2009 marks the 25th anniversary of Hasbro’s Transformers line. They’re celebrating with a TON of new toys all marked with special commemorative packaging in the Transformers Universe line. The Universe will feature the already established updates of beloved G1 characters, but also branches out into the Beast era by the end of the first quarter. This year we’ll also see a sequel to the 2007 blockbuster Transformers movie and a new season of Cartoon Network’s Transformers Animated. With Hasbro pulling out all the stops, we here at Panels on Pages thought it was only appropriate to pay our respects with a look back at every era of Transformers history. So Lee went nuts and did this. For two weeks, he’ll be looking at the good, the bad and the ugly of both the TV shows and toys and even the comics that we’ve been eating up for two and a half decades. It wasn’t always great, but it was always Transformers. So strap in and roll out!
Day 10 – The Other Stuff
We’ve looked back over the past 25 years of Transformers and covered most of the big ones here in the US. There’s some more Japanese stuff we didn’t go into for brevity’s sake (if you can believe it) and there’s plenty more we could talk about for weeks and weeks. There’s Revoltechs and Robot Masters, Attacktix and Victory and all sorts of other madness. There are sublines within sublines to the point that the toys never stop, or so it would seem. Before we close out this retrospective, there are a handful of things that most certainly warrant mentioning based off of either sheer cool factor, significance, or both. Let’s dive into some of the other stuff. Bear in mind, I didn’t forget about Alternators, but Kerouac summed it all up nicely in one of our early BLAARGH! columns.
We’ve mentioned already the G1 Marvel comic, the Armada and Energon comics and the new Animated comic, but that’s just the beginning. There are tons of comics out there for the Auotobot-happy. Marvel of course published the Generation 1 stories, but they also had crossover with G.I. Joe. And why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t Hasbro’s two money makers meet up? It makes perfect sense. Recently, in 2007, Marvel (in association with current rights-holder IDW Publishing) published a crossover with the New Avengers, pitting them against the combined forces of Megatron and Doctor Doom. Trust me when I say it is AWFUL. Don’t believe us? It’s in trade. Check it out… But bring a bucket… For the vomit… It sucks.
In 2002, upstart publisher Dreamwave Productions snagged the Transformers rights and made some EXCELLENT comics. We’ve talked about the Armada and Energon comics, but not the G1 series. Dreamwave’s Generation 1 series existed somewhere in between the Marvel comic and the cartoon, at times seeming to fill the gap in the lost time between the cartoon’s season two and the jump in time to 2005 when the movie was set. The art was hot and the stories were solid. In fact, they were so popular that they expanded the universe one step farther with the War Within series. Set on Cybertron before the Great War, the War Within would chronicle Optimus Prime’s rise as well as Megtron’s and featured all-new, fully-functioning Cybertonian designs by artist Don Figueroa. It’s also in the War Within that we were introduced to the Fallen, a mad disciple of Unicron, who features prominently in Revenge of the Fallen (naturally).
Sadly, this would not last, as Dreamwave went belly-up in the middle of numerous storylines across a wealth of Transformers titles in 2005. That in and of itself is a long story. Artists weren’t paid. Bills weren’t paid. Bridges were burned. It was just a bad scene and is notoriously fishy. Hasbro didn’t waste any time handing the reigns over to another company. This time IDW Publishing got the golden goose.
Most of IDW’s Transformers comics have been by longtime Transformers writer Simon Furman and are a brand new continuity free from any toy line or cartoon that has come before it. In one interview, Furman called it his “Ultimate Transformers,” playing off of the concept of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. A series of mini-series, the IDW books take a much different approach to the idea of giant robots. In this universe, the Decepticons operate like stealthy alien invaders and prefer NOT to cause the grandiose spectacle we’re used to, opting instead for a more subtle infiltration of alien worlds. The series is still going strong today, as regular PoP readers know and is INSANELY dense and impressive in its presentation. Aside from their main new continuity, IDW also published prequel and sequel minis to the 2007 movie, an adaption of the 1986 movie and the current Animated comic.
Another “other line” was the Titanium series. Hasbro was already producing small die-cast figures based off of their other properties like Star Wars and Marvel under the Galoob imprint (they even have the Micro Machines logo on them! Seriously!), so why not Transformers? The line consisted of a series of 3-inch non transformable figures and 6-sinch transformable figures, the latter of which only being partially die-cast. Despite the line’s short life, there was a surprising amount of each series released, over twenty of each.
