If one cool vehicle can help the hero out, then more than one can certainly be better, right? But if the hero is out with one, and needs the other, he's up the creek. Not so, for he's driving a Transforming Mecha, which can mechanically rearrange itself into a variety of different machines for different roles.
The most common form of this is humanoid/animaloid robot to vehicle. The vehicle and humanoid form will most often share parts, characteristics and details. For instance, big tough robots will change into trucks and tanks, while light fast robots will shift into fighter jets or sports cars. The design of the robot form is usually done using elements from the vehicle form, making it at least visually plausible that one can become the other without swapping anything out back at the shop. The vehicle form usually has an advantage, like a higher speed, or the ability to masquerade as a mundane vehicle.
It is, of course, also possible that the two will not resemble each other in any way, and the transformation will be based on matter replication or other semi-magical technology. The advantage to the mechanical transformation is that it's possible to design a toy that works almost exactly like the mecha on the show.
The switchover itself will either be a full-blown Transformation Sequence in Super Robot shows, or a lightning-fast parts shuffle in a Real Robot show. There are sometimes exceptions, as with the Telescoping Robot's ability to expand outwards. A reliable source for Technology Porn.
A variation, sometimes used in combination, is the modular parts system, with which a mecha can re-equip with different tools and weapons for different jobs, like the FAST packs from Macross or the weapon systems from Centurions . This type of system is in use in real-life militaries, which have such things as up-armoring kits for vehicles and universal hard-points on combat aircraft.
There is also the matter of the vehicle that transforms into the same vehicle, only much cooler. These are more common in shows aimed at younger audiences, but appear from time to time throughout the genre. The typical explanation being that the cooler form is the vehicle's true form, while the ordinary one is a disguise.
The physics and logistics of the transformation concept are tenuous at best. Most of the internal space of the vehicle would have to be taken up by the robot's parts, but they usually seem to have cargo and passenger room much like an equivalent mundane craft. The extra weight of the unused robot components would probably reduce the capabilities of the vehicle form, but in most cases it's faster, tougher and overall better than the non-transforming types.
Frequently, it is possible to anticipate if a vehicle will transform into a robot form if it contains strangely out-of-place elements in its design, as if its engineers suddenly decided to ignore the laws of aerodynamics. Examples include strange protruding bulges and unnecessary giant hand-shaped areas. Most of the time, if the characters within a show are not aware of the vehicle's ability to enter a robot mode, they ignore these design quirks prior to the robot's first transformation. Much to their surprise, the robot changes form near the end of the pilot episode or the beginning of the second. Note, though, that there are certainly exceptions, with the tell-tale bits instead being alt-mode bits that are obvious in robot mode. (Transformers fans refer to these as kibble.)
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Anime and Manga
Most terrestrial mecha in Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Macross 7, and allrelatedseries, and one is always flown by the main protagonist. The titular Macross class of vessels are thesome of the largest transforming mecha ever shown on television. The original SDF Macross was over one kilometer tall. The Battle sections of the later New Macross class vessels, when transformed into humanoid form, are approximately four kilometers tall.
Additionally, there is a reasonable explanation for the use of these mechas (well, at least the fighter-jet sized ones), something not all Real or Super Robot shows care to give to the viewers, mind it. In the first few episodes of the original series, Roy Focker states that the Valkyries were designed to be able to fight "on even grounds" with the Zentradi. While most Giant Robot shows have mechs almost entirely for Rule of Cool, a quick flash of Fridge Brilliance makes one realize that "on even grounds" doesn't mean tech-wise, but the fact that using Variable Fighters (VF-1's) is the only way to engage in true infantry-based-warfare with the Zentradi, while their jet-based primary form is to provide fast, long-distance travel that would normally be provided by transport planes/choppers, and the Gerwalk transitional form exists (as stated in the show itself) as a VTOL form for difficult terrain for taking off in the Valkyrie form and landing in the Battroid form. There is a certain degree of Mundane Utility to the Gerwalk mode as well, some supplementary materials state that this is the mode that they use to transport Valkyries around the hanger for maintenance outside of combat.
