Gunpla review: Real Grade Zeta

In the latest installment of a new Bit here, we’re reviewing Bandai’s gunpla, a model kit of a robot from the Gundam universe. It’s a little outside our usual coverage, and there might be some light spoilers for the anime. This week: Bandai’s Real Grade Zeta Gundam, from Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam.

In the show

The MSN-006 Zeta Gundam had kind of an odd run. It’s the title mobile suit, and the hero robot, from Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, but it actually only shows up halfway through. It actually gets more screen time in the successor show, Mobile Suit Gundam Double Zeta. It gets replaced by the larger and more powerful ZZ Gundam, but the Zeta still sticks around because the Double Zeta handles like a goddamned monster truck.

Zeta Gundam was the first followup to 1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam, and it begins with the main mobile suit being the Gundam Mark 2, which looks basically the way you’d expect: it’s a beefier and more militarized take on the RX-78. The mobile suit designs go wildly off the rails in an extremely 1980s way after that. Zeta takes place in UC 0087, and in the years since the One Year Way things in the earth sphere have seen a total reversal of fortune. The Zeon movement is dead and gone, but the Federation is in thrall of a group called the Titans, who have taken to going colony-by-colony and rooting out sympathizers, often resorting to the kind of brutal war crimes that Zeon themselves made their bones on. The plot follows a group of spacenoids – the Anti-Earth Union Group – fighting against what used to be the good guys, and in some cases allying with what used to be the bad guys (as it turns out, the Titans might have been onto something, in their search for Zeon remnants). To wit, the main character, who still believes in the Federation and wants to course-correct more than overthrow it, takes piloting lessons and mentorship from, of all people, Char Aznable.

RG Zeta Gundam. Credit: Greg Chiasson

There’s a trend where – other than the Gundam Mk2, which immediately gets stolen and used by the AEUG – the EFSF robot designs have been replaced with Zeon-style designs. This is partly explained in-world as evidence that Zeon truthers have infiltrated the EFSF and influenced their technology as well as their ideology, but it’s mostly there for the viewer, to carry over the design language of “big white and blue robot good, freaky cyclopean monster robot bad” and not confuse the audience. It also leads to some truly wild mech designs, because everything has to transform into a jet. The Zeta is the best of them, and in my opinion it’s still one of the greatest designs in all of Gundam. Also at one point the head gets shot off and they briefly replace it with a bone-stock Zaku II head. Adorable.

The Zeta also originated the trend of the main character designing their own ride. Camille Biden starts as a cool greaser punk who punches a cop and steals a Gundam, and ends as an incredibly powerful Newtype. In between, he comes up with the idea for the Zeta Gundam and has it built to his custom specifications. For a first-time mech designer, with the caveat that he comes from a family of mech designers, he knocked it out of the park. This happens again with Amuro Ray and the Nu Gundam, which is also an absolute heater.

Equipped with the bizarrely-named Variable Mobile Suit And Wave Rider System, the Zeta becomes one of the first successful transforming mobile suits. Even the Delta Gundam – another banger in a show full of them – kept breaking in half when they tried to fold it into flight mode, so it was re-designed as the non-transforming yet still unspeakably dope Hyaku Shiki. The trade-off, if you’re wondering, is straight-line speed against having hands, which doesn’t make a ton of sense – just stay as a jet, that’s what I’d do if I could trade my hands for giant rocket legs – but does lead to some cool toys.

Camille takes this Starscream-looking thing out and just butchers his way through the Titans, then Zeon, and finally Paptimus Scirocco, the man from Jupiter. It helps that Camille is a fun character, but the Zeta itself is as close to perfect as mobile suits get. The jet mode is well-thought-out and doesn’t have the typical “robot laying down with its arms by its side and a shield over the face” look, and the robot mode just has great proportions and looks mean.

The model

RG Zeta Gundam. Credit: Greg Chiasson

This is mostly an out-of-box build, including all of the sticker-decals. I did panel line it, but otherwise made no extra effort – usually a matte varnish is a good idea, to make the plastic look less like plastic, but this thing sucks so bad I didn’t bother.

