Remembering Robotech: A detailed history of the '80s anime cross-over that changed everything

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Feb 24, 2015, 6:17 PM EST

In 1984, a wave of animated robots broke on American shores, bringing Transformers, Go-Bots, Voltron and more to a hungry audience. But it wasn't until the year later that one of the most influential animes of all time came to America. Thirty years ago, Robotech made its debut in syndication, bringing fast-paced robot action, interpersonal drama, and even some songs.

We reached out to the people behind Robotech to paint a picture of how the show came to be, and how it's grown over the ages. We'll also talk a bit about what the future of the franchise might hold.


The '80s were when American TV producers really discovered the sheer volume of high-quality animation being made in Japan. Star Blazers, which premiered in late 1979 and ran until 1984, took a series called Space Battleship Yamato and localized it for U.S. kids, bringing with it continuity – each episode was a small part in a longer narrative, and they were meant to be watched in order. This was fairly common in Japanese animation, but totally foreign to American audiences.

One of the biggest early '80s hits in the Far East was Space Dimension Fortress Macross. Inspired by 1980's Mobile Suit Gundam, Macross continued the fixation on hard sci-fi with a love triangle set against the background of Earth's first conflict with alien life. The series was incredibly popular for its dynamic action, great characters and gripping plot. It was also responsible for the creation of Lynn Minmay, the first "anime idol." A fictional female character who became a real-world superstar, Minmay (and her voice actress Mari Iijima) was the iconic representation of the Macross universe.

Dozens of U.S. companies wanted to get in on the nascent anime craze, and they laid out capital to Japanese studios for licensing rights. Most of these projects didn't go anywhere – they couldn't find an audience, or distribution. But Macross would be different.

In Perfect Harmony

American entertainment company Harmony Gold had snapped up the rights to Macross from co-producer Tatsunoko, but didn't have any idea what to do with them. They knew it was a big deal in Japan, but at only 36 episodes it wasn't long enough for TV syndication, so they sat on it. That would all change when a Harmony Gold employee walked into an animation art gallery run by producer Carl Macek. The employee actually bought several cells from Tatsunoko productions, and he and Macek started talking about Japanese animation.

Macek says "I was aware of Macross due to my casual association with the Cartoon Fantasy Organization," a Los Angeles group founded in the late 1970s. He asked the employee about Harmony Gold's holdings, and when he mentioned Macross, a light bulb went up over Macek's head.

Macek went to Intersound, a Los Angeles studio that had been doing voice dubbing for various anime projects for a few years. Nothing the place had worked on had broken big as of yet, leaving the actors caught in a strange loop of recording storyline after storyline, character after character with nothing to show for it but a scale paycheck. For them, Macross was just another job.

Rebecca Forstadt read for the role of Lynn Minmay, the teenage girl who becomes an unlikely singing star aboard the SDF-1. She remembers "They had me just sing something! I'm not a trained singer and I don't ever know the words to anything, so I sang It's My Party by Lesley Gore and got the part. There was another lady there who had sung on Broadway, done Les Miz, who wasn't too happy about that."

Tony Oliver, who played the voice of Rick Hunter, remembers coming in to dub the first three episodes of the Macross project. "It was very quick. Bob (the studio director) told me 'Don't worry about it, it's not going anywhere." 

Be Kind, Rewind

Harmony Gold wasn't originally planning on releasing Macross to TV markets; the storyline was considered too complex, and there weren't enough episodes to support syndication. In 1984, when they secured the rights, the plan was to release dubbed versions of the series on home video. Only one tape was released, containing unedited versions of the first three episodes with a new theme song and renamed characters.

It sold remarkably well by mail order, and Macek was now in good enough with Harmony Gold to suggest an ambitious project. The company could take Macross and combine it with two other visually similar series also produced by Tatsunoko – Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospaeda. The end result would be one long narrative covering three different time periods, intended to be watched in sequence, with plenty of episodes to support a syndication order.

The only question was what to call it.

Toy Pilots

The name Robotech actually debuted a few years earlier with a series of plastic models imported by the Revell corporation. Designers at Revell – which had previously specialized in car and plane models – were dazzled by the level of craftsmanship and imagination coming out of their Japanese counterparts, and convinced the higher-ups to license some of those designs.

