In the early 1980s, pioneering US toy company Hasbro, Inc. secured the western rights to a number of different toy lines from Japanese company Takara. Microman, a 1974 series of miniature humanoid/cyborg figures, was originally marketed as a race of small alien cyborgs masquerading as inoffensive toys with interchangeable parts that could be combined to create new figures. Hasbro had great success utilizing this technology and some of the designs in a rebranded form as G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, so they set about importing and rebranding more of Takara's innovative toy designs. In 1980, Takara had launched Diaclones, a line of toy robots that could be folded up or "transformed" into vehicles and piloted by Inch-Man toys, tiny magnetic spinoffs from the Microman series. In 1982, the 'Car-Robot' series of Diaclones was produced, featuring transforming robots who disguised themselves as unremarkable terrestrial vehicles. When, in 1984, Hasbro and Takara partnered up and merged parts of the Microman and Diaclones toy lines under a single new brand, it was this 'Car-Robot' series and its star product 'Battle Convoy', a semi truck-trailer that transformed into a command platform and distinctive red-and-blue robot, that formed the basis for the new Transformers franchise.
Hasbro hired Jim Shooter, Dennis O'Neil and Bob Budiansky, a team of comic book writers who had mostly worked on Marvel and DC Comics properties, to invent a backstory and set of identities for the pre-existing Diaclones designs. Using elements of Takara's earlier concept of alien robots infiltrating earth in a disguised form, the basic premise was that two warring factions of robots, the righteous Autobots and villanous Decepticons, had crash-landed on pre-historic Earth and been reactivated in the present day, learning to disguise themselves as Earth vehicles in order to continue their war without attracting the attention of the native populace.
In the same year, Hasbro developed a number of media tie-ins to promote their new IP - a cartoon series produced by Sunbow Productions (later taken over by Hasbro), and a comic book series published by Marvel. The show's theme tune, composed by Anne Bryant and Ford Kinder, contained the iconic lines "Robots In Disguise" and "More Than Meets The Eye", two catchphrases which came to define the entire franchise in all its subsequent forms.
Generation 1: 1984-1993
The Transformers franchise was insanely popular throughout the rest of the 80s and into the early 90s. The cartoon series in particular was a huge hit, driving massive sales of the toy lines from the onset of its first two seasons and spawning a movie spin-off in 1986, with a third season and final three-part miniseries, entitled The Rebirth, concluding the Generation 1 (G1) cartoon series in 1987.
Initially, the cartoon's only purpose was to provide a basic over-arching storyline and periodically introduce new characters to coincide with the release of their action figure counterparts. This was done on a tight schedule and animated by a host of different studios spread across Japan and Asia, which led to disconnected storylines with little continuity between shows in the first two seasons, with whole plots revolving around the introduction of groups of new characters simply to generate buzz around the release of a new toy. In many cases, characters from the show bore only a vague resemblance to their respective figures due to the necessities of easy animation and simple, recognizable design. Despite this disjointed and inconsistent quality, the first two seasons were an enormous success and the quality of the voice acting and characterization led to a broad roster of extremely memorable characters like Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, Starscream and Soundwave.
The basic plot in the first two seasons dealt with some back story about the conflict between the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), and the Decepticons under the command of Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker). Hailing from the planet Cybertron , a single race of sentient machines split off into the two warring factions as the hard-working labourers came to be oppressed by the increasingly domineering military robots. This escalated into an all-out war over the remaining supplies of Energon, the planet's primary resource. Eventually Cybertron becomes a dead world, bereft of Energon, and each side rounds up its finest warriors to depart on their flagships, the Autobots' Ark and the Decepticons' Nemesis, to find other planets with rich energy supplies for the Transformers to bring back and bring new life to their home. The two ships enter into a fierce battle, and both crash land on Earth, their crews deactivated until 4 million years later in 1984, when a nearby volcanic eruption prompts the Ark 's computer, Teletraan I, to scan the planet for signs of life and reactivate the Autobots. Not being able to recognize bio-organic life forms, the computer takes scans of terrestrial machinery and technology, enabling the Transformers to reconfigure themselves into Earth vehicle forms in order to blend in with the locals.
Each episode of the show tended to revolve around the Decepticons' latest evil plan to commandeer Earth's resources and convert it to Energon, while the more cooperative Autobots team up with beleaguered Earthlings to thwart Megatron's increasingly outlandish plans.
