Transformers, by their nature, are a gimmick. Toy cars, planes, animals etc that turn into action figures, or vice versa. Within our beloved toy line, there are many sub-categories of gimmick that define certain characters, years and entire eras of Transformers. Beyond the actual shape-changing nature of the toys and characters, and things such as rubsigns to reveal the usually obvious allegiance of the toy, I’m going to take a brief look at some Transformers toy gimmicks employed by Hasbro and Takara down the years, and get some excellent contributions also!
One of the first Transformers gimmicks that comes to mind is the ability of one toy to combine with another to form something greater. Combiners (or ‘Gestalts’, ‘Special Teams’ etc) more often than not consisted of a group of similarly-themed figures all becoming one part or limb of a larger combined robot. The first to grace the Transformers line was Devastator, made up of the six Constructicons. This toy was already released before as part of Takara’s Diaclone line in the Construction Robo set, so the concept wasn’t exactly new. I never had any combiners as a child, just a solitary Aerialbot Air Raid, so I only really discovered and explored the gimmick as an adult. I can only imagine how much play value they had for children, and just how much the whole Scramble City inter-changeable limbs concept impacted upon their imagination during play. I didn’t chase these figures down when I first started collecting as an adult because my memory of them was always influenced by worn examples all with tremendously simple, uniform robot modes with a shared aesthetic. My mistake.
I loved my first Devastator very much, and more recently I have thoroughly enjoyed discovering vintage treasures such as G1 Superion, Defensor and Abominus. I have also owned G1 Predaking, Bruticus and the 3rd party MMC Feral Rex, Unique Toys Ordin and pretty much all of the Micromaster six-combiners. Even though I don’t own one any more, I still think Car Robots JRX (or RiD Rail Racer) is my favourite of all the combining teams I’ve owned. While it definitely benefits – and simultaneously suffers – from having its combined mode be the focus of the design, the superb train modes and the inescapable feel of the era it was released in always touch my heart. It may not be as poseable as modern day Combiner Wars or 3rd Party toys that combine, but it still radiates an untouchable degree of cool that very few combiners I’ve owned have been able to match.
Wayne Wong is very clear what his favourite gimmick was from Transformers. He says “Micromasters! What’s not to love? They’re small, they’re easy to transform, you can mess with playsets, build cities, man turrets, ride elevators… they’re all roughly the same size, their combiners feel like they tower over the basics… can’t think of a single gimmick that offers that much playability.” He’s not wrong, really. I can’t think of any Micromaster set or figure that I’ve not enjoyed. I’ve already mentioned the Micromaster combiners recently on this blog, and seeing collectors set up all of the bases and stations really fires the imagination. I’ve always also loved how they could be incorporated into other games too, my daughter and I regularly using Micromasters as counters in Snakes & Ladders, for example! Sure, it was heavily influenced by the success of Galoob’s Micro Machines, but the Transformers universe would be a sadder place without the adorable little beggars.
An unfairly maligned transformation gimmick, one or three-step Transformers of modern times have actually been mini-marvels if you got the right one. Kit Tang explains why the concept of immediate transformation has always been his preferred gimmick: “It’s been pointed out that One Step Transformers are my favourite gimmick. I scoffed but I started thinking, the one step gimmick isn’t just confined to the Transformers labelled with the name. It also applies to Duocons, Battlechargers, Activators etc as well so I realised… they might be right? Why? Sure, the robot modes might need some imagination to fully realise them, but they can go from one mode to another in a flash! To me that’s amazing, they’re doing what the show advertised! The engineering that lets them do that is deceptively complex, try out a 3 Step Bisk to see what I’m talking about. They could be better (cough articulation cough) but traditionally One Step TF’s are cheap and disposable, I can pick one up for a song and it’ll make me smile. And there’s the rub, first and foremost these are amazing TOYS, not figures or collectibles. That’s a whole other thing to me.”
Powermasters are a great one to discuss, too. Debuting in 1988, the toys from the Powermaster range came with a small binary-bonded Nebulan figure that transformed into an engine. This engine had to be clipped onto the main figure to unlock a key transformation step. While on the surface, some of the Powermaster figures seemed more blocky, less refined and aesthetically removed from the more elegant earlier Transformers lines, it’s a horrible mistake to ignore them. Figures like Getaway, Slapdash, Dreadwind, Darkwing and the mighty Doubledealer are some of my favourite G1 Transformers now. The double Powermaster gimmick of Overlord lends itself beautifully to that majestic creature’s many modes and playability. Takara’s God Ginrai is one of my go-to toys for a mess about thanks to how much fun they’ve managed to make all the aspects of it. It has to be said though, none of the Powermaster figures that I own are actually enhanced by the gimmick, they just happen to all be tremendously good and gorgeous base figures. Add to that the ease with which some of them break when the Powermaster is not attached, and you do wonder about the overall assessment of the gimmick.
