After almost forty years, it’s incredible to think the Transformers line is still going strong! We’ve seen a huge range of ideas and toy designs over the years, so much so that modern releases are often very different to their classic counterparts from back in the day. But which are better?
In truth, there’s no real right answer. It’s a heavily subjective topic to begin with and in reality, both modern and vintage Transformers do different things well and give a very separate collecting experience as a result.
So today we’re examining what advantages each era has over the other, with the focus on the toys themselves as opposed to stuff like availability or distribution. For clarity, most of the considerations will be made on the original Generation 1 (and G2) releases from the 1980s and 1990s versus the predominantly G1-focused War For Cybertron trilogy of the last few years. And yes, I’m quite sure this one is going to get me in hot water!
All that said, let’s make the case for old toys below…
#4: Build quality & materials
If there’s one aspect of vintage toy collecting that never fails to be a consideration, it’s the condition of individual specimens whenever they pop up for sale. With so much time having passed, it’s naturally not uncommon to see bits missing, worn paint, scuffed chrome, peeling stickers, discolouration or just altogether outright knackered robots. However, it also amazes me how pristine so many of those old samples often tend to be, frequently having survived in a collectable state despite being buried at the bottom of toy chests or stashed away in a drawer full of scissors for decades gone by. The very nature of old toys is they’ve often been discarded in some haphazard manner, only to crop up again ready for resale to a new home, so it’s always a delight to see how beautifully they can present despite often not being cared for in a way that would be considered at all optimal.
To my mind, a lot of it speaks to the sturdy construction of classic Transformers figures, which were oft-made with chunky, solid plastic and robust design such that they could withstand a serious pounding when required. It’s not a universal truth, of course, and I can immediately cite you a number of 1980s examples with shoddy construction too (to say nothing of more specific problems such as GPS!), but by and large, G1 toys are hard to break unless you really go out of your way to treat them without care.
By comparison, I have to say I often find their modern counterparts distinctly more fragile, prone to wear or simply showing a bit of dodgy quality control right out of the box. At the risk of solidifying my reputation for being “Studio Series Hot Rod’s primary detractor”, it’s a good example of a toy which presented poorly for me on first inspection, with loose limbs and paint scuffing, but which also suffered an obvious break since (to say nothing of the various reports of the visor gimmick cracking).
Really though, that’s one instance among many where modern toys suffer in all kinds of well-documented ways, with both Generations and Masterpiece offering up recent experiences of shoddy joints, cracking or stressed plastic, broken tabs or parts that refuse to clip together in the way they should. There’s also then the crucial factor of how ‘hollow’ some modern designs are versus their G1 equivalents, a regular complaint from collectors online and a sure sign of the kind of cost-cutting seemingly required to deliver such releases today. It’s an understandable compromise in many instances but still one that sets new toys apart from the diecast-laden bricks of the old days.
Again, there are plenty of examples in both cases to buck the trend but in my experience, I can see why some say they don’t make ’em like they used to.
#3: Paint & finish
As an extension to the above, I’d also argue a lot of vintage Transformers toys boast a level of finish sometimes missing in today’s arena. Again, it’s not universally true, especially as its something that varies even during the period of original Generarion 1 releases, but just take examples such as the first few years of classic carbots, for starters. Those toys are famed for their stunning presentation, including plenty of paint, chrome and rubber tyres (not to menton diecast again), whereas their modern counterparts simply cannot claim the same. To give one recent example, I was extremely disappointed by Earthrise Ironhide for how lacklustre it looked in hand, with a drab and off-colour bare finish, clip-on plastic wheels and mismatched panels. The design itself has some merit to it (despite obvious compromises such as the feet hanging off the back of the van) but it’s let down by a shoddy look and feel, in my opinion.
As I say, I can’t sit and claim *all* G1 toys are finished so beautifully (especially as elements such as rubber tyres and other flourishes were phased out even as running changes to specific designs during the ’80s) and we no doubt saw a distinctly cheaper feel to lines such as Generation 2 after that. Yet there remains a general standard of presentation on vintage specimens (and stuff from the Unicron Trilogy of the 2000s) I sometimes miss on recent Generations’ examples.
