Transformers Vs. GoBots...FIGHT!!!
It was the defining clash of anyone who was a child in the 80s [Not really –Ed.]. And while its impacts reverberate to this day, the truth is that the conflict was over in about a year, two tops [So…the same amount of time it takes you to write an actual article then? – Ed.].
Sherman, set the WAYBAC machine to 1983…when transforming robots burst onto toy aisles. No, Transformers wouldn’t come till ’84…these are the GoBots. On the surface, both lines bear striking similarities…but looking underneath there are vast differences. It would be these differences that turned toy aisles into a toy robot Thunderdome, “Two ‘bots enter, one ‘bot leaves”.
Made in Japan
The story behind how the Transformers came to be on American shores is mostly known…but I’ll sum it up here: Hasbro rep goes overseas, buys a bunch of toy licenses (mainly from Takara’s Diaclone and Microman lines), swings by Marvel Comics on his way home to hammer out a story for said toys and kablam…the phenomena was born. Tonka did something similar a year earlier…rep goes overseas, buys license for Machine Robo toys from Bandai, brings said toys home and puts domestic resources into creating peripherals for said toys (accessories, playsets and so forth). There are subtle differences here that we’ll look at and one in particular that would spell doom for one and success for the other.
Good Guys vs. Bad Guys
Any story boils down to protagonist vs. antagonist. GoBots were divided into Guardians and Renegades…but seemingly at random. Not helping was the fact that the only way to tell between the two factions was to keep the packaging! If there was a lightning bolt and a dark background on the card, it’s a Renegade. Bright and sunny skies? Guardian. Lost your card backs? Then you, my friend, were shit out of luck…well, unless you had an obsessively good memory. Because if you were looking for any other visual cue as to which ‘bot was on which side…it simply wasn’t there. Each side had varied color schemes and alternate modes. The only two subsets you knew for certain what side they were on were both on the side of the Renegades, the 2 combiners Puzzler and Monsterous, and the regular, non-combining monster GoBots. Hasbro, with the help of Marvel, avoided this pitfall two ways. First, they decided to split the ‘bots up by their alternate modes, cars on one side, planes and most anything else on the other. And for the more confusing instances (dinosaurs on the good side, construction vehicle bad guys), there were stickers with each factions logo on them to remove any confusion.
What’s the Story?
Two warring factions whose seemingly eternal struggle spills over from their home planet to Earth. The main story is the same…only the names are changed to protect the innocent. [Yeah, who on earth is going to get a Dragnet reference these days? – Ed.] Whether it’s Renegades and Guardians fighting over Gobotron or Decepticons and Autobots fighting over Cybertron [Spell check is throwing fits now – Ed.], the story is the same on the surface. But that’s where it ends for the GoBots. Nothing more would be added until the cartoon started to air in 1984, a full year after the toyline was released. Transformers on the other hand, thanks to Marvel, not only had the cartoon come out much sooner after release of the toys (though still a week after the GoBots debut) but even if you, for some strange reason, couldn’t watch the show, when you bought a toy you still had a blurb in the Tech Specs not only about the powers and abilities of the character, but also their personality. When you bought Leader-1 in early ’84, you had no idea what kind of leader he was. Was he strict and by the book, running the Guardians like a well-oiled military unit? Or was he more laid back? On the other hand, we caught a glimpse right away when we bought Optimus Prime that he was a sage-type leader and not overly militaristic. But maybe that’s too easy, since the names scream their rank. Take GoBot Optimus Prime look-alike Road Ranger…what’s his story? Where does he fall in the hierarchy? There’s absolutely zero indication. Conversely, any Transformer you picked up, all you had to do was turn the packaging around to find out if this bot was a commander, a grunt, a philosopher or so on.
Battle of…the sexes???
This…this is what inspired me to write this article. Just looking at the toys, yeah, you’d have to be kinda nuts to assign gender to them…I mean, they’re robots, right? Or, given that they’re all from a boys’ toyline…well, what boy is going to decide that one race car might be a boy and another race car might be a girl? Probably not anyone you grew up with…although if you did, track that person down and give ‘em a pat on the back for their progressive thinking! [Or track ‘em down on behalf of your local law enforcement because if they had robots having sex when they were little, they might be up to some fucked up shit now! – Ed.] As each line got their own respective cartoon in 1984, sure enough, voices would have to be assigned to bring these toys to life. To Hanna Barbera’s credit, they looked at the toys and asked “Why can’t some of them be girls?” Each side, Guardians and Renegades, had female GoBots: Path Finder, Small Foot, Sparky and Spay-C for the Guardians, Crasher, Snoop and Vamp for the Renegades. Hell, just to show how progressive the bad guys were, Crasher was Cy-Kill’s 2nd in command (although we can’t help but wonder if she was banging the boss-bot…if you know what I mean and I think you do)! [And this is how people start on the path of becoming sex offenders…imagining robot sex. Way to go. – Ed]
On the opposite side of the toy war, Transformers never had a single female bot in toy form for the American run of Generation 1. In the animation, there was the episode “The Search for Alpha Trion” that introduced us to the female Autobots that remained behind on Cybertron as freedom fighters, Chromia, Firestar, Moonracer and their leader Elita-1…but they never appeared again (scratch that…in “War Dawn” we get to see the pre-Elita-1 Ariel). The same too for “Enter the Nightbird”, a ninja fembot stolen and reprogramed by the Decepticons…one and done. The first regular female Autobot would wait until 1986’s animated movie…Arcee. And she’d remain alone in her gender for the remainder of the American cartoon’s run.
