 feet high, and weighing some 75 tons. The SF write James P. Hogan has wryly suggested that perhaps gravity was weaker back then.

That said, mecha are part of that vast anime universe where one must dig about for the "off switch" in the ol' cerebral cortex. Some noble attempts at hand-waving have been attempted, however, such as Votoms (they even had huge dish-shaped feet). Shirow has always vacillated between "cool" and "plausible." Some of his comics depict mecha or cyborgs breaking through roofs and such, and the M-66 robot's reason for having long, flowing hair was as a heat sink. (As a side note, the ancient OAV Black Magic M-66 contains a sequence directed by Shirow where the battle robots take on a group of soldiers. This remains the most "realistic" depction of android battle tactics I've ever seen, with their inhuman rapididy and flexibilty used to good advantage. They also withdrew from the field after only about thirty seconds, steaming and overheated. Actually only one with drew--the other self-destructed like a claymore.) He's also postulated a lot of esoteric nanomaterials for construction, which is, of course, the modern day equivalent of the venerable "unbelievium, the comic book element."

Interestingly, he himself is a nanotech skeptic. When I spoke to him some years ago he firmly belived it would never scale due to the waste heat problem. I'm a bit more sanguine, due to the amazing efficiencies of nanomachines. After he went on at some length one dinner about how a large construction of nanomachines would vaporise itself, I pointed at myself and said, basically, Thus you are disproven. To his credit, he was delighted instead of annoyed.

Below the fold: babbling by Shirow.  Not really a spoiler but there's no BTF tag....

Posted by: Toren at August 22, 2007 10:11 AM (kJAhA)

17 Whoops.  What did I do wrong, Pixy?

Posted by: Toren at August 22, 2007 10:12 AM (kJAhA)

18 Um, you colour-coded the spoiler tag. I do that in the examples because then it displays the tag rather than executing it; if you actually do this, of course, it displays the tag rather than executing it.

I really need to get comment editing set up. It works, and just requires a few template tweaks to go live.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at August 22, 2007 10:31 AM (PiXy!)

19 Oh, and fixed.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at August 22, 2007 10:32 AM (PiXy!)

20 Oh, and while there's no BTF tag, there's a plain hide tag that doesn't automatically insert the spoiler warning, so you could do:


Posted by: Pixy Misa at August 22, 2007 10:40 AM (PiXy!)


"Unbelievium" aka Phlebotinum is also known as "unobtainium", "handwavium", and "nanomachines".

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 22, 2007 02:04 PM (+rSRq)

22 I do think Shirow's underestimating armor tech like nanotube-impregnated polymers, and sheer-thickening fluid (I dunno that they'll get electric armor down in weight and power requirements to put on anything smaller than a tank--that's apparently what's holding up its usage today).  That said, that's nitpicking considering the topic; there are lots of things that you can do with PA that just don't make sense on anything larger.

Are there any good series that show PA, as opposed to full-sized mecha?  The Starship Troopers CGI series was decent, but didn't exactly take the PA seriously (they used... batteries little bigger than D-cells).

Posted by: BigD at August 22, 2007 06:27 PM (JJ4vV)

23 I'm not sure what you mean by "PA". The mechas in "Sakura Wars" are not very large at all. They're also even dorkier looking than the ones in "Divergence Eve".

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 22, 2007 06:59 PM (+rSRq)

24 Err, sorry, I mean true power armor, as in worn rather than piloted from a cockpit.

Posted by: BigD at August 23, 2007 09:19 AM (JJ4vV)

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