Nostalgia, Redux: Zoids: New Century

June 30, 2018

 

 

Lot 10 Underground’s first installment of our ongoing series focuses the temporal spotlight on an often forgotten anime that aired in 2001 and had enough of a following to receive a fair amount of merchandising during its heyday. So without further ado, drop the judge, and light up those laser claws as we tear into Zoids: New Century.

 

History:

 

While the series was fairly popular at its peak, it didn’t have the lasting power of a Dragon Ball Z or Pokemon-- or, perhaps more aptly Gundam-- and so the research for this piece was as educational to me as I am sure it will be for the five people who read it (Hey mom!). It was during this research that I found out about some pretty interesting choices that were made for the American release of the series, and in doing so I stumbled upon some interesting concepts and ideas-- but, before all of that, let’s talk about what is a Zoid:

 

Zoids are ambiguously sentient mechanical creatures based on animals--often prehistoric ones-- and their purpose change throughout the Franchise’s run, but they are almost always piloted by a human character.  Zoids began in Japan, created by the TOMY company, as a short-run and unsuccessful model-toy line called Mechhabonica in 1982. Failed in Japan, TOMY rebranded their models Zoids and released them to the American audience. This time, it worked, and the model toys became popular enough that TOMY re-released them in Japan under the Zoids moniker. The series of models grew in popularity and gained worldwide recognition.

 

In 1986 the Zoid hype was large enough that Marvel Comics began to publish a line of Zoid Comics. They ran it in their Marvel Knights line, which was a line that fairly regularly took toys lines and made a comic that included comprehensive world building and surprisingly complex story lines. The Zoids line was mainly ran in short strips as an attachment to the Spiderman PLACEHOLDER run during the eighties. If this has caught your interest your an eclectic sort, but more power to you, here is a comprehensive article discussing it:

 

http://www.denofgeek.com/books-comics/24027/revisiting-marvels-spider-man-and-zoids

 

If you want the cliff-notes of the series think Transformers meets ever 80s sci-fi action movie. Also, apparently, Zoids was the original Red vs. Blue, so, I guess,  take that Rooster Teeth.

 

The Zoids comics were fairly well received, but is most notable for being one of the earliest featured works of comic book writer Grant Morrison. Morrison stayed  on the book until the end of the current storyline, and Marvel announced that he would begin writing a monthly Zoids comic. This, sadly, would not happen and Grant Morrison has never quite recovered from the shock-- or so I’ve heard from, er...sources?

 

The run of models would continue well into the nineties during in which time more and more Zoids species were created, and they also began to get more creative with the naming process ( An early mammoth based Zoid was called Mammoth). These model lines continue to this day, but the popularity of the toys was enough that in 1999 a Zoids anime was created called Zoids: Chaotic Century. The show, and it’s second season, would would both eventually make it onto American soils-- but strangely, not until after the third series in the budding Franchise and our titular focus, Zoids: New Century, was dubbed and released on Cartoon Network.

 

This was the peak of Zoids success. As Zoids:New Century was first and foremost a twenty-two minute toy commercial, the merchandise focused largely on soft plastic figurines, large-scale figurines, and, of course build kits. During this time a manga was created, as well as several video games.

 

After New Century's run the original show was aired, and while popular, it was not considered quite the success story that the New Centuries was. Since then several other series have been produced, each with various degrees of success. Most of these were limited releases outside of Japan and the last aired series never left Japan’s borders. There is a new series in development but it remains to be seen if it will get a release outside of Japan.

 

The model-line, well still popular, has fallen out of flavor in the United States in regards to stores stocking them. The shows and the toys remain popular among fans, and many--yours truly included-- remember New Century fondly.

 

Review:

 

If a viewer has watched any amount of Japanese Anime before Zoids: New Century they will feel right at home. It has many classic tropes of the genre, including its cast, who seemed to have been created by checking off a list of archetypes. This starts with Bit Cloud, the lovable tramp, who begins the series as a junker dealing in (usually stolen) Zoid parts. Next up we have Leon Tauros, the silent, wise character who always has sage advice and whose is constantly lost in inner monologue. His sister, Leena Tauros, is the hot headed girl who is too tough for all of the guys. Jamie is the smart computer kid who later discovers his untapped potential, Naomi is the cool, silent, sexualized girl who is both friend and foe, and the list goes on and on aside from a few notable outliers, including Dr. Tauros, the father of Leon and Leena and the head of the Taorous team. If he was following formula he would be more like his son, wise, introspective, and always ready to hand off the sage advice Bit needs to get through the episode-- but he isn’t really that at all. He is more comic relief character than anything, and is often used as an excuse to show of Zoid models-- which he plays with.

