The Transformers IDW Publishing (2009) - Artwork by Don Figueroa

The world of The Transformers spans across nearly four decades in mediums such as television, comics, and blockbuster movies.  Figuring out a good “starting point” can be daunting with a property that large and expansive.  But don’t worry – that’s where I come in and try to help you, based on what you’re looking for (lore vs toy tie-in vs just a good entertaining show!).  As a lifelong Transformers fan I will do my best to share a general “fandom perspective” as well as my own in different takes.

At the end of the day the goal is to get you interested and comfortable in joining us in the incredible world of the Transformers! 

This segment will feature just the cartoons/shows, so please be aware there’s an entirely different world of stories in the comics from Marvel, Dreamwave, and IDW Publishing.  We’ll dive in to those in a future article.

This article is a Part One, covering everything prior to the launch of the 2007 live-action movie.  Part Two will cover everything from Transformers Animated (2007) to the most current series.

The Transformers (Generation 1/G1 1984-1987)

G1 Transformers 20th Anniversary Lithograph (2004) - by Don Figueroa

The original Transformers series serves as inspiration for many Transformers projects over the years, including comics that are still going to this day.  While the animated show featured through 1988, the last “new episode” aired in 1987, even if the toys and comic lasted until 1991.


The original animation partner to the toy line (1984-1991) is very fondly remembered by a generation of adults, myself included.  Racing home at the end of a day at elementary school meant a half-hour of Transformers goodness is one of my favorite childhood memories.

The first two seasons followed Optimus Prime and his Autobots on Earth against Megatron and the evil Decepticons.  Season 2 featured tons of new characters (for new toys) and is considered a fan-favorite, where many character personalities still tied to new characters today originated from.

Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Ironhide, Sideswipe from Season 2 "Megatron's Master Plan Part 2"
Optimus Prime and Megatron from The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

1986 saw the release of the box office animated film “The Transformers: The Movie”, which featured a new cast of toys characters.  In order to make room for the new characters, the old ones had to be removed.  And since they weren’t human characters, it must be okay to brutally destroy them on screen, right?

The third season of the original Transformers cartoon was a direct continuation from the animated movie.  Featuring new 1986 toys and non-canceled 1985 toys, the setting of the show moved from Earth to space and beyond, expanding the lore of the Transformers – even giving them an origin.  The final two episodes feature the return of Optimus Prime in an attempt to save the series from cancelation.

It failed.

Headstrong, Razorclaw, Galvatron from Season 3 "Ghost in the Machine"
Scorponok vs Fortress Maximus, Season 4 "The Rebirth - Part 3"

The final season of the original The Transformers was yet another influx of new toys characters for the 1987 toy line.  Having some notice that the series would not continue past the three-part mini-series, we are given a minor conclusion to the series that leaves the door open for future storytelling.

You want to see where it all began.  The original Transformers series holds up to time better than other shows at the same time, but it’s still dated and very episodic in nature.  Arguably features the best music in all of children’s television.  The best voice-acting you’ll ever find.

Those who grew up on the original series find it the best or most memorable.  Those who did not believe the series is over-rated with later series that followed featuring better characters and stories.

I’m a G1 guy through and through because I grew up on it.  There are no meaningful characterizations, no growth of character development – just characters acting to what their bio says they’re supposed to.  For me, it ws the love of seeing my toys on screen having personality.  Times have changed.  The most important aspect to G1 these days is that it serves as inspiration to the current iteration of toys and characters.

Beast Wars - Transformers (1996-1999)

After years of dormancy and a failed relaunch (Transformers Generation 2), the Transformers returned in 1996 in a surprising twist – instead of Autobots vs Decepticons, we had Maximals vs Predacons!  Animals vs Insects and Dinosaurs.

The first season of Beast Wars does something that hadn’t been done in Transformers before – it focused on a small cast of characters.  We see the Maximals and Predacons – descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons – get stuck on a strange planet covered with raw energon.  Throughout the season we get easter egg ties to the original Transformers series, including the return of the treacherous Starscream.  By the season finale, fans are beginning to piece together the big mystery.

