The GoBots: The Poor Mans Transformers?

the Gobots

The 1980s were a golden age of transforming alien robots, but this isn’t about the Transformers but the OTHER line of toys that always took second place

The GoBots were a transforming toy robot line put out by Hasbro in 1983. They added a cartoon show and movie and compete against the Transformers. Though they debuted first they wouldn’t last as long.

I loved GoBots. I also loved Transformers. And I realized the two could exist together in the same universe. A lot of people didn’t however and the GoBots were always looked down as second class citizens.

Turns out they predated Transformers and were actually released beforehand. Hasbro would have a more aggressive marketing campaign and that created all the interest so that people started to divert attention away from the GoBots.

To many, they seemed like a cheap knock off but it was really just a matter of timing as they had set the stage for transforming alien robots.

Here’s the interesting story of the GoBots and you can keep reading or listen via the podcast

The Early History Of The GoBots & The Machine Robo

Like Transformers the GoBots started out in Japan. They come from a company called Bandai who ran a division called Popy. Popy was making toy figures that were named Machine Robo. They were a line of transforming robots and were released in 1982.

They weren’t big size wise like Transformers or the Diaclone robot line and were more the size of a Matchbox car. The Machine Robo is an interesting toyline as they are based on designs that were submitted by children.

The Machine Robo had a bit of a backstory too. They came with stories telling how they were from the Romulus system and it was a system that had collapsed on itself. The beings who were able to escape and reach earth became Machine Robo while ones that remained trapped were mutated into the Devil Invaders.

This backstory would be abandoned and instead, they used the story of the Revenge of Cronos. Machine Robo would still be a thing despite the GoBots being launched in North American and they came up with Revenge of Cronos as a way for their original brand to compete with the Transformers cartoon which launched in Japan in 1985.

Becoming The GoBots

GoBots were actually released by toy truck making company Tonka in 1983. There had always been giant robot toys like Voltron but Tonka made the decision to change them from just giant controlled robots to actual sentient beings with personalities. The Machine Robo hadn’t followed this concept so Tonka had the foresight to see it. They would introduce this concept before Transformers ever did but don’t get the credit for it. They weren’t just all dump trucks and backhoes there…

The also came up with a clear division between the robots splitting them into the Good Guardians and the evil Renegades. The earliest packaging would first call them “Friendly” or “Enemy” which was a little too vague in conveying real identities.

So this was another thing they came up with before Hasbro introduced the Autobots and Decepticons and Tonka would also give each character a name, something they never had in Japan.

The Release Of The GoBots

So they come out in 1983 which is one year prior to Transformers and kids like me go nuts. I was only 6 but mesmerized by them. And we hadn’t even got to the cartoon show yet which I’ll get to in a bit.

The figures would be around 2-3 inches high and were based on pretty basic things like cars and planes. They did have a few World War 2 aircrafts and a few futuristic based vehicles but they looked pretty much like things you could see every day. It was the original “robots in disguise” till Transformers would adopt that slogan.

Here’s an interesting thing; each GoBot toy would also have a marking on it that started with MR as a connection to their Machine Robo lineage. So, for example, Leader-1 would go by MR-25.

Here are some of the notable characters from that first release:

  • Bad Boy
  • Cy-Kill
  • Bug Bite
  • Dozer
  • Dumper
  • Loco
  • Path Finder
  • Road Ranger
  • Small Foot
  • Treds
  • Zod

Tonka would also put out the “Super GoBots” which were larger figures about 5-6 inches tall. These also weren’t original and taken from the Machine Robo Scale Robo DX line, but didn’t include Shaun Michaels and HHH.

I remember longingly looking at a Leader-1 Super GoBot and wanting it with all my heart but alas I got screwed over that Christmas. I did have the normal size version so I can’t complain, but I still will…

The one thing Tonka did that was original was they recognized the big money that was in playsets and accessories. It’s the reason Hasbro made over 250 different G.I Joe vehicles as the figures itself don’t lend themselves to much without things they can control and interact with.

They would put out the Guardian Command Center and the Renegade Thruster playsets.

Challenge Of The GoBots

Did you realize this show predates Transformers? Yep, Gobots came out on September 8, 1984, while Transformers debuted on September 17, 1984. But depending where you lived and what channels you watched that might have determined which order you saw them in.

Challenge of the Gobots was put together by Hanna Barbera and here’s a quick backstory as a whole new mythos was developed for the show:

Thousands of years ago on the planet Gobotron there was a race of human-like beings called GoBings. A civil war broke out on the planet where the evil Renegades, led by “The Master Renegade” waged war over the peaceful Guardians.

A giant asteroid then hits Gobotron and the resulting natural disasters push the GoBings to the verge of extinction. They end up being saved by “The Last Engineer” who would take his experiments to replace parts of his body with mechanical ones. He would then transfer the brains of the GoBings into large robots called GoBots.

