With Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight stampeding into movie theaters this week, it's time to collect every energon cube, activate the space bridge and retreat … back to the 1980s! The original animated Transformers series remains fondly remembered for its colorful depictions of heroic Autobots, evil Decepticons and their galaxy-spanning adventures. Ranking the top 20 characters from the original series is akin to picking your favorite kid. So let's celebrate our favorites and/or unintentionally obliterate the self-esteem of the top 20 characters from the original Transformers series!
Like Cuba Gooding, Jr., Galvatron's celebrity is connected to one of his earliest roles. Galvatron's zenith was his debut in 1986's Transformers: The Movie. First, the former Megatron finally annihilated his would-be usurper Starscream. Later, he ordered the execution of milquetoast Autobot commander Ultra Magnus. While his foolish plan to control the planet-gobbling Unicron through the mysterious Autobot Matrix was a wee bit hubristic, it's important to understand these were '80s and greed was good.
One of the oldest internet tenets is that every listicle MUST include at least one deep cut. Quota! Doctor Arkeville only appeared in a handful of episodes during the first season of the series, but his Decepticon-sympathizing, over-the-top mad scientist shtick was actually nuanced… if we grade on a curve for pre-adolescent audiences. His ill-fated attempt to save earth from Starscream's dastardly scheme destroyed most of his own humanity, but was a great PSA for accidental electrocution.
Wildly polarizing. Unfit for command. Nowhere near as beloved as his predecessor. The garishly orange Autobot leader did have a fascinating character arc. Rodimus Prime spent the series' third season wrestling with his worthiness. Eventually, Rodimus accepts the leadership mantle as his burden to bear… UNTIL the show's writers responded to an avalanche of hate mail and hastily tacked on a two-part episode that returned Optimus Prime to life and the Autobot leadership position. Sorry, Rodi… er, Hot Rod!
Perceptor the heroic microscope was endearingly useless – showing up to make a grim prognosis, before leaving to let the real heroes – the ones who didn't need a ride to the battlefield – save the day. He did, however, get a star turn in the "Cosmic Rust" episode, saving Megatron from an insidious disease. Megatron would go on to kill Optimus Prime, but Perceptor was right there to examine Prime's wounds and declare there was nothing he could do!
Universally considered the toughest Autobot on the lot, Ironhide transformed from rugged robot to… 1984 Nissan Vanette?! The sentient ancestor to the minivan served admirably as Optimus Prime's muscle. He was often given the quintessential action hero quips in each episode, such as "[I'm] ready to give Megatron a nickel-knuckle sandwich." His recurring "leakin' lubricant!" catchphrase was ubiquitous enough to make it into the 2007 live-action movie. In your FACE, Lil' Orphan Annie!
Half machine, half deus ex machina… Wheeljack's impact on the Transformers universe is almost always in the nick of time. He built the Dinobots – a subgroup of warriors more powerful than any Autobot, aside from Optimus Prime. He nearly took down the incredible Decepticon Devastator using inexplicable inspiration from the 1930s' classic "King Kong". He might be most memorable for being the only Transformer to talk with his ears – a Cybertronian Carol Burnett, if you will.
The "boom box" phraseology for those obnoxiously loud portable stereos soon begat the pejorative "ghetto blaster" – a term so omnipresent it was used as the name of a DC Comics villain (who ran afoul of… wait for it… Black Lightning) and was the name of the finisher of WWE wrestler Bad News Brown (a black Canadian billed from… wait for it… Harlem). Blaster rose above his surname and successfully crossed over by projecting the right amount of treble into his Cybertronian battles.
Spike was the flesh and blood kid sidekick of the Autobots. His primary roles were to stumble upon a Decepticon plot, get captured, and be rescued. Deadbeat dads everywhere could feel better about themselves after watching Spike’s pop, Sparkplug, allow his only son to imbed himself within a violent five-million-year war. Fortunately, Spike redeemed himself with a scandalous dash of casual profanity in Transformers: The Movie.
Spike’s Autobot analog was essentially Bumblebee. His status as “most likeable Autobot mini” was nothing to sneeze at, though. Huffer was the whiny one. Brawn was the meathead. Cliffjumper was kind of a jerk. Windcharger had a cool name, but no redeeming value. And, Gears didn’t even have that. Bumblebee’s transformation into the more powerful Goldbug during the series’ third season never happened. Ignore it! Avert your eyes!
