When Hasbro brought the Transformers to the United States in 1984, the toys were an overnight sensation. A generation of children raised on “Star Wars” action figures and Atari video games were thrilled by the idea that an everyday car or truck could turn into an awesome robot superhero.
Transformers got their start in Japan, where robots were viewed as benevolent creations. Starting in the late 1950s, the country that had been devastated by nuclear bombs in World War II took to spinning stories, in manga and anime, of giant robot protectors controlled by humans. The genesis of transforming robots dates at least to 1965, when Ozamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy, introduced the character of Magma (called Goldar in the U.S.), a gold sentient robot that could transform into a rocket.
Magma was followed in 1967 by a television character named King Joe, an evil alien robot formed from combining four ships, and 1974’s anime hero Getter Robo, made of three jets that could be connected to make three different robots.
The first true transforming robot toy appeared in 1975. This five-inch-tall diecast metal toy, produced by Bandai’s Popy, was based on the TV anime series “Brave Raideen,” whose hero was a giant robot. Though sentient, Raideen allowed himself to be piloted by a human, and he could change into a bird-like jet called Godbird. American kids got to play with their first transformer, dubbed a “two-in-one warrior,” in 1978, when Mattel sold Raideen as a part of its Shogun Warriors line.
After Raideen, transforming robots were all the rage in Japan, populating anime and live-action TV series in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Many of these robots were eventually repurposed as U.S. toys and cartoon characters meant to compete with the Transformers franchise. For example, the giant Dairugger XV robot, introduced in a 1982 anime, was formed from multiple cars—U.S. kids eventually came to know Dairugger XV as Voltron, Defender of the Universe.
That same year, another human-piloted giant robot called Valkyrie, which realistically transformed into a jet, appeared in the “Super Dimension Fortress Macross” anime. By 1985, “Macross” was combined with 1983’s “Mospeada” and 1984’s “Southern Cross” transforming robot animes to become the “Robotech” TV series in the United States. Meanwhile, the Popy company got in on the transforming robot action, releasing a series of toys called Machine Robo in 1982, which would be released by Tonka in the U.S. in 1984 as the Gobots.
The Transformers brand actually originated from a 1970s spin on G.I. Joe. In 1972, Japanese toy company Takara introduced a 12-inch android version of the popular soldier/adventurer action figure called Henshin Cyborg, with a transparent robot body and metallic head. In 1974, the company reduced this robot to a 3 3/4-inch action figure and dubbed him Microman. Two years later, action figure powerhouse Mego introduced Microman figurines and their vehicles to U.S. kids as Micronauts...
At the beginning of the ’80s, Takara updated its popular toy series and released it as New Microman, with a spinoff called the Diaclone line. Takara produced two transforming car robots for this new line, each piloted by one-inch Microman figures. These vehicles eventually became the Transformers’ Autobot heroes we know now as Ironhide and Sunstreaker. Similarly, 1984’s Diaclone Battle Convoy, a toy semi-truck, became Transformers good guy Optimus Prime.
In 1983, another Takara spinoff of Microman called MicroChange introduced kids to miniature vehicles and robots that transformed into lifesize household items and weapons. Many of these robots would also be made into Tranformers. The Walther P-38 Gun Robo, resembling a hand gun, became the evil Megatron, while Cassette Man, which resembled a tape, became Soundwave. MicroChange also featured what Takara called Mini Car Robos, made to look like “penny racer” cars. Many of these, too, would become a part of the Transformer line as mini Autobots: Cliffjumper, Bumblebee, Gears, Brawn, Windcharger, and Bumblejumper.
Taraka attempted to sell these toys in the U.S. in 1980, first under the Diakron and then the Kronoform brands. But because the company was unfamiliar with how to market its products in the U.S., by 1983 these early ventures had failed.
Fortunately, that was not the end. In 1983, Hasbro representatives attending the Tokyo Toy Fair signed a licensing deal to sell MicroChange and Diaclone robots in the United States. Right away, Hasbro collaborated with comics publisher Marvel and animators Sunbow Productions to develop a story that would bring these two toy lines together as the Transformers—the cartoons and comics would serve as marketing tools for their products. Because these Transformers were sentient, the tiny Diaclone pilots were eliminated.