Headmasters have been very prominently featured in Transformers recently thanks to Titans Return, and they’re pretty unforgettable. They seem to be one of the few gimmicks non-collectors recall from their youth. They’re also Sixo’s favourite gimmick: “Headmasters are undoubtedly my favourite Transformers gimmick of all time. The concept of a robot’s head that can transform into a mini-pilot is highly endearing, and so it’s no surprise that it’s lasted so long, even being used prominently in modern-day toys. For me there’re several aspects that make the feature so good. Firstly, it enables anyone who is a fan of the fiction to somehow identify with the pilot character – I distinctly remember being a child and loving the idea of piloting my own Transformer that I could then also become part of in robot mode. Secondly, the toys themselves are absolutely excellent; check out any of the original 1987 crew and you’ll see instantly what I mean. And finally, they were the first wave of Transformers to set the tradition of larger robots buddying up with smaller partners. It’s been done in many forms since, from Powermasters to Minicons and beyond, but it’s always been well-received. In my humble opinion though, it’s never been executed better than the original Headmasters.”
I feel any article of this nature would be remiss in not mentioning Transformers with more than 2 modes. The Triplechanging figures of note from the original Transformers series are all mostly revered, my personal favourite being Astrotrain, but of course as the line developed – and post G1 – many more figures would receive third modes while not specifically being marketed as ‘Triplechangers’. What occasionally seemed to happen was that one alternate mode was prioritised over the other, and so some toys typically had a good robot mode, one great alt mode and a compromised third mode. Quite a few toys have questionable ‘base’ modes, of course. I very much like what Titans Return did by giving all the voyagers and leaders passable third modes, and sometimes great third modes. The fact that they incorporated the Headmaster gimmick too just makes them all the more enjoyable. Take Power Of The Primes and how the little Prime Masters combine the Headmaster, Powermaster, Targetmaster and Pretender gimmicks, and you have an interesting mix of functions and varied play pattern options. I have always had a soft spot for Sixshot and Greatshot, those glorious sixchangers. It’s true that one mode usually suffers in any Transformers toy with multiple alternate modes, but I just enjoy the concept of a sixchanger so much, and I feel Sixshot/Greatshot execute the feature – both as G1 and TR/LG – excellently.
Here’s one I wasn’t expecting to be classified as a gimmick, such was the nature of the Micro Change Series line that spawned them – a concept line in itself of 1:1 scale transforming everyday items. Ras chooses his favourite gimmick for us: “My favourite Transformers gimmick of all time is without a shadow of a doubt the Micro cassettes. Trust me, as far as Transformers go I’m a ‘lifer’ but being born in the UK in ’85 made it difficult to own such items. Aside from actual Micro cassettes and various keychains of Micro cassettes, all I had of the Transforming incarnation were jaw-dropping pictures as showcased in their various catalogs. It wasn’t until ’94 when old stock introduced me to them in real life. Rewind, Eject, Ramhorn and Steeljaw. By the case. Alongside many others in Scottish-based 80s/90s toy retailer ‘The Jolly Giant’. They were worth the wait. Better than I could ever have conceivable imagined. I got two sets, one to open, one to keep sealed (though eventually they were both opened). A couple of years later I learned of the Japanese exclusives. ‘New moulds!’ I proclaimed. To this day those remain some of my favourite pieces. Along with their Micro Change and prototype origins (Ratbat being my favourite). To the point: they are completely unassuming, indicative of their era in every angular facet. Everything I love about the design of life and this hobby. I’ve always been a stickler for a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ and these, to me, are the pinnacle of that. The true apex of Transforming household objects, and amongst the first.”
Want something even more surprising? Here’s James Wilson and his reasons for choosing the non-transforming Action Masters as his favourite Transformers gimmick! “Action Masters! The gimmick of not transforming was a brave move for this toyline, and some might say a bad one. I’d say they’re wrong to think so. Following on from the playability of the Micromasters, the Action Masters were good toys, and I don’t feel the lack of transformation took away from that. Each figure shares the same basic articulation meaning they can all take advantage of the playsets. Seeing Optimus Prime’s Armoured Convoy or Megatron’s Neutro-Fusion Tank fully kitted out with their AM pals is a wonderful sight. The AM partners were fun in themselves, an evolved version of Targetmasters in many ways. No longer limited to little men who turn into guns, we get alligators, dinosaurs, cats, scorpions, skateboards, more! All with spring loaded action and all comically oversized weapons.
“The return of classic characters to the toy shelves (and for those of us in the UK, the first time we could get characters like Blaster and Shockwave) was a joy for my younger self. Closer cartoon accuracy was also an added appeal to many. If you think Action Masters were the death of the original toyline, then you’re probably not from Europe. For the rest of us, it was a wonderful gateway into the 90s and the toys that followed were possibly the most coherently designed toys of the entire line (but someone else can talk Turbomasters/Predators). Why are Action Masters great? Just look at AM Prime’s boxart, it doesn’t get better than that.”