“Decepticons retreat!” When your catchphrase is one step above surrender, you can’t be allowed to crack the top 10. Megatron did, however, make a fine foil for Optimus Prime. His one-on-one interactions with the Autobot leader were highpoints in the television series, and the animated movie was marketed to a generation of soon-to-be crestfallen fans with the dramatic final battle between the two (“One shall stand, one shall fall!”)
Alongside Dennis Hopper’s “Frank Booth,” Ricardo Montalban’s “Khan,” and Ted McGinley’s “Stan Gable,” there’s a place in the 1980s' movie villains’ pantheon for Orson Welles’ Unicron. In the opening minutes of Transformers: The Movie, a planet populated with robot families – from kiddies to the elderly! – is consumed by Unicron. Their screams aren’t silenced until Unicron eats every last life. Sweet dreams, young Transformers fans in the opening night audience!
Shockwave was the most underutilized character of the original series. His one-hand, one-eyed appearance made for the coolest visual of the so-called “Generation 1” characters, and any time he appeared it meant that the Transformers would be temporarily freed from the storyline confines of Earth. The cartoon, in fact, should’ve followed the 1980s comic book in which a cold, clinical Shockwave overthrew Megatron. Fixing this should be on the short list of anyone currently working on a time machine.
A tremendously smarmy twerp, Rumble’s nasally threats were backed up by arms that turned into mini-pile drivers. Somehow, their isolated impact could implausibly create earthquakes. (Get out of here with your 8th grade science application fact checks, dork!) A half-century before this, Rumble would’ve been an animated terrier hopping excitedly around a bulldog wearing a derby and a turtleneck.
The Dinobot commander would’ve been a top three selection if not for the damage done to his character in the third season of the series. Originally introduced as a dim-witted, but dangerous quasi-ally of the Autobots, Grimlock and his primordial cohorts were animated antiheroes. Unfortunately, in season three, Grimlock was written as comic relief: a dinosaur pet 25 years after The Flintstones did it first. And, I didn’t hear anyone laughing during The Flintstones. Did you?!
Several years ago, IMDb released a list of Hollywood’s most recognizable voices. Ask anyone of a certain age and Soundwave – if eligible… and he should’ve been – would've slotted in at sixth between Morgan Freeman and Sam Elliott. That modulated voice was the soundtrack for so many kids. In fact, it resulted in more than a handful of ruined play dates due to the fact that only ONE child at a time could be Soundwave during backyard make-believe. Or, so I’ve heard.
Back in the 1980s, the world wanted its animals to do more. The Beastmaster was released theatrically in 1982, while Manimal debuted on NBC in 1983. They didn’t get it right, though, until Ravage. He could siphon off some of Soundwave’s savoir faire in cassette mode, then transform into a jaguar to build on the sleek, silent, and all-black gimmick that made Snake Eyes a superstar over on G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Synergy! (Whoops, wrong '80s cartoon.)
The creation of New Coke and killing off Optimus Prime. These are your bookends of bad 1980s ideas, everyone. The Transformers – like most cartoons of the era – were dismissed as 30-minute toy commercials. But, the adults didn’t get it. Some of these shows echoed with their audiences long after the good guys saved the day. And, Optimus Prime was THE good guy. Not every hero has to be real. But, sometimes fiction is the epitome of authenticity.
No exaggeration… everyone remembers where they were when Devastator debuted. Six Constructicons – presumably unionized day-laborer Decepticons – merged into one towering entity. Devastator was defeated (often with surprising ease) in every episode, but THIS was the character that gave at least some credence to the series’ cynical “merchandising” mission statement. No character was as influential as Devastator. More than a half-dozen gargantuan Autobot and Decepticon jigsaws were added to the roster in subsequent episodes. But, there’s only one original.
The conniving underling is an oft-explored character in the arts, and Starscream belongs with the greats, such as William Shakespeare’s take on Marcus Junius Brutus. Starscream served with distinction as the Decepticon air commander. After repeated mission failures by his boss Megatron, Starscream rightfully believed that he was better suited to be leader. His honest ambition and can-do attitude were never rightfully rewarded. Starscream was eventually assassinated by Galvatron… and the Decepticons have still never won.
Scatman Crothers’ voice-over work was the indelible element of every character he brought to life. But, Jazz was the most perfect fit for the vibe of his voice. (With apologies to Hong Kong Phooey.) Laid back, but brash. Cocky, but cool. Jazz could’ve been just the obligatory urban attraction, but instead he somehow captured the flashy pop culture zeitgeist of the 1980s. The "tech specs" on the back of Jazz's toy box attribute this quote to him: "Do it with style or don't bother doing it." Preach, Jazz.