In 2003, Transformers Armada hit its stride and took everyone by storm, exceeding demands and giving fans a long-awaited toy in the form of a supreme class Unicron! The series also launched in Japan under the name Micron Legend where it enjoyed moderate popularity, though Japanese fans could not get enough of the Mini-Cons, called Microns in Japan. The Transformers comics by Dreamwave continued with more miniseries including War & Peace, the second series set in the “modern day” of Dreamwave’s Generation 1 universe. Simon Furman carried on his work, penning the remaining 12 issues of Transformers Armada, as well as the important War Within: The Dark Ages miniseries. Comics were an area of major expansion, as both Dreamwave and Devil’s Due published G.I. Joe VS Transformers crossovers, the first in over 10 years. The UK even got its own dedicated (but short lived) Transformers Armada comic from Panini. Even the toyline underwent expansion, with the new Transformers Universe line launching in June-July as a side-line running parallel to the Transformers Armada toyline, and a short-lived Wal-Mart exclusive Dinobots sideline. The Transformers Armada cartoon series continued through 2003, concluding its 52 episode run. The show quickly evolved from its “retrieve the Mini-Con of the week” format as the overarching storylines began to kick in. New allies and enemies were introduced including Thrust, Jetfire and Tidal Wave, along with new Mini-Con weapons, the Skyboom shield and the Requiem Blaster. During the struggle for control of the Blaster, Smokescreen was slain in one of the most graphic deaths a Transformer has ever seen. (He was revived the following episode as Hoist, somewhat negating the impact of the death, though)
Starscream got a strong character arc in the latter part of the series as he wrestled with his true loyalties, which led to him briefly joining the Autobots for a time, and form bonds with the Autobots’ human friends, particularly Alexis. Optimus Prime was slain in the show’s 39th episode, but soon got better. In the final 13 episodes, subtitled “The Unicron Battles”, the battle moved from Earth to Cybertron, and the story arc moved away from the quest for the Mini-cons and on to stopping Unicron, prompting an Autobot-Decepticon alliance the likes of which had never been seen in a Transformers show before. The show’s finale, notably, was much more violent than most of the rest of the series, and had Optimus Prime and Megatron – now Galvatron – fight each other to the death, brutally.
Transformers Armada toys from 2003, including a selection of the “Powerlinx” redecos of the earlier toys from the line[/size]
The Transformers Armada toyline continued, running alongside the cartoon and bringing out more toy releases. The line was a hit, so much so that demand for Transformers Armada toys would prompt Hasbro to draft in some Beast Wars Transmetal toys to make up numbers and meet the demand. Later releases in the line also included the likes of Wheeljack, a former Autobot turned Decepticon (Aaron Archer confirmed they had given the name Wheeljack to the character because of how it sounded like carjack). Wheeljack was effectively a Powermaster – he needed a Mini-Con to pop his vehicle mode doors open to allow him to transform. One of the most infamously bad Transformers toys ever was released in the Armada line. Armada Sideswipe had a decent car mode, but his robot mode was hampered by excessively large vehicle parts sticking out on the legs and limited movement.
The larger size classes included a Max-Con, Overload, who was effectively a Headmaster and also featured the classic transformation sound effect when the Mini-Con was attached to the robot mode. Starscream was redecoed twice, once as Thundercracker, and once again as Skywarp – the latter of whom was not released in Japan as a part of the Micron Legend toyline, but found his way to Japanese retail as a USA edition, like many of the Unicron Trilogy’s USA only releases.
In the Giga-Con size class, Tidal Wave was another cool release in the series – he could transform between robot mode and a space battleship mode, or split up into three smaller vehicles, effectively a one robot fleet. He could also combine with Megatron.
The latter assortments of Mini-Cons included some triple-changing Mini-Cons. These Mini-Cons could transform into robots, vehicles or weapons – something which fans had been requesting from the earliest assortments hitting the shelves.
