Gunpla makes up 90 percent of the Japanese character plastic-model market. Academics in Japan have viewed the series as inspiration; in 2008, the virtual Gundam Academy was planned as the first academic institution based on an animated TV series.
The Gundam franchise had grossed over $5 billion in retail sales by 2000. By 2014, annual revenue of the Gundam franchise reached ¥80 billion per year, ¥18.4 billion of which was retail sales of toys and hobby items. As of 2018, Gundam is one of the top 15 highest-grossing media franchises of all time, estimated to have generated more than $20 billion in total revenue.
Mobile Suit Gundam was developed by animator Yoshiyuki Tomino and a changing group of Sunrise creators with the collective pseudonym of Hajime Yatate. The series was originally entitled Freedom Fighter Gunboy (or Gunboy) for the robot's gun, with teen boys the primary target demographic. Early production had a number of references to freedom: the White Base was originally "Freedom's Fortress", the Core Fighter was the "Freedom Wing" and the Gunperry was the "Freedom Cruiser". The Yatate team combined the English word "gun" with the last syllable of the word "freedom" to form the portmanteau Gundom. Tomino changed it to Gundam, suggesting a unit wielding a gun powerful enough to hold back enemies like a hydroelectric dam holding back water. In keeping with the concept, Gundams are depicted as prototypes or limited-production, with higher capabilities than mass-produced units.
Most Gundams are large, bipedal, humanoid vehicles controlled from a cockpit by a human pilot. The cockpit is located in the torso, while the head serves as a camera to transmit images back to the cockpit. Most of the series protagonists are Newtypes, genetically advanced humans adapted for space. Newtypes have psychic abilities that enable them to sense each other across space and to utilize special mobile suits.
The series itself has been described as a space opera.
Most of the Gundam animation (including the earliest series) is set in what is known as the Universal Century (UC) calendar era, with later series set in alternate calendars or timelines. Although many new Gundam stories are told in their parallel universe with independent timelines (giving them greater creative freedom), the original UC storyline continues to be popular. It established the series, setting the standard for hard science fiction in anime; the original Gundam marked the maturing of the giant-robot genre. Nostalgia for the oldest Gundam shows (and its status as a pop-culture icon in Japan) is a factor in its continuing success.