Sunday, October 9, 2016

Giant Robots & Me: A Love Story (Part One)

I turned 42 this past Friday. I've been into some things now for about 30-35 years. Star Wars is one of them, and Giant Robots is another. When I was a kid, the TV station out of St. Cloud was a wholly independent one that did a lot of syndicated reruns. So were the two stations that now are FOX and CW affiliates, which did the same thing. Yes, I was into G.I. Joe and Transformers, and I watched Voltron, Tranzor Z, and Macron 1, but everything changed when a company by the name of Harmony Gold bought the rights to three unrelated Japanese science fiction series and spliced them into a single TV series: Robotech.

I did not know it at the time, but I became a life-long Macross fan in 1986. As with so many other fans of Robotech, I was really a Macross fan as I didn't like Southern Cross or Mospeada as much- something that bore out when Macross Plus finally got to retail in North America in the 1990s. But I get ahead of myself.

By this time I'd become a gamer, specifically a tabletop RPG kid, and when Palladium Books released their RPG for Robotech, I snapped that up the day after Thankgiving. (I played poker for the first time the night before; turned $3 into $30 and busted an adult cousin of mine. Never played poker again, figuring my luck ran out. Damn right I spent my winnings.)

Remember, this was the mid-80s. Atari had crashed, the arcades were still in recovery mode, and the original NES by Nintendo was the new hotness (that I never had). Sega Genesis wasn't here just yet. Most of us who were gamers were tabletop gamers then, playing wargames like Car Wars (also new then) and BattleTech (ditto). We played RPGs to scratch itches that had sweet fuck-all to do with storytelling and everything to do with playing out fantasies, and they were "If I was there, this is what I would do!" fantasies.

And good God, did I ever have fantasies of being a Valkyrie pilot. It was the coolest thing I'd seen since being a Jedi. All the awesome glory of being a fighter pilot--remember, Top Gun hit not long before--and it transformed into a giant fucking robot! How could I not see that as the most awesome thing ever? Rick Hunter was Surrogate Me, and Roy Fokker was the Cool Older Brother that I never had. (And then there's Minmay; even then, I wasn't keen on her.) Giant aliens! Giant robots to fight giant aliens! Dogfighting, in space, with F-14s that turned into Giant Fucking Robots of Awesome.

I was 12 on 13 then, so yeah I got hooked. I'm enjoying it, some more than others, and then WHAM! Fokker dies. In his girlfriend's apartment. Of blood loss. Just pitched face-first into the pineapple salad on the table.

You younger folks grew up in a world where that sort of storytelling is not unusual. In the 1980s, that shit was a Big Fucking Deal. "Killed Off For Real" was a rare thing in any entertainment aimed at kids, and Robotech was; as with the Transformers (G1) movie, when we saw someone we looked up to as a leader or father figure not just die but do so as a result of their fighting--seeing them die, in a sense, for us--it hit hard. I cried when Roy died; I just lost this Big Brother figure, and now I don't know what to do. Watching Rick--Surrogate Me--struggle to step up and take over (which he did, eventually) his mentor's place (and squadron) was huge for not-quite-teen me.

That was why I was so into Robotech then. I wanted that sort of thing for myself, though at the time I didn't get it as such.

Palladium Books, then as now, was notorious for schedule issues. However, they did do more than publish books covering the three TV eras and the failed follow-up (Sentinels); they published adventure modules and campaign modules. One of them, co-written by the man who would go on to become the founder of Starlight Runner Entertainment (Jeff Gomez) was a slim one titled "Lancer's Rockers".

Set during the Invid Invasion of Earth, this was about a 80s-style rock band-cum-resistance cell (as Lancer was) who got their hands on some sonic weapon tech because a traitor group also had sonic weapons and the team that created both groups fractured. (It's more involved than that, and silly in an 80s kid-friendly way, that many today balk at.) It had opportunities for action, romance, and metric fuckloads of Giant Robot Combat- all the things that I wanted out of my giant robot gaming. Big moments, big stakes, but still personal in its play; at the time, this was something I wanted but had no words for. Today, this is something I know as the formula for making superversive pulp fiction- science fiction in this case. Back then, all I could say was that it let me be a hero.

Hmmm...this is getting to be long. I think I'll break this up and do it over the week. Got to talk about BattleTech, Mekton, and the Gundam franchise.

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