In Defense of the GoBots!
I’m going to say something that might be the most controversial thing I’ve ever said here:
I don’t think the GoBots suck.
That might seem contrary to other things I’ve written in the past, but all I’ve ever really talked about here was the War of the Rock Lords movie specifically. The toys still hold a special place in my heart. And while it was never a popular thing to admit, I’ve always thought that quite a few of the toys were better than their more successful rivals, The Transformers. And, believe it or not, there’s actually a lot of the mythology that I think was handled really well too.
The first caveat, the one that I always have to put out, is that I have to dispel the notion that the GoBots were a rip-off of the Transformers. In fact, the GoBots beat Transformers to market by the better part of a year. Both toy lines were initially made up entirely of molds previously used in Japanese toy lines: Hasbro’s Transformers utilized toys from Takara’a MicroChange and Diaclone lines, while Tonka’s GoBots used Bandai’s Machine Robo toys. Both were imported to the United States around the beginning of a giant wave of robot madness in the 1980s, which saw properties like Max Steele’s Robo-Force, Robotech, and Voltron take up a large percentage of the action figure shelves in the ensuing years. The Transformers did, however, beat GoBots to the airwaves, debuting “More than Meets the Eye” about a month before “Challenge of the GoBots.”
Let’s start with the toys. For the most part, the GoBots were around 3″ tall, just slightly taller than the Transformers’ Mini Vehicles. There were also larger “Super GoBots”, which were about twice the height of the regular GoBots and also a bit taller than the bulk of the Transformers toys available in the first year. As a huge collector of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, The GoBots really appealed to me, since a large percentage of them were to scale with those toys. It was also pretty neat to me that all of the regular toys were the same height, which made them easier to play with in robot mode. And while there were a lot of them that didn’t have the most ingeniously engineered transformations, there were a bunch that rivaled much larger Transformers in complexity.
The Super GoBots were little different. Each of the originals turned in to extremely detailed models of cars (or, in Destroyer’s case, a tank.) The robot modes were a little different in that the cab of the vehicle (or the Turret for Destroyer) became the robot’s head. This was a little off-putting at first, but it was an interesting change of pace. It certainly beats the living snot out of the robot modes of the Transformers Ironhide and Ratchet. Later Super GoBots were more similar to their smaller cousins, and in fact, scaled-up versions of the faction leaders, Leader-1 and Cy-Kill, joined the Super GoBots line. I still maintain that some of the Super GoBots were just as good as any Transformers released in the same years. No, scratch that – they’re better, considering that mine remain in excellent shape all these years later while I’m struggling to think of one of my Transformers that didn’t have a part break off of it at some point.
The GoBots also produced Puzzler, a set of six robots which turned into cars, but also joined together to make one giant robot. Combining robots was commonplace in the world of the Transformers, starting with the Constructicons and then on to the “Scramble City” combiners and Predacons. But unlike any of them, Puzzler was entirely self-contained. All you needed were those six robots, and you could form the gestalt. All of the Transformers combiners required a bunch of extra parts to attach the components together or to serve as hands, feet, or heads, and if you lost one of those pieces you had a handicapped giant robot at best and a pile of uninteresting robot parts at worst. The GoBots furthered the combining gimmick with their Power Suits, which were empty shells that your GoBots figures could be encased within. Those Power Suits combined with a spaceship to form a giant robot as well.
I can recall a very specific moment from my childhood that says a lot about my enjoyment of the GoBots. I was playing at my next door neighbor’s house, and he had this tiny little cutesy blue pickup truck with oversized wheels. I realized it changed into a robot, but it felt so much cheaper to me than most of the transforming toys that I owned. The transformation was overly simplistic, it was made entirely of plastic with no die-cast parts to speak of, it had stumpy little arms and legs with very little articulation, and it was barely taller than a Lego Minifigure in robot mode. I chuckled at this lame toy and said to my friend, “I thought you said you didn’t have any GoBots,” and he replied, “That’s not a GoBot. It’s a Transformer.” I looked closely and noticed the little red robot face that was the Autobot insignia on its hood, and realized he was right. It turns out this was Gears, one of the first of the Transformers Mini Vehicles.
That was the very first time I ever laid my hands on a Transformers toy, and I laughed at it. I guess this is why, after all these years, I still have a little bit of a soft spot for GoBots.
The cartoon series, The Challenge of the GoBots, is also often maligned in modern times. And while I’m the first to admit that it doesn’t quite stand the test of time as well as The Transformers series, does, it’s not as bad as most make it out to be.
It was an entirely different type of show, for starters. The Transformers were a race of sentient robots that were designed as laborers or military hardware by certain entities, based on whatever version of the fiction you follow. The GoBots, on the other hand, were organic humanoid beings known as “GoBings” who used technology to replace their body parts with mechanical enhancements. In other words, they were cyborgs, and not robots. This made the characters much more sympathetic in a way, as they could more believably have emotions and feel real pain.
