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Chapter 1 - Part 1
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Chapter 1: Before the Transformers (1960 - 1983)

The beginnings

The "Space Explorer": The first "Transformer" of all times. (Photo taken from Danefield.com)
The "Transformers" are, without a doubt, internationally the most well-known transforming robot toys. Contrary to what most people think, though, they were far from being the first. In fact, robots in general were an enormously popular theme in Japan at least since the Sixties, starting with the motorized "Tetsujin 28" (or "Gigantor") from 1960. These days, the first "Transformer" in the strict sense is widely considered to be the "Space Explorer" from 1967 (other sources even date the toy back to 1959), manufactured by a Japanese company named Yonezawa, which could be transformed into an old-fashioned TV set.
In the Seventies, the popularity of robot toys would reach a new level. That trend started with "Mazinger Z", released by Popy (later bought out by Bandai) in 1972 and better known as "Tranzor Z" in the USA. "Mazinger Z" was followed by a toyline named "Chogokin" (also by Popy, starting in 1974), which would be released in the USA by Mattel under the name "Shogun Warriors" starting in 1979. "Chogokin" was the first toyline that would not only used plastic parts, but also parts made of diecast metal, which was cheaper to produce at that time.
The "Gobot" Crasher, based on one of the "Machine Robos". (Photo by Anthony Brucale)
In 1975, Popy released the first noteworthy transforming robot toy, "Yuusha Raideen" (also known as "Brave Raideen" or "Raideen the Brave"), which would also be available in the USA as part of the "Shogun Warriors" line. Furthermore, this would mark the first time a toy company was working together with a TV production company in order to release a cartoon series concurrently with the corresponding toyline. In the USA, this concept wouldn't be introduced until Mattel's "Masters of the Universe" (beginning in 1982) and Hasbro's "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero" (beginning in 1982/83).
Popy's "Combattler V" (aka "Combattra") from 1976, meanwhile, would be the first robot toy that could be assembled from several smaller vehicles. In 1979, a new line of diecast robots named "Mobile Suit Gundam" would follow, produced in cooperation between toy manufacturers Clover and Takara. However, those expensive toys didn't sell particularly well, thus Clover - now in cooperation with Bandai - made another attempt with model kits in 1981. Those would rapidly become a huge success, but not enough to save Clover from bankruptcy. Therefore, in 1984, Bandai then took over the production of the "Gundam" kits all on their own. Also still in 1984, Bandai would start selling several "Chogokin" toys, among them "Combattler V", under the name "Godaikin" in the USA, whereas Matchbox released other toys as part of their "Voltron" line.
In 1982, a company named Takatoku (later bought out by Bandai) launched a toyline named "Super Dimensional Fortress Macross", which featured toys named the "Valkyries" that could be transformed into highly detailed space fighter jets. In the USA, Revell would sell model kits based on the Valkyries as part of the "Robotech" line beginning in 1984, whereas Matchbox started releasing "Robotech" toys in 1984. Bandai, in turn, created a new toyline named "Machine Robo", which was released by Tonka in the USA as the "Gobots" beginning in 1983. Among the "Machine Robos" were the first robot toys that could be transformed into realistic vehicles. That same year, Takara would try out a similar concept with their "MicroChange" and "Diaclone" toylines.

American heritage

Combat Joe and Henshin Cyborg: The Transformers' great-grandfathers. (Photo by Paul Lorphanpaibul)
Essentially, "G.I. Joe" started it all. The toy figure of an American soldier, created by Don Levine and named based on the movie "The Story of G.I. Joe" (1945, starring Robert Mitchum and Burgess Meredith), was originally released in 1964 by a small toy company named Hassenfeld Brothers. Founded in 1923 by brothers Henry and Helal Hassenfeld from Rhode Island, the company had first risen to fame in 1952 thanks to "Mr. Potato Head", who is still quite popular to this very day. Not only did G.I. Joe turn out to be one of the most popular toys in the USA, but he is also considered to be the world's first "action figure". Because of the unexpected success, Hassenfeld Bros. soon grew to be one of the largest US toy companies and eventually changed its name into "Hasbro Industries, Inc." in 1968.
In 1970, a small Japanese toy company named Takara obtained the licenses for a Japanese version of G.I. Joe. Founded in 1955 by Yasuta Satoh, Takara had their first major success with a clinging doll named "Dakko-chan" in 1960. Next came a doll named "Licca-chan" (aka "Rika-chan") in 1967, which was based on Mattel's "Barbie" and which is still one of Takara's most successful brands to this very day. Despite being the first Japanese action figure, sales figures for "Combat Joe", as Takara would call G.I. Joe, were far from being stellar - a toy that was based on an American soldier simply wasn't particularly popular among Japanese kids. However, Takara didn't want to abandon the "action figure" concept that easily.
In 1971, encouraged by the recent success of robot toys in Japan, they came up with the idea of turning "Combat Joe" into an alien cyborg from the year 2025. "Henshin (Transforming) Cyborg" was not based on any TV series, but had its own distinct story nonetheless. For the toy, a Cyborg with a transparent body and visible machinery inside, Takara released costumes based on heroes from welll-known Japanese TV shows such as "Ultraman" or "Kamen Rider". One of the noteworthy characteristics of the "Henshin Cyborg" line was the fact that it featured a character named "King Walder" (aka "King Waruder"), the enemy of Henshin Cyborg. After those early days, it became unpopular to release "villain" toys in Japan - the big exception in this regard is, to this very day, Takara. Unlike "Combat Joe", "Henshin Cyborg" would indeed become a huge success.

