For a toy and cartoon tie-in phenom that’s been a significant presence in American pop culture since the mid-1980s, fans that have been around since the very beginning might think they know all there is to know about The Transformers. But — just as teased by the early tagline — there’s so much more to these transforming robots from Japan “than meets the eye.” That may be why they’re almost just as popular today as they were 30 years ago, spawning a ton of video games and several huge box office hits.
Created in Japan in the early ’80s, these transforming robots took the American toy market by storm when unleashed by Hasbro on an unsuspecting, and very welcoming, populace. Since then, not only have they taken over toy aisles across America in a mind-numbing assortment of action figures, they’ve also starred in long-running cartoons produced for both American and Japanese audiences, comic books from Marvel Comics and IDW Publishing, and also box office-breaking live-action films by director Michael Bay. In honor of this incredible legacy, we’ve combed through 30 years of pop culture to come up with a fairly impressive list of 15 things you never knew about The Transformers.
15. TRANSFORMERS VS. HE-MAN
From the time of its release across America in 1981, Mattel’s Masters of the Universe action figure toyline kicked butt and never bothered with the formality of taking names. Bolstered further in 1983 by a strategic ad campaign in the comic book publications of DC Comics, a three-issue comic book mini-series produced by DC and the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe television cartoon produced that same year by Filmation, He-Man made it hard for any rival toy maker to compete.
Eager to challenge Mattel’s success, rival toy manufacturer Hasbro saw promise in two toylines from Japanese toy maker Takara, whose transforming Diaclone and Microman robot toys — and their animated TV commercials — would fuel a toy-based TV show for Hasbro. Creating characters and a storyline for American children, Hasbro released the famed Transformers toyline in 1984 in tandem with an animated TV show of the same name.
14. MARVEL COMICS NAMED OPTIMUS PRIME
After purchasing the rights to Takara’s amazing robots that could disguise themselves as planes, trains and automobiles, Hasbro needed help preparing the toys for the American market. In particular, they needed help coming up with snazzy new names for the figures that would be the leaders of the Transformers’ warring robot factions. During this delicate development phase of the toyline, Hasbro called Marvel Comics for help.
Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and writers Denny O’Neil and Bob Budiansky responded to the call. O’Neil came up with the name for Optimus Prime and Budiansky created the name for Megatron. Shooter developed an eight-page treatment for the characters that provided a detailed backstory explaining the contentious relationship between the Autobots and the Decepticons, and also penned a breakdown of the personalities and moral alignments of several of the robots.
13. GOBOTS CAME FIRST
In addition to Mattel’s Masters of the Universe action figure toyline, another noteworthy competitor for the undivided attention of boys in America (and the credit cards of their parents) was the GoBots toyline from Tonka. Based on figures produced by Popy of Japan (later Bandai), named Machine Robo, they lacked the sophisticated look of Hasbro’s Transformers and were viewed by young toy snobs-in-training to be generic knockoffs, but this was incorrect. Tonka’s GoBots came first.
Tonka released the first batch of figures to stores across America in 1983, the year before Hasbro’s Transformers line. And until the latter hit the marketplace and stole most of its thunder, Tonka’s GoBots managed to create a bit of a sensation. It could even be argued by GoBots fans that this line laid the groundwork for the subsequent success of its more famous competitor…that offered toys boasting more sophisticated design. Just saying.
12. SHOCKWAVE AKA ASTRO MAGNUM
Unarguably, the years of 1972 to 1982 represents the pinnacle of modern Japanese-robot culture. 1972 saw the unleashing of the animated giant robot Mazinger Z, soon followed by related ‘toons-n-toys that were repackaged for American kids as Mattel’s Shogun Warriors. At the end of this heralded period came Mobile Suit Gundam and The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (aka Robotech), animated shows with toy tie-ins that are still popular to this day.
11. SACRIFICED FOR MERCHANDISE
Capitalizing off the success of its toys and cartoon, on August 8, 1986 the animated film The Transformers: The Movie was released in theaters. In contrast to the mildly violent, action-oriented TV ‘toon, the film was a surprisingly dark thriller that saw not only of the shocking death of the beloved leader of the Autobots, but several other characters on both sides of a robot war.
Among the casualties in this film’s mecha massacre were Starscream, Skywarp, Thundercracker, Shrapnel, Kickback, Bombshell, Wheeljack, Windcharger and Optimus Prime — whose death had both boys and girls bawling in the theater. In the third season of the TV show, fans discovered that Huffer had also perished off-camera during the film. And the reason why the deaths were written into the script was simply to give Hasbro an excuse to produce more toys based on other Transformers introduced in the film. Ouch.
10. WITHOUT ROBOTECH, THERE WOULD BE NO JETFIRE
The previously mentioned Shockwave wasn’t the only robot in Hasbro’s Transformers toyline that seemed somehow different from his peers. Jetfire, a robot capable of transforming into a fighter jet, was introduced to kids as the rival of Starscream from the Decepticons. But the toy was strangely much larger and more intricately designed than his villainous adversary. And the reason for that is simple: Jetfire wasn’t truly a Transformer.
Unlike the Diaclone and Microman toys that made up the first generation of Transformers, Jetfire was originally a Super Valkyrie Fighter in TV’s The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which aired in Japan in 1982. Produced by Japanese toy maker Takatoku, the Super Valkyrie was one of the most iconic mecha designs of the 1980s. Recognizing how well it might be received in the West, Hasbro purchased the toy design from Takatoku, renamed the robot Jetfire, and added it to the Transformers.
