Alternators (Binaltech in Japan) is a line of Transformers that started in late 2003. The toys in this series transform into fully-licensed, 1:24-scale accurate representations of real cars from automobile manufacturers around the globe, complete with opening doors, hoods, trunks, plus "realistic" open driver/passenger compartments.
At one point in 2003, Hasbro stated that the Alternators line would consist of "six 'hot' contemporary cars". The first six models were based on a Subaru Impreza, a Dodge Viper, a Jeep Wrangler, a C5 Chevrolet Corvette, a Mazda RX-8 and a Ford Mustang GT. Even before the line was launched, though, new licenses were already pursued by Hasbro and Takara, with the first new mold that was not part of the "original six" anymore being based on a Honda S2000. More and more models and manufacturers joined the line over its run. Nearly all of these models are from either American or Japanese manufacturers, with the only exception being the Jaguar XK, which is originally a European car.
Character-wise, Hasbro and Takara initially started out with better-known Generation One characters from the 1984-85 era that had originally transformed into cars. Smokescreen started the line, with his extensive paint applications and tampographed sponsor logos meant to show the level of detail put into the line. For budget reasons, Hasbro and Takara decided very early on that redecos/retools were necessary even more than they were in other lines, thus retools of the first three molds were already available by the time the last of the "original six" molds came out. Initially, Hasbro and Takara intended to keep the retools rooted in Generation One whenever possible, thus the retool of Smokescreen became Bluestreak (renamed into "Silverstreak" for trademark reasons). Though the line was originally meant to be just Autobots, it was later decided to release Decepticons as part of the line, which took the form of retools of existing Autobot toys, hence the Side Swipe retool ended up as Dead End rather than Sunstreaker, and the intended Trailbreaker retool of Hound ultimately became Swindle instead.
Over the time, the selection was expanded to include characters which had not originally transformed into vehicles (such as Grimlock, Shockwave aka "Shockblast", or Ravage aka "Battle Ravage"). The first character difference between the Alternators and Binaltech versions of the line occurred when Hasbro named a toy that was designed to resemble the Omnibot Overdrive (who the toy was released as in Japan) after the Mini Vehicle Windcharger instead, presumably due to trademark reasons (a constant thorn in the side). As the two lines progressed, they diverged more, both in terms of different decos and the addition of third-stringer characters (mostly on Hasbro's end). Even characters that had no root in Generation One at all would eventually be added, namely Decepticharge and Nemesis Prime. Interestingly, the first molds to start out as Decepticons rather than Autobots, Rumble and a second Ravage toy, would ultimately also be the last new molds of the line released by Hasbro (as of this writing).
In the USA, the Alternators line was launched in December 2003, with the toys being made entirely out of plastic (with the exception of the rubber tires). The first wave consisted only of Smokescreen, who shipped in a case all by himself. The second wave mixed Smokescreen and Side Swipe in a 50:50 ratio, with new toys being introduced in the following waves (but Smokescreen choked shelves like crazy). Over the time of its original run, the Alternators line was particularly notorious for including toys that were extremely hard to find due to only shipping in one or two waves (Meister, Tracks, Decepticharge, Swerve), whereas others shipped for multiple waves, despite already been shelfwarmers (Swindle, in particular).
In 2005, Wal*Mart decided to drop the Alternators assortment due to poor sales. As a result, Hasbro relaunched the line with a new assortment in late 2005, featuring completely new packaging, a mix of new molds, redecos of older toys and re-releases of highly sought-after rarities such as Tracks or Meister, prompting Wal-Mart to pick the line up again. In a twist of irony, those "rare" toys re-released ended up as shelfwarmers this time around.
As sales for the second assortment were not particularly stellar either, Hasbro eventually decided to drop the Alternators as a mass retail line altogether. A Nemesis Prime redeco of the Optimus Prime mold was released as a Hasbro Toy Shop exclusive that was originally offered at San Diego Comic-Con 2006, with poor handling and limited availability resulting in a lot of frustrated fans. Meanwhile, the toy was warming shelves in Asia, where it had been released at mass retail. Following Nemesis Prime, the last two new molds that had been far into development at the time it was decided to discontinue the line, Rumble and Ravage, were released as Wal*Mart exclusives in Spring 2007. The last new release after that was Rodimus, a retool of Mirage, again available as a Hasbro Toy Shop/San Diego Comic-Con exclusive.