Revell partnered with both Takara and Imai, who had licenses to produce models based on a host of anime series. The designs chosen were from Macross, but also Fang Of The Sun Dougram and Super Dimension Century Orguss. The models had movable joints when assembled and were very challenging to put together. The company partnered with DC Comics for a three-issue limited series called Robotech Defenders that gave a little backstory to a narrative of alien invasion, but sales were so low and the comic was so shoddy it was cancelled after only two issues

The Macross models were a problem for Harmony Gold, though – since the iconic machine had already been licensed for sale in the United States, they couldn't partner with another company to merchandise their series. And even though the models weren't a huge hit, the name "Robotech" was already attached to them.

A deal was struck with Revell to leverage the Robotech name into this new animated series. At the same time, Harmony Gold sold Matchbox on the property for action figures and other toys. With a merchandising revenue stream set up, all of the elements were finally in place for the show.

Mind Games

With licensing issues settled, a script was written that would weave Macross, Southern Cross and Mospaeda together into one cohesive storyline by framing the narrative as one story told across three generations. Macross became the First Robotech War, in which humans come in contact with the giant alien Zentraedi. Southern Cross has the Robotech Masters come to Earth and unleash the Flower of Life, a plant that attracts the alien Invid, the antagonists of Mospaeda.

The show premiered in syndication in March of 1985 in major markets, including Los Angeles and New York. Interestingly enough, when the Nielsen ratings came in, there was an unexpected discovery – the show, which aired in the early afternoon, was just as popular with adult women as it was with their kids. Macek's deft handling of the show's romantic relationships, particularly the love triangle between Rick Hunter, Lisa Hayes and Lynn Minmay, expanded the audience for the cartoon.

Robotech was an instant success. Rebecca Forstadt remembers Harmony Gold sending the voice cast out to San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions, often in costume as the characters they voiced. Soon, Robotech-centric conventions were cropping up across the country. At one smaller con that was split with Star Trek fans, she recalls "I was getting as many autographs as George Takei - so that's when I knew it was getting big."

Big Screen

The runaway success of the Robotech TV series and licensed products had Harmony Gold eager to release more product, and a theatrical movie was the next logical step. Luckily enough, there was even a Macross movie, titled Do You Remember Love, ready to be imported over. Just one hitch: Tatsunoko retained the rights to Do You Remember Love and, seeing the bushels of cash that Harmony Gold was raking in, refused to license them the rights to it.

The Japanese company believed that they could make the Macross movie a hit themselves in American theaters. They expressly forbade Harmony Gold from using or referencing any of the Macross characters in their film, whatever it wound up being. This left Carl Macek scrambling to find some other property that they could fold into the Robotech universe. He wound up with Megazone 23, a direct-to-video series that had been worked on by many of the Macross staff. Macek took footage from the film and wove it into Southern Cross to create a side story of a young man who steals a mobile computer motorcycle and uses it to help bring down the invading Robotech Masters.

Distributor Cannon Films wasn't happy with the cut that Harmony Gold intended to release – too many girls, not enough violence. They made Macek cut out the character development and replace it with action scenes from Southern Cross, which had already been used in the TV show.

Robotech: The Movie was only released theatrically in a limited run in Texas, and it performed well – but not with the audience Cannon thought it would. The majority of attendees were adult fans, but the flick's advertising campaign was entirely aimed at children. It was all moot, anyway, though, because Transformers: The Movie came out the week after with an astronomically higher marketing budget and blew Robotech out of the water.

Sequel Stalled

Robotech fell victim to the same curse of success that other Japanese imports had felt. The fans loved the show so much that they wanted more, but there wasn't anything else that Harmony Gold could import and redub. All three of the original Macross series had been fully exhausted, and no other available property could be shoehorned in. The answer? Start from scratch.

Robotech: The Sentinels was intended to be a co-production between Harmony Gold and Tatsunoko, with the storyline devised by Japanese writers. In the first drafts of the series bible, Tatsunoko's staff hewed too closely to the original Macross storyline, ignoring the changes that had been made for the American audience. Macek believed that was a backdoor attempt by Tatsunoko to get Harmony Gold to finance animation that they could then use for another, unrelated project.

Harmony Gold pulled the writing job from Tatsunoko and gave the project to Kent Butterworth, who brought it back in line with what had gone before. The entire season of 65 episodes was written before production started.

