Wed
Feb 6 2013 11:00am

Vintage Transformers Box Art Portrays Toys as Serious Emotional Wrecks

There are those among us who remember when the “real” Transformers had nothing to do with Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, or Michael Bay. This was a more innocent time, when instead of cynically trying to sell us Mountain Dew, Fords, or Burger King, Transformers was just trying to sell us some Transformers toys.

But was it that innocent? Were there hidden messages contained on the toy packages? Yes! Designed to be cut from the box with scissors (mind the dotted line!) these toys all came with “technical specs” for each Autobot or Decepticon. The specs charted their specific powers (on a downright confounding graph) and provided a brief bio.

Looking back, many of these character bios reveal some deeply troubled robots, most of whom come off as total emotional wrecks. How did we not notice this when we were kids?

The bios in the Tech Specs for the Transformers read like psych profiles. Oddly, the evilest Transformer of them all—Megatron—sounds like he’s fairly functional in real life. Check it out: 

“Fires particle beam cannon. Can link up interdimensionally to a black hole and draw anti-matter from it for uses as a weapon. No known weakness.”

Wow! The only thing missing here is “possesses extensive knowledge of vintage Italian wines.”

A vast majority of the lesser-loved Transformers seem to all have problems with being team players, recognizing their own shortcomings, or keeping the blues away. Check out this tragic sentence from Prowl’s bio:

“Fires wire-guided incendiary missiles and high-corrosive acid pellets. The unexpected can often scramble his circuits.”

Is Prowl ADD? Insecure? For being the Autobot who turns into a cop car, you’d probably hope Prowl would be a little cooler under pressure, but I guess he gets befuddled easily. Bummer.

But what about the unloved Dinobot Slag? This one is so good I’m re-posting it here in its entirety.

Function: Flamethrower

“I have no need for friends, even less for enemies.”

Enjoys [emphasis mine] melting enemies into pools of liquid metal. Like his fellow Dinobots, resents authority. Disruptive—often brawls with comrades. Shoots 3000 Cº flame up to 80 feet from mouth. Enormous strength—can shatter a brick building with head. Uses electron blaster in Dinobot mode. Rash, not too bright. Nasty, mean-spirited…often the other Aubotos won’t help when he’s in trouble.

Now, Slag is a Dinobot, one of the good guys. But this character sounds like a total asshole! Although he also sounds like the victim of weird peer bullying. I mean, he can shoot flames from his mouth and he’s a little rash, but I’m not sure this justifies the other Autobots throwing him under the robot bus. He is named Slag, after all. It’s not shocking that he’s kind of hard to deal with. (Interestingly, there’s no way a child would read that bio and think, “this guy is awesome!” And yet, we did.)

As you read more and more of these Tech Specs, you find that almost every single Transformer had some personality flaw. Like some twisted punchline, these flaws are almost always written in the last sentence of the Tech Spec bio, undercutting any amazing badassery they possess.

See for yourself below. And try to imagine your parents reading these bizarre sentences out to you when you were a child. Consider the emotional damage these robots were doing to children in the 80’s. Here we go:

Ratchet:

“Sometimes his having a good time interferes with his effectiveness”

Starscream

“Very good at what he does, but sometimes overrates himself.”

Buzzsaw

“Due to large ego, will often sulk rather than proceed if his plans go astray.”

Red Alert

“Prone to rash judgment which leads to injury to himself and comrades.”

Kup

“Other Autobots aren’t always receptive to his advice.”

Skids

“Not very fast…often in danger due to due to daydreaming.”

If you had glasses/were nerdy/liked microscopes (likely), check out how Perceptor made you feel like shit:

Perceptor

“Absent minded. Lenses are his weakest part.”

And then there’s this very specific insult.

Cosmos

“Not well suited to function on ground as robot.”

Reflector

Never loved by mother.

Mirage

Projects more than he’d like to admit.

Shockwave

Escaped Cybertron but not his drinking problem.

Those last three are ones I made up, but you can’t tell, can you?

It’s almost as though the copy writer of these bios had a grudge against how happy these Transformers toys made children. These weird subliminal messages gets even more creepy when you consider the name of the characters are Transformers, implying they could maybe change and overcome their shortcomings.

But this is not the message we get from the Tech Specs. Even if you do have an awesome power, like Cliff Jumper’s “glass gas,” which makes metal as brittle as glass, this is undercut by the comment that his “recklessness often leads to actual blow-outs and situations too dangerous for him to handle.” Why can’t he just shoot glass gas?

