1987, while still being part of the absolute peak of the run of the original Transformers toy line, arguably also saw some troubling trends manifesting themselves more firmly; an overload of play-pattern gimmicks, at the expense of overall esthetic appeal and memorable characters.
First, let me get one thing out of the way: Transforming itself could very much be called a play pattern-dictating gimmick. However, for me, the word “gimmick” somehow conveys an additional feature to something existing, to make a product a little more eye-catching, or as Wikipedia puts it: “a gimmick is a unique or quirky special feature that makes something “stand out” from its contemporaries. However, the special feature is typically thought to be of little relevance or use”. As for the latter, nothing could be less true for transforming, since is the basic concept, if not the very heart and soul of the whole franchise. But regardless of how you define it, transforming as a feature was certainly enough to make Transformers special and enjoyable.
Above: The 1987 faction leaders, both city bots. Decepticon Scorponok to the left, Autobot Fortress Maximus to the right, the latter still the bulkiest Transformer toy ever produced
The 1987 Transformers toy line did however not see one single toy that did not have an additional gimmick on top of transforming ability; we had the Throttlebots with pull-back engines and automatic transformations, we had the Autobot Monsters spouting sparks from their mouths, we had the even less memorable Clones and the Double Spy Punch/Counterpunch, but foremost, we had the gimmick of human bonding in the Headmasters and Targetmasters.
Above: The original Headmaster and Targetmaster partners, as featured in the Marvel comic
The Headmasters, Targetmasters
For the Headmasters, the marketing tagline explains the whole concept; “The driver of the vehicle becomes the head of the robot”, and for the Targetmasters the guns for the robots could turn into miniature partners. What was more, however, the mini partners making up the heads and guns of the new robots were, according to the accompanying media, not even robots themselves, but humans! Or, to make things even more confusing, not really humans, but another, identical-looking race called Nebulans, from the planet Nebulos.
I am not sure about the reason for this new direction of the brand. At this point, Hasbro were designing new toys in close cooperation with Takara (a successful business model which persists to this day), and maybe it was the original idea with humans piloting robots from the Diaclone frachise, itself a part of a long-standing tradition of human-piloted giant robots in Japan, that inspired the Headmasters concept. Maybe Hasbro thought that a human component in the new Transformers characters would make them easier to identify for kids, who could then dream about piloting/becoming a part of a Transformer themselves? For me, it was however not a satisfying concept, for many reasons…
Above: The ever so lovable, box-headed Headmasters, 1987 and 1988 lineups
First, for the Headmasters, it was not a question of Nebulan semi-humans simply piloting robots. Like with the concept of Gestalts/combiners the mind and personality of a Headmaster was rather supposed to be a mixture of those of the organic partner and the robot and thus it was quite ambiguous as to who for example the character Chromedome really was: was he the robot, his Nebulan partner, or both, and if he was both, where was the robotic component of his personality physically located? In the Marvel comic miniseries Transformers: The Headmasters the original heads of the robots, whose bodies were now bonded with Nebulans (surgically modified, in robot-suits and folded into the heads for the robots, yes it´s tricky), were lying in a room somewhere, supposedly being in touch with their bodies and organic partners through remote communication. Further, the whole justification for the need of this dubious, overly complicated arrangement was not satisfying either as it was basically explained as providing supposed increased agility in combat situations, same thing for the somewhat less tricky (but seemingly even more pointless) concept of Targetmasters.
In Japan, 1987 marked the year when the Japanese fiction started to ignore the Western story progression, as they although having the mostly the same toys released, often had different names for them, and they had their own accompanying cartoon/anime for marketing the toys. In the cartoon, the Headmaster mini-partners were not human/Nebulan, but rather diminutive robots who connected to large, lifeless robotic bodies called Transectors.
Above: The three original Autobot Targetmasters; Sureshot, Point Blank and Crosshairs, all with names related to aiming/shooting
However, in 1988, the Powermasters were introduced. Here, a mini-partner transformed into the engine of the vehicle mode of the main robot. While the mini-partners were still Nebulans in the Western fiction, Japan blazed an even more deviating trail fiction-wise with their sub-line Super God Masterforce. Again, the toys were to a large degree the same as in the West, but again with new names, and this time typically with different color schemes, further distinguishing them as different characters from their Western counterparts. But foremost, the “Godmasters” in this sub-line (the same toys that were the Powermasters in the West) were not robots at all, but Earth humans bonded to the same kind of lifeless transector bodies as the mini-Transformers in the Headmasters subline had been. Thus, when we got Powermaster Optimus Prime in the west, a rebuilt Optimus Prime (whose body had been destroyed in the Marvel Comic), Japan got Ginrai, essentially a young Japanese guy stumbling over a body meant to be used by the actual Optimus as some point, donning this body as his personal battle armor. In other words, now many Transformers were not even de facto Transformers anymore, but humans in exo-suits. That is, until the last episode of the Japanese cartoon, when the humans abandoned their transectors, which then were shown to have become mysteriously imprinted with the personality of their pilots. But they were still separate characters. Confusing? You bet…
Above, left: Ginrai, in his powered up “God” form the the left, the Western Powermaster Optimus Prime to the right, with mini-parner inserted into his abdomen in its engine form. Right: The Super-God Masterforce lineup, including the big guys (from left to right) Overlord, BlackZarak, Grand Maximus and God Ginrai
As for they toys themselves, I found some of the Headmasters quite appealing, despite their typically box-shaped heads (the result of them being folded up mini-partners). As for Targetmasters, I liked the figures but thought their guns, and the whole gimmick with them turning into mini-partners, stupid. As for the Powermasters, I find the engineering of the toys quite impressive in retrospect, since they can´t be transformed without the mini-partner inserted in the main toy. As a child I however found this hopelessly frustrating, as I would often misplace the mini-partners in question.
On the character side, most Head- and Targetmasters were quite anonymous in the Western cartoon, and in the Marvel comic, only their leader Fortress Maximus and his Decepticon rival Scorponok (or rather, their human and Nebulan partners, respectively) were somewhat explored as characters. While Optimus Prime´s return as a character was quite welcome, I found it disappointing that he now was dependent on a Nebulan partner for his survival (the justification for the gimmick). It is only in later years, again in the IDW comics, that Fort Max and Scorponok has really been explored as ROBOT characters, not having headmaster partners there, and for the first time characters like Chromedome and Brainstorm have received distinct personalities in the West, which is much welcomed.
Above: Brainstorm (left) and Chromedome (right), as portrayed in IDW´s “More Than Meets The Eye”
Overall, I found, and find, the whole concept of human-Transformer bonding overly complicated, unnecessary, and downright silly. It was however a mild breeze compared to what would follow these “innovations”, which would arguably result in the eventual demise of the whole toy line in the US, after a (mostly) impressive seven-year run. More on that in the next post…