In the last post I covered what I call the “human bonding” era of the Transformers toy line, one I had particular problems with, but which was overall still putting forth engaging toys. That era would however eventually give way to a conceptually even more problematic one, where Transformers step by step eventually stopped even being Transformers.
Pretenders: Transformers tries to be He-man (?)
For the sake of accuracy, the Pretenders toys debuted in 1988 alongside the aforementioned Powermasters. It was however not until the next year they were truly dominant, comprising basically half of that year´s toy offerings, the other half being Micromasters (see below). The basic concept was that Transformers now needed to be even more “in disguise”, but this time not by transforming into convincing looking Earth vehicles, but instead by hiding inside semi-organic shells, disguising them as (giant) humans or monsters. In 1998 the Autobots were primarily disguised as humans and the Decepticons as monsters, although this was jumbled up the following year, when classic Transformers characters also were recast as Pretenders.
Overall, the design focus was on the shells in question, and the robots hiding inside them, although transformable, were sadly generic and with unconvincing alternate modes. Overall, this concept seemed like Hasbro was looking at the other hugely successful boy toy line of the 80´s, Masters of the Universe, and wanted to go beyond the concept of robots in favor of humans fighting humanoid monsters. As for me, I couldn´t care less about those stupid shells. I was not a MOTU fan, and for me Transformers was about robots, robots that were now suffering for the sake of an inexplicably stupid gimmick. This was the first point when Transformers as a concept really started to lose its identity.
Above: 1989 Pretenders; Bumblebee, Stranglehold and Bludgeon. Or He-Man with a new haircut, Man-at-arms in S&M outfit and Skeletor turned samurai?
Micromasters: Transformers tries to be Micro Machines
Another big toy fad in the late 80´s was Micro Machines, small, but intricately detailed cars with various play sets for them. Wanting to cash in on this trend, Hasbro created their own line of micro-sized toys, dubbed the Micromasters, and marketed as “the only micro cars that transform!”. Now, I have to admit that this concept, although a clear imitation of an existing one, worked much better than the Pretenders.
Like the toys they were imitating, the Micromasters too had quite some intricate detail sculpted into them despite their diminutive size, and they came in teams of four with specific themes, much like the Special Teams a few years earlier. There were also play sets, although I personally never owned one. All in all, my only gripe with the Micro Masters was their size, since they lent themselves poorly for play with the ordinary, much larger Transformers toys in my possession (except for base bots, but I had none at the time). This was however nothing compared to…
Above: The Micromaster side of the 1989 Transformers toy catalog, littered with inaccuracies
The Action Masters – Transformers tries to be… anything but Transformers?
The Action Masters, the last “innovation” before the downfall of Transformers in the US, were marketed for their allegedly superior articulation, supposedly giving them higher play value than ordinary Transformers. The only catch was that in order to achieve this supposedly amazing feature, they could not transform!!! Wow, so they sacrificed the very defining feature of the toys for… articulation? So how good was the articulation? Well, as it turned out, half-assed. While their legs were quite articulated their arms did not have elbow joints, and they didn´t have any waist swivel built into them. First, GI Joe figures (called Action Force in Europe) had far superior articulation, although they could not really stand up properly. Second, even my Scattershot toy from three years earlier had overall better articulation than these guys, and he could transform into four different modes! Hence, even as a child, I just knew that this comparatively low level of articulation did not justify the lack of transformation, especially evident when classic characters such as Jazz got their own Action Master versions.
Above: Jazz, the original toy (1984), his remake as a Pretender (1989) and his Action Master incarnation (1990). Progress?
Now, some of the characters came with vehicles, which could instead transform, much like the vehicles in Kenner´s popular toy brand M.A.S.K. However, the whole point with Transformers from the start was that they were their own vehicles, AND characters, all in the same toy! Having gotten rid of the transforming ability of their Transformers, Hasbro arguably put the nail in the coffin for the franchise, simply by trying to turn their toys into anything BUT actual Transformers. As a result, Transformers as a franchise was discontinued in the US the next year, it however continued in Japan and Europe, until its eventual international rebirth…
Above: Axer with transformable motorcycle (1990) and finally, in a transformable remake, Axor (2010).
Note that this post is called “When HASBRO dropped the ball”, as Takara took the franchise in another direction at the time (more on that in later posts). It is also worth noting that despite the arguably Transformers-unlike-ness of the toys of this era, some of them nevertheless produced memorable characters; thanks to the sharp pen of Simon Furman, the Decepticon Pretenders Bludgeon and Thunderwing became something of fan favorites, and has had a variety of remakes made in their image since. Further, I owned the Action Master Axer and liked his overall design and dreamed of a transformable version. Fast forward a few decades, and he has become quite an established character, appearing in various continuities (sometimes as “Axor”), and has gotten a proper toy update! Also, a newly started toy company called Play With This Too, will be producing action figures closely resembling the original Pretenders characters. In other words, even this era in Transformers history is not without its own legacy.
Above: The Decepticon Pretender Bomb-burst, the upcoming Bitemark from Play With This Too
On a whole, however, time has shown that at the core, Transformers is about transforming robots, and nothing else. With appealing design and interesting characters, no additional gimmicks are really needed, save the occasional Gestalt. Looking at the state of the franchise today, it is mostly back to basics, with the additional feature of the toys now sporting articulation way superior to even the Action Masters as a standard feature. It can however be argued that a few years of experimenting in trying to expand the concept, and the subsequent failure, was somewhat necessary for realizing the true strengths of the franchise, helping it to come back strong in just a few years time…
While I not intend to cover ALL of the 30 years of the Transformers franchise as I never really followed a large part of it, I will write a couple more posts about the European last leg of “Generation One” of Transformers, as well as giving a giving a quick overview of the short-lived Generation 2. Next…