In the 1980s, the Transformers toyline was seemingly unstoppable. At first, it featured toy robots who disguised themselves as realistic objects like trucks, guns, planes, and various other things. The line quickly moved beyond this realism-based theme into robotic dinosaurs, robotic insects, and combining characters. There were also figures called Triple Changers who could transform from robots into two separate vehicle forms, for example the inventively-named character Astrotrain transformed from a robot into a space shuttle and a train. This was the birth of additional gimmicks in the Transformers series on top of the already pretty significant gimmick of a robot turning into something else.
While some of these gimmicks were not particularly well thought out (looking at you, non-transforming Transformers), some have gone on to be considered vital parts of the Transformers mythos. Several of these 1980s gimmicks were revived for the Titans Return toyline that debuted in 2016. Suceeding the Combiner Wars line that ran from 2014 until 2016, Titans Return featured the return of the Titans (duh), which is the new name assigned to what were previously called city Transformers. City Transformers are pretty much exactly what they sound like: robots that transform into cities. Well, "cities" in the loosest sense of the word, since there is no practical way to make an actual figure big enough to appropriately scale with the other figures at the level one would expect from a real "city." It's probably better to describe them as bases or fortresses since that's really what they are.
In the Western version of Transformers, there were four city Transformers released during the original toyline in the 1980s: the Autobots Metroplex and Fortress Maximus and the Decepticons Trypticon and Scorponok. All of these figures were large but with the exception of Fortress Maximus (who stood about two feet tall), they were not really that much bigger than non-city figures like Ultra Magnus, Jetfire, or Sixshot, which kind of diminished their impact. In designing the Titans Return cities, Hasbro rectified this issue by making these figures massive compared to the rest of the line. While still not really proportionally city-sized, the Titans released in this line (Fortress Maximus and Trypticon) were both 2 feet tall, which was pretty impressive considering the next tallest figures in the line were closer to 10 inches tall. Loaded with weapons, moving parts, intricate design details, and multiple different ways for other figures to interact with them, these Titans received a Titan-sized pricepoint: $150 apiece.
The other truly integral part of the Titans Return toyline was the Titan Master figure. On the opposite end of the size spectrum from the Titans, the Titan Masters are very small robots who transform into the heads of other larger figures in the line. All Titan Masters are fully interchangeable, meaning you can come up with some truly strange combinations like Windblade's geisha-inspired head on Megatron's decidedly non-geisha inspired body or vice versa. This play pattern is an updated version of another 1980s Transformers gimmick, that of the Headmasters.
Since the late 1990s, Hasbro has standardized size classes and pricepoints among its various Transformers lines, with Titans Return being comprised of six sizes: from smallest to largest, they are Titan Masters (about an inch), Legends (3.5 inches), Deluxe (5 inches), Voyager (7 inches), Leader (10 inches), and Titan (24+ inches, aka the "where the hell am I going to put this?" class). All Deluxe, Voyager, and Leader sized characters come with their own Titan Masters for their heads. The individually-released Titan Master figures don't have specific larger figures they're supposed to connect to, but they all come with small vehicles they can ride in and combine with to form weapons or robotic beasts or other things. The first several Legends class figures were meant to act as updated versions of the cassette tape figures from the original line and they can be stored in the chests of the Leader clas cassette player figures Soundwave and Blaster. Later Legends figures in this line would simply be new versions of classic characters such as Bumblebee or the Sharkticon Gnaw without the additional ability to be stored in the chests of Soundwave or Blaster, but these non-cassette figures all featured seats for Titan Masters to sit in while in their vehicle or beast modes, although they cannot be used as heads for them.
As if all THAT wasn't enough, the Voyager figures are all Triple Changers in addition to having Titan Master buddies. This includes the character Alpha Trion, who bizarrely transforms from a robot into an aircraft carrier as well as a robotic lion (????). Five of the six Leader class figures are also Triple Changers, with the sixth actually being a sextuple changer. The third mode for these other five figures is a battle station that can connect to any of the other Leader or Titan class figures in their respective base modes. Both Leader and Titan class figures have multiple pegs and ports for the Titan Masters and their vehicles/weapons to connect to.
If this sounds like a lot of gimmicks...well, you're right, it is. Presumably due to the engineering costs associated with all of these gimmicks, the Titans Return figures are noticeably flimsier than figures in previous lines. Limbs that would previously have been made from solid pieces of plastic are now hollow and while poseability is not really an issue, the figures feel significantly lighter than many of their predecessors. Many figures in this line also suffer from a tendency to not really come together the way they're supposed to; panels won't close, pegs are ever-so-slightly too small for the holes they're supposed to fit into, and folding parts pop off without much effort. Many of the Deluxe, Voyager, and Leader figures also have difficulty accepting the Titan Masters onto their bodies, making it somewhat frustrating to find the exact angle needed to pop them in place without breaking them. Some fans were also turned off by the fact that almost none of the characters released for Titans Return have any history of being Headmasters in the lore of the series. I'm probably in the minority here, but I was also a little let down by the fact that all of the characters were updated versions of Generation 1 characters without any new original characters. Despite these issues, though, the line was generally well-received and Titans Return has a fun play concept (my 4 year old daughter in particular loves the Titan Masters, whom she calls "baby robots" and treats very gingerly).