The GoBots where then run through a a device called the Modifier where they were able to transform their bodies into vehicles. The war still continues between the GoBots and the Renegades and then Earth becomes involved in the conflict in the late 20th century. The battle has now involved Leader-1 as head of the GoBots vs Cy-Kill and the Renegades.

That’s kind of the gist of it and Hanna-Barbera put out 65 22-minute episodes and would last for just one season, but that’s a crapload of episodes to dump on us all at once. Since there were so many episodes a lot of freelance writers were needed including Kelly Ward aka Putzie from Grease.

I’ll tell you a story I’ve never really told anyone. I was like 8 years old when I first saw the commercials for the show but they came on at 3 pm and I didn’t get back home from school until around 3:30. The network that broadcast them started with a few days of introduction to the whole series and I faked a horrible sickness in order to stay home and be able to watch them.

Phew, feels good to get that off my chest.

Here’s another weird thing about the show; it included some big name voices and oddly featured Peter Cullen aka Optimus Prime and Frank Welker Aka Megatron doing voices in it. It also featured the late great Phil Hartman. It’s just weird that the iconic Transformers voices of Cullen and Welker were in the competing transforming robot show that was out at the same time.

The Rock Lords

The Rock Lords were essentially a GoBots spinoff and were also put out by Tonka. They are actually rock based toys released after a Rock Lords movie from 1986, but I’ll get to that in a second.

The Rock Lords are transforming rocks that came with weapons such as axes, guns, and swords and they also had vehicles that they could ride in. There were the good guys (the Boulders) and the bad guys (the Magmar) and they were not a successful line. This is when Transformers is in peak form and there was not a lot you could do to compete with them.

I was a toy fanatic and I barely remember anything about the Rock Lords. Fun Fact: They were also not an original idea and came from the Japanse toy company Popy.

It’s important to point out that GoBots as a whole is not doing too well at this point in 1986. No one knew they were the original transforming robot but they were getting the name of a cheap knock off compared to Transformers. For kids on the playground, this was gospel truth and there was no way to know one way or another.

The Battle Of The Rock Lords

So this toy line was the result of the cartoon movie GoBots: Battle Of The Rock Lords. This was actually released in theatres and I think they were hoping for some sort of Transformers effect that had happened with Transformers: The Movie.

Battle Of The Rock Lords came out on March 21, 1986, and you probably know the story, it didn’t do too well.

The basic plot involves the GoBots being recruited by Solitaire who can transform into a rock and help her with the power struggle taking place between her kind. The GoBots leave Gobotron and head to Solitaire’s world to fight Magmar, the ruthless Rock Lord and all his minions. At the same time, the GoBots need to fight the Renegades who decide to team up with Magmar.

So this is basically a 90-minute commercial to launch a new toy line and it ends up taking in only $1.3 million dollars domestically. Now they might have almost had some good foresight as they knew that Transformers: The Movie was being made and they made sure to release 5 months before as a way to get a jump on the market and maybe steal some of Transformers thunder.

The problem was Transformers: The Movie had been in production for 2 years and was a vastly superior film compared to Rock Lords who had its production rushed. And I think it shows as it basically looks like normal Saturday morning cartoons while Transformers looked like high-end anime.

The movie does have some stellar voice talent however including Margot Kidder, Telly Savalas, and Roddy McDowall

But the writing was basically on the wall for all things GoBots

The Future Of The GoBots

The GoBots toyline would last from 1983-1987 and they would ironically get taken over by the Transformers line when Hasbro bought out Tonka in 1991. But what’s interesting is somehow Hasbro only bought the fictional side such as the character names, bios, and storylines they didn’t actually own the toys.

The actual toys and their likenesses were only licensed from Bandai in the 1980s so Tonka didn’t actually own them which means when Hasbro took over they couldn’t actually use the toys. Hasbro can use the trademark but not the molds to the action figures.

Hasbro would try to work around this by just slapping the GoBot name on to things like they did with a Playskool line called Transformers: GoBots in 2002.

In the Transformers movie in 2007 they based some of their figures on old GoBots including Crasher and Night Ranger.

In 1995 they put out a line of Transformers called “Go-Bots” which were Matchbox sized versions of Transformers like Bumblebee, Megatron, Optimus Prime, and some others, but this is pretty much as far as its gone.

Wrapping It Up

The GoBots are an odd duck, they’re kind of like the red-headed stepchild of the transforming robot business. As you’re probably aware now they did set the stage for the Transformers toys and cartoons but the success of Transformers made GoBots look like the rip-off.

There’s also the issue that GoBots were a less expensive toy and could seem cheap in comparison to the more premium priced Transformers.

It really comes down to a matter of timing and I think GoBots just jumped the gun a little too soon by no fault of their own. I think Transformers and Hasbro developed a much better back story and character development that was better at capturing the imagination of kids of the ‘80s.

Ultimately the Transformers really couldn’t have existed with the GoBots.

But if it had gone another way we could be here complaining about how Michael Bay destroyed the GoBots franchise and we had to suffer through watching Megan Fox or Mark Walberg trying to act.