Even before Last Stand of the Wreckers Overlord has
long been a sought-after Japanese/European release.
It's strange to think now, in this era of globalisation, that global firms once had local offices that tailored a global firm's products and services to the country they operated in. It's unheard of now, with little more than a crude 'one size fits all' approach to foreign markets being adopted but it was in this environment that Transformers continued production.
Although Transformers pretty much died a death in the US in 1990, culminating in the poorly received Action Masters line, sales were holding up well across Japan and Europe. For Japan this was due to creating their own unique lines in the form of Headmasters, Masterforce, Victory, Zone and Operation: Combination which were more in the tradition of long form Japanese storytelling. In the UK and Europe a similar, but slightly different approach was taken and whole new lines exclusive to our markets would spring up. In some ways, this made up for us losing out on the likes of Swoop, Perceptor and Shockwave. One of the key reasons that sales in Europe remained steady was due in no small part to the re-releasing of toys from the original 1984-1987 lines. Dubbed 'Classics', this line saw reissues of many characters no longer in production. Key Autobot favourites like Optimus Prime, Jazz and Prowl were made available again in spiffy gold boxes in 1990. Of these figures, Prowl is of particular interest as the toy comes with his Diaclone label sheet rather than the later Transformers issue. The following year saw the re-release of the 1986 Special Teams, plus the Autobot and Decepticon Triple Changers and the Throttlebots. To bulk up the range, Hasbro UK mixed in new Action Masters, which had proved more popular in European markets than the US. After years of gimmicks, the return to more traditional figures (albeit in the form of reissues) was like manna from heaven. It also hinted that Transformers may have a future after all.
No combining parts included.
Something a little different was tried during the course of 1991. In much the same way the Special Teams had been promoted with a bit of a fanfare, so was the fearsome Decepticon Overlord along with three brave Autobots to face off against him; the Motorvators Flame, Gripper and Lightspeed. The figures themselves were sourced from Hasbro's Japanese partner Takara, with Overlord taken with few alterations (just a lighter shade of purple) from Masterforce, with the Powermaster engines Giga and Mega being rather blandly named as simply 'Energon Mini Figures'. The three Autobots were repaints of the Japanese Autobot Road Ceasar team (repaints of the tremendously named Blacker, Laster and Braver, minus their combining ability) from Victory. As well as commissioning a new painted piece of promotional art to adorn the back of the boxes, some decent biographies and scene-setting blurb, these four figures were sold with a small amount of promotional materials for retailers. The approach very much seemed to be very much to see if there was still interest in Transformers out there.
This deliberate sourcing of exclusive product to maintain interest in the line definitely paid off, but also represented something of a problem. There were no new imports to source from the US. The majority of the Japanese figures were simply repaints of toys previously released to western markets, leaving just a handful of oddball figures to choose from. Spurred on by the success of Japan's own market specific lines, Hasbro UK set about devising a new generation of Transformers exclusive to Europe.
With Hasbro US focusing its attention elsewhere, Hasbro UK began developing a new line. There were a few hurdles to overcome first though. At that time, International laws saw Hasbro UK as a distinct entity to its US parent, despite the overall control lying with Hasbro's offices in the States. This meant that Hasbro UK had to ask the parent company for permission each time a trademark of Hasbro was used. This understandably cost a lot of time and money to do with every single character they released. So during the run of the 1992 line, the decision was made to make cosmetic changes and alter the Autobot and Decepticon symbols to the ones we are familiar with from Generation 2. This also has leant to some blurring of this transitional stage with Generation 2 itself and these lines have been retroactively dubbed Generation 1.5 by fans, an ugly and unwelcome term.
Turbomasters vs Predators.
The first wave of figures saw the Turbomasters defend Earth from the rise of the Decepticon Predators following the return of the main Autobot forces to Cybertron. The Autobots featured large turbine-like missile launchers that formed an integral part of the vehicle mode. This meant there was less chance of parts being lost during play and was a design innovation that was carried through to Generation 2, Beast Wars and beyond.
