Article: Child's Play: A historical look at simplified Transformers (Part Two)
Child's Play: A historical look at simplified Transformers
Part Two: All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again
The "Transformers" toy line turned 30 in 2014, and in that time the toy line has put out thousands of different toys. In my last article in this series, I went through the history of how the action figure market has changed over the decades. It isn't 1984 or even 2004 anymore. The times have changed, with a market now divided more into segments than ever before based on age. As such, many toy companies including Hasbro have worked to develop lines of simpler toys that younger kids can enjoy. This early engagement in a brand helps kids move forward with the brand as they grow older.
The tools for this early engagement in the "Transformers" line revolves around figures that generally have simpler transformations than their larger cousins and sometimes more "kid friendly/cartoonish" styling. There is a perception that this phenomenon is new, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, "Transformers" toys aimed at younger demograhics have existed since the age of "Generation One" and for the most part never stopped being produced. This part of the "Child's Play" series will focus on past and present efforts to create "Transformers" segments aimed at younger kids, providing some historical context to the modern day era "One Step Changers" and "Rescue Bots". This is by no means a comprehensive list, but instead a high level selection that helps demonstrate how the current crop of "One Step" and "Three Step" Changers are hardly precedents in the "Transformers" toy line.
Generation One (1984-92)
"Generation One" is often touted as the "Golden Age" of "Transformers" figures. Many fans (including yours truly) hold it sacred in many respects. However, true appreciation of the line means taking it as a whole, and not just cherry picking from it. During this era, many figures in the "main" line were created with simplistic transformations. Whether we are talking about the Jumpstarters (who transformed in "One Step" via a spring motor) or Mini-Bots (who generally needed no more than four steps to transform) there were plenty of figures in the line that had a simpler design than some of their fellow figures.
However, even in the 80's Hasbro and Takara recognized the need for some figures that skewed even younger. To that end, they created the "First Transformers" line (circa 1986, then reissued in 1993) aimed at kids ages 1-3 years old. This line featured three vehicles: a jet, a race car and a dump truck, all of which transformed in a few simple steps into a robot that measures roughly around the size of a Voyager or Leader Class figure. Keep in mind, these were made back before the fragmentation of the market occurred (as discussed in my last article) so even back then the recognition of this market segmentation already existed.
"Jet Kun" from "First Transformers"
Generation 2 (1992-95)
When "Transformers" attempted to make a come back, it returned as a smaller line, but there was a wide range of complexity in the toy line, from simple to relatively complex figures. Among the simpler ones were what could be called "Four Step Changers": Gobots (later known as Spychangers). These Matchbox/Hot Wheels sized vehicles would transform in a few simple steps into robots with limited articulation, and you know what? It didn't matter. They were fun toys and a nice addition to the line.
"Firecracker" from "Generation 2"
"Beast Wars Transformers" (1996-98)
The "Beast" era was one of the more interesting ones. For the most part Kenner (and then Hasbro) experimented with new types of transformations but at the beginning, there was a sub-section of the "Basic" class of figures that primarily relied on spring loaded transformations. In the xample of Armordillo below you would pull his tail up and almost all the robot mode parts folded into place, offering fast, simple play.
"Armordillo" from "Beast Wars Transformers"
1-2-3 Transformers (2001)
Following the "Beast-era", Hasbro moved to create a new segment of "Transformers" figures geared towards kids ages three and up. Like their predecessors the "First Transformers" these figures existed in their own continuity where they primarily served as rescuers, not warriors. These figures were very cute and kid friendly in appearance. They also generally had fairly simple transformations that didn't exceed six steps.
"Charlie Chopper" from "1-2-3 Transformers"
After "1-2-3 Transformers" ended, it was immediately followed up by a huge line of "Transformers" called the "Gobots Transformers" (the name would later change to the "Go-Go-Gobots"). There were giant figures and regular sized figures in this line. Like the "1-2-3 Transformers" the focus of the play pattern was adventure and rescue and the designs were all very cute and kid-friendly with lots of bright colors. They also targeted the same age group, 3 and up. This line was in a separate continuity than the main "Transformers" lines of the time.
"Aero-Bot II" from "Go-Go-Gobots"
"Movie Era" (2007-Present)
Long before the "Age of Extinction" One Step Changers and Power Battlers, the toy lines based on the live action movies created segments especially for younger collectors. This included a segment known as the "Fast Action Battlers". In general these represented characters from the movie, but their proportions were a bit more "chunky" and they transformed in a few simple steps (again generally around six steps). There were even vehicles called "Cyber Slammers" where only the top half of the vehicle flipped up to reveal robot parts.
"Fast Action Battler Jazz" from the live action "Transformers" toy line
The "Transformers: Animated" series is rather unique in the pantheon of "Transformers" lines. The design of the characters was very unusual with exaggerated proportions and a very bright color palette. In many respects it was already "kid friendly" by design. However, the main line featured figures with some solid multi-step transformations. However, a sub-line was created known as the "Activators". These figures used spring loaded transformations to go from one mode to another. They generally required only a couple extra steps beyond that to fully transform to the other mode but they were relatively simple figures. Unlike their Deluxe, Voyager and Leader class counterparts, these figures were aimed at kids ages 4 and up.
"Activators Cliffjumper" from "Transformers: Animated"
"Rescue Bots" (2011 to Present)
The "Rescue Bots" toy line was introduced in 2011 aimed at the 3-5 year old demographic. This line represents an interesting maturation of the toy line aimed at a younger demographic. Instead of being set in a continuity all its own, it runs in parallel with "Transformers Prime". Like other lines including "1-2-3 Transformers", the line focuses on adventure and rescue. It has been running for four years now and it looks like it will continue through 2015.
"Medix" from "Rescue Bots"
"Robots in Disguise" (2015)
This year's "Robots in Disguise" line is focused on kids ages 5 and up. In an effort to appeal to younger and older fans, there are different segments within the line. Most of it focuses on easier transformations such as "One Step Changers". At a recent event in New York City, it was very cool to see how excited kids got over these toys showing there is definitely some credence to creating these figures aimed at a younger audience.
"One Step Changer Sideswipe" from "Robots in Disguise"
By its very nature, the "Transformers" line can take on many forms whether it's complicated figures, simple figures, cute figures or scary looking figures. "Simplified" figures have always been part of the fabric of the line and it's likely long after "Rescue Bots" or "One Step Changers" have disappeared, there will likely be other simpler figures for younger fans to enjoy, following a long tradition that goes back to the 1980's.
It is very important to remember that for almost its entire 30 plus year run of "Transformers", the toy line has featured simplified toys alongside more complex toys. Even with the current proliferation of toys like "One Step Changers" there are still plenty of Deluxe, Leader, Warrior and Voyager Class figures out there for fans looking for more complexity to enjoy. Thanks in part to its 30 year success, the "Transformers" line now has the audience and latitude to release toys aimed at a wide variety of fans.
In part three of this series I will talk about the current marketing landscape and how "Transformers" has been adapting to it.