The Sentinels took characters from all three Robotech storylines and wove them together for the first time, bringing the fictional universe into a new dimension of depth and realism. Rick Hunter and Lisa Hayes returned to take a new Super Dimensional Fortress into deep space to battle both the Invid and the Robotech Masters. Unfortunately, as the Japanese Yen gained strength, American dollars suddenly didn't go as far and Harmony Gold pulled out of the project, fearing that they'd never recoup their investment.

All that was produced of The Sentinels was three episodes, which were combined into a stand-alone movie and released on VHS. It didn't set the world afire. The animation was markedly inferior compared to the original series, and it faded into obscurity, taking the property with it.

The New Millennium

Harmony Gold went under the radar for most of the 1990s, as Robotech fell from favor. The ease of obtaining un-dubbed anime from Japan made some fans look askance at Robotech's free-wheeling approach toward the source material, and without any way to create new content, the original series looked a bit dated.

Over the years, Harmony Gold tried to reboot the franchise multiple times, with varying levels of success. Probably the worst attempt was Robotech 3000, which employed the very best CGI 1999 had to offer. The story jumped forward a thousand years, abandoning all the fan favorite characters and introducing new mecha. Stylistically, it moved away from the series' anime beginnings towards something that looked more Western.

In 2000, Harmony Gold showed the trailer at FanimeCon, and the response was disastrous. Fans raised on the classic anime look were grossed out by the clunky robots and gangly, awkward character designs. Robotech 3000 was a stillbirth, and the firm responsible for the CGI went bankrupt soon after.

2007 saw the first new full-length Robotech animation in three decades with Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles. Taking place during the end of the TV series, the feature film told the story of the final battle with the Invid and the debut of the Haydonite aliens. It was told with a mixture of traditional animation and cel-shaded CGI for the mech scenes, but neither approach was quite up to snuff and fans reacted poorly.

The Shadow Chronicles did, however, make enough money that Harmony Gold moved forward on a sequel, to be called Shadow Rising and released in 2009. As was typical by this point, production delays plagued the project and it was delayed multiple times before being indefinitely postponed.

One of the biggest problems that Harmony Gold has moving forward with Robotech is the questionable legal status of their Macross license. Although they secured the rights from Tatsunoko, that company may not have actually been allowed to grant them. Studio Nue, the actual producers of the animation, filed suit and had the American rights reverted to them. This essentially took away many of Robotech's most memorable characters and robots in one fell swoop.

2013 saw Harmony Gold go back to what made them famous with Robotech: Love Live Alive, a direct-to-DVD feature once again based on a 1985 Japanese OVA from the Mospaeda franchise, adding in footage from the original series and about three minutes of new animation. While the film was reasonably liked by fans, it was criticized for covering all-too-familiar ground as well.

In 2014, one last play was made for the animated audience with Robotech Academy, a Kickstarter-funded pilot with a budget of $500,000. The plot focused on a new group of young characters training to fight the Protoss in a special facility orbiting Mars. Unfortunately for Harmony Gold, the crowdfunding method didn't work out for them, and they cancelled the project with just $190,000 pledged.

Pencil Pressure

The Robotech universe offered plenty of opportunities for spin-offs, and one of the most durable were comic book adaptations. Since the Macross manga wasn't available for translation, the American producers were free to create new material.

After the Robotech Defenders debacle, Harmony Gold decided to go with a smaller company to publish the official Robotech comic book. They chose Comico, based in Norristown, Pennsylvania. The growth of comic book specialty stores in the early 1980s, along with the runaway success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, created a boom in independent publishers, mostly working in black & white.

Comico had previously specialized in creator-owned titles by new talent like Matt Wagner and Bill Willingham, but in 1983 they made history by being the first independent company in the business to sign a licensing agreement.

The first issue of Comico's series came out under the title Super Dimension Fortress Macross, to tie in with the video release. When Harmony Gold rebooted as Robotech, Comico did too. Instead of the typical monthly schedule, Comico pursued an intensely aggressive plan that saw all three of the show's storylines represented by their own books, coming out every two weeks. Each issue was a straight adaptation of an individual episode of the show, fleshing out the characters and their motivations, and it was hugely popular. Unfortunately, the late 1980s saw the collapse of the "black and white boom," and an over-extended Comico found itself printing way more copies than it could sell. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1989, with the Robotech license going to California publisher Eternity, bankrolled by distributor Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.

