I might daydream of flying, but that doesn’t mean I identify with a jet. I might desire a to be behind the wheel jazzy sports car, but I rarely imagine being a jazzy sports car. And the life of a cassette tape – hardly on my list of top candidates pending reincarnation. To get the imagination running on full cylinders (to use a self-contradictory metaphor), a Transformers toy has to evoke character. It has to convince us that it is a person and not a thing.
Perhaps most ready way to evoke character is through a face – that central medium for conveying identity, personality, and emotion.
Transformer designers have to think a lot about faces. After all, the insignias of the rival Transformer factions are themselves faces. The Autobots adopt a more human face with eyes, mouth, and nose as their symbol, whereas the Decepticons adopt one that is barely human—the only way to know it is a face is because it appears to have eyes. Which of the two factions is more sympathetic?
Obviously, this suggests that human faces will often be among the most successful or popular Transformer toys (although there are noteworthy exceptions). Consider the popularity of Prowl/Bluestreak/Smokescreen, Cliffjumper, Skids, Sideswipe/Red Alert, Inferno/Grapple. One thing these figures had in common were their more human faces.
Figures that had the least human faces often received the biggest overhauls for cartoon or comic variations—especially the G1 minibots (Bumblebee, Brawn, Huffer, Gears, Windcharger, Beachcomber). The third wave of minibots almost all had human faces, except Pipes.
Two of the weakest figures in the original Transformers line were Ironhide and Ratchet who shared a grotesque sticker for their faces (they are so bad that numerous third-party add-ons have been sold for vintage collectors tired of looking at their sorry mugs).
Just about every modern G1 resculpt has preferred to give the robot a more or less cartoon accurate human face sculpt over re-using the original toy’s face. If the original toys were so good, why wouldn’t we be clamoring for my authentic G1 depictions?
It is possible to push this argument too far, however. By the G1 animated movie toys, Hasbro had dropped some of its figures into the uncanny valley of human faces. Rodimus Prime’s bloated eyelids might have been too much, and the world was perhaps not ready for Scourge’s facial hair (although it's really his bulbous forehead that went too far). The G1 Galvatron toy, Kup, Blur, Hotrod, and...(shudder) Wheelie all had faces that might have been a little too-human, as if the face from a different toyline had been surgically implanted onto a robot. We seem to like humanoid faces, but they need one or two features to remind us that they are still robots (sometimes this is a “seam” running down from an eye, or maybe just a blocky metal goatee).
And sometimes the human face can fail. Megatron might have been a cool character, but his toy’s face did him no favors.
But, Tresob, you might be asking, surely some of the more robot-esque headsculpts worked. What about Optimus Prime? What about Soundwave?
Why thank you for asking: I have two quick answers to that.
First: Their heads evoked feudal helmets. Their shiny metal mouth-pieces are reminiscent of a knight’s beaver or a samurai’s warmask, and who hasn’t imagined themselves a medieval warrior?
Second: Noses. Optimus Prime’s toy has a more defined nose than Soudnwave’s, but both have ridges indicating nasal protuberance. This goes a long way in making something look more human than robotic. A nose, even if only decorative, suggests breathing. Breathing suggest life. Life is more identifiable than non-life. Plus, the suggestion of a nose also accentuates the toy’s eyes as such. Eyes, as old romantics are fond of saying, are the windows of the soul. Thus, noses suggest both spirit (breath) and soul. They make a face that looks like it is thinking something.
Less successful headsculpts are more distinctly robotic, less distinctly human, and therefore harder to sympathize with. The G1 Trailbreaker toy merely had a red visor as the only distinctive feature of its face. No nose. What part of his red visor am I supposed to look at? Are there two optics back there? Is he a cyclops? This made the toy less appealing (at least to me) than the Hoist remold, which used the knight/nose approach. Likewise, the G1 Bonecrusher merely had a silver square for a face. Hard to identify with that. Also, no nose.
I’d also suggest that faces with difficult to distinguish features are less successful. G1 Scavenger, while having a distinctive face, was always hard to look at. I was never really sure if he had a mouth. Most modern live action movie style figures suffer from this curse. They’ve all been gone over brutally with the ugly stick, leaving strange, impressionist depictions of quasi-human features. Similarly, Beast Wars toys often rendered faces that included features of the beast mode. This made little sense in terms of continuity. Why a robot in disguise would have a face that resembled its disguise beggars imagination. Does he only pick beast modes that remind him of his own face? Does he undergo cosmetic surgery every time he takes on a new beast mode? Most vehicle transformers do not incorporate features of their vehicle mode in their actual face. It’s not like Optimus Prime has a grill for a mouth and headlights for eyes. But I digress. My point is merely that Beast Wars faces were often ugly, unidentifiable and made the toys less appealing than the G1 figures.
Headsculpts as a category can also take into consideration other features than just the face. The Prowl/Bluestreak/Smokescreen figures not only had human faces, they also had crests that recalled samurai helmets. Always a plus. Bumblebee and Cliffjumper’s blunt head protrusions suggested little viking horns. Optimus Prime’s antennae made him look like a science-fiction space-commander. It’s not just the face: what frames it also matters (as a counter example, look at G1 Cyclonus’s ginormous and absurd cranium).
Two other kinds of exceptions might throw off my argument.
One exception is the Transformer that doesn’t have a humanoid robot mode. Where do figures like Laserbeak, Ravage, and Ratbat? The first two, I think, still uphold the argument. They both had well defined, interesting faces that got the job done. Ratbat, I’m not so sure about. The Ratbat toy was, in my opinion, pretty weak, and artists almost never depict him looking anything like his toy (the toy seems more like a fruit bat which is hardly as terrifying as the vampire bat he usually appears as).
The other argument is what to do with Shockwave. The guy has a blinking yellow light for a face, and, arguably, he wouldn’t look nearly as cool if he didn’t. This is a point I am willing to concede, and so would most Transformers writers. Rather than give him a face as it did with so many other minimalist-featured robots, the cartoons and comics kept Shockwave as he was. However, and this is an important negation, they write his character as cold, calculating, emotionless...almost purely robotic. It’s cool to have a figure like that, once in a while...but I don’t think it would carry a whole line. Did a lack of facial characteristics hamstring lines like Z-Bots, Androidz, or even Go-bots?
When thinking about why Transformers succeeded whereas so many other alien robot warrior toylines have failed, maybe it’s all in the face.