27 March 2019
Transformers are about more than the toys you see at the supermarket, with Takara and Hasbro increasingly catering to a growing high-end collector market.
The Transformers toy line, like any other long-running toy series, has undergone any number of revisions and reinventions. It had to, of course, to stay relevant for over 30 years. Amazingly, however, the line that has grown to become its premier collectors’ series came into being as an afterthought.
Back in the early 2000s, Japanese company Takara – which co-develops much of the Transformers toy line with rights holder Hasbro – was working on a new toy series called Binaltech (or, as it was known in the West, Alternators). The series took recognisable Transformers characters and gave them licensed vehicle modes based on cars such as the Subaru Impreza, Mazda RX-8 and Ford Mustang. As part of this line, Takara wanted to make a brand new premium version of the brand’s most iconic character, Optimus Prime, whose trailer would be large enough to accommodate the series’ 1/24 scale cars.
It was fairly late in the day that this version of Optimus was instead given its own branding, becoming the first Transformers Masterpiece. His release was to mark to the 20th anniversary of the Transformers brand.
MP-1, as he was called, was a huge hit upon its launch in 2003, both in Japan and in the international markets where Hasbro exported him. Never before had such an animation-accurate version of the character existed. The use of diecast, and the inclusion of accessories that allowed him to recreate scenes from the cartoon, gave him a feel unlike any previous release.
Furthermore, his success proved that fans were willing to pay well beyond the accepted norms of the mainline toy series for these high-end collectable items. It would be a long wait before this was to be successfully converted into a profitable business, however.
It took some time for the Masterpiece line to get going. The next release, MP-2 did not arrive until 2005, and even then it was only a white repaint of the MP-1 toy sold as fellow Autobot Ultra Magnus. The design called back to the Generation 1 Ultra Magnus toy, which used a white version of the Optimus figure that plugged into the rear of the armour to form the full figure.
Fans had to wait until 2006 to get a brand new Masterpiece. MP-3 brought Decepticon lieutenant Starscream to life, although he wasn’t quite as fans remembered. The white of the toy and cartoon character had been replaced by an off greeny grey, and the design of the robot, which was said to mimic a samurai carrying two sheathed swords, also strayed far from the original source. In a toy line that was all about celebrating cartoon accuracy, this to some suddenly felt like an odd sideways step.
Following a re-release of MP-1 in the guise of MP-4 Convoy Perfect Edition, 2007 saw Optimus’ rival and Decepticon leader Megatron receive the Masterpiece treatment for the first time. However, designer Hisashi Yuki was famously given just 12 days to design the figure, and sadly it showed. As remarkable an achievement as it was to create something of this complexity in such a small time frame, MP-5 was just as disproportioned as the original toy. The release was largely met with disappointment, and many feared that the Masterpiece idea was already straying dangerously off-track.
Two further Starscream repaints, MP-6 Skywarp and MP-7 Thundercracker, were released in 2007 and 2008, and it wasn’t until 2009 when the next new design arrived, MP-8 Grimlock. Although the official Masterpiece line reboot would follow later, this was the moment when it felt like finally the promises on which the entire line were founded were starting to come to fruition. MP-8 offered a level of cartoon accuracy surpassing even MP-1, and also for the first time felt like a model that had been designed for the joy of play as much as looking good on the shelf.
The next release was just as popular. Despite fragility concerns surrounding the quality of its joints and a fairly complex transformation, MP-9 Rodimus Prime arrived in 2011 and was very well received. It was the cartoon come to life. Takara was finally realising the potential of the series, and success that followed proves that fans were certainly more than ready.