A Brief-ish History of Transformers

In the early 80s, following a successful relaunch of their GI Joe line, Hasbro purchased the distribution rights for several transforming toys from the Japanese toy company Takara. In a brilliant marketing move, Hasbro combined numerous lines, toys from other companies, and a brand new storyline from Marvel comics into a wholly new franchise; Transformers. Decades later, what started as some clever repurposing and rebranding has endured and thrived, evolving into one of pop-culture’s most recognisable brands. In In A Brief-ish History of Transformers, we’re taking a look at the long history behind the series, from its humble Japanese origins to its global domination on toy shelves and at the cinematic box office.

In A Brief-ish History of Transformers - Optimus

By the early 1980s, the Japanese toy company Takara had several popular transforming toys. The first came as early as 1974 with the “Henshin Cyborg” (which translates to “Transforming Cyborg”). These 12″ figures were, ironically enough for what would happen later, a repurposed and altered mould of Hasbro’s own GI Joe figure. Takara had licensed the GI Joe mould for distribution in the Japanese market. The Henshin line was a big success and made the articulated GI Joe figure, transparent, with some android looking wires and parts visible inside.

Soon, however, the oil crisis, which began in 1973, started to have a more significant impact on the production of plastic toys. So Takara decided to scale down their Henshin figure to a 3.75″ size, and name it ‘Microman’. The Microman series proved another big hit and consisted of several characters, accessories, and vehicles.

At the same time, Takara began work on the ‘Diaclone’ toy line, which was released in 1980. The Diaclone line was similar in theme to the Microman series but instead focussed on robots that could transform into space ships. These space ships were then ‘piloted’ by smaller figures, inside the toy. From there, Diaclone branched out and began to make multi-part figures, where a number of the regular-sized toys could combine into much bigger robots. By 1982, as interest had started to wain, Diaclone introduced another new wave of figures that transformed from bigger robots into several more recognisable and realistic vehicles, in this case, cars.

In A Brief-ish History of Transformers - Henshin Cyborg

As the Microman and Diaclone series continued to develop, they spawned the ‘Micro Change’ line in 1982. Microchange was based around a similar idea, except the robotic figures transformed into more commonplace objects and gadgets like cameras and cassette players.

By 1983 Takara had a successful Diaclone line, that was primarily centred on robots turning into modern-day cars, and the Micro Change series, where robots would transform into toy guns, cameras, and cassette players.

In 1984, Hasbro, who were keen to keep their success going after a recent relaunch of smaller scaled GI Joe figures, noticed how well the transforming toys from Takara and other companies like Bandai (who had similar lines) were performing in Japan. Hasbro eventually decided to transfer and rebrand the transforming figures for a North American audience. Hasbro acquired the distribution rights to as many transforming toy moulds as they could, from several different companies – but primarily Takara.

Rebranding and redistributing toys from other countries was hardly new. The rebranded Takara Microman licence already had a presence in the Western market with Mego’s Micronauts line (which ran from 1976 to 1980). But for this rebrand, Hasbro went big on their launch and eventually decided to combine some figures from separate companies, but primarily the biggest sellers from Takara’s Diaclone and Microchange lines, under a brand new name; Transformers.

To better build the brand of Transformers, Hasbro went to Marvel Comics (who has already done a comic for GI Joe) for a storyline, character names and backstories for the original twenty-six figures. After Marvel’s Editor in Chief, Jim Shooter conceived the initial concept of the two warring factions, the Autobots and Decepticons, the job of creating the characters and their backgrounds eventually went to Bob Budiansky. He came up with most of the names for the original wave of figures in one weekend.

During pre-production on the Transformers North American release, Hasbro was beaten to the finish line by toy company Bandai. Bandai released the ‘Gobots’, another series of robot figures that could transform into conventional vehicles. Making the comparison even more apparent was the fact that the toys were also imported from Japan and featured two warring factions, the Guardians and the Renegades. Gobots beat Transformers to release by roughly six months, and not only looked to steal the thunder of Hasbro’s new line, but were significantly cheaper as well.

