In Pursuit of the Powered Suit: The Class of ‘83

As the decade that brought the world Yamato clicked over to the one that would bring us Macross, the tides of mechanical designs for robots, both on and off the anime airwaves, were changing. Breaking from the mold of what would later be labeled “Super Robots” (in other words, the Go Nagai lineage of flashy, over-the-top giant robots), 1979’s Gundam changed things up and ushered in a more reserved style of giant robot melodrama, one that would be iterated ad nauseam in the years to come. Outside of TV and film, Studio Nue’s revolutionary renderings of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers powered suit changed the game, and in turn lead to smaller, more “realistic” powered suits appearing in the pages of manga weeklies and hobby magazines.

By 1983, these two disparate threads of mecha design began to intertwine.

The robot boom that exploded in the first half of the 1980s owed its existence to a particular relationship between studio and toy sponsor, wherein a TV series would be created with involvement from a toy sponsor who hoped to sell heaps of toys to fans of the show. Prior to Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979, the model kit manufacturers seemed to operate more on the periphery, with big toy manufacturers involved enough to dictate design choices, mid-season upgrades, and gimmicks that somehow had to be worked into stories. Gundam, as has been discussed extensively here, elsewhere, and everywhere, flipped the script on this typical arrangement when its toy line landed with a deafening thud and ended up being carried by fans more interested in creating doujin and later Bandai’s famously popular plastic model kits, released shortly before the series’ theatrical revival.

The success of Gundam models meant big money for model manufacturer Bandai and got other model kit companies to stand up and take notice. The result was a roughly five-year period when robot anime flooded the airwaves as toy and model kit manufacturers scrambled to sponsor the next big hit. Among those shows was Ashi Production’s Powered Armor Dorvack, a 36-episode show that featured a trio of transforming mecha and some support mecha that drew heavily on a style of mechanical design that hadn’t really been seen much in animation to that point.

While the heroes of Dorvack used transformable mecha, undoubtedly influenced by Super Dimension Fortress Macross [1982], the show also featured non-transformable, smaller powered suits as background filler. Deceptively simple at a first glance, these powered suits represented a shift in mecha design that had occurred in parallel to the towering mobile suits and transformable fighter jets of Gundam and Macross: the modest, realistically-sized, mechanized suit of armor. These smaller, less toyetic designs were seen in non-animated media throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, originating in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and continuing with Katsuhiro Otomo’s Farewell to Weapons [1981] and Kow Yokoyama’s SF3D [1982] scratchbuilt photo novel series.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Farewell to Weapons

Designed by Studio Nue members Kazutaka Miyatake and Naoyuki Katoh, the original Starship Troopers “Powered Suit” was featured in a series of illustrations commissioned by Hayakawa’s SF Magazine in 1975. When Hayakawa published a new edition of Heinlein’s novel in 1979, Katoh provided illustrations for the cover and interior pages. Years later, Sunrise would have Miyatake tweak the iconic design for its OVA adaption of Starship Troopers, but as we’ll cover later, the first time this particular design appeared in animation was much earlier (albeit in a couple of amateur animation projects you’re probably familiar with).

Much of TV robot anime design was dictated by toy producers for the explicit purpose of creating gimmick-filled toys. Typically this meant that toys for a given show were focused on whatever robot the hero (or heroes) piloted, packed to the brim with tricks and gadgets, and dressed up in flashy colors that would stand out on toy shelves. Ideally, they also featured some sort of combining gimmick to sell more toys or add-on sets. This marketing approach had a big impact on the shows themselves, as robots got upgrades, new power-ups, and combination gimmicks not necessarily because the plots required it, but because selling more toys was the goal.

Compared to model kits produced for a given show, these high-end flagship toys were typically over the top and rarely featured any accompanying enemies or supporting units (smaller toys, be it the plastic or soft vinyl variety, were another matter). Models, at a much lower price point and boasting greater simplicity, afforded a bit more variety and gimmicks were rare. In the wake of Gundam’s model kit success, this duality of robots existed for a few years; toy manufacturers like Takatoku sold high-quality toys based on a show’s most notable mecha, while model kit manufacturers like Bandai or Imai sold model kits.

Scratchbuilt Heroes

Kow Yokoyama’s SF3D first appeared in Hobby Japan in May ’82 and thanks to its popularity it quickly became a regular feature in the magazine. A model kit series from Nitto, a pair of tabletop strategy games1 and even a short live-action promotional video called Nutrocker arrived over the next few years, but the series never made a proper jump to TV or film.

One of the Hyper Dorvack dioramas.

