Riding Shotgun: So Much More than Meets the Eye

How the Japanese taught us to love the giant robot.

Welcome back, my little Gen-X-Y-Zers. Ugh … how horrible to be pigeonholed with a social moniker. And one consisting of a single letter at that. Pop culture sociologists must be getting lazier to go from categories like “The Lost Generation” and the “Baby Boomers” to “X.” Well, “x” has always been used to denote a variable (x + 5 = ?), so maybe it’s meant to refer to our generation’s refusal to be singularly labeled as any one communal psyche.

But it’s probably just laziness.

And it’s certainly better than “The Pepsi Generation.”

But I digress. I’m going off on a tangent that deserves its own column. Someone remind me later to write it.

Let’s get back to what we started last time — the children of the 80s, the crap we played with, and how it’s all coming back to haunt us. If I’m not mistaken, I was talking about the three most popular toy lines of our youth and how they’ve been given a second life through a combination of marketing strategy and the pleasure we derive from anything that makes us forget that we’re growing older (do not read this as “more mature”).

I’d just finished going over the reissuing/reimagination of Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe, and I promised to devote a healthy portion of this column to the third toy line, which, as I stated before, I love with a vengeance.

It was the early 80s, and some wild and wacky things were happening in Japan. We Americans, who were driving cars that resembled land whales and trying to wrap our minds around the concept of a Vee-Cee-Argh, started to realize that those crazy Japanese might have a better handle on new technology than we did.

Japan — a narrow strip of land, used to the concept of spatial economy — was embracing miniaturization far better than its Western counterparts, who would have to be dragged kicking and screaming from their beloved “bigger is better” philosophy.

They were making everything smaller there. Everything, that is, except their entertainment. They were, after all, the country that gave us the era of the giant monster: “Godzilla,” “Son of Godzilla,” “Great Nephew of Godzilla.” And as that paranoid nuclear age which spawned those cinematic behemoths came to a close, it was replaced by a culture ruled by technology.

Was it any wonder that the giant lizard was subsequently replaced by the giant robot? And little wonder as well that the fad would makes its way across the Pacific.

In 1984, while most of the country was busy hamstringing each other to get their hands on a Cabbage Patch Kid, Hasbro quietly introduced a new toy line. It had a rather simple concept: cars, planes and other sundries that transformed into robots. They called it (possibly using the same creative team that came up with “He-Man”) The Transformers.

The story of the two alien robot races (Autobots and Decepticons) who were stranded on Earth and locked in mortal combat quickly had a cartoon series, and eventually a comic book, to go with it. It became a smash hit for little boys (and possibly little girls, although I have no statistics on this) across the nation.

This first line, which was released by Hasbro between 1984 and 1991 and has become known as Generation 1, produced hundreds of toys ranging from simple cars that turned into robots (Optimus Prime, Wheeljack, Prowl, and so on) to groups of car/robots that connected to form a larger robot (Constructicons, Aerialbots) to vehicles whose pilots turned into the robot’s heads (Headmasters). Entire Christmas lists were being constructed from the tiny product catalogs that came with the toys.

God bless my mother who, during one Christmas shopping excursion, had to ask a Toys ‘R Us employee if they had a “Triple-Changing Headmaster Apeface.” I can only imagine her embarrassment.

By the end of the Gen 1 line, eight series of toys had been spawned, as well as the cartoon, the comic, and an animated motion picture in 1986. All good things come to an end, though, and the line began to peter out in the early 90s.

Hasbro attempted to resurrect it in 1994 with the Generation 2 line, which resembled the first toys, but were smaller, crappier, and made mostly of cheap plastic. Transformers Gen 2 lasted only a year before the plug was pulled.

But in Japan, the love for the series was still strong, and in 1996, a new concept for the line made its way to the states: “Transformers: Beast Wars.” This time the robots transformed into animals and had a much higher degree of articulation. The Beast Wars toy line, coupled with a 3-D, computer-generated cartoon, never quite made it big in the U.S.

It lasted four years until it was replaced by a much more back-to-basics line — Robots in Disguise. It was cars-to-robots again and used elements from all of the previous toy lines. It too had a cartoon — produced in Japan and dubbed into English with many of the overly dramatic elements of Japanese anime.

The cartoon was swiftly canceled, but the toys appealed to Americans who still have a love for fast cars and giant robots, and Hasbro and friends are gearing up for another generation of Transformers and fans.

Takara, the company that produces the Transformers in Japan, is reissuing a number of the original Gen 1 toys. Familiar faces like Optimus Prime, Megatron, Hot Rod and Ironhide have been released in Japan and are available on eBay and online stores. They are far more expensive than the original versions, due to inflation and limited production, but might appeal to the nostalgic twentysomething.

Dreamwave Productions and artist Pat Lee have gotten their hands on the license to produce Transformers comics and similar merchandise. A six-issue miniseries based on the Gen 1 characters is scheduled to hit stores in April. Immediately following that, Hasbro will release its latest Transformers generation — “Transformers Armada.”

Armada takes its cue from the Headmasters and Powermasters (tiny people turn into engines for the vehicles), and includes smaller Transformers that combine with the larger ones to unlock secret weapons. Optimus is back in his classic tractor trailer form. (He has gone through many incarnations, including, but not limited to, a gorilla, lion, woolly mammoth and fire truck.)

Along with the new toys, a four-issue comic book miniseries will be put out, which will supposedly bridge the gap between this generation of characters and the 80s classics. A new Armada cartoon is slated to premiere this fall.

While Hasbro’s been playing the upcoming release close to the chest, previews of the new line hint that it might very well make up for the last decade of mediocrity. Optimus Prime as a monkey — what the hell were they thinking?

So yeah, the 80s … they’re back.

I can only hope and pray that this fad of reissuing and redesigning toy lines is limited to the toys that deserve to be done over.

My Little Pony: Back with a Vengeance”?

The Smurfs: Little and Blue in 2002”?

It could happen. We must remain vigilant.

As for the rest of this trend — it’s not nearly as cool as its cracked up to be. VH1 is showing “Debbie Gibson: Behind the Music” at a nauseating pace. “That 80′s Show” is making me lose my faith in humanity. And I’m kept awake at night by the fear that, as bell-bottoms and polyester, butterfly-collar shirts did, so shall giant neon jams come back into style.

Those whose childhood memories are entrenched in 80s nostalgia should take advantage of this new market while it lasts. Soon you’ll be married with children and no amount of toys, comics or pop music will make you forget otherwise.

And for those of you who could care less about the 80s, who don’t give a robot monkey’s ass about toys, and who gained nothing from my little rambling — tilt your head back and open your eyes. Something’s bound to trickle down eventually.

Article © 2002 by Steve Spotswood