Looking back, however, the Gobots may have helped Transformers. They had a much simpler design than any of the Transformers figures. They acted as a sort of soft introduction to the idea for Western markets, paving the way for the bigger and better Transformers to follow up a few months later. Transformers launched later in 1984, and became an instant sensation, whereas by 1987 Gobots has ceased production entirely.

The Transformers animated series debuted in September of 1984 and proved to be a massive success in its own right. The figures and series boosted each other’s popularity almost symbiotically. The line proved to be so successful that within a year Takara began releasing their figures under the Transformers banner as well.

The first line of figures, which were all essentially rebranded Takara products, quickly paved the wave for many new characters. Hasbro dug through Takara’s back catalogue of transforming figures, as well as obtaining the licences to other Japanese transforming toys, to keep the momentum of the franchise going.

The waves that followed the original included some smaller subsets of Transformers, like the Dinobots, the Constructicons, the Insecticons, the Headmaster, Targetmaster, Micromaster and eventually the Action Master lines.

In 1986 the animated Transformers movie was released. Although fans expected an epic feature-length adventure in the vein of the animated series, it quickly became clear that the real goal of the film was to kill off most of the original characters, including fan favourite Autobot leader Optimus Prime, so that they could introduce several new characters and thus sell more toys.

But this marketing move didn’t really work. With a host of new characters introduced, a mixed critical reception, the merciless killing off of many fan favourites, and just barely making back it’s production budget meant that the Transformers movie was one of the first significant missteps of the franchise. This coupled with the figures shifting direction, into figures that transformed into space ships (rather than real-world vehicles and objects), can retrospectively be considered as the beginning of the end for Transformer’s initial success.

In A Brief-ish History of Transformers - Death of Optimus

From this point onwards Hasbro became more and more involved, with Takara’s influence diminishing, and as a result of the designs eventually became simpler and with that, less successful. The second generation of Transformers came with a new logo, a rebrand, and what was disappointingly mainly repainted G1 figures (at least at the start of the wave).

Later waves included the most simple Transformers yet, which in many cases were less like the complex transforming toys of earlier waves and generations, and often simply just one small toy inside another figure.

This downward spiral continued for the franchise until 1991, which marked the end for the animated show, comic series, and toys themselves. In a similar effort to the alternate colours on pre-existing figures the Generation 2 TV show was simply the original cartoon with some edited screen transitions and superimposed CGI sequences (which were mostly taken from the trailers for the figures). The second generation of Transformers was another big miss for the franchise, and even the release of several figures which had been unavailable for years didn’t help poor merchandise sales.

By 1996, twelve years after their debut, Hasbro was keen to bring back Transformers with a fresh new feel. Hasbro gave the job of completely reimagining the franchise to their newly acquired Kenner division, with the return of the original Transformers designers, Takara. This saw the evolution of Transformers into ‘Beast Wars’. This new take focused on a later generation of Autobots and Decepticons that had evolved into the ‘Maximals’ and ‘Predacons’ respectively, now able to transform into an organic form.

The Maximals were led by Optimus Primal, and the Predacons by Megatron, the two factions end up travelling through a time and space portal landing on a mysterious and hazardous planet which forces them to spend the majority of their time in their organic form. Rather than turning into cars, weapons and space ships like their predecessors the Maximals and Predacons turned into birds, dinosaurs, spiders and insects. The planet the Transformers landed on is eventually revealed to be prehistoric earth (with the original G1 Transformers in stasis at the same time).

Beast Wars launched with a CGI series that was a huge hit. The new series and toys managed to bring enough of the G1 Transformers style and elements back to the franchise while adding a fresh new story. Beast Wars is, years later, still seen as a hugely important part of Transformers, and ran for three seasons across three years. The story continued in the Beast Machines series, which ran for a further two seasons. The Beast Wars initiative reestablished the franchise and reinvigorated interest in Transformers, leading to a resurgence in sales and popularity in the late nineties and early two-thousands.

