Most people in the US haven’t heard of ZOIDS, which is nothing short of a national disgrace. They’re a toy range that stood alongside Transformers and Masters of the Universe in the toy aisles of the 80s, complete with their own mythology, epic characters, and comic series from Marvel. Look at this big red elephant:
To catch you heathens up, ZOIDS themselves are a race of giant robotic mecha dinosaurs controlled by drone pilots that are locked in an eternal war for control of the planet Zoidstar. The good guys are the Blue Zoids and the bad guys are the Red Mutants, and they damn well want to rip each other to shreds.
The toy line itself has a convoluted history. Originally released in Japan as Mechabonica in the early 80s, it was then released in the US under the new name of Zoids. These did well, and were subsequently rebranded as Zoids in Japan. The designs were tweaked once again and given new individual character names and backstory for release in Europe. By 1985, the toys were reintroduced in the US as Robostrux (with no backstory or supporting media), rebranded in Japan as Zevle, sold to Kenner in the US and re-relaunched as Technozoids, and so on ad infinitum. I like to think if the US market hadn’t suffered this brand fragmentation, it would have been a huge property like the European release.
In the UK, most boys had Zoids. They were too cool to ignore. The robot designs were a cut above the majority of kids toys, looking like they’d just jumped out of a fierce James Cameron movie. They were motorized (either wind-up or battery operated), meaning they could walk under their own power, and you had to assemble them yourself, like a Lego kit on steroids. Their imagined scale was massive, and the box art, TV commercials and overall product design only added to that.
The ace in the hole was the Marvel UK comic, published weekly as a dual title with Spider-Man. Marvel UK could turn rat turds into gold (as demonstrated by their amazing Transformers run), and their penchant for violent, cinematic storylines permeated all the way through the Zoids run. It bought the toys to life in a visceral way, and added some odd spiritual overtones that I never fully understood as a kid (the war between the factions is overseen by a weird immortal dude called The Namer, though I can’t remember why.) Comics legend Grant Morrison wrote a bunch of these, hence the high quality factor. You can read the whole run here.
The comic took huge inspiration from movies such as The Terminator, Aliens, Blade Runner and The Thing, and that, plus the grandiose beauty of the Zoids themselves, would make for a hugely satisfying cinematic experience. Leaving the exact plot of the comic aside, if a crew of humans were to discover the planet the Zoids were warring on, all hell could break loose. And if the crew in question had someone among them that didn’t exact stumble upon this planet by accident, but lead them there in search of a family member, and subsequently draws them into the fight… well, you’d have an emotional barnstormer of a story.
Zoids are still going strong today, with the Japanese market supporting new toys, a number of anime, various games, and reissues of classic kits. With the movie industry leaning so heavily on IP these days, it’s genuinely surprising that something so screen-ready has been left undisturbed for so long. I think it’s down to lack of familiarity in the US, but you could argue that ‘undiscovered’ factor, combined with a built-in audience in other markets, is the best of both worlds. Get Neill Blomkamp on the phone immediately.