 

Additionally, if you have come to this show looking for something to really sink your teeth into, you will want to look else were. It has a sci-fi setting but the science and technology behind everything is all mumbo jumbo that breaks down immediately if you spend anytime thinking about it. The same problem arises in characters actions, where they will explain something away with an explanation that makes absolutely no sense if you linger on it, and in plot contrivances, which are often treated with the same, “look over there” distractionary lines of dialogue. I suspect some of this could be due to the English dubbing. I imagine the writers of the English version of the show in the writing room, struggling to translate dialogue or sensibility that won’t fly with a Western audience, sinking with defeat into their chair and saying, “Just say because it’s cool.” I wish I could tell you that wasn’t an actual explanation, but in Episode 5 the show needs to wait to show off the new Liger battle system, so Dr. Tauros decides they shouldn’t test they system, they should just wait to see if it works in battle because it will be cooler that way. Jamie, disagrees and tries to get Bit on his side, but Bit says he agree with the Doc-- it is cooler this way.

 

There are a few other odd dialogue choices that permeate the series that I believe are probably attributed to translation errors. One of these possible errors is when characters refer to Bit as a “kid”. As far as I can tell he is well past the age of adulthood, and typically the characters calling him “kid” are maybe a year or two older than he is. The other error happens when different characters refer to Bit and Liger’s “Unlimited Potential” as an explanation for things that is comically vague.  I think this can be attributed to a translating difficulty between Western and Eastern ideas. Eastern philosophy often has generalized terms for states of minds or ideas that just don’t really translate to anything in English, and I think that is probably where this error happens. The translators probably translated Unlimited Potential directly, instead of looking deeper into the meaning of a term I assume means a symbiotic relationship that brings the best out of eachother.

 

If you’ve stayed with this review this long you probably think that my experience with this show was negative. You’d be wrong. I wanted to front the review with the most obvious complaints so I could spend the back half of the review explaining why, in the end, I found this series to be a refreshingly fun, and heartfelt, experience.

 

Zoids: New Century stands out amongst the other popular anime in large part because of it does not take itself too seriously. Right now, every half hour on Toonami brings us someone trying to save the world-- or Namek (Spoiler: evacuate). For Zoids, the stakes never get that high. The Blitz team wants to win the Zoid tournament. That’s about it. This allows them to stay light hearted-- which in turn, helps them stand out against the melodramatic tones of a Dragon Ball Z or Gundam.

 

There is a protagonistic force, called Team Back Draft-- but they only reinforce the tone of the series. They are a powerful shadow organization who run illegal Zoid battles where anonymous millionaires bet their money. They cheat in their battles, and steal the zoids of those poor warriors who they defeat. If you believe the hype about them, they are a gang of murders and thieves with nearly unlimited means. This reputation seems sort of shallow though after we meet them a few times.

 

Firstly, they pay people who beat them--like a lot; up to ten times a normal battle. And, I know what you're thinking, well of course they say that; why else would you the other people battle them? Well first off they have technology that prevents Zoids and Warriors from leaving, so it isn’t really an option. Secondly, since they are notorious liars, it seems natural they would lie about this too. Nope. They pay out every single time they lose-- which, is nearly every third episode. Oh, and for as dangerous as they are, they never actually harm anyone, or even threaten a life for most of the series.

 

The characters are not particularly three-dimensional, but all of them have unique voices that stay consistent throughout the entire season. And while there isn’t a lot of change or story telling happening with anyone, they characters have enough heart, humor, and attitude to keep the story from feeling flat.

 

This is largely done through comedy. I am a little embarrassed by how often this show made me laugh. The writers have an excellent grasp of humor that is appropriate for children, but also funny to adults, and they mix in a good balance of one liners, running gags, and physical humor. In fact, as anime’s go I believe this is one of the best I have ever seen for physical comedy.  I saw numerous examples of jokes and gags being told through animation, that enriched the show if you noticed, and did nothing to harm it if you didn’t. This is in stark contrast to shows that rely on things like old man googling inappropriately at women (I’m looking at you Master Yoshi).

 

Many of the gags run through the entire season, but they are sprinkles through each episode with enough variety that very few of them ever begin to fall flat. I enjoyed many of these, but the best was probably all of the different ways Dr. Tauros keeps Bit broke so that he has to continue to battle for the Blitz team in order to pay off his bills to the doc.