The success of Transformers Armada is impossible to understate. Going into Transformers Armada, Hasbro had stated it was their intention to take a “Final Fantasy” approach to storytelling, with the line renewing every 18 months or so with a new series in a new continuity, effectively rebooting the franchise on a regular basis. The runaway success of Armada – as evidenced in the need to introduce a whole extra wave made up of retooled Beast Wars toys – changed these plans, and shifted the next line over into being a direct sequel instead of a reboot. In effect, the entire continuity fans have come to call the Unicron Trilogy was born out of the success of Transformers Armada in 2002 and 2003.
Transformers Armada Unicron. This was the first time Unicron had been represented in toy form, although attempts had been made in the Generation 1 and Beast Wars Neo lines to make a toy of Unicron available.[/size]
The crown jewel of the 2003 Armada toyline was the Supreme class Unicron, the first ever toy representation of the Chaos Bringer. Unicron featured a selection of gimmicks including light up eyes and a chest mounted cannon that unfurled and fired in a rather cool fashion. He came with his own Mini-Con partner Dead End, who was a moon – the original plan for this character, though, was to call him Gobotron in a jab at the Transformers’ 1980s rivals. Unicron was an excellent release and a real love-letter to the fans from the Hasbro design team.
The latter waves of the line saw most of the toys released getting second “Powerlinx” decos. Some of these, like Hot Shot’s red Hot Rod deco, were featured in the show, while others like the brown “Dirge” version of Thrust were not. While repaints and redecos had always been a part of the Transformers line, the sheer scale of it in the Armada line was beyond anything ever before (granted, some of the redecos were extremely cool).
In 2003 Transformers Armada was released in Japan under the name of “Transformers: Micron Legend”, which is sometimes translated as “Legend of the Microns”. Many names were changed, including renaming the Mini-Cons to Microns, Optimus Prime to Convoy and Hot Shot to Hot Rod. The toys who featured in the show all saw a release in Japan, some with modified decos or additional paint applications – notably, the Japanese release of Hot Shot featured a light up fist not present on the US version. The Micron Legend Tidal Wave, called Shockwave, also featured a deco closer to his in-show color scheme. The figures were sold individually but there were also special packs of individual robots with Micron three packs bundled in. Unique to Japan were several Micron three-pack redecos, called “X-Dimension” redecos. There were also a slew of store exclusive Micron giveaways to promote the line, generally of the “spend 3,000 or more yen on Transformers to get the bonus figure” variety. The trend started in the Micron Legend series, and the popularity of the Microns and other smaller Transformers in Japan has meant that similar giveaways have accompanied many lines since this point.
The Micron Legend series was released on DVD as the show progressed, with the 52 episodes released across 13 3 episode volumes. Each DVD volume included a bonus Micron (the first volume came with a team of three), as well as a bonus three page comic chapter for a story called “Linkage”. The story arc concerned the Super Stunt Team and their human friend Stella Holley as they faced off against a trio of evil Microns who served Unicron. The comic told a solid story in its own right, and it filled in some of the blanks left in the main series.
Takara rebranded their SCF series following the release of Micron Legend, to better tie in with the new series. A further two acts of the regular SCF figures followed, covering the core cast from the initial 15 or so episodes of the series. The chase figures notably were the only physical representations of the Cybertron modes of Convoy, Megatron and Red Alert (who was known as Ratchet in Japan). The Mega SCF series followed suit, with a further six releases covering regular and super mode Convoy, Megatron, Hot Rod, Starscream, and Demolishor (who was called Ironhide in Japan). Each of these new Mega SCFs were accompanied by PVC versions of their partner Microns.
Takara did not forget about the fans who liked classic Transformers though, and they released a series of three assortments of MyClone Transformers. The MyClones were poseable, super-deformed PVC figures who could be disassembled and their parts swapped with other MyClones to create custom combinations. Like the SCF series, the MyClone Transformers series featured six regular releases per wave, and two chases.
