Many times if you want Transformers or scan the toys you may notice that some toys look rather similar. Some may just be a different paint job applied or some might have a few changes like a different head… in addition to a paint job. I assure you this isn’t some new cost cutting job as like everything I’ve talked about till now it’s been around since day one.
During the first year of the Transformers there were a number of toys that were just simply the same toy with a different paint job. Autobots Ironhide and Ratchet shared the same moulds as they both turned into Nissan Sunny-Vanette Coach SGL. Ironhide was given a red paintjob while Ratchet was painted up to be an ambulance.
More notable were the Decepticon Jets Starscream, Skywarp and Thundercracker. While Starscream and Thundercracker started out as part of the Diaclone line as Jet-robo’s, when bringing them over to the West a third was made in Skywarp. Most likely this was due to the fact that in the first year of the Transformers the Autobots vastly outnumbered the Decepticons, its opening line up for them being Megatron, Soundwave and a few of his cassettes and the 3 Jets. In fact there were so few early Decepticons the animated series used Starscream’s model to create a few more Jets though these were bit parts but the fun thing about Transformers fandom is if something doesn’t have a name, the fans will give it one and over the years these minor roles would get their own names and bios.
Unique around the repaints is that these Jets were not only given names but fans also created a term for the fact Decepticon Jets had a very similar appearance – Seekers another name that would later be adopted into the canon.
Now recolours are not the only way to resell the same basic toy, some though sharing a mould will have other alterations such as heads an early example of this being Bumblebee and Cliffjumper. While these sport a different paint job like recolours, redecos/retools as they are called often have some parts of their body that especially in robot mode are quite different from the original character. Most of the time this is just the head as that’s the easiest part to change without affecting the transforming however they often will have different accessories such as a different sword or gun though such things are often found with recolouring too. However there are some more notable retools that are considerably more extensive, these can be a bit harder to notice but elements on how they transform are roughly identical even if the outward appearance looks notably different.
Certain characters are very prone to having recolours and redecos made when ever new sculpts are released. The Seekers namely Thundercracker and Skywarp will almost always get recolours released using that Starscream mould. This actually became a plot point in Transformers Animated where Starscream made a bunch of clones of himself and they were all coloured after various Decepticon Jets (and a female one too). The other Seekers that appeared in bit parts in Generation 1 sometimes get toys released too but these are usually more limited releases such as convention exclusives or special tie in releases.
Another notable target of recolours and redecos is Optimus Prime. While initially there weren’t any instead releasing an upgrade using tying into whatever theme was being released that year one toy opened the gates for him Ultra Magnus. While this never happened in the animated series Ultra Magnus’s toy was actually a white and blue version of Optimus but with armour attached which gave him his iconic appearance. This fact went unused for years until Dreamwave comics had a plot line where the armour was destroyed revealing the white recolour within. Following that came years of whenever there was a Optimus Prime toy released, later in that line a white and blue recolour would be released called Ultra Magnus.
This was very prominent in the 2000s and fans who grew up with Magnus being a distinct different looking character grew annoyed by it and an animated a toy of Magnus was released that was his own mould. But by this time a new repaint for Optimus had become available Nemesis Prime. This is a black and dark green clone of Prime that while usually branded a Deception is often a herald for Unicron even having a dark version of the matrix. While the first character to use the name in the West was from Armada the concept of a black recolour existed back in Japanese series Beast Wars second and the first Western appearance of a black repaint was Robots in Disguise 2001s, Scourge. With Ultra Magnus falling out as Optimus’s go to repaint Nemesis took the spotlight and since they are usually released late on or near the end of a toy line they are often better than the Optimus that they are based on, with Power of the Primes, Nemesis Prime being considered one of the best Prime moulds released.
Now while in the West a recolour or redeco normally means a new character in Japan that’s often not the case. As talked about with Soundwave in Headmasters, there a recolour is often used instead to show a powered up version of the character. Some are given new names others have an addition to their name to show it’s a powered up state. The West first really experienced this tendency during the anime years of the franchise with the afore mentioned Robots in Disguise and the Unicron trilogy.
This was rather… bad in the Unicron trilogy. Not for the sense of releasing new toys, some people missed out on the first release for example but at some point usually half way through the series a bunch of characters would get a repaint thanks to some cosmic power up usually due to Primus (we will come to him in a future article). Once again this wouldn’t be a problem except for 2 facts. The Unicron trilogy was a series of 3 connected series each meant to be set after the previous one (though the people doing Cybertron decided to do their own series with no connection resulting in the dub people trying to tie it in to the other two resulting in ALOT of plot holes and continuity errors). For most people going back to their old colour scheme isn’t too much a problem, EXCEPT for the fact one of those characters who always got an upgrade was Megatron, who when getting his new colours would change his name to Galvatron BUUUUT at the start of the next series he would go back to calling himself Megatron you see the head scratching beginning?
This concept of recolouring a character to represent alternate version of them has started to bleed into the Western markets. This is usually in sets that have a main cast and if the new years gimmick isn’t too huge they will release a slightly alternate version of that main character in next year’s line, sometimes with additional armour or elements that tie them into that years gimmick. This can be seen in different levels with the likes of the first Transformers live action movie toy lines second year having the power of the Allspark toys which were slight recolours or Transformers Primes third year Beast Hunters coming with beast hunting armour and other equipment.
So as you see if you see a Transformer toy next to another and look very similar, it’s not some recent new cost cutting exercise, it’s something that’s been around since the start. Plus it’s not really that creatively lazy, while it may be on the basic toy front, many of these characters have vastly different personality, IDW did amazing things with Thundercracker for example, plus it does mean we have an easy way to get some classic characters showing up again.