Distribution in other countries was oftentimes even worse: Canadian stores already dropped the line after the first four or five waves and didn't really pick it up again until the launch of the second assortment; in New Zealand, Meister shipped in a solid case assortment (similar to Smokescreen before him), thereby almost killing the line there; Australian stores dropped the line during its second year, making it effectively an online retailer exclusive for the most part there from that point on (on the upside, Australia also got Nemesis Prime and Rodimus, albeit only as store-initiated imports); and Europe got a borderline random selection of toys, with different toys being available in different countries (and some toys not being released anywhere in Europe). However, as if Jaguar-Ravage wasn't already exceptional enough, the toy was also available in various European countries several months before he came out in the USA.
The future of the Alternators line is highly questionable right now, and not very bright. Following the 2007 movie toyline, the second Universe line, launched in 2008, partly filled the gap for "realistic vehicles", primarily by having unlicensed approximations of vehicles in the Classics style.
In addition, at BotCon 2007, Hasbro staffers (notably Greg Lombardo) said that many of the licenses they had acquired to make Alternators had expired. They were hoping to make a few more exclusive redecoes using the remaining licenses (like Rodimus) before those expired in 2008, but were unsure of the available venues, noting that future retail releases — even as exclusives — was unlikely.
At the New York International Toy Fair 2008, Hasbro stated that they might bring the Alternators line back. However, no news has come out of this thus far.
In Japan, the line was known as Binaltech, with the primary difference being that Binaltech figures are more "collector"-oriented, featuring fully-painted car bodies and die-cast metal parts, in comparison to Alternators' color-molded plastic construction. Additionally, various Binaltech figures have same-character variants, usually released concurrently with the "regular" version in a 50:50 ratio per case (as Japanese toys usually ship in solid cases), that Hasbro did not release (though there are numerous redecoes and remolds in Alternators that never saw release in Binaltech).
The mass retail Binaltech line was officially cancelled (or, to put it politely, put on "indefinite hiatus") in early 2006 after the release of Skids, apparently due to slow sales. Reportedly two more releases were cancelled; "Black Widow" (a silver and purple redeco of Decepticharge as the Beast Wars femme fatale, better known as Blackarachnia outside Japan) and Ginrai (Optimus Prime's Masterforce look-alike) had been solicited, but only the first was shown in any capacity. The latter would ultimately end up as the first release of Takara's short-lived replacement for the Binaltech line, Kiss Players Convoy, whereas the Blackarachnia concept eventually evolved into Binaltech Arcee much, much later (see below).
In 2007, the Binaltech line got resurrected in a way similar to the state Hasbro's version was in at that point. The two new molds that had previously been intended to be released prior to the cancellation of the mass retail line were now released as redecos of the Kiss Players toys, with Black Convoy (exclusively available at the Wonder Festival 2007 Winter convention, and later at e-Hobby) being Takara's counterpart of the Hasbro Toy Shop/San Diego Comic-Con Nemesis Prime redeco of Optimus Prime/Convoy, whereas "Rijie" (Mirage), a redeco of the Ford GT mold which Takara had previously released as Kiss Players Hot Rodimus, was only released as a clear e-Hobby exclusive variant, using the same head sculpt as Hasbro's Alternators Mirage version. Therefore, Rijie was the only Binaltech that didn't contain any diecast parts. Thus far, Takara have shown no indication of intending to release the new Rumble or Ravage molds; however, three new redecos of older toys were released in 2008, with a fourth redeco coming out soon, all of them once again available at mass retail.
Following this, Takara has announced the release of a new toy following a similar overall concept (licensed vehicle mode, diecast parts) to be produced at a smaller scale (1/32), under the new name Alternity. At this point, it's still unclear whether this is going to be limited to a single release or the beginning of a fully-fledged new line.
