Of all the things that happened thirty years ago in 1988, according to my 10 year-old self, the fourth series of Transformers toys released here in the UK by Hasbro was by far the most important.
By this point interest in the Transformers “brand”, as far as Hasbro was concerned, was waning. There were no more episodes of the original cartoon being produced and the Marvel comics, both US and UK iterations, were in very gradual decline. (How was Takara’s version of Transformers doing, then in its “Super God Masterforce” phase? That’s an entirely different story!)
In the UK, Hasbro seemed to be content with letting its Transformers range (about 80% of what was seen in North America) runs its course without too much fuss. It still relied on the weekly Marvel comic and a few television adverts, as it did in previous years, but just not to the same extent.
Ever since the release of Transformers: The Movie at the end of 1986, and with the introduction of the Headmasters and Targetmasters and such in 1987, the Transformers toys had generally become gimmick-ridden, cheaply manufactured, more simplified, less articulated and less “realistic” robot toys. At least when compared to most of the original 1984-1986 Diaclone- and Microman-based range.
1987’s trend continued into 1988 with yet more gimmicks, and cheaper production values. The plastics used were brittle and more prone to breakage and discolouration, and in the case of some of the Pretenders’ accessories, even prone to spotting and becoming “sticky” due to chemical breakdown. Even the stickers used to adorn the toys lacked any kind of protective coating, making the ink used vulnerable to the oils of children’s fingers. And, worst of all, the liquid crystal “rub signs” that had famously defined the authenticity of the Transformers toys were discontinued!
It wasn’t all bad, of course! Some of the vehicle modes were recognisable again (though not to the extent of those seen pre-1987) and some of the newly introduced gimmicks, particularly the Powermasters were, in my opinion, very well done.
Going by the catalogue/poster printed by Hasbro UK (now single-sided and with no blurb or taglines or backstory), you can see what was officially released in the UK in 1988. Notable omissions are the second wave of original Pretenders, the Triggerbots and Triggercons, and the Pretender Vehicles. Also of note that in 1988, the biggest Transformer released was Powermaster Optimus Prime; Hasbro were indeed playing it safe by no longer including giant bases like Scorponok in their range. Another thing to note is that all of the sub-groups (aside from the Seacons and Pretender Beasts) consisted of three Transformers each. Maybe this finely tuned uniformity among the sub-groups was deemed the most sellable (and collectible) number by Hasbro?
Headmasters and Targetmasters
The six new Headmasters were essentially more of the same as the previous year. The Headmasters were again vehicles for the Autobots and beasts for the Decepticons. This time, though, there were no translucent plastic cockpits and the Headmasters “tumbler” mechanism was simplified. The little Nebulan guys were smaller, too.
I didn’t actually get any of the new Headmasters in 1988. I was still trying to collect the original characters and after getting Apeface in the summer of 1987, and Chromedome and Mindwipe for Christmas, 1987, I managed to get Highbrow and Snapdragon (and a Scorponok at a vastly reduced price in an Asda sale) during 1988 before they disappeared from the toy shelves.
Though Siren and (especially) Nightbeat would go on to become great characters in the comics, they weren’t actually featured in any of 1988’s stories. In fact, only the three new Decepticon Headmasters (Squeezeplay, Fangry, and Horri-Bull) appeared in a rather dull American reprint towards the end of the year. So maybe that’s another reason why I didn’t pay too much attention to their toys.
Actually, the same went for the new Targetmasters. They were nowhere to be found in the comics in 1988. These new additions to the Targetmaster sub-group were sold on backing cards instead of boxes and came with two combinable Nebulan weapon partners. The Autobot Double Targetmasters were constructions vehicles and the Decepticons were military vehicles. I didn’t really see much of them in the shops, but I did pick up Scoop one Sunday afternoon from the Woolworths store in Hunstanton, Norfolk.
