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Here is a compressed order of events in the Gen 1 continuity:

  • Orion Pax is heavily damaged/killed
  • Alpha Trion rebuilds Orion Pax into Optimus Prime, presumably giving him the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. It could be argued that the Matrix was partly responsible for the upgrade, but this is never stated one way or another.
  • Optimus Prime is heavily damaged, and in his last moments, gives the Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus. No change is made to Optimus Prime
  • Ultra Magnus inserts the Matrix into his own chest, but receives no upgrade.
  • Ultra Magnus is temporarily destroyed, and the Matrix goes to Hot Rod who wears it as bling.
  • The Matrix activates during the Autobot's "Darkest Hour™" and Hot Rod is upgraded into Rodimus Prime.
  • In three instances in Season 3, Rodimus removes the Matrix and instantly reverts back to Hot Rod. When he reinserts the Matrix after the first two removals, he is instantly transformed back into Rodimus Prime. The third removal is permanent, and he remains as Hot Rod from then on.
  • Galvatron inserts the Matrix into his canon and only gets visions of Autobots. He recieves no reformatting/upgrade like Hot Rod. This could be hand-waved away arguing that the Matrix only works on Autobots.
  • Scourge inserts the Matrix into himself and has his power levels increased, but goes a bit insane. He receives no reformatting/upgrade like Hot Rod. This could be hand-waved away arguing that the Matrix only works on Autobots.
  • Optimus is revived twice (once as a sort of Zombie-Prime). In both cases, when he reinserts the Matrix, he receives no new reformatting/upgrade.

Additional Info

  • In Beast Wars, Optimus Primal merges his spark with that of Gen 1 Optimus Prime. When he does so, he is upgraded into Optimal Optimus. When The sparks are split again, he reverts back to Optimus Primal. Only Sparks are mentioned here, with no mention of the Matrix being specifically transferred.

So, after all that...

Why is Hot Rod the only one that is magically reformatted when he inserts/removes the Autobot Matrix of Leadership?

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Out of universe, sometimes upgrades happen to sell more toys. –  Wikis Jul 11 at 8:10
    
Correction, Galvatron wears The Matrix as bling not HotRod –  CyanAngel Jul 11 at 9:22
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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Another alternative explanation is:

The Matrix itself chooses who becomes the Prime

The cartoon G1 continuity is a cobbled up mess, but if we fill in the gaps with info from the other, better explored, continuities and extrapolate from there then we realize that the Matrix is a religious/mystical relic as well as being a symbol of leadership. The rank of Prime is equal parts political, military and spiritual. He's not only the leader of the Autobots he is also something much deeper. Primes are not elected or assigned, they are chosen.

Optimus was chosen by the Matrix in the comics continuities, and was reformatted accordingly. Cartoon Optimus' status in this regard is a bit murky. We witness his reformatting from Orion Pax to Optimus, but there was no Matrix involved, or at least we never saw such an interaction (real world explanation: the concept of the Matrix hadn't been created yet). Though the fact that the Matrix worked for cartoon Optimus after his resurrection reinforce the idea that he was indeed a chosen Prime.

Ultra Magnus was assigned leadership of the Autobots by Optimus, but the Matrix never chose him. In fact, the Matrix showed no affinity towards him. It never glowed, or opened for Ultra Magnus and simply stayed in his chest compartment doing nothing but looking pretty.

Hot Rod on the other hand showed signs of Matrix affinity early on. It seemingly fell into his hands alone when Optimus dropped it. It glowed brilliantly when Hot Rod held it. And finally, not only did the Matrix open for Hot Rod it chose him as the new Prime, reformatting him into Rodimus Prime.

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+1 for the concept of a living, semi-sentient object that actively chooses the Primes. I should have put that possibility in my answer. Ah well. –  Omegacron Jul 10 at 17:24
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TL;DR - You can "have" the Matrix without "having" the Matrix.


Some of this answer is, by necessity, based on speculation. However, this is an educated guess based on the G1 cartoon continuity.

Much of what you describe can be explained by differentiating between "possessing" the Matrix of Leadership and "accepting" the Matrix of Leadership. The Matrix is not just a physical object, it's a symbol of the burden of leadership. It contains the collected wisdom of all previous bearers, and apparently can only be opened by one who is willing to accept that wisdom and all of the responsibility it entails. When that occurs, the bearer obtains full access to the power of the Matrix, which apparently includes being upgraded into a more powerful form. Here's a rundown:

First, Optimus Prime himself. The MAN.

We don't know the full measure of Optimus Prime's acceptance, but since he remained the Autobots' leader for several million years, we have to assume that he fully accepted the burden of leadership. As you stated, it wasn't clear if Alpha Trion built Optimus' upgraded body, or if the body he built was upgraded by the Matrix.

It's also possible that Alpha Trion added the upgrade process to the Matrix. We don't know if previous Matrix holders were upgraded in this fashion, and Alpha Trion had a process for upgrading Autobots into bigger, tougher versions of their previous selves. He could have integrated this knowledge into the Matrix by bearing it himself or by some other external means. He was, after all, one of the original Transformers and had a vast knowledge of all things... Transformer-y.

So, let's look at Ultra Magnus:

When Ultra Magnus took the Matrix, he didn't want to lead and never fully accepted the burden. When he tried & failed to open the Matrix on Junkion, it was to use the Matrix as a weapon, which it is not. Even if he had a desire to lead, he did not understand the purpose of the Matrix and therefore could not accept it for what it was.

Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime is a little trickier:

When Hot Rod first opened the Matrix & transformed into Rodimus, he was at a point of desperation and wanted the wisdom to save the Autobots - a selfless motive in which he was ready to accept anything that brought hope - even the responsibility of leading his people. He was never fully comfortable with being leader, however, and on the occasions where he gave up the Matrix he was also willing to give up the wisdom of the Matrix along with the burden of leadership. His upgraded status fluctuated with his willingness to lead and accept that role as Autobot leader. The exception to this, and the one that throws a gear in the works, is when he lost it to Galvatron, in which case he wasn't willingly giving it up. Maybe because he so badly wanted to be just Hot Rod again?

Galvatron and Scourge may have possessed the Matrix, but without accepting it there is no access to its full power (which includes the transformation/upgrade part). The side effects they experienced could be explained as the Matrix "leaking" some of its power.

This is the only explanation I've heard in 20 years that seems to make sense. Otherwise, we just have to explain each robot's upgraded status (or lack thereof) as continuity errors.

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Continuity errors AND just bad writing... But I like your explanation MUCH better. Thanks for sharing. –  Thaddeus Jul 10 at 16:17
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Here's an unpopular idea, which I think explains this.

Hot Rod was the Chosen OneTM.

If you look specifically at the events of Transformers: The Movie, you see Hot Rod is the protagonist. During the film, he shows a preternatural connection to The Matrix of Leadership. Eventually he is the one to use it to 'light our darkest hour'. I think this explains why he alone gets an upgrade. He's the only one who has a connection to the Matrix.

Optimus Prime's a cool dude, and a great leader, however he was merely carrying the Matrix. He didn't wield its special power like Hot Rod did. Same with Ultra Magnus (excepting the coolness and excellent leadership). Lacking a proper connection to the Matrix and ability to wield its power, they do not get upgrades.

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But Optimus did wield the Matrix's power. In the Hate Plague incident he took the Matrix from an infected Rodimus and opened it, ending the plague. –  System Down Jul 11 at 11:39
    
+1 for out of the box thinking. -1 for talking smack about optimus prime. –  phantom42 Jul 11 at 12:53
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