History in Context
Japanese toy company Takara (today known as Takara-Tomy, after merging with former rival company Tomy) are well known to collectors of vintage toys, and are still a successful company today. When contemplating the excitement that is Blockman, it is useful to think about the Blockman toyline in the context of Takara’s other products.
Takara’s most popular product is the Transformers toyline. The original Transformers, released in the USA in 1984, were drawn from moulds originally used in two previous Takara toylines, Microman (released internationally as Micronauts) and Diaclone (released internationally as Diakron, Kronoform, and Grandstand Convertors). The moulds used for Transformers were largely drawn from Microman’s Micro Change sub-line and Diaclone’s Car Robots and Real & Robo sub-lines. As Transformers achieved intense popularity in the USA, Takara shifted their focus to designing more Transformers and introducing the Transformers brand to Japan. Accordingly, Diaclone and Microman were discontinued.
Prior to the success of Transformers, Blockman had been planned as a way to reinvigorate the science-fiction component of Takara’s toy offerings. Previously, both Microman and Diaclone had focused on science-fiction settings, with Takara dubbing their overall toy output as “Takara SF Land”. However, Microman now largely consisted of robotic replicas of household objects, with newer Diaclone releases being robotic replicas of real vehicles (along with one prominent sub-line based on dinosaurs!). One aim of the Blockman concept was to bring the tone back to science-fiction. The Blockman robots were space exploration mecha used by human pilots, with the design of these pilots being based on those from the Diaclone series.
Another aim of the Blockman concept was to reemphasise the play value of modular components. A big selling point of Microman was the ability of different limbs, weapons, and other parts to be switched around with those of other figures to create different combinations. This was enabled via the 5mm system, which refers to standardising the round pegs that hold parts on to all being 5mm in diameter. Blockman made use of the same 5mm system that Microman had used, meaning that many parts were interchangeable across these toylines.
The 5mm peg system has been used as standard across many other toylines. Most notably, the majority of the larger Transformers releases from 1986 through 1988 made use of 5mm pegs. This means that Blockman can be combined with these Transformers. My personal favourite for this is Perceptor, and Powermaster Optimus Prime is noteworthy for featuring a lot of 5mm peg holes as well.
The combination aspect of Blockman is also interesting to place within Takara’s product history. The two similar designs used for the individual Blockman robots are similar to the design of the Micro Robot from Microman’s New Microman series. The Microman Micro Robots were eventually released in sets that allowed them to merge together to form a single super-robot. The theme of smaller individual robots combining into a larger super-robot was carried across into the Diaclone line, where two combiners were released. Both of the Diaclone combiners saw recolours in the Transformers line, with the Construction Robo sub-line becoming the Constructicons, who form Devastator, and the Train Robo sub-line becoming the Japanese-exclusive Trainbots, who form Raiden.
Blockman’s combination aspect is a natural extension of the combiners designed for Microman and Diaclone. A key difference is that Blockman robots are interchangeable; that is to say, a given robot does not always have to form the same part of the body when forming a larger robot. This concept is similar to a late-end Diaclone concept called Jizai Gattai (or Free Combination). Jizai Gattai made it into the Transformers line in the form of seven combiners whose standardised head-pegs gave them interchangeable limbs (a feature leading to this sub-line being named Scramble City when the interchangeable combiners were released in Japan). I like to think of the interchangeability of the Blockman robots as an evolutionary relative of the interchangeable combiner idea used for Transformers.
Another unavoidable comparison is between Blockman and Danish brand Lego, the quintessential construction toy. Unlike the interchangeable limb-swapping combiners of Transformers, the Blockman robots do not possess alternate vehicle modes in and of themselves (although they are capable of becoming “parts-former” vehicles using snap-on accessories). This means that Blockman robots are the robotic equivalent of a Lego brick. The similarities between Blockman and Lego are mediated by Takara’s equivalent of Lego, a toyline called Takara Cultural Blocks System Bloccar. Bloccar consisted of vehicle sets constructed using small Lego-like bricks, with these bricks also being able to be assembled into a robot mode for each set as well. Bloccar was released as Robotroid in the USA in 1984. A broader Japanese construction block toyline (i.e., not just consisting of vehicle/robots) called Diablock was also sold in the 1980s, but despite the name bringing to mind Diaclone, this construction toy was marketed not by Takara, but by another Japanese company Kawada, who enjoy international success with their Nanoblock line today.
Now that we’ve situated Blockman within Takara’s history, one question remains: Whatever happened to Blockman? Transformers is still a hugely popular brand, Microman is remembered fondly and occasionally gains modern releases, and Diaclone has been rebooted. Collectors of vintage toys admire all three of these toylines. But what about Blockman?
Blockman was discontinued in 1985 after only two years on the market (well, more like one if we’re going month-to-month). Presumably, the primary reason that Blockman only lasted a short while is that it did not prove hugely popular in terms of sales, both within Japan or internationally. The second reason that Blockman is likely to have been discontinued is due to the increasing popularity of the Transfomers brand, as Takara discontinued not just Blockman, but also Microman and Diaclone as well, in order to focus on Transformers for most of the 1980s (with their other prominent 1980s toyline, Battle Beasts, even being branded as a Transformers spin-off called Beastformers for its Japanese release). Finally, similarities (sprued parts, similar combined mecha designs, emphasis on construction) between Blockman and Tomy’s Zoids and Tomics mechanical model toylines might have led to hesitance in continuing to support Blockman in the face of these competitors.
Blockman was not able to last much longer internationally than it did in Japan. Although the Robotech brand was used by Revell to market Blockman outside of Japan, in reality the Blockman toys had no connection to the fiction of the Robotech animated series, and hence Blockman was unlikely to be more attractive to Robotech fans than to anybody else. The functional uniformity of the Blockman robots meant that it was virtually impossible to market Blockman as a character-based toyline, in line with other popular toylines of the era, such as Transformers, Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, and G.I.Joe. This hindered Blockman, as it made it difficult to incorporate a television series into its marketing campaign.
Finally, Blockman may simply have been too miniature for the important American market, at least for the price point that it was marketed at. Although miniature toys became quite popular during the 1990s, few were successful during the 1980s. The only noteworthy example that springs to mind is Mattel’s M.U.S.C.L.E figurines, drawn from Japan’s Kinnikuman franchise and very cheap to manufacture. In contrast, articulated miniature toys with small parts such as Blockman may have been too costly to manufacture and be able to sell at an attractive price point. In some areas, following an apparent advertising standards complaint, Robotech Robolinks were even required to have a sticker placed on the packaging notifying potential buyers that the product was smaller than the box made it appear. Takara apparently saw some success with their later miniature toyline Battle Beasts (Beastformers in Japan), however this toyline did not achieve anywhere near the financial success and market longevity of many other 1980s toylines (despite its justified popularity amongst collectors today!).
Blockman is an important part of Japanese toy history, despite its limited success. There are not many Blockman collectors out there today, but those that collect Blockman tend to be quite enthusiastic about it. If you are checking out Blockman Link, then I hope that you are becoming a Blockman enthusiast as well!