A franchise, for lack of a better term, is an incarnation or "generation" of the Transformers brand. The word is used here to refer to the collection of not just toys, but also media, merchandise, and ideas that surround each of these incarnations. Because of these other elements, the word "toyline" would not be broad enough; the toyline is just the toy component of the whole thing.
There have been many franchises over the two decades that Transformers has been around. A list follows.
- 1984–1991: Generation One is the retroactively-applied term for the original toys and associated media, including the original cartoon and Marvel comics. Many later toy lines have been based around Generation One's fiction and characters.
- 1990–1991: Classics was the name of a Generation One subline in Europe and Australia, reissuing many toys from 1984 through 1986.
- 1993–1995: Generation 2 was a relaunch of the toy line, a mix of old and new toy designs. A new comic continued the story of the Marvel Generation One comics, while the Generation One cartoon was re-edited and rebroadcast.
- 1996–2001: Beast Wars changed the direction of the line with robots that changed into "realistically"-styled animals, and soon moved into other varieties of animal-alt-mode robots. It was supported by a CGI cartoon.
- 1997: Machine Wars was a limited line of redecorated older toys, released to capitalize on the popularity of Beast Wars. Fiction was limited to on-package bios.
- 1999: Animorphs was a short-lived franchise using the Transformers name but unrelated with regard to fictional backstory. As this line was in support of a non-Transformers fictional universe, no specific fiction was tied to the toy line.
- 2000–2001: Beast Machines continued the directions of Beast Wars and added futuristic vehicles to the mix. The latter portion of this franchise was subtitled "The Battle for the Spark". Like Beast Wars, it was supported by a CGI cartoon.
- 2001–2002: 1-2-3 Transformers was a short-lived line of large, simple toys aimed at younger children. The line's niche was later filled by the Go-Bots line. No fiction exists for this franchise.
- 2001–2003: Robots in Disguise was a port of the Japanese Car Robots toyline and cartoon, padded out with additional toys in the United States.
- 2002: Expanded Universe was a short-lived labeling of BotCon toys. It was only used for BotCon 2002 and only consisted of CatSCAN, Cyclonus, Glyph, and Tap-Out. For simplicity, most people combine this line with the later Universe line.
- 2002–2003: Armada marked a new beginning for the toys and fiction, heralded by the addition of the Mini-Con faction. The latter portion of the franchise was subtitled "The Unicron Battles". It was marketed in Japan as Micron Legend. The toyline was supported by a full cartoon series, comic book, pack-in mini-comics, on-line bios, and a great deal of ancillary merchandise.
- 2002–2004: The Commemorative Series consisted of reissued toys from the first three years of Generation One, primarily available at Toys "R" Us. The toys were previously reissued by Takara in Japan, in the Transformers Collection line. As a reissue line, fiction was limited solely to on-package bios.
- 2003–2005: Universe supplemented the wildly successful Armada with redecos of older toys and convention-based fiction. Package blurbs provided a general fictional overview, and the line was briefly supported by a comic book.
- 2003: Built to Rule consisted of Lego-compatible building blocks used to assemble various transformable Armada characters. It received no fiction independent of Armada.
- 2003–2005: Go-Bots introduced a line of larger, simple toys aimed at children too young for the mainline toys. Fiction included on-package bios and a short-lived cartoon.
- 2003: Dinobots was a short-lived Wal-Mart exclusive toyline that consisted of only six toys that were all redecoes of past Beast Era dino figures: Grimlock, Terranotron/Swoop, Snarl, Sludge, Triceradon, and Slapper.
- 2003–2005: Energon followed up on Armada. The latter portion of the franchise was subtitled "The Powerlinx Battles". It was marketed in Japan as Superlink. Fiction included a full cartoon series, a comic book, pack-in mini-comics, and on-line bios.
- 2003–2006: Alternators, a toy-only franchise, combined licensed, 1/24th-scale replica vehicles with complex transformations and Generation One characters. It was marketed in Japan as Binaltech. The American franchise received no fiction beyond an on-package character quote.
- 2005–2006: Cybertron completed the arc begun by Armada, capping off the "Unicron Trilogy". The latter portion of the franchise was subtitled "Primus Unleashed". It was marketed in Japan as Galaxy Force. Fiction included a cartoon, on-package blurbs and pack-in "Planet Maps" with character bios and profiles of various worlds.
- 2006–2008: Star Wars combines the transforming play pattern with the characters and vehicles of the popular movie franchise. Fiction was limited to on-package bios, as this line was in support of a non-Transformers fictional universe.