I knew this was bad before I bought it. I bought it anyway. It looks cool, I wanted a Zeta, and I had to know if the complaints were accurate. Sadly, they are.

The problem here is that the model was released in 2012. I suspect Bandai could do a better job with it now, but their reach exceeded their grasp on this one. They just didn’t have the engineering skills – which is a way of saying that no one could have made this work – to make a 1/144 scale fully-transformable kit. And it is a full transformation: there’s no parts-swapping here. The results might have been better if there were, but I can respect the attempt, if not the outcome. 

RG Zeta Gundam. Credit: Greg Chiasson

Part of the problem is that most of the typical RG internal details are missing. In fact there aren’t any internals in some spots, because the thing has to collapse in on itself. The chest is completely hollow. The knee joints have to be articulated in a couple of directions, in order to work in both waverider (jet) and MS (robot) mode. The skirting armor, usually attached to the waist/pelvis unit, and rotating around on ball joints to let the legs move, are attached to the back skirt and wrap around on flimsy little struts, so they can rotate out of the way during the transformation. A lot of these joints are loose, in a couple of senses: they like to bend when you’d rather they didn’t, and also the parts don’t sandwich together tightly enough, so the joint itself will split open. The arms and shoulders are acceptable, and instead of being stuck with just the posable RG hands that can’t hold anything worth a damn, you also get a pair of fists, an open-palm slam hand, and one gun-holding hand.

RG Zeta Gundam. Credit: Greg Chiasson

The end result is a mobile suit that looks great – I want to stress that, this kit looks incredible – but also falls over and falls apart. I don’t even want to talk about the articulation, because it would be purely academic. In practical terms, It can’t even stand up most of the time, let alone pull off any good poses. I have half a mind to disassemble mine and glue everything together into a static pose.

The thing doesn’t want to stay in MS mode, but it doesn’t want to transform either. Parts fall of constantly, and if you were thinking of just glueing the loose bits: good luck, unless you want to forget about waverider mode forever, because most of them have to move, just not in the manner they actually do.

The accessories are fine. The shield and gun are actually quite nice, and there’s a nice little gimmick where the beam saber blades also fit into the barrel of the rifle, for Shooting Activities. The other inclusions are some grenade packs that slot into the forearms (one has to be removed to attach the shield), and an adorable little set of landing gear for the waverider when it’s not on a stand. The Zeta didn’t use a lot of other weapons, so this is fairly complete as loadouts go, and the parts are all nicely detailed.

RG Zeta Gundam. Credit: Greg Chiasson

The sticker sheet is colossal, in typical RG fashion. Using it will add a lot to the kit, including the shiny metallic detail that RG stickers are known for. Color separation is also typical for the grade, which means it’s great. There are a couple of shades of white, and even the smallest of the red or blue or yellow bits are accurately modeled. The downside here is that some of the parts are just too small to handle and they don’t like to stay attached.

As far as the transformation, I literally didn’t even bother transforming it all the way. I’m sure waverider mode is fine, but I’m done with this thing. If it manages to stay standing, posed perfectly upright, in my display case, I call that a win. I never want to touch it again.

RG Zeta Gundam. Check out how many parts fell off, including but not limited to an entire leg. Credit: Greg Chiasson

Should you buy it?

Absolutely not. Even if you love the Zeta – and you should, it’s a lovely design – this thing sucks. The looks are there, once you apply all the stickers and panel line it, but it resolutely refuses to friggin’ do anything.

I have to give credit to Bandai for attempting a fully-transformable suit at this scale, but there’s no getting around the fact that they swung for the fences and badly misjudged the attempt. If you feel the need for a Zeta Gundam on your shelf – which, again, you should – buy the Master Grade 2.0, I hear it’s nice. The High Grade isn’t bad either. It obviously won’t look as nice, and the transformation involves some disassembly, parts-swapping, and re-assembly, but at least that one only breaks into subassemblies when you want it to.

There’s just no good reason to buy this thing. It’s not a fun build and it can’t do the things a GunPla is supposed to do, which is a shame for such a lovely and iconic design. If Bandai ever start making 2.0 RGs, I am begging them to start with the Zeta. It deserves better.