Another series of Transformers released in a similar format in 2003 were the Smallest Transforming Transformers series, more commonly referred to as World’s Smallest Transformers or WST. These figures recreated the classic Generation 1 Transformers in miniature – and they were tiny, smaller even than Micromasters and more intricate. The smallest of them all was Ravage, who was included with Soundwave and could even fit in Soundwave’s chest. Like the MyClones and SCF series releases, there were six regular releases and two chase releases per wave. There were two waves of releases, one in 2003 and one in 2004. A third “wave 2.5” repacking five popular characters from the first two waves and one new toy, Hot Rodimus, was also released in 2004 to select retail stores. A proper third wave, which would have included Skids, Tracks and Megatron’s stock and silencer parts, was planned but never produced. While short-lived, fans loved the line and several unofficial WST releases have been released in the years since.
The final releases under the Transformers: Robots in Disguise branding prefigured the launch of Transformers Universe, and featured a mix of recent toys and toys drawn from the Generation 2 line. Photo from the collection of Tony_Bacala.[/size]
The Robots in Disguise series, which had transitioned to a secondary role under Transformers Armada, saw its final releases in 2003. An “urban camo” version of Ruination was released along with redecos of the store exclusive Megabolt Megatron – just called “Megabolt” on this release – and a redeco of Beast Machines Jetstorm as Jhiaxus. The Generation 2 Combat Hero Optimus Prime and Megatron were redecoed as “Destructicons” in Transformers Armada styled packaging as Scourge and Bludgeon, and the Dreadwing & Smokescreen ATB was also re-released. The yellow version of Landfill, pictured above, was a Wal-Mart exclusive on Black Friday 2003.
With demand for Transformers toys soaring, Hasbro launched the Dinobots subline as a Wal-Mart exclusive in March 2003. Like the previous Beast Machines Dinobots assortment, the subline released the Beast Wars Neo dinosaur molds – including a couple who had missed out on being included the last time out, like Slapper the ankylosaurus and Sludge the dimetrodan. The six toys in the set were sold as two-packs, with a Basic class toy and a Deluxe class toy in each package. The line featured Generation 1 decos, and were some of the rarest releases in the Transformers line from the last decade. And although people buying at retail and reselling for a higher price had been an issue before this, it was around this time that the term scalping started to be widely used in the Transformers fandom to describe the practice. The line also notably had a variant on the Grimlock set, where the pteranodon included with him would be called either Autobot Swoop or Terranotron – initial shipments named him Swoop, but a running change swapped the name to Terranotron.
The Transformers Universe in its run incorporated toys from Transformers Generation 1 all the way through to the then-current Transformers Armada and Energon. Shown here are a selection of the Robots in Disguise Toys released in the line during its run. Photo from collection of Tony_Bacala.[/size]
More redecos of old toys following in June 2003 when Hasbro launched the Transformers Universe line. Transformers Universe was a line made up solely of repainted and redecoed toys. The idea behind it was to provide a way to get more Transformers toys on to the market to meet the burgeoning demands from retailers. Transformers Universe took over from Robots in Disguise as the catch-all name which store exclusive redecos were released under. The line was praised for the fact it made some of the better toys of the Beast Era and earlier available once again, though the choice of decos on some of the toys and the use of gradient “Energon” details drew some criticism. The line lasted until 2005, though it never enjoyed the level of success as the mainline releases. One of the Universe line’s greatest achievements was that it was a vehicle to get some Japanese Transformers toys out on the market, including the Japanese Micromaster Combiner reissues.
2003 saw Hasbro’s first foray into building block toys with the Built to Rule series. Built to Rule was an attempt at crossing Transformers with Lego, essentially. While a cool idea in concept (who hasn’t tried to make a transforming robot from their Lego cars?) the execution was deeply flawed, leading to some very flat looking, awkward robots. A second series based on Transformers Energon was planned for 2004 and was released to a test market, and truth be told was an improvement in aesthetics over the weak Armada offerings, but for all intents and purposes, the line disappeared with the end of the Armada branded sets in 2003.
