Once upon a time the children of the world could be content in playing with sticks and rocks or rough-hewn toys cobbled together with barely sanded wood and yarn. However, the advent of a popular space movie called "Star Wars" in the late 1970s changed the toy landscape forever. Children of the 1980s seemed to require that their toys be part of a bigger story, an epic conflict in which the toys purchased with allowance money or birthday cash or given beneath the tree on Christmas mornings justified their own existence by enlisting children to choose sides in global or galactic-scaled battles.
Suddenly toy companies were fighting over existing stories or scrambling to create new ones in an effort to carve for themselves a slice of that sweet 1980s toy market. When "Return of the Jedi" left the theaters, it also left a huge gap in the store shelves, and companies like Hasbro, Mattel, and Kenner were waging epic battles behind the scenes to own the next properties that would soak up cash that could no longer be spent on new Star Wars toys.
Habro took some existing robot toys from Japan, collaborated with some American writers to create teams of heroes and villains, packaged them with biographies and accessories, and launched a phenomenon that is still a financial juggernaut in the toy world: the Transformers.
If you're unfamiliar, the storyline revolves around two factions of humanoid robots, the heroic Autobots and the dastardly Decepticons, who hail from a distant war-torn planet called Cybertron. The Autobots tried to escape the conflict and were chased accross the galaxy to Earth, where both factions crash landed and were buried for eons as our world evolved. Eventually the robot teams were revived by a medical robot who rebuilt their bodies to allow them to "transform" and mimic what it percieved to be the dominant form of life on earth of the 1980s: cars and trucks.
Of course the Decepticons somehow got reconstructed as much more agressive machinery, including fighter jets, with a leader who transformed into an incredibly powerful handgun. And with the holiday launch of this first round of characters (supported by cartoons and comics, of course), children were immediately sucked in to choosing sides and collecting these toys that filled both a "giant robots" and a "toy cars" play mechanic.
Where the Star Wars toy property could release new "must have" toys with the release of each film, Transformers found itself needing to be more creative in finding ways to add new characters for children to beg for. The Dinobots (a team of dinosaur themed and relatively stupid Autobots whose convoluted backstory involved being revived during the Cretaceous Period and formatted to transform into the dominant life forms of the era) were quickly added, and shortly after that came new gimmicks.
Hasbro introduced an Autobot called Omega Supreme, a base with a rocket, launchpad, track, and tank that could all be combined into an enormous robot bristling with firepower. The good guys didn't have long to enjoy their tactical superiority, because on the Decepticon team there were six small construction robots who could combine into one giant powerhouse called Devestator.
Over the coming seasons and years Hasbro introduced more and more gimmicks to add to the "Combiner" play style: there were "Headmasters," tiny human robots who could transform into the heads of larger robots who could also transform into vehicles or creatures; "City Robots," Transformers who formed enormous city-like bases that could interact and transport their smaller compatriots; "Power Masters," who transformed into "engines" that unlocked special abilities in larger robots; "Target Masters," who turned into powerful cannons that could be wielded by the larger robots; "Pretenders," organic-looking action figure "shells" that contained smaller simplified Transformers within; "Micromasters," tiny micro-machine sized Transformers who were supposed to be ultrapowerful and fuel efficient; "Action Masters," nontransforming robots who came packed with weapons or vehicles that could transform into various modes; not to mention any number of other gimmicks from pull-back action features to spark shooters.
As a kid, it was virtually impossible to keep up. I never owned all of the robots for a single combiner and so never got to assemble any of those epic warriors for battle. By the time the other innovations like Headmasters or Target Masters became obvious, my parents were pretty sick of financing the Cybertronian war without end. They all but begged me to sit down with some sort of robot UN and beg for diplomatic solutions that were less hard on the family finances.
Over 30 years have passed since the eventual withering of popularity in the Transformers toyline. Since then Hasbro has experimented time and again with some sort of magic formula that could recapture the popularity and dedication that were once foundational to selling these toys. Nothing seemed to be taking hold in the retail market until they unleashed Cybertron's most powerful weapon on the unsuspecting earthlings: nostalgia.
In the early 2000s, Hasbro created a new line of Transformers called "Classics." These toys featured paint and sculpts that very closely mirrored the look and feel of the Transformers from the 1980s but with better articulation and poseablilty. For once these robots could turn into vehicles and also looked good standing on a shelf heroically in their robot modes. Optimus Prime could put his hands on his hips and survey the Autobot troops with regal poise, just like he did before battle in the Saturday morning cartoons.