Like Combiner Wars, Titans Return has its own Tatsunoko-produced online animated series. While nobody was particularly impressed with the Combiner Wars series, Titans Return was a huge improvement in many ways. Whereas the first series had 8 5-minute episodes, the second has 10 11-minute episodes. The voice acting is also markedly better and features some real star power: Judd Nelson, who portrayed Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime in the original 1986 Transformers animated movie, returns to the role after 30 years; Wil Wheaton appears as the nerdy Autobot scientist Perceptor; and Mark Hamill joins the cast as the evil Megatronus, the progenitor of all Decepticons and Megatron's god. Not only that, actual for realz voice actors show up: Peter Cullen, who has portrayed Optimus Prime off and on since the 1980s, makes a welcome return; Kari Wahlgren appears as the combiner Victorion; and Nolan North -- who does like every video game voice ever nowadays -- provides the voice of Metroplex.
The series is a direct continuation of its predecessor and shows the aftermath of the anticlimactic battle between Metroplex and Starscream's giant holographic screaming head (SPOILER: the giant screaming head lost). The Autobots, Decepticons, and combiners start working to rebuild Cybertron when Metroplex announces that he's going to leave the planet. Just then, the previously dormant Trypticon reactivates, powered by the spark (a Transformer's life essence) of the now-deceased Starscream. The series focuses on the attempts to stop Trypticon's rampage and to discover the dark forces at work behind it. The previously Japanese-exclusive character Overlord appears for the first time in a Western Transformers animated series and he gets some of the best lines in the series, wryly commenting on the failures of Cominber Wars ("did I see a giant Starscream in there too? I mean, what's that all about?"). The series also kills off the Mistress of Flame, features Megatron having a minor religious crisis, introduces the Titan Master named Emissary, forces Fortress Maximus to abandon peace for war in the fight against Trypticon, and shows Megatronus (aka the Fallen) capturing two powerful relics. Perhaps most notably, Windblade's angsty grim'n'gritty characterization is (thankfully) abandoned for something more consistent with her more positive representation in other outlets.
In almost every regard, the series is better than Combiner Wars, but it still suffers from some of the same flaws. The animation style is of course the same and is therefore not especially dynamic. I guess in an attempt to maintain consistency, the character models are also all the same from Combiner Wars, meaning that most of them again bear very little resemblance to their new toys. This is particularly obvious in the case of Optimus Prime, who received two new toys in Titans Return and his appearance here is based on neither of them.
While the Titans feature prominently in the story -- in contrast to the combiners playing almost no role in the Combiner Wars series -- the only Titan Master who appears is Emissary, Fortress Maximus's partner. This is really frustrating since Optimus Prime, Megatron, Windblade, Hot Rod, Overlord, and Perceptor -- almost the entire main cast -- all got updated figures with Titan Masters in the toyline. Even ignoring the Titan Masters, though, the toyline had an unusually large number of characters with no representation on the show. In a line with over 50 figures (not counting the Titan Masters, which would effectively double the figure count), fewer than 10 from the series put in appearances. Ironically, the combiners feature more prominently in this series than in the last one, which I guess is good, but frankly they don't really add that much that couldn't have been accomplished with other characters more relevant to the new toyline. (And of course, none of the combiners had figures in Titans Return.) I personally am not a fan of the huge emphasis that has been placed on mysticism and religious themes in the Transformers franchise over the last decade or so but I feel like if they're going to have all this stuff with a semi-divine character like Megatronus and the still unresolved mystery of the magical Enigma of Combination, the least they could do is promote the only vaguely mystical character in the toyline at the time, Alpha Trion (who is also usually the creator of Optimus Prime in the lore of the series). With a running time that is more than twice as long as Combiner Wars, there would have been plenty of opportunities to use some of these other characters, even if they were just there for crowd or battle scenes without any lines or character development.
Still, considering the massive improvements in both the writing and the voice acting, it's difficult for me to want to come down too hard on Titans Return. And the same goes for the toyline. While it's far from perfect, it presented an extremely well-integrated series of gimmicks and many fans were excited by the return of Transformers figures with base modes (both the Titans and the Leaders). The line ran from the summer of 2016 until the fall/winter of 2017. Titans Return would go on to be followed by Transformers: Power of the Primes, which has...issues. Even though Power of the Primes is still ongoing (as of July 2018), I feel confident in saying that it will not surpass Titans Return in any regard. But that's a story for another time.