Mobile Suit Gundam made its debut in 1979, and legitimized the entire Real Robot genre as something people wanted to watch. Up until then, mecha anime was dominated by Super Robots. Flashy attacks, screaming out attack names, and neigh infinite power sources that broke every law of physics were both common place and incredibly popular. What Gundam helped popularize was the concept of robots not being invincible. Realistic weapons such as plain old guns (giant guns but guns none the less) replaced the absurd like rocket punches and yo-yos. Energy and ammo became actual things that could run out in a fight, and the fictional world developed real world physics such as Lagrange Points as well as fake, but realistic sounding such as Minovsky Physics that helped create clean nuclear reactors. It was a far step from the world of "Super Alloy Z" and "Photon Power."
Thus it is even more ironic that Gundam could never pierce the realm of quasi-realism with its own Gundams. For example, the Zeta Gundam from the show of the same name (sequel to the first show) is literally powered by the spirits of dead newtypes and magic. The Nu Gundam and the Sazabi both use psycommu systems , which in layman's terms are giant megaphones for a newtype's ESP-esque powers. Victory Gundam had giant girls in bikinis in space (Look I don't even know what...). The list goes on and on, and all the more so as we go from the Universal Century universe to the many Alternate Universe Gundam shows where Gundams are super robots in everything but name. These Gundams are ominpotent beings that can only be defeated by other Gundams. It doesn't stop just at the mecha design, but is applied to the combat itself. The rule of cool makes melee oriented combat a continued must in a world where ranged weaponry are common place. The samurai-like design choice for the iconic RX-78-2 Gundam doesn't help things.
Lastly, there are the pilots. They are constantly aces, often newtypes or some analog for a newtype. Capable of seemingly swinging the tide of battles single handedly, their plot armor means they not only cannot be killed, they cannot even be touched or damaged by the common soldier. Much like how Gundams can be taken down only by other Gundams, these aces are only capable of falling at the hands of each other.
And then there is the 08th MS Team. It succeeds at, or perhaps is the only show to even attempt to bring Gundams down to earth, making them just another war machine instead of the stars of 30 minute long toy ads.
The first thing worth noting is most easily demonstrated with a simple viewing of the show's OP.
Ok, I lied. Many things are in fact evident through this OP, but lets take it one step at a time. We are treated to a scene showing the effect of terrain on mecha. A mere gunboat out maneuvering a Gundam in water is seen about half a minute in. Moments where the show almost admits to the fact that treads are better than bipedal legs for mechs are common in this show, or at least common compared to most other mecha shows, regardless of being real robot or super robot in genre. The second episode has the show's main protagonist Shiro Amada finding trouble getting his footing in a jungle battlefield, letting his Gundam trip and fall in the process. Too much sand getting caught in the machinery causes mechanical failure while oxygen preservation in zero g environments become focuses at different points.
Another point is the lack of flash and bravado in that OP. There is an emphasis on the soldiers fighting the war, not the mecha. You see a Gundam firing but once in the OP, and it very much lacks the "one man against the world vibe" that many over Gundam show openings give. The contents of the show does not betray what the OP offers. The 08th Mobile Suit team is composed of 3 Gundams. But always in toll, and constantly shown to be invaluable by the show itself, is an armored support tank that houses sensitive electronic senors. Further, instead of one man armies, we get small squad tactics. The assault on an enemy base is not done by the main characters charging in, but by the systematic bombardment of long range artillery units while the Gundams play babysitter to these units and keep them safe. The attack on a few Zakus occupying a civilian village is done by Shiro, on foot, using a few hand held RPGs while the rest of his team provide long range cover. Compare the previous OP to this one, belonging to Gundam Seed Destiny and the beam spaming Strike Freedom Gundam.
...Actually no, screw you, you go find them. It physically hurts even watching one, and the music is horrible except for the 4th opening which has Vestige. Have some Gundam 00. It proves my point just the same.
The combat in the show is not flashy either. Though due partly to the in world chronology where miniaturized beam weapons were still very far from commonplace, there is little to no pew pewing in this show. Instead of lasers of every color under the sun, we get 100 mm machine guns, rocket launchers, and RPGs. This in effect makes fights last longer and almost less deadly as even a Zaku's armor can take multiple shots before succumbing while able to dish back significant blows. Melee combat is also significantly reduced. Beam sabers are drawn a total of 3 or 4 times over the course of the entire show, and always in desperation. In a world of guns, 08th MS Team ditches the rule of cool and embraces the logic that shooting each other is far better a choice than running up and slashing.
And lastly, there are the pilots. Following the theme of the show, these are not aces, but rather grunts. Grunts that can come out on top against other grunts, but grunts none the less. They aren't the most skilled, and the fact that they are actually capable of missing their shots gives the combat a degree of tension not usually existent when your protagonists are aces. In fact, when the 08th team finally bumps heads against the only pilot worthy of being called an ace in the entire show, they are pushed to the brink and given a sound trouncing as seen below. Note: obvious spoilers.
This is the ending where I'm suppose to say some concluding thoughts that tie up all the points I made so far. But I suck at those, so please imagine one for yourself.
Edit: Author's Note - If you know me on Giant Bomb, this post will probably seem familiar. FoxxFireArt's recent posting on GB (and the rest of the WM sites) convinced me that I should help rectify some of the issues I take with AV and start contributing written content myself. I'm going to port over some of the more coherent blog posts I've written on various shows as well as hopefully finally put some of the blog ideas I've had for awhile down into words. God knows I need to spend my paid vacation days doing something other than lounge around until 7 am before going to bed. Speaking of which, its 7 am....