Everyone knows now that the Transformers cartoon was based on the toys, not the other way around. (Well, there’s some complicated history involving the differences between the TV show and the comic books, but the essentially that’s the idea.) This is unlike, say, Star Wars action figures, which were a way to profit even more from a successful movie. The Transformers started as toys, and became a story after the fact.
But nearly thirty years later, the lines are blurred. Certainly the cartoon is still made in part to sell toys to our kids. But the funny thing is, the cartoons are now being made by people grew up playing with Transformers, and they really love the story. What’s more, the logistics have changed: the toys now have to be designed based on the cartoon, and not the other way around. Watching the CGI robots of Transformers Prime, you can tell that they look really cool but it’s not always clear exactly how the transformation would work. In the old cartoons, the toys worked pretty much exactly as they appeared on screen. Now, the toy designers have a much bigger challenge: making both the robot and vehicle forms match their on-screen counterparts, and figuring a way to change from one to the other.
Hasbro provided a few samples of the Transformers Prime line for me to try out, so here’s a closer look at Bumblebee and Cliffjumper from the Deluxe line, Optimus Prime from the Voyager Class line, and then two of the Bot Shots mini-Transformers. After watching the Season One DVD (particularly the featurette about the toys), I was really curious about how the toys would turn out. In general, the robot forms don’t look like straightforward transformations from the vehicles — they share colors and some features, but otherwise it doesn’t look feasible. Well, it turns out they did a pretty good job, though there are a few instances of what I consider “cheating.”
Of the three Autobots I played with, Bumblebee is the easiest to transform, and probably the one that I’ll most likely be able to teach to my kids. The boxes say ages five and up, but I’d probably worry about letting a five-year-old do the transformations on their own, because there are a lot of little parts that could break if you force them. They do seem more fragile than old-school Transformers because there are so many more moving parts. For you adults, you’ll be happy to note that they still include stats for each bot — though without that cool red lens you used to get to read them.
One cool thing about the Bumblebee and Cliffjumper (both in the “Deluxe” line of figurines) is that there’s a sort of gear-driven piece of the transformation that makes a little bit of it feel automatic. For instance, the last step of Bumblebee’s car-to-robot change involves rotating the arms back: when you do that, his head pops up from the hood of the car, and the two headlights separate and angle up. The first time I did that was a “whoa!” moment. Cliffjumper’s isn’t quite as impressive, but you fold the arms down at the shoulders and his head pops up from his chest area.
Now, about that “cheating.” In the cartoon, Cliffjumper has a pair of bull horns mounted to his hood, and his robot form has horns as well. I suppose you’re supposed to imagine that somehow these are the same pair of horns, though how you would make that happen in a toy is anyone’s guess. In this case, the car’s horns get tucked away behind some other panels, and the robot head just has its own horns. That’s not all, though: see the headlights and windshield area on Cliffjumper’s chest area? That’s actually a static piece that is just underneath the car version — the actual front of the car is now on the back of his shoulders, and the windshield is tucked away on his back.
Sure, your kids probably won’t care, and he looks more like his cartoon counterpart this way, but it reinforces my disappointment that the post–Michael Bay Transformers aren’t actually designed in such a way that the transformations are physically possible.
The Deluxe figures run around $12 each, although it looks like prices vary — I’ve seen some for higher on Amazon, which is unusual, so you might just check your toy store for comparison.
The Optimus Prime model I got was from the “Voyager Class” line. Each of these has some battery-powered feature that lights up to simulate the Energon. In Optimus’ case, it’s a fold-out cannon that can attach to his arm. You pull back on part of it, and it unfolds and extends the translucent blue gun barrel, and a red light flicks on inside. This one didn’t have any cheating — the windshields on his chest turn into the actual windshields on the truck, and so on. I was pretty impressed with how he actually goes from a robot to the truck; there are some pretty crazy tricks they pull with the arms to make that happen. He’s also one of the most complicated to change (18 steps compared to 10 for Bumblebee) and I could never quite get the truck’s grill to close all the way against the hood. This one didn’t have the gear-driven changes that I liked in the Deluxe line, but it is pretty cool how close he looks to both his robot and vehicle mode from the cartoon.
The Voyager Class models run closer to $20 apiece, and some of the characters only come in one line or the other.
Last up: the Bot Shots. These are little tiny pop-up Transformers that you can use to play a sort of rock-paper-scissors sort of game. The transformation on these is simple and is the same for all of them: fold up the feet, fold down the arms, and pop the “hood” down over the head — that turns them into a vehicle. When you crash them together, the spring-loaded bumper gets triggered and they pop up into robot mode.
On each robot’s chest is a little icon, which can be rotated to show a fist, sword or gun. Blaster beats Fist, Fist beats Sword and Sword beats Blaster. (I don’t know why; that’s just how it works.) If both robots show the same symbol, then the higher number wins. For instance, Brawl (the Decepticon tank) has a very high Blaster number, but lower Fist number. If only one of the bots transforms into a robot, then it wins. If neither transforms, then crash again.
These are pretty silly, really, but my kids have been having fun with them. First, they’re really easy to transform (though the spring-loaded bumper can be a little easy to trigger sometimes while you’re wanting them to stay in vehicle mode). Also, my kids are treating them as mini Transformers when playing with the larger ones. Finally, it’s Rock Paper Scissors, with the added twist that there are tie-breakers, and also that sometimes the little chest panel will rotate during transformation so it may not stay on what you picked.
There are a slew of Bot Shots available, and they come either in individual packages for about $4, three-packs for $10, and there are also launchers and larger packages available. You can also play an online Bot Shots game that uses a match-three mechanic and has cute versions of the Transformers. Multiplayer isn’t available yet but is coming soon.
It’s funny, though, since the samples I got were all Autobots except for the one Bot Shot, my kids have had to make up their own villains. Or sometimes one of the Autobots has to play the part of a villain, as if it’s somebody pretending to be Cliffjumper or Optimus Prime. I guess at some point I’ll need to get some real bad guys for them to play with…
I did get information about some of the other toy lines which were shown at Toy Fair this year but might not be available just yet. The Weaponizer series have hidden flip-out weapons in both vehicle and robot modes, which adds another interactive element (but at a price — they’re around $30 each). For much more about all these various toys (and other Transformers lines), you can visit Hasbro’s Transformers website.
All photos by Jonathan Liu