Retailer incentive cover to Dreamwave’s Transformers Volume 2 issue #6.[/size]
On the comics front Dreamwave continued to publish new Transformers comics, including the “War and Peace” six issue miniseries. A direct follow on to Prime Directive, War and Peace established that while the Autobots had been on Earth, Shockwave had pacified Cybertron, uniting the whole planet behind his banner, but at the same time, he had sinister designs of his own involving the planet’s central computer Vector Sigma. This miniseries was generally better received than the first miniseries, due to a stronger plot and the fact that the series jumped right into the action. One particularly memorable moment in the series came in the final issue, where Ultra Magnus in his fight against Shockwave ejected from his armor, emerging as a white version of Optimus Prime – the first time in fiction that the inner Ultra Magnus from the original toy was depicted (and perhaps kicking off a trend of white Optimus Prime repaints). Each issue of the six issue series had at least two cover variants, the main ones of which were Autobot and a Decepticon variants which shipped in an equal ratio. These two variant covers for any given issue could be put together to show a larger scene.
Transformers War Within: The Dark Ages issue #4 cover, featuring Grimlock, Jetfire and The Fallen[/size]
The War Within also returned with a second volume, titled The Dark Ages. This important miniseries took place against the backdrop of a Cybertron without Optimus Prime or Megatron – within the first pages of the issue, a Spacebridge accident claimed them both. Without their leader both Autobots and Decepticons splintered, producing factions like the Lightning Strike Coalition and the Ultracons – factions who have occasionally been referenced in later fiction, especially the Lightning Strike Coalition. Amid the chaos of this setting came The Fallen – one of the first 13 Transformers, and the first one to be identified as such within the canon. The Fallen pursued an agenda of his own, seeking to revive Primus and gathering the four Transformers he needed to act as keys to do it (prefiguring a plot development in the later Transformers Cybertron show where four keys were needed to awaken Primus). The Fallen and his tie with the origins of the Transformers would be referenced in the second Transformers live-action movie, as well as implied in the backstory of Transformers Prime.
A Generation 1 profile book series was also released, titled More than Meets the Eye. The series had a troubled production, with the original solicits for a four issue miniseries outsourced to Destination Entertainment. The first issue of this version of the profile book was to have arrived in December 2002, but Destination Entertainment took too many liberties with the project and were removed from the project. The eight issue version which we got instead was published starting in April 2003 and followed the style of the original Marvel Transformers Universe profile books. All of the 1984 – 1990 Transformers got profiles in these books, with some of the profiles written from the perspectives of other characters. The series was well-received among fans, particularly because it gave personalities and backstories to many of the later Generation 1 characters who never had any sort of characterization before, as well as staying true to existing personalities wherever possible.
Dreamwave’s Transformers Armada issue #14 cover, part one of the four part “Worlds Collide” arc which pitted the Armada cast up against classic Generation 1 Decepticons like Galvatron[/size]
Dreamwave’s Transformers Armada comic continued in 2003 with Simon Furman stepping in to write the series. The year’s worth of stories kicked off with a story involving the forging of the Star Saber, before flying headlong into the “Worlds Collide” story which pitted the Transformers Armada cast against the likes of Generation 1 Bludgeon, Thunderwing, Galvatron and Dirge, who were serving Unicron as heralds. This was followed by the arrival of Unicron in the comics, and established the idea that in all of the Transformers multiverse, Unicron was a singular entity who had the power to transcend realities, and although this idea has been occasionally played with since, it’s a concept that tends to be ignored.
Panini released a short-lived Transformers Armada comic in the UK in 2003. The comic was written by Simon Furman, and like the classic Marvel UK Generation 1 comics consisted of a main story and a back-up story in each issue. Each issue’s main story would feature the Autobots and Decepticons fighting to claim the Mini-Cons, while the back-up stories were titled “Tales of the Mini-Cons” and delved into the adventures and histories of the Mini-Cons themselves. The series did not sell particularly well and was cancelled after nine issues.
