Year of the Robot, Part 1: How Go-Bots, Transformers, Voltron, and Mighty Orbots conquered the world

Contributed by
Nov 21, 2015, 10:02 PM EST (Updated)

Thirty years ago, a tidal wave that changed the world of science fiction forever swept over American television. Transformers, Mighty Orbots, and Voltron all debuted on U.S. airwaves in September of 1984. Challenge of the Go-Bots followed in October. All four of these shows involved giant robots, originally hailed from Asia, and captivated kids the world over.

What was behind this all-out assault of Japanese mechanical men? Why did Transformers succeed while the rest faded into various levels of cultural obscurity? We talk to some of the most important minds behind all four shows and get the inside story on the year of the cartoon robots in a three-part series. Read Part 2 (the Golden Age of transforming robots) here, and Part 3 (the rise of Transformers and the fall of everyone else) here.

Toy Boys

As Japan became a manufacturing powerhouse in the early 1980s, their toy lines began to draw American attention. Large companies like Bandai and Takara saw there was money to be made in licensing products abroad, and American firms were impressed by the mechanical ingenuity and sense of style they demonstrated.

Hassenfeld Brothers (the firm we now know as Hasbro) had been working with Japanese firm Takara since 1969, when they exported the G.I. Joe line to Japan. The toys created as a result of that collaboration evolved over time into the Diaclone and Microman lines and, in the early '80s, Japanese kids started to go nuts over Diaclone figures that could be, by following a set of instructions, changed into the shapes of cars, planes, and other mundane objects.

When the news hit that Hasbro was gearing up to push heavily behind these Japanese toys in America, competitor Tonka (at the time best known for its die-cast metal construction vehicles) partnered with Japanese firms Bandai and Tomy to bring over some of their own robots, most notably the Machine Robo series. These toys were die-cast vehicles similar to the already-successful Matchbox line, only they could be manipulated to change into robot forms. Interestingly enough, many of the Machine Robo models were inspired by ideas submitted by ordinary Japanese children.

Go-Bots were first to market, and quickly became a sensation. Because Tonka had some 300 different toy molds to choose from, they were able to saturate the market with a number of different robots quickly. At a price of just $3 for a figure, they were a popular stocking stuffer, and Hasbro missed the vital 1983 Christmas season with Transformers, but by 1984 had moved into competition, with the larger, more complex Takara toys proving to be big sellers.

Voltron also had tie-in toys, which were produced by Japanese toy firm Popy. Made of diecast metal, they were quite expensive, but featured incredible detailing. American toy manufacturer Panosh Place also created their own line of action figures of the show's human characters.

Mattel was announced as the master licensor for Mighty Orbots toys, and even produced marketing materials for their combining robot, which was modeled after Bandai's GodMars DX. But in between the production of the materials and the 1985 Toy Fair, Mattel pulled out. The reasons why will come later in this series when we deal with some thorny legal issues.

To recoup the investment on these toys, it was key that they be put in front of as many little consumer eyeballs as possible. And big changes in the media landscape during the Reagan administration made it possible.

Show Me The Money

For decades, the FCC kept a close eye on the amount of advertising and promotional content that was aired alongside shows for children. Strict regulations ensured that shows could not be paired with advertisements for products featured in the shows. But when Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, he ushered in a phase of free-market capitalism that changed children's TV forever.

Reagan appointed Mark Fowler as commissioner of the FCC in 1981 and Fowler immediately began dismantling those pesky regulations one at a time. When it came to children's cartoons, they could now be directly based on toy lines and other consumer products. This kicked off a wave of cartoons starting with Fred Wolf Films' Strawberry Shortcake specials and reached a fever pitch with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

That series of action figures and playsets, released by Mattel in 1982, came accompanied by an animated series made by Filmation and released to syndication. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was the beneficiary of many of Fowler's regulatory changes – the level of violence was higher than previous shows, with the muscular hero allowed to punch and throw his foes (although still not use his sword). And, most importantly, the characters from the show all had their own action figures so kids could act out the storylines at home.

These long-form commercials were a powerful lesson in cross-media synergy: They sold massive amounts of toys and pulled in big ratings for networks. This coincided with a boom in the number of television networks, as small independent stations started opening up in markets across the country. These stations had no obligation to air any network programming, so they were free to schedule whatever they could pay for that would glue eyeballs to the tube. And cartoons – especially action-packed ones – fit the bill.

Far East Movement

Starting in the early 1980s, American animation companies started to realize that they could save money by outsourcing work to Asian countries, most notably Japan and Korea. All four of the shows in 1984's wave of giant robots had roots in Japan.

