Unlucky Clover: The Story of Gundam’s Ill-Fated Toy Sponsorship

If we look at the anime landscape of the 1970s, something becomes clear. The robot anime boom kicked off by Mazinger Z in 1972 didn’t really start in earnest until around 1975. Prior to that, if your show didn’t have an animation studio owned by a billion-yen film company like Toei, it didn’t get off the ground. That was, at least until toy companies became involved.

Starting in 1974, the name of the game was “Gōkin” (lit. “alloy,” referring to the diecast metal used in toys). Popy’s Chogokin Mazinger Z toy set the standard for robot toys of the next two decades, featuring launching missiles and firing fists. Steel Jeeg [1975] proved that a successful toyline could make for a successful TV show, even without the ratings to back it up. This was what drove the robot anime boom throughout the rest of the decade. Getter Robo [1974] and Raideen [1975] expanded on it with the introduction of combining and transforming, respectively. Combattler V [1976] was the first to have a toy that could accurately transform and combine. In short, if you were making a robot anime, you needed a company making diecast toys to sponsor it.

One of Clover’s Zambot 3 toys.

Enter a fledgling animation studio known as Nippon Sunrise. In the early ’70s, they were a subcontractor for Toei Animation, doing work on Raideen and Combattler V. In 1977, they animated a series called Invincible Superman Zambot 3. On the surface, Zambot didn’t exactly stand out among the crowd of super robots of the era, but it looked interesting enough to be sponsored by toy company Clover. Founded in 1973, Clover had mostly focused on traditional toys, like baby dolls, prior to picking up the Zambot license. They released several figures of the titular robot, including one that could transform into a rolling… thing, alongside the crown jewel of the line, the “Combination Program Gattai Set.” For its time, the toy was stunningly accurate to the anime. Although one wonders if Clover was paying attention to what was happening in the series (look up “Zambot 3 Human Bomb” if you don’t know what I mean).

The toys sold fairly well, giving Sunrise and Clover the confidence to make a successor. Invincible Steel Man Daitarn 3 had a matching aesthetic to Zambot, with a similar color scheme and title, although the series was quite different in tone. Once again, Clover delivered impressively accurate transforming toys of both Daitarn and the Mach Attacker from the series.

After two modest successes, Sunrise looked for a hat trick to cement itself among fellow studios. Furthermore, it needed something with feature film potential. Clover received the pitch for Space Battlegroup Gunboy, an animated series aimed at teenagers with a wartime setting. By the time it went into production, the name had changed to Mobile Suit Gundam and Clover began the design and production of its toys. The earliest catalogs show the toyline’s initial lineup: several versions of the Gundam itself, the Guntank, the Core Fighter, and the “Space Carrier,” uh… Pegasus. Talk about a Trojan Horse!

Those familiar with Gundam might be surprised to see how drastically Clover’s toys were at odds with the more realistic robots from the show. Particularly their version of the RX-78 Gundam, which in addition to the signature white, red, blue, and yellow, featured a generous smattering of both matte and chromed silver parts. In addition, most of these figures had rocket punch gimmicks and an excess of firing missiles. After the complex engineering of the Zambot and Daitarn figures, the play value of the Gundam line looked like a step backward. In the show, the Gundam splits in half, revealing a block inside that unfolds into the Core Fighter. A majority of Clover’s toys couldn’t even do that much. Instead, both sizes of diecast Gundam have wheels on their forelegs and backpacks, such that if laid down, it could roll around in what Clover called the “Gundam Horizontal Sliding” mode. Even the diecast Zambot 3 from earlier had its feet fold down to do that!

An early catalog featuring Clover’s Gundam toys. Notice that the White Base is labeled as “Pegasus.”

Through looking at these, it becomes clear that Clover and Sunrise had very different goals. Clover wanted to make a fun toy line for children and Sunrise wanted to make a cinematic war drama for teenagers. Neither approach gelled with the other. As a result, children weren’t watching the show, and teenagers weren’t buying the toys. Sunrise staff at the time recall watching director Yoshiyuki Tomino fielding calls from sponsors angry that the toys weren’t selling. Clover even forced their hand to introduce a new unit in episode 24 called the G-Fighter. The G-Fighter could combine with the Gundam to form the G-Armor or connect with either half of the Gundam and form the G-Bull or G-Sky. The corresponding toy is perhaps the best-known of Clover’s offerings, sold in two forms: The “Gundam Combination Set,” featured a combining Gundam with Core Fighter, two shields, and a Sword Javelin; and the “Gundam DX Combination Set,” containing all of that plus the G-Fighter unit. This latter set is what drove most of the conversation around Clover’s toys. It sold well, but the rest of the toyline did not, resulting in the series ordered to be shortened from 52 to 43 episodes.

The underperforming Gundam toy line did not, as one might expect, kill Clover. They continued to sponsor and produce toys for Sunrise’s next series in 1980, Tryder G7. That same year, the Gundam compilation films hit theaters and the company re-released the DX Combination Set to take advantage of its newfound popularity (a bit ironic considering that the G-Fighter was edited out of the films and replaced with a new vehicle).

The Gundam’s horizontal sliding mode.

However, the new popularity of Gundam was due to a large number of teenage and adult fans, who found Clover’s offerings unappealing. By then, Bandai had picked up the rights to produce plastic model kits to tie in with the films, which became immensely popular and kicked off the “gunpla boom.” The realistic tone of Gundam made a major impact on the robot anime genre as a whole, ushering in a simultaneous “real robot boom,” leading to shows like Fang of the Sun Dougram [1981] and Armored Trooper VOTOMS [1983], where the robots are built for function, rather than superheroic action.

Clover continued to produce toys for Sunrise’s properties throughout the early 1980s, including Robot King Daioja [1981], Combat Mecha Xabungle [1982], and Aura Battler Dunbine [1983]. Aside from Tryder and Daioja, they were still sponsoring real robot anime which, while more accurate to the series than their Gundam offerings, were still steeped in the mid-late 70’s style of figure: packed with diecast and fun gimmicks for children, when the fans of the shows were buying the model kits instead. The poor sales of their Srungle and Dunbine toylines would eventually lead to the company filing for bankruptcy in 1983. Their total debt amounted to around 1.5 billion yen.

Clover’s kitschy Gundam designs continue to be an in-joke among Gundam fans and toy collectors for how peculiar it is in the face of what the Gundam franchise is today. Even I am charmed by it, so much so that I customized the model kits into a Clover-colored squad!

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