It's pretty common these days to see discussion about how inflation is affecting our lives, and the Transformers fan community is no exception. We've seen a recent trend whereby certain toys seem to cost quite a bit more than they would have just a year or two ago. That said, the reality of inflation, generally, has not always meant that Transformers fans have had to pay more for similar product. This can be demonstrated using a couple of toys featured recently here on the blog. I'm going to compare the 1988 Joyride toy with the Cybertron Optimus Prime toy, which itself was recolored from a 2003 Armada mold (which I don't have, or I'd be using it, instead). 15 years difference, roughly half the lifespan of the Transformers franchise, allows us to make some interesting observations.
First, let's try to establish that this is a meaningful comparison. I've weighed both toys on my postal scale, including all plastic accessories, and the scale registers both toys as exactly 4.9 ounces. Acknowledging that there's probably a margin for error here, these toys have essentially the same mass. In other words, you're getting about the same amount of plastic (neither of these toys uses die-cast metal) in each toy.*
Getting historical retail prices isn't an exact science, as it's common to find different prices at one store than you will at the store next door. When I suggested the retail prices of deluxe figures (or SuperCon, in the Armada era) in both 2003 and 2008 for my convention exclusives data pages, I came up with about $10 both times. My most common source for this estimate (especially for older base figures) has tended to be Dave Van Domelen's page, which has been covering Transformers toys as they come out for almost 20 years now. He suggests $9.99 for both Armada Prime and the later Cybertron version. For the 1988 Joyride toy, I consulted with Steve at pleasesavemerobots.com, which catalogs G1-era toy advertisements. That site lists a range of prices for Autobot Powermasters at different stores, the cheapest of which was $10.88, with advertised prices going as high as $14.99 (and that was listed as a sale price in one instance, but considering that one was apparently Kay-Bee, take that with a grain of salt). Steve was also able to locate a scan of the price list that Hasbro used at the 1988 Toy Fair, which makes clear that $9.99 was the price that retailers had to pay to Hasbro per Autobot Powermaster. If the retailer was to make any money on the toy at all, they had to charge more than $9.99!
Thus, it's clear that the more recent of these two similarly-sized toys tended to be the cheaper one, and that's even before getting into the question of the power of the 1988 dollar vs. the 2003 dollar. For that, let's look at an inflation calculator. At www.usinflationcalculator.com, it is suggested that an item that cost $10.00 in 1988 should cost $15.55 in 2003. Conversely, it suggests that a $10.00 item in 2003 should only have cost $6.43 in 1988. Clearly this was not the case with these Transformers toys (or, indeed, any. For those old enough, imagine how small any Transformers you could buy for $6.50 have been!). Inflation calculators arrive at their numbers by comparing prices of goods and services that remain intrinsically similar in different eras. For a list of the types of items used by the US Inflation Calculator, you can see this page. The point here is, it is obvious that Transformers toys have not (at least, not between 1988 and 2003) increased prices at the same rate as US inflation in general. Not remotely close.
There are, of course, a number of other differences between Transformers toys of the early 2000s and those of the late 1980s. Joyride can barely be posed at all. You can raise his arms up, but he doesn't even have two distinct legs, let alone articulated ones. The Optimus Prime toy, on the other hand, is extremely articulated, and includes that kinda-sorta punching action feature. Among other things, this means that Prime's design utilizes a higher number of distinct parts than Joyride's does, and that the engineering required to put it all together was probably quite a bit more complex with Prime than with Joyride. Advances in toy-making technology over the years have made it possible to get quite a bit more toy for quite a bit less money. I think I can say without reservation that one got more (much more...) for one's money buying this Prime mold in the 2000s than one did buying Powermaster Joyride in 1988.
*A disclaimer: The 2003 Armada version of Prime had a Mini-Con rather than a Cyber Key. That said, the Mini-Con probably weighed more than the 1/10th ounce registered by the key, rather than less. Theoretically, this would mean that the 2003 toy should cost more than the 1988 toy, given the slightly greater mass. But, of course, Hasbro price-points don't work that way, anyway.