Beast Wars Megatron
The Maximals (S1 thru S3)

Season 2 is where G1 fans and Beast Wars fans come together as one.  The plot leads in to a direct connection to the original series with, uh, guest appearances?  More new characters are introduced.  Our heroes also get new bodies (most of them) called Transmetals, and we get some of the strongest episodes ever written in the history of Transformers (“Code of Hero”).  Arguably, the second season of Beast Wars is one of the best seasons in the history of Transformers.

The third and final season of Beast Wars ties up (most) of the story lines throughout the show and giving a conclusion to the story of the criminal Megatron and the explorer Optimus Primal.  Budget restraints make the season shorter and the new cast of characters smaller – but we are treated to “Transmetal 2” forms and arguably the coolest incarnation of a Megatron ever.  Simon Furman, writer of the Marvel comic books, takes the helm in the final episode of the show.

The Predacons (S1 thru S3)

You’re familiar with the basics of the original Transformers series.  Fans who love good character-driven stories will be in for a treat.  David Kaye (Megatron), Garry Chalk (Optimus Primal), and Scott McNeil (Dinobot, Rattrap, Waspinator) deliver iconic performances.

An excellent television series that just happens to be about Transformers.  Arguably the best Transformers television show ever.  Because of the departure of the original show due to beast characters, there is some divide between G1 fans vs Beast Wars fans.

Beast Wars – Transformers is an excellent television series that pays homage to the original series in creative and meaningful ways that advance the plot and the characters.  It’s a great starting point for those who do not wish to slog through 98 episodes of the 80’s series.

Beast Machines - Transformers (1999-2000)

With the conclusion of Beast Wars – Transformers, Hasbro decided to follow the popularity and made a direct sequel.  The Beast Machines Transformers television show featured our heroes from the Beast Wars returning to Cybertron, the home-world of the Transformers, to find it abandoned and filled with mindless drones.  The Maximals have to re-learn how to transform by becoming “techno-organic”, a blend of machine and organic material, in a bid to save their friends and Cybertron itself.

The two seasons of Beast Machines focus heavily on an idea of faith versus science, life versus machinery, and as the show progresses the lines become more and more blurred.  Megatron becomes genocidal and succumbs to madness about his organic half.  Heroes become villains and the goofy fun loving characters become war-hardened survivors in a game where good and evil is side-stepped for a battle of ideologies.

Cheetor, Black Arachnia, Optimus Primal, Rattrap from Beast Machines - Transformers

You want to be thoroughly confused and jump in the middle of a story that requires knowledge of what came before it.  Beast Machines is not a starter-series due specifically to the fact that the cast is from the previous series and a lot of the plot-devices harken back to things from the original Transformers series – more specifically from the finale three-parter “The Rebirth” from 1987.

In recent years, a lot of fans have begun appreciating Beast Machines for its unique story-telling as well as its complex and thought-challenging stories/morals.  But at the time, the series was mostly despised for the 180-directional change on characters like Optimus Primal, Rattrap, Silverbolt, and Rhinox.  The story is dark – like actually dark you’ll need to turn up the brightness and the heroes deal with living in a genocidal world where everyone and everything they knew is gone – and works as a conclusion to the original world of The Transformers.

Beast Machines is a series that I despised as it aired but found myself enjoying it much, much later during a re-watch – to an extent that I binged it in a single day.  It is a series definitely worth watching – after you’ve seen Beast Wars.

Transformers - Robots in Disguise (2001-2002)

Following the poorly received Beast Machines television series and toy line, Hasbro canceled their plans for a follow-up series (Transformers TransTech) and went back to the drawing board.  The result of their drawing board wouldn’t arrive for a couple of years and they needed something to keep the Transformers on the shelves.  Enter a series called CAR ROBOTS from Japan – Takara’s answer to the delay in trying to adapt the US Beast Wars/Beast Machines series and to follow the success of their own Beast Wars animated series.  It would be adapted by Hasbro and Saban Entertainment, airing on Fox Kids as Transformers – Robots in Disguise.