The original Macross transformed into a humanoid configuration due to losing a lot of its power conduits during the space fold disaster: the human shape was them taking advantage of the modular nature of the ship to connect the remaining conduits to fire the Macross Cannon. That it looked human-shaped when this happened was apparently coincidental. Later Macross and New Macross class vessels keep the transformation because... uh, well, they never really say. Rule of Cool, perhaps.
Daimos: The titular Humongous Mecha was one of the first ones. He could transform into a rocket-shaped spaceship.
Many of the LFO mechs in Eureka Seven can transform into land vehicles.
Zoids were mostly monoform, but Liger Zero from New Century Zero had a modular swap-out system.
In Sonic X, Tails's plane Tornado II transforms from a plane into a really fast plane. Later, he adds a bipedal mecha transformation. These come from directly from the games: Sonic Adventure features Tails's Tornado transforming from one plane into another (with no actual effect, really), while Tails runs around in the bipedal mecha in Sonic Adventure 2.
Another very early example was Pook (from the slavic (or was it Celtic?) word Pooka, a type of animal spirit) from Manga/Astroboy, a robot kid who could turn into a variety of animals before his transformation system was destroyed by trying to change into too many things too fast. In the GBA game he also becomes a Combining Mecha, gaining the ability to change into the "heart" of the planet destroying alien robot Garon. Transformers show up a few other times in Astroboy, including Odette, a robot ballet dancer who turns into a swan who was created for a fairytale theme park attraction based on Swan Lake.
The Super RobotBrave Raideen, who debuted around the same time as Getter Robo, was probably the first straight-up example of a giant robot who became a vehicle, turning into a bird-themed aircraft.
A lot of the other mecha in Zeta can transform, including the Methuss, Gaplant and Asshimar. The Hyaku Shiki was designed as a transforming mecha but it didn't quite work. The Advance of Zeta side-stories add even more.
Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn: continues the trend with the Loto (MS to Tank), Delta Plus, ReZEL and Ankusha (MS to Flight Form); the latter two can carry friendly MS into battle while transformed. The titular Unicorn also transforms, from an ordinary mobile suit with a Unicorn horn to a red-glowing Gundam of death.
Mobile Fighter G Gundam: The Nether Gundam, which can turn into a windmill (yes, really). The Heaven's Sword Gundam, which has a bird-like flight mode and a fighter mode. And then there's the Devil Gundam, which keeps coming up with more and more new forms as the series goes on.
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing: The titular gundam (known in series as "Unit 1") can go from Bird mode to Mobile Suit mode and back, and Wing Zeronote The prototype for all the gundams, making it a double Super Prototype could transform as well. Epyon transformed into a dragon shapped mecha. Gundam Wing Endless Waltz changed the designs however.
Mobile Suit Gundam 00: The Flags (and their European counterpart the Enact) have robot mode and a vaguely airplane like mode, as do the Kyrios and Arios Gundams. The final episode of Gundam 00 contains what has to be the best, albeit likely unintentional lampshading of this trope ever, when Big BadRibbons' Mobile suit transforms from a Mobile Suit into . . . a slightly different Mobile Suit.
Mobile Suit Gundam AGE: The Gundam AGE 1 has two Mecha Expansion Pack that actually replace the arms and legs. The AGE 2 fits the more traditional transformation meaning by transforming into a plane mode, in addition to using removable parts like the AGE 1. By the time the AGE 2 is constructed, it appears that the Red Shirt mecha for the Earth faction can use similar designs to the AGE 1.
A mild example, Sonic Divers from Sky Girls can transform between Glider Mode (read: jet mode) and Armor Mode (read: mobile suit mode). These transformations are more for functionality than visual, because of their aerial exoskeleton armor structure, Sonic Divers can't perform a flashy transformation without grinding their pilots into meatbag.
