Headmasters, Targetmasters, Powermasters. The Transformers gimmick juggernaut powered on through 1987 to 1988, bringing us the first reincarnation of Optimus Prime, a smaller range of Headmasters and Targetmasters (smaller toys, too) and introducing us to the concept of Powermaster-activated transformations. While Takara in Japan really broke off at a tangent and introduced Super God Masterforce, the Hasbro range of Headmasters (Takara versions referred to as Headmaster Juniors) – especially the Autobots – evolved into a slightly different concept compared to their legendary 1987 predecessors. This week we look at Autobot Headmasters Siren, Nightbeat and Hosehead together with their Nebulan partners. You can also have a look back at our previous articles on 1987 Autobot Headmasters, Targetmasters and Monsterbots as well as 1987 Decepticon Headmasters, Headmaster Horrorcons and Targetmasters for some background on the ‘New Direction’ Transformers went in that year. With the imminent Transformers Titans Return toy line set to feature 1988 Headmaster characters among others, what better time to revisit the original inspiration?
1988 was the first year where the Hasbro-released Transformers in North America and Europe had no television media associated with them to promote the new toys and characters beyond adverts, although the Marvel comics run was still going strong. My own affinity with Transformers toys was waning in 1988 as well, new TF purchases dropping off sharply after the wondrous Headmasters and Targetmasters of 1987. In fact, the only TFs I think I received in 1988 were Powermaster Optimus Prime and Targetmaster Landfill, both birthday presents. So, discovering the 1988 range as an adult has been an incredibly educational experience, and one that surprised me due to my instant and growing affection for anything I have bought from this period within the last 12 months despite previous misgivings about the aesthetics and perceived simplicity of the toys. You may notice that the 1988 Autobot Headmasters are now recognisable Earth vehicles instead of futuristic cars/jets/helicopters/tanks. In Japan these three and the Decepticon equivalents were referred to as Headmaster Juniors in the Masterforce series (but not in Hasbro literature) with some key differences you may know about, and we’ll get to those later.
The Headmaster concept remained largely the same, the main figure being ‘binary-bonded’ to a much smaller, organic Nebulan partner who would transform into a large robot head and plug into the main body. The difference between the 1988 Headmaster Autobots and their 1987 counterparts was that the Nebulans were now much smaller and less articulated, but they could still sit inside the vehicles they were bonded to as drivers. What’s lovely is that the packaging for Headmasters remained the same as the previous year, meaning you could almost extend the famous family of four Autobot HMs at this scale to three more in 1988, all with the classic grid pattern boxes and now-standard digital sunburst spotlight behind the exceptionally nice character box art. The small peep window remains on the box front for viewing the separately-housed Nebulan Headmaster partners, but the mock-up art/photography for the Headmaster heads themselves on the box front has to be seen to be appreciated…for its comedy. Siren, especially.
Look how cute those mini Headmasters are! From left to right we have “Quig” for Siren, “Muzzle” for Nightbeat and “Lug” for Hosehead. As opposed to the 1987 Autobot Headmaster figures’ pegged-on legs which were independent, these little Nebulans have a similar design to the Decepticon Targetmaster partners, namely a bottom half that clips into the top half and rotates as one. Similar concerns about stressed and snapping Nebulan clips exist here as well. When attached to the main figure, the Headmasters also come with a helmet and two small guns that attach to either side of the helmet acting as antennae (and weapons) which are supremely easy to lose, and the helmets double up as seats for the Nebulans when the main toy is in vehicle mode. When plugged into the main body, like 1987, you get a mini tech-spec readout of strength, speed and intelligence behind the flip down chest panel. The mechanisms are simpler now, though, meaning that while 1987 Nebulan Headmasters can be plugged in, regardless of which head is attached to the 1988 Headmaster figures the readout is always the same. There are no individual tumblers now, just a single sliding piece. This explains why the readout is now upside down, as well. The Headmaster partners also do not have a flap at the back to cover the larger Headmaster face in Nebulan robot mode as 1987 Headmaster partners did.
