Those of you born in more recent times will not recall the wars between transforming toys in the 80s. These wars were devastating and there were many casualties along the way. These wars were not between Autobot and Decepticon, or Guardian and Renegade. These wars were between various lines of transforming toy for dominance and, ultimately, survival.
In the end, the undisputed victor was of course the Transformers. Nearly thirty years on, they still find top billing in movies, and fans flock to see anything new about them. Peter Cullen’s memorable performance of Optimus Prime is absolutely one of the staples of my childhood. If I could ever create a fantasy football league of heroes, Prime would definitely be the guy calling the shots.
But now comes my question: Why did the Transformers win? Wasn’t there another series of robots?
Indeed there was. They were called the Gobots (or, in Australia, Machine Men). They came out first, they had their own TV show (which aired first), and their own movie (which screened first). Somehow, though, they were never as popular as the Transformers. Indeed, they are now regarded as something of an embarrassment and a target of derision; “the k-mart transformers” “Gobots just suck!” “Only poor kids play with Gobots” and so on.
There were various other also-rans, but time has swallowed them up. Only Gobots remain as a fading memory.
I will have a look at the Gobots and first of all look at some positives of the marque, address some of the main arguments against them, and finally analyse why they failed and Transformers won.
1) Gobots were better toys
I don’t mean a little bit better. I mean a hell of a lot better. Dig through Ebay and you will find played-with gobots that are still in excellent condition. Played-with transformers of the same vintage very rarely are in as good condition.
Why? Because gobots were largely made of cast metal, with (then-revolutionary) ball joints. This meant that the gobots could not only make superior transformations, but also were much more durable than their all-plastic Transformer counterparts.
Gobots were much more ‘robots in disguise’ than Transformers could ever be. While both toy runs had their fair share of glamorous sports cars, Gobots also had some fairly average vehicles amongst them. Vehicles that would not look out of place on any city street, such as garbage trucks, regular sedans, ordinary trucks. If both sides came to earth, I have a feeling that the gobots would find it much easier to blend in these days.
2) Gobots didn’t transform much. In fact, they just stood on their end to transform. Transformers had much more complex and elegant transformations! Transformers were well proportioned and looked like robots!
Wrong. Really really wrong. Standing in front of me, as a broad selection, is G1 Bumblebee, Huffer, Cosmos, Ratchet, Beachcomber and Hound. Bumblebee is probably the most common of all transformations on both sides: Push out head, pull out arms and legs, stand up. It’s pretty simple and both sides used it a lot. Ratchet is…. Odd and doesn’t really look like anything much and Hound is horribly misshapen. His head is tiny and his chest enormous, coupled with t-rex teensy-weensy arms. Added to that his gigantic feet make him look doubly ridiculous. He’s meant to be the stealthy scout, but he has giant feet? Was this someone’s idea of a horrible joke?
On the other side, I have Royal-T, Road Ranger, Super Spay-C, Throttle, Puzzler, Scooter and Dive-Dive. All of these have innovative and interesting transformations. Throttle, in particular, has an exceptionally good-looking robot and vehicle mode. None of the ‘mini’ transformers ever had as innovative or complex transformation as Royal-T or Dive-Dive (pic insert), and none were as articulated.
Throttle, Dive-Dive, and Royal-T showing how crude and unsophisticated Gobot transformation is.
For an even better comparison, take the Gobot combiner ‘Puzzler’ and put him up against the G1 transformers combiners… say his rough equivalent, ‘Menasor’ (pic insert). Puzzler is made up of six different cars. While some vehicles have similar transformations, all vehicles are different and no part can transfer to any other vehicle. Menasor is made up of five vehicles; four interchangeable limbs and a truck main body. The vehicular limbs are, by design, very similar in their transformations as any limb can go on any part of the body. Transformation of both these combiners into their respective gestalts is done rapidly. Puzzler looks (to my eye) by far the best. He also requires no extra parts for arms, head, chest, or anything else. Menasor looks blocky and dull. He requires a whole bagful of extra bits just to make him exist (feet, hands, head, gun, sword, chest plate). The movement in Menasor is limited to the rotation of arms at the shoulders and…… that’s it. Puzzler can twist at the waist and has hip, ankle, wrist, shoulder and elbow joints that all move freely.
Menasor Vs Puzzler? Sorry Decepticons…. you lose.
Quite simply put, the gobots were a better product with a better design and build quality.
At least Road Ranger knows where his trailer goes when he transforms.
I’m NOT just another Red-and-blue truck, thank you very much.
3) Gobots had stupid names! Their leader was called Leader-1 for goodness sakes!
I can’t really fault you on that. I still find ‘Dive-Dive’ to be possibly the stupidest, most cringe-worthy name of any transforming robot of any genre. The only thing I can imagine is that their language may sound similar to ours and thus their names have become anglicised. “Scooter” may have been “Squt’h” for example, and people just made it easier to say.
Okay, I’m reaching there.
My point is that Gobots didn’t have the copyright on dumb names (although by God they sure used them a lot). Even G1 transformers had pretty stupid and predictable handles. “Hook” for a crane, “Inferno” for a fire truck, “Wreck-Gar” for a “wrecker”, “Wheelie” for being the Transformers’ Wesley Crusher and deserving of our loathing, and so on.
Even “Optimus Prime”… what does that mean, anyway? “Optimus” (The Best? The Optimal? The Greatest? The Leader? Leader?) “Prime” (A number divisible only by one and itself? The first? One?). So when you boil it down, “Optimus Prime” is fancy talk for “Leader-1” anyway. Gobots just were less pretentious.
