Sometimes, I don't know what I would do without the Internet, particularly when I look up things that were well-known at one time but have since faded into obscurity. In the ancient times when print media ruled the information landscape, it could take up to days, weeks, and even months to track down publications that mention trends or products that are no longer considered popular by mainstream culture. With the Internet, the same kind of search can only take a few hours or even minutes, especially because amateur writers can publish whatever they want online without being solely driven or restricted by profit.
This intro brings me to the topic of this post, Bandai's Machine Robo toy line. Machine Robo started in 1982 and it was one of the earliest toy lines based on robots that can transform into vehicles. Bandai started exporting these toys to other countries in 1983, and Tonka distributed them in the United States under its Gobots line. As anyone who grew up in the '80s knows, Tonka's Gobots quickly faded when they competed against Hasbro's more popular Transformers line, another group of transforming robot toys imported from Japan. Yet while the Gobots vanished from American pop culture during 80s, I discovered via the Internet that Bandai's original Machine Robo line kept going in Japan throughout the following decades. Read on for more thoughts on Machine Robo and what makes it so resilient in the face of other more popular toy robot lines.
Honestly, you could write a master's level thesis paper on how badly Tonka handled the import and marketing of Machine Robo toys. From its poor coordination with Bandai to its partnership with Hanna-Barbera in creating a lackluster cartoon to help sell the toys, Tonka's Gobots line was inevitably doomed against Hasbro, which partnered with Toei Animation and Marvel Comics (which had previous experience with Japanese robot toys through Mattel's Shogun Warriors line) in creating the marketing campaign for the Transformers line. In the end, many American toy buyers from that time remember Gobots as the simpler, inferior version of the Transformers. While that may be true to some extent (Tonka's incompetent marketing certainly didn't help), that's not a completely fair assessment of Machine Robo toys. While the Transformers had a better marketing campaign and more sophisticated designs, I think that Machine Robo/Gobots were the superior toys for three important reasons: price, durability and scale.
Price: Because the Gobots were sold at cheaper prices than Transformers, many concluded that a cheaper price must have meant a lower-quality product. Yet by selling most of the Gobot figures at $3.00, kids could quickly build an army of transforming robots for the same price it would cost to get a handful of the main characters from the Transformers line. It's like comparing Hasbro's G.I. Joe toy line to generic army men toys: The army men might not have marketing support of Hasbro or the G.I. Joe brand name, but their cheaper price makes it easier to build huge armies and wage epic, imaginary battles.
Fun trivia fact: The original line of small Machine Robo figures were
called the "600 Series", because each figure cost 600 yen.
Durability: Most of the robot figures in the Gobots line were simple in their design and had a significant portion of die-cast metal in them, which made them perfect for rigorous play. Much like the die-cast Matchbox and Hot Wheels vehicle toys, kids could "wreck" the Gobots in all sorts of ways and they'd still remain viable as play items. In contrast, the Transformers toys relied more on plastic than die-cast metal; while the high usage of plastic probably kept their production costs down, it also made them much more fragile. I owned one of the more complicated Autobot car toys when I was a kid and for as cool as it looked, all it took was one unfortunate tumble off of a table to break one of its weaker yet transformation-essential parts. This kind of problem didn't happen with the handful of Gobot figures that I had, since they were just as durable as the die-cast metal toy cars I collected.
Scale: Of all their advantages, scale was the most important for Machine Robo/Gobots. Their small size kept their prices low and added to their durability, and keeping them at a fairly uniform scale presented more opportunities for play. Some larger-sized Machine Robo/Gobots were released as part of the line, but most of the figures were between three to four inches tall. Not only did their small size make them easier to store and transport, but it also allowed for cool playsets. Furthermore, because the smaller figures were roughly the same scale as Matchbox and Hot Wheels toys, kids could use the playsets, track sets and vehicle launchers from those lines for their Gobots figures--say, imagining the robots battling each other near a multi-level parking garage or on an aircraft carrier.
A vintage Machine Robo playset.
Tonka's failed Gobots line is part of Machine Robo's history, but that's hardly the end of it. Even as Tonka was desperately trying to keep space on toy store shelves for it Gobots, Bandai released new kinds of Machine Robo toys and launched the 47 episode anime series, Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos. Chronos gave Bandai the opportunity to rerelease older figures and significantly redesign previous figures.
The MR-03 Jet Robo from the Machine Robo 600 series ...
... and its Chronos-inspired redesign.
The Chronos anime series also introduced new Machine Robo figures, such as an evil transforming combiner robot called Devil Satan 6. (Yes, a robot with a name that includes the words "devil" and "Satan"--how cool is that?).
Devil Satan 6--six evil robots in one!
Chronos was followed by other anime series based on the Machine Robo line--including Machine Robo: Battle Hackers and Machine Robo Rescue--each with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, the anime series kept Machine Robo going in Japan, even though it had disappeared everywhere else. In particular, Machine Robo Rescue added some interesting new combiner designs to the Machine Robo line.
Left to right: TMR-01WL Wing Liner and TMR-02SG Siren Garry,
two deluxe transport/combiner robots from Machine Robo Rescue.
One of the key selling points for the Machine Robo Rescue line was its series of five-robot combiner sets. These sets featured one transforming robot and four look-alike transforming drones that combined into a single larger robot; however, the components from each of the five-robot combiner sets could be connected to each other, which allowed kids to assemble the robots into a wide variety of larger machines.
Transforming robots and drones from three Machine Robo Rescue combiner sets ...
... and one of their many possible forms of combination.
Taking a cue from its previous Rescue series, Bandai's most recent success was with the Machine Robo Mugenbine line, a line that placed a heavier emphasis on combination than transformation. As described on the Machine Robo Mugenbine Wikipedia page, "The majority of the series consists of figures called Mugenroids, basic block-proportioned figures that can contort and fold into various shapes, most notably a perfect cube, to form the core of its various modes. ... Rather than the traditional shape changing method of previous figures, Mugenbine uses numerous interlocking pegs and sockets to attach and remove components and relocate them in order to form different modes. While all figures have at least two official alternate modes and most have official combinations with one to three other figures, the concept of the line is to allow you to assemble your own animal and machine creations and build your own robots of various size and numbers of sets, an activity encouraged by Bandai to the point where figures with no official combiner modes come with larger head parts to help create your own."
A Machine Robo Mugenbine set of combiner robots.
Think of a robot-centric system of Lego bricks, and that's the Machine Robo Mugenbine line in a nutshell. The first Mugenbine toys appeared in 2003 and they were such a hit for Bandai that it released several additional Mugenbine series in the years since. The flexibility of the Mugenbine toys has encouraged fans to build increasingly ambitious super combiner robots, as seen in the pictures below.
The Counter-X site features a very comprehensive section devoted to Machine Robo/Gobots, including a historical review of the toys, robot figure reviews, and scans from catalog pages. Additional Machine Robo/Gobots toy reviews can be found at Collection DX, Random Toy Reviews, and Hisparobot.