How I Learned to Like Transformers

As a kid in the 1980s, I never really was a fan of the Transformers. I’m not really sure why. No, I was too busy finding broken shovel handles and beating the living hell out of dirt piles in the back yard while acting like I was Donatello, the nerdy but butt-kicking ninja turtle. If anything, it gave me an excuse to eat more pizza.

Transformers fanhood instead went to my best friend, who would show up to class with a new Transformers toy every Friday for Show and Tell with what seemed like frightening religious dedication, and I learned more about each character’s abilities and motivations from these mesmerizing sessions than I ever actually learned from the TV series or the comic books. The girls in our class would timidly shield Their Little Ponies and Care Bears every time a gun suddenly appeared on Megatron, since my friend was so passionate about his toys that they seemed like they’d actually start shooting. If he still has all those action figures, I imagine he could get enough cash to start filming a Transformers film of his own.

Above: Something tells me I was watching Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers when this happened. Is that bad?

Flash forward about twenty years. Michael Bay’s Transformers movie comes out, surprisingly entertaining enough, but occasionally ruining what few memories I had of the series with images like Bumblebee peeing on a guy like some drunk wino on State Street. And since one pee joke is never enough, we also have to see a trembling Chihuahua peeing on Ironhide in the same film. Even so, I actually really liked the first movie and it stirred some interest in the series, but I have many more memories of Megan Fox than I have of Optimus Prime. I suspect that was the intention all along. (Also, my wife has always been a Transformers fan, and she has a cousin who collected the action figures even more religiously than my best friend, and he actually later used the collection to earn himself a little cash toward his engineering degree. My wife thought the first movie was awesome, and she insists I say so in this article.)

The second movie, as we all know, was a dismal wreck. I just happened to watch it at a drive-in movie theater (yes, they still exist!) in the far west suburbs as part of a double feature with G.I. Joe. Truth be told, it was hard to tell when one movie ended and the other began, and there was so much boompow going on that the speakers might as well have just been spouting static. When one of the reels burned halfway through the film—resulting in a loss of about 20 minutes of viewing time—we weren’t even aware that we’d missed anything when the action started again.

Now, flash forward to last Thursday. A friend of mine from Canada had been all but begging me to get Transformers: War for Cybertron for a couple of weeks, even resorting to saying that it was on his short list for Game of the Year. Of course I scoffed—it was a Transformers game, after all, and it’s all but gospel that games based on toys and the like are usually punishingly bad. I even checked the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April. On a whim, I ordered the game from GameFly, and the popularity was such that I had to wait over a week before I received a copy. Expecting to shut the game off in about an hour, I popped the disk into my system and, well, was pretty much up all night.

I loved it.

Oh, sure, the plot has more MacGuffins than Scotland, and the combat largely draws from well-established shooters with little inspiration. The enemies can get repetitive, the lack of a real cover mechanic flat out sucks, you’re CONSTANTLY hunting down extra ammo, and your AI compatriots might as well be plastic Hasbro toys you brought along for the ride. Yes, yes, I get all that, and if I were called on to give it a review I would give it a sound thumping. If you’re simply interested in playing the ever-evasive Good Shooter, you’ll probably be better off avoiding War for Cybertron.

But this is truly a fan’s game—with all the good and bad that entails—and while playing, I got caught up in the nostalgia that all of us 80s kids are prone to. The intentionally cheesy lines are used to perfection and at all the right times –”Lord Megatron!” “The pleasure is all yours!”—a welcome throwback to the days when cartoons like this weren’t afraid to take themselves less than seriously. By the end of the night, my wife and I were killing ourselves by mimicking the lines in other situations—”NOBODY makes delicious blueberry muffins like STARSCREAM!” (that’s my wife’s)—and laughing at some of the situations the characters found themselves in. While intriguing at times, the plot definitely has that 80s-cartoon feel, which was no doubt intentional and all the more enjoyable for that fact alone. Transformers, I realized, was fun.

Above: I’m quite sure environmentalists see something like this in their worst nightmares.

I think what hooked me most was the interaction, since playing a game so lovingly fan-based as this forces you to focus on the action and the characters. Indeed, this interaction is one of the main things that sets video games apart from passive forms of entertainment like movies. Unlike many shooters, there’s almost constant dialogue between characters, ranging from story-based lines in mid-movement to often laugh-out-loud lines when you pick up extra ammo. This makes the War for Cybertron seem like a long cartoon just as much as a game, and while I’m already forgetting some plot details and some combat situations, I still find myself smiling at some of the lines. For someone with even a smidge of interest in the 1980s series, this goes a long way toward making the mistakes above forgivable. Suddenly, mouth open wide, I cared about why Starscream had teamed with Megatron—admittedly in a weekday afternoon kind of way. Suddenly I found myself wondering how Optimus and Bumblebee were going to get out of one predicament with no weapons. I was playing a game that gave attention to characterization and the interactions between only on the Transformers themselves and not on the best shot of Megan Fox’s rear. I know it was cheesy, but by the Allspark, I cared. Going back over my memories of my best friend’s passion for Transformers that I had always politely ignored, I suddenly felt like I had missed out.

By the end of the night, I somehow ended up in front of the computer, combing through pages on Amazon looking for the best deals on boxed sets of the early cartoon series and an Optimus Prime figure for my office. What was wrong with me?

