When it comes to video games, it can really suck to be a Transformers fan. There’s no shortage of Transformers games to choose from, but finding a great one is like trying to find an Autobot hidden in rush hour traffic. The concept of being able to switch between on-foot and in-vehicle segments at will seems like a no-brainer, and has been successfully done in other, non-Transformers games. For whatever reasons though, implementing this basic concept and designing a TF game around it eludes developers more often than not. But back in 2004, Melbourne House did the impossible and delivered the first genuinely excellent Transformers game. This is the game that set the bar by which all other Transformers games must be judged, even the fan-favorite “War for Cybertron.”
Based on Hasbro’s Transformers: Armada toyline of the time, Melbourne House opted not to adapt the cartoon or comic into video game form. Instead they carved out their own little take on Armada. The paper-thin story revolves around rescuing Mini-Cons, tiny Transformers with special abilities, before the Decepticons can capture them and use them for their own evil deeds. Choosing from a team of three Autobots, you can charge into battle using either the slow but powerful Optimus, the speedy but lightly armored Hot Shot, or the balanced Red Alert.
The game makes great use of the Mini-Con gimmick. It’s simple enough; find one of the tiny Mini-Cons hidden somewhere in the vast open-world levels, equip it to one of the PS2's shoulder buttons, and gain access to a huge variety of weaponry, armor, and extra abilities. You can spend hours just playing around and experimenting with all the crazy options (tornado canon!) at your disposal. Even weapons that seem useless at first, such as the tractor beam, turn into guilty pleasures when you get the hang of whipping the tether around and flinging enemies miles off into the distance. And equipping Mini-Cons is absolutely essential if you want to have any hope of completing the game. A power level puts a cap on how much Mini-Con power you can handle, so you can't just load up all the most powerful 'cons and head out. You'll have to think more tactically about your loadout. . . unless you're using the cheat code that takes the cap off.
If you think you’re going to blindly run into a firefight with guns blazing and come out on top, then be prepared to see the continue screen a lot. Unlike their cartoon counterparts, the DeceptiClones can aim! Enemy troops almost always patrol in groups and won’t hesitate to dogpile on you. An Autobot at full health can be reduced to scrap metal in short order if you’re not careful and the boss fights make even the goofy Cyclonus into a badass. Trenner Dios of TFW2005 said, “It was so satisfying to beat because it was so challenging. Even on the easy setting it could be quite tough.”
The boss fights are definitely the highlights of the game, though you’ll only face off against four actual Decepticons (Cyclonus, Starscream, Tidal Wave, and Megatron). It doesn’t matter though! Each fight is a memorable spectacle, a firestorm of awesomeness that will be burnt into your memory forever after. Tidal Wave is bigger than Devastator in “Revenge of the Fallen!” The only downside is that there’s no option to replay any of the boss battles after completing them. If you want to take down the big bads again, you’ll have to either replay the game or plug in a code. It’s a shame, really. It would’ve been a nice bonus to take on the early bosses again with all of the Mini-Cons backing you.
Optimus faces the towering Tidal Wave
In addition to the Mini-Cons you have mapped to the shoulder buttons, each Autobot is accompanied by their own Mini-Con sidekick that travels with them through each level. Tap square to powerlink with your Mini-Con, and you’ll be sent into a slow motion bullet-time where enemies seem to move through a duotone haze of molasses and your gun unloads plasma blasts at a metal-shredding rate. Use the powerlink at your own risk though. Doing so drains your energy to within an inch of your life. Enemies always drop health, so there’s the payoff if you use this high risk move.
Graphically, Transformers is still a pretty game even now. Radiant sunlight cuts through the dense jungle canopy, every blade of grass and tree leaf is rendered. The immense sandbox locales are some of the most beautiful you’ll see on the PS2. Whether you’re traipsing through the amazon, through the barren arctic, or the islands of the Pacific, you’ll find yourself wanting to stop and check out every detail, and not just to scope for patrolling DeceptiClones. The two Amazon levels in particular seem to have a higher degree of polish. The jungle just goes on forever!
Exploration is rewarded in the form of hidden Mini-Cons and Data-Cons, some of which are located in hard-to-reach areas that will require a bit of skill. With the Mini-Con glider, Slipstream, and dash-boosting Fullspeed, I tried flying to the most distant chunks of land on the far horizon of the Pacific. And even though I could never reach it (damn you, invisible wall!) I always felt like I could. The highest point of any area feels just within reach and there’s always more than one way to traverse a level. Whether it’s on land, by glider, or by hijacking DeceptiClone dropships, you can tackle each challenge however best suits your play style.
What the game lacks in voice work, it delivers with the soundtrack. The ambient tunes perfectly suit each location and ramp up in intensity when you run into a nest of DeceptiClones. Each of the five bosses gets their own theme song which range from hard rocking to epic orchestral. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I gotta’ say Cyclonus’ theme is pretty damn cool.
As good as this game is, it’s hard not to want more. Only three Autobots to choose from? Only four Decepticons in the whole game? The DeceptiClone army serves as decent canon fodder, but they’re borderline generic and not one of them transforms with exception to the Rollarm units. Each level is gigantic and offers endless hours of exploration, but for all their vastness, not one takes place within a city, where the Autobots’ vehicle modes would’ve made the most sense. There are some long stretches of land to cover in vehicle mode, but a lot of it is so densely covered in jungle or rough terrain, that it doesn’t seem as though much effort was put into making transforming relevant. It is, however, a lot of fun to drive through waves of enemies. There’s no sound more satisfying than that of drones exploding in rapid succession. The final battle against Unicron is the epic cherry on top of the sundae, but you’ll only see him in his planet form. Why oh why can’t he transform?! The bonus content, unlocked by finding Data-Cons, is plentiful and will keep die-hard fans scouring the levels for every last one. However, once you’ve found all the Mini and Data-cons, there’s nothing left to do. I hesitate to say it has little replay value, because I’ve replayed it more than any other PS2 game I own. Still, I wish there were more to do.
For all the things that Melbourne House’s Transformers lacks, what it does, it does very well. The cast is small and there’s no meat to the story, but it all feels like a tight little package. And the customization options granted by the Mini-Cons offer for lots of gameplay variety. It took 20 years after the robots in disguise first hit airwaves to get a great Transformers game, and even after this game set the bar, it remained the pinnacle of what a TF game could be, putting all others to shame until “War for Cybertron” came along. It’s challenging but it’s a satisfying challenge. Whenever I play Transformers, I always feel like the developers really loved what they were doing. The cheesy party music during the credits exemplifies it. Yeah, it’s cheesy, but they’re having fun and even Tidal Wave and the DeceptiClones get in on the party after the credits roll. To quote TFW member, Shizuka, “that game had passion coded into the disk.”