During the eight year period from 1977 to 1985 many US toy companies tried rebranding and importing existing toy robot lines from Japan. Sometimes even the Japanese companies themselves would open US divisions and give it a shot. The idea seemed very cost effective and mutually beneficial for the importers and the Japanese companies who made the toys, but it wasn't as easy as it seemed! The US market was a tough nut to crack and different companies took different approaches toward bringing their Japanese robots to the US market. While Hasbro deserves much credit for showing the world how to market toy robot Volkswagens and their transforming dinosaur cohorts, it was Mattel's Shogun Warriors that really laid down the blueprint for how to import toy robots from Japan almost a decade earlier.
Japanese toy robots had to be adapted to the American audience for a variety of reasons including safety concerns and cultural differences. How much they were changed from their Japanese origins tells a lot about their US distributors' approach. At first it may seem that there were no two greater differing approaches than what Mattel did with Shogun Warriors and what Hasbro did with the Transformers. In the 70s there was a great globalization of Japanese culture and Mattel chose to preserve much of the Japanese nature of the Shogun toys, only slightly romanizing their character names and even leaving Japanese language stickers on the robots. The 80s would be a different age when Hasbro on the other hand discarded all of the existing positioning and rationale Takara established for Microman and Diaclone and redefined those lines from the ground up. In fact the Shogun Warriors and Transformers lines seem very dissimilar, especially since toy technology was not as sophisticated in the 70s as it was in the 80s. Yet beyond being products of their times, these two were the most popular toy robots lines of their respective decades and when I looked closer I found they had more, much more in common than I first thought.
As I was writing my chronology of release for Mattel's Shogun Warriors posts I noticed many synchronicities in marketing tactics and product development between the Shogun Warriors and the first 2 years or so of the Transformers. Some things Mattel did with the Shogun Warriors 30 years ago are even being repeated by Hasbro in modern times. Now one could argue that toy robots are toy robots and there's only so many ways you can sell them, but there just aren't as many similarities between these two and other '70s and '80s robot based lines like Micronauts, Starriors, Zoids or even GoDaiKin which in part was a reintroduction of the toys the Shogun Warriors were based on by the Japanese company that had a hand in originally creating them.
Here then is my list of ten concepts or techniques in the US distribution and marketing of Japanese robots Mattel pioneered starting in '77 with the Shogun Warriors that would be echoed by Hasbro years or even decades later. We'll also play America's favorite new toy robots game show "BEST/FIRST!" where I weigh in on which line I thought executed what concept best! Of course Shogun Warriors were first, but were they also best? Is it best to be first, or best to be best? LET'S PLAY BEST/FIRST!
1) MORE THAN MEETS THE SIZE-If you browse the Transformers section of the toy aisles today you'll see many of the same characters in multiple different sizes. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and Megatron can usually be guaranteed several different incarnations all available simultaneously. While Hasbro has only recently been multi-sizing their robots since around 2002, Mattel pioneered the marketing of the same robot characters at different sizes and price points. Great Mazinga, Dragun and Gaiking were all available in 3 inch, 5 inch and 23 1/2 inch scales by 1978. Originally Hasbro stuck with different characters at different size classes for the '84 introduction of the Transformers line and it wasn't until the line finished in 1990 that multiple Optimus Primes, Bumblebees and Megatrons could be assembled from the combined previous years' releases. I'd have to give this one to the Shogun Warriors because while the Transformers did have the colossal 22 inch tall Fortress Maximus, Shogun Warriors had entire assortments of 23 1/2 inch tall robots! SHOGUN WARRIORS FIRST AND BEST!
2) COMBINING the ROBOTS (not literally)- It is well known that Hasbro put robot characters from different toylines together and united them in a new original story for the Transformers media tie-in books and cartoons. The Shogun Warriors were originally derived from Popy's Chogokin and Jumbo Machinder lines, which were in themselves compilations of robots from many different shows. Then in conjunction with Mattel, Marvel took the Shogun Warriors and put them together in their own comic, crafting new original stories with these robot superstars from Japan. The main difference here is that Hasbro licensed toys from a number of different Japanese toy manufacturers while Mattel stuck with Popy for the duration of the Shogun line. Based on the star power of the characters after their US debut I'd give this one to Hasbro. The Shoguns may have already been popular in Japan but only Godzilla gained any sort of US notoriety and while many of the toys that became Transformers were relative unknowns in Japan they skyrocketed in popularity after 1984 and many are household names to this day. TRANSFORMERS BEST!
3) COMBINING the ROBOTS (literally)- The six robot Construction team Devastator made the combining robot a superstar in 1985, but he was preceded years earlier by the U-Combine Shogun Warrior Combattra. The Constructicons had a slight engineering edge in that they were able to transform from construction vehicles into robots while the Combattra components were non-transforming spacecraft, but I'd side with awesome spaceships over bulldozers anyday. The Transformers did have Computron which was as close as they ever got to a sci-fi spaceships combiner, but the only ship I really liked there was Strafe. Combattra wins this one on the strength of the individual ships and the elegance of the combined robot's design. SHOGUN WARRIORS FIRST AND BEST!
4) TRANSFORMERING!- The Shogun Warriors introduced the transforming toy robot concept to the US with their Two-in-One subline and Raydeen is often acknowledged as the world's first true self-contained transforming toy robot. Raydeen's bird alt mode may have been very weak compared to what the average Autobot could do, but shouldn't inventing the genre trump turning into a Lamborghini? Nope! I gotta give this one to Hasbro! TRANSFORMERS BEST!
5) WE'LL MAKE MORE!- Mattel decided it needed to commission new designs to fill out the Shogun Warriors toyline just as Hasbro did when it ran out of Takara molds after the first two years of Transformers. But Hasbro's post-Diaclone/Microman Transformers never quite captured the same magic as the earlier figures. Instead of messing with success, Mattel recreated the line in a smaller scale and birthed the Shogun Collector's Series which had many memorable additions not seen in other scales in the US like that robot from the Japanese Spider-Man show and Grendizer! Transformers got Wheelie and the Throttlebots. SHOGUN WARRIORS FIRST AND BEST!
NEXT TIME ON BEST/FIRST: The DIE is CAST, then SHOT across the ROOM!