Besides, Leader-1 transformed into a fighter jet… A FIGHTER JET! Prime transforms into a….. semi-trailer? Wow. One zooms around and shoots bad guys in both modes, the other is busy shipping an all-night run of toilet paper, disinfectant and filing cabinets up and down the coast, and leading the Autobots in his spare time.
4) Gobots were cheap! Poor people bought them because they couldn’t afford REAL transformers!
While true, this comes down to marketing (which I will get to soon enough). As Transformers grew in popularity, stores found that they could charge what they wanted for them and people would pay it. Gobots had to fight for market share. One easy way of doing that was to lower your costs, which meant that they were more affordable to more people. Unfortunately, this translated poorly into the economics of the schoolyard where a ‘cheap’ gobot was worthless compared to someone’s latest Mirage (even if his waist DID break the first time someone tried to transform him.
Not again….. 😦
5) The Gobots TV show sucked!
The horror…. the horror…
Yes. Yes it did. This wasn’t really the fault of the toy company though. They approached Hanna-Barbara who were a veteran studio with a HUGE string of hits to its name to make the show. Unfortunately, H-B studios were on something of a downside, and their superhero cartoons had always been a bit hit-and-miss. This showed up in the animation.
However, the cartoon also realised some things that Transformers never did in terms of sociology.
- Female characters: While the Transformers pushed out three nearly-identical female autobots, they had to stay home and do the cooking while the menfolk went off to fight. Only later did eye-candy Arcee make an appearance as marketing showed more ‘dads’ were watching the show with their kids. Gobots, on the other hand, had female characters as part of the main lineup from the word go: From tomboy-like Small Foot, through the wild and spunky Sparky, to the insane psychosis of Crasher (who was second-in-command to the villains to boot), Feminism worked just fine on Gobotron.
- It’s okay NOT to be a warrior: The much-maligned Scooter (voiced by Frank Welker of Megatron fame) is both a coward and a pacifist. He still makes a valuable contribution to the cause, though. Instead of weapons, he had holographic projectors installed (as befits a scout and master of disguise). In one episode he had these removed and replaced with weapons, but he realised he was better without them, working behind the scenes and using his brains, rather than his brawn.
- Leaders can be fallible: Its true, a leader should be pretty good. Better, even, than most of the troops. On the other hand, I liked the fact that Leader-1 needed the assistance of the rest of the Guardians. He wasn’t just a one-man-army the way that Prime likes to think he is. On the other hand, how many times has Leader-1 died? Prime seems to kick the cybertronian bucket every second week.
The show still sucked though. Hasbro, through its association with Sunbow, was able to produce a pretty good cartoon that still holds up okay today. It had great voice actors and good characterisation of the main characters, reasonable story lines (well, some were a bit shaky). Best of all, it was able to showcase a different Transformer almost every episode, effectively being a long advertisement for the toys. The gobots cartoon always lacked this sort of hard-nosed marketing cohesion.
So What Went Wrong?
Sometimes it’s not the best to be first, particularly in marketing. While Hasbro was busy learning lessons, Tonka went ahead and marketed the Gobots.
Marketing of both brands was huge. Gobots and Transformers logos were slapped onto everything from lunch boxes and drink bottles, to schoolbags, to underpants. Both sold reasonably well, or so I have been told.
There are two simple marketing-based reasons why we remember Transformers over Gobots: Insignia and Tech Specs.
Autobots and Decepticons. Those two symbols are burned into our brains. They are everywhere, even now. On cars and trucks, in our hearts and minds. Some of you probably have them tattooed on your skin. They instantly define the Transformer for who they are, rather than just some random cybertronian citizen. You immediately know if said robot is a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’.
Gobots didn’t have them. Originally they were packaged with the simple designator ‘friendly’ or ‘enemy’. Later, after Transformers had already captured the market, this was changed to ‘guardian’ and ‘renegade’.
However, there were no insignia on the toys themselves, no were there any insignia of any kind on the packets or anywhere else. Certainly it fits the ‘robots in disguise’ concept much better than having a whopping great Autobot symbol stuck on your arse as you drive along, but it’s bloody difficult for the mums and dads buying the things to get the job done right. Even the vehicles themselves were mixed up, whereas early Transformers were (generally) lumped into ‘Cars are Autobots, everything else is a Decepticon’.
With no way to tell who was what, play and concepts became difficult and, in general, one long argument over who had what sort of toy.
2) Tech Specs
Buzzsaw can bark?
Arguably the best part of Transformers was the tech specs. Not only did it give a broad overview of the character you were purchasing, but also gave a bio, a motto, and a function. It let you know who the character was, what their little quirks were, what their weapons were like, and if they had any special powers at all.
Gobots had nothing. This is where I felt that Tonka really let the ball drop. You got the toy, and that was it. You got a vague idea if they were a ‘friendly’ or ‘enemy’ robot (actually, Gobots are cyborgs with organic brains, but you get the point), and that was that. If you read the packet you knew their name, but beyond that, what was there to know?
The Autobot Windcharger turned into a car, but he also had a cool magnetic power. Tic Tac turns into a chevy corvette and….. uh… I dunno. Make something up, I guess. It definitely sucked big time.
Hasbro’s association with Marvel comics, and their use of tech specs from their already successful GI Joe line gave kids more than just a toy. It gave them a character that they could relate to and interact with, as well as interact in their own stories with other toys from the same line. Gobots never had that (except for vague characterisations in the crappy cartoon).
It’s my belief that because of a greater relationship that the kids could have with the toys and characters, that the marque survived till today.
Even stranger now is the bizarre and convoluted story of the two companies and their various ownership disputes and mergers. It turns out that Hasbro now owns Tonka, which means that although the molds still belong to the Japanese parent company, The Transformers finally have made peace with their Gobot cousins.
Till all are one, indeed.