This is the second half of a two-part series. Read the first part here.
The Battletech Offensive
Around the same time Revell’s Robotech kit line was getting off the ground, the tabletop games company FASA Corporation was looking to cash in on the Japanese robot craze with a new tabletop wargame called Battledroids. In the game, players piloted giant robots, also known as “Battlemechs” and used them as a form of walking armor to fight battles against one another. To improve the appeal of the game, FASA entered into a partnership with a Colorado-based hobby distributor, Twentieth Century Imports, or “TCI” as they were more commonly known among enthusiasts.
TCI was an importer and distributor of Japanese model kits. Prior to the partnership with FASA, TCI had begun establishing itself by importing kits from Arii, Aoshima, Imai, Nichimo, Nitto, and Takara into the states for distribution with some of them being exclusive arrangements with the manufacturers. Nitto was one of the exclusives, giving TCI access to 1/144 kits from Fang of the Sun Dougram and mini kits from Crusher Joe. Nichimo also apparently had a similar exclusive arrangement, providing TCI access to their line of 1/200 Macross mecha model kits. In 1985, TCI added as exclusives Nitto’s SF3D kit line based on Kow Yokoyama’s model series for Hobby Japan and Bandai’s Space Cruiser Yamato model line reboxed with Star Blazers branding for the US market.
For the first edition Battledroids game, TCI packed in two mini-model kits, typically Nitto’s Dougram kits. Box art for the game featured artwork of the Tomahawk Destroid from Macross, repurposed to become the “Warhammer” battle mech. Several other Macross and Dougram designs were adapted to become the core battlemech designs for the game. As a result, the hero Dougram became the “Shadow Hawk” and the Soltech Round Facer became the “Griffon.” The Bigfoot, Blockhead, and Hasty became the “Battlemaster”, “Wolverine” and “Thunderbolt” mechs. Of the Macross designs, the VF-1S Super Valkyrie became the “Phoenix Hawk” and the standard VF-1S became the “Wasp.” The VF-1A became the “Stinger” and the Armored VF-1A/J became the “Crusader.” The Reguld became the “Ostoc,” or “Ostscout.” The Glaug became the “MAD-3R Marauder”. The Defender anti-aircraft Destroid became the “Rifleman,” the Destroid Spartan became the “Archer” and the Destroid Phalanx became known as the “Longbow.”. A Shoji Kawamori design from Crusher Joe, the Ostall hunter drone, grew in size to become the “Locust” light combat mech (the name being a play on the words “low cost”).
The game was an immediate hit, but FASA ran into a snag as Lucasfilm claimed a trademark on the term “droid” due to its use in Star Wars. To avoid litigation, FASA changed the game’s name from Battledroids to Battletech when they published a second edition of the core rules in 1985. The second edition boxes did not include the two kits per box that the Battledroids set had featured. In place of this, TCI offered at least seven scenario expansion modules for the game, with each module containing two models (primarily 1/144 Dougram kits from Nitto or Nichimo 1/200 Macross kits) and a set of rules for a scenario that used the included kits. In addition to these modules, TCI shrink-wrapped printouts of Battletech mech stats onto the boxes of the original 1/144 Nitto Dougram kits for the designs that were incorporated into the game.
One problem with the Nitto and Nichimo model kits was that they were larger than the hex maps printed for the game and many players didn’t have access to oversized hex maps. To help alleviate this problem, FASA contracted with Ral Partha Miniatures to make smaller versions of the battle mechs in both white metal and plastic. Once most of the mech designs were offered in this form, the TCI game modules were discontinued with little fanfare.
The Battletech universe later expanded to include an aerial supplement called Aerotech that provided rules for aerial units. Included was a new type of mech known as the Land Air Mecha or “LAM.” The LAM versions of the Phoenix Hawk, Stinger, and Wasp could transform into air fighters and/or a hybrid mech that was essentially just a gerwalk mode. Ral Partha’s versions of the LAMs were a bit cruder than the original Studio Nue designs, presumably to disguise their origins. The Crusher Joe Siren and Harpy fighters were also brought in as fighters and were prominently displayed in artwork for the game modules. The Minerva spaceship from Crusher Joe was also introduced to the game as the Leopard Class drop ship, with TCI releasing a special model kit scenario set featuring the 1/500 Minerva from Takara with 1/200 Nichimo models of the Crusader (Armored VF-1J) and Marauder (Glaug). Amusingly, over time the Leopard would evolve into looking like something a bit closer to a brick with wings. One additional Crusher Joe design, the Galleon light tank, was also used in Battletech, its name unchanged.
It’s also worth noting that while Battletech was the first gaming system of its type to appear in the U.S. market, it was not the first to utilize the Japanese mecha. Dougram, Macross, and Mospeada all had tabletop games released in the Japanese market. Released by companies like Bandai and Tsukuda Hobby, these featured one-piece miniatures or cardboard counters rather than repurposed model kits.1
Twentieth Century Imports continued importing, distributing, and selling model kits for a few more years but quietly shut down some time prior to the 1990s.
