Top 25 "It" products of all time: #20 -- The Transformers
For a child in the early 1980's, they were revolutionary. Not only were they scads of fun to play with, but they also latched onto the mythos of childhood in a truly fantastic way. They were inherently secretive, and could be disguised as anything from a miniature cassette player to a Walther PPK pistol. Laying on a counter, they didn't really look like toys, which made them perfect for tricking parents and nosy younger siblings.
Another key element of the Transformers' popularity lay in the simple act of manipulating them. Like a secret handshake or a special code, the ability to deftly manipulate the toys was something that separated the men from the boys. In a grown-ups clumsy hands, Transformers might as well have been non-articulated lumps of plastic, but in the speeding digits of a motivated, excited child, they were the source of endless fun. Years later, when I saw the demonic Rubiks cube-like Lament configuration boxes in Clive Barkers' Hellraiser series, I recognized a play on the Transformer's theme: just as Barkers' devilish boxes opened the door to hell, so the Transformers could open the door to endless hours of play.
They were also a good bargain for parents (or, at least, that's what I told my mom and dad). Rather than buy just one toy, parents could buy two. Dinobots, for example, were both moderately-realistic dinosaurs and utterly-unrealistic robots. Similarly, cars, trucks, and other toys could quickly change shape, enabling an ordinary, everyday game of "Gridlocked DC Beltway" to quickly morph into a raging robot war battle.
For me, most of the Transformer fun lay in the simple tactile joy of the toys (seriously, a gun that becomes a robot?!? What else do you need?). However, following in the tradition of Japanese animation and American space operas, the cartoon Tranformers had a rich and wide-ranging backstory. With nods to religious and cultural touchstones ranging from Battlestar Galactica and Greek mythology to Madeline L'Engle and Joseph Campbell, the Transformers world pitted the heroic Autobots against the evil Decepticons in a war that spanned the Universe (and has spawned a TV show, three movies, and an endless parade of imitators). Even today, the internet is filled with sites that argue over Transformer mythology, Transformer technology, and the minutiae of Tranformer characters.
As with any truly revolutionary toy, it's dangerous to say that the Tranformers' day has passed. They are certainly still culturally relevant: Bay's movie was exceedingly popular and a sequel is coming out later this year. The toys are still selling well, and thousands of fans devote huge amounts of time to near-Talmudic arguments over the finer points of the Tranformer universe. In fact, the military has even gotten involved: Bay's film was made with the full cooperation of the U.S. Department of Defense, which supplied uniforms, vehicles, aircraft, and even soldiers.
While Transformers may never return to the cultural dominance that they had in the mid-1980's, they have achieved a cultural power that is seemingly unassailable. In short, the Autobots are here to stay!