Mighty Orbots was, surprisingly, the first of the four series to premiere, debuting on September 8th. Unlike the other shows, which were syndicated from station to station, Orbots was aired on Saturday mornings on ABC, and had a brief season of just 13 episodes. The show was created by American producer Fred Silverman (the man who made Scooby-Doo a smash hit) and Japanese director Osamu Dezaki, and it stood out for the incredible animation quality and solid plotting.

Voltron was the only show that used existing Japanese footage as a base, from Japanese series Beast King GoLion. The original show was quite a bit darker – five space pilots return to Earth to find it devastated by thermonuclear war, then discover five robotic lions that combine into a mighty warrior. World Events Productions bought the U.S. rights to the show and re-edited, then paid Japanese firm Toei to produce a new pilot that introduced the American status quo. It debuted in syndication on September 10th.

On September 17th, Transformers premiered on U.S. TV in syndication with a three-part miniseries called "More Than Meets The Eye," animated by Toei. Hasbro was so taken with the miniseries while it was still in production that they funded a first season of thirteen episodes, which premiered later in the month. The strong sales of Transformers toys had convinced them that the franchise had legs. The premise of Transformers was simple – two warring armies of robots crash-landed on Earth, where they took the form of ordinary vehicles and other objects to remain undetected. The heroic Autobots, led by tractor-trailer Optimus Prime, battled the ravaging Decepticons and their leader Megatron, who could shift his body into an eerily realistic Walther P38 pistol. The first season offered an unusually complex storyline with heavy connections between episodes.

Challenge Of The Go-Bots was the last series to premiere. The Go-Bots toys had hit store shelves at the end of 1983, before Hasbro had their own Transformers toys for sale, but Tonka didn't seal a deal with animation studio Hanna-Barbera until '84. A five-part miniseries that introduced the world of the Go-Bots premiered on October 29th in syndication, and the full series didn't take a bow until September of 1985. The basic premise was near-identical to Transformers – robots who can change forms come to Earth to continue a never-ending battle – but there was no continuity between episodes, instead preferring "done in one" storylines.

Character Work

When Hasbro brought Transformers over to the United States, they capitalized on a lesson learned from He-Man and G.I. Joe – without a storyline, action figures are just lumps of plastic. When the G.I. Joe figure line launched in 1982, Hasbro teamed with Marvel Comics to develop the individual characters and their world, as communicated through the "file cards" on the back of the packaging. This approach was such a success that they renewed the partnership in 1984 with Transformers.

Marvel's editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, came up with the basic concept of two groups of warriors, the Autobots and the Decepticons, who come to Earth and adapt to their surroundings by transforming. Unfortunately for him, the character names and descriptions that Shooter and writer Denny O'Neil came up with got rejected by Hasbro. He then gave the project to Marvel staffer Bob Budiansky, who had most recently been the penciler on the cancelled Ghost Rider series. He says "Facing an imminent deadline, Shooter scoured the Marvel editorial offices looking for someone who could write at least basic English. The first few Marvel editors Shooter approached, all with more writing experience than me, wanted nothing to do with Transformers. I was probably Shooter's third or fourth choice." Budiansky, using nothing but images of the toys, came up with nearly all of the new character names and personalities over one weekend.

One interesting tidbit from this time is that Hasbro had initially rejected the name "Megatron" for the leader of the Decepticons, complaining that it sounded "too scary." Budiansky managed to convince them that was the whole point, and the name went forward. Much of what we consider the "personality" of the iconic Transformers characters came from his pen.

Dynamic Duo

There was still an obstacle in the path of Transformers' domination. Although FCC rules had been significantly loosened, it was still forbidden to air advertisements for the toys that the cartoon was about during the cartoon. But Hasbro had an ace in the hole in the form of Sunbow Animation.

Sunbow was not only the studio producing the Transformers animated series;  they also had G.I. Joe, which had made its debut with a pair of miniseries in 1983 before going to full series in September of 1985. Much of the actual work was farmed out to Japanese studios like Toei, but Sunbow was responsible for getting the shows into the U.S. syndicated market.

Joe Strike, an animator for Sunbow at the time, let me in on how it worked. "Sunbow produced both the Transformers and G.I. Joe series, and when they brought them to TV stations for syndication, they offered a deal nobody else could. If stations bought G.I. Joe, Hasbro would buy ads for Transformers toys to air during it. And if they bought Transformers, Hasbro would buy G.I. Joe ads." Channel owners obviously loved having chunks of programming paid for with ads – and ads that promoted other properties on the network – so it was in their best interest to get both shows for syndication.

None of the other shows could boast that kind of synergy, and the obvious superiority of the Transformers cartoon (and toys) made it the market leader. But the real battle was yet to come.

Tomorrow: Voltron arrives, the cartoon robot boom really gets going, and the first contenders start to fall.