Let’s start with Siren and his Nebulan partner Quig. Siren stands taller than the other 1988 Autobot Headmasters and is based on a Fire Chief vehicle, decidedly more Earth-like than most of what 1987 served up. Was this an attempt to appeal more to children/parents and rediscover the glory days of early G1? The transformation on Siren is very simple, and in fact all three of these toys share the same principles of transformation where the front/rear of the vehicle folds down to become the feet and legs, arms are pulled out and a couple of flaps are opened. In robot mode, Siren goes from an almost completely grey and red vehicle to suddenly flashing copious amounts of blue, and it works very well with all the grey. The head sculpt on Siren with the big shades is great, and the helmet plus antennae really complete the look of the figure. It’s a real shame so many of these are discoloured or missing the two small head guns, these figures have to be in good condition to be properly appreciated for what they bring to the era. My Siren has a tendency to lean forward when the feet are properly snapped into place, and if I straighten them he topples backwards. Not sure if this is a common issue or just this specimen.
Quig can sit clipped into that helmet, and placed inside the opening cab on Siren. You can see where all the individual accessories clip on to form an attack mode vehicle. I actually find that the numerous vehicle mode stickers that should add visual appeal to the toy in that configuration end up being more effective in robot mode running down the shins and sides of Siren’s arms. I’ll admit that the giant unpainted plastic wheels and blocky proportions of what kind of resembles a sports car don’t make Siren a standout vehicle, but the high and wide shoulders, excellent head sculpt and colour scheme really do – along with serious height – make him stand out as a robot. Quig’s proportions, like all of the 1988 Headmaster Nebulans, are slightly comical but there’s enough sculpting there for it to be visually interesting. Saying Siren is the weakest of the three is like choosing between diamonds, though. This is a great figure to transform and handle thanks to the enormously satisfying clunk of the joints, especially the shoulder fold-out. Those big Ray Ban eyes are so reminiscent of Transformers art at the time and they give Siren great character. I also love how his boxart is beckoning you to come get some. For the 1988 Takara Masterforce line, Siren was a white police car known as Headmaster Junior Go Shooter, but the grey fire chief version of the mould was available in Japan as a mailaway.
Oh Nightbeat, you are a special one. Seemingly the fan favourite. From the unforgettable and excellent name of this robot and his eternally recognisable function as a detective, to a vehicle mode that just nonchalantly ends up being the legendary Porsche 959 eighties pinup, Nightbeat is special. A very well known mix up occurred with the Nightbeat character model used in the comics in that he was depicted with Siren’s face design (complete with Ray Bans), and when a character is that well developed, mix ups become lore and that breeds newer Nightbeat toys with Siren’s face! He’s still drawn with Siren’s features in the IDW More Than Meets The Eye title today. It’s really no surprise that Nightbeat was recoloured into female medic Minerva for Takara’s Masterforce line as his proportions and lines could easily pass for feminine in robot mode. Just like Minerva, Nightbeat suffers terrible discolouration on many specimens, going from that dreamy turquoise to a sort of green. The parts are easily lost too, so a complete Nightbeat is expensive, and to find one boxed without sticker wear and discolouration…very expensive.
