In 1983, Tonka acquired the North American license for Japanese Machine Robo line. They'd presumably got wind of Hasbro doing the same with Takara's Diaclone and Microman series, soon to arrive in America as Transformers, and hurried to beat them to the punch. They were successful in this endeavour, with Gobots arriving in stores right at the tail end of 1983. The figures were a big hit.
The problem was Hasbro, on the back of their experience with the successful relaunch of the venerable G.I. Joe brand, had taken a more considered approach. Their toy releases were just part of a careful assault planned with help from Marvel Comics. Their figures would arrive on the shelves with Marvel-written character biographies (Gobots toys had names and factions on the packaging, but nothing else) in close company with a Marvel-made comic series and a Marvel-produced cartoon series. The fully-rounded character aspect and media adventures of the Transformers were a big hit, and despite a strong start Gobots toys were caught and overhauled.
Tonka belatedly realised the problem, and commissioned American animation veterans Hanna-Barbera to create a five-part miniseries based on the Gobots figures - Challenge of the Gobots. This probably wasn't the best choice - while Hanna-Barbera are rightly remembered for comedy cartoons like Top Cat and The Flintstones, their action/adventure output was more spotty thanks to their policy of limited animation being difficult to take seriously.
The problem seems to be that, rather than working in close liaison as Hasbro did with Marvel, Tonka appear to have just sent over a list of characters and toys, and then left Hanna-Barbera to it. Nevertheless, when the original five part mini-series aired in autumn 1984 it went down well, and was followed by a 60 episode season a year later, showing five mornings a week in syndication.
However, it was too late for Gobots. Transformers had hit its' stride and reached full-on phenomenon level in 1985 to the point where Hasbro were struggling to meet demand for new figures. Tonka, meanwhile, were paying the price for their earlier haste, and Gobots sales dropped by around 80% as Transformers took over the market. With this grim outlook, Challenge of the Gobots was not commissioned for a new series. Instead a feature film, Gobots: Battle for the Rock Lords, was rapidly produced by Hanna-Barbera and rushed to cinemas in March 1986, again beating Hasbro's Transformers: The Movie to release by six months. However, if TF:TM flopped and was the first sign of Transformers slipping off its' perch until the mid-1990s revival, Battle of the Rock Lords was even more of a disaster, its' microscopic takings confirming the death of the TV series and signalling that the brand was in terminal decline (the final Gobots figures would come out in early 1987).
All of this is, to be honest, what Challenge of the Gobots deserves. It's a sloppy, carelessly made cartoon. The vast majority of episodes are below par, often deploying the same basic plots seen many American-commissioned toy-promoting cartoons of the era - evil twins, the good guys being framed by the bad guys, aliens abducting the protagonists and making them fight in gladiatorial games, travelling back in time, that sort of thing, often with a moral lesson tacked on the end about staying true to your friends or not being a judgmental bastard. Even the regular characters have minimal depth. The animation is as cheap as chips, often involving a 2-dimensional object being dragged across a background, and the overtly cartoony style just doesn't fit robots very well. Dialogue is trite, and the voice acting can be very, very spotty (take a bow, Frank Welker, for a genuinely abominable performance as Scooter). Continuity ranges from minimal to non-existent - while an overarching narrative would obviously be unwise for a cartoon that could be aired in any order thanks to America's syndication lottery, there's rarely a feeling that episodes connect together, with most existing in their own little bubbles and not effecting those surrounding them. And if you thought Megatron or Cobra Commander had a habit of retreating pathetically after their latest insanely overcomplicated plan was predictably foiled, wait until you see Cy-Kill.
Which begs the question of why exactly did I bother going to all the effort of putting together this guide. Well, one reason is because someone had to, and I felt the cartoon was well-remembered enough to warrant more coverage on the site than it previously enjoyed. The other reason is that, on occasion, Challenge of the Gobots really isn't as bad as you'd think. It never crosses the boundary into actually being all that good, but it can be quite good fun. The largely rigid format has a certain charm to it, some episodes ("The Gobots That Time Forgot", "Doppelganger", "Escape from Elba", "Et Tu Cy-Kill", "Mission Gobotron", "Fitor to the Finish", "Quest for Roguestar") are actually a lot of fun, and Cy-Kill often seems aware that he's an ineffectual pantomime villain. Every now and then a character really clicks, like Dive-Dive, Flip Top, Sparky, Steamer, Professor Von Joy, Tri-Trak or Zero. It's not Ideon, and it doesn't deserve the wholesale re-evaluation that the toyline easily merits, but it's not completely without redeeming qualities.