A People’s History of Transformers Cartoons

Hasbro has a lot of enduring intellectual property (G.I. Joe, My Little Pony) but nothing holds a candle to its long-running Transformers franchise. Its origins are borderline cynical: After acquiring several different lines of toys, Hasbro hired Marvel Comics to come up with a storyline uniting them into a single framework, their only instructions being that the whole line should be called Transformers, the good guys should be the Autobots, and the bad guys should be the Decepticons. Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter (also a high-profile comics writer) and comics greats Bob Budiansky and Dennis O’Neill dreamed up a treatment that informed both the comics and the TV show, and away they went. What started off as a bit of a corporate rush job has become one of the most enduring mythologies on kids’ TV, and some of its iterations are flat-out terrific.

1

The Transformers (1984)

A 24-minute toy ad? Whatever. This syndicated gem is where it all began, including the stardom of Peter Cullen, who voiced Optimus Prime. And of course, Scatman Crothers as Jazz.

2

Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Billed as a "rock and roll adventure," this formative (and traumatizing—Optimus Prime dies!) kids' flick starred not just the cast of the cartoon, but Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles as new characters. Though it hit theaters before 1987's Someone to Love, the movie was the last thing Welles ever worked on.

3

Beast Wars: Transformers (1996)

Transformers vanished from stores for years; when they came back, they were animals, not cars. The extra-serious Fox Kids tie-in show was penned by hardcore nostalgists and spawned a sequel.

4

Beast Machines (1999)

Times change, and so do toy robots. The elaborate world of Beast Wars got darker as Hasbro reintroduced toy vehicles. Comic book greats (Marv Wolfman, Len Wein) wrote for the show.

5

Transformers: Robots in Disguise (2001)

A weird one: The last TF cartoon on broadcast tied in to a hodgepodge of foreign-market-first toys and was distributed by the now-defunct Saban. The redubbed Japanese show debuted just in time for 9/11.

6

Unicron Trilogy: Armada, Energon, Cybertron (2004)

The three animated series aired on Cartoon Network as Hasbro began a full-throated relaunch of nostalgia-themed toys calling back to the ’80s. It’s kind of confusing.

7

Transformers: Animated (2007)

Animated was made for both Japanese and U.S. markets (Cartoon again) as, in the wake of the wildly successful movie, the toymaker refocused on kids. And hey, Fred Willard and George Takei guest starred!

8

Transformers: Prime (2010)

At the height of Hasbro’s spending on The Hub, Sleepy Hollow cocreators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were writing for A-plus voice talent including Cullen. It’s cool even if you’re not a kid or a nerd.

9

Transformers: Rescue Bots (2012)

As you may have noticed, the brand’s priorities shift between older fans with families and money, and a new generation of kids who need to be introduced. The Hub’s Rescue Bots was for the latter.

10

Transformers: Robots in Disguise (2015)

The pendulum has continued to swing toward simplicity recently. The new edition of the show (back on Cartoon, post-Hub) is everywhere kids are, with tie-ins from toy to show to app.