Transformers is easily one of the most recognizable franchises in history. Who alive hasn’t heard of the never-ending battle between the brave Autobots and the terrorizing Decepticons? The slogan “more than meets the eye” is easily permanently ingrained within pop culture. It’s honestly amazing how popular a brand about vehicle changing robots has become ever since it started as a toy line 30 years ago. Yet it’s not exactly a surprise as the franchise itself has breathed cross promotion since the very beginning. Shortly after the Japanese company Takara (now Takara-Tomy) and American company Hasbro first released Generation 1 action figures, the property exploded onto comic books, television screens, video game consoles, and movie theaters. The public as a whole just gobbled up any iteration available to them.
It’s really tough to claim which version of the Transformers line is more popular. Many would immediately say the changeable action figures, which is an entirely reasonable response. These toys are still immensely popular for children solely because the brand keeps evolving. Yet you absolutely cannot ignore the many animated shows that have existed. It’s a complete circle of popularity too. The toys were successful enough to launch a show, and the show gave the figures enough personality to make people want more of them. Can you honestly say that Bumblebee would be one of the most popular characters if he wasn’t one of the original main Autobots in 1984’s The Transformers TV show? Even though the latest live-action films are critical dump yards, they too have big followings that have grossed more than $2.5 billion and counting. And then there’s even the comic books which were really popular at the offset by combining Autobots/Decepticons with Marvel’s biggest heroes/villains.
All things considered, there’s only one line of Transformers that wasn’t an enormous success: video games. Nearly 30 games have been released and they’ve only recently started to receive positive reception. How could this immensely popular brand, absolutely ripe for action, do so poorly in a medium that craves it? It really all boils down to circumstance. The very first game, The Transformers, came in 1985 when the hype train was running strong. Both the toys and the show were already major hits at the time. With the video game industry on the rise after the crash in 1983, Hasbro and Takara clearly wanted to spread their brand to new mediums. Unfortunately neither The Transformers or 1986’s Transformers: The Battle to Save Earth did particularly well on the Commodore 64.
Then for some reason the video game line stumbled while the industry itself flourished. Japan only titles came out and they were all met with miserable reviews. It wouldn’t be until 1997 that the series would return overseas with a game based on Beast Wars: Transformers. Beast Wars, despite not featuring the typical characters people had already come to love, became a favorite for many fans. Entire new lines of action figures flew off shelves and kids flocked to their televisions in droves. Naturally Hasbro and Takara took this as a sign that it was time to bring their brand back to consoles, which is what lead to Beast Wars: Transformers the game. It ended up being one of the most critically panned titles in the entire line, and future entries focused on the Beast Wars series didn’t fare any better.
In truth, it wasn’t until 2004 that this franchise actually received a game worthy of the brand. It just took nearly 20 years to get there. When the series was reborn in 2002 as Transformers: Armada following the highly controversial Transformers: Robots in Disguise, it kicked off the very popular Unicron Trilogy. Hasbro joined up with Atari to capitalize on Armada’s success with the 2004 release Transformers, and wouldn’t you know it, the game was really great. It did the franchise a justice that eight previous games couldn’t. You could choose to play as either Optimus Prime, Red Alert, or Hot Shot, and your primary goal was obviously defeating the evil Decepticons. Along the way you collect little robots known as Mini-Cons, characters first introduced in Armada that gave you cool powerups. While this third-person shooter didn’t exactly make waves on the awards circuit, longtime fans were happy they finally had a completely respectful adventure on their hands.
Hitting a standard never before met, Transformers opened the floodgates. It also helped that the Michael Bay films revitalized mainstream interest. Even though all games based on the movies were expectantly terrible, they were a step up from what came pre-2004. Activision, one of the most popular gaming companies, also picked up publishing rights for the games between 2004 and 2007. At the hands of some incredibly seasoned professionals, the Transformers brand grew exponentially in the industry. The change was especially notable in 2010 when an entirely original adventure came out called Transformers: War for Cybertron. It was a massive hit, further solidifying proof that a Transformers game can actually be fun.
The first and only Transformers game I’ve ever played was the 2004 release on the PlayStation 2. As a long time fan, it surprised me that this was my first time controlling Optimus Prime. Yet researching this post has proven to me that I was definitely better off waiting until this moment. Transformers games weren’t wildly popular beforehand and those that were available were absolutely terrible. My memories of Transformers the game are only positive too. I had an incredible amount of fun driving around as Optimus in truck form and giving him wings to glide around vast maps. Even though the final battle was against the planet sized Unicron, the epic fight against the aircraft carrier Tidal Wave is what stuck with me. It was Shadow of the Colossus in scale but not nearly as dark. Also, you could spend the entire battle shooting Tidal Wave’s head from afar with a sniper rifle. Awesome.
Unsurprisingly, the Transformers name is now going strong in games. The latest release was Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark which came out only a few short days ago (June 24th). Reviews are generally mixed, an expected outcome when you consider how it’s a sequel to Age of Extinction. However, pre-release buzz around the entry was huge and plenty of people expected good things. This alone is a monumental change from how Transformers games were initially received only ten years ago. Were they held back previously because of technological limitations? Were developers just too inexperienced to translate a massive property to a fully controlled medium? It honestly can be a mix of those and many other factors. In the end though, it doesn’t really matter. Now we can transform and roll out the way we were always meant to.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.