Let’s get animated!
It’s not enough to wage war in the toy aisles…especially not in the 80’s. No, this war was comin’ home thanks to the loosening of restrictions on children’s programming. As mentioned earlier, GoBots got off the line first, premiering their opening miniseries a week before Transformers achieved liftoff. Tonka went with tried and true children’s programming giant Hanna Barbera. Hasbro decided to pair up with Asian studios Toei and AKOM. The visible impacts of these studios might have been what tipped the scales in the favor of the Transformers. While Hanna Barbera’s output had a consistent look, it was all very basic and bland. Making use of two studios, the Transformers cartoon could look extremely different from episode to episode, with Toei mostly being responsible for the awesome episodes you remember, AKOM mostly for the really poorly animated episodes that you’re paying a therapist good money to forget! But both studios made use of styles derived from the anime tradition of Japan and not the standard American cartoon…giving Transformers a significantly more dynamic edge. The writing for both series, however, is a total wash. Revisiting them as I’ve gotten older, they really can be only taken in small doses, as your TV will spring forth with enough cheese to make you beg for an endless bag of tortilla chips. [That’s a nachos joke, isn’t it? – Ed.]
It’d probably be cooler to just skip this and give the win here to Transformers. That’s what 90% of the internet would do…but that’s not entirely fair. Transformers certainly covered more in the range of scale, in the first 2 years ranging from mini-spies like Bumblebee and Huffer to larger bots like Jetfire and Shockwave…and only getting more massive as the line progressed. Tonka, however, kept their line mostly on the small scale, fitting in with the mini-spies of the Transformers line. This would, however, keep the complexity of the transformations for GoBots pretty limited. There were some, like Scratch, that were really unique and made the most of the limited space and joints they had! Others, however, fell on the old GoBot trope of “bend the robot in half and do something with the arms”. With Transformers, sure, most of the minispies fell into a similar rut, many “new” characters being repaints or slight remolds of older toys…something Transformers did a LOT! [You could forgive it though because, again, each was a new character with new Tech Specs! – Ed.] However, for increased complexity, you could simply move up in scale to a larger toy. This would provide Hasbro’s line with a much wider scale of transformation schemes. GoBots did try to move up in scale with their Super GoBots line…but it proved to be too limited. Not helping was the distinct lack of variety in the transformations of the first wave. Waves 2 and 3 tried to make up for that, including larger scale versions of the faction leaders, but at this point, it might have been too little, too late.
There are two things that Tonka does have to be commended on…playsets and combiners. On their respective cartoons, the Autobots had their base and the Decepticons had their lair…but no such things for the toys! GoBots, on the other hand, had a Command Center for the Guardians, just like on TV, and Thruster for the Renegades. Granted, Transformers would indeed catch up to this by 1986 with the release of Metroplex and Trypticon, the city-bots…but by then GoBots as a brand were nearly dead. Now, when you saw my comment on combiners, you likely scratched your head and made an audible “huh?”. Yes, Transformers certainly had more combiners and better ones, but take a look at Puzzler and Monsterous. Know what you don’t see? Extra pieces. Every Transformer combiner, from Devastator on up, needed extra pieces…hands, feet, chest plates, combined robot head…to complete the combined form. Not so with the GoBot combiners. Everything was within each combiner component. Now, sure, one can argue about the aesthetics…and we’ll get to that…but for 1984-ish…that was pretty impressive engineering that in some ways Hasbro STILL hasn’t really mastered. [Yes, yes, there ARE exceptions, Rail Racer comes to mind…and Tripredicus…and more I’m sure - Ed.] Then there was the fact that you could make any GoBot part of a combiner…with the Power Suits. Now these were certainly like the standard Scramble style combiners we got from Hasbro, but nearly any GoBot could wear a suit, connect up with the spaceship that formed the head and body of the combined form and ta-da! How cool would it have been had Hasbro had that idea? Every kid would’ve been able to re-enact “Masquerade”!
Lastly, we come to aesthetics…the look of the ‘bots. Given that most GoBots were all of the same scale, and that scale was indeed pretty small, well, that doesn’t give you a lot of room to alter appearance to play to aesthetics. Look is dictated by size and transformation…which ended up giving the GoBots a slightly bland appearance. Transformers included decals with the larger bots, allowing for additional detail…and it made a difference! Also, in having larger scales, this would allow for some details to be molded into the plastic…or having the arms being constructed out of more than one piece of plastic…allowing for articulation, basic though it might have been. To be blunt, Optimus Prime had knees and elbows, Leader-1 didn’t…and for whatever reason, it made all the difference.
Sure, there were other transforming robot toys in the 80’s…Robotech and Voltron both spring to mind…but those were piloted. Here, with Transformers and GoBots, we had sentient robotic lifeforms. Ultimately, with better, more developed supporting fiction, a greater variation in scale within the product line and a visual style…both in toy and in animation…that had flashes of greatness (in spite of a few duds!), Transformers ended up becoming the enduring toyline we know it to be today. That said, in doing research for this article, I came to appreciate GoBots a bit more than what I did when I was a kid. And even though the rights to the property as we remember them make any sort of revival impossible (Bandai owns the robot/toy designs while Hasbro owns the names and brand) the seeds are certainly there to create a fiction that would prove both different and equal to their more successful competition.