This column was a long time coming. If you ask any young American person of my generation about the word “Voltron” they'll probably get nostalgic, and then perhaps excited. Go-Lion was yet another robot anime in Japan, but here in 1980s America it was heavily edited into something called “Voltron”.. and the results were very different.
You see, and this is the most important thing to remember: we didn't have Mazinger Z in America. We didn't have Getter Robo, and Super Sentai wouldn't come to America until the Power Rangers adaptation in 1993. The things about Go-Lion that are generic and typical-- the five color-coded heroes, the transforming vehicles combining to form a robot-- were our first contact with those ideas. For many years, it would be our only contact. To understand the success of Voltron in America, you have to understand that we'd never seen anything like it before.
Now think about this. The super robot arms race had been going for a decade already, after Mazinger Z. The animation studios and toy companies had invented transformations, combinations, any gimmick that would sell a kid a toy. Kids in Japan, I assume, were seeing their fair share of robots, and it took a lot to impress them.
American children, on the other hand, were skipped straight to five mechanical lions that transofmred and combined into a gigantic multi-colored robot man that wielded a “blazing sword”. In Japan, this was a small-fry. In America, it was a miracle. We didn't even know what to do. We were completely blown away. There wasn't anything like this!
I was a toddler at the time, and like many kids that young, the full wonder of the super robot hit me all at once when I saw Voltron. I grew up with a big, diecast metal Voltron, the same as the DX Chogokin toy that Bandai sold in Japan. Even in toys, American kids would never see anything like that giant chunk of metal again.
So Voltron is America's favorite super robot, because Voltron got here first. The show remained in reruns for years and years, and aside from the Transformers, no other super robot was quite so successful. (There was also “Vehicle Voltron”, adapted from Dairugger XV, which is mostly forgotten.) Mazinger Z and Getter Robo ran very briefly on American TV, but not very widely and not to any particular success. Macross was adapted into Robotech, and that brought on a whole generation of SF fans... but that's its own story.
Like Gundam Wing was the original Gundam to many American otaku, Voltron was assumed to be the originator of the whole concept. When the Power Rangers invaded America to great success, the older kids at school cynically called it “a ripoff of Voltron.” Rappers talked about “forming like Voltron”. This robot, who I doubt many Japanese remember at all, is a national icon here. Not a lot of people are even aware the show was from Japan to begin with!
Just this past year, a major commercial for a life insurance company featured a huge group of beloved cartoon characters gathering together: Charlie Brown and friends, Fat Albert, Mr. Peabody. The only Japanese character present-- and the only robot-- was Voltron.