The GoBots -- or Machine Robo, as they were called in Japan -- are a bona-fide piece of otaku history. They debuted in Japan in 1982, a full two years before the Transformers would make their splash abroad, and came with, what seems in retrospect, an incredible pedigree. They were created by the legendary toymaker Popy. They were designed by Katsushi Murakami, the guy who oversaw the Chogokin series. Actually, they're kind of historic.
And kind of forgotten, even by a robo-nerd like me. Until one night, a few years back, when Patrick and I were having drinks with a couple of Bandai execs. Out of the blue, one of them blurted: "what the hell ever happened with the Machine Robo toys in the US? They were HUGE here! But in America..."
Man, where to start? Back when I was a kid, showing off your GoBots was a quick way to get your ass laughed off the schoolyard. Not because you were a nerd. We were eleven. All of us were nerds. But because everyone knew the Transformers were cooler. The GoBots were smaller. They were simpler. They were cheaper. It didn't help that Tonka, the company that imported them from Japan, gave them names that sounded half-assed even to fourth graders: "Fitor." "Cy-Kill." "Cop-tur." Or that the animated series they sponsored looked like something we'd made in art class ourselves. Sure, there were a few oddballs who admitted to liking them, like that kid down the street who bragged about having every single one. But behind their backs, we'd wonder about how their parents had gone so, so wrong in the toy aisle. ("Maybe they're having some issues at home," we'd theorize. "Or perhaps they're Amish or something.")
It didn't matter that the GoBots had an incredible pedigree -- this was way before "Made in Japan" became a badge of honor. It didn't matter that some of the best minds in the Japanese toy biz created them, that they featured some pretty amazing gimmicks for their price and size. If Tonka had spun them the way they'd been spun to great success in Japan -- as high-precision playthings, the robot equivalent of Swiss watches, cutting-edge technology miniaturized to the size of a Hot Wheels car -- they might have stood a chance. But instead, kids inevitably compared them to a series that did a far better job of giving storylines and personalities to a bunch of plastic toys. When the fate of the universe is at stake, who ya gonna call? "Optimus Prime," or some guy named "Fitor?"
"Naruhodo," said the exec. "I see." And while the conversation moved on to other topics, a weird fascination with "the little robots that couldn't" remained. A few weeks back, I broke down and acquired the first ten or so Machine Robo toys. I keep telling myself it's because they're a window into Japanese toy-history. But deep down inside, I think we all know the truth. Now I can finally tell that kid who used to live down the street from me that my GoBots collection is better than his.