From robot samurai to a transforming microscope
Japan has long held a fasciantion with
transforming robots. As early as 1934, Tank Tankuro, a little robot samurai
starring in his own comic strip was pulling weapons out of his rotund body, and
extending wings and propellers to fly.
In 1952, Mighty Atom (better known as Astro
Boy) gave us the first Combiner-style robot, Gangor, the giant centipede made
from the combined form of 47 smaller robots.
1975 say the first true transforming robot
in the anime series Brave Raideen, which featured a giant robot that
transformed into the mechanical Godbird. In the same year, Japanese tou
manufacturer Popy launched a 5-inch diecast version of Raideen – the first
transforming robot toy.
By the late 1970s, Japanese TV was full of
transforming robots, from the Valkyrie robot-jets of Super Dimension Fortress
Macross to a 1978 live action TV series adaptation of Spiderman, in which a
Japanese Spidey pilots Leopardon, a giant mech-style robot that also transforms
into a spaceship.
As for the Transformer, their origins can
be traced back to 1971, when Japanese toy company Takara agreed on a licensing
deal with US company Hasbro to release their line of 8 and 12-inch G.I.Joe
soldier dolls – sorry, action figures – in Japan. The toys were re-branded
under the name Combat Joe. While seeing some success, on the whole, the toys
failed to capture the imagination of Japanese children, who were heavily
influenced by a steady diet of Sci-Fi and Mecha TV shows.
Takara subsequently developed a far more
successful variant of Combat Joe called Henshin Cyborg – essentially the same
toy, but with transparent plastic skin and internal robotic implants. In the
early 1980s, again following the trend of popular shows like Macross and
Gundam, which featured giant robots piloted by humans, Takara created Microman,
a new line of Henshin Cyborg toys in a smaller 3.75-inch scale with an
accompanying array of vehicles and robots for them to pilot.
The new Microman range, and in particular,
its robot/vihecle sideline ended up being more popular than the original
Henshin Cyborg toy. A spinoff range dubbed Diaclone soon followed, consisting
of 1-inch figures piloting robots that could transform into planes, trains and
cars. Many of these toys would become the first Transformers.
The following year, based on the success of
Diaclone, Takara released a spinoff to Microman called Micro Change, this time
based on miniature robots that could transform into household items such as a
microscope, a microcasette recorder, and toy cars and guns.
Takara’s Diaclone and Micro Change toys
sold well, but they were constantly outsold by toy based on the Macross and
Gundam franchises. While Takara’s toys were innovative and well engineered,
they didn’t have much personality. They didn’t have a narrative, or characters
or a mythology – to put it bluntly, they didn’t have their own hit TV show.
More Than Meets The Eye
Ronald W.Reagan was the 40th
President of the United States. Inadvertently, he is also one of the most
important people in Transformers history. You see, without him, the
Transformers (as well as countless other beloved franchises) would never have –
and they almost never did – come to be.
Since its formation in 1946, US television had been regulated by a government body known as the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC). The FCC spent most of its time concerned with and enforcing
regulations against advertising to children.
For example, in the late 1970s, a Saturday
morning cartoon called Hot Wheels debuted on the ABC network. The show was
ostensibly about a car racing club, but it was noted that Mattel toys sold a
line of toy racing cars also known as Hot Wheels. The FCC considered the show
to be an extended commercial and had the series pulled from the air. Other
franchises soon became wary of TV tie-ins and cartoons with accompanying toy
lines became all but non-existent.
It didn’t look like anything was set to
change, until in 1981, a newly elected Reagan began championing a hands-off
approach to TV on the grounds that it hindered business – and of course,
selling products to an entire nation of children was big business indeed. Two
years late Reagan had astonishingly managed to completely abolish all existing
advertising regulations. Suddenly, toy companies across America were scrambling to get their products on TV.
Hasbro was one of the first to take
advantage of the new deregulation rules. After an increase in toy sales
following the launch of their G.I.Joe cartoon, they were eager to find the next
big thing. They found it at the 1983 Tokyo Toy Show. There, Hasbro company
product developer Henry Orenstein discovered Takara’s Diaclone and Micro Change
line of toys and, thanks to their existing business relationship with the
G.I.Joe license, Hasbro soon made the decision to partner with Takara to bring
the line to the US.
Knowing that they wanted to adapt they toys
to a cartoon, Hasbro contacted Marvel Comics, who had helped develop the
storyline for their G.I.Joe toys. Jim Shooter, who was then Marvel
Editor-in-Chief, and writers Denny O’Neill and Bob Budiansky quickly developed
the narrative of an epic battle between two factions of warring robots,
collectively, the Transformers (rumor has it, Budiansky created all 28 original
characters in just one weekend). Suddenly, this wasn’t just a toy gun that could
transform into a 10-inch robot, this was Megatron, scheming villainous
mastermind of the evel Decepticons.
With a few tweaks, new affiliation
stickers, and the removal of the tiny human pilots, Diaclone’s Battle Convoy
became Autobot leader Optimus Prime, Robo Jet became Starscream and
Thundercracker, Micro Change’s Microscope Robo became Perceptor, Camera Robo
became Reflector, Cassetteman became Soundwave, and the two Mini Car Robos
became Cliffjumper and Bumblebee.
The toy line was launched first, originally
in the US in April 1984, and then later the same year in Europe. To familiarize
children with the characters, Hasbro landed on the idea to include a short
biography and statistics indicating Power, Intelligence, Speed etc. on the back
of each toy’s packaging.
Working quickly, Hasbro then enlisted
famous Japanese animation studio Toei to produce the Transformers cartoon, with
writing by Marvel Productions. The series was launched in September 1984 in the
US as The Transformers and later in Japan under the far more catchy title
Fight! Super Robot Life Form Transformer. Ratings went through the roof, and
with it came over US $100 million in toy sales in the US alone. By 1985, Transformers was the World’s best-selling toy.