You’re in charge of a games studio, it’s 1987 and you’ve got your heart set on devising a Transformers game while Optimus Prime is still in pole position on every kid’s Christmas wish list. Only then it suddenly dawns on you that just a year earlier Ocean snagged the official license to introduce Hasbro’s insanely popular cartoon series and toy line to our favourite 8-bit home micros.
So what’s a poor developer to do? Jump on the next best bot-bashing copycat franchise and sculpt a game out of that, that’s what!
Masterplan formulated, publishers Reaktor Software wasted no time getting in touch with Hanna-Barbera’s marketing team to sign up the GoBots to front their latest major release. Roping in Tony Crowther and Ross Goodly of Ariolasoft, the team set about working their magic with the nuts and bolts of porting the 65-episode animated TV show inspired by a range of Tonka toys.
Yes, it’s true, I’m ignoring the fact that Activision released a Transformers game in 1987 suggesting that Ocean didn’t have an exclusive license at all because it contradicts my intro angle, it’s a diabolical mess and I can’t be bothered starting again from scratch. OK, so maybe Ariolasoft were just being cheap.
You might imagine they were starting out on the back foot competing against such an acutely cherished franchise from one of the most prolific software houses in the business, though judging by the result of this seemingly perfect synergy, it wasn’t as if they had much to live up to. The genuine article Ocean commissioned Denton Designs to develop evolved into such a stinker even one of their own graphicians, Ally Noble, describes it as “an embarrassment”.
Steve Cain – the artist singled out for ‘special thanks’ in the game’s credits – rolling with the punches, explains, “We got into a bit of trouble over Transformers with Ocean which we managed to do in the end – we were all under so much pressure. I designed it, so I take all the blame for it. It was the worst game Dentons ever did, and it was the biggest seller. That tells you a lot about the computer industry doesn’t it?”
In the same interview conducted with Crash magazine (published in issue 36, January 1987), John Gibson, duly enamoured with their endeavour adds, “We were a bit over a barrel and we had to do it. There wasn’t much you could do with the subject matter of the program… we did our best.”
Certainly a regret to be hastily swept under the rug and forgotten about, unless you happen to be a retro gaming reviewer writing for Everything Amiga, and all the interesting 16-bit games have already been ticked off the to-do list.
Targeted towards young boys and their affinity for smashing together plastic figurines while mouthing DIY explosive sound effects, naturally, Transformers was designed to be an action platform game revolving around the Autobots and their never-ending feud with the Decepticons.
Unlike the cartoon source material, the plot can be summed up in a few succinct sentences. Baddie bots have invaded earth from the planet Cybertron (incidentally the Japanese name for the Autobots), and that’s especially troubling for the goodie bots because the Decepticons are painted dark colours as opposed to bright, gaudy ones and so must certainly be evil and up to mischief. And they are too as it happens – the rotters are intent on filching your power source, thereby invoking an energy crisis.
“I would not put the game down because the basic plot can be solved with relative ease. Transformers is a game where a high score is all-important, and I am sure that once you have found the energy cube you will still enjoy a scrap with the Decepticons.”
80% – Sinclair User (issue 48, March 1986)
Playing as five of the most merchandisable toys of the era – Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Jazz, Hound, and Mirage – it’s your duty to save mankind from certain death by scavenging and assembling four pieces of the almighty Autobot Energen Cube back at your HQ. You have just fifteen minutes to accomplish this per level, the baddies becoming more aggressive and abundant as you progress. There’s no real conclusion to the missions, they simply repeat ad infinitum until you lose your mind and hurl the tape at the wall, shattering it into smithereens.
Employing a cross-hair to make your selection a la Shadowfire and Enigma Force you take charge of one character at a time, swooping or racing around a series of interconnected pipes, stairs and ramps. Blasting the enemy hunks of metal, you switch between personas from within the changing booths to make the most appropriate use of each Autobot’s inherent forte, determined by their unique configuration of strength, shield and firepower. Some – heavyweight Optimus Prime in particular – have a greater capacity for dishing out damage and absorbing return fire, while others, for example, Bumblebee, are lighter on their feet and more adept at squeezing into tight spaces.