The transformation on Nightbeat is very similar to Siren, just the addition of foldout fists and a lift-up hood providing any noticeable variety. What sets Nightbeat apart are the looks. A blue and yellow 959 with flame decals on the side is so completely inappropriate for a detective, and yet that’s just the kind of insanity that makes post-movie Transformers so lovable. Those accessories, especially the helmet antennae, are very costly to get separately and can help form the attack mode as with Siren. Nebulan Muzzle, who was originally shown on stock photography as having blue legs not black, sits inside Nightbeat within the helmet seat. Sticker wear is an issue with this figure, especially the clear-backed flame decals, but not as prevalent as the rampant discolouration. Interestingly, the 90s Chinese release of Nightbeat of which there was a case find, has a red robot face and yellow chin instead of the light orange face of the Hasbro 1988 release. Chinese Nightbeats also have been known to come with two same-sided head antennae and silver paper- backed flame decals on the vehicle. Nightbeat’s instructions show the antennae pointed forwards, very much acting as guns. Once again, excellent box artwork helps to sell this figure, with such colours and a Porsche alt mode added to developed character in media, it is no surprise that Nightbeat was a popular toy back in 1988 and still today. He was available as a mailaway in Japan alongside Siren, being clearly different to Minerva.
Finally we have Hosehead and Nebulan partner Lug, the fire truck. Siren is tall and bulky with a pretty face, Nightbeat is curvy and gorgeous with a killer alt mode, but Hosehead is my favourite because he’s the best toy. That delicious chunky red fire truck with rotating long, extending ladder is a joy to handle, and his transformation – while following the same general principles – just has that miniscule amount more going on with the arms, ladder, grille and waist flaps to make it more memorable and enjoyable. He’s got noticeable yet subtle sticker designs that actually accentuate his features, a fantastic Transformers G1-esque face with serious blue eye band action going on, topped off with good proportions and a well-finished silver face. He’s a classic Autobot. Once again the helmet and antennae guns really bring more flavour to the head in general and the rear-hanging ladder make Hosehead the more unique standout of the set aesthetically as a robot.
With Lug sitting between the cab and the rear in vehicle mode, again inside the helmet seat which has a dedicated pit, and with the weapons attached to the ladder and the sides of the vehicle, there is a welcome sense of variety introduced. The smallest robot of the three Autobot Headmasters has become the largest vehicle. For Masterforce, Hosehead was called Cab and was not different in any other significant way, so no mailaway promotion was necessary for him in Japan. One more interesting thing to note, Hosehead’s stock photography shows his pivoted nozzle at the end of the ladder to be two separate rotating parts, but the production version has them seemingly attached together so as not to move independently. Hosehead is also the only one of the three to feature retracting fists, in my mind making this a figure that could easily and seamlessly slip into the 1987 lineup, but I couldn’t say the same for the other two.
It’s true that these three 1988 Autobot Headmasters have transformations that are less complex than today’s finest legends class Transformers, that there is no lower body articulation with the one-piece feet and that they have some of the ‘Duplo proportions’ aesthetic going on with colours occasionally firmly reminiscent of young children’s toys, but that’s exactly what they are. They are highly accessible, well made, chunky kids’ toys which are a joy to handle, together with visually appealing colours and in every case, two strong modes. Hosehead is a link to 1987 and so as a result has the more mecha-like proportions and features. On top of that these figures take the Headmasters concept which was undoubtedly a hit with kids and add to it, giving the Headmasters a seat, helmet and even their own little antennae/guns.
The toys are designed in such a distinct way as to be able to, when mint and complete, rise above the unfair perception of them being an over-simplified harbinger of the so-called decline of late G1 Transformers. You pick up a nice undamaged, kitted out Siren, Hosehead or Nightbeat in your hands with good stickers and tell me if they do not ooze every drop of vintage robot charm that you want from a G1 Transformer. Even though they did not have a cartoon to carry their popularity, the tech specs infused them with character. Nightbeat, the logical rule-bending detective. Siren, the overbearing loudmouth and his librarian partner. Hosehead, the well-meaning bungler and his Olympian Nebulan who together can speed up their enemies?!. The 1988 Autobot Headmasters are another post Movie subset of G1 that remind me just what makes vintage TF collecting such a pleasure, and why the brand has stayed so firmly in the heart of those that followed it back in the day.
Many kind thanks to Paul Hitchens (The Spacebridge) for providing Hasbro Hosehead lineart for adverts and Masterforce Cab animation models.
All the best