 

In fact, while there are many fantastic characters in this show, Dr. Tauros stands out to me. There is hardly a single time he is on screen where he is not making me laugh.

 

The show is, obviously about its battles, and while the series stays light hearted and comical in tone, the battles are suitably epic and action packed when compared to other similar shows-- the only difference here is that there is never a threat of anyone dying.

 

Aside from the storytelling components of this series there are a few other things that I should mention before coming to a close. First off, the animation. It is in a hand drawn style, with CGI Zoids. The CGI looks good for the most part, and the drawing animation is up to par with everything else on TV. The music is pretty solid throughout as well. Finally, the Zoids are all very toyetic. The designers did an excellent job of varying the design by species, and walk the line between animal and machine very well.

 

In the end this show is not going to go down as a legendary example of anime story telling. It does a lot of things really well, but nothing great, and the story telling is given a back seat to the action. But it does that very well, and it is a breath of fresh air compared to the other self-serious animes we have on TV right now.

 

Revisit:

 

Zoids holds up surprisingly well compared to many of its peers. I think this is mainly due to the fact that it never took itself as serious as Dragon Ball Z or Gundam did. Going back to these shows is not easy. They will always be near and dear to me, but the epicness of them has worn off. It is hard to ignore just how long they stand around and stare-- or scream-- at each other in DBZ, and Hero Yui seems less like a complicated hero now and more like a psychopath. I really like the world the show creates, even though it isn’t explored all that well, and I would really like to see a video game or new series that dives deeper into it.

 

This is where I wanted to talk about New Century being the third show in the series. I watched a few episodes of Chaotic Century (the first series) to compare them, and I discovered something interesting (well, for me anyway…). The original series is a lot more serious than New Century.  It takes place in a war town world hundreds of years before New Century, and the world is anything but friendly for people who live in it. The difference is obvious from the very first minute of the show. In New Century, players often get fired upon outside of their zoid, and it is always played with cartoonish comedy where no one's life seems at risk. An example of this is when Leena blows up Bit in his jeep because he walked in when she was in the shower. He walks away frazzled, but no worse for wear. Compare this to the first minute of Chaotic Century, where Van, the main character is fired upon by a bandit. The show makes it very clear that the bandit is trying to kill Van for… reasons, I guess. That part wasn’t quite as clear.

 

I enjoyed Chaotic Century. It was a fresh take on the Zoid universe, and it the story has a lot more moving parts than New Century-- but it doesn’t stick with me the way New Century does, because in the end, Chaotic Century is too close to all of the other shows coming out at that time.  

 

I remember being struck by how different Chaotic Century was from New Century when I first saw it. On a second viewing, I think it would have been even stranger if I had experienced it like a Japaneese child, meaning NC after CC. I think many fans would have been disappointed jumping from something as grand and serious as CC to something light hearted like NC. Those fans might have not given it the chance it deserved, which would explain the shows eventual dip in popularity.

 

I was however, really happy to see that both shows stay consistent in regards to the communication between Warriors when they are in their zoids. It seems that the warriors can hear each other, even if they are on opposite sides, which seems like a huge tactical problem but I just find it really funny.

 

Verdict:

 

In the end I think Zoids: New Century is a very unappreciated series that deserves a second-- and third-- look. If you watched this series as a child and remember it fondly, go back to it, because you won’t be disappointed. If you haven’t watched it, but like Anime, watch it as long as you're willing to accept that you are okay with the summer blockbuster viewing style; shut your brain off, laugh, don’t think too hard about any of it. If you have a child, I especially recommend it, because the show will entertain them, it doesn’t stray into the inappropriate waters of other comparable shows in the genre, and it has comedy that both you and your child will find funny.

 

If you have the chance to dive into a time machine and catch it on Toonami you should go for it. Otherwise, it can be a little difficult to get your hands on. If you manage it though, it’ll be worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

LA is Editor-in-Chief and Head Writer at Lot 10 Underground. He is an avid Eagles fan and a weary Lakers one. He grew up sneaking through the halls of Hogwarts after dark with Harry and his more talented friends, stumbling along the dark walls of Rock Tunnel in Pokemon Red, storming through flood riddled ships with Master Chief, and questioning Goku's parenting techniques in DBZ. If you'd like to contact him, you can try an owl, but he prefers e-mail. 

 

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