In the end, are we really surprised the Transformers are known as “robots-in-disguise?” It seems that all the particle weapons, photon rifles, laser cannons, infrared range finders, and diamond micro-serrated beaks can’t compensate for their personal failures.

No wonder they pretend to be cars.

[Note, you can find all these Tech Specs on this amazing website called Botch’s Transformers Box Art Archive. Be prepaed to lose some time]


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

10 comments
Jack Flynn
1. JackofMidworld
Well, these came out back when we actually played with our toys, not just having toys did stuff. Maybe they were trying to give less imaginative kids (or the ones who never watched the 'toons) a direction or a jumping off point for how the characters interacted with each other. You know, for when Optimus Prime, Duke, Cheetara, and Trap-Jaw all ended up on the same side of the room.
Projectshadowlondon
2. Projectshadowlondon
Actually, I thought this was a great thing as a kid. It would have been so easy to have done giant robots *without* distinct personalities, or to have done them all like Megatron. But the Tech Specs reports were as interesting to me as the rest of the toys. See, it gave them strong characters, and given that some of the toys weren't as good as I'd hoped, actually having character flaws was a good thing. And you know - it was okay, even for giant planet-killing robots to not be perfect. It's why I wanted to watch the cartoons, to read the comics in the first place. It's a thing I try to remember as a writer even today.
The Dinobots were great. An elite unit of Autobots with some quite sizeable flaws as it happened, but an early example of the adage, 'good does not always mean nice'. We had Prime for the oversentimental Big Damn Hero complex. He, like Megatron, needed foils.
I'm actually really proud to have had some of the 'emotional damage' meted out to me by these guys. It stood me in good stead later on in life.
But Cosmos was just awful in several ways.
Chris Hawks
3. SaltManZ
The writer of these bios was Bob Budiansky, the guy at Marvel who named a good chunk of the original characters, wrote all the bios for the toys, edited the original four-issue Marvel comic, and wrote the ongoing comic through issue #55. The tech specs from the toys are actually truncated versions of the full bios that could be found in the "Transformers Universe" profiles (the originals were printed in a four-issue series, with later characters getting profiled in the back pages of later comic issues.)
Projectshadowlondon
4. Cybersnark
To be fair, the TFs who reach Earth have always been "walking wounded" --even in the more easygoing, lighthearded G1, Cybertron is a mostly-dead world, destroyed by a War that has lasted longer than humanity has existed.

As SaltManZ just linked, be sure to check out TFwiki.net for extended (yet equally snarky) bios. I especially love Nautilator.
Lee VanDyke
5. Cloric
I swear, a couple of those read like performance reviews. Maybe mine, maybe not.
Chris Hawks
6. SaltManZ
@5: Dunno about the rest of you, but my performance reviews always end with "No known weaknesses." :)
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
@3 SaltManZ
That information is soooo great! Thank you so much!
Chris Lough
8. TorChris
Aaaaaah holy crap, SaltManZ, that four-issue mini was one of the first comics I ever had. I had totally forgotten about that! I remember Witwicky or his dad got caught in a fire? And that one of the issues ended with Shockwave showing up and blasting all the Autobots?

Oh god, what else am I going to remember now????!?
Michael M Jones
9. MichaelMJones
I grew up with Tranformers Generation 1, the comic book series and cartoon and toys, so I remember many of these characters and their quirks all too well. I fell away from all of it after a few years, as I entered my teen years, but this generation of Transformers will always be "mine."
Go back and read those first few issues and marvel at how freaking WORDY they were, as poor Bob Budiansky shoehorned in dozens of characters, complete with name, special abilities, and a revealing snippet of dialogue in the first issue alone. Baffle at the crossover with Spider-Man thatwas so very very out of place....

I've come back to the Transformers franchise now and again over the years, long enough to check on the status of things. One thing I've learned: Transformers continuity, at this point, is a shark-infested nightmare no one truly understands.

However, IDW's done awesome things with the comic book side of things. They have two series--Robots in Disguise, and More Than Meets the Eye--which are downright brilliant. One series is full of political intrigue, mystery, adventure and so on, as the Transformers try to rebuild a post-war Cybertron. The other has a rag-tag band of robots on a comic quest that keeps getting sidetracked and derailed, as much by their own personality clashes as anything. It's the first time in years that I've found this franchise to be both interesting and compelling, and wholy entertaining.
Chris Hawks
10. SaltManZ
@9: "One thing I've learned: Transformers continuity, at this point, is a shark-infested nightmare no one truly understands."

Not true! Well, okay, maybe...

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