Adults who had never been able to afford all of the great Transformers from their childhoods could now lay down cold hard cash for complete sets, and Hasbro took notice for the first time that perhaps children weren't the only audience interested in what might befall the wayward sons of Cybertron when placed on shelves at the local toystore.
The "Classics" line continued to evolve and grow, and Michael Bay brought us the combined blessing and curse of several "Transformers" movies. The blessing was that the overall success of the films meant that Hasbro would have more money and resources to dedicate to the toy franchise. The curse was that some of those resources would be dedicated to churning out toy versions of the terrible depictions of Transformers characters from the films. Fortunately the movies served to build interest with children in more transforming robot toys, and Hasbro leveraged that interest into a new and ambitious marketing plan that would bring back the most popular play mechanics and characters from the 1980s.
Touted as the first in a "trilogy," Hasbro released a line of of "Combiner Wars" themed robots in 2014. The entire line revolved around that mechanic with larger leaders who could become the "torso" of a combined robot, and smaller soldiers who could become the arms and legs. Rounding out the line were a handful of "Legends" robots who were tiny cute sidekick sized reintroductions of the supporting cast from the old cartoons like Bumblebee and Cliffjumper. The different price points made the new line accessable to a variety of collectors, and the general attention to making the characters reflect their 1980s aesthetics meant that collectors were ready to shell out cash to fill their collections with the new toys.
The next wave was called "Titans Return," and reintroduced the mechanic of the Headmasters. This wave of toys came with tiny robots that could pilot the vehicle modes (or man the consoles and turrets on the giant city Transformers) and could transform into the heads of the larger robots. One epic Transformer in the wave, Fortress Maximus, doubled down on this mechanic by having a tiny robot become the head of a larger robot who himself transformed into the head of an epic city sized "Titan." Hasbro avoided many of their mistakes from the 1980s by keeping the characters mostly to scale with each other, keeping the quality of the design and engineering fairly high (and consistent), and carefully introducing wave after wave of characters so that they would sell successfully without wasting away on store shelves and being sold on clearance.
The most recent chapter in this trilogy launched this Christmas with "Power of the Primes." This wave utilizes all of the earlier play mechanics while reintroducing elements from the absolute apex of the Transformers line in the 80s. Now there are thirteen "Prime Masters," tiny robots that can attach to the larger ones and lend them additional "powers" (just like the Power Masters from my childhood). These tiny guys come packed with an organic-looking action figure "shell" to protect them (just like the old Pretenders) and the shell has a very simple transformation that converts it into a weapon that can be wielded by the larger robots (just like the Target Masters). In addition, old favorites are being released for the first time, including a full team of Dinobots (although now the team can combine with their T-Rex leader Grimlock to make a larger robot). With this latest line (and rumored additions like the combining team of African animals called the
"Predacons"), Hasbro is punching those nostalgia buttons with expert precision. Varied price points from six to sixty dollars allow collectors and children to keep up with the new line, but owning all of the new releases is a serious financial commitment.
When "Power of the Primes" finally comes to a close, where will Hasbro take the Transformers next? I'm not certain if they have detailed plans that extend this unified line into the coming years, but I hope they do. What is somewhat alarming is that, in the very near future, they will have made or remade all of the classic characters and play gimmicks from the original line. As wonderful as this will be from a collection perspective, it might not leave them many options for growth and expansion.
Frankly, collectors have seen this same thing happen with Hasbro twice before. In the Star Wars line, the absolute apex came with the height of "The Vintage Collection." During that wave of Star Wars toys, we saw Hasbro make the difinitive versions of the best figures, and the most detailed and amazing versions of several ships, including a massive AT-AT walker and an epic Millennium Falcon toy, that collectors will always remember as the definitive plastic rendition of the ship. After that line ended, detailed figures and ships became prohibitively expensive, and Hasbro focused on simple sculpts with less articulation that were aimed to children rather than collectors.
In the G.I. Joe toyline, often considered a sibling to the Transformers universe, the peak of the revival came just two years ago. Dozens of classic vehicles and characters were re-released with new sculpting and deco. With the exception of the larger bases and playsets, fans like me managed to get modern versions of many of the classic toys from the 1980s. Once there were no more plans for a G.I. Joe film or cartoon, Hasbro slowly ended production on the line. G.I. Joe is permanently retired pending a new film, and it may be years before that happens.
I can hope that Hasbro has learned from the decline of the previous lines and has plans to keep Transformers from that kind of fate. The truth is that, with Michael Bay stepping away from future "Transformers" films, it may be unavoidable. "Power of the Primes" may be the glorious final song in the last act of the current Transformers franchise. For now, I'm enjoying a song that was crafted with love for the characters and toys of my youth, notes that were composed to evoke maximum nostalgia.