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The Transformers: A Brief History of the Robots in Disguise

By Edited Jun 25, 2014 0 0

The Autobot and Decepticon symbols for the Transformers' factions are now a part of pop culture

Little boys love robots, cars, planes, and wild animals, so nobody was surprised that the Transformers, action figures that could change from robots into vehicles or creatures, were smash hit as soon as they were introduced to U.S. consumers in 1984. But nobody expected that Hasbro's Transformers toys would become a pop culture phenomenon and make household names out of characters like Optimus Prime and Megatron. The history of the toy line is fascinating, and the Transformers characters continue to shine on toy aisles, in movies and television shows, and in many other areas.

Following the unprecedented success of their G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toy line, Hasbro looked overseas to find their next hit. The company stuck a bargain with Takara toys in Japan to release the Japanese toy lines known as Diaclone and Microman in the United States. Robots that could be turned into cars, planes, cassette tapes, cassette players, or guns and back were sold under the Microman and Diaclone banners, and though the toys were relatively popular in Japan, the figures in the line were just blank slates lacking the individual personalities that made G.I. Joe successful. Hasbro saw a potential hit, and the company enlisted the services of Marvel Comics to make the toys into compelling characters.

Marvel divided the Microman and Diaclone robots into two factions - the heroic Autobots and the Evil Decepticons - collectively labeling them as the Transformers. The catchphrase "more than meets the eye" was attached to the toy line, and soon kids everywhere were learning about these characters from profiles on the back of the robots' packaging. After crash landing on Earth, the Autobots (the robots who changed into cars) defended earth from the Decepticons (the robots who changed into guns, planes, and cassettes) and tried to make it back to their home planet of Cybertron. A comic book series soon followed, which helped further define the personalities of the characters. Writer Bob Budiansky provided the basic characterization for the figures we now know and love, including Optimus Prime, the noble Autobot commander and Megatron, the evil leader of the Decepticons.

Marvel's work was so successful that Takara soon reintroduced their former Microman and Diaclone lines in Japan as Transformers. But the popularity of the Transformers really took off when Sunbow productions began producing an animated series based on the Transformers franchise. Characters like Starscream, Grimlock, Bumblebee, and Soundwave, along with Optimus Prime and Megatron, became pop culture superstars, and the Transformers' likenesses were licensed for apparel, school supplies, and countless other products.

Transformers the Movie, an animated feature film that continued the storyline of the Sunbow program, was released in 1986 and introduced Unicron, a transforming planet and ultimate enemy of the Transformers. Optimus Prime was killed off and Megatron was turned into the insane but powerful Galvatron. The animated movie was the apex of the Transformers' popularity in the 1980s, for after the feature film, sales slowly declined, leading to the eventual cancellation of the toy line in 1990. Yet as the toy sales were slowly eroding, the Marvel comic went through a renaissance under new writer Simon Furman, who produced some of the most beloved Transformers stories ever. The comic lasted until its cancellation in 1991.

Anyone who wrote an obituary for the Transformers at that point was acting prematurely, for in 1992 Hasbro tried the market again with Transformers: Generation 2. This line rereleased several of the toys from the 1980s in new packaging and colors, and it also added newly designed figures. Transformers: Generation 2 was only a moderate success at best, and it was phased out in favor of Transformers: Beast Wars in 1996.

Transformers: Beast Wars consisted of action figures that changed from robots into animals, and this series of figures found a wide audience with kids. Having an emmy-award winning computer animated program starring the Beast Wars characters certainly did not hurt things. Adults who grew up with the original Transformers toys were initially unimpressed with the Beast Wars figures, but they were soon won over by the excellent writing on the animated program and the way in which the writers tied the storyline to the original series. Descendants of the Decepticons known as the Predacons fought the Maximals, descendants of the Autobots in a time-spanning epic that had the Beast Wars characters meet some of their predecessors on a prehistoric earth. Eventually, the Beast Wars toy line evolved into the short-lived Transformers: Beast Machines in 1999.

There have been adult collectors in the Transformers fan community since the 1980s. But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, the presence of adult fans was much stronger because men who grew up playing with the toys as young boys had discretionary income with which to purchase old and new toys bearing the Transformers label. Adult collecting really took off when Hasbro released a new series of Transformers in 2001 under the banner Transformers: Robots in Disguise. In many ways these seemed to be made especially for adults due to the complexity of the transformation steps for many of the toys. Transformers: Robots in Disguise was a series also popular with kids, but Hasbro would soon introduce three new series of figures that would take the kid market even more strongly by storm. During the years 2002–2007, the Transformers: Armada, Transformers: Energon, and Transformers: Cybertron featured new versions of everyone's favorite Transformer characters and introduced the concept of having every toy come with some kind of action feature. Collectible action figures of the Transformers made for adults were also released in this period as Transformers: Alternators and Transformers: Masterpiece.

Today, the Transformers have an even wider influence on the entire culture due to the release of director Michael Bay's full-length, live-action motion picture Transformers in 2007. Hollywood stars John Voight, Shia LeBouef, and Megan Fox helped make this film one of the highest grossing of all time, and work on a sequel began. Before this second film, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was released in summer 2009, a new animated program and toy line, Transformers: Animated entertained adult fans and kids alike in the interim between the two movies. As always, comic books, toys, and endless merchandising accompanied the release of the movies and the newest cartoon. At the time of this writing, a third Transformers-based movie directed by Michael Bay is in the works.

Nobody knows just what the Transformers brand will bring us in the future, but we can all rest assured that it will be great fun as the Autobots and Decepticons continue to wield their influence on all of us. Clearly, these compelling characters and awesome toys are not going anywhere soon!



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