Over this last year, the Macross series has been celebrating its 30th anniversary with concerts, movies, and even a new PlayStation 3 game.
But what exactly is Macross, and if you're looking to break into the series, where should you start?
To start with, what makes Macross "Macross" are three things: transforming fighter planes, a love triangle, and an exploration of the power of music. Other than that, Macross as a franchise reinvents itself with each iteration. Each series is largely self-contained and character crossover is minimal (with the exception of Macross 7 which has three supporting characters from the original return). This means you can really start with any of the series and not feel lost.
So with that in mind, let's go through each of the five main series one by one, see what they are about, what their strong points are, and if they are a good place to start the franchise.
The Super Dimension Fortress Macross
Contains: The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (TV Series), Macross: Do You Remember Love? (Movie), and The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Flash Back 2012 (OVA)
Synopsis: In the year 1999, an alien ship crashes on earth with no survivors. A city grows up around the ship (the SDF-1) as it is rebuilt and its technology is used to create transforming fighter planes and numerous other technological advancements. Ten years after the crash, the aliens come, looking to get their ship back. And when the aliens attack, the SDF-1 activates its space fold drives, accidentally teleporting the ship and surrounding city out to the edge of the solar system. Over time, the city is rebuilt inside the giant ship and the crew and 60,000 survivors begin their trip home as they are constantly hounded by the alien forces.
Good For: People who like old-school anime and those who like to see a story from the beginning.
Not For: People who hate old, hand-drawn animation, a slower-paced story, and 1980s J-Pop.
Should I Start With This One? Yes. Especially the movie Macross: Do You Remember Love? It is an abridged and fully reanimated version of the first story. It is also one of the most beautiful pieces of hand-drawn animation ever produced. If you watch it and like it, then you'll know if you want to watch the full 36-episode anime or move on to a different Macross series.
Contains: Macross Plus (OVA) and Macross Plus: Movie Edition (Movie)
Synopsis: Macross Plus is the story of two rival test pilots competing to see whose transforming plane prototype will be picked up by the military for mass production. It also deals with the potential hazards of AI in the form of the singer Sharon Apple.
Good For: People who like beautiful, hand-drawn animation and those who like J-pop techno music.
Not For: People looking for a massive galactic space opera. This story is much smaller in scale.
Should I Start With This One? No. In a lot of ways, Plus is the odd duck out as far as Macross goes. There is no alien threat poised on destroying the entire human race and it's set on a much smaller scale. But what it lacks in scale and story is more than made up for in sheer beauty. And as for which version—OVA or movie—to start with, either is fine.
Contains: Macross 7 (TV Series), Macross 7 The Movie: The Galaxy Is Calling Me! (Movie), Macross 7: Encore (OVA), Macross Dynamite 7 (OVA), and Macross FB7 (Movie)
Synopsis: Macross 7 is the story of a human colonization fleet looking for a world to settle on that is attacked by a mysterious, soul-stealing enemy. It follows Basara, a man who believes that he can stop war through the power of music. Thus he interrupts battle after battle, shooting speakers into the mechs of friends and foes alike so as to sing at them—hoping the power and messages of his songs will get them to stop fighting. Eventually, it falls upon him and the rest of his band to protect the fleet from the alien menace using the power of rock.
Good For: People who love awesome J-rock and/or feel they must watch everything Macross.
Not For: Anyone else, really.
Should I Start With This One? No. Macross 7 is a show that lacks direction in many ways and thus meanders aimlessly through its own story. The main character, Basara, is painfully one-dimensional and not all that entertaining to watch. The rest of the cast is decent, but if it weren't for the amazing soundtrack, this anime would be completely forgettable.
Contains: Macross Zero (OVA)
Synopsis: As the name implies, Macross Zero is a prequel to the original Macross. It is set during the final human-only war on earth and shows the genesis of the franchise's famous transforming planes. It follows a pilot who crash lands on an island where the natives nurse him back to health. He then tries to protect the islanders from those hoping to steal mysterious alien artifacts hidden across the island.
Good For: People who love Dances With Wolves, prequels, and mystical alien stories.
Not For: People who want space battles and epic stakes.
Should I Start With This One? No. While Zero is the first chronologically, it's more a side story than anything else. It is indeed cool to see the origin of the transforming fighter planes, but most of what makes it interesting are its subtle connections to the original story. So while it is worth a watch, if you start with it, you will miss most of its charm.
Contains: Macross Frontier (TV Series), Macross Frontier The Movie: The False Songstress (Movie), Macross Frontier The Movie: The Wings of Goodbye (Movie), and Macross FB7 (Movie)
Synopsis: Macross Frontier, like Macross 7, is the story of a colonization fleet encountering a group of unknown aliens. However, instead of humanoids, these aliens are giant insects that seem to be attacking without rhyme or reason. The plot follows a kabuki star turned pilot, a popular singer visiting from a nearby fleet, and a young girl who seems to have an unknown connection with the aliens.
Good For: Modern anime fans, classic Macross fans, and anyone who likes the music of Yoko Kano (Ghost in the Shell: SAC, Cowboy Bebop)—so pretty much anyone, really.
Not For: People who dislike joy.
Should I Start With This One? Yes. Macross Frontier walks the seemingly impossible tightrope of being both a great stand-alone story and an homage to everything that came before. If you want to get a sense of what Macross is, Frontier is a great place to start. It has everything—a gripping story, interesting villains, awesome mecha, and incredible music. The latest series chronologically, Macross Frontier has only one downside: First-time Macross viewers will miss out on the many in-jokes and callbacks to past series. If you want to give it a try and 26 episodes seem too long, the two movies Macross Frontier The Movie: The False Songstress and Macross Frontier The Movie: The Wings of Goodbye retell the series' story—though with more than a few major changes—in just over four hours.