The Sentinels gave both Eternity and Harmony Gold a new opportunity – to tell the story they wanted to tell and expand the Robotech universe beyond the limited source material. Under the artistic direction of brothers John and Jason Waltrip, the Sentinels comic became the primary source for Robotech fans to get new stories until 1996. The property changed hands a few times after that (it's currently with DC imprint Wildstorm), but the heyday was under the Waltrip brothers' custody. The pair took over writing the Sentinels series as well, and were the first to introduce new characters into the universe from outside the original anime.

Roll The Dice

The other medium that Robotech dominated in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the booming world of role-playing games. The decade was a golden era for tabletop gaming, with multiple companies offering rulesets, miniatures and accessories.

One of the hottest companies of the era was Palladium Books, a Michigan-based company that had made a splash with the creation of a universal ruleset that was consistent within almost all of their role-playing games. This flexibility made them a perfect choice to produce licensed titles, starting with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles role-playing system in 1985 and continuing to Robotech in 1986.

The Robotech license was a huge success for Palladium, and the company released eight sourcebooks, a bunch of adventures and even a follow-up based on The Sentinels. The books remained in print until 2001, at which point Palladium did not renew the license until 2008, when they released a new line to tie in with The Shadow Chronicles.

Protoculture Pixels

A number of Robotech video games were released as well. The one many fans find most interesting was the first, Robotech: Crystal Dreams. Developer GameTek pushed the Nintendo 64 to its limit, creating a fully 3D universe that would take six months of real time to traverse from end to end.

GameTek was composed of former Sega employees who jumped ship to work on Nintendo's yet-unreleased console. Without a detailed technical spec, they were limited in terms of what they could accomplish, so in addition to the Zentraedi they designed a new adversary, a "crystal intelligence" that could be modeled with only a few polygons. The story took place after the end of the First Robotech War, with the player as a Veritech fighter pilot coming into conflict with a splinter force of alien foes.

The open-ended sandbox gameplay was also revolutionary but, unfortunately, GameTek over-committed to a product that they weren't capable of delivering. In the words of programmer Doug Lanford, "We were about 90% complete, at the stage the industry calls 'Alpha.' The game was playable, but was lacking any of the game story or the mission creator. Another two, possibly three months, and the game would have been complete, aside from some testing and approval." The company filed for bankruptcy in 1997, and Crystal Dreams was never shipped.

The first official console game was Robotech: Battle Cry, which was released in 2002. Like most of the tie-in media, it was set during the Macross era, and many of the original voice cast returned for it. It was followed by 2004's Robotech: Invasion, set during the Invid assault on Earth. Both games were well-liked by fans but generally panned by the gaming press for poor controls.

Handheld gamers got a 2002 Game Boy Advance title, Robotech: The Macross Saga, and a phone game in 2007 called Robotech: The New Generation.

Of course, the original Japanese properties had their fair share of game tie-ins, most notably Macross. Over 40 Macross games were released, covering genres ranging from turn-based strategy to intense dogfighting action. Astoundingly, not a single one of them saw U.S. release, primarily due to the contractual complications between Studio Nue and Harmony Gold.

Fight For The Future

Robotech fans are committed to keeping the series alive, and some recent developments are very encouraging. In 2007, Warner Brothers bought the feature film rights to Robotech, with Tobey Maguire attached to both produce and act in the flick. Lawrence Kasdan was brought in to write the script, but since then the project has been spinning its wheels in development hell, with prospective writers and directors coming and going through the revolving door.

The project still has legs, though – a 2015 announcement attached Andy Muschietti (helmer of surprise horror hit Mama) to the project along with 300 writer Michael Gordon. Maguire is still attached, but other rumors have circulated that Leonardo DiCaprio is thirsty for a lead role.

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The gaming world is also seeing new Robotech releases – Palladium ran a successful Kickstarter in 2013 to produce Robotech RPG Tactics, a miniature wargame that features insanely detailed plastic models of iconic robots along with a dynamic, complex rule system.

It's amazing that what started as a gang of no-name voice actors in a little Los Angeles studio has grown into a possible Leonardo DiCaprio movie, but that's just a testament to the power of the Robotech universe. Out of a mish-mash of animated footage grew a rich, complex sci-fi universe that rivals the best in the genre.