Hasbro UK continued to advertise the original Headmasters and Targetmasters in the Marvel comic throughout 1988 and I imagine it was cheaper to just advertise the gimmicks themselves rather than create new advertising copy/artwork and hope that us kids would pick up a new Nightbeat or a Squeezeplay. Interestingly, the Dutch Transformers comic did run an advert for the Double Targetmasters in the same style with artwork not seen in the UK.
Sparkabots, Firecons, and Seacons
Transformers 152, published at the beginning of February 1988, introduced the Sparkabots (known as the Sparkler Mini-Bots in the comic), Firecons, and Seacons. While not promoted to the same level as, say, the Special Teams or the New Leaders, the comic made a fuss of the first offerings of Hasbro’s new range as best they could. There was even a competition to win the entire set of Seacons (which I entered without hesitation that same day).
Issue 152 was delivered on the same Saturday morning as my dad came to pick me up for a weekend visit. Sensing my excitement at these new combining Decepticons, we stopped off at Zodiac Toys in King’s Lynn and after deliberating over all 5 of the Seacon limbs I picked up Seawing which he bought before taking me for a cheeseburger. The Seacons were the 7th combining team I wanted to collect, but, sadly I never got any more in 1988. (I did get Snap Trap in early 1989, however!)
As of 1988 my Special Teams scorecard read as follows: Aerialbots: all 5; Stunticons, all 5; Combaticons, all 5; Protectobots, just Streetwise; Technobots, Strafe and Lightspeed; Terrorcons, just Cutthroat; Seacons, just Seawing.
Even back then, Hasbro was turning over Transformers product too quickly and little boys like me with very limited pocket money resources couldn’t keep up.
The Transformers comic seemed to drop the Seacons (and Firecons) as soon as they were introduced. (“What is this? Shockwave sends fish against me? Does he expect me to laugh myself to death?” says Galvatron.)
But the Sparkler Mini-Bots became semi-regulars in Simon Furman’s stories and all three–Sizzle, Fizzle, and Guzzle–found their way into my affections and, thanks to their affordability, my collection. The sparking gimmick was a lot of fun and I spent many an afternoon ruining furniture with them (and scraping the undersides/chests of the toys) just to satisfy my primal need to watch “fire” come out the backs of toys vehicles.
Pretenders (and Pretender Beasts)
The Pretenders were introduced in Transformers 162 in April 1988; around about Easter time in UK shops. While Hasbro in North America and Europe released 12 new toys in total, we only got 6. The comic itself heralded the new toys with a cover-mounted sticker in issue 162 and a competition in issue 163. There was no new British story to introduce the characters, instead just a dutiful reprint (its place seemingly juggled to coincide with the toys’ releases and appearing awkwardly among a run of UK stories) of the American story that introduced them. I can only imagine the buzz of excitement in the Marvel UK offices surrounding the Pretenders.
Me, I love Pretenders. Especially those first 12 characters/toys. During the Easter holiday my mum bought me Landmine (who I picked solely because he had a Firepower rating of 10 on the Tech Specs card and I always felt my Autobots were lacking in that department) and I was smitten immediately by the Pretender feature itself, the character of Landmine and how space exploration-y he looked! As much as I admired “realistic” looking alternate modes, I also loved any Transformers that complemented my love of space exploration. Landmine’s shell looked like a person in a space suit and with a function of Asteroid Miner, his space mining vehicle(?) mode was perfect.
Shortly after (even possibly during the same Easter school holiday), my dad bought me Bomb-Burst. Side note: My then (wicked) step-mother had, for some unfathomable reason aside from the fact she was evil incarnate, forbidden my dad from buying Transformers for me. But he was a rebellious sort in his own way and sometimes broke her cruel rule. If it was a carded Transformer it was easier for me to hide the evidence but in the case of Bomb-Burst (and Highbrow at another time in 1988) I had to bin all the packaging on the way home from the toy shop. Seeing as I was so keen on collecting the Tech Specs/bio cards of my Transformers characters in my scrapbooks, I never felt as thought I “knew” the likes of Bomb-Burst and Highbrow as well as the others in my collection.
