So, you’re really into the Transformers, huh? Yes, those robots who transform into trucks and tanks are cool, aren’t they?
What if we told you (without bothering to fetch the Morpheus meme template), that there was another transforming robot toy line / media franchise before the Transformers? You’d possibly guess we’re talking about GoBots, or maybe Robotix or Voltron. But no, we’re talking about another one, previous to all these. The Transformers‘ wiki is generous enough to list other non-Transformers toy lines, but it’s strangely silent on the biggest competitor of all. Could Transformers fans be just a bit… jealous?
Meet the Micronauts
Lost in the mists of time, before most of what we now call the Internet, before the 1980s reign of blockbuster mega-toy lines, before even Star Wars, there were Micronauts. Like most robot toy lines, they were originally based on a line of toys in Japan under the name “Microman,” then showed up in America produced by the Mego toy company. Mego itself is lost to history now, but was once a huge name in toys, especially figurines.
As you can guess from that commercial, Micronauts were marketed as much more than a toy line. They were all interchangeable through a standardized system of either plastic pegs or ball-and-socket magnets, which meant you could tear down and rebuild them, combining models into your own creations. The marketing pitch sounds a little like “STEM education” to our modern ears, but the acronym “STEM” wouldn’t enter popular dialogue for decades yet.
So just to reiterate: Transformers can turn into one vehicle through toy origami hinges. Micronauts could be rebuilt into infinite different vehicles! Not all of them worked this way; some of them as you see stayed in human form and acted as passengers instead.
You’ll have to take a Generation X kid‘s word for it: These were THE toys to have throughout the mid-1970s. They were on every playground. If you visited a friend, you each had a Micronauts bucket full of spare parts. You’d combine the parts from everything into a hulking mechanical complex that took up half the living room. They were several battery-operated vehicles that swapped parts with everything else too. If we’d had Ardunios to hook into the system back then, we’d be colonizing space by now.
It’s difficult to describe what Micronauts were like in their heyday now. You would have to imagine this hybrid cross between Transformers and something like Lego or K’Nex. I’m not kidding about the K’Nex aspect, check out some of these playsets that were just like model kits we see today:
See the little holes around the edges of those square frames? They were plastic-peg compatible too. If the set came with a track, the vehicles would run on it. If the vehicle had a cockpit, any figure would fit in there. The entire line was standardized like this, a minor feat of engineering in itself.
Micronauts exploded onto the toy scene during the Carter administration, ran hot for four years, and were discontinued by 1980. So what the heck happened?
What killed the Micronauts?
You’d expect that Micronauts went on until the US-Japanese toy franchise pipeline just spat out Transformers, which made Micronauts fade from toy store shelves, but that’s not actually the case. There were no competing robot toy lines to speak of for several years after Micronauts faded away. Can you guess why?
What really killed Micronauts was the same thing that killed many toy lines after 1977: Star Wars!
Simply put, Kenner got the Star Wars franchise contract and Mego, Micronauts‘ maker, didn’t. Not that we had to choose one over the other. For awhile, lots of us spoiled brats just had both, and we’d stage new lightsaber battles in Micronaut space stations because why the hell not? But over time, the relentless onslaught of Star Wars culture forced Micronauts out of the spotlight, because eventually parents with only so many toy dollars to spend did have to choose.
A little background about Mego: They were big for the time, but mainly started out with cheap dime store toys and eventually branched into superhero figures.
Their problem was that they were made of cheap, substandard plastic and rubber which would, over time, break down in a phenomenon now known as “Mego melt.” This occurs under heat, i.e., dolls left in the backyard sun, or stored in boxes in a hot attic. This did not affect Micronauts at all, which were much higher quality, but Mego did find all its other toy lines dwindling in popularity to the point that Micronauts alone could not sustain them.
If it sounds like Micronauts is a sore spot with your humble ranting blogger, well, they were doomed by their place in history. After the Star Wars initial hype had played out, robot toys returned with a mighty vengeance in the 1980s, all of them faring better than Micronauts did. And yet all the popular robot toy franchises we know today just ripped Micronauts for all its best ideas. Behold, Giant Acroyear:
Why sure, when Voltron and GoBots came along years later they just helped themselves to Micronauts design, literally the same build:
The Micronauts license has since traded hands many times, eventually ending up as one of Hasbro’s acquisitions. But the little universe of robots had since entered a twilight existence as something remarkable: a toy-based franchise that cut out the toys!
Enter the Marvel Verse!
As legend has it, in the year 1977 – yeah verily, the year of Star Wars‘ release – a Marvel comics’ writer’s kid got some Micronauts for Christmas, possibly because Kenner was notoriously slow getting the Star Wars toy line to store shelves in adequate numbers to meet demand. Said Marvel writer marveled at the Micronauts and went back to work suggesting a comic license, Marvel launched the Micronauts title in 1979, and the rest is history.
A little too firmly history, in fact! Micronauts, eternally doomed by being ahead of its time, existed in comic form only as one more side project under the big Marvel tent. The toy line died off just as the comic was taking off. Us confused kids picked up the comic with interest, but Marvel was coming in after the fact telling us the story of toys we’d played with for three years and were just beginning to lose interest in. Star Wars and its imitators outshone the Micronauts universe, to say nothing of other popular blockbuster franchises launched in the late 1970s like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Alien.
The original title fell out of publication after ten years, which was really not a bad run at all. Since then it’s had sporadic revivals by other publishers. Micronauts main claim to fame today is that it spurred Marvel to create the “Microverse,” the subatomic world where the Micronauts exist, which has since been woven into the MCU films. The Microverse is touched on in Ant Man (2015) and Doctor Strange (2016). Stand-alone Micronauts projects have been floated and languished away over the decades.
Wait, did you hear about the video game? Yes, there was a Micronauts video game, a single lonely licensed title, available only on the ZX Spectrum. Just one hard luck story after another!
It is doubtful that Micronauts will ever have a time to shine again
There have been attempts at revival, but at this point modular robot toys are a niche interest at best. We’ve moved on to the point where if you’re going to tinker with robot parts, you can haul off and have a whole actual robot that does stuff while you’re at it. Micronauts is best left to the dustbin of toy and comic history, a lesson in what happens when you get released right before The Wrong Franchise.