Were The GoBots the Poor Man's Transformers?

James Logie

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

Many people looked at The GoBots as second-class citizens.

Turns out they predated Transformers and were actually released beforehand. Hasbro had a more aggressive marketing campaign, and that created all the interest.

Fewer people would pay attention to the GoBots.

To many people, they seemed like a cheap knockoff—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.

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 like Transformers or the Diaclone robot line. They 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. 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 truck-making company Tonka in 1983.

There had always been giant robot toys like Voltron, but Tonka made the decision to change them from 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 also came up with a clear division between the robots splitting them into the Good Guardians and the Renegades.

The earliest packaging would first call them “Friendly” or “Enemy” which was a little too vague in conveying real identities.

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

The Release of The GoBots

They come out in 1983, which is one year prior to Transformers.

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 like things you could see every day.

They were the original “robots in disguise” until Transformers adopted that slogan.

Here’s an interesting thing: each GoBot would have a marking on it that started with MR. This was 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
  • 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.

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. It's hard to use the figure without some sort of vehicle for them to operate.

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

Challenge of The GoBots

Many don't realize this cartoon show predates Transformers. Gobots came out on September 8, 1984, while Transformers debuted on September 17, 1984.

"Challenge of the Gobots" was put together by Hanna Barbera who created a unique backstory.

Hanna-Barbera put out 65, 22-minute episodes and it would last for just one season.

Since there were so many episodes, a lot of freelance writers were needed including Kelly Ward aka Putzie from Grease.

Here’s another weird thing about the show: it included some big-name voice talent also seen in Transformers.

The show 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 show that was out at the same time.

The Rock Lords

The Rock Lords was essentially a GoBots spinoff and was also put out by Tonka. They are rock-based toys released after a Rock Lords movie from 1986.

The Rock Lords are transforming rocks that came with various accessories. 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 it was hard to compete against them.

Fun Fact: They were also not an original idea and came from the Japanese 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.

The Battle of The Rock Lords

This toy line was the result of the cartoon movie "GoBots: Battle Of The Rock Lords."

This was actually released in theatres and they were hoping for the same 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 team up with Magmar.

This is basically a 90-minute commercial to launch a new toy line--and it ended up taking in only $1.3 million dollars domestically.

They knew that "Transformers: The Movie" was being made, and they made sure to release it 5 months before. This was 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 the rushed Rock Lords movie. And it shows.

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

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

The Future of The GoBots

The GoBots toyline would last from 1983-1987. 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.

This 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 onto things such as the 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 is an odd duck. They’re kind of like the forgotten child 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 a 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 GoBots just jumped the gun a little too soon by no fault of their own.

Transformers and Hasbro developed a much better back story and character development that did a better job at capturing the imagination of kids of the 80s.

Ultimately, the Transformers really couldn’t have existed without the GoBots.

But if it had gone another way, we could be here complaining about how Michael Bay destroyed the GoBots franchise...

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.

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