Toward the end of the day on Friday, a message popped up on Facebook from one of my cousins in Texas asking if I was going to see the filming of Transformers 3 here in Chicago. Wide-eyed surprise. I look out my office window out towards Michigan Avenue, and sure enough, trucks for movie crews packed the streets and smoke was rising from the area around the Michigan Avenue Bridge. I ran Google searches for more information. So close! How could I not be aware of it? It turns out that Michael Bay and company would be in town for a good part of the week filming key scenes for the new movie, mainly on Michigan Avenue and Wabash Avenue. Since thoughts of War for Cybertron had flitted through my head for most of the day, it seemed like too great of a coincidence. Suddenly I couldn’t leave work fast enough. I finished my assignments for the day, cursing that for some reason I had left my good camera at home and was equipped with only my iPhone 3G pinhole.

Above: Wreckage for Transformers 3 in storage in a Chicago parking lot.

Pioneer Court was a glorious wreck. (For fans of Resistance 2, this is near where you emerge from a Chicago building and see the big alien for the first time. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in any American city.) Warped arms of steel and blocks of concrete jutted from the street. Burnt-out cars lie wrecked on Michigan Avenue. Smoke drifted up towards the spires of the Tribune and Wrigley buildings. Nearby, one draped under tarp, were the cars meant to represent Ratchet, Bumblebee, and other Transformers. And off in the distance, yelling into a megaphone (that’s right, megaphone), was Michael Bay himself. It was a moment of open public geekery that I hadn’t experienced since Trilogy Tuesday back in 2003.

Above: Wreckage in Pioneer Court.

Of course I was conflicted. Here in the midst of my Transformers rediscovery was the man that many believe had simultaneously revived and harmed the franchise. Yet all this thrilled me. After listening to various people in the crowd, I learned with fascination that this new movie is supposed to be “much more character-based” with “less explosions.” A group of people my age—geeked out in Decepticon and Autobots shirts—said that the new movie was supposed to be the most faithful to the original series. Indeed, in an interview with USA Today, Bay himself says that the “dorky comedy” will be gone in the next film and that the characters who die will stay dead. While it’s highly doubtful that Bay is going to pull a Return of the King out of his hat, I’m ready to give the films another chance on this basis alone.

Meanwhile, back on Michigan Avenue, crowds thronged to watch Shia LaBeouf, The New Girl (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and a bunch of buff guys in S.W.A.T. outfits run back and forth across the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Cheers went up each time they made it to the other side as though the Cubs had just hit a home run. This was repeated with greater intensity when they switched to doing the same thing with the cars. It was obvious that the whole crowed loved this. Movies and television shows are filmed in Chicago fairly often, but only rarely do they get this kind of reception.

Above: The best shot I managed to get of Shia LaBeouf.

As you might imagine, however, there were no Transformers. People joked (rightly) that in post-production they were going to have to put them in and take us out. Still, with the wreckage nearby consisting of recognizable parts of buildings and overturned CTA buses, it was at least possible to imagine a bunch of giant robots slugging it out down the Magnificent Mile. Particularly with the wreckage in Pioneer Court, it was easy to believe that they were just around the corner or perched on the Tribune Building just out of sight. We all saw the cars, of course, but there were no scale models of Optimus Prime or anyone else. I enjoyed it all enough that I brought my wife back the next day to see the set. And when I got home that night, my experience on the movie set made me enjoy the game even more.

Whatever its failings as a shooter, Transformers: War for Cybertron made me get Transformers and prepared me for the intense interest I had on the set last Friday and Saturday. I may still not love Transformers, but at least my interest is strongly piqued. That’s a rare success for any game. Had War for Cybertron ironed out the kinks in the combat and perhaps worked on the story a tad more, I’m quite sure this game would have been more of a masterpiece for the Transformers universe than any movie could be. Will I start memorizing character names and debating the various strengths of Starscream’s different appearances over the last two decades? Likely not. Do I believe that everyone will have the same experience I had? Laughably out of the question. Will I sit down and watch all of the 1980s cartoons from start to finish? Well, quite possibly. By becoming part of an extended episode of the old series, so to speak, complete with breathtaking 21st century visuals and updated character models that nevertheless strongly recalled the Transformers’ original forms, I suddenly saw the original series in a new light and was curious to see where the story goes next.

In short, the strides taken to recreate the feel of the original cartoon series both by High Moon Studios and hopefully Michael Bay are a good thing for the Transformers, and it’s good to see that they received the same fan-inspired attention that Batman received in the form of Arkham Asylum. (And before you nuts in the back start protesting, I’ll add that I don’t believe War for Cybertron is anywhere near as good a game as Arkham Asylum.) High Moon Studios and others are simply realizing that you don’t have to completely reinvent a popular comic book or cartoon franchise to be successful with it; instead sometimes it’s better just to give the fans what they want, and it’s especially helpful to have developers who actually enjoyed the series—as seems obvious with War for Cybertron. With games such as this and the new, supposedly character-driven Transformers film, maybe there’s a bright future for the Transformers after all.

At times I believe that the intense interest is just a personal fad, similar to a love affair my wife and I had when she made me revisit the Thundercats two years ago, and perhaps part of my sudden interest can be attributed to Transformers overload springing from the uncanny timing of Transformers 3 being filmed in here in Chicago. But I know one thing–it took over 25 years, but War for Cybertron created at least one new Transformers fan. I for one can’t wait to see what the sequel has in store.

Roll out.

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