Energy is depleted through contact with the marauding Decepticons and it’s game over when all five Autobots kick the bucket. Although your reserves can’t be replenished via the usual power-up pick-up trope, it is possible to hide and rehabilitate your party in the Defensa Pods dotted around the largely barren landscapes while you tag in a healthier member of the team. Any enemies on screen at the precise moment you pass the baton are immediately nuked, making these repair pit-stops an even more compelling beacon.
To work around the nuisance of having to draw lots of varied enemy sprites, the Deceptacons’ cunning ability to churn out robo-clones of themselves has been massaged into the paper-thin plot, artificially ramping up the difficulty curve to boot. Entirely germane then to the slap-dash production as a whole.
In robot mode, you’re able to engage your laser gun, trundle across the platforms, or launch into the air to take flight, yet do so at a comparatively sedate pace. On the contrary, vanilla vehicle mode (where you control a real-world sports car or truck for instance) leaves you vulnerable to attack by disabling your weaponry, and introducing the potential to overshoot the precipices of the walkways.
By way of a compensatory redeeming quality, you can now scoot along the ledges at a far nippier clip to evade the Decepticons’ advances, or get back to the Autobot Centre more swiftly once you’ve recovered a piece of the Energon Cube. ‘In disguise’ as an ordinary four-wheeler you’ll still be attacked, though seeing as the Decepticons’ shots sail safely over your roof you need only concern yourself with being rammed if you dawdle too much, thereby muffling any sensation of peril previously engendered.
“Graphics aren’t bad and the Transformers’ theme tune is copied very neatly. Not a brilliant game but not a terrible one either. Play a friend’s copy first.”
65% – C&VG (February 1987)
As a Speccy gamer your experience is disappointingly accompanied by the sound of musical silence, albeit peppered by the odd blip or blop that passes for gunfire or the chink of a direct hit.
Commodore 64 users fair much better initially thanks to Martin Galway’s momentously accurate SID chip-tune rendition of the Transformers theme tune that plays over the title screen. Beyond that audio comprises sparse sound effects and a reprisal of the ‘robots in disguise’ segment from the title soundtrack triggered each and every time you transform. A satisfyingly welcome addition the first time you hear it. Not so much after the 84th regaling! ‘Grating’ doesn’t begin to cover it.
Transformers’ awful controls and dodgy collision detection are what you might call ‘platform agnostic’ seeing as they’re equally infuriating on either system.
While the Spectrum version is a primitive flick-screen affair, limiting your scope for forward planning, the C64 edition is a marginal improvement in that it incorporates smooth, continuous scrolling.
Otherwise, the gameplay mechanics are identical, making each embodiment an equally vacuous exercise in monotony. A shameful waste of a major license from a studio capable of far more.
“On the whole the game is enjoyable but it does lack something in content: it’s one of those games you play for an hour or so and then put away to forget about.”
“All in, the presentation of the game is way below Ocean’s normal standard, and a real letdown from the Denton Designs people. The only bit I really liked was the point (right at the end) when I pulled out the power lead.”
60% – Crash (April 1986)
Gee whiz, that was scintillating wasn’t it boys and girls? How can we possibly trump the sheer thrill of driving back and forth along iron girders, gathering up industrial debris painted with a quarter of the face of a Transformer and placing them in a box? For Ariolasoft the answer lay in a multi-format, gravity-defying Defender clone revolving around pummelling giant lychees with scooters. At least I think that’s the gist anyway – it’s not exactly a cannon interpretation of the exalted (?) ’80s cartoon to say the least.
“I thoroughly enjoyed playing the game at Ariolasoft’s offices but I did have the advantage of being able to turn off the alien threat. Even so, the game was difficult to complete and with the collision detection turned on again the game is incredibly tough. This must rate as one of the best shoot-em-ups of all time. Defender deluxe!”
82% – Computer Gamer (C64, April 1987)
Dr Braxis and his cronies have colonised the planet Moebius as a staging ground from which to mount his latest nefarious scheme to destroy the earth and its heroic guardians of peace and harmony, the GoBots. While their human friends – and crucially former NASA employees – Matt, AJ and Nick sit around debating the nature of this miraculously one-sided planet located in the shadow of Saturn, trouble is brewing just around the next corner. Before they can remark “ooh eck now we’re swimming in a brew of trouble”, they’re captured by the monstrous doom-mongers, leader of the Renegades, Cy-Kill, and his underling henchman, Crasher, in a subterfuge gambit engineered to lure their inevitable saviours into danger.