Transformers: The Movie, which went on general release in the US on August 8th, 1986, moves the timeline forward 20 years to 2005. It featured a host of big-name actors including Leonard Nimoy, Orson Welles, Scatman Crothers and Eric Idle. Introducing a huge range of entirely new characters, it went as far as killing off whole groups of much-beloved regular cast members in favor of a new main cast (with the obligatory action figure tie-ins), making it quite controversial among fans at the time. In the movie, Optimus Prime is killed by Megatron early on and unwittingly passes the Matrix of Leadership, the source of his powers, on to a young Autobot named Hot Rod, who goes on to reunite the routed Autobots and destroy Unicron (a world-eating transformer who is like a cross between Galactus and the Death Star) and continue to lead the war against Megatron, who was betrayed by Starscream and resurrected by Unicron as the more-powerful Galvatron.
While fondly remembered (particularly for its famous theme song, "The Touch" by Stan Bush), the changes to the main cast resulted in an outcry from the fans, prompting Hasbro to bring Optimus Prime back to life as leader of the Autobots at the end of the third and final cartoon series, which aired in 1987.
The Marvel Comics series began in conjunction with the initial release of the cartoon and ran in a standard monthly format in the US for 80 issues ending in the spring of 1991. It started off as part of the main Marvel Universe in 1984, and the first few issues featured crossover stories with Spider-Man and other well-known Marvel characters. From the very beginning, the plot of the comic series diverged from that of the cartoon and toy lines in various ways, mostly pertaining to the motivations and relationships between characters.
In the UK, however, the standard format for comic book releases at the time was based on a fortnightly or even weekly schedule, so when the US Marvel comics started to be reprinted there, a huge number of brand new stories were produced in order to fill in, expand upon and pad out the developments in the US monthly releases. This led to a great deal more confusion and inconsistency between the two comics timelines, where all manner of improbable and often contradictory explanations were given (or sometimes no explanation at all) for the changes in appearance or even outright death of some characters in one or the other continuity, The UK comics switched from a fortnightly to a weekly format, and then back to fortnightly, running for a total of 332 issues until 1992.
Not many video games were released based on the G1 Transformers series. The few that do exist are as follows:
The Transformers for the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 . Developed by Denton Designs and published by Ocean in 1986, it was a platform/shooter that was generally not well received.
Transformers: Battle to Save the Earth for the Commodore 64 (1986). Published by Activision . A sort of weird Turn-based strategy/RPG/Action hybrid.
Transformers: Convoy no Nazo ("the Mystery of Optimus Prime") for the Famicom (1986). Developed by ISCO and published by Takara. A platform/shooter with side-scrolling Mega Man-style gameplay, it was prohibitively difficult and never released outside of Japan. Transformers for the PS2 (2003). Developed by Winkysoft and published by Takara. A sort of arcade action combat game with a vaguely Dynasty Warriors vibe, it was universally panned and never got a release outside of Japan, despite having English voice acting. Often referred to as Transformers: Tatakai for disambiguation purposes (it was a rumored pre-release working title).
Transformers G1: Awakening (2008). Developed and published by Glu Mobile for the iPhone. Turn-based strategy in the Advance Wars mold.
Generation 2: 1993-1995
Transformers: Generation 2 was a 12-issue comic book miniseries published by Marvel in tandem with the promotion of a new Transformers toy range, mainly for the benefit of the US market, where Transformers had pretty much disappeared since the end of the original 80-issue comic series (of which Generation 2 was a direct continuation). The earlier Transformers series of cartoons, comics and toys were, as a result, retroactively labeled 'Generation 1' by the fans.
Because the UK and Japan had still maintained a steady release of Transformers material up to then, the series did not require a reboot or comeback in those territories, so the Transformers storylines in all three regions were completely different throughout the G2 period. As a result, the G2 series, while featuring most of the same cast as G1 and intended as a continuation of the main Transformers timeline for the US, is not widely known about and not necessarily considered part of the main series canon.
There are no video games based on this period, and although a G2 television series was nominally produced, it was actually just a rerun of G1 episodes with basic CG intros shoehorned in.
