Robots were big in the mid-80s, and transforming robots (robots that transformed from a vehicle shape to a humanoid shape) were huge. The first of such robots to hit the collective consciousness of pre-teen boys everywhere were the Transformers by Hasbro. Transformers were large, complex, high-quality action figures. They were also very expensive, which is why I never had any of them (except for Soundwave and a couple of his cassettes; I traded somebody something for him).
Fortunately, there was a cheaper alternative: the Go-Bots from Tonka.
There was a reason, though, that the Go-Bots (or Gobots or GoBots; I’ve seen it several ways and I’m not sure which is correct) were cheaper. They were much smaller than Transformers, being about the size of a G.I. Joe figure. They were also lower quality, being mostly plastic. They were simpler. Transforming a Transformer was no easy task; you had to read the manual and learn to do it (I remember guys in 5th grade boasting that the could transform Starscream). Transforming a Go-Bot was much easier and more intuitive. You could usually figure it out just by playing with them. Many of them, such as Tank, just bent over or stood up. They were less impressive. They had fairly generic names, especially in comparison to the Transformers. While in the Transformers universe you had Optimus Prime, Megatron, and a whole host of other cool and alien and technical sounding names, in the Go-Bots world you had Scootter and Dozer and Cy-Kill (which I never realized was just another way of saying cycle until just now). While the Transformers were either Autobots or Decepticons, the Go-Bots were either Guardians or Renegades (Renegades? Really?). Even their advertising slogan was weaker. With the Transfomers, it was “more than meets the eye” and “robots in disquise”, but with the Go-Bots it was “mighty robots, mighty vehicles”. It’s no wonder my friends and I quickly judged the Go-Bots to be the lesser of the two lines.
This lesser line mirrored its greater counterpart in just about everyway. The Transfomers had a cartoon? So did the Go-Bots (The Challenge of the Go-Bots). The Transformers had a movie? The Go-Bots did, too (Go-Bots: Battle of the Rock Lords). The Transformers had robots that combined into a giant robot? Ditto the Go-Bots (Monstrous). The Transformers added new, weirder transforming robots? Likewise the Go-Bots (the Rock Lords: robots that turn into rocks. Yes. Rocks.). Not only so, but the Go-Bots brought out the Power Suits (additional armor the Go-Bots could wear and that combined to form another giant robot) and the Super Go-Bots (larger metal versions that were odd looking but cool). And the second series of figures was an improvement on the first. And they did have a pretty cool base: the Command Center, which was similar to an AT-AT. So there was some redemption of the Go-Bots towards the end.
But the one thing about the Go-Bots that makes them especially important to me is that I once took one apart to see what made it work. On one hot summer afternoon, I got a screwdriver and disassembled a Go-Bot (I can’t remember which one). I didn’t just take its arms and legs off, but I actually cracked open its body to find out what was inside, what tecnological wonder enabled it to transform as it did. I was expecting to see circuits and wires and lights, infracells and megathrusters, flux capacitors and allsparks. Instead, I saw empty plastic. At that moment, it dawned on me that there was nothing special about the Go-Bots nor Transformers nor any other transforming toys, that all they were was molded and manipulated plastic. A part of me died that day. And I’m not being melodramatic. A part of me died that day.
Once that crack appeared in the Go-Bot’s armor, several others started appearing as well. I began asking questions: How can they fire lasers out of their hands as they do in the cartoon, and if they can do that, what’s the value of weapons? How can all the Go-Bots fly when in humanoid shape, and if they can do that, what’s the value of the Go-Bots who turn into aerial vehicles? Along those same lines, what’s the value of the Go-Bots who turn into wheeled vehicles? Why do they turn into humanoid shapes at all? A jet is a much better fighter than a giant person. What’s the point of any of this? As you can see, I became disappointed with the whole thing.
I have since recovered from that disappointment, though, and today allow both the Go-Bots and the Transformers and all their kin (Robo Maxx, Microman, Robotech, Starriors, even the little generic transfomer toy I got in my Fruit Loops one day) to inhabit a place in my heart. Maybe they are just molded, manipulated plastic on the outside, but I still think they are mighty robots and might vehicles on the inside.