The basic story they came with goes like this: The Transformers are not man-made machines. In fact, they are actually a prehistoric alien race from the planet Cybertron that long ago split into two warring factions—the Autobots and Decepticons. A spaceship carrying these creatures had crash-landed on Earth four million years ago, where the robots lay dormant until they are awakened in 1984. The Decepticons, led by Megatron, proceeded to pillage and dominate the comparatively weak humans. Optimus Prime and his Autobot friends took on the role of protecting human society.
Transformer toys made between 1984 and 1993, called Generation One by collectors, are considered by some to be the only “true” Transformers. Some like Optimus Prime tranformed into cars and trucks, while others like Megatron turned into oversize objects such as guns. Still others transformed into jets or dinosaurs—these Dinobots were introduced in Japan by Diaclone in 1984.
One of the most popular Transformers, Decepticon Soundwave, converted itself into a contraption that looked like a Sony Walkman—Autobot Blaster became a boombox stereo. Characters such as Ravage and Rumble took on cassette-tape shapes that were designed to fit into Soundwave's and Blaster’s decks. Meanwhile, a 1985 Transformer called Shockwave transformed into a toy laser gun, and those known as triple changers had three modes—Astrotrain could be changed into a train or a space shutlle, Blitzwing became a tank and a jet, and Broadside transformed into both a jet and an aircraft carrier.
Hasbro also introduced lines of "combiner" Tranformers. Sold separately, they could be attached to one another to make an even bigger robot. For example, when put together, the five Technobots could be arranged to form Computron, and the Constructicons come together to make Devastator. Meanwhile, the Throttlebots came out in a smaller Matchbox-car size. The U.S. Transformers concept was repackaged for Japan, too—by 1985, the U.S. versions ended up destroying the Microman and Diaclone lines.
The 1986 American animated film “Transformers: The Movie” brought in new characters and eliminated earlier ones. At the same time, Hasbro changed many of the toys for cost-cutting reasons, removing expensive die-cast metal parts and making the transforming components less complicated.
The Transformers craze had mostly faded in the United States by 1990, but in 1993 the Generation Two toys were launched. These were mostly repainted version of the old toys with extra weapons and accessories that made cool sounds. Eventually, though, Takara was enlisted to redesign many of the toys, including Megatron, who became a tank instead of gun. Still, this new line didn’t capture the imagination of its target audience and was discontinued in 1995.
Concurrently, the mid-1990s popularity of Japanese giant-robot anime films like the “Gundam” series and “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” restored interest in transforming robot toys. This prompted Hasbro to relaunch the Transformers again for its 1996 Beast Wars series, which switched from humanoid to animal-like robots, including a rat (Rattrap), a cheetah (Cheetor), a razorback (Razorbeast), a tarantula (Tarantulas), an iguana (Iguanus), and a wasp (Waspinator). Megatron became a Tyrannosaurus rex, while Optimus Primal was a gorilla.
Around 2000, vehicle Transformers returned in the form of the evil Vehicons fighting the good Maximals. After that, more Transformers car-robot animated series were released, and Hasbro produced a couple of revamped toy lines to go with them, including Robots in Disguise, Armada, Energon, Cybertron, and the more general Transformers Universe. A 2003 toy series called Alternators actually looked like name-brand cars and trucks, made to a 1/24 scale—these were discontinued in 2006 but are popular with collectors today.
To mark the 20th anniversary of Transformers in 2004, Takara produced a special Optimus Prime for the U.S. collectors’ market. This die-cast robot was based on the original G1 semi-truck character, made of die-cast metal and featuring a complex changing process. For this Masterpiece Editions line, Takara has put out an honorary reproduction every year, including Megatron, Starscream, and Grimlock.
In 2006, Hasbro launched the nostalgic Classics line, which featured improved, better articulated versions of the G1 toys—these eventually became absorbed in Transformers Universe. That same year, the company took many “Star Wars” vehicles and re-imagined them as Transformers for its Crossovers line—in 2008 it did the same with Marvel superheroes.
The Transformers franchise received yet another boost with the 2007 release (and 2009 sequel) of Michael Bay’s smash hit live-action movie, “Transformers,” starring Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. Naturally, toys were made to go with the film were sold alongside the Transformers Animated line, which was based on the yet another new animated TV series.