The QT Arms in Sora Wo Kakeru Shoujo. They start off as a spaceship with a circular set of rocket boosters on the back, but can transform into a sort of centaurian humanoid form utilizing the boosters as a set of legs.
In Viper'sCreed, the mechs can transform into a motorcyle-like form for added speed, but the catch is that they can't be too high from the roadway or they can't gain their energy through wireless power. Enemy mecha mooks on the other hand don't have this limitation.
The Ride Back vehicles from the anime of the same name can switch between a Segway-like standing mode where they have wheels instead of feet for better agility; and a bike like form equivalent to a human doing the splits-which has higher speed.
Phoron of Shinkyoku Soukai Polyphonica has a bike that can transform into some sort of piano-based music center. Since Magic Music is fundamental in the world of Polyphonica, this is definitely a good thing.
Most of the Four Generals seem to have multi-mode mecha. Adiane's Sayrune mecha can go from a Winged Humanoid shape with a talking vagina to a hulking scorpion monster. Guame's Gember can switch between a hulking ape-like mode and some kind of woodlouse thing, and Cytomander's Shuzack changes from a Winged Humanoid to a disembodied skull with wings and scythe-arms.
The Kiyalunga combines this with Mecha Expansion Pack in that it can transform into a lance and shield that can then be wielded by the King Kittan to form the King Kittan Deluxe.
Team Rocket in Pokémon has made several of these, including a recent one that goes from digger to piloted mech. They're not as durable as most examples of the trope.
Argento Soma: The SARG robots can switch between being a plane and a robot.
The titular characters from Karas can change into jets or tank-racecar hybrids. Their actual transformations are a bit cheaty, as they go through a portal and come out changed on the other side. In the end, though, it doesn't really matter due to Rule of Cool.
Genesis Climber Mospeada features two types: the MOSPEADA, motorcycles that can turn into powered armor, and the Legioss, which is similar to the Valkyrie fighters from Macross.
The Motoslaves that the Knight Sabers ride from Bubblegum Crisis. Transformed, they can either act as independent combat robots or as extended power suits to provide their riders with additional firepower and some aerial mobility.
The titular Taxi deploys spoiler wings and gains about 500 hp at the touch of a button.
Older than Television: In what may be the earliest example of this trope, there was "The Terror", a vehicle from Jules Verne's The Master of The World (1904) which could become an airplane, a submarine & some kind of tank/armoured car that could move so fast it could not be seen by the naked eye.
Travis S. "Doc" Taylor used transforming mecha in his One Day on Mars series of Hard Sci-Fi books. Marine issue Mechs had 3 modes: Fighter, Bot and a hybrid Eagle mode with talons hanging down. Army tanks would switch into 2 modes: Hovertank and Bot. Justified throughout the book as assisted by AI and made enemies worry about 3 different styles of attack, rather then one.
The Dinozords from the first season of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers combined into a tank which would then be transformed into the humanoid battle mode, often without ever firing a shot. There was an instance of it transforming back to tank mode to knock Goldar over before switching to battle mode again.
Knight Rider managed to include this in a couple ways. In the original series, the fourth season introduced both "C" mode (Convertible) and Super Pursuit Mode. C mode had the hardtop (with t-tops) somehow folding away behind to make a convertible out of KITT. SPM had various pointy bits and a rocket booster pop out of places to allow a huge speed boost. In the new pilot, KITT did something of the reverse - he was able to disguise himself as a more mundane, base model Mustang to avoid standing out quite so much. It's unknown at this time how much that particular transformation might impact performance, or what other transformations might be possible.
In the series proper, KITT transforms into other Ford Product Placement Opportunities - er, I mean vehicle types, for specialized situations, like an F-150 for off-road.
KARR in the new series could transform from a Mustang like KITT into a very scary wheeled exosuit bristling with machine guns and missile launchers. In the original series as well as the new, KARR is voiced by Peter Cullen which makes this a very full circle Shout-Out to the man and one of his most famous roles.
