I’m far from a Gundam expert, but here’s my personal recommendation on what order to go in:
1. The Original 1979 TV Series AND/OR the Film Trilogy
Some people think you should watch both, I say watch one and if you really like it give the other version a watch later. Personally I prefer the film trilogy which cuts the fat and improves the animation for a sleeker experience… but the TV series gives the setting and characters more time to develop, plus it’s THE original, so… really, it’s up to you!
OPTIONAL: Gundam the Origin
Well I say optional but I don’t mean it. Gundam the Origin is a manga retelling illustrated beautifully by original character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. It retains all the important parts of the story while adding new scenes and details that blend in really well and greatly enrich the experience IMO. In fact, Origin is probably my favorite version of Mobile Suit Gundam… yet I do NOT recommend it as your introduction to the series! I feel it is written specifically AS a revisitation/expansion of the Gundam world and characters and is better enjoyed as such. So read it at some point, but not first! Maybe last? Then you can follow it up with the animated version which is currently in the works.
2. Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket
0080 is a six-part OVA set in the same time frame as the original Gundam, despite having actually been created a decade later. It focuses on the war set on a much more intimate stage and is from the POV of two people who’d otherwise be side characters: a civilian child and mook enemy pilot. A lot of people consider War in the Pocket to be the best Gundam thing ever and it is my personal favorite. Since it’s a stand-alone story you can watch it at any time (I actually saw it before the original series and wasn’t lost) but I think right after the first series is a good a time as any to give you a different perspective on the One Year War.
3. Zeta Gundam
To me, the original Gundam series (in whatever form), War in the Pocket and Zeta Gundam are the golden three, the very best of Gundam, UC or otherwise. So this would be the apex of your viewing experience, from this point on the quality level dips off a little. Make sure to enjoy it! Note that there is also a film trilogy version of Zeta released WAY after the original series but they do not serve as good substitutes; if you watch them, do it afterwards for the sleek new re-animated scenes and different take on the ending.
4. ZZ Gundam
Some like ZZ, some don’t. I do, but I understand the people who don’t. The sudden tone shift from the end of Zeta is jarring (although it does eventually settle into something more serious), the whole story it kind of goofy and sloppily-done and doesn’t lead well into Char’s Counterattack at all, and speaking of which… there’s no Char! But all that aside, if you can approach it with an open mind, there’s still a lot to enjoy, plus it ties into Gundam Unicorn down the line.
5. Char’s Counterattack
This is a landmark film. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t awfully flawed! I have similar love-hate relationship with as I do to ZZ, except whereas ZZ endeared me via its quirkiness Char’s Counterattack reels me in via its production values. It’s just a really pretty movie. Plus while it’s not the last UC production, it is the conclusion of Amuro and Char’s saga, so it’s a must-see for fans.
OPTIONAL: SD Gundam
To recover from the downer-fest that is CCA. ZZ should have gotten you used to the idea of Gundam characters acting goofy, so just let the laughs roll in. Plus now you’ll get all the stupid in-jokes! My favorites are:
SD Gundam Mk-II
SD Gundam’s Counterattack
Legend of Gundam
Menace of the Zeon Hotel
There’s much more UC to watch in the form of Gundam F91, Victory Gundam, Gundam 0083, The 08th MS Team and Gundam Unicorn but I haven’t seen those yet so I can’t comment on them.
I had fun writing this! I hope it helped! :)
Gundam 0083 (Stardust Memory) fits between 0079/08th MS/0080 and Zeta, and basically details what it was that happened to cause the Earth Federation to form the Titans, who are the main antagonists in Zeta Gundam. It’s kind of insightful, if nothing else.
Unicorn takes place just after CCA, and details protagonist Banagher Links’ confrontation with yet another Neo-Zeon group called the Sleeves.
F91 is another movie. It and Victory Gundam both take place in the UC era but at a much later date than the other series. They’re pretty much “standalone” in the sense that their main storylines aren’t really related to anything that came before (although they might make references).