It’s not just toys, television shows and comics where the Transformers franchise has been dominant for over 30 years. For almost as long as the brand has been in existence, we’ve been treated to a plethora of video games for almost every major platform. In this ongoing series, we’ll be looking at this chequered history of Transformers in gaming right from the very beginning. Accompanying this series, we’ll also be taking a more in-depth look at most of the games we’ll be talking about in separate reviews but more on this another time… This time, we’ll go right back to where it all began, back in the 1980s…
Transformers as a brand had been around for only a year and had already proven itself to be a major success on a global level. The toys were everywhere, the cartoon series had helped to make household names of Optimus Prime and Megatron, and kids everywhere wanted to own the latest bots. Transformers were cool. But not everyone was into transforming robots from Cybertron. There were those who were more interested in video games and had, for the most part, left the toy part of their childhood behind. Action figures were “just for kids” and many had moved on, passing toys down to their kid brothers (or sisters) or they were thrown away or given to jumble sales or charity shops.
At the same time, the UK games industry was trying to make a bold move to increase sales on the high street. Mainstream advertising was still expensive for what was still a fledgling industry but publishers knew that something was needed to draw attention to their games in high street stores to boost sales. Manchester-based Ocean Software became one of the pioneers in the wave of games that came to utilise film/TV licenses. The logic was clear enough. The investment made to acquire the use of these brands was well worth it for the instant product recognition in the supermarket shelves where games were prominently displayed. A good license was almost certainly set to sell more copies and guarantee a better return and so, in 1985 Ocean Software looked towards Hasbro and secured the rights to released the first ever officially licensed Transformers game…
In theory this should have been a massive hit. The cartoon certainly was with the Saturday morning audience, as were the toys. Releasing it for the Commodore 64 and Spectrum – the two major platforms at the time was the perfect business decision as well. Ocean then handed development over to trusted studio Denton Designs who were known for their arcade adventures including Shadowfire, Enigma Force and later the game based on the pop band Frankie Goes To Hollywood (but the less said about that the better). So a good licence and a good development team. What could possibly go wrong?
The game, as you would expect, focused on the Autobots and you took control of a team (controlling one ‘bot at a time). What ensusued was a rather monotonous – even by 1980s standards – platform action game. The game playfield was arranged as a maze of platforms, and you had to control your chosen Autobot (in vehicle or robot form) to collect four pieces of an Energon Cube and return them in turn to the Autobot Centre. While doing this, you were under fire from all manner of Decepticons so you either had to attack (in robot mode only) or evade them but that was basically all there was to it. Once you did that, the game was complete – no real end sequence, no celebrations… the game just looped and you had to repeat everything all over again.
Even with a choice of Autobots and the ability to change form, the game became pretty repetitive. In terms of longevity, despite its frustrating gameplay it was also incredibly short. Expert players could complete the entire game in a couple of minutes. At least the Commodore 64 version had a faithful renditioning of the Transformers theme. The Spectrum version fared worse with the frustrating gameplay elevated with the side-scrolling replaced with flick-screen action making it almost impossible to tell when danger was approaching.
Moving on twelve months and across the Atlantic and American gaming giant Activision took their first foray into the world of Transformers when they released Transformers: Battle To Save The Earth in 1986. This time, the game offered a mix of strategy and arcade action although this too failed to excite gamers on its initial release or three years later when it was re-released by budget company Mastertronic for a wallet friendly £2.99.
Strangely, while this game provided a more player-friendly roster of eight Autobots, for some reason this included Hotrod and Rodimus Prime. I do miss those days when games were a little more “creative” with their licenses… Probably the highlight of this game were the cut scenes and still images which helped to convey the game’s story but even these couldn’t really help to lift the game above average.
Consoles didn’t get their first look-in until after the Commodore 64 had seen its fill of Transformers games and then it was the turn of Nintendo. Despite being the original home of Transformers, Japan didn’t see its first Transformers game until 1986 in the form of Mystery Of Comvoy released for the Famicom (Nintendo NES). This side-scrolling platform action game was notable for all the wrong reasons. Featuring Ultra Magnus as the lead character, it’s an average arcade game but horrendously difficult. Regardless of whether the game was any good or not, it’s easy to see why this wasn’t released elsewhere.
Not deterred by this, a second G1 game was released for the Famicom, this time based on Headmasters released about a year later for the Famicom Disk System (the disk version of the Famicom). Again, a Japan-only game and being limited to disk made this even more of an obscure release.
Now, there was one other game released in the 1980s although not technically a Transformers one but I feel that it’s worthy of a mention… Gobots! It’s more acceptable now for Transformers fans to admit to owning or even collecting Gobots but back in the 80s, Transformers and Gobots simply didn’t co-exist. However, since the Gobots brand is now owned by Hasbro / Takara, I’ll cover this briefly here. In 1987 Ariolasoft (through their Reaktor label) released their contribution to the range releasing Challenge Of The Gobots for the Commodore 64, Spectrum and Amstrad.
Developed by renowned arcade game programmer Tony Crowther, the game was a straight forward no-nonsense side-scrolling shoot-em-up. Adding something a little different, the game featured a text-based story at the start of the game displayed on screen, and copies of the game also came bundled with an audio cassette entitled “The Challenge” featuring an original audio story.
And that was pretty much it for the 80s. As a brand, Transformers itself gradually moved into a relatively quiet phase after this when the G1 range started to die out and G2 was introduced. While many loved the G2 range, it didn’t capture the imagination in the same way that G1 did. Certainly it didn’t inspire the video games industry as it chose to stay away from Transformers for almost a decade. No new official Transformers video games were released after Headmasters and Transformers gaming completely by-passed the 16-bit era with nothing released for the SNES, Megadrive, Amiga or Atari ST.
Infact, nothing more was heard linking Transformers or video games until the dawn of the Beast Wars… but that’s another chapter!