The Transformers

When Hasbro Toys repackaged two Japanese toy lines in 1984 in order to sell them on the U.S. market, few people guessed that toy robots that could change into vehicles, animals, and all other sorts of things would create a merchandising empire that still affects popular culture to this day. The Transformers continue to make their presence felt in toys, movies, television shows, and much more.

1984–1990: THE BIRTH OF A FRANCHISE

Looking to release another hit to follow up on their widely successful G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toy line, Hasbro Toys bought the rights to release the Japanese toy lines Microman and Diaclone in the United States. These lines, produced by the Takara company, featured cars, planes, cassette tapes, cassette players, and guns that could be converted into robots, giving a child two toys in one. Each of them was packaged with weapons and other accessories, and while the toys were innovative, none of the robots had a particularly unique characterization.

Hasbro hired Marvel Comics to develop a backstory for the characters and writers there divided the robots, now called the Transformers, into two groups: the heroic Autobots and the Evil Decepticons. Hailing from the planet Cybertron, the Autobots fought to keep the Decepticons from conquering the universe. Each individual toy became a character in its own right and fought either for the Autobots (mostly the robots that converted into cars) and the Decepticons (planes, cassettes, a gun). The toy line was given the slogan “more than meets the eye” due to the robots’ transforming capabilities.

Bob Budiansky was soon asked to write a comic book based on the toys and was tasked with naming and crafting personalities for each of the characters. His work in this medium resulted in the personalities of Optimus Prime, the Autobot commander who transformed into a big rig truck and Megatron, the Decepticon leader who converted into a gun. Other memorable characters included the Autobots Bumblebee, Jazz, Ironhide, and Ratchet, and the Decepticons Starscream and Soundwave. Both the comic book and toys were instant hits as soon as they hit the market. Takara reintroduced their own Microman and Diaclone lines under the Transformers banner in Japan and also found success. Both in Japan and in the United States, the biographies that Budiansky wrote appeared on small file cards on the packages of each Transformers action figure.

Sales of the Transformers toys really took off when Sunbow Productions began to produce a cartoon version of the characters and their adventures. Recognizing the giant they had on their hands, Hasbro began licensing the images of the characters for use on bedspreads, erasers, soap dishes, books, and much more. Many competing toy companies introduced cheaper knock-offs of the popular Transformers toys, but none of them were as successful as the transformers. Takara and Hasbro began working together to create new toys and characters for their popular toy line.

Because the popularity of the toys was so strong, Hasbro and Sunbow released a cartoon feature film in 1986. This movie continued the adventures from the television to the big screen and included the introduction of several characters including Ultra Magnus, Galvatron, and the planet eater Unicron who was out to destroy all Transformers, Autobot or Decepticon. The movie is also notable for containing the death of Optimus Prime and his replacement with Rodimus Prime, the new leader of the Autobots.

At this point in the franchise, the toys increasingly became less realistic and featured designs of more futuristic planes and cars. Interest slowly began to wane, and even the return of Optimus Prime from the dead could not make the cartoon last past its third season in the United States. New concepts such as Headmasters, Pretenders, and Target Masters were introduced, but the line of toys was eventually canceled after its seventh series of figures in 1990. Notably, the comic book published by Marvel Comics lasted about six months longer than the toy line, mainly because of the fine writing of Simon Furman, Budiansky’s replacement on the series. Furman created a carefully thought out mythology for the Transformers featuring the good god Primus and the evil god Unicron. The toy line continued for a short while in Japan and Europe, but even there it eventually came to an end.

1992–2000: A FRANCHISE REBORN AND REVITALIZED

Hasbro did not let its hit lay low for long and in 1992 released Transformers: Generation 2. Initially, the line featured rereleases of the toys from the 1980s in different colors and with spring-loaded accessories. Optimus Prime and Megatron returned, although Megatron was now a tank instead of a gun because of U.S. toy laws related to the sale of products that look like real firearms. Old episodes of the original cartoon series were also released under the new banner and Marvel Comics published a twelve-issue series featuring the exploits of the Transformers: Generation 2. After only three years the line fizzled out, although new technologies had enabled toy designers to produce better-articulated toys when new toys were designed for the line. This would have ramifications later on as the new series of Transformers toys featured more articulation than their boxy 1980s counterparts.

