In 1984, Hasbro introduced a new toy line to U.S. kids that ended up becoming one of its defining brands. The new toys were robots that could change into vehicles, equipment and weapons. They were appropriately named Transformers, forever frustrating electric companies who until then had a virtual monopoly on the name. But where did the idea come from in the first place? Ironically, it came from an earlier Hasbro line, G.I. Joe, filtered through licensed toys in Japan. Read on to hear the history of the Transformers.
In 1984, Hasbro released the first wave of Transformer toys. But where did they come from? For that, you have to jump back to 1972. Earlier, a Japanese company called Takara licensed the molds to various G.I. Joe figures from Hasbro. They called their line Combat Joe. In ’72, they spun off a sci-fi line of figures from Combat Joe full of cyborgs. They called it Henshin Cyborg, which translated to Transforming Cyborg. The cost of the figures at 12 inches (then standard size for G.I. Joe) was cost-prohibitive so they created a line for Henshin Cyborg of 3.75″ figures. This became the popular toy line known as Microman. In 1974, U.S. toy company Mego licensed these figures and released them in the U.S. as Micronauts.
Microman was a hit and they began adding transforming objects in the 1980s. These included Megatron, a gun; CassetteMan, a microcassette recorder; and 7 “toy cars.” These would eventually become the Transformers known as Soundwave, Bumblebee, Cliffjumper, Gears, Wincharger, Huffer, and Brawn. Microman was so popular, it spun off another line of transforming toys known as Diaclone.
Hasbro licensed both Microman and Diaclone’s toy designs and released them in the U.S. as Transformers. Diaclone toys became the Decepticon jets, all of the Autobot cars, the Insecticons, the Dinobots and the Constructicons. The U.S. toyline was such a massive success, Takara rebranded everything as Transformers and discontinued making more.
Hasbro had recently had great success marketing its G.I. Joe line with comics and cartoons so they created similar plans for the Transformers. Comic book writers Jim Shooter and Dennis O’Neil were hired to create the backstory: Transformers were from a planet of transforming robots called Cybertron. The race had two sides – the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons. Constantly embroiled in a war, their battle takes them to Earth where the Decepticons try to steal our energy and the Autobots protect humanity. Both sides transform into everyday Earth vehicles and weapons to hide themselves in plain sight. Dennis O’Neil, arguably best known for his lengthy run at DC writing titles like Green Arrow/Green Lantern and Batman, created the name Optimus Prime. Later, duties were handed off to Bob Budiansky, who wrote most of the U.S. Transformers comic book and created most of the names and personalities for the toys.
Marvel Comics released a 4-issue Transformers mini-series which introduced the Transformers into the Marvel Universe. They team up with Spider-Man and Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. observe them from afar. The comic was a hit and it began an ongoing series which no longer featured any ties to the Marvel Universe. The stories in the comics fleshed out the characters but contradicted the stories told in the cartoon version.
In September, in collaboration with Marvel Comics’ Sunbow Studios, a 3-part miniseries cartoon was released. A first season of 13 additional episodes was commissioned and the show aired in syndication through December of the year, introducing each of the toys mentioned above.
In 1985, a second season of 49 episodes began airing in syndication. Unlike the first season, there was very little continuity from episode to episode so that they could be watched in any order. Episodes would generally focus on one or two new characters. A lot of new toys began appearing with no introduction. They were just there.
More than twice as many toys were created and released this year for the second wave. These included a few licensed toys that did not come from Takara, most famously Jetfire which was a Macross toy licensed from Takatoku Toys. Takara was Hasbro’s main partner abroad and they asked that toys not licensed from them, such as the Deluxe Insecticons, not appear on the cartoon. They planned to air a dubbed version of the cartoon to promote their own toys, not a competitor’s. It was probably due to Takara’s objections that Hasbro compromised and created a character with a slightly different look and name, Skyfire, for their cartoon.
In 1986, the Transformers got an animated film which was released nationwide. The critics did not care for it in general, though fans appreciated it. It did not perform very well at the box office, earning just under $6 million domestically. However, the film’s budget has never been disclosed so it’s hard to say whether Hasbro lost money on it. It served as a commercial for their toys and kept the brand alive. The Go-Bots movie, for comparison’s sake, earned less than $2 million, but the second Care Bears movie which came out that year made over $8 million. Of course, it all looks weak compared to one of Disney’s films that came out that year: The Great Mouse Detective brought in $48 million and was considered an average hit for the studio.
The story jumped the characters forward to the then-future year of 2005. It killed off most of the original cast to make way for the new toys/characters. Ultimately, this went over poorly with the fans and years later, Hasbro brought back their most prominent casualty – Optimus Prime.
This year brought the third wave of toys and the last of the toys designed outside of Hasbro. It also brought an end to die cast metal parts and rubber tires as manufacturing costs had climbed too high. The last of the designs brought over from Takara included more of a focus on “combiners.” These were sets of (usually) 5 Transformers, who could merge into one bigger robot. They also created two “city” size Transformers – Metroplex and Trypticon. In general, more gimmicks made their way into Transformers moving forward. The toys based on the new movie characters were created by Hasbro.
The cartoon returned with a third season set in the future, following the events of the movie. It brought an additional 30 episodes but the premise changed to an intergalactic show with battles taking place on alien worlds. The new premise, lack of old favorite characters, and lesser animation led to less interest.
The cartoon’s third season wrapped early in the year and went into reruns for the majority of 1987. In November, 3 new episodes were commissioned but interest had waned in the brand and the cartoon ended in the U.S. In Japan, it continued for 3 more full seasons (you can read our recaps here on The Robot’s Pajamas each week).