The line posed a unique opportunity to give fans new versions of old characters regardless of which era they were from. Everything from G1 to the 2007 movie was featured in some degree in the Titanium series. While the little guys were pretty straightforward, the transforming figures were hit or miss. You basically got either a really good vehicle mode or a really good robot mode. There weren’t many instances of both. Rodimus Prime, for example, has a really sweet vehicle mode, but his robot mode has a giant hole in his body and unless you’re viewing him from the front, looks really goofy. This is mainly due to the extremely primitive transformations these toys had. The regular Transformers design team didn’t have an active role in the engineering, so the results weren’t always stellar. “Close enough” seemed to be the motto at the Titanium office.
What indeed was cool was that fans got toys based off of Dreamwave’s War Within designs in Titanium form. In fact, the first wave had War Within Optimus Prime, and he’s actually a great example of a truly successful Titanium figure, at least from a visual standpoint. WW Prime’s failing were the same as many others. The figure features a lot of nice die-cast pieces. We’ve established this. The remaining pieces, however (and this is true of all Titanium figures) are cast in an extremely soft plastic that can in no way support the weight of the die-cast pieces they are attached to.
It’s ironic that the line’s biggest draw was also its biggest shortcoming. The die-cast pieces proved intensely problematic just because of the sheer weight. G1 Soundwave, in addition to his hideous crotch, was so top heavy that his legs (which were extended during transformation into robot mode) would often collapse under the sheer weight of the body they were supporting. Some figures had die-cast forearms and soft plastic elbows resulting in bent joints if you were try to have them sustain an “arm-out” pose for too long.
Ultimately, the line was “cancelled.” Much like Alternators, poor distribution in turn leading to poor sales is the main reason for the line’s failure, and in 2007 it was announced that the line was basically dead. However, three of the remaining War Within designs did see release in 2008 as exclusives. Hasbro’s online store got Skywarp and Toys R Us got Prowl and Grimlock, albeit in limited quantities.
Masterpiece Series (2003-Present)
Ah, the Masterpieces. The name pretty much says it all. The Masterpiece series from Takara features G1 cartoon/comic accurate characters at a larger scale with intricate transformations and big price tags. Optimus Prime was the cheapest at $65 at the time of his release and Grimlock is the most expensive at a whopping $130. They’re made for the Japanese market, but the US has seen some import action with Prime and Starscream. With eight Masterpiece figures released but with only 4 unique molds, we can afford the time to take a look at each one individually. And honestly, they all deserve it.
Optimus Prime (or rather “Convoy”) is MP-1, naturally. Released in 2003, he’s 12-inches tall and chock full of die-cast goodness and sweet rubber tires. He’s easily the most accurate depiction of Generation 1 Optimus Prime in both robot and truck modes that we’re ever going to see. He’s nearly perfect in his proportions. The truck has a working suspension and the robot form has visible pistons and hinges that work. He has a very impressive range of motion, but the die-cast torso makes him pretty top-heavy, so pose with care. He comes packed with an array fantastic accessories including not only his energon axe from the first episode, but a miniature Megatron in gun form. He’s got flip-out communication panels on his arms and his mouth moves when you push the button on his head. And perhaps best of all, his chest opens to reveal the Matrix from the 1986 movie, and it totally lights up AND it’s removable. Toyfare magazine named it the coolest toy of the past ten years in 2007, and it’s easy to see why. Masterpiece Prime is a gem in any collection. The mold was reused for Ultra Magnus (of course) as MP-2, released in America as “20th anniversary Optimus Prime,” and again as MP-4 with his trailer for an additional $100.
