Growing up, I thought my generation had the best toys:
Nerf blasters, laser tag, Game Boy, Legos in their prime, genuinely powerful Super Soakers, and of course, transforming action figures of all kinds. But I never did get into Transformers proper, because the slow-to-convert toys felt tedious compared to the show. I wound up settling for simpler toys like Key Force, all the while dreaming of the day Transformers could transform themselves.
If you’ve got the money and a hard floor, that day may have finally arrived.
For $750, Hasbro will now sell you a 19-inch-tall Optimus Prime robot that can literally unfold from a semi into a humanoid robot all by itself, and that’s just the start. Created by Robosen, a company that’s been building toward this moment for years, the new Optimus can pose; walk; dance; blast and slice; do push-ups; roll out and drive; even automatically simulate breathing, all while delivering a wide array of original lines from Optimus Prime’s voice actor Peter Cullen himself. It’s awesome.
After several lengthy play sessions, I was ready to say it’s one of the coolest toys ever made — until my unit seemingly broke while running some final tests yesterday evening.
Before I get into that and some other major limitations, a warning: this toy may sell out, or already be sold out, while you continue to read. Hasbro says it’s available in “limited quantities” starting at 1PM ET today, the same time I published this story, and the company wouldn’t tell me how many that means. As of 4:24PM ET, it appears that new orders will now be shipping in Spring 2022. Hasbro says the very first wave of orders from April should ship this November, and some items purchased on August 13th should ship in December, but that Spring 2022 date is correct for subsequent orders.
Another note: if you click links like this, you’ll find I illustrate a lot of my upcoming points with video clips!
Touchy programmable motors in disguise
The first thing you should probably understand about the “Transformers Optimus Prime Auto-Converting Programmable Robot” is that it’s more robot than toy — and I mean a dumb, programmable robot, not the intelligent learning kind. Don’t expect a posable action figure you can leave perched on a shelf: it needs a constant flow of electricity to its 27 servo motors to keep itself from collapsing into a pile of robotic joints on the ground.
Don’t expect big action-y strides while walking, either: Optimus has a remarkably dainty walk and has to shuffle his feet against the ground to turn, likely because his high center of gravity would make him tip over otherwise.
In fact, it’s such a balancing act that Optimus can’t even stand or walk if there’s the slightest amount of padding on your floor. My first hour with the leader of the Autobots was filled with disappointment as I tried carpet, rugs, mats, and the raised, grout-lined tiles of my kitchen floor only to watch Optimus flop on his face, or listen to constant “LEFT LEG IS STUCK, REBOOT TO RESTORE” alerts belching from the bot’s speaker.
Any time this happens, even if it’s just a wheel that could no longer turn after you drove into a pillow, you need to power off the entire system and start again. Simply repositioning the offending joint doesn’t help: if any of those 27 motors shuts down to protect itself, you’ll be interrupting play for 20 seconds to power down and power up again. Hasbro says it recommends a flat table, wooden floor, or tile surface.
At six pounds, Optimus is also heavy enough that I’m wary of having it around younger kids. My four-year-old loved watching and helping me play, but the bot doesn’t have any smarts to keep it from pinching fingers or toppling over if you bump into it. I even had a scare in the kitchen when the bot instantly powered off and dropped like a stone when I stabbed a button in the iOS app too many times.
While I’m talking rough edges, you’ll also want to temper your expectations around voice control: Google or Alexa this is not. While Hasbro makes it seem like you can just say, “Hey Optimus Prime” and begin shouting out a wide variety of commands, I found clearly enunciating even the very specific, well-defined phrases in the manual rarely worked, usually doing nothing at all — except the one that makes Optimus convert between semi and humanoid forms. Even then, you have to get the timing right.
But the biggest issue I’ve had, of course, is the one that seems to have grounded my borrowed Optimus Prime for good. I don’t know if it was that last fall or what, but his entire hip joint motor no longer functions as of yesterday evening. Hasbro wasn’t able to successfully troubleshoot it for me, but says buyers are covered under Robosen’s warranty. That’s one year against defects, but it requires buyers to pay for return shipping.
I’m hoping the breakage is a fluke — because that very first day, when I took Optimus out to my concrete slab patio and stopped relying on voice, I couldn’t stop grinning at this awesome toy.
More than meets the eye
Watching a genuine robot Optimus Prime come to life, fire up headlights and taillights, roll out, stand up, flash his electric blue eyes and visibly start breathing is an absolute trip. Delivering badass lines, dance poses, and doing push-ups: hell yes.