It’s not hard to imagine that Dorvack’s model kit sponsor, Gunze Sangyo, looked at the popularity of SF3D in the pages of Hobby Japan when planning their model kit series. While Gunze’s Dorvack model kit line obviously included various representations (both transformable and non-transformable) of the hero’s mecha and enemy suits, a substantial focus of the line was on those aforementioned powered suits that mostly filled in the background in the anime itself. The similarities between Dorvack’s powered armor designs and Yokoyama’s designs are difficult to ignore as pure coincidence.

On the other hand, the focus of Dorvack’s toy sponsor Takatoku was on the heroes’ transforming mecha, as transforming robot toys were something they had earned a reputation for. Takatoku was well versed in transformable toys, having designed arguably the greatest transforming toy of all time, the 1/55 scale VF-1 Valkyrie from Macross. That same toy later appeared overseas rebranded as the Jetfire for Hasbro’s Transformers line, where it was joined by two of Takatoku’s Dorvack offerings; Roadbuster (Dorvack’s “Mugen Calibur”) and Whirl (Dorvack’s “Oberon Gazzette”).

SF3D eventually got its own line of model kits by Nitto in 1984, the same year Gunze Sangyo rebranded the powered armor kits in their Dorvack line as Hyper Dorvack. Gunze’s move was clearly intended to cash in on the popularity of SF3D, with extensive diorama work in the vein of SF3D’s photo stories (as seen in the Hyper Dorvack Document I covered a few years ago) and new variations and cover art by Makoto Kobayashi, an occasional contributor to the SF3D series and a name that should be familiar to readers of this site. In August of 1984, a Dorvack OVA featuring three shorts was released on video. One of these shorts focused exclusively on the powered armor.

The lineage of powered suits Dorvack’s designs drew from, stretching back to Studio Nue’s Starship Trooper design from 1975 and more directly from Yokoyama’s SAFS, invoked a style that was inherently at odds with TV anime. Yokoyama has mentioned part of his motivation when designing the look of SF3D was to avoid the flashy, unrealistic approach to mecha design prevalent in anime at the time. The Studio Nue Powered Suit was on the cover of a novel targeted at hardcore sci-fi fans. Both of these were designed in environments that were miles away from the meeting rooms of toy companies trying to figure out how to best market their diecast toys to kids. Ultimately, it was an approach that was left largely to the realm of model kits, manga, and novels. At least until the OVA format caught on in the mid ’80s.

Powered Suit Priming

Dorvack’s inclusion of both styles of mechanical design was fascinating, even if the juxtaposition of the two design approaches seems jarring in retrospect. But Dorvack wasn’t exactly on its own in 1983; that same year also saw Armored Trooper VOTOMS hit the airwaves. While the Kunio Okawara-designed Scopedog and other Armored Troopers in that series may not have been explicitly powered armor (the pilots sat in a cramped cockpit rather than wearing the mecha like a suit of armor), the smaller size and look were much more in line with the smaller, more realistic look of powered suits in other media, and perfectly suited (sorry) for VOTOMS‘ gritty, war-torn setting.

In the split between toy robots and model robots, VOTOMS has always felt like more of model robot series, with an extensive lineage of 1/24 scale models produced by Takara, Wave, Volks, and Max Factory2 that date back to the original plastic models released alongside the TV program. Perhaps not coincidentally–it’s a common scale in automobile modeling–1/24 was also the scale chosen by Gunze for their Dorvack powered armor kits.3

Split between transforming hero mecha and small, desaturated powered suits, Dorvack managed to straddle two very different trends in mecha design from the era. That dichotomy wasn’t exclusive to Ashi Productions’ show, through; consider the difference between the transforming VF-1 and ground-based Destroids of Macross. That show inspired other series that hit TVs the same year as Dorvack, like Genesis Climber Mospeada [1983] and Super Dimension Fortress Orguss [1983]. Both of these series had some tangible connections to Macross4, but it’s worth mentioning that Mospeada was originally envisioned as a Starship Troopers-esque hard sci-fi story. The show’s iconic transforming bikes and aircraft got added in to keep model kit sponsor Imai happy in the wake of their considerable success with Macross kits.

Macross itself had powered suits, if you reconsider the scale. The Nousjadeul-Ger and Queadluun-Rau designs by Kazutaka Miyatake were powered suits, albeit for very large alien people. Comparatively, the Reguld battle pod forced its Zentradi pilots to cram themselves into a tiny cockpit, not dissimilar from those found in Okawara’s VOTOMS designs. The Nousjadeul-Ger got a substantial redesign for the 1984 film Do You Remember Love?, but still retained the large, asymmetrical shoulder cannon of the TV series’ original, reminiscent of that Starship Troopers powered suit design.

