A person I met at a con recently asked where the best place to start with Macross and Gundam is. That's not an easy question! Let's dig in.
The Macross franchise started in 1982 with Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, which ran for 36 episodes. If you're my age, or maybe a little younger, you may have seen the heavily edited version called Robotech in your cartoons. I won't be getting into the gigantic licensing nightmare between Tatsunoko/Big West and Harmony Gold & Carl Macek, because it's very complicated and I don't know all the details. But fans rejoiced in April when they announced that the license dispute was resolved, and we'll be (eventually) getting legit Macross over here.
So. SDF Macross. In 1999, a city-sized alien spaceship crashes on a remote island on Earth (the setting for 2002's Macross Zero). Naturally, human scientists want to reverse engineer the hell out of it, and they make transforming fighter jets using the technology they found. They rebuild the ship, but at its launch, the alien Zentradi attack. It turns out that the ship has space-folding technology, so they use it to escape ... and bring a whole mess of civilians with them. And then the fold tech breaks. The story revolves around the inhabitants of this new spaceship colony getting back to Earth under conventional power while not being blown up by the Zentradi (all male) or the Meltran (all female). To keep the population entertained, an idol contest is held, and Lynn Minmay is one of the contestants. Her songs become surprisingly popular among the Zentradi, which causes a major cultural shift. It seems like the statute of limitations on spoilers for a 30-year-old show should be up, but I won't say any more. The plot is on Wikipedia if you want all the spoilers.
I don't know how readily available the 2002 AnimEigo DVD release of SDF Macross is, but that was the last legitimately licensed Macross in the US. Hopefully this will change quickly!
If you can get your hands on it, honestly, this is a fine place to start. You could probably watch Frontier or Delta and enjoy them, but the big reveals at the end might not mean anything to you, other than "something huge is going on here."
The other Macross with a real US license (lapsed or not) is Macross Plus (1994-95). If you don't have the stamina or level of interest to watch a full 36-ep series, this OVA series (or its movie compilation) is a good place to start. The music is by Yoko Kanno, and Shinichiro Watanabe (of Cowboy Bebop) directed. The easiest summary is that it's Top Gun with transforming fighter jets and a holographic AI idol singer named Sharon Apple. It had a US release by Manga Entertainment in 1999, which may or may not still be in print.
There are a few other entries in the franchise, which I'll touch on here, but all the information is available on Wikipedia.
Macross 7 (1994-95; 49 episodes) is one of those shows that people love or hate. It starts off really rough (like season 1 of Babylon 5 rough), and it's a lot more goofy than the rest. The action is on the 7th Macross fleet in the year 2040. There's a band called Fire Bomber, and for some reason, their music creates some sort of harmonic resonance that makes the enemies attacking them stop attacking. The lead singer and guitarist is Nekki Basara, and he doesn't want to fight. But to get their music to the enemy ships, Fire Bomber has to go out in transforming fighter jets. Basara pilots his with a guitar, and he doesn't fire ammo; he launches speaker pods, which take his song directly to the enemy pilots.
You really shouldn't think about it too hard. (Well, you shouldn't think about any of this too hard.) I like it because it's goofy and knows it, and I like Fire Bomber's music.
Macross Zero (2002) goes here; it's an origin story that only makes sense once you've seen Frontier and Delta.
Next up is Macross Frontier (2008, 25 episodes), set in 2059. The Macross fleets are expanding across space, and pop idol Sheryl Nome visits the Frontier. Ranka Lee is a contestant in an idol contest, and she and Sheryl are linked in a way that neither suspects. The attacking enemy this time is the Vajra, and Ranka and Sheryl sing at them to make them go away.
Delta (2016, 26 episodes) is set in 2067. There is a mysterious plague on some colony worlds that sends people berserk. But an idol group's music can calm them. There are mysterious ace pilots from another part of the galaxy who want to overthrow the government of UN Spacy.
Naturally, the creators want the new series to be attractive to new fans who weren't alive when SDF or Plus or 7 came out, so the stories are fairly well self-contained, except for a lot of callbacks to earlier series (pineapple fucking salad). In Frontier, Ozma Lee is a Fire Bomber fan. The bassist of Fire Bomber is the daughter of 2 ace pilots from the original series. One of the members of Delta squadron is a granddaughter of the ace pilots. And a lot of things make more sense if you've seen everything up to that point. There's an overarching plot for all of it.
What should you expect from a Macross show?
- transforming fighter jets
- cool dogfights with the Itano Circus
- pop music that makes the enemies stop fighting
- a love triangle (usually between 2 women and a man but sometimes 2 men and a woman (Plus, 7 sort of)) that involves at least one idol singer and one ace pilot. I don't think they're ever resolved, and one of them you could resolve into an OT3 without breaking canon.
- it's really cool when the ENTIRE DANG SPACESHIP transforms (because of course it can)