The toyline focused heavily on gimmicks. Headmasters had heads that turned into robots and Targetmasters featured guns that turned into smaller robots. Hasbro produced its largest toy, Fortress Maximus. At about 2 feet tall and retailing for $100, it remained a rare toy that collectors still seek in great condition. The toyline got more sci-fi from this point forwards, focusing each year on a new gimmick and creating more monsters and futuristic vehicles than the present-day reality it started with.
For the first year, no new Transformers were released by Hasbro. The line’s sales had dipped and it was time for a rest or a big creative refresh. Hasbro opted to take a break. Eventually, they gave a half-hearted attempt at bringing the brand back with a line they dubbed “Generation 2” in 1993. It was made up primarily of recolored versions of the earlier toys and lasted through 1995.
Also in 1991, the U.S. sales of the Transformers comic had dipped and Marvel cancelled the title after 80 monthly issues.
Finally, in 1996, Hasbro invested some serious effort in rebuilding the brand. They released a toyline with a brand new CG-created cartoon which they dubbed Transformers: Beast Wars. The popular line lasted several years and focused on Transformers taking the form of real animals. The story took place in the future where the Autobots were now known as Maximals, lead by Optimus Primal, and the Decepticons were known as Predacons, lead by Megatron (a different Megatron). The line continued with some variations through 2000.
The cartoon was originally its own unique continuity, but the writers watched some of the original cartoon and decided to retroactively connect the shows, featuring characters like Starscream and Unicron and revealing that the main characters had been thrown back in time and were actually on prehistoric Earth. The show lasted 3 seasons, with a total of 52 episodes. While older fans initially resented something so different, its quality shone through and it produced many fan favorite characters such as Dinobot and Waspinator.
The toyline change happened due to internal politics. Hasbro had acquired competitor Kenner in 1991. In 1995, they transferred what they called “boys toy lines” to Kenner’s offices and tasked them with inventing new ideas. Lead toy designer Chris Gross proposed a new type of Transformer. Instead of the hard edges and blocky style of the originals, he wanted something more organic. The initial wave of Beast Wars toys gives the majority of the robot forms an option of a traditional robot head or a “Beast Mask.” It was designed to transition from the old Transformers to the new version. The actual title, Beast Wars, was originally created by Kenner as a possible spinoff of their Terminator toyline, then subtitled Future War. The cartoon was not going to be made unless the new toys were drastically different as Hasbro considered Transformers a “stale brand” at this point in time.
Around 2001, the interest in Transformers began to grow again. Now it was a mix of the new generation of kids who had grown up with Beast Wars, and the children of the 80s who were now working adults with disposable income and a touch of nostalgia for the toys they grew up with. Dreamwave began a brand new comic book series reboot of the story that helped drive the nostalgia. It ran for four years, but problems with management lead to business problems for Dreamwave and they lost the license without wrapping up the stories they were telling.
Hasbro simultaneously licensed the current line of Transformers that were being created by Takara back in Japan. They called it Car Robots, but Hasbro renamed the line Transformers: Robots in Disguise. A 39-episode animated tv show was also redubbed for American audiences to help sell the toys. This time period was mostly a “filler” stage while Hasbro contemplated what to do next with the brand.
In 2003, Hasbro and Takara got on the same page, agreeing to co-produce a single worldwide line of Transformers with a new, rebooted continuity. They named the line Transformers: Armada. The toyline’s new story involved a new faction of Transformers called Minicons. They were neutral robots who could enhance the abilities of Autobots and Decepticons so both sides fought to bring them to their side. The toyline featured a number of these minicons at a low price point to engage kids in collecting them. The larger toys came packaged with a minicon, as well. For fans, this toyline also included something they’d been wanting for a long time – Unicron, the planet-sized Transformer who was the villain from the animated movie, was finally released as a toy. The line also had a 52-episode cartoon.
Armada was a big success so the following sub-line, named Energon, was a followup to this one. There was a second cartoon season of 52 episodes set in the same continuity, ten years later. The line featured two new groups of Transformers, Omnicons and Terrorcons, who joined the Autobots and Decepticons, respectively. These smaller toys worked with the larger toys in unique ways. The Autobot/Omnicrons could combine to form larger versions and the Terrorcons had a plastic chip that allowed Decepticons to transform into an alternate mode. The toyline featured a number of old favorites from the original line remade: Jetfire, Optimus Prime, Megatron and more.
Finally, in 2005, a third wave of toys was released, called Transformers: Cybertron. Again there was a third season of 52 episodes but in Japan it was a completely new story. However, Hasbro declared it would be in the same continuity and therefore, there are inconsistencies in the story. The toyline featured a large number of repaints of previous toys from the last two lines. Additionally, Hasbro and Takara had been releasing smaller sublines of Transformers over the last few years called Universe, Alternators and Titanium, primarily aimed at the collector market. The net effect was buyer confusion and fatigue since on the store shelves, it all looked like a hodgepodge of toys.
In 2007, Hasbro teamed up with Paramount to release a live action film version of Transformers. It was another reboot and the cartoons and toys that have followed since the film take their cues from the live action movies. Critically, the films aren’t very well received and hardcore fans have numerous complaints about the story logic and visually chaotic look of the characters, but saleswise, the films are a huge hit and bolster the toyline. With the fourth film doing blockbuster business just this past weekend, this will probably be the look of the line for some time to come.