A weird place for one of these..the old Heathcliff cartoons, the ones featuring the Cadillac Cats. The namesake car moves from car to boat to..um, house trailer, I guess.
BattleTech has the (highly optional and canonically virtually extinct) Land-Air Mechs, which are Battlemechs that were able to transform into fighter craft. The originals were based off artwork of the Macross Valkyrie Fighters above, though there are now some that use artwork original to BattleTech. They also somewhat subvert the trope in that they're acknowledged as highly specialized and somewhat extravagant niche units, not really competitive with either pure 'Mechs or pure aerospace fighters in their respective roles and of course requiring pilots specifically cross-trained to handle them competently in all of their possible modes ('Mech, fighter, and depending on the design possibly a hybrid "AirMech" configuration).
The first chapter of Shards of the Exalted Dream features a voidfighter design capable of converting from space fighter to warstrider form. The first prototype was known as the Scarlet Empress, and is so far the only one to be piloted by a non-Solar.
Mekton has this, although it can get a bit pricey, especially when you have multiple forms.
Transformers, obviously enough, and probably the most famous example in the west. The higher capability is somewhat of a Justified Trope here, as some individual Transformers are older than our whole species. Also notable for being sentient rather than piloted (although the original toys were repainted from Japanese toys that were supposedly piloted).
Worth noting is that a number of Transformers have more than two modes... In fact, there's a few with six, and one with ten.
Later installments into the franchise would go on to show that transformation is not just present in the Transformers themselves, but can be found in almost every aspect of their society. Animal species, weapons, ships, buildings and in certain continuities their entire home planet of Cybertron (also their god, Primus) are capable of transformation.
Aussenseiter and Dygenguar's combination attack, which transforms Aussenseiter into... a giant mecha horse. Which Dygenguar mounts. And then Dygenguar produces a sword no less than three times the length of itself. That's about when Trombe! is reaching its climax in the song, and you REALLY should have been running a long time ago.
AND R-GUN! A Gundam-ish mecha transformed into a GUN?! Nice for you to get gunned-to-crap by METAL! GENOCIDER!
The three main Agency vehicles in Crackdown all transform into bigger and badder forms as the player's Driving Skill rises. The Supercar turns into a machinegun-packing batmobile, the SUV turns into a monster-truck that can jump and drive up walls, and the Truck turns into... an even bigger and badder truck with a nitro-booster for maximum ramming power. No attempts are made to justify the blatantly impossible transformations. It happens because it's cool.
In Gunstar Heroes (both the original and the GBA remake), Green uses an ancient vehicle known as Seven Force. It has seven different variations. And you have to fight them all.
Viewtiful Joe has the Six Machine, a transforming vehicle with six forms: A humongous mecha, a car, a jet, a submarine, a subterrine, and a cannon.
In Xenosaga, the E.S. Dinah could transform from a starship to a mecha and back; only about half the ship was used in the mecha form, leaving the rest to be used as a large energy weapon or just left floating in orbit. The E.S. Naphtali could also transform from a cruise mode to combat mode.
Though the Dinah is more of a combiner, as its head is formed from a flying motorcycle that turns into a bed.
In Red Alert 3, the Empire's Tengus (anti-infantry mecha and anti-air jet) and VXs (anti-air mecha and anti-tank chopper). The Sea-Wing/Sky-Wings are more Military Mashup Machine.
In Mischief Makers, each member of the Beastector has their own unique Transforming Mecha, which resembles the same animal as its pilot.
R-Type TL series fighters transform into mecha when attached to force devices. They also use a different Wave Motion Gun when transformed.
The Terran Viking units in Starcraft II transform from a fighter with anti-air missiles to a mech with anti-ground machine guns. They're best used for raiding as the name suggests, fly up behind the enemy's defenses to their resources and transform to mow down their workers before their forces move back there.