Less obviously, Orguss drew some inspiration from Kow Yokoyama’s work, thanks in some part to his involvement in the show’s early planning stages. The original production plan had been for newcomers Yasushi Ishizu and Yokoyama, who had happened to sit in on a series planning meeting while visiting Studio Nue, to split the mechanical design responsibilities under the oversight of Macross veteran Miyatake5. It didn’t quite work out as hoped and Miyatake ended up taking over primary design duties due to a schedule crunch that called for a veteran designer. Prior to Macross, Studio Nue had been seen by fans as more of a “hard SF” type studio, and while the Destroids and Zentradi designs certainly tie into this lineage, one wonders if including Yokoyama as a designer on Orguss hadn’t been an attempt to get back to those roots.

The Daicon III Opening Animation Powered Suit and a recent edition of Hayakawa’s Starship Troopers translation.

I ♥ Sci-Fi

With a very minor redesign, the Studio Nue Starship Troopers powered suit appeared in animation years before the official Sunrise-produced OVA was released in 1988. Nue’s Powered Suit underwent a slight redesign by Hideaki Anno before making an appearance in the opening animation reel for the Daicon III convention in 1981 and then again in the Daicon IV opening in 1983. As a result, that powered suit appeared on a few bits of merchandise from Daicon-adjacent General Products, including a small-scale metal kit and a plastic kit available only to shop club members. Miyatake also provided some original illustrations for General Products merchandise, a relationship that may have stemmed from Daicon III alumni like Anno and Hiroyuki Yamaga working with him on Macross.

If it feels like Studio Nue had their hand seemingly everything going on at this time, well, you aren’t wrong. In 1983, the Crusher Joe theatrical film premiered, directed by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and based on a series of novels by Studio Nue member Haruka Takachiho. Of course, Miyatake also helped out with the film’s mechanical designs, and the film’s finale pitted our hero Crushers against a generically named “Power Suit.” Takara was the model kit manufacturer for the Crusher Joe film and released two plastic versions of this powered suit, in 1/35 and 1/16 scales.

To further reiterate just how connected everything was back then in a swirling morass of mechanical design, take a look at a tweet by Twitter user Necronomitron pointing out that the Crusher Joe Powered Suit seemed to have uh, inspired the artist working on a Diaclone Change Squadron Car Robots manga published the same year that the film debuted. Shoji Kawamori (Studio Nue member and Macross co-creator/mecha designer) and Shinji Aramaki (Mospeada co-creator/mecha designer) also worked on Diaclone to bring this full circle (but they almost certainly had nothing to do with the comic in question).

Despite the immense creativity and skill that went into mechanical design in early ‘80s TV, all bubbles eventually go bust. Failure to find a series that matched the success of Gundam, a new wave of creators and artists who had grown up as fans and wanted to do something new, and rise of a new must-have toy called the Nintendo Famicom were all causes of the end of the robot TV boom. Model kit companies moved on or shut down. The manufacturer of Dorvack model kits, Gunze Sangyo, is known today as GSI Creos and produce the well-known Mr. Hobby line of modeling accessories. VOTOMS and Crusher Joe model kit producer Takara backed away from TV sponsorship to focus more on toys. Bandai eventually returned to Gundam to kick off a franchise that dwarfs all others. Small companies like Imai closed up shop or got bought out. Discotek recently released Dorvack in English for the first time, and forty years removed, the nostalgia has kicked in hard enough that there’s no shortage of model kits and toys based on the mechanical designs created four decades ago thanks to offerings from Wave, Max Factory, and Good Smile Company.

By the time the OVA era kicked off in the mid-’80s, the notion of different mecha design philosophies was fading, or at least there were more opportunities for different types of designs. Powered suits in the vein of Studio Nue’s original would appear in OVAs like MADOX-01 [1987] and Appleseed [1988].

Further Reading


  1. At the time, Hobby Japan was also publishing tabletop wargames of the cardboard chits and hex maps variety. Many of their releases were simply Japanese translations of popular Avalon Hill games (an American tabletop games company founded in 1959, now a part of Hasbro alongside the companies that made Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering.) but many, like SF3D, were original games created by Hobby Japan.
  2. Max Watanabe’s earliest released model kit work, via Hobby Shop Lark (later known as Wave) were of VOTOMS designs not released by Takara.
  3. In recent years more and more VOTOMS kits have popped up in 1/35 scale, perfect for combining with military models from companies like Bandai, or the 1/35 scale Maschinen Krieger kits from Hasegawa and Kaiyodo. Bandai even produced a limited series of 1/20 scale Scopedogs. 1/20 being another classic automobile modeling scale that also happens to be the studio scale for Yokoyama’s SF3D/Maschinen Krieger.
  4. The Studio Nue connection between Macross and Orguss is obvious, but Mospeada also shared some staff with Macross.
  5. Source: Kazutaka Miyatake Interview from Megahouse Variable Action Hi-Spec Orguss on Macross World, translated by Renato Rivera Rusca