Tuesday, September 02, 2008

25 years ago in Transfomrers PART 2: People are always asking if I gnu about 1983

If you go to Botcon you'll meet guys born in the early eighties that can trace their involvement with Transformers all the way back to when the franchise started in 1984 and they were 2 or 3 years old. This never ceases to amaze me as I don't remember anything from when I was 3, however, I do think I was still crapping my pants. But at that age these people will tell you they were busy establishing worldwide Transformer penpal networks and other miraculous feats of fandom and sentience. Hell the only thing I clearly remember from when I was 9 in 1983 was how I thought Gary Gnu was a real person.

For this, the second installment in my 25 year retrospective on toy robots that came out 24 years ago, I want to take a look at what was going on toywise in 1983. I consider '83 to be the first year of the great toy robots wars, although the dominant trends in toys that year had nothing to do with robots. Ask people to name popular toys from 1983 and you're more likely to get Cabbage Patch Kids or He-Man before robots get mentioned. 1984 and 85 are often looked back upon as the years that toy robots took off in America, but their success wasn't an overnight sensation. It was during 1983 that a handful of obscure toy robot lines would begin laying the groundwork for the impending roboplastic invasion.

Children's Palace 27 November 1983

The boy's toylines of 1983 were legendary. Action figures from both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were in stores, Masters of the Universe was still going strong in its third year and G.I. Joe's incredibly popular relaunch was in its second year. These toylines supported by movies, comic books and cartoons were colossal merchandising juggernauts. All of these properties were developed by American toy companies working with American advertising agencies who knew how to market to American children. Owning licensed properties with syndicated television shows was an advantage that toy robots from Japanese toymakers Bandai and Takara didn't have. Consequently the transforming toy robot lines they introduced in the US during 1983 were doomed from the start. It would have been impossible to predict in 1983 that 1984 would be the biggest year in toy sales to date largely because of those same transforming toy robots made by Bandai and Takara that were so forgettable in 1983.

Whistle Stop 05 Dec 1983
In 1982 Bandai introduced their GoDaiKin line of giant die cast robots, many of which featured combining gimmicks and spring loaded rocket fists. (GoDaiKin is notable for introducing GoLion to the US before Voltron ever aired.) It wasn't until 1983 that GoDaiKins really began getting significant distribution. The GoDaiKin robot transformations mostly revolved around combining three or more smaller mecha so they weren't really transformer style robots so much as they were partsformers. Still, the GoDaiKin line is so significant that I consider its introduction to be "the rocket fist heard 'round the world" that kicked off the Great Toy Robots Wars of the 1980s.

The first toylines consisting of a majority of non-combining transforming robots released in the US were Bandai's Machine Men and Takara's Diakron. Both were released in 1983 but I haven't yet figured out which one arrived first. Robots from both of these lines would eventually go on to greater fame as GoBots and Transformers in 1984 (once Tonka and Hasbro licensed them from their respective Japanese owners). But upon their initial debuts in 1983 without cartoons or comic books to help them out both lines hardly registered a blip on the American pop culture radar. For what it's worth, both Machine Men and the Diakron Power Dashers (which can be seen at the bottom of this page) did get mentions as "Best Buys for Under $5" on the Americans for Democratic Action's 1983 pre-Christmas toy survey. Those dudes must not have had very high standards if they were impressed by Power Dashers and $3 GoBots.

I didn't have a Toys R Us where I grew up until 1987 so I missed out on Diakron which was a Toys R Us exclusive line. I also never bought any Machine Men in '83 either. Finding newspaper ads for either of those lines is a personal holy grail of mine. I don't feel too bad at having missed out on Diakron and Machine Men when they were in stores because over the next two years there would be ample opportunities to overdose on all sorts of robots. Back in '83 I was very much into Masters of the Universe but I wasn't totally out of the roboplastic loop. I do remember getting my first Zoids that Christmas and those little robot dinosaurs might have been what triggered my roboplasti-holism. They really blew my mind with their menacing mechanical look. I guess the whole concept that robots didn't have to be wussy pansies was gnus to me.


Hooper_X said...

This is actually legitimately interesting to me, insofar as I keep swearing that one of these days I'm going to write a Serious Book about TFs and the history thereof; there's an entire cottage industry of those "Unofficial Guide To Whatever Hot Sci-Fi Property" out there, and I think a TF one could do pretty well, although I'd have to probably start writing NOW to get it sold and to press by the time Giant Robot Movie II drops.


Evil King Macrocranios said...

I'm sure that a look at TF history by someone who actually knew what they were doing would be fantastic. I've found so many great newspaper articles just from searching through the ProQuest databases that I'm sure there's gotta be some scholarly type out there who could write this or already has written it and I just don't know about it. I can't believe something like that isn't being prepared for some Botcon 2009 panel by better fans than I.

The roboplastic story deserves better justice than me writing it and I have faith that it's being tackled by someone out there who isn't getting sidetracked talking about Gary Gnu.

Sean said...

Wow, the Millennium Falcon's price didn't really go up that much since the 80s. Seems like it was like $40 the last time it was in stores.
Have you seen the $100+ one they have out now? Man oh man, if I weren't broke and saving up for the Hot Toys Dark Knight I'd be buying that shit.

agentmorris said...

The new, HUGE Millenium Falcon is insane to say the least. Where the hell do you put something like that?

And I thought I had some toy robot storage problems.

Shaun said...

I can't believe how cheap toys used to be. And I, too, thought Gary Gnu (and all Muppets) was a real person.

Evil King Macrocranios said...

$150 Millenium Falcon doesn't impress me as much as the time I saw a kid flying his Han Solo figure around in a styrofoam cup glued to one side of a pizza box.

Rob said...

Speaking of Gary Gnu, here's some trivia: Anne Bryant co-wrote the Great Space Coaster theme song (1981) and the Transformers theme song (1984).


NY Times - Anne Bryant

Evil King Macrocranios said...

Yeah I didn't realize how much The Great Space Toaster shares its pedigree with the original Transformers cartoon. Then I saw it was a Sunbow Production and I realized it's essentially the Griffin-Bacal ad agency's take on Sesame Street. '

I'm going to listen to this podcast tomorrow just to see if I can remember more about TGSC and 1983.


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