A new show, titled Robots in Disguise or Transformers: Car Robots, followed in 2000 but only in Japan. An international dub was released globally in 2001. The series looked to return to the Transformers roots, with human characters and fan favourites like Optimus Prime.

Now known as “The Unicron Trilogy”, the first simultaneous co-production from Hasbro and Takara was made fro. The first series, which was 2002’s Armada, returned to classic looking Transformers (away from the Beast Wars designs) and introduced a new take on the classic tropes of Transformers. In Armada, the Autobots and Decepticons were fighting over another race of sentient machines known as the “Mini-Cons”.

The Mini-Con’s escape, some of them crash land on the Moon and the rest on earth, millions of years then pass, bringing the story to the modern-day. Transformers: Energon, the 2004 series was then set ten years after the conclusion of Armada.

The end to the animated Unicron trilogy of shows came with 2005’s Transformers: Cybertron. Although another Hasbro and Takara production (which again went with a new line of toys and merchandise) the Japanese version pivoted away from this series as a conclusion to the Unicron arc. This meant that the English version, which was advertised as the end to that storyline, had to alter scenes and dialogue to make it work.

In 2007, Michael Bay’s first live-action Transformers film was released. After years in production, the movie starred Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, and Jon Voight. Its story retold the classic Transformers story of a war between two types of sentient robots and their war making its way to earth. The film received a lukewarm critical reception, and spit Transformers fans who enjoyed casting such as Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime (who reprised his role from the original animated series) but critiqued it’s heavily modified designs, which relied only on vehicles owned by General Motors (GM) and a significant emphasis on the human characters. Despite this, the movie proved to be a huge financial hit and spawned a series of sequels, each of which followed the trend of a lukewarm optical reception, but huge finical returns.

The movie also doubled as a considerable rebrand and launching point for the action figures. Several earlier waves were repackaged and re-released, along with hundreds of new toys created to fit in with the appearance and style of the movie. Transformers saw what is perhaps the biggest push in toys since it began, with region, retailer and country exclusive variants, large “battle packs” featuring several characters, repaints and updated designs for older figures, and simple re-releases. There were brand new simplified lines for younger fans, more sophisticated versions for retro fans and older audiences, and of course multiple versions of the characters featured in the film.

In A Brief-ish History of Transformers -Transformers 2007

One of the most prominent features of much of the 2007 line was the “Automorph Technology”. Used in some toys before 2007 the idea was to create automatically transforming toys, where a button was pressed, or a part moved which in turn triggered other elements to change and transform. The idea was pushed to its furthest point yet for 2007, with Hasbro hoping to put the “transform” into the Transformers line. Most movie figures featured some form of Automorph Technology, as did several other figures.

To capitalise on the success of the live-action movie, a new animated series, Transformers: Animated or Transformers: Robots in Disguise, began. The series aired for three seasons and ran until 2009, establishing brand new storylines and continuity (although there were several references to events seen in prior series and comics). The series was altered for Japanese audiences to tie into the live-action movies fully but was kept separate for the Western market. The show returned to a simplified look for the Transformers, emphasising the distinction between it and the live-action films. The series also spawned a Nintendo DS video game that was released in 2008.

2009 saw the release of the second live-action Transformers film, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Once again starring Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, the film continued the story from the first movie whilst adding to the live-action Transformers lore. The film introduces “The Fallen”, and resurrects Megatron, who in turn kills Optimus prime.

The second movie aimed to balance the stories between humans and Transformers more evenly, introduce even more Autobots and Decepticons, and dig deeper into the long history of the franchise. Revenge of the Fallen received even worse critical reviews than its predecessor but made more than enough money ($836,303,693 from a $200 million budget) to interest the studio in sequels. Like with the 2007 movie, Revenge of the Fallen saw another large push in merchandise with a dedicated toy line.