The new Decepticons were lead by the imposing Skyquake, the largest figure in the line. The Predators unique selling point (as well as powerful missile launchers), was that each of the smaller Predator Jets could link up with the larger Stalker and Skyquake to reveal a battle scene showing their opponent (the Autobot Turbomasters) in the crosshairs. One of these depictions shows a more Prime-like version of the Autobot Turbomaster Thunderclash. This design will be familiar to owners of the Japanese Generations book, based as it is, on the unproduced 'Hyperdrive' figure design. Quite why this was left in is a mystery, suggesting that Thunderclash could indeed have been intended to be another version of Optimus Prime.
Again, no combining for us.
At a lower price point were the New Constructicons. These figures were never made available in the UK in their original form, although some imports made it to the UK during 1991. Unlike the original releases, these new 1992 figures had changes made to their molds -- most notably on Hook, Bonecrusher and Scavenger -- that prevented them forming Devastator. They were packed only with their handheld weapons, on cards that showed all six figures on the front and contained the pictorial instructions for all six on the reverse (presumably as a cost cutting measure). These releases can be told apart from their later Generation 2 release as they contain grey plastic parts and no pre-printed logos on the figures.
Standing against the Constructicons were the four Autobot Rescue force vehicles. These were repaints of four of the figures from the Victory Breast Force merge group that made up Lio Kaiser. Again, like the Constructicons, these lacked the ability to combine into a larger robot and came with new weapon accessories in place of their Breastforce partners. They also had artwork depicting all four Rescue Force characters on the pack and came with construction style labels -- some of which could not be applied as the instructions indicated. As with the Constructicons, none of these characters had individual names or tech specs.
All of these first wave figures utilized the original Autobot/ Decepticon faction symbols and carried on the tradition of the clip and save 'Robot Points', although these could not be used in the UK. The toys themselves were bright and brash, in keeping with a cultural trend of the time for neon colours -- something that had spilled over from the burgeoning rave culture, magic eye pictures and fascination with Bermuda shorts that were all the rage at the time. The packaging design was rather stylish, with a revised chromed logo and superb circuit board design.
Whilst exclusive to the UK and Europe, some of these toys would see the light of day again in 1997. Kenner (who developed Beast Wars for Hasbro) took the molds for Skyquake, Thunderclash, Rotorstorm and Stalker , heavily retooled and repainted them and released them as part of their Machine Wars line. These new versions had none of the gimmicks of their original 1992 release owing to the stricter safety standards of the time.
The second wave of figures, released in early 1993 -- again a gimmick heavy line -- sported the flashy, new faction logos on their packaging. This second wave also gave us something we perhaps praise Beast Wars for; size classes. Although not explicitly stated, there is a definite set of small/medium/ large toys arranged along similar price points. The neon colours persist, but are more sensibly complimented by sympathetic secondary colours which makes them less of an eyesore. The Decepticons in particular look brutal. All of these figures, contained individual character artwork and bios, plus extensive use of light piping which allowed the robots eyes to glow when placed near a source of light. We also got colour changing vehicles in the sinister shapes of the Decepticon Stormtroopers (how cool is that name?) and Autobot Aquaspeeders (that one not so much), plus intriguing Trakkons and Lightformers who had 'laser' targeting weapons platforms. The daddies of the line were Pyro, the Autobot commander (a futuristic fire truck) and the deadly Decepticon General Clench who featured a unique and satisfying transformation and a row of unbroken tens on his tech spec. Both these figures were obliterators and featured barrage-firing missile launchers.
Later European releases.
In keeping the line true to its core premise of robots becoming vehicles, jets and machinery, the line was a moderate success -- something all the more surprising given the lack of supporting media the line had at the time. The cartoon had long since faded and the UK comic had ceased publication in early 1992, even the Japanese line had stalled by this stage with Operation: Combination quickly fading out.
It's hard not to underestimate how important the European line was in keeping the brand alive. Sure, the various Japanese lines have the cache of being a little more exotic, but we should be proud of our own brief contribution to the toy line. Without it, it's quite possible that Transformers would have faded from view altogether. After all, not for nothing did a fair number of these figures crop up again when Generation 2 started up.