In the meantime, Turbo, another of the Gobotronians, falls prey to Dr Braxis’ ‘anti-move’ ray gun, and so too will need to be rescued should you be brave enough to take on *cue dramatic music* ‘The Challenge of the GoBots’!
Luckily before being bot-knapped, Turbo triggers a red alert cry for help that is detected by fellow GoBot, Pathfinder. Together with Leader-1 and Scooter he marches towards an uncertain destiny on the treacherous new home of his sworn enemy to offer support to their enslaved comrades. Pathfinder, being about as much use as a square wheel in Bedrock, succumbs to their assailants’ hypnosis ray, joining the Taken before the intro has even wrapped up.
And then there were two. Now it’s incumbent upon Scooter and Leader-1 to rescue the five prisoners and put the brakes on Dr Braxis and the Renegades’ dastardly plans.
For reasons that elude the already supremely patient player, arriving on planet Moebius Scooter is cloned in triplicate, much to Leader-1’s befuddlement. These carbon copies are lodged along both the upper and lower surfaces and can be exploited as projectiles with which to destroy the ‘lychee’ bases. I’m not making this up, honest! Well except for the lychee part; I must be craving exotic fruit at the moment. Tony Crowther. Potty Pigeon. Enough said. From me anyway…
“Yet again Tony Crowther and co hit us with another ‘Classic’ game, or so the inlay card says. Mr Crowther has been author to a fair number of good games, but it seems he may have lost his touch… Gobots is not what I’d call a Crowther classic. It lacks the pulling power, graphical quality and other Crowtherish features which made Suicide Express, Potty Pigeon and Trap such great games.”
70% – Computer and Video Games (C64, August 1987)
Cop-tur and Crusher, clearly disapproving of this turn of events, attempt to thwart your efforts by commandeering the same limited supply of cloned scooters. Subsequently, these are handed over to Gog to fuel the rebuilding of the dilapidated bases. Your defence against such opposition consists of your bot’s energy blasts – fired from their fists – or makeshift bombs fashioned from reclaimed rocks. Unfortunately, the bases are immune to your lasers, hence the unorthodox means of destruction.
Steering Leader-1 through the narrow causeway between the two surfaces in either flight or robot mode you must dodge airborne threats, get to grips with the otherworldly physics of the gravity that drags you into whichever sliver of terra firma you’re closest to, and ultimately locate and destroy all the enemy bases by dropping bikes onto the small opening in the centre of their domes. Miss and you’re obliged to backtrack to seek out further ‘ammunition’, rinse, lather and repeat until you have eliminated them all and rescued your chums.
“Nowadays all tie-ins are approached with the greatest trepidation and looking at Gobots it seems quite rightly so – there’s very little to actually do. The game is unplayable for the most part, and all you really seem to be paying your money for are extras like the included soundtrack (a good laugh) and a stupid little storybook (only suitable for the under-sevens). Don’t be fooled by all the implied content. Gobots is not a surprise, but more of a disappointment as another tie-in fails to come off.”
37% – Crash (Paul Sumner, issue 43, August 1987)
Although the gravity, velocity and certain other aspects of the gameplay are configurable, GoBots is ridiculously challeng… I mean difficult, made all the more frustrating by being restricted to three lives, having to wrangle with the onerous, unresponsive controls, awful collision detection and bizarrely jarring screen scrolling modus. The Commodore 64 version tightens up on these deal-breakingly problematic issues without being any more enjoyable to play.
“The gameplay is totally dire but somehow it’s addictive. I’m sure, though, that nobody’s going to be hooked on a game that’s been as badly implemented as this for very long. The controls are unwieldy – fiddling with the front end only makes them more so – it’s due to this that things get very infuriating. The graphics are small but cluttered on screen, and they lack detail. Sound is Gobots’ only redeeming feature, although even that falls apart on the title screen – nice effects though. All in all I’d stay well away from this one.”
37% – Crash (Ben Stone, issue 43, August 1987)
Aside from the commendable soundtrack composed by Ben Dalglish, ironically its saving grace has nothing at all to do with the mechanics of the game itself. Our super-value bumper package also includes an audio story tape and one of the first ebooks ever to grace a home computer, both of which expound the game’s backstory should you wish to learn more about the GoBings’ transition from human-like beings to mechanical hybrid GoBots courtesy of the Last Engineer’s experimental fruitcakery. Yes folks, the GoBots come equipped with their own rich lore, it’s not entirely about supersized robots bashing other supersized robots, just 99% of it.