The following year, in 2010, Hasbro launched the Aligned Universe initiative, which looked to combine elements from all previous iterations and versions of the franchise into one new narrative. The Aligned Universe consisted of books, comics, video games, and series, which solved discrepancies between pre-existing branches of the franchise. There were however still several notable continuity issues, even in some of the newer material (which was designed to streamline the continuity).

The initiative was spearheaded by the “Binder of Revelation” a branding guide written primarily by Aaron Archer and Rik Alvarez, and the general idea was to combine different versions of the Transformers characters, directly opposing Hasbro’s earlier views of each new relaunch or reboot being in a separate continuity. However, later stories saw a return to older universes and even had the aligned continuity interact and crossover, in theory making it just another parallel universe.

One of the Aligned Universe’s largest properties was the 2010 Transformers Prime show. Created by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who co-wrote the first two live-action Transformers films, the series started with a focus on Megatron using Dark Energon to resurrect dead Autobots. Eventually, several other Transformers tropes like Starscream’s treachery, the rise of Unicron, and Optimus Prime self-sacrifice worked their way into the series. The third season was subtitled Beast Hunters, introducing the Predaking and Predacons from the Beast Wars line of Transformers. The series concluded in 2013, with the feature-length Transformers Prime Beat Hunters: Predacons Rising.

The next live-action Transformers, 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, saw Shia LaBeouf return, but Megan Fox was notably absent after a behind the scenes falling out with director Michael Bay. Fox was replaced as the female lead by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The story was based on a prequel novel to the original 2007 film, written by Alan Dean Foster, called Transformers: Ghosts of Yesterday.  Dark of the Moon’s story revolves around the Ark landing on the Moon, and the subsequent cover-up from both the US and Soviet Union. The film introduces Sentinel Prime, the Autobot leader before Optimus, and shows how he made a deal with Megatron in the hopes of saving Cybertron.

The film became the tenth in history to pass one billion dollars at the global box office. It became the second highest-grossing film of the year behind the final Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.

The toys that released alongside Dark of the Moon were much like previous movie accompanying lines, but with some critical issues like characters such as Soundwave not getting a North American release. It was also the third time within four years that Hasbro had made large merchandise and action figure push to fit in with a movie release, resulting in some similar figures and some saturation.

In 2012 a more child-centric line called Transformers Robot Heroes launched. It took a similar style and scale from the already popular Hasbro Star Wars and Marvel lines (known as “Galactic Heroes” and “Superhero Squad” respectively). The line of figures was viewed as an entry-level series for younger fans, with figures that could match and combine with several other franchises under similar banners.

Robot Heroes eventually evolved into Transformers Rescue Bots, another entry-level kid-centric line, that again followed suit of Hasbro’s other lines with Star Wars and Marvel. The Star Wars Jedi Force and Marvel Superhero Adventures lines replaced their predecessors, and for Transformers and Marvel, each line got an accompanying animated series. Rescue Bots ran for one hundred and four episodes from 2012 to 2016, making it the longest-running Transformers series.  A sequel series, Transformers Rescue Bots Academy began in 2019.

The fourth Transformers film, Age of Extinction, arrived in 2014, and once again despite a negative critical response, became the highest-grossing film of the year (although only the second-highest in the franchise, behind Dark of the Moon). Despite initially claiming he wouldn’t return, Michael Bay directed the fourth instalment to the live-action series, but with a wholly new human cast led by Mark Wahlberg. The story follows the events of the third film, where humans are now fearful of Transformers (regardless of their faction) thanks to to the destruction caused in Dark of the Moon. Age of Extinction sees the Transformers once again go up against a plot set in motion years earlier, by a race of beings known as the Creators. The movie introduces the live-action Dinobots.