The second original sculpt, Starscream was MP-3. He’s an excellent representation of an F-15E Eagle, perhaps a little too good. It’s clear that a lot of care went into making sure that Starscream’s jet form was the best it could be, even the underside. Unlike every Starscream toy before it or since, when you turn the plane over, you don’t see his entire chest glaring at you. The only visible robot parts on the alt mode of this guy are his hands. That’s pretty impressive. The downside to that is that while the robot mode is equally impressive and very well-articulated (though MUCH shorter than Optimus and with less die-cast, meaning next to none), it does take some liberties as far as cartoon accuracy is concerned. In an effort to further accent the jet form, the figure is painted to more closely resemble a military fighter rather than the white and red Starscream is famous for. Hasbro rectified this when the figure was released stateside as a Wal-Mart exclusive, though he was a pain to find and is therefore somewhat rare. The US version proved so popular that Takara released it in Japan as a “USA edition.” He was also repainted and released as MP-6 and MP-7 as Skywarp and Thundercracker, naturally. For accessories, this one’s no slouch. He has a stand that can be used to simulate flight in either jet OR robot form, a clip that attaches to the plane that holds the Megatron packed with Optimus Prime for some cartoon recreation and even a copilot. That’s right; he comes with a tiny little Dr Arkevile from the show. What’s more is that he can stay in the cockpit during the entire transformation. Throw in both the null rays from the show and some more realistic missiles and you’ve got yourself a winner.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Optimus Prime’s nemesis got the Masterpiece treatment, and rightly so. It probably took some time to figure out exactly how they were going to pull it off. In short, MP-5 is an engineering marvel. This figure somehow manages to give you a Megatron that looks pretty close to his cartoon model and yet still transforms into a Walther P-38 pistol, just like back in the day (albeit a much larger version). How does it do it? With a bajillion pieces, that’s how. The transformation is probably the most advanced ever. It takes a LONG time to do it. The shortest I’ve ever heard of someone doing it is 40 minutes. That’s madness. He is a very impressive display piece. With cool accessories like his energon mace, blaster and beam saber from the movie and even a tiny Kremzeek, with a little light-up fusion cannon action, MP-5 rocks. It’s not all good, however. He’s not good for much else besides a display piece. Due to his insanely complex transformation, he’s pretty limited in articulation and his giant fusion cannon hinders mobility on his right arm and plus, its super heavy so he can’t always support it from every angle. He also feels like he’s really fragile. Many buyers have reported that he breaks easily. We here haven’t experienced this ourselves, but it’s worth mentioning. What we have experienced is the rusting. On some of the MP-5′s, the diecast is extremely prone to pitting and tarnishing while others have no problems at all. It’s something of a mystery, though some fans have jokingly said that it’s actually a show-accurate play feature of Cosmic Rust.
Before we move on to the final Masterpiece, I have to mention the Megatron controversy. Since he does transform into a fairly realistic gun, he’s considered a gun replica and can therefore not be sold in the US as-is. The irony that this incredibly expensive adult toy stirred so much controversy when the much smaller CHILD-SIZED version in 1984 was marketed TO children with little fanfare does not escape the community. In fact, you can buy a real gun cheaper than MP-5. Regardless, there were fears of customs seizing the Japan-imports due to toy laws. This prompted many online retailers to open MP-5′s and affix a standards-meeting orange plug into the barrel and then repackage him before delivery. These “permanent fixtures” were often applied with little more than hot glue or even double-sided tape, so it took practically no effort to undo the ridiculous changes. In Australia, however, it’s even worse. After seizing numerous mass shipments of the toy, the Australian government came down hard on this thing. You actually have to get a PERMIT to buy this toy. A stipulation on the permit even goes so far as to mandate that if Megatron is ever sold or disposed of, the police must be notified. Basically, they treat it like a real gun. What makes all of this even more funny is that he’s packaged in robot mode, so if you open the box, you see a robot staring at you and only after about an hour using the instruction manual (not a sheet, but a MANUAL) can you get it to look like a gun. How funny is that?
The latest Masterpiece is Grimlock, and he’s a double-edged sword. MP-8 is a fantastic mold, for sure. It captures the essence of the G1 version of the character just as good as Optimus Prime’s Masterpiece. There’s a little diecast thrown in for good measure and he’s got a TON of gimmicks. For starters, you can decide what color his eyes are in both forms independent of one another to match the toys, comics, cartoon or whatever. It’s a very cool touch. He comes packed with his blaster and sword as well as an apron and serving tray with glasses (Which he actually used in an episode of the show… Damn you, season 3!) and the mind transfer helmet from the show. Sadly, he does not come with the Marvel comics-inspired crown that was shown in prototype images. So if he’s so cool, what’s the problem? For one, he is MAD expensive. He’s even more expensive than the already-extravagant MP-5 AND he’s smaller. Grimlock is slightly bigger than Starscream but nowhere near Optimus and Megatron’s height, so that’s a big turn-off for this one, considering the price. Another common critique for this guy is that his transformation is really simple compared to his MP brethren, but to fair, the character design lends itself to a simpler transformation. Any more and it really wouldn’t be Grimlock, at least not the G1 version the designers were shooting for.
