As the original run of Transformers continued it was clear that things had to be done to keep interest in it. We had the Movie already and season 3 had continued with those new characters. But a franchise as it goes on needs to do things to keep people interested. Many toy lines from the 80s only lasted a year or two and Transformers was entering into its 4th.
So I’m going to talk about major gimmicks that were implemented in these years. Now these are major year gimmicks not the small one or two character ones like Six Changers. Nor am I talking earlier gimmicks like Combiners, no these were ones used as overarching gimmicks of that year or set.
The first year of these gimmicks introduced two new toy concepts Headmasters and Targetmasters. Headmasters were the most embraced and best idea of this era. The idea was as such, a Transformer whose head was a separate Transformer that turned from a small robot into the larger robots head. The Autobot Headmasters were a bunch of Cars and other vehicles while the Decepticon Headmasters all had beast modes.
The other of these, Targetmasters were regular Transformers who came with a smaller robot (a lot of these early gimmicks involved a smaller robot) that turned into a gun. Unlike the Headmasters which featured a distinct difference between the Autobots and Decepticons alt modes, Targetmasters on both sides had vehicle alt modes. Also while Headmasters were brand new characters many of the Targetmasters were essentially retools. The change was simple just have a larger hole in the hand to be able to the hold the Targetmaster. Characters like Kup, Hotrod and Cyclonus all got this treatment.
Both these concepts were introduced in the last season of the cartoon, the 3 part story “the rebirth” which saw a small group of Autobots and Decepticons blasted across the galaxy to the planet Nebulos. On this world there were green skinned humanoids and who were in a rebellion against the world’s tyrannical ruler Zarak. The Autobots were first turned into Headmasters with many of the rebellion’s leaders becoming the Heads. Arcee was also turned into one however no toy was made as previously mentioned.
After freeing the Autobots that were captured by the Deceptions, the Deceptions were contacted by the Hive (the group that worked for Zarak to duplicate the process, Cyclonus only agreed to have the Beasts hand over their Heads while the others handed over their guns to become Targetmasters. After them overpowering the Autobots, the Autobots duplicated the Targetmaster process for the Autobots that didn’t become Headmasters. The Headmasters were always the more popular concept instead of Targetmasters, with both sides receiving a Titan sized Huge Headmaster – the Decepticons getting Scorpinok and the Autobots getting Fortress Maximus who at 56cms tall was the tallest Transformer for many years afterwards. The story ended with implications that Zarak would try to replace Galvatron as leader of the Decepticons but as mentioned this was the end of cartoon. At least in the West.
You see, Japan made their own series rather than show season 4, this was called “The Headmasters” Here rather than the Headmaster’s heads being small aliens in exo armour, the heads were the Transformers and the larger robot was a lifeless body that they control. I’ll come back the Japanese continuity later.
Headmasters have appeared a few times through the franchise though not as often as earlier gimmicks like Combiners and Triple Changers. It was scarce but there. Transformers Energons Omega Supreme was one and there was a character in Transformers Animated based on the concept as well (and was called Headmaster). They returned in a large way during the Titans return section of the Prime Wars trilogy. Here all the toys released were Headmasters and even advertised the fact they were usable with all Headmasters. However here they were renamed Titan Masters.
Targetmasters however were far scarcer (and remember you were lucky to get a single Headmaster in a series) though the idea of Transformers turning into weapons was one that didn’t go away, Armada had trios of mini cons who could combine into weapons, yet these were different from Targetmasters. Plus there was confusion about what constitutes a Targetmaster – Megatron originally did turn into a gun himself after all. The closest thing we have had to a return of Targetmasters has been in the recent War For Cybertron lines where they have been renamed Battle Masters since they can also turn into melee weapons and not just guns. But those were the “good” idea, and as the toy line got stretched longer the ideas got… well somewhere kind of really dumb.
The next Transformer overarching gimmick was built on the idea of the previous two, but had been considerably less sensible. Powermasters like Headmasters and Targetmasters (yes Master was also a commonly used term for these) involved having a smaller robot that turned into a key component, in this case an “engine” that was required to unlock the transformation from vehicle into robot. Now I soon discovered you didn’t even need the little robot as just pressing down on the part that the Powermaster clicked into and it unlocked the transformation.
In the West the only noteworthy entrant for Powermasters was a new version of Optimus Prime. This version could also combine with his trailer making him a more powerful Autobot something that would appear again in the Unicron trilogy. However the Powermasters line came out too late for it to be in the cartoon though animation was made and used for advertisements for the toys.
At least no Western cartoon. The second Japanese exclusive series, Super-God Masterforce, heavily featured the Powermasters line and even made some brand new characters like new Decepticon leader Overlord (who was later released in Europe but not America). While in the West Powermasters were treated the same as Headmasters with a human or humanlike alien forming the little robot. Masterforce treated it in a very Japanese anime way, in that they were regular humans who used the magical Master Force to turn into a Godmaster (the name they used in Japan) and took control of a lifeless Transformer body.
Powermasters… never really appeared outside of G1 as you can see it’s a rather pointless addition, the small robot just turning into something to unlock a transformation was uninteresting, a head was a vital visible part and a weapon is also highly visible but an engine, often on the back of the robot… Optimus Prime and Overlord were the only worthwhile additions from the concept and one of those didn’t appear in America till a few years ago.
The other overarching gimmick of that year was Pretenders which also appeared in Super-God Masterforce but I have already described enough for one article. Trust me the worst is still to come, and given what I said about Powermasters that makes you think.