The old-school Transformers were awesome. I do say rocked because I'm not as enthusiastic about the new designs. I've blogged about all that elsewhere, but I think I've figured out why these toys were so great.
I'll start with my ongoing toy-related vice, which is that I still buy and build Legos. Not just the amateur robotics Legos, which are sophisticated enough that engineers are the real target market anyway, but also the anime mecha Legos aimed squarely at kids.
The new kids' Legos are pretty cool. Kids today lose out when it comes to Transformers, unless they buy them imported from Japan, but they win in the Legos department. But it's not really because they're cool that I buy them. It's because they exercise a part of my brain which it's useful for me to exercise.
It's probably safe to say that every toy exercises some part of the brain, and the question of which part of the brain a given toy will exercise is a question worth asking for any parent (or indeed any sufficiently introspective kid). The old-school Transformers exercised three parts of the brain:
1. It's a car! Where is it driving to?
2. It's a robot, which is kind of like a person! How does it interact with the other robots?
3. It transforms, so it's a puzzle. Can you figure out the puzzle, or do you need the instructions? If you need the instructions, how quickly can you graduate from the instructions? Is the method in the instructions the safest and quickest method?
By the way, the answers to #2 could get pretty damn sophisticated if you took the time to think about it. Every Transformer had an official organizational role, and some of them were unimaginably specific. Most toys for boys involve guys who can beat each other up in a variety of ways. The Transformers had that, but they also had spies, analysts, a double agent, a supply chain tactitian, and even a fuel auditor. They had different personalities and philosophies, too. How does a grizzled veteran work on a team with an idealistic pacifist?
At the same time as you're exercizing your people skills in a toys for boys way - organizing teams for goals, etc. - you're also combining the geek power of puzzle toys with the mass appeal of simpler, more action-oriented toys. This combination of possibilities gives you a toy which is much better for a kid's growing brain than, say, the GI Joe jeep which drives around shooting people, which was a Transformer's primary competitor in the marketplace at that time. But I left out something important - an element of both strategy and of choosing which way to think at any particular moment. These toys actually exercised four parts of the brain:
4. It's engaged in a war against other robots which can also turn into vehicles, so how does it decide when it needs to be a robot and when it needs to be a car? In the case of a complicated transformation, is the payoff to solving the puzzle worth the effort?
This kind of layered mental stimulation is becoming normal for kids these days, as video games and narratives alike develop in sophistication.
Designing toys is probably a much, much more important part of defining a culture than people realize. The Transformers of the 1980s still even today kind of stand as a high point in that ongoing task.