“I never did like the Gobots cartoon so l didn’t expect much of this game, and I got exactly that, not much! Worst is the presentation – there’s no loading screen at the start, just the irritating way Reaktor games load. The game is almost impossible to play, move up or down just the tiniest bit and you crash into some big white blob going by. The mountainous landscape in the background moves very well and the sound isn’t all that bad, but I would expect much more playability in a game.”
37% – Crash (Nick Roberts, issue 43, August 1987)
Despite the accepted wisdom that dismisses the GoBots as a bargain basement Transformers rip-off – the two-word lyrics to the theme tune doing nothing to help assuage such notions – the former actually materialised in cartoon form nine whole days prior to Transformers’ initial TV airing way back in September 1984.
Similarly, the GoBots feature-length animated movie, ‘Battle of the Rock Lords’, pipped Transformers to the post by four months upon its release into theatres in March 1986. Although Transformers: The Movie grossed $5.8m as opposed to Battle of the Rock Lord’s $1.3m, it was considered a disastrous flop by Hanna-Barbera in that it made such a worryingly sizeable loss. Admittedly a slow-burner, it has since duly earned the official ‘cult classic’ stamp of approval from fans. Unofficially.
Each cartoon was in fact based on an independent toy line before Hasbro purchased the rights from Tonka to absorb the GoBots IP into the Transformers phenomenon in 1991. From that moment on it was treated as an alternate universe, although technically no Hasbro branded GoBots toys emerged to celebrate the acquisition because the deal didn’t include the rights to them. Instead, they delicately reimagined them, tip-toeing around the use of official names and insignia in conjunction with the figures.
Debating which toy line hit the market first is fraught with caveats, yet the history of each is intriguing nonetheless. You’ll also earn 50 nerdy kudos credits for your trouble.
Plastic GoBots began life in 1983 having first been adapted from a series of Japanese toys known as Machine Robo released a year earlier courtesy of Popy, a division of Bandai. Australians knew them as Robot Machine Men, in Europe they were called Robo Machine, while Tonka, licensing them from Bandai, rebranded them as GoBots and Rock Lords for the North American market.
Hasbro’s Transformers, on the other hand, reached American shores (and shelves) in 1984, sculptured largely from moulds produced by Japanese manufacturers, Takara, who later merged with Tomy. Originally these were deployed in the production of their Diaclone and Microman ranges, dating back to 1980 and 1974 respectively. In 1984 Hasbro bought the exclusive rights to distribute these obscure cyborg action figures as the Transformers we know and love for the North American region, while Takara maintained ownership of their use in Japan.
So to finally address the question, which came first, the GoBot or the Transformer? the answer is unequivocally, yes, both, it depends. As always I’m delighted to be of service. You can leave a tip in the jar on the way out to show your appreciation.
Before the unthinkable transpired and their two rival microcosms collided, as fate would have it, one series took the world by storm, spiralling into a quintet of live-action movies directed by lowest common denominator master of vapid fluff, Michael Bay, while the other faded into nebulousness, only ever to be discussed today in online childhood nostalgia circles. Which of course begs the question, why buy out the competition when so few people cared about them to begin with? How can you continue to market your wares as the premium choice if you eliminate the seemingly poor cousin?
On the gaming front, both titles remain largely unknown – or else purposely ignored – today. I highly doubt even diehard fans of the GoBots or Transformers would harbour fond memories of them, even if copies have found their way onto their trophy shelves merely for completion’s sake.
You’d struggle to find any contemporary GoBots games out in the wild, though the Transformers franchise continues to spawn playable spin-offs to this day. Albeit based on Michael Bay’s crashy-smashy pyrotechnics set to headmashingly frenetic music, rather than the real Transformers we lost our naive little infantile minds over back in the ’80s.
Given the repute of the originals, it’s perhaps no great loss. Grabbing Optimus Prime in one hand, Leader-1 in the other and windmilling them theatrically through the air to create an impression of soaring jet-powered flight, accompanied by homemade sound effects, remains the best way to enjoy interactive mechbottery.