- 2006: The Beast Wars 10th Anniversary limited line featured 6 reissues of older Beast Wars toys with special packaging, new decos and bonus features, and two all-new molds. Fiction included on-package bios and pack-in DVDs of Beast Wars cartoon episodes.
- 2006–2007: Classics was a line of rehashed Generation One characters intended to be a stopgap while the 2007 movie toys were being prepared. Its success prompted Hasbro to continue it as the "Classic Series" under the 2008 Universe line. Fiction was limited to a fan club comic.
- 2006–2007: The Titanium Series was aimed specifically at fans, with a range of characters from older franchises and more obscure corners of the fiction, and die-cast metal designs. As the characters are all based on previous franchises, fiction consisted solely of on-package bios.
- 2007–2008: The "Movie" franchise marked a new level for Transformers, with the live-action film as its centerpiece. The later portion of the toyline, primarily consisting of redecos, was subtitled "AllSpark Power". In addition to the movie itself, fiction included various comics, bios, package blurbs, and other ancillary merchandise.
- 2008– : Animated is the first American-written cartoon franchise in just under a decade. It carries on the brand with a new look and some old familiar faces. Fiction includes the cartoon, a comic book series, and on-package bios.
- 2008–: Universe re-uses the catch-all name of several years prior, but is a new umbrella franchise covering products not falling under either Crossovers or Transformers Animated. It is not slated to receive any fiction.
- 2008– : Crossovers rebrands the Star Wars line, as well as bringing in transforming Marvel characters, following Hasbro's acquisition of the Marvel license.
Beginning in 1986, (the second year of the franchise in Japan), Takara got into the habit of annually rebranding the Transformers property. Moreover, 1987's The Headmasters kicked off a trend in which Takara's toylines and fiction branched off from Hasbro's versions to increasingly significant degrees. Thus, the later iterations of Japanese Generation One are often referred to as "franchises", despite being part of the larger Generation One franchise. They include:
- 1986: Transformers 2010
- 1987: The Headmasters
- 1988: Super-God Masterforce
- 1989: Victory
- 1990: Zone
- 1991: Return of Convoy
- 1992: Operation Combination
To fill the sometimes-lengthy gap between the seasons of the Beast Wars television show, Takara decided to augment that series with two Japanese-exclusive franchises.
- 1998: Beast Wars II, with a toyline mostly consisting of redecorated existing Beast Wars toys.
- 1999: Beast Wars Neo, numerous new molds with additional redecos.
- 2000: Car Robots was a mixed line of complex new molds and redecorated toys from previous lines. An expanded version was later marketed in America as Robots in Disguise.
- 2002–2004: Micromaster Collection re-released the various Japanese-exclusive Micromaster combining teams from late in the Generation One era.
- 2001(?)–?: Transformers Collection consisted of book-boxed reissues of toys from the early years of Generation One. Many of the same toys would subsequently be reissued in the United States in the Commemorative Series line.
- 2003: Smallest Transforming Transformers (often mislabeled "World's Smallest Transformers") reworked early Generation One toys at extremely small scale.
- 2003–2006: Binaltech, Japan's version of Alternators.
- 2003– : Masterpiece is a collector-oriented series of "ultimate" versions of classic Generation One characters, with great complexity and high prices.
- 2004–2005: Robot Masters was a line of mixed heritage, collecting characters from several continuities. Most of its toys were redecos or new designs based on larger toys reduced in scale.
- 2006–2007: Kiss Players picked up the tail end of the Binaltech/Alternators toyline, but with an all-new, all-creepy storyline.
- 2007: The Beast Wars Telemocha Series was Japan's expanded equivalent of the Beast Wars 10th Anniversary line.
- 2007– : Transformers Encore revives the trend of reissuing older Generation One toys, including many not previously available in Japan.
- 2007– : Henkei! Henkei! Transformers uses the molds created for the 2007 Classics and 2008 Universe lines and gives them color schemes more accurate to the original Generation One cartoon. Fiction exists in the form of a pack-in comic.
Several lines of non-transforming figures have been released, capitalizing on the popularity of the Transformers characters.
- 2000–?: Super Collection Figure, a Japanese line of PVC figures based on character models from the Generation One cartoon. It was later marketed in America as Heroes of Cybertron, with some minor alterations.
- 2002–2003: MyClone, a Transformers iteration of a super-deformed figure line in Japan.
- 2007: Robot Heroes, adorably cute figurines of various characters. It continues under Universe (2008).