Other Series (1996-2007)
By 1995, general public interest in the flagging Transformers brand was nonexistent, and with Takara focusing on new toy IPs in Japan, Hasbro canceled all productions and moved its toy lines over to the newly-acquired Kenner company, who came up with the dinosaur-themed Beast Wars spinoff series which would take over the Transformers name from 1996-2001.
The Transformers, in their original and best known and loved form, were all but forgotten about in the West and consigned to the nostalgic reminiscences of the 80s generation (right up until Michael Bay's execrable live-action movie reboot in 2007) despite various Japanese spinoffs like "Headmasters" and "Robots In Disguise" and some more comic book series by Marvel and Dreamwave. One high point came in 2001 with the production of Transformers: Armada, a Japanime cartoon series that was something of a series reboot, featuring G1 characters in redesigned forms and a different storyline revolving around " Mini-cons", miniature Transformers who could combine to create new weapons and accessories for the regular giant robot cast (all, of course, heavily reflected in Hasbro's accompanying action figure lineup).
The show was a big hit in Japan and gave birth to a brief comic series tie-in from Dreamwave (who went bankrupt not long into the run) and an English dub release of somewhat questionable quality along with two more cartoon series, Transformers: Energon and Transformers: Cybertron. The three series, starting with Armada, ran from 2001-2006 and are referred to as the Unicron Trilogy because of their focus on the Transformers' huge old planet-gobbling nemesis, despite the fact that the final series, Cybertron, was not intended to be part of the same continuity by the animation studio and was only tenuously linked due to a mandate from Hasbro to tie it in.
Most importantly, the Armada series was the inspiration for a PS2 game which arguably stands as the best Transformers video game to date. Developed by Melbourne House and published by Atari in 2004, it is a surprisingly good free-roaming third-person shooter featuring Armada character designs and loosely based on that series' plot. It was well-reviewed, although the Western release was met with mild confusion over why the game should not be based on the more well-known and beloved G1 character designs.
Live-action films (2007-present)
In 2005, acclaimed director Michael Bay announced he would be resurrecting the original Transformers universe for a live-action movie representation, featuring CGI redesigns of some of the original G1 robots and a retelling of the Transformers' origins and arrival on Earth. Peter Cullen would reprise his role as Optimus Prime, Hugo Weaving gave a new voice to Megatron, and the primary Human companions to the Autobots were played by relative unknowns Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. Despite a loud minority of fans complaining online about the redesigned Transformers, whose extremely complex and intricate new look bore only a passing resemblance to their blocky former selves, Transformers was a huge hit upon its release in 2007 and the Transformers franchise was reborn for a new generation, with swarms of new action figures, comics, cartoons and video game tie-ins for it and its sequels, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in 2009 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon in 2011.
War for Cybertron Series
In 2010 Activision released Transformers: War for Cybertron launching a new series exclusive to games. War for Cybertron is notable for High Moon Studios intense collaboration with Hasbro in creating a brand new Transformers continuity and thus perhaps the greatest emphasis yet on character development and story in the Transformers video game franchise. War For Cyberton was intended to the first chapter in the new Transformers: Allied continuity with the Transformers: Prime a CGI cartoon launched simultaneously serving as WFC's sequel in canon. Given how different the cartoon series look and story is from the WFC series, how much the two series are truly part of the same continuity is the source of considerable debate among Transformers fandom.
Like the Transformers PS2 title inspired by Transformers: Armada, War for Cybertron is a third person shooter. However WFC ditches the free roaming concept and sticks to three bot squad based single path level design consisting of two campaigns (Autobot and Decepticon) . The campaign mode is notable for having the first co-op play in the Transformer series.
The new series also has a multiplayer mode, featuring a class customization scheme similar to Modern Warfare and a high degree of customizable skills and load-outs. Multiplayer features 6 modes which include co-op and competitive options.
War for Cybertron is widely considered to have taken The "Best Transformers Game to Date" Title from The Transformers 2004 PS2 title.
War for Cyberton will be getting its' first sequel Transformers: Fall of Cybertron in 2012.
Designed by George Gomez and Produced by Stern Pinball, Inc., the Hasbro/Paramount Transformers license continues into the pinball realm with several table variants for the arcade market and collectors.
Jagex is currently hard at work on the first MMO series ever for the Transformers series tentatively set to release sometime in 2012. Not much is known about the game at this point although early screenshots and developer comments suggest it might take place in or be inspired by the Transformers:Prime continuity currently airing on television.