Of micromen and micronauts

The Microman manga that was included with "TV Magazine". (Scan by Paul Lorphanpaibul)
In 1974, Takara shrank down the toy figures from 12 to 3½ inches in order to provide them with vehicles and entire playsets. The new toyline was dubbed "Microman", and instead of a cartoon show, the official backstory was told within a kids' magazine called "TV Magazine" (aka "Terebi Mag"). According to that backstory, the Microman characters were meant to be aliens who were actually as small as the toy figures. After the "Micro-Earth", the home planet of the Micromen, had been destroyed, a group of Micromen managed to escape. Eventually, they arrived on Earth, where they would continue their struggle against their mortal enemies, the "Acroyear". In time, they met other survivors from their homeworld and created all sorts of machinery and vehicles that would help them fight the Acroyear.
In the USA, meanwhile, a company named Mego Corp., in the wake of Hasbro's "G.I. Joe" success, had started releasing their own action figures of pretty much every popular comic book and TV character, now only 8 inches in size, in 1972. In 1976, at the height of the Microman craze, Mego would also secure the licenses for selling the Microman toys outside of Japan and successfully released them worldwide as "Micronauts" ("I Micronauti" in Italy).
Ironically, in doing so, they would damage their own sales, as other companies were instantly jumping onto the bandwagon by releasing their own handy 3½ inch action figures including vehicles and playsets. Then, in 1976, Mego hesitated to secure the licenses for the toys from a planned movie named "Star Wars". Their competitor Kenner, meanwhile, didn't think twice and instantly took the opportunity. Due to the enormous success of the "Star Wars" toys, Mego ultimately failed to adapt to the new market in time. As a result, they found themselves forced to drop the "Micronauts" line again in 1981, and two years later, following some dubious deals, they even had to file for bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, Marvel Comics had released a "Micronauts" comic book series that lasted 59 regular issues, two annuals, a four-part crossover with the X-Men and a second series (entitled "Micronauts: The New Voyages") which lasted for another 20 issues. The former "Micronauts" characters, which had been incorporated into the mainstream Marvel universe, are named "Microns" these days for legal reasons, whereas the rights to the comic book version of the "Micronauts" under exactly that title currently reside with Devil's Due, an offshoot of Image Comics.

"New Microman" and "Diaclone" - the "Transformers" take shape

Micro Robot V: The Transformers' grandfather. (Photo by Paul Lorphanpaibul)
In 1981, seven years after the debut of the "Microman" line, the market was decreasing rapidly. Takara therefore decided to make a few modifications, trying to address a new target audience that might have felt put off by the increasingly complex backstory of the series so far. "New Microman" replaced the original line and presented a drastic reboot. The backstory was slightly altered and thereby drifted away further from the original toys. Takara tried to jump onto the bandwagon of robot toys, which were just in the process of becoming popular again during that time, thanks to lines such as "Gundam".
The "Micro Borg" figures were a replacement of sorts for "Microman Titan" from the old series, but due to a lack of popularity, only three toys would be released. In the long run, the "Micro Robots", which were considerably different from previous "Microman" mechas, would turn out to be a lot more groundbreaking. For the first time, the appearance of the robots could be changed without having to swap out parts. On top of that, the robots could even be merged into larger robots. The seed of what would become the "Transformers" had been planted.
The "Micro Robots" spawned of new lines, "Micro Change" and "Diaclone". Basically, this was an attempt on Takara's behalf to get the Japanese toy market share back from Popy and other companies: "MicroChange", as part of the "New Microman" line, put emphasis on action figures, whereas "Diaclone" tried to expand into the giant robot toy market.
The "Diaclone" line, which was launched in 1980, was initially intended to be a standalone series. Takara now shrank down the Microman figures to about one inch in order to equip them which large vehicles and other playsets. Although the Diaclone toys were accompanied by a background story, it didn't exist in the form of a cartoon series or a manga. Instead, the adventures of the Diaclone characters were only told inside the catalogs that came with the toys. The story centered around the "Diaclone Taskforce", which operated from a future Earth. The enemies of the Diaclone Taskforce were the Waruder Empire, a race of alien insects seeking to conquer the Earth.
The first Diaclone playsets, including "Great Robot Base" which stood about 16 inches tall, were highly detailed and equipped with numerous functions and accessories. In fact, many of them already sported early, albeit still somewhat simple, transforming abilities: The "Diatrain", for example, could be transformed from a train into a spaceship by pushing a button, and the "Dia Attacker" had the honor of being the first Diaclone toy that could be transformed into a robot.
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Special vom: 17.01.2007
Autor dieses Specials: Torsten B Abel
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