I’d very much like to also say a few words about G1 Punch-Counterpunch. His rather wonderful gimmick of being a ‘Double Spy’ consisted of having a car mode, an Autobot robot mode and even a Decepticon robot mode, complete with 2 rubsigns. Sure, Animated Shockwave did much the same thing, but the degree to which Punch-Counterpunch pulls this off in an undeniably classy manner while being one of the most fun G1 figures to just mess with…well he deserves his own category and paragraph here. A Pontiac Fiero with two distinct and completely believable robot modes is no mean feat. Again, it’s one of those situations where I cannot begin to imagine how much fun a child could have, where their stories and adventures would take them with Punch-Counterpunch switching between their Autobots and Decepticons during playtime. The fact that Punch almost had a rolling attack mode gimmick with moulded wheels on his ‘knees’ just illustrates the ambition inherent in his design.
Demonstrating that this community and hobby thrives on diversity of interest and concept – as well as depth of knowledge and insight – here’s Sid Beckett to describe his surprising favourite Transformers gimmick: “I love Target / Power / Breast / Head / Micro / Shell (Pretenders) Masters, but I’m going to pick a small subset of toys that featured not one but THREE gimmicks, which have became standard across future generations of Transformers and still have their impact felt now. I’m going to pick the G2 Laser Rods.
“While not the first Transformers to feature light-piping (Axelerators and Skyscorchers hold that honour), these guys took that tech concept to an extra level with a second gimmick of light up swords and light up engines thanks to a small battery, even if it did require you to manually pipe those lights between the different modes. They’re some of the first Transformers to feature weapon storage with the swords stashing underneath the vehicles as a sort of rubbish exhaust.
“What else? Oh yeah, they’re Super Poseable! While not quite of the level of proper ball joints which debuted a year later with the Cyberjets, the poseability on these toys was very good for 1994, at least for as long as the rubber band held up. Is poseability a gimmick? I argue if it’s a selling point on the packaging it is a gimmick! All of these features carried over into 1995’s Laser Prime, a toy which holds up stunningly well all these years on.”
Finally, my personal favourite Transformers gimmick of all time. I have always had a massive love and fascination for the Targetmasters, and that goes all the way back to childhood. This was added to in the late 1990s when I started collecting as an adult and figures such as Targetmaster Hot Rod were among the most desirable around. For a start, I love the name “Targetmaster”, it rolls off the tongue. I always saw them as a premium version of already-desirable toys like Hot Rod, Cyclonus and Scourge. As an adult I came to appreciate just how lovely Kup and Blurr were, too. The boxes for the Targetmasters had such depth to them, cavernous almost, and the way the Nebulans were displayed in their own window really captured my imagination when I was young. Something about arming a Transformer with a bulkier, more complex and actually functional transforming weapon blew my mind. Maybe it was the look of the Targetmaster weapons themselves, maybe it was – for me – the better realisation of the big-bot-little-partner concept where the main robot’s aesthetic was not at all compromised by having a removable head. Take a look at the headsculpts for Triggerhappy, Misfire and Slugslinger, there’s distilled magic in them.
The alternate mode on every Targetmaster vehicle from 1987 was tremendous, especially with the Targetmaster attached. My one and only 1987 Targetmaster from childhood was Scourge, and no other G1 box delivers a bigger nostalgic impact as that one when I view it. I felt the Decepticon Targetmaster jets and the Autobot Targetmaster cars really perfected the post-movie futuristic look, just before 1988 reeled it back in again. Because the gimmick was essentially an add-on, the inherent design and aesthetic of the Targetmaster figures remained untouched (1986 Targetmaster characters) or required no compromise (1987 new Targetmasters). Nowadays, I count figures like Quickmix, Spinister and Quake as some of the finest G1 Transformers around. I feel, again, the concept of the Targetmaster as an additional Transformer not integral to the make-up of the main bot really allowed the designers to bring their A-game to the bigger components as simply excellent transforming toy figures. Pointblank, Quake, Sureshot and Spinister having some of the best transformations available to a vintage TF. The smaller Targetmaster Nebulons were extremely human in appearance, too, maybe the most human any Transformers partner had been up to that point. Overall, I feel this was a gimmick that augmented the figures instead of taking anything away from them, and a nice departure from the standard generic weapons that all Transformers had had up to that point, although I’m also pretty sure the quality of the base figures – Targetmaster weapon or not – influences my decision greatly.
It’s true that a majority of the gimmicks discussed in this article have been from G1 Transformers, but we could easily find collectors who cite Minicons, automorph, motorisation, flip-changing, Cyber-keys etc as their favourite, such is the diversity and rich heritage of innovative gimmicks (and terrible ones) squeezed into the Transformers toy line. Whether you believe that gimmicks should be a small scale addition to particular toys or that they should continue being the base concept for entire Transformers toylines, I think we can all find something extra to enthuse about that these toys do, beyond the ultimate gimmick of all, transformation.
Many kind and gracious thanks to Wayne Wong, Sixo, James Wilson, Ras, Kit Tang and Sid Beckett for words and photographs.
All the best