Tuesday, January 05, 2010

On the ninth day of GoBots, Lionel Playworld gave to me...The Parable of the Toy Robot Pedalers

I had a nephew ask me last week what it was like growing up in the 1980s with all those toy robots like GoBots and Robotech and Voltron as opposed to now where if you want a toy robot in the U.S. you can have whatever you like as long as it's one of ten million flavors of Bumblebee. Well right there on the fly I couldn't think of anything except it was "more powerful than you could possibly imagine", which really didn't make sense but sounded cool when Ben Kenobi said it. Then later on I remembered a GoBots power cycle ad Lionel Playworld ran on December 4th, 1985 and I came up with a story that perfectly encapsulates seeing the Toy Robots Wars of the 1980s happen all around me when I was growing up.

Imagine some 2nd graders running a big wheel race down a neighborhood street in 1985. There are a about five little kids and their big wheels in this race but two of them have the most friends assembled on the sidewalk to watch. The race starts at a time of day when most of the other kids are still in the playground playing with GI Joes and He-Mans but the word spreads and those kids come over, too. So the race starts and this one kid is riding his GoBots power cycle and he gets a head start but about halfway down the street he crashes when all his tires fall off and it doesn't matter anyways because the other little kids in the crowd stopped watching him shortly after he took off. Then there's a second kid in his Transformers cycle and he starts late but all the other little kids on the sidelines are cheering him on as he pedals furiously and accidentally runs over the little GoBots kid that fell off his bike. Well Transformer boy reaches the finish line first and all the little kids cheer but he keeps on going well after anyone cares, then BAM! A Nintendo semi runs him over. The other three kids never finish the race because they got off their cycles and just went back to playing with Matchbox cars or whatever they were doing before. And the crowd of little kids went back to playing with their He-Mans and GI Joes.


Then 25 years later the little boy on the Transformer cycle is all grown up and he's crippled and brain dead but he gets a man named Mike to fix his big wheel for him. Mike doesn't really know much about big wheels so it still looks all mangled like a Nintendo truck ran it over but he's put some fuzzy dice on it and those mudflaps with the sexy hooker silhouette on the back wheels and taped lots of firecrackers all over it. And unbelievably even though it's 25 years later and you'd think the other kids would have grown up by now and be into other things, they still show up in droves to watch Transformer boy pedal his beat up, broken old exploding big wheel down the street in a race against nobody. Then BAM! A Nintendo semi runs him over again. And although all the grown up kids know it's awful and they know they shouldn't look, they keep coming back to see how many more slutty whores and firecrackers Mike can fit on that beat up rotting old carcass of a big wheel. And when I asked Jesus why there was only one set of footprints in the sand during the hard times he said, Hey don't look at me, I wanted the kid on the GoBot bike to win.


Rob said...

Interesting observation about how Nintendo keeps running over the Transformers. It happened in the late 1980s. A year after Transformers: The Movie, the NES was gaining popularity and dominated the toy industry by 1988.

Then, Michael Bay's new Transformers movie came out, with new toys to go along with it, but right around that time, Nintendo dominated the toy industry again with the Wii.

Evil King Macrocranios said...

I don't think the action figure and video game industries can or ever will coexist peacefully. Their target markets overlap too much. I guess toys as we knew them growing up have lost the battle. I read a recent Wall Street Journal interview with Hasbro's CEO and he described his company as more focused on developing brands than toys. You see this kind of talk from Hasbro reps at Botcon, too. They talk not about Transformers as toys but as expressions of the brand. It's kind of sad but that's how it goes.

I'm grateful for the time I had growing up when I could hold toy robots in my hand instead of pretending to be playing with them on my television through a controller. But I guess we're reaping today what was sown when toy companies used cartoons to advertise their toys-cartoons that gave the toys personalities and abilities far beyond what the real toys could ever deliver. We bought more into the fantasy than the reality of the product being sold. I can't blame people for taking it to its logical conclusion and using video games to eliminate the action figure middleman and take control of their on screen idols. I will be sad for the generations of kids in the future that grow up not knowing what it was to to turn a robot into a Volkswagen or a Tyrannosaurus.

