If you were a Transformers fan back in 1986, you may have been one of a generation of kids who sat in a darkened cinema, weeping at the horrifying sight of mass slaughter. So keen to sweep away an older line of toys and replace them with new ones, the makers of Transformers: The Movie blithely offed Autobot and Decepticon characters left, right and centre. Ironhide? Brutally shot to death. Windcharger and Wheeljack? Murdered. Prowl? Blasted in the chest at point-blank range.
Those deaths were as nothing, however, compared to the shock of seeing Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots, die from his wounds on a metal slab. In western animated TV shows, this sort of stuff just didn’t happen; even the makers of Transformers: The Movie were apparently unprepared for the tearful responses from cinema-goers in 1986. The Autobots had lost its father figure. We can only imagine the backlash had the internet existed all those years ago.
While Transformers fans in America and Europe were weeping into their Autobot hankies, though, their counterparts over in Japan were blissfully unaware about what had just gone down in the film spin-off. Incredibly – even though it was animated in Japan – Transformers: The Movie didn’t appear there until it hit the VHS and laserdisc markets in August 1989. (Exactly why Transformers: The Movie was delayed for years in Japan is currently a mystery in itself.)
This inevitably caused some confusion, then, when the third season of the Transformers TV series was aired in Japan, since its events followed on directly from the film that nobody there had even seen. Young viewers would have tuned into Transformers season three and wondered what the hell was going on. Largely set in space, the third season contained few of the characters familiar from the previous season; Optimus Prime was nowhere to be seen, and the show made no attempt to explain what had happened to him.
Enter Transformers: Mystery Of Convoy, developed by ISCO and published by in time for Christmas 1986. In many respects, it was a typical licensed game of the time – a 2D platform-shooter with enough visual flourishes to make it look and sound passably resemble its subject matter. Aside from the allure of the Transformers property itself, the game came prepackaged with another unique selling point: it was intended to ‘solve’ the riddle of what happened to Optimus Prime.
In Japan, Optimus Prime’s name is Convoy (spelled ‘Comvoy’ on the box and opening screen), which means that, for kids in Japan, the title alone must have been an enticing prospect. After weeks of scratching their heads over the TV series, wondering where characters like Ultra Magnus and Rodimus Prime came from, here was a game that would finally explain what the hell was going on.
It was sneaky stuff, when viewed with hindsight – particularly from a storytelling perspective. The protagonist in the game is Ultra Magnus, an Autobot commander who was at Optimus Prime’s side when he breathed his last in Transformers: The Movie. Taking the film as canon, then, the game’s basically a charade: Ultra Magnus already knows the fate of Convoy. He’s very, very dead. Publisher Takara, who sold the Transformers toy line in Japan and commissioned the game from a little-known developer must have known all this; Japanese fans, in those pre-Twitter days, almost certainly wouldn’t.
To make matters worse, the game itself doesn’t even provide the answers its title promised back in 1986. A brief and very strange opening sequence shows Optimus Prime’s head break into several pieces, and then reform into the head of Ultra Magnus – a reference, perhaps, to the Takara toy, which is formed from a white version of Optimus Prime that plugs into a red and blue trailer, thus forming Ultra Magnus’ considerable bulk. Beyond this, Mystery Of Convoy doesn’t attempt to gently break the news to Japanese kids that Prime’s dead, or how he died, or where most of the other Autobots and Decepticons who perished in the movie have gotten to. The closest we appear to get, based on our research, is a secret room where the visitor’s treated to a picture of Megatron – the Decepticon who so cruelly slaughtered Prime in The Movie.
Get to the end, and the concluding text doesn’t give much away, either; there are three endings, which pop up depending on how many times you’ve cycled through the game, and they essentially boil down to words of encouragement (Go Rodimus! Scramble! Ultra Magnus!) with no explanation of anything you’ve seen.
Not that anyone but the most dedicated would have even reached one of these closing sequences. Mystery Of Convoy is one of the most frighteningly hard games on the NES, which, in those 8-bit days of instant kills and flickering sprites, is really saying something. Mystery Of Convoy is often lumped in with other bad games from the period, like the infamous Takeshi’s Challenge, but it’s probably fair to say that Takara’s licensed title isn’t quite as shoddy as the worst efforts of the mid-80s.
Unlike the 1988 Superman game for the NES, Mystery Of Convoy at least takes a shot at recreating the Transformers experience. Ultra Magnus really does look like Ultra Magnus, and it’s quite cool that you can make him transform into a truck, a guise that gives him different abilities from his humanoid mode. On paper, there are the makings of a great Metroid clone here: the truck mode being this game’s equivalent of Samus’s morph ball, allowing Ultra Magnus to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.
Unfortunately, Mystery Of Convoy evidently lacks the ambition or pre-release polish of Nintendo’s best in-house works. The hit detection’s horrible, and this, coupled with the usual one-hit kills and almost invisible bullets, make what could have been a simple yet fun platform-adventure something of a chore. If you can get used to the game’s quirks, it’s apparently possible to complete a single run-through in little more than 12 minutes; we know this because we’ve took a look at some let’s-play videos on YouTube after completely failing to make it off the opening level.
We’d wager that you need the reactions of a flea and the patience of a saint to really get anywhere in Mystery Of Convoy, though, and over 30 years later, the effort is probably best placed elsewhere. You’ll find a few familiar faces dotted about – Bumblebee and Megatron put in cameo appearances, but a lot of the other character sprites don’t particularly resemble anything from the toy-line or comics. One bullet-spitting enemy looks like an ice-cream sundae; others just look like eggs, and simply hang in mid-air when shot. Oh, and another hint at a rushed production: the Rodimus Prime robot sprite is basically a pallette-swapped Ultra Magnus.
It’s also odd to play a game that actively punishes you for transforming. In theory, Ultra Magnus’ car carrier mode should offer all sorts of advantages, including the ability to fire directly upwards at the Starscream-like enemies that bombard you from above. Instead, he becomes a sitting duck for the single-pixel bullets that cut through the screen like a blizzard. Throw in some repetitive music and joypad-gnawing boss fights (we could punch whoever came up with the idea of moving platforms here) and you have a game that actively defies you to enjoy it.
Inevitably, Transformers: Mystery Of Convoy never made it out of Japan – probably because, once you strip the ‘mystery’ out of the equation, and there’s not really much left. Even the game’s ‘mystery’, such as it was, would be undone by a contrite toy manufacturer after a short time; the outpouring of grief over Prime’s death was such that the character was brought dramatically back in a two-part finale at the end of season three.
The game’s dim reputation has, in an odd sort of way, ensured that it’s never quite vanished from view. YouTube videos and articles like this one occasionally dredge Mystery Of Convoy back up for reappraisal, like an old boot fished out of a canal. In Japan, it even got an anime spin-off series and some sort of remake for mobile phones, according to our jaunts around the web.
What fascinates us most, though, is the strange place Mystery Of Convoy holds in the history of 80s pop culture. In 1986, the lack of something as useful as the internet meant that the events of Transformers: The Movie were largely unknown; a comic would later come out in Japan, explaining some of the back story, but for most Japanese fans at the time, the whole thing had an aura of obscurity surrounding it. Mystery Of Convoy was made to feed on the hole in Japanese fans’ knowledge; to provide a temporary bridge for a gap that wouldn’t be properly filled for a couple more years. If that’s not cynical, then we don’t know what is.