In late 2005 (not too long before it went on "indefinite hiatus"), Binaltech gained a sub-series called Binaltech Asterisk, using old molds in new decos as previously-unreleased Autobots, but also including small PVC figurines of human girls, each one based on a female human character from a previous Transformers series. These figurines had alternate arms and lower bodies so they could "drive" the Autobots in car mode. These toys were also packaged in robot mode as opposed to the normal car mode (presumably to encourage transformation to car mode so the girls could drive). Reportedly, the addition of the PVCs was to try and reach a broader market to help the line's flagging sales... though the higher price tag probably didn't help. This series only had three releases before it was canceled; a "Black Convoy w/ Marissa" (spelled "Melissa") set was solicited as the fourth set but never released as originally planned... it got changed for the latest incarnation of the 1:24 line, Kiss Players.
Binaltech has its own storyline written by Hirofumi Ichikawa, though it is only told in small text chunks within each toy's instruction booklet (or, in the case of the exclusives from 2007, on the toys' packaging itself). Taking place during the 'lost years' between the Generation One cartoon's second season and The Transformers: The Movie, the story heralds the return of the Cosmic Rust virus unleashed by the Decepticons on the Autobots, forcing them to team up with various name-brand car companies to create new bodies for the infected, which would be immune to the plague. Following the rebuilt Autobots' counter-offensive, an evil conspiracy group named the "Concurrence", consisting both of human villains from season 2 of the original Transformers cartoon and obscure villains from G.I. Joe spin-offs from the 1990s, hijacks several bodies originally intended for Autobots that fell victim to the Cosmic Rust and uses them as new bodies for damaged Decepticons instead. Another plot of the story involves Ravage's Beast Wars incarnation returning in another attempt to change history, and the Autobots' attempts to stop him and reverse the damage, ultimately resulting in a timeline-branch. The story ends with Rijie (Mirage) pulling the lever that instantly freezes all Transformers (originally introduced in "Five Faces of Darkness, Part 5"), which mostly affects the Decepticons due to a recent Binaltech-related upgrade employed by most Autobots. As the Autobots seemingly win the war, only Laserwave (Shockwave) and Black Convoy (Nemesis Prime) remain active, with the latter being revealed to be an avatar of Unicron.
Unlike Binaltech, there is no actual fiction for the Alternators line, and it is highly unlikely there ever will be, the line's questionable future regardless. According to Hasbro representatives, they never pursued the licensing rights for "2D" representations of the car models. Though the reasons were never stated, it is not hard to extrapolate numerous reasons not to; additional costs for securing rights for an indefinite period, debatable ability to utilize those rights in a timely manner, plus clearing whatever fictional portrayal is made with every car company involved (see Windcharger's page for more on that), which would massively bog down any publication.
However, a few chunks of Takara's Binaltech story have made it to the Western market nonetheless: A promotional website set up by Mazda's USA branch in early 2004, offering the first hint at what would ultimately end up as the Alternators Meister toy, featured a brief summary of the original setting for the Binaltech story, including mention of the Cosmic Rust. More than two years later, a bio for the Hasbro Toy Shop/San Diego Comic-Con exclusive Nemesis Prime toy, written by Forest Lee, directly referred to the Binaltech story, including the names of Dr. Arkeville and his employer, the "Concurrence". For reasons unknown, though, the story was never officially released, and only found its way to the public through websites with access to Hasbro's official library for promotional material intended for retailers, later also to be featured by Ben Yee in his review for the toy. Interestingly enough, the story for Takara's Black Convoy version of Nemesis Prime, as well as a related revelation from the final chapter that came with the e-Hobby exclusive Rijie toy, appear to be based around the bio for the Alternators toy.
Binaltech Asterisk has its own fiction that is largely unconnected to any other Transformers timeline, or even itself, being mostly short vignettes free of Decepticon troubles; however, the official [[The Transformers cartoon timeline (Japan)|Japanese G1 timeline]] places it within the same fiction and period of time as Binaltech.