There’s no word yet on MP-9, but fans are already anxiously awaiting the reveal, both for the character and the sure-to-be inflated price.
Transformers Universe (2008-Present)
The Universe series has existed before. Around the time Armada hit, the Universe line was created as a means to resell older toys with repainted color schemes and the occasional retooling, though none of these were ever as good as their original figures. In short, it was a shameless ploy to get people to buy more of the same toys they already bought. In 2008, it was resurrected. It enveloped the Robot Heroes figures (we’ll get to those in a minute) and it currently does feature its share of repaints and redecoes, but the main draw here is that this is the new iteration of the beloved Classics series from 2006, and that means all-new molds of G1 characters.
But that wasn’t enough. The new Universe figures have moved on to including some Beast Wars characters as well. Already we’ve seen Cheetor and Dinobot and rumor has it Rhinox is on the way. There’s even a new Armada Hot Shot, too. There are some great homages here as well. Hot Shot comes with a new version of his Minicon Jolt, but sadly there is no peg functionality. Cyclonus (who is AWESOME) comes with his old Targetmaster Nightstick, who does indeed turn into his weapon. There’s clearly a lot of love in this series.
One of the most impressive things so far in the line is the mold for Sunstreaker and Sideswipe. Sunstreaker was released in the first wave and Sideswipe followed later. They’re the same mold with the same alt mode, which makes sense, but the mold was engineered with two transformations resulting in two different robot modes (this thing is practically begging for a Punch/Counterpunch repaint). Couple that with the new head sculpt for Sideswipe and you’ve got two very different toys from the same mold. That kind of foresight has never been seen before. Cliffjumper didn’t even get a new head when he was repainted from Bumblebee.
This Universe series also reintroduced the Ultra Class and continued the Legends. Significantly larger than the Voyagers, the Ultras also have some light and sound gimmicks. So far there have been three original molds and a couple of repaints, but the best is easily Powerglide/Stormcloud. The mold has an unusually complex transformation and hides his robot parts VERY well in jet mode, even on the underside. There’s lots of turning and flipping and rotating and such. It’s a lot of fun. The Legends figures are pretty nice, too, especially when you consider the size they’re working with. Brawn especially brings back memories of the mini-bots of old. Some nice ball joints bring these little guys up a few notches, as does the obscure character selection (Wheelie, people! Wheelie!).
Unfortunately, it looks like this line is going on hiatus so that Hasbro can once again devote their efforts to the movie line, but fans have been assured that the Universe line will continue, so that’s certainly something to look forward to.
Robot Heroes (2007-Present)
Originally part of the movie line, the Robot Heroes now fall under the Universe banner. These little guys are super-deformed 2-inch tall figures that come in 2-packs… Oh, and they’re adorable. Seriously, these little guys are dripping with cute. There’s nothing quite like a cute smiley Megatron raining death upon humans to make a toddler smile. That’s the thing about these guys. They don’t transform. They’re made of soft PVC plastic. They only move at the shoulders and head. They’re CLEARLY meant for small children. But they’re so CUTE! Even Unicron looks cuddly! Who in their right mind wouldn’t want a couple of these guys on their desk? So the point is that these little guys have a pretty strong following in the adult fan community as well. They’re cheap. There’s a wide range of characters from the G1, Beast and Movie eras and above all, they’re fun, and that’s what toys are supposed to be, really.
That’s what this entire exercise has been about, in fact. Thus concludes our look back at the long and varied history of Transformers. We hope you enjoyed it. Maybe you learned something. Maybe you remembered something you forgot years ago. Do some digging if you like. There’s plenty more out there to see and read about. Believe it or not, we only touched the tip of the iceberg these past couple of weeks. There’s a lot of history, a lot of toys and yes, a lot of weirdness in TF lore to explore (Don’t believe us? Check out Kiss Players. You’ve been warned.). We hope you enjoyed it. Now roll out!
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