To my 10 year old eyes in 1988, the Pretender Beasts looked liked something that should have been part of the He-Man toy range rather than Transformers. But over the years, they grew on me and during my early-to-mid 2000s “G1” collecting phase I made sure to concentrate on getting the rest of the original Pretenders and all four of the Pretender Beasts.
Powermasters (and Quickswitch)
The absolute highlight of 1988’s range of Transformers, for me, were the Powermasters. After the likes of the Headmasters and Targetmasters I really felt like the Nebulan/Transformer combination reached its peak with Powermasters; the Nebulan could interact with the vehicle in a meaningful way without the Transformers character losing their integrity or personality in robot mode. The feature of using the Nebulan’s engine mode to unlock the Transformer’s transformation remains one of my all-time favourite “gimmicks”.
I also loved the return of recognisable vehicle modes, especially the jet modes for Darkwing and Dreadwind. As I wrote in the People Power chapter of my first Collecting Stories series, both my dad and grandfather (and many other family members, as it goes) were in the air force and so realistic-looking jet mode Transformers were a big deal. Starscream, and the Aerialbots were highlights of my collection so far and Darkwing and Dreadwind became instant favourites when I got them both in the summer of 1988 during a trip to Scotland to visit my grandparents.
On that same trip, armed with a copy of Transformers 177, my mission was to find a Powermaster Optimus Prime but, alas, I didn’t find one. I did, however, buy myself Slapdash to go along with Darkwing and the Dreadwind my grandfather bought for. I also had my eye on Doubledealer but by then the holiday money I had saved had been spent. To this day, Doubledealer is one of the few “G1” toys I’ve never owned.
Quickswitch, like the Pretender Beasts, and Doubledealer, wasn’t featured in any of the British Transformers comics in 1988 and so wasn’t that much of a priority of mine at the time. Oddly, Sixshot was pretty much ignored by the comics (save for one blink-and-miss-it cameo buried in the Headmasters mini-series) as well. Maybe the six-changing feature was a gimmick too far.
For my 11th birthday in September 1988, my dad bought me Powermaster Optimus Prime. I was just starting my last year at primary school and everyone was encouraging me to “grow up” and move away from Transformers. I resisted, of course. I was too deeply invested in the comic’s long-running Galvatron storyline!
The new Optimus Prime was everything I wanted. Since first seeing him on the back of Landmine’s box in April at the centre of that awesome painted battle scene, I craved this updated version of my very first Transformers toy. My hero was back: as a Powermaster, with a base mode that worked well with my Sparkabots, and with a “super” robot mode that was as tall as my Galvatron toy. (Sadly, I didn’t get to keep the packaging… see above.)
My original Optimus Prime from 1984 was wrecked by this point (after many a battle with Galvatron on my bedroom floor) and to have this all-new, all-powerful and massive Optimus Prime on my toy shelves again was a momentous occasion for an 11 year old!
(I think if Takara ever reissued Powermaster Optimus Prime/Super Ginrai and Darkwing and Dreadwind I would be first in the queue as I would love to own mint versions of my favourite toys from 1988 again.)
Powermaster Optimus Prime marked the end of my most intense childhood love of the Transformers toys and comics. As it turned out, unlike previous years, I didn’t receive any Transformers for Christmas in 1988 and I was deemed by others to be too old for toys. Thus I consider Powermaster Optimus Prime to be the last of my childhood toys.
It’s poetic actually that both the original Optimus Prime (my first ever Transformer) and his Powermaster upgrade bookend my wonderful four year long childhood obsession with Transformers. It is a time, and an adventure, I will forever cherish.
— Graham (@grhmthmsn)
What are your favourite Transformers toys, and memories of them, from 1988? Please let me know in the comments below!