This also meant that there was a reason to have female characters. Even as a young child, I never understood why the Transformers had any gender. They didn’t reproduce sexually, so introducing Elita-1 and Arcee into the mix didn’t make much sense. Also, the female Transformers were decidedly girly. They all had design elements that gave them the appearance feminine hairstyles and breasts and curvy figures, and they were all pastel colors. On the other hand, the GoBots had female characters that were not defined by their gender. One of the three primary villains in the series, Crasher, is strong, smart, witty, and pretty goddamned evil, and she’s a girl! Other female characters that show up later, like Small Foot, Pathfinder, Sparky, and Vamp, are also made to be important to the story without being simply damsels in distress or love interests to further the male characters’ stories, and none of them have any overlying femininity to their designs. They were based on toys that didn’t have any sort of implication of any gender, either in design or color scheme. You really only knew that they were female because of their voice actors and the pronouns used to describe them. Any media-concerned feminist out there looking for a show that was truly ahead of its time should take a look at this one.
I’d also state that there’s a case to be made that the people behind later Transformers cartoons, such as Beast Wars and Prime, were influenced by The Challenge of the GoBots, because they worked with a “less is more” approach with characters. There were only six GoBots that were constants throughout the series: Leader-1, Scooter, and Turbo for the heroes, and Cy-Kill, Cop-tur, and Crasher as the villains. Other characters were brought in in varying degrees throughout the show’s run, but those six were the primary focus. The original Transformers series brought just about every toy they produced onto the show, but moved on to focusing on smaller teams of heroes and villains in their later incarnations, which have been met with commendations for their storytelling.
The Challenge of the GoBots was produced by Hanna-Barbera, an animation studio that dealt more with more “cartoonish” cartoons, so it didn’t have the comic book-inspired style of The Transformers, which was produced by Marvel and Sunbow. As a result, it felt like more of a “kiddie” show. The fact that the characters didn’t have handheld weapons, but rather shot energy beams out of their fists, didn’t help that perception. And, yes, given the choice, I’d much rather watch the run of The Transformers over the GoBots. But I still maintain that in a vacuum, this show would be remembered rather fondly. If there weren’t a Transformers to compare it to, then Challenge of the GoBots would have been held up as innovative and compelling story.
But that movie. Oh, that movie. That movie was utter shit. There’s no getting around that. Transformers: The Movie isn’t exactly high art, but compared to War of the Rock Lords, it looks like the work of Truffaut.
The real problem with GoBots was the marketing. Tonka, the company that produced the GoBots, was known for making giant metal construction trucks that had the ability to sever fingers and transmit tetanus. They didn’t ever have to worry about characterization or branding or anything like that, because a dump truck with a working tipper that weighs twenty pounds just kind of sells itself. Hasbro, on the other hand, had learned with the success of its relaunched G.I. Joe line that creating memorable characters with unique abilities was a winning formula for a toy line. As a result, the Transformers all had individual biographies on their packaging, and cool faction names like Autobots and Decepticons, each with a neat-looking insignia. The GoBots were initially just called “Friendly Robot” and “Enemy Robot”, which actually makes a lot of sense if you’re looking at it through an Earthling’s perspective, but that doesn’t sound nearly as cool as “Autobot” and “Decepticon”. Later, their faction names were updated to “Guardians” and “Renegades,” which gave them a little more personality, but it still didn’t have the panache of the Transformer factions. And let’s not forget those taglines: “Robots in Disguise” sounded way cooler than “Mighty Robots, Mighty Vehicles”.
The Transformers also got cool names like Optimus Prime, Starscream, Megatron, Soundwave, Thundercracker, Sideswipe, Jazz, and Bumblebee, while the GoBots were typically saddled with more simplistic and often puntastic monikers. Leader-1. Cy-Kill. Scooter. Cop-Tur. Pumper. Dumper. Spay-C. Rest-Q. Hans-Cuff. Fucking Hans-Cuff. I was eight years old when I got Hans-Cuff as one of my first GoBots toys and even I was like “what the fuck kind of name is Hans-Cuff? Is he supposed to be a German police officer?”
History, of course, is written by the winners, and in the great transforming robot wars of the 1980s, The Transformers were the clear victors. The GoBots stopped being produced in 1987, but contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t because the toys weren’t popular in the United States. The toys still sold very well to American audiences, providing true competition to their Hasbro counterparts, due in part to their generally lower price tag. In actuality, it was the waning popularity of the Machine Robo line in Japan, which was the basis for the majority of the American toys, that led to the U.S. line being killed off.
To rub even more dirt into the wound, Tonka was eventually acquired by Hasbro. As a result, Hasbro took ownership of the GoBots brand and trademarks. A character named “Gobots” was released in the 1990s, followed by a line of Hot Wheels-inspired figures called “Go-Bots”. Hasbro further degraded the GoBots name by dubbing a line of preschool Transformers for their PlaySkool brand as “Transformers: Gobots”. The name Leader-1 was even used for a Minicon, a character that was subservient to Megatron in the Armada line in 2002.
But as The Transformers are the champions, it’s easy for people to assume that the GoBots were nothing more than a cheap ripoff of their beloved franchise, and that the toys and cartoons were all sub-par. Hopefully, I’ve done my part to shine some light on the good that actually came from this line, so you can know the truth: The GoBots were pretty cool after all.
In fact, watch this space, because I’ve got even more to say about the GoBots very soon on this very site!