The high-density clamshell foam carrying case looks and feels great, as do his iconic ion blaster and fully translucent energon-axe — even if it’s very weird Robosen chose to tack on machine gun sounds instead of ion blasts. (Hasbro says the gun sound might change, but it’s not a sure thing.) There are loads of translucent and chromed-out details, too, and you can even flip open Optimus’s side mirrors and wrist communicators.
Originally, I expected the novelty would wear off after a few minutes, after I’d transformed back and forth a few times, listened to a dozen catchphrases and driven Optimus around. But after I got my first low battery warning after nearly two hours of play (a good showing for any R/C toy, much less one with 27 motors, lights and sound!), I was already ready to charge it back up and program some new moves myself.
Besides voice, there are four basic ways to play with Optimus using the iOS and Android app. First, there’s a limited, direct remote control where you move a virtual joystick to drive or walk around, plus buttons to transform, honk, slice, shoot, or trigger a random “action.” There’s absolutely room for improvement here: the virtual joystick is pretty sloppy, driving’s a little jerky, and for some reason Optimus kept honking when I turned, but it’s a great way to show off a range of motion quickly.
Or, you can fire a handful of actions on command: dabbing, firing a series of punches, delivering a gesture-filled speech about freedom, or striking a hero pose, to name a few. You can unlock more actions, voice lines, and original Transformers music by doing missions.
Missions guide you through new poses in one of two ways: either an extremely simple block-based coding system where you drag and drop the desired rotation, speed, and timing for each joint you want to move (say, pulling an elbow, shoulder, and wrist slowly backward for a moment before you quickly pump a fist in the air) — or a method where you actually physically push each of Optimus’ joints into your desired position to create a pose, then build a whole sequence of those poses so Optimus can smoothly move between them. Then, you can freely switch over to the creator mode and build entirely new actions on your own.
The software’s pretty cumbersome, and it can be a painstaking process — both in terms of holding all the bot’s joints upright in the position you want and the trial and error you’ll go through to see which movements Optimus can actually do without tipping. I spent 30 minutes trying to make Optimus stand on one leg, but I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to do that starting from a standing position — which the software always assumes you will. In fact, there’s no way to program anything for Optimus Prime’s truck form, or make the wheels spin at all in those modes. (A Hasbro rep says it intentionally limits programming the robot’s head because that particular component is fragile, and didn’t have guidance on the wheels — but it says it has an update “which we’ll push out once we have a completed and tested way for Optimus Prime to stand and kick!”)
And though the mobile app lets you unlock a USB mode, one where you can access the robot’s internal flash storage and theoretically program your own moves with an easier interface on PC, the company doesn’t have an app available for download yet — the company’s still working on the PC software. I tried pulling one of the existing files into the Windows app that lets you program Robosen’s earlier T9 bot, but it immediately crashed.
Yet, as frustrating as I’m making this sound, none of it killed my enthusiasm: before my unit broke, I was looking forward to programming some dance moves this weekend. Oh well.
I won’t be buying one of these. I can’t justify that $750 price tag, now that everyone knows the “it’ll teach my kids to program!” excuse isn’t sound. But I wonder if I’ll come to regret it, the same way I regret not snapping up an $800 Lego Ultimate Collector’s Edition Millennium Falcon when I had the chance — or if, perhaps, an even better version will come along that’s even truer to the ‘80s animated series, one that doesn’t have to turn around before it transforms and hopefully one with inertial sensors to balance itself.
I wouldn’t count it out because we now live in a golden era of glorious toys that kids could never afford: $2,200 hoverboard go-karts, $300 3D-printed Nerf blasters, $160 self-pressurizing digital water guns, $400+ portable gaming PCs, $1,000+ self-flying cameras and folding phones, and one incredible Star Wars toy after another (Radio Flyer Landspeeder, Razor Crest ship, Boba Fett helmet, Mandalorian Nerf rifle). And Lego’s R2-D2 is a perfect example of where such a toy has improved.
Heck, Lego has an entire Adults Welcome campaign now, highlighting an incredibly detailed line of expensive and oft-nostalgia infused sets like the $200 Space Shuttle Discovery.
My generation still has the best toys, I’ve discovered, because they’re building them for us as adults.
Update, 4:25PM ET: Hasbro appears to have changed the landing page for this product from this link to this one, and is now listing ship dates of Spring 2022 instead of December 2021.
Update August 20th, 4:40PM ET: Added Hasbro comments about warranty, ship dates, recommended play surface, machine gun sounds, the inability to program head and wheels, an update which might allow Optimus to kick, and the PC app.