To write about the Transformers is to acknowledge that most people who want to read about Transformers are probably going to make their own “More than meets the eye” jokes, but we figured we’d do one anyway. With the teaser trailer for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts having just come out, it looks like the franchise of transforming robots is coming close to its 40th year of popularity, so let’s look into their history!
Before there were transforming robots with their own personalities, there were transforming mecha (giant fighting robots or battle armor) in Japanese pop culture. The first “transformations” tended to involve several small fighting robots that joined to form a bigger fighting robot. Mecha which truly transformed from one distinct form to another was pioneered by designer Shoji Kawamori, who created Microman, which evolved to Micronauts in the US and have some Transformers influences; the Diaclone toy line, which went on to directly transform itself into the better known Transformers line; and the Macross franchise, which was rebranded in the US as Robotech.
One of the most famous designs in Macross was the VF-1 Valkyrie mecha, which could transform from fighter jet to anthropomorphic robot, with a sort of midway position as well. This design went on to be used for the Autobot Jetfire and one version of Starscream, as well as inspire similar mecha in other franchises.
To tell the full story of Transformers, one should admit that they were predated by Gobots, which started as “Machine Robo” toys in 1982 by a division of Bandai. The first 10 Gobots were the “600 series” named as such as they cost 600 Yen. (To horribly oversimplify exchange rates, a Yen is generally around the value of a US penny, but the specifics of exchange rates and buying power have greatly fluctuated over the years.) The two factions had the creative names of “Friendly” and “Enemy” and the figures themselves tended to look like a car that you could stand up to find it’s now a car with a face and arms standing on its rear bumper.
TONKA, the megalith of US toy trucks, acquired the rights and rebranded the toys from Japanese driver-controlled vehicle-mecha-robots to self-aware mechanical beings, each with their own name and personality. Unfortunately, these names and personalities were not the most creative, the cycle was named Cy-Kill, the helicopter was named Cop-Tur, the buggy was Buggyman, and the tank, well, his name was Tank. (Okay, okay, we realize that with the name “Jewelry Brands” maybe we shouldn’t mock anyone for straightforward naming, but still…) Based on media such as the one season of the cartoon tie-in, the “friendly” Gobots were “Guardians” whose leader was named “Leader 1” and the “Enemy” Gobots were the “Renegades” and they all hailed from the world of…um…Gobotron. So, it’s probably not so shocking that Gobots fell out of favor and stopped being made in 1987, while Hasbro’s Transformers just got more and more popular.
Of course, Hasbro acquired the rights to Gobots, and so there’s various and mostly retroactive references of Gobots being connected to the Transformers multiverse. (Because we need another multiverse apparently?) The media of the two franchises also overlapped, with voice actors such as the famed Frank Welker and Peter Cullen appearing in media for both.
Perhaps because of Tonka’s connotations as a toy truck company and Hasbro’s association of being an action figure company- being the one to coin the term “action figure” to describe G.I.Joe- Hasbro had more experience with clever names, backstory, and perhaps most importantly-logos. The good guys and bad guys had clear teams- with logos. The good team being called “Autobots” invoked both the cars and trucks they turned into, but also the idea of automation- being autonomous. They were clearly characters and not just transforming mechas. The bad guys are “Decepticons” fitting both because of the deceptive nature of having multiple forms allowing one to hide, but also because of the negative connotations (Get it? CON-NO-tations?) of being untruthful and, for that matter, invoking “conniving,” “conflict,” and “convicts.” Other groups with their own agendas came and went throughout the years as well.
If we didn’t already mention enough, each team had a logo, and the creators were smart enough to not only have clear demarcation of who was on which side, but logos that aesthetically work together. (This is also the case with how the Jedi, Rebel, and Empire insignias all parallel each other in the Star Wars Universe.) Not only did this help tell the visual story, it was helpful to merchandising, it is reflected by how many people have many tattoos of Autobot and Decepticon tattoos and hardly anyone has Gobot tattoos.
Another major factor that made Transformers more appealing than other transforming robot toys (even as the market had more and more secondary competitors and imitators) is the complexity of the transformations. Rather than just changing the angle and moving a few parts, transformer toys required the user to manipulate a number of different parts, proving to be enough of a challenge to feel a small level of cleverness without being too hard for kids to figure out. The fact that children often could figure them out better than their parents made the toys even more appealing- or vexing, depending on how old one was at the time.
Since their introduction in 1984, there’s been consistent Transformers material coming out, including TV shows, toys, various comic books by different companies, and seven major motion pictures, including the six live-action films..so far. It would take pages to discuss all the stories, characters, plots, and reboots, but we did want to give a shout-out to Starscream! While many toy brands with media tie-ins (and media with toy lines) had good guys and bad guys, Starscream was noted as being both the Big Bag Guy’s right hand man AND competitor, adding an extra level to the story and earning his own Trope name!
The next Transformers film, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is slated to premiere on June 9, 2023. It will be a direct sequel to 2018’s Bumblebee and draws characters from the late 1990’s series Beast Wars, which included new toys, comics, and a distinctive TV show which made use of early CGI animation.
In the meantime, check out our many Transformers items! We have a selection of jewelry featuring the aforementioned Autobot and Decepticon logos on rings, bracelets, gauged ear jewelry, industrials, and more traditional ear studs, as well as keychains and more!
Sources used for this article include:
(all digital sources retrieved on Dec 2, 2022)