Devil’s Due’s G.I. Joe VS Transformers issue #4 cover art[/size]
Transformers and G.I. Joe had been the subject of crossover stories in the past – including the story arc which set up the Transformers Generation 2 series – but it had been ten years since the two franchises last met. With G.I. Joe at this point in the hands of Devil’s Due Press and Transformers at Dreamwave, fans were treated to not one, but two Transformers and G.I. Joe crossovers in 2003.
The Dreamwave produced Transformers / G.I. Joe crossover was set in the late 1930s, and featured Cobra using the Matrix to awaken the Decepticons and use them to ravage Europe, prompting the deployment of G.I. Joe to counter them and a teamup with the Autobots. The series was done in a gritty style which made the series hard to follow – a pity as the Transformers were redesigned with alternate modes to fit the time period.
The Devil’s Due G.I. Joe VS The Transformers series was set in a modern era, where Cobra had found the Ark and the Transformers within. They had rebuilt and reformatted all the Transformers inside – Autobot and Decepticon – into vehicles you would associate with Cobra, for example, a HISS Tank Optimus Prime. The series was written with a huge sense of fun, and never takes itself too seriously, which makes it a very enjoyable read. Later miniseries published in 2004, 2006 and 2007 carried on the lighter approach to this alternate crossover continuity, with the respective subsequent series featuring time travel, an organic robot based on longtime G.I. Joe villain Serpentor acquiring the Matrix, and an alliance between G.I. Joe the Movie villains Cobra-La and Transformers the Movie villain Unicron.
Opening cinematic to Winkysoft’s Transformers for PS2. Uploaded to Youtube by Sesq0.[/size]
In October 2003 Winkysoft released a Transformers Generation 1 themed game for the Playstation 2. The game, which featured English voice acting and subtitles yet never got a US release, allowed you to play as both Autobots and Decepticons. Each stage let you take a team of three characters through wave upon wave of enemies, with lots of characters to choose from. The game was not particularly well received, due to its extremely repetitive and frankly dull gameplay. It was, however, a blast to blaze through waves of Decepticons as Hot Rod, with Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus backing you up.
The expansion of Transformers into other media continued in 2003, with the publication of a trilogy of Transformers novels. The novels were nominally set in the Dreamwave continuity, but had some continuity errors with those stories. The trio of novels concerned an alien race, known as the Keepers, who abduct humans and Transformers for sadistic experiments, before making a move to invade the Earth, all while Starscream and the Decepticons attempt to invade Las Vegas. The Keepers are antagonists in all three novels, hence the trilogy is sometimes known as “The Keepers Trilogy”. The first novel, Hardwired by Scott Ciencin, was greatly criticized for the amount of gore and sexual undertones injected into the stories, although the later two novels by David Cian reduced this dramatically and were improved.
2003 saw a change in the official Transformers convention. The Hartmans, who founded the convention, parted ways with 3H and as they owned the rights to the Botcon name, the convention was renamed to the “Official Transformers Collectors Convention” or “OTFCC”. The convention in 2003 was held in Chicago and introduced a “room exclusive” toy – convention attendees staying at the official convention hotel got a special exclusive toy. This was fine as a concept, except the toys were limited to one per room per day of the convention – and most fans tended to double up and save on hotel costs. Needless to say, the experiment was not repeated.
Possibly the single greatest development in 2003, though, came on June 10, 2003. On this day it was announced that Transformers would be adapted for the big screen…
2003 was one of the bigger growth years of Transformers. Transformers Armada was in full swing and the comics were doing well, and for the first time two Transformers lines ran simultaneously. Hasbro’s ambitions to widen the scope of the line were clear with the Built to Rule series, although these things are easy to pick out when looking back following the release of the Transformers movie and the subsequent development of the line.