It was 1985. The home computer market in the UK was dominated by the likes of the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. An unlikely breeding ground for the first Transformers video game considering the origin of the franchise. A toy line with its roots in Japan that was brought to life in America. Yet here was a leading British publisher that was the first to acquire the license to bring out a Transformers video game.
Truth be told, Transformers by Ocean Software was a pretty awful game. It was a bland platform game and frustratingly difficult (even more so on the ZX Spectrum). Yes, it had characters that we were familiar with, they were able to transform but that was about it. It lacked the soul of what made Transformers what we all know and love.
So What Makes A Good Transformers Video Game?
If I could answer that question I would have set up a software house years ago and would be a millionaire by now. A great game is more than just great gameplay, great visuals or a great storyline. But when it comes to games based on licensed properties much more is needed. While they can often sell reasonably well to gamers in general, the target audience is to fans of the franchise. That being the case, they must capture the look, feel and spirit of the brand they are representing.
Characters need to be recognisable. Not just visually but in the way they act and speak – either through dialogue presented on screen or spoken. Storylines need to be believable within the boundaries of the franchise’s known universe. More importantly for hardcore fans is that established canon should be respected and acknowledged where the game allows it. While most of this may seem like common sense, it’s astonishing how many of these simple things can be forgotten by developers.
Gamers Can Be Forgiving
The reality is that we all want fun games, but we also want that feel good factor when it comes to licensed titles. I have found that gamers are more forgiving when it comes to licensed titles as long as they stay true to the franchise they are representing. An average, but authentic Star Wars game, for example can often be appreciated far more than a great game that does disservice to the characters and worlds that George Lucas created. That only goes so far though and as much as we love any brand, we don’t always look at the games through rose-tinted glasses.
Back To Basics
To look at what really makes a good Transformers video game, you have to go back to basics. At its core Transformers has been about a struggle between good and evil. It’s not a glorified series of battles between giant robots, fighting it out with the intent to destroy each other. If you’re looking for that type of story then Transformers isn’t going to provide it (unless Michael Bay was involved). No, Transformers was character and story driven. Action games can be successful, but they need to revolve around identifiable and unique characters.
Early games didn’t need stunning visuals to be good, but if there was a story behind what you were doing (such as Activision’s Transformers: Battle To Save The Earth) it gave the game greater depth. We also saw even back then the need for an ensemble cast of characters. It was essential to work as a team to be able to complete the game and this has been a running theme throughout all good Transformers video games ever since.
Don’t Stray Too Much
There have been plenty of diverse Transformers games over the years. Arcade, platform games, driving games, turn-based strategy and more. Each has tried to add something new for gamers but not all of them have been successful. When dealing with any franchise it’s not always guaranteed that a brand will immediately make an average game into a great one. A bland racing game will still be the same game with a Fast And Furious license slapped on it and Transformers is no different. While we’ve seen a few Transformers slots games released in the past, it doesn’t mean that adding the Transformers name made them any better than Bonanza slot.
The truth is that the gameplay needs to be strong enough in the first place to stand on its own without the license. If it can’t and it needs the license then the game isn’t necessarily worth it in the first place. What we don’t want is to see the Transformers name sullied by games that are little more than cash-ins designed to take advantage of rather than add value to the brand name. If a game doesn’t need to be set in the Transformers multiverse then it shouldn’t be.
Who Is That Meant To Be?
This may sound obvious, but we need to know who each character is. Not just from the way they look but how they act. One of the fundamental flaws in the very first game gave all of the Autobots the ability to fly. While that made sense from a gameplay point of view, it made none whatsoever in terms of the characters. It turned the game into a generic platform action game very rapidly and quickly revealed most of the game’s limited playability. Apart from the physical strengths and weaknesses and the graphics all of the Autobots were the same. Same weaponry, same abilities… there was no real difference between them.
With over 30 years of Transformers history to draw upon, characters have to be relatively consistent in terms of their behaviour. If Autobots aren’t meant to fly then they shouldn’t. If a character is non-violent, then they should only be able to use non-lethal means of attack in any combat situations in games. It may seem like common sense but these are all details that fans will notice. It’s all about staying true to character. And it’s for that reason why fans were up in arms over the 2007 live action movie when Optimus Prime allowed so many people to die needlessly when he could have saved them. He simply wasn’t the character we all knew and loved.
This all depends on the game, but we want our Transformers games to look and sound like Transformers. If they are based on any the TV shows then they need to look like the shows both in terms of the in-game visuals and the overall presentation. Modern gaming is blessed with the ability to bring us fully voiced games thanks to the storage media available that wasn’t to developers in the 80s and early 90s. So we want to hear our favourite voice actors as well. If it’s an animated show then yes, it’s only right that the original cast make a return for the video game.
Original titles aren’t as easy but we still want to hear at least some familiar voices. It’s no wonder then that developers have regularly turned to fan favourites to voice characters time after time. To many casual players of Transformers games it may not be important who voices Optimus Prime, but to us, the second we hear Peter Cullen’s dulcet tones we immediately feel at home.
Telling A Tale
Despite the Michael Bay movies giving the impression that the Transformers franchise is all about action, we all know better. Story driven games have become increasingly important – and not just for Transformers. And it’s for this reason that a greater level of care has been taken in recent years on that side of things with the games we’ve been fortunate enough to play. Instead of a rehash of a movie plot, or game that has felt as if it has been thrown together randomly, we’re now getting carefully crafted stories developed by people who have had years of experience with Transformers as a brand. Television and comic writers have all helped to shape the stories driving these new games and it’s made all the difference to them.
The Best So Far?
So far though while many would have their own favourites in terms of gameplay I’d have to say that the most recent major title, Transformers Devastation ticks most of the boxes for me. It may not be the strongest in terms of gameplay, but it’s cel-shaded visuals certainly makes it look like an episode of the G1 cartoon series. Add to that the return of many of the voice cast, including many of our friends here at Auto Assembly including Gregg Berger and Michael Bell and the game is already off to a flying start.
Characterisation is superb and the “no kill” philosophy of many of the Autobots is upheld admirably by fielding the game’s play areas with drone characters. While this may be a common trope used in Transformers games (and surprisingly well in Beast Machines – one of its hidden strengths), it works well enough here. The story and pacing again are faultless and despite periods of repetition, it’s a game I found that I couldn’t put down from start to finish.
Best Transformers game ever? I’m not 100% sure on that one but it certainly taught most of the others a thing or two in staying true to the franchise. And when we’re after a Transformers game, isn’t that what is important?