9. THE RAREST TRANSFORMER EVER
Did you know that the rarest toy ever produced by Hasbro for its Transformers line was the Autobot known as Fortress Maximus? In addition to being the most rare of the Transformers toys, Fortress Maximus was also the biggest, measuring in at an impressive 22-inches tall. Aside from his robot form, the toy boasted two additional transforming modes: one that turned him into a fortress or battle station, and another that turned him into a miniature city.
Produced for Hasbro’s Transformers: The Headmaster toyline in 1987, Fortress Maximus was an early name for the character that eventually became Omega Supreme and Metroplex. In the Marvel Comics adaptation of the 1986 movie, Autobot City is referred to as “Fortress Maximus” in a caption, but the character and toy wouldn’t actually be introduced to stores until nearly a year after the movie’s release.
8. MERCIFUL MINERVA
Did you know that Arcee from 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie is not the first female Transformer? Technically, because an Arcee toy wasn’t produced until 2014, that distinction belongs to Minerva (aka Minelba), a pilot-driven robot, named for her schoolgirl uniform-wearing pilot. Minerva was created for 1988’s Transformers Super-God Masterforce, a Japan-exclusive Transformers franchise with a distinct continuity separate from the animated TV show produced for the US, a separation that began with 1987’s Transformers: Headmasters.
As an Autobot Headmaster, the human Minerva became bonded with a Transtector robot from the planet Master. Minerva has the ability to summon an armored suit that enhances her physical strength, speed and reflexes, and which also allows her to transform into the head for her Transtector, a full-sized robot that can transform into a medical rescue vehicle. Since 1988, several variations of Minerva have been produced for the Japanese toy market.
7. DOUBLE HOMICIDE
Much to the surprise of Hasbro, young Transformers fans were outraged by the unexpected big screen death of the beloved Optimus Prime. The outcry — which included sternly-worded letters written by the parents of traumatized children — convinced Hasbro to quickly have him resurrected in the TV series. Like their American counterparts, Japanese children were similarly affected and were thrilled to have Optimus Prime back, but Takara, the Japanese license owner, didn’t agree with Hasbro’s decision.
6. MEGATRON MASTERPIECE
For many kids, transforming these toys from robot to vehicle was almost like solving a Rubik’s Cube. But the more Transformers you played with, the better — and faster — you got at conversions between forms. Over the years since 1984, fans have debated over which transformation was the most difficult, and while there is no universally accepted answer, one of the most commonly mentioned is 2012’s Transformers Masterpiece MP-05 Megatron by Takara.
One of the biggest challenges associated with this figure was that it had lots of tiny parts. Some owners also considered him to be the hardest to transform because they were just terrified of breaking the collectible. One hilarious message board respondent confessed that after successfully completing the transformation once, he never bothered to do it again. Fortunately, though, in the years since the Masterpiece Megatron was released, instructional YouTube videos have been posted. So there’s help.
5. UNICRON SMASH!
In the Transformers universe, Unicron is the largest Transformer in existence. This planet-sized robot, which is neither an Autobot nor Decepticon, first appeared in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie. Known as the Lord of Chaos and the Eater of Worlds, Unicron’s singular purpose is the consumption of the multi-verse: planets, moons, stars, and the very fabric of existence itself!
4. SCATMAN CROTHERS
Amazingly, 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie marked the final film performance of not only Orson Welles, but also that of famed actor, singer, dancer and musician Scatman Crothers. Known for a vast variety of guest appearances on popular TV shows ranging from The Twilight Zone to Charlie’s Angels, and roles in Hollywood films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Crothers was also a prolific voice actor for animated films and TV shows.
Before becoming forever associated in the minds of kids in the ’80s with the voice of the Autobot Jazz during the original run of TV’s The Transformers, Crothers provided the voice for the title character of 1974’s Saturday morning cartoon TV’s Hong Kong Phooey. Reprising his role as Jazz one final time for the Transformers film, the actor passed away in November of 1986, two months after the movie’s release.
3. ROBOT RECYCLING
One of the trademarks of Hollywood film director Michael Bay is blowing stuff up. Since 2007, Bay has directed the films Transformers (2007), Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Dark of the Moon (2011), Age of Extinction (2014) and 2017’s The Last Knight. And while all of these films have featured Bay’s trademark explosions — much of which today is computer generated — one Bay particular Transformers film “blowed stuff up real good.”
As astounding as this may sound, some 500 vehicles were destroyed during the filming of 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Even more astoundingly, Bay’s ravenous appetite for destruction cost the film studio nothing. All of the vehicles used in the film were given away by an insurance company after they were damaged beyond repair by floodwaters. For them, Bay’s movie was essentially a Hollywood recycling program.
2. ROCK ‘EM SOCK ‘EM ROBOT
Since his introduction into American pop culture, one of the most popular Transformers figures has been Soundwave, the Decepticon robot that transforms into the compact frame of a micro-cassette recorder (aka Sony Walkman, one of the most iconic music listening devices ever created in the decades prior to the invention of the iPod). The toy design was so cool that even Soundwave’s cassette tapes were transforming robots.
1. WINDBLADE ROCKS
One of the coolest items to come about in the long history of Transformers toys in America was the creation of the character Windblade, the toyline’s first “fan-built bot.” This groundbreaking character was the result of various polls posted on Hasbro’s official website, which helped to craft and define Windblade’s personality traits, physical characteristics and vehicle mode; a VTOL/vertical take-off and landing jet plane.
Windblade was officially revealed to fans as a female Autobot at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2013. Since her introduction, the Kabuki-inspired warrior has gone on to appear in several comic books produced by current license holder IDW Publishing, and as a major character in both the Transformers: Combiner War and the Transformers: Robots in Disguise animated TV series. Windblade is also featured as a character in the video game Transformers Legends: Into The Abyss. And she absolutely rocks!