Testors R.O.B.O.T. kit line
In late 1985, Testors Corporation repackaged many of the Nichimo 1/200 scale Macross model kits for sale in North America under the R.O.B.O.T. name (and with no explanation for the acronym either). They offered different variant kits of the VF-1 Valkyrie in Battroid, Gerwalk, and Fighter versions, including the VF-1S Super Valkyrie and the Armored Valkyrie. Several Destroids, including the Defender, Spartan, and Tomahawk were also offered, as was the Glaug. While the boxes were different from Nichimo’s Japanese kits, original Japanese artwork was used and the contents were unchanged between the Japanese and US releases except for the instructions. Testors made no attempts to change the names or disguise that these kits were from Macross and boxes bore a Tatsunoko Productions seal. Each kit was designed to be snapped/screwed together and included a set of waterslide decals. When built, the kits could be attached to a special wall base for display.
While I haven’t been able to pin down a connection between Testors and TCI, but it is possible that the Testors R.O.B.O.T. kit line came about when FASA and Ral Partha began to offer dedicated gaming miniatures in place of the model kits. TCI may have brokered an agreement between Nichimo and Testors to move already imported product, although this hasn’t been confirmed. Whatever the case, the Testors kits were very low priced at $5.00 US each, but highly detailed. Many can be found today on auction sites and at model kit swap meets for affordable prices. Battletech gamers often acquired the Testors releases to swell their unit ranks when the TCI sets started becoming scarce.
The Battletech game’s popularity continued to grow during the decade with the steady expansion of its product line. There was a line of paperback novels, the Mechwarrior role-playing game, gaming conventions, and even licensed video games. FASA’s Battletech was shaping up to be a merchandising juggernaut as it expanded into a cartoon show with a toy line. But in the early 1990s, trouble was brewing.
It started with a lawsuit initiated by FASA alleging that Playmates Toys had infringed on the Battletech trademarks when Playmates created their Exo-Squad toy line at the same time FASA was launching their own Battletech toy line and cartoon. FASA had apparently approached Playmates to do the toy line, but Playmates opted out, then announced their original Exo-Squad series shortly after.
FASA lost the suit and Playmates counter-sued, bringing both Japanese animation studio Tatsunoko and U.S.-based Robotech distributor Harmony Gold in as interested parties. In the legal back and forth, FASA learned that they didn’t really have intellectual property rights to the visual designs of the mechs originally appearing in Dougram, Macross, and Crusher Joe. FASA had been operating under the assumption that TCI had secured those rights in the early days of Battletech and then licensed it to them. Allegedly, the paper trail was long and convoluted, so FASA didn’t spend much time trying to back up their position due to the expense required to research that far back into the records of a company (Twentieth Century Imports) that no longer existed.
As part of a settlement to avoid additional litigation, FASA agreed to quietly stop using the visual appearances of the original Dougram, Macross, and Crusher Joe designs in game publications, miniature production, and merchandising. However, the game stats for the mechs themselves could still be used by players. From this point on, these mech designs became known as the “Unseen” and it took a few years before new designs, unrelated to the original Japanese source material were created for the mechs in question.
Battletech still exists today, although FASA as an entity still exists only as an intellectual rights holder. New versions of its games, both tabletop and digital versions, are licensed out. One final footnote to the fallout from the Battletech litigation was that after the dust settled, Playmates Toys entered into a licensing agreement with Harmony Gold. This resulted in many of the old Matchbox Robotech toys, originally released during the show’s TV debut in the mid-’80s, being added to the Exo-Squad toy line. Multiple versions of Macross‘ Destroids were sold by Playmates… and so to the victor went the spoils.
Gundam (slowly) Comes to the USA
As the 1980s ended, there were no other major efforts by US model companies to directly rebrand Japanese model kits for the American market. Early import efforts from TCI and Galactic Trade Commission (another model kit distributor, similar to TCI) had given the original Japanese products a foothold in this country. Both direct and underground distribution of videos in original, subtitled, and dubbed formats helped expand the popularity of anime among American fans. In many cities and towns, it was not uncommon for anime clubs to spring up and regular meetings to share and watch anime on VHS.
While the 1979 series that kicked off the gunpla bloom remained elusive on video in the U.S., Del Rey Books did license and release Yoshiyuki Tomino’s three novelizations of the original Mobile Suit Gundam.2
Around 1988, Diamond Comicbook Distributors began importing Bandai’s Gundam kits and kits from other series, like Macross, commonly turned up on the shelves of hobby and comic book shops. As anime fandom grew, so to did the networks that allowed fans to purchase models based on anime series, as hobby shops were regularly advertised in English-language anime magazines. As the Internet gained popularity, specialty hobby shops in Japan began serving overseas customers, including Hobbylink Japan and Rainbow Ten. These online stores allowed international customers to purchase products directly from Japan at original Japanese retail with no added markups, just shipping costs.
Even if Gundam’s official presence in the U.S. during much of the 1990s was practically non-existent, the models became increasingly more accessible. This would change dramatically when Cartoon Network’s Toonami block began showing Gundam Wing in 2000, with kits soon arriving on U.S. shores through official channels not long after.
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- A couple of these, based on Dougram and published by Takara in Japan, were distributed in the U.S. via TCI with English rulebooks. TCI also imported the SF3D games published by Hobby Japan, again with English rulebooks.
- Del Rey had previously found success with Jack McKinney’s long-running Robotech novels and was looking to capture the same magic with Gundam, even going so far as to license the Zeta Gundam alongside the trilogy of books based on the original series.