How a slightly wonky Transformers show gave us a proper video game classic

How a slightly wonky Transformers show gave us a proper video game classic

Good morning! Just to say: yes, Graeme wrote a nice retrospective of this game almost a decade ago and it’s a great read. But with the game once again on people’s minds, it was a welcome opportunity to revisit a true PS2 legend.

Did you know that Transformers turns 40 next year? Yes, the long-running franchise that started life as a (blindly successful) attempt to sell Japanese robot toys to American kids is almost as old as me. Being a fan of something for so long, especially when it’s never really taken a break, can be a little weird, because one day you’ll suddenly realize that the tracks you remember being newcomers are now old enough to vote and have children and everything. You know, if they were people and not cartoons and toys and so on.

Transformers Armada is one of those things. Released in 2002, the cartoon and accompanying toyline kicked off what has become known as the Unicron Trilogy, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The show was absolute reels, even before factoring in a lot of jank caused by production issues. While there were some great toys, many were hampered by assorted gadgets, which resulted in limited articulation and transformation to allow pee noises, flashing lights, and spring-loaded shutters.

There’s a part of the Transformers Armada media blitz that was pretty darn awesome and still holds up today. Surprisingly (unless you remember you’re reading this on a video game website), this is the PlayStation 2 link from 2004, simply titled Transformers. Developed by Melbourne House (possibly the first game developer my little brain has ever seen, thanks to Way of the Exploding Fist) and published by Atari, Transformers is a (mostly) third-person shooter that takes place over a series of open, sprawling levels. . From your base/hub/glorified level selection screen, you’ll choose one of three Autobots, which will almost certainly be Optimus Prime, and which of the unlocked levels you wish to travel to. Once you’ve arrived via Cybertronian’s advanced teleport trick, your job is to navigate the level, battling hordes of generic Decepticon grunts until you have a confrontation with the evil boss named at the end.


It’s superbly executed classic video game action. Optimus and chums have a solid weight to their movement, a satisfying inertia that conveys their size and weight, despite the scarcity of human-scale environments (and complete lack of humans) for comparison. While you can just run, guns blazing, enemies can soak up a lot of punishment and dish out a good amount of it. Instead, you might want to try a stealth sniper approach, switching to first-person mode (in which you can still move freely, it’s not just a zoom feature) and trying a few headshots before you fully commit.

Of course, you’re not limited to fighting on two legs either. Switch to vehicle mode (or alt mode, to use the correct lingo) and you can charge into a bunch of goons, knock them down, and leave them open to well-placed plasma canisters. Hit-and-run tactics can be very effective, and there’s often nothing stopping you from getting around them. High levels and predictable enemy patrols lend themselves to this type of planning. You can also just hit them, but that’s not great and if you’re desperate to do that, you should play Transformers: Devastation instead.

It’s a good foundation for a game, especially when you consider how many others just can’t master the fundamentals. But to see what really makes Transformers special, we need to go back to the source material and add a bonus story lesson. The Transformers brand has always been a convoluted mix of Japanese and American parts. The original toys were Japanese, licensed and rebranded by Hasbro and marketed with American-made cartoons and comics. After a few years, Hasbro started releasing its own original toys. Meanwhile, the Japanese company Takara imported the entire shebang to Japan, where it proved to be far more popular than the original toys it was based on. When the American line and cartoon began to falter, Takara created new toys and shows, resulting in a slew of weird and wonderful toys that are gold dust collectors today.

Transformers: Armada

Transformers: Armada.

Transformers Armada was the first real collaboration between Hasbro and Takara. The cartoon was made in Japan and turn of the century kids anime with international appeal could only mean one thing; it had to be pokemon.

It’s hard to overstate how huge Pokémon was, and how the resulting anime boom dictated the landscape of children’s television for years. While Transformers had always had human characters befriending the Autobots, Armada saw a cast of teenagers thrust to the fore, consisting of the classic trio of Heroic Protagonist Boy, Smart Girl, and Other Guy. More importantly, it introduced the tiny Minicons. Tiny Transformers weren’t new to the franchise, but this time it was all about them. Minicons were depicted as a third faction of robots that could be attached to their bigger brothers in order to increase their power. The cartoon was a scramble to catch as many little blighters as possible before the Decepticons did. The toys came with Minicon partners that could be plugged into various ports to activate the aforementioned gadgets.

In the game, Minicons were classic power-ups. Scattered throughout each level were a number of collectibles, some of which contained unlockable art and the like. Most of them, however, were much more exciting, containing a new Minicon to add to your arsenal. Up to four can be equipped at once, mapped to the four shoulder buttons, and granting a range of offensive, defensive, and support powers. These range from replacements for your base blaster to rockets, grenades, and shields. Some can dramatically improve certain playing styles when used live. Combine Lookout, the sniper rifle, with the increased range of the rangefinder and you can easily blast your way through entire groups of enemies before they can get close enough to get shot! Minicons are also sorted into color-coded teams and equipping two or more of the same color boosts your power, adding an extra layer of loadout planning, while also showing which ones can work well together.

Perhaps the most interesting Minicons are those that enhance your movement abilities, especially Slipstream, which acts as a glider pack. Each level clearly displays the number of collectibles available, and finalists will find that there are some they can’t even find, let alone reach, on their first visit. Transformers lets you revisit hub levels at any time, which opens an almost metroidvania loop back to completed areas with new powers to hunt down the latest Minicons, which in turn can allow for deeper exploration. Catch them all!

The absolute best of Transformers, the bit that has lodged in many people’s brains, even though they don’t remember anything from the rest of the game, is also a huge spoiler. If I convinced you to rush out and track down a copy of the game (not hard, it’s cheap as used chips and PS2’s aren’t really that rare if you don’t want to go wrong with emulation) so I suggest doing it now. See you!

Halfway through the game, you will find yourself somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, on a small island. You make your way through rocky outcroppings, before boarding a huge Decepticon ship and working your way through it, bridge by bridge. It’s intense, close combat and lots of fun. Reach the end and you’re treated to an impressive CGI cutscene as the entire level you just played morphs and rises, revealing the ship to be the massive Decepticon Tidal Wave. Who you must now fight, despite being considerably larger than you. This is, again, classic video game stuff perfectly married to the source material.

This is the heart of what makes Transformers such a gem. There’s not a single element that’s incredibly stunning or original and it looks about as good as you’d expect from a twenty-year-old PS2 game. Instead, it’s clearly thoughtfully designed, taking a rock-solid action game base and building on it using elements from the source material that add to and complement the core, instead of building on it. feel stuck to complete a checkbox exercise. Released in a time when everything had a hastily put together video game tie-in, it was easy to miss. While a lot of it seems a little gross now, it’s still an absolute blast and the perfect way to celebrate/compass Rise of the Beasts being brilliant/stupid!

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