The fluff in the campaign mode describes a trait that Vikings have that's somewhat unique to this trope: The cockpit of the Viking transforms, too. Viking pilots have to be nimble enough to avoid the massive pieces of shifting machinery, and most rookie pilots end up losing a limb or two.
Hellions/hellbats are a reverse example; originally a fast dune-buggy-like skirmish vehicle, the Hellion was retrofitted with the ability to transform in the game's first expansion, becoming a slower, but tougher close-combat mech.
The Siege Tank is a downplayed example; it "merely" transforms between tank and field artillery.
Clunky non-violent example: In the point-and-click adventure Amerzone, the rickety air/sea vehicle called the "hydrafloat" can rearrange its parts to fly as either plane or helicoptor, traverse water as a sailboat, fanboat or motorboat, or drag itself along with a grappling hook. No robot mode, sorry.
Several RAY Series bosses, including Ray Storm's first boss, and Sem-Strut in Ray Crisis.
Link: The Faces of Evil actually turns into a flying tank-chariot thing with spikes all over him to escape. He is seen transforming back in a cutscene prior to his second encounter, and after he is defeated again, his armor falls off, revealing a feeble old man underneath.
This is also true with Iron Knuckle from Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, who instead turns into a spiky jet-chariot thing to escape after his first defeat, and after he is defeated again, his armor cracks open, causing his heart to fall out.
Future Cop: LAPD has the x-1 alpha that transforms between a battle walker and a hover car.
Battle Engine Aquila has the battle engines, which can turn change between jet mode and walker mode.
Kid Icarus: Uprising features the Great Sacred Treasure, which transforms into nearly half a dozen modes in the fight against Hades.
Anarchy Reigns has Garuda, who transforms into a jet and can be ridden on by his teammates in co-op modes.
Aswell as the Gargoyles, who resemble Garuda, except with one eye and plasma arms.
The PC Engine shmup Psychic Storm had four ships that could transform into huge bio-mechanical creatures.
In Phantasy Star III, the cyborg Wren could transform into an aeroplane, jet scooter and submarine once the required parts are obtained. Unfortunately, the Wren in Phantasy Star IV no longer seems to have this ability.
The most famous example is the final boss of Master of Arena, Nineball Seraph which could often travel faster by converting into a bird-like mode. It's also insanely powerful and sturdy for a transforming mech and is decked out with Beam Spam
It also returned as a final boss in ACE: R if the player is on their 11th playthrough and it's been pumped with steroids now featuring Primal Armor from the PS3 era games, a cloaking mode, Attack Drones and a wave motion cannon in its chest. The best part? You get to take it out for a joyride in an unlockable mission.
In Armored Core 3, there is a blue MT model possessing a walker and flight mode. Taking it out while in walker mode is a first priority since it unloads powerful beam shots.
In Nexus, there is yet another transforming mech which appears to be a prototype for the Pulverizers in Last Raven.
Kirby 64 features the HR-1, a towering robot that transforms into a rocket-mode for the second half of the battle and attacks using scissors.
AirMech, drawing obvious and loving inspiration from Herzog Zwei, has the player piloting a robot that transforms into some kind of aircraft to command a variety of drone units on the ground.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team has the Giant Luigi opponents Earthwake and Robo Drilldigger. The former is a mecha made of buildings that can transform into a flying swarm of them and a gigantic hammer, the latter a robot made of drill pieces that can become a tank or a flying vehicle in order to use different attacks.
The Atari Jaguar launch title Cybermorph has the player control a spacecraft that shape-shifts into different forms based on how the player flies. The sequel, Battlemorph, expands the idea with submersible and subterranean modes.
Wild ARMs 2 and Wild ARMs 3 feature the Dragon Caliber, Lombardia. He's a living mechanical "dragon" who can transform into a jet, and becomes your Global Airship after defeating him. He even gets a Gundam-style launch sequence in his very first appearance.