Optimus Prime, guerrilla warfare and conveying character through gameplay in 2004’s Transformers

By Neil Merrett

Transformers, released on PlayStation 2 in 2004, developed by Beam Software and Midway Games

2004’s Transformers and the 2015 videogame Transformers Devastation both let players assume the role of Optimus Prime and his Autobot allies.  However, The two games have a very different approach to conveying the character and the best way to blow apart giant monster bad guys. But is one interpretation ‘truer’ of a decade’s old cartoon character than another?

What or who is Optimus Prime and what does it mean to be him?

To some, the answer is a resolute leader that is both literally and metaphorically ‘sturdy’. This is a sentient robot with an unflappable sense of cool and calmness in the face of insurmountable odds.

Others may see a machine that embodies the virtues of compassion, self-sacrifice and mercy in his ‘mighty hands of steel’.

Some iterations of the character have gone in a slightly different direction and focused on a machine warrior capable of dispensing justice in a manner not entirely appropriate for a family audience.

It is also entirely possible to view the character as a piece of merchandise created entirely to sell a line of toys about robots that turn into vehicles, animals and even household appliances. 

Ultimately, all of the above can apply to the same character with their contradictions intact.

Embracing the contradictions

These different readings of a Optimus Prime can exist not only in an audience, but also in his creators. An actor might find themselves voicing a talking hatchback truck, as well as using that same character to try embody something deeply personal and important about their lives and the people they share them with.

Needless to say, Optimus Prime is a character that is open to interpretation.

These differences of interpretation exist not only in the ways the character has been portrayed in scripted television and filmmaking, but also with a host of videogames based on the Transformers brand.

2014’s Transformers Devastation, a game released on multiple platforms with a focus on trying to recapture the escapist appeal of an 80s Saturday morning cartoon, leans into the unflappable superhuman robot truck version of Optimus Prime.

With the push of a well-timed combination of buttons, the player – in the form of Optimus Prime – can hurl themselves in truck form like a high-speed battering ram at a monstrous towering robot before performing a mid-air transformation and then laying a brutal series of punches into their face.

Perhaps that is what it feels like to be a fearless hero.

This is not a particularly sophisticated approach to gaming – but it can also be an alarming lot of fun to be a heroic motor vehicle that almost comedically bashes about giant robots and metallic insects in the name of good. It’s David vs Goliath – if David was a metallic axe wielding badass with a turbo uppercut and a HGV licence.

Optimus Prime GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

As Squareblind found out a few years ago – the simplicity of marrying a larger than life character to a game with simple but effective combat and shooting mechanics can tap into a grown man’s four year old self for a few joyous hours.

Another interpretation of the character was the 2004 Transformers game, developed by Beam Software and Midway Games. This game saw the player controlling Optimus Prime as a warrior much more reliant on guerrilla warfare tactics and trying to limit direct confrontation until the enemy forces were depleted.

The appeal of Transformers Devastation was built on the possibility of a player being able to string together numerous aerial combos to let the player smash a giant’s robot face in as if they can defy gravity and all those boring everyday limits and focus instead on delivering an endless flurry of punches, kicks and hit and run truck attacks.

Giant robots in the 2004 Transformers game were a very different kind of boss experience. Some players would require a more measured and strategic approach involving in long range sniper shooting and taking cover as they are pressured with aerial bombardment from a gigantic walking battleship.

The bombastic approach of being able to crash and smash enemies twenty times your size was not possible in the 2004 game.  It was often more prudent and successful to install long-range sniping weapons and keep one’s distance in favour of insurmountable odds.

The battles were not unsatisfying at times, but the idea of transforming into a truck and trying to mow down armies of naughty robots would usually end in the player blown apart or smashed into the base of a volcano in a spectacular aerial pile-driver. 

Transformers GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Optimus Prime in the 2004 videogame is almost constantly outnumbered and underpowered compared to the transforming tanks, jets and numerous grunts that he and his allies face across a range of fairly expansive 3D environments.

In some ways, this is perhaps a more outwardly heroic experience in stripping back a player’s abilities and asking them to be more cautious and careful in their approach.

The game ends up playing as a cross between the Halo series with its quite large open plane battles across green expanses, a driving game, and a tactical third person shooter about using environmental advantages in their favour.

As the player unlocks and uncovers a range of power ups and new weapons. They may find themselves seeking to use the tactical advantage of a mountainous high ground to rain down a volley of grenades onto an enemy encampment while continuously moving to not give away their location and risk becoming cornered by enemies.

Rather than speeding through an encampment in car mode and smashing apart evil robots, this earlier Transformers game appeared to favour chipping away at enemy numbers to ensure the odds are better stacked in the player’s favour.

Suddenly, the heroic Autobots are engaged in a form of guerrilla warfare against more powerful opponents.

This does somewhat risk making the concept of being able to transform into a sports car or an ambulance kind of redundant, except for when trying to cover areas that the player has previously cleared of enemies.

Getting bigger and more explosive guns is quite an important part of surviving the 2004 game.

This is not to say that these mechanics are not satisfying when overcoming the villainous Decepticons with some on-point shooting and sneaky skulduggery. It’s also not to say that Optimus Prime isn’t above a little subterfuge. But there is a question about whether is it a successful means of conveying the appeal of transforming robots and a larger than life hero that drives into danger with a mix of bravado and heroic resolve. 

But perhaps it also gets to the heart of what many people want from our games and escapism as a whole.

The 2004 Transformers give the player the option of taking on one of several transformers. Regardless of the character they chose, players may find themselves imprinting their own careful and cautious nature into how they play the game. This can lead them to developing their own approach to being Optimus Prime based on slightly cheaper guerrilla warrior tactics and being happy to exploit environments and woodland to launch brutal and sustained sneak attacks.  They are less assuming the role of Optimus Prime as they are using their own approach to be a cartoon robot that might at least survive the current level.

By comparison, Transformers Devastation encourages and incentivises the player, with some practice, to put aside their natural approach to gaming and just try being a larger than life hero that can punch and blast problems into order – regardless of an opponent’s size or how outnumbered they are.

As with any adaptation, the idea of one approach being better or truer to a character comes down to personal preference.  It is interesting though that a game might be entertaining and a pretty solid shooter, while also being a less than stellar Transformers game.

Perhaps then its sometimes ok to put aside character and just go along with a game for the ride.

Even if a game doesn’t quite successfully let the player live a dream of doing what would Optimus Prime would do, you can usually rely on the character for a half decent heroic monologue.  Thank heavens for voice actors.


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