Rail Racer, Optimus Prime from "The Commandos"

The Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, are trying to rescue Dr. Onishi and stop the evil Predacons, led by Megatron!  This series features the return of the Autobots – absent from television since 1988 – who fight against the Predacons (who are all Beast Wars character repaints, essentially). 

As the series progresses, we see the return of classic character names like Ultra Magnus, Fortress Maximus, the Decepticons, a new set of combiners based on the original 1985 Combaticons, and the first ever combination between Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus.  The story is completely kept within its own universe, requiring no previous knowledge of the Transformers.  The series has more humor with unforgettable characters like Sky-Byte, Scourge, and Side Burn.

Scourge, from "The Decepticons"

You want a light-hearted Transformers series, or if you’re comfortable with low-budget anime dubs (because I gotta be honest, TF:RID 2001 isn’t known for its stellar production or voice cast).  Because it requires no previous knowledge of the Transformers, this series has potential to spark your interest in diving deeper in to the series … if you can look past stereotypical early 2000’s anime tropes (ie: announcing your attack … EVERY SINGLE TIME … and stock footage of transformations).

This series is best known for it’s amazing toy line and not so much the animated television show.  There are certain characters the fans love – Sky-Byte, and the first evil in-show evil Optimus Prime in the “Scourge” character (the beginning of the black/red/teal Optimus Prime toy repaints) are two now-classics.

I love this series but it’s born out of a love for the toy line, which spans so much more than the animated series.  It did feature the return of Autobots and Decepticons after a decade, but I’m not sure it’s the best series to begin with in this day and age.  SIDE NOTE – there’s no legal way to watch this series as the distribution rights are tied up somewhere between Disney and Saban Capital Group.

Transformers Armada (2002-2003)

Transformers Armada is the beginning of a three-series project with Japanese company Takara where the costs of producing the show and the toys were shared between them and Hasbro.  The show was animated and produced in Japan and dubbed in Canada for release in North America.  The early episodes featured incomplete and incredibly rough animation – so rough that in Japan a lot of scenes in those early episodes were redone in future rebroadcasts and for DVD release.

The show itself features the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, fighting the Decepticons, led by Megatron, on planet Earth.  But instead of energon, this time they are fighting for control of the Mini-Cons, a small race of Transformers that can augment and unlock special powers in the Transformers.

Red Alert, Optimus Prime, Hot Shot

Transformers Armada is a brand new universe for the Transformers.  A lot of names from previous iterations are used here for all new characters with absolutely zero ties to the original- such as Smokescreen, Cyclonus, Thrust, Swindle, and Hoist.  The second half of the series has the Transformers and Mini-Cons taking on the Chaos Bringer himself – Unicron.

You want to get in on the ground floor of a universe that really caused the 2007 live action movie to get off the ground.  Transformers Armada can be rough to get through, but the second half is lightyears beyond the first in the story-telling and animation.  The music also seems to pick it up a notch.

For a lot of fans, this is their G1.  We’re also at the 20 year anniversary for this series and so it feels right to give it some love.  Transformers Armada wasn’t super popular at the time with older fans but the kids loved it.  Some of the characters are now iconic – Hot Shot, Tidal Wave, and Demolisher to name a few.

It’s a rough watch because of the, honestly, really bad animation and rough translations.  There are times where characters change names to the Japanese names because it wasn’t caught in the rushed translation (looking at you Overload vs Ultra Magnus).  But if you can stomach it, you’re in for a fun ride and potentially a nasty hit on your wallet – Armada toys are up there in value these days.

Transformers Energon (2004)

Transformers Energon is a direct sequel to Transformers Armada.  Following the events at the end of Transformers Armada, a new threat – Alpha Q – sends Scorponok and his Terrorcons from the husk of Unicron to absorb energy to restore the Chaos Bringer.  The Autobots use the Omnicons to unlock Energon Stars, granting them the power to combine.