The Transformers were truly resurrected in 1996 with the release of Transformers: Beast Wars. Now the toys were all animal-based and featured Transformers who converted into more organic-looking creatures. Optimus Primal led the heroic Maximals against Megatron and the evil Predacons, but the two characters, while similarly named, were not the same individuals as the Megatron and Optimus Prime from the 1980s. A ground-breaking show featuring computer animation was also produced that featured the toys and which eventually tied the Beast Wars era to the original era of the Transformers, which fans began to call Transformers: Generation 1. The Beast Wars toys were very popular even with older fans, although they were at first skeptical of the new incarnation of their favorite toys from the 1980s when they were children. Beast Wars was a great series that shouldn't have been missed even if you needed tv repair. A follow-up show and toy line, Transformers: Beast Machines, ran from 1999–2000, but it failed to reach the same success as the Beast Wars.

It should also be noted that the decade of the 1990s was also significant for featuring the first Transformers fan conventions. Beginning in 1994, BotCon is an annual convention that brings together hundreds of Transformers fans to meet all of the creators and actors involved with the Transformers franchise, preview new product, and buy and sell their favorite toys.

2001–PRESENT: A FRANCHISE FOR KIDS AND COLLECTORS

In 2001, Hasbro went back to its roots and released a series of Transformers that Takara had recently produced under the banner Car Robots. The line, Transformers: Robots in Disguise, was a mix of the traditional vehicle-based designs and the more recent Beast Wars models, and it drew the interest of many of those who had grown up with the Transformers but were now adults. Even though there had always been adult collectors of the Transformers toys, collector mania began in earnest with the release of the Robots in Disguise toys, as the line prompted many who grew up with the toys in the 1980s to return to the franchise as collectors.

From 2002 to 2007, the Transformers franchise received a real shot in the arm with the release of the so-called “Unicron Trilogy” — Transformers: Armada, Transformers: Energon, and Transformers: Cybertron. Each series of toys featured unique action features and many homages to Transformer characters released in the 1980s. These series were also notable for featuring the first toys ever produced of Unicron and Primus, who transformed into the planet Cybertron. At the same time these series were released, Takara began releasing the Transformers: Masterpiece line featuring cartoon-accurate, high-end Transformers toys for adult collectors. Hasbro released some of these in the United States and also brought over Takara’s Binaltech line as Transformers: Alternators.

The Transformers influence on pop culture was cemented in 2007 with the release of Transformers, a full-length, live-action motion picture directed by Michael Bay. It currently ranks in the top fifty highest grossing films of all time and was followed by a sequel with the subtitle Revenge of the Fallen in 2009. This movie posted the highest opening totals of any film that has ever opened on a Wednesday up until its time. Toys and other merchandise were released to coincide with these films, which featured computer-generated animated Transformers interacting with real human actors. In between the films, another cartoon series and toys, Transformers: Animated, was released.

In the years ahead, the Transformers franchise will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of children and adults alike. The variations of the line that can be released are truly endless, and it is exciting to see just what Hasbro will think of next for these robots that truly are more than meets the eye!

TRANSFORMERS MEDIA

Hasbro Transformers Page — Hasbro Toys official Transformers page

80s Transformers Toy Commercials — ten Transformers toy commercials from the 1980s starring the “creepy kid”

Botch's Box Art, Instruction Scans, and Catalog Archive — box art, instruction, and catalog scans of the Generation 1 Transformer toys

BotCon — Transformers collectors convention official homepage

IDW Transformers Comics — official site of the current publisher of Transformers comic books

One Shall Stand — scans and reviews of nearly every Transformer comic book ever released

Transformers Tech Spechs — official bios and strength ratings of Transformers from four different franchise series

Wildfur Productions — official website for Simon Furman and Andrew Wildman, famous Transformers comic book writer and artist

FANSITES

Ben's World of Transformers — reviews and more from legendary Transformer fan Benson Yee

Complete Transformers Variations Page — listing of variants among all the Transformers toys ever released

Dinobot Tribute — page describing the Dinobots, a popular Transformers subgroup from the 1980s

Lukis Brothers Transformers Sites — site run by the most famous Transformers fans the Lukis brothers

Model Commentary Index — features reviews of nearly every Transformer action figure of the past decade and a half

Tfarchive.com — extensive fan site especially notable for its Transformers comics reviews

Tformers.com — fansite with pictures and reviews of Transformers and related merchandise

Tfu.info — comprehensive site aiming to build a database of photos of every Transformer ever released and their accessories

Transformers Animated — fansite dedicated to the 2008 cartoon series and toyline incarnation of the Transformers franchise

Transformers at the Toy Archive — webpage featuring Transformer toy rarities and more

Transformers @ the Moon — site chronicling the large collection of two avid UK Transformers fans

Transformer World 2005 — probably the most comprehensive fansite on the web