The main distinction between the toy line that accompanied the fourth movie from earlier movie lines is that it was neatly split into two lines, a simplifier kid-friendly “Robots in Disguise” line, and a more detailed “Generations” line intended for collectors.

Transformers: Robots in Disguise debuted in 2015. The show was a sequel series to the Transformers: Prime series from 2010, and ran for three full series and one mini-series between 2015 and 2017.

An animated story arc that spanned three separate series, known as the Prime Wars trilogy, then began in 2016. Starting with the Combiner Wars in 2016, which was produced by Machinima and Tatsunoko Production. The series followed the Autobots and Decepticon’s return to Cybertron and reaching an uneasy alliance after Optimus defeated Megatron. Eventually, the Combiner Wars began, in another story that digs deep into Transformers lore while also pushing it in a new direction.

The story continued in Transformers: Titans Return which aired from 2017 to 2018, and was finished up in 2018’s Transformers: Power of the Primes. The Prime Wars trilogy story arc included a console and PC game called Transformers: Devastation, and mobile games Battle Tactics and Earth Wars, a tie in online book called The Power of the Titan Masters, as well as being mentioned in various on-going Transformers IDW comic books.

2017 saw the release of the fifth Transformers film, The Last Knight. The film saw the return of Mark Wahlberg from Age of Extinction, as well as the return of Josh Duhamel, John Turturro and Glenn Morshower from the original Transformers films, and the introduction of Anthony Hopkins. The Last Knight combines the Transformers lore with the legends of King Arthur and Merlin, further combining human history and that of the Transformers.

A Brief (ish) History of Transformers - Last Knight

The film underperformed compared to its predecessor’s, earning only $605.4 million at the global box office, which according to reports meant that after production and advertising Hasbro and Paramount lost money on the film. The underperformance and continued critical panning of the series led to a change in direction for the live-action series going forward. The toys that went with Last Knight followed suit with the previous film toys, having several sub-lines of varying entry levels, complexity, detail, and of course, price.

In 2018 a new series, Transformers Cyberverse, debuted. Once again this show began a new continuity, brought in new voices actors, and featured new designs for the transforming robots, but this time the series focussed on Bumblebee as its main character. The show ran for three seasons from 2018 to 2020 following Bumblebee’s attempt at retrieving his memory, an adventure that came with the customary war on Cybertron, Optimus Prime looking or the All Spark, and several other series tropes.

After over a decade of critically panned Transformers films, the series looked to a soft reboot with 2018’s Bumblebee. Bumblebee was first in the series to not be directed by Michael Bay, with Travis Knight leading the project instead. The film is both a spin-off and prequel, set in the 1980s, with a new principal human cast. The movie made a considerable effort to return to classic G1 Transformers designs, and softly reset the live-action Transformers lore. The film had a total box office gross of $468 million, making it the lowest-performing of the entire franchise. But conversely to its predecessors (each of which performed poorly critically, but well financially) Bumblebee received a positive critical response (currently at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes). Bumblebee is also the shortest Transformers movie, twenty-nine minutes shorter than the original, with was the quickest before Bumblebee.

One of the most consistent parts of the Transformers empire is the comic books line. Initially, the series took place within the main Marvel Comics Universe but was eventually separated. The original Marvel series ran from 1984 to 1991, Marvel produced a follow-up series in 1993, but little happened afterwards until Dreamwave productions separate set in the early two-thousands. The license was then moved to IDW comics in 2005 and has been running ever since. The Transformers comics have multiple lines, various cross overs, series and move tie in books,  and have crossed over with several other franchises like GI: Joe (another Hasbro toy-based property), the Avengers, and Star Trek.

A Brief (ish) History of Transformers - Bumblebee

Overall the Transformers franchise has had more than it’s share of ups, downs and wrong turns, but nevertheless, the Transforming toys have more than earned their way into the pop-culture hall of fame, continually shifting, reinventing, and ‘transforming’ itself, making sure several generations of children each have their version of Transformers. 

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