Transformers Energon is the first Transformers series to be done in CGI but with cel-shading (think ZOIDS).  The result, unfortunately, is rather stiff-looking animation.  The idea is to look animated but actually be CGI.  The result is not pretty.  Like Armada, the series suffers from poor translations.  Notable characters include Alpha Q (Quintesson), Scorponok, Wing Saber, and the return of 5-team combiners in Superion Maximus, Bruticus Maximus, and Devastator Maximus.

You’re curious as to why a majority of Transformers fans consider this to be the WORST show in all of the Transformers history.  The unique-look of the cel-shaded CGI can be visually appealing at times if you’re in it for the visuals.  However, this series is best watched after watching Transformers Armada.

Not much at all, really.  The redeeming qualities of Transformers Energon are few and far between, and Transformers fans – like most fans of any property – like to talk about the things they love or the things that are recent.  Transformers Energon is neither of those things.

Transformers Energon does have a few unique characters that I quite enjoyed.  However, the poor translation of a poor story only makes a bad show even worse.  The theme song is recycled theme from a Transformers: Robots in Disguise commercial and everyone sounds as if they’re talking through a tin-can.  It ignores the best parts of Transformers Armada for … reasons I still can’t explain.  This is only a must-watch if you want a direct sequel to Transformers Armada.  You don’t even need to see this to appreciate the sequel series, Transformers Cybertron.

Transformers Cybertron (2005)

The conclusion to the joint-venture trilogy between Hasbro and Takara culminates in Transformers Cybertron.  However, things get a bit tricky here in the sense of contunity – namely the Japanese side chose to have this version (“Galaxy Force” in Japan) be more of a soft-reboot with no direct ties to the previous season.  However, in the United States, the idea was that this was the final piece of the trilogy.  The result is a loosely connected series that, in the very end, ties together the trilogy with a conclusion.

The dark energy of Unicron has created a massive blackhole that threatens to swallow Cybertron.  The only way to save the planet is to use the Cyber Planet Keys on the Omega Lock, which would have the power to save Cybertron.  Optimus Prime, Hot Shot, Jetfire, Red Alert, and others battle against Megatron, Starscream, and a host of new Decepticons (Thundercracker, Nautica, Scourge, Menasor, etc.).

Optimus Prime from Transformers Cybertron

You’d like to see the animation style of Transformers Energon done right.  The CGI with cel-shading returns but much, much better.  The translation is much more improved in this series and the story is much more episodic despite the over-arching theme of the Cyber Planet Keys.  While you don’t have to have any knowledge of the previous two series to enjoy it, it never hurts to have emotional callbacks when things happen to certain characters.

Transformers Cybertron was an important series for expanding the literal universe of the Transformers.  Other planets with Transformers life – like Velocitron – have become staples to current stories in the Transformers.  Easily the strongest performance from the voice acting crew in the “Unicron Trilogy”, as it has been named.  We also had our first “new” Prime character in animation form – Vector Prime.

I never felt a connection to Transformers Cybertron.  I blame Transformers Energon for killing my interest in the conclusion of a universe I grew to despise.  However, there are a number of memorable moments (such as the creation of the Cybertron Defense Team), Primus, and the last leg of the show itself.

Two years later, the Transformers franchise would be reborn with the incredibly successful live-action movie directed by Michael Bay.  Afterwards, nearly every series would have some throwbacks to the movie, whether it be design of characters, choice of characters used, or story-elements to the movie (ie: The AllSpark continues to this day to be used as a plot-device driving the overall story of whatever series is airing).

In our Part Two, we will cover series like Transformers Animated, Transformers Prime, Transformers Cyberverse, Rescue Bots, and more.

I hope you enjoyed the first part and that you’ve identified a series that you have interest in.  Please feel free to leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter if you’d like to have a more in-depth conversation on what series might be the best first one for you.  Till next time Transformers fans!