#2: Variety of new moulds
OK, maybe time for a point of discussion not so opinion, based, eh? After all, I don’t think it’s subjective to claim one thing the vintage era of toys did really well is feature an incredible amount of new moulds, in a way perhaps a little unprecedented today. Consider the sheer volume of 1980s’ Transformers toy designs that were one and done, without a single repaint to their name (and especially once we move beyond the Diaclone hand-me-down era of the first two-to-three years, with your Ironhide/Ratchet and Grapple/Inferno double-ups no longer a thing). In fact, looking at the Hasbro G1 releases from 1987 onwards, it’s astounding to say I think you can count the number of repaints the line offered up on two hands (and a lot of those were Micromasters).
Another factor to throw in here is how infrequently established characters were brought back into the toy line. Putting Action Masters and the 1987 Targetmaster re-releases of some of the movie cast aside, the only ‘bots to receive more than one toy during the G1 run were Optimus Prime, Grimlock, Jazz, Bumblebee and Starscream. Every other release was a new name.
By comparison, repaints and re-uses of moulds are such a reality of modern collecting, it’s now not just expected but anticipated. Understand, I’m not complaining at all (I happen to love repaints – see my MP-10 collection, for starters!), yet I do find it an interesting shift since the line’s early years.
I lose count of the number of times I see online fans wishlisting an old character to be retooled out of an existing design somehow, with the running joke that Combiner Wars Silverbolt is the core of any number of subsequent releases but one example of how prevalent this new status quo has become.
Probably the best examples I’ve seen of late both relate to Turbomasters, which were all new Hasbro designs from 1992 despite the line being on hiatus in the company’s home country at the time, yet in the modern era, a character like Rotorstorm is naturally a repaint of an existing release (albeit a very nice one, with some lovely paint applications too!). Similarly, I’ve come across numerous people imagining a Thunderclash retool being crafted out of the Siege Ultra Magnus mould somehow, which would no doubt be fun to see, but it’s another example of how times have changed.
#1: Originality & execution of gimmicks
The final area in which I personally feel classic Transformers toys often excel over their modern equivalents is gimmicks. But hang on, is that fair? Don’t the newer designs often have plenty of nifty features and all kinds of play value to keep us entertained? Well, yes, but I do find it’s frequently not to the same level or, more specifically, done in a way that feels a little derivative yet somehow less impressive.
Perhaps I should explain both instances. Firstly, take something like 1987’s Fortress Maximus, which was quite literally *stacked* with gimmicks, including pop-out guns up the wazoo, hidden compartments, ramps, a lift and more besides. It was pretty much the poster boy of play value at the time, yet the modern Generations equivalent sadly eschews so much of it. Yes, there are still some of the old touches, but if you want to equip your modern Max with the character’s signature flip-out waist cannons as one example, you’ll need a third-party upgrade kit to sort you out.
Similarly, as much fun as I had discovering the recent Titan Ark release, I did find it was almost bizarrely lacking in terms of any kind of play pattern. Yes, it looks fantastic and has some wonderful design to it, but I can tell you that even my son seemed surprised within a relatively short time frame by how little it actually *does*. Even obvious stuff like a handheld blaster would have been a nice touch, not to mention how underwhelming it is to see those cannons all over the hull are moulded statically in place, without any kind of ineraction to them. Now imagine how loaded with gimmicks this thing could have been (although at a cost, no doubt).
The second point I was making was in reference to modern updates of existing characters, which of course often look to bring their vintage toys up-to-date in new form. However, comparisons between such examples can sometimes be a little disappointing too, if only for how underwhelming the replicated gimmicks sometimes are. I’ve mentioned Fort Max already but another recent instance that struck me was the upcoming Legacy Laser Optimus Prime, which does look good but features a trailer section significantly less impressive than the absolute beast of a thing we saw during G2 in the ’90s. Again, it’s another case where I can’t help but imagine what could have been achieved, given the exceptional inspiration the original design provides.
Understand, none of this is meant to say “new toys aren’t fun” – of course, they are! However, I do think the gimmicks of days gone by were often executed in a way that still shines brightly, even today.
So that’s the case for vintage toys! But wait – before you say anything, put down your pitchforks and check out the accompanying list showcasing the advantages of modern toys, eh?