Rob said...

Maybe I'm old fashioned or out of touch, but I think the reason video games have crushed the toy robot market is because during the last several decades, video games have progressed and become more advanced and more compelling, while toy robots seem to have stayed the same or gotten worse.

The robot designs for the Michael Bay series of Transformers are disgusting and have no charm or personality whatsoever. Why would a child choose to play with what looks like a gray pile of screws, when he or she could play Super Mario Galaxy or Little Big Planet instead? Also, there wasn't a Transformers cartoon series to go along with the Michael Bay movies.

Again, maybe I'm stuck in the past, but I really believe that if Hasbro put the G1 Transformers cartoon series back on public TV five days a week, right after school, and re-released the G1 toys in their original packaging at a great price, then boys today would be into them just as much as we were in the mid 1980s.

The Transformers hasn't had a huge push since the G1 series. Yes, there was Michael Bay's movies which raked in tons of cash, but again, there was no cartoon series to go along with it and the robot designs were nowhere near as good as the G1 series.

Also, I think the G1 cartoon series holds up very well and isn't dated. A few years ago, my brother and I watched the G1 DVDs and he never commented that they seemed old or from a previous era.

Evil King Macrocranios said...

Did your brother watch any season 3 episodes? If the old cartoon was rebroadcast nowadays in a serious attempt to garner an audience then kids would reject it just on season three alone. The animation throughout all the seasons wasn't consistent and got horrid once AKOM began doing the bulk of the shows. The old cartoon simply lacks the sophistication of today's cartoons and the writing isn't anywhere near as cohesive as what today's cartoons are doing. What amazed me most about Transformers Animated was how great it was written. To bring the original cartoon back now would be like how in 1980 the Force Five cartoons introduced 1970s Japanese super robots to a US audience that was already watching Star Blazers, an infinitely more sophisticated and better show.

The same would go for the toys. The old toys really can't compete in terms of looks with the newer ones, and by newer ones I'm talking about the recently reengineered G1 style toys of the Transformers Universe and Classics lines. Those came out a lot better than a full G1 relaunch would have. I don't think it could be done at a great price because the die cast pushes the price up a bit and Toys R Us jacking up prices hasn't helped with the reissues that have come out. I think today's kids expect a higher standard and what applies in terms of video game evolution is also relevant to how toys and their audience has changed. A toy robot with significant amounts of die cast is really cool but I don't think kids today really care.

I do wish Hasbro would take a more unified approach to their marketing instead of having multiple different lines catering to different demographics. What's different now from 25 years ago is Hasbro have been pushing two separate transforming robot franchises-Transformers:Animated and the Bay Movies-simultaneously. I think they've been doing a good job of pushing both because I exist in two worlds now that I have a son. I'm aware of the marketing for the two different demographics. It's almost like independently these two lines are just as big now as Transformers was in 1985. Over the last year or so I've felt like I don't remember Transformers of any kind being marketed in so many different ways since I was a kid.

I think it's pretty savvy to split up the brand according to what appeals to different age ranges. I do miss the uniformity that comes from knowing whatever toys, comics, cartoons, video games and other merchandising I find all exist in the same universe and no one continuity gets short changed. From what I hear of the upcoming 2010 toyline that's what they're doing. If things were more tied together then as an Animated fan I wouldn't have had to settle for just a DS game when the movie got the console games. I am really glad that as a fan of the old G1 line they throw me a bone with the comics and occasional G1ish toyline. I don't expect anything more. Heck, I don't even buy toy robots myself anymore anyways.


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Evil King Macrocranios was voted king by the evil peoples of the Kingdom of Macrocrania. They listen to Iron Maiden all day and try to take pictures of ghosts with their webcams.