Super Robot Wars is a vast series. Its roots go back to the early '90s, with multiple branches spanning systems as diverse as the Super Nintendo, Sega Saturn, and Wonderswan. It's no wonder that so many people have approached me over the years to ask me where they should start.
The truth is that there's no "right" answer here. It really depends on the consoles at your disposal, how much tolerance you have for Japanese, and whether you prefer real robots or super robots. Once you've figured out some of the answers to some of those questions, it's much easier to pick a good entry point. With that in mind, let's break it down a bit.
So what is Super Robot Wars?
I go into greater detail here, but Super Robot Wars is a strategy RPG series that serves as a mash-up/tribute to all of the great mecha anime shows stretching back to the 1960s. A typical Super Robot Wars game combines storylines from a handful of mecha shows, interweaving secrets and unexpected plot twists while building up new relationships. It's a series that will team Evangelion's Shinji Ikari with Mobile Suit Gundam's Amuro Ray, tossing in Mazinger, Getter Robo, and Macross for good measure.
Aside from its wide array of ultimate team-ups, Super Robot Wars is mostly known for its elaborate attack sequences, which pay homage to their home series while dealing fantastic amounts of damage. With the exception of a handful of rather odd spinoffs like Scramble Commander, the Super Robot Wars games are all turn-based, with individual scenarios usually being based on a scene from one of the game's featured shows. The average Super Robot Wars will last you up to 50 or 60 hours, and that's without the added time devoted to completing bonus objectives, playing through alternate route splits, and unlocking hidden units.
A typical Super Robot Wars mission has you clearing out a large number of enemy mechs as quickly as possible, often throwing in a more powerful boss unit for good measure. As the mission progresses, units can build up their "Will" stat to unlock progressively more powerful attacks, which must in turn be balanced with energy consumption and spirit points, the latter which power one-time buffs to attack, evasion, and other stats. That balancing act is particularly critical in the latter half of the game, when mooks are strong, boss units have better than 200,000 HP, and the prospect of running out of energy and spirit points becomes very real. For higher level players, there are also various time-based optional objectives, which can be completed to unlock secret endings, or to simply make the game harder. Ultimately, Super Robot Wars is a fun trip through some of the best mech shows ever made.
Can I play these in English?
Sadly, Super Robot Wars has been an import only series for much of its existence. In 2006, Atlus localized the Original Generation games for the Game Boy Advance — spinoffs featuring original characters created by Bandai Namco — but otherwise prohibitive licensing issues and the relative obscurity of many of the properties have kept many of the games from coming west. (Update: The PS4's new Super Robot Wars game will be getting an English release, which is a huge step forward for the series in the west.)
Still, there are resources for English speaking fans who want to get into Super Robot Wars. If Japanese isn't your first language, the Akurasu Wiki is an indispensible guide that offers menu translations, secrets, and route split information for nearly every game in the series. You can also occasionally find story walkthroughs on GameFAQs, which is a big help when it comes to keep up with the myriad plot twists. Finally, there are a handful of fan translations available on the Internet, which I'll get to in a moment.
What do you mean by "real robots" and "super robots?"
Real robots are mechs that are relatively grounded in reality. They are smaller and more agile than their super-powered counterparts, but they also tend to be weaker. Macross is a classic example of a "real robot" show. Super robots, meanwhile, are the Voltrons of the world — big, lumbering machines that usually have magical powers or fanciful technology at their disposal. Super robots are epitomized by Mazinger and Getter Robo, which helped to popularize the mech genre in the 1970s.
The practical difference in Super Robot Wars is that super robots are large tanks capable of dealing fantastic amounts of damage, while real robots are useful for their accuracy and evasion. Most Super Robot Wars games also have a large number of route splits designed to cater to the tastes of real robot fans and super robot, with one set of missions focusing on villains from Gurren Lagann or Mazinger, and another set grouping up all of the Gundams. Personally, I prefer Gundam and Macross, so my teams tend to be heavy with those types of units, but I know plenty of people who vastly prefer the over the top super robots.