Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Memories of Pengo

I'm kind of a sucker for penguins. Especially of the "cartoon" variety. I think this probably dates back to when I was in elementary school, and my best friend and I would often ride our bikes to the local Big Lots, where they used to have an assortment of video games to be played. One that I latched onto fairly quickly was Pengo.

Pengo is, in many ways, a standard video game of the early 1980's. You would play the role of Pengo (who is, as the name implies, a penguin), who would navigate a maze of ice cubes while trying to avoid contact with a number of "Sno-Bees" that also populate the field. You complete a round by eliminating all the Sno-Bees. This is generally done by pushing ice cubes, which you do by facing the cube and pushing a button, which sends the cube flying across the board until it hits either another ice cube or the edge of the board (if the ice cube is already next to another cube or the edge in the direction you're pushing, the cube you're pushing is instead crushed). Any Sno-Bees caught in the cube's path are knocked out. You can also "stun" Sno-Bees by pushing against the edge of the board (as if pushing an ice cube). Any Sno-Bees along that edge are stunned, and you can simply walk over them in this state. But, be careful! If you wait too long, the Sno-Bee will wake up and try to kill you again! Some ice cubes are Sno-Bee eggs, which hatch to replace Sno-Bees you've removed. These cubes are signified by flashing at the beginning of each round, as well as when an egg is hatching. You can safely eliminate an egg just by crushing an ice cube that contains it.

Bonus points may be gained by lining up the three "diamond cubes" in a row horizontally or vertically. If this is done against the edge of the board, it's worth 5000 extra points and temporarily stuns all active Sno-Bees. But if you can manage to line up three diamond cubes in the middle of the board (as seen here), it's worth 10,000 extra points!

For every couple of boards you completed, you were rewarded with a series of dancing penguins that danced to the tune of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." This was always my favorite part of the game, and is probably the main reason I enjoy animated penguins so much. I'm also fond of this tune; indeed, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," which uses this tune, is one of my favorite hymns! Other games have similar "rewards" for completing a set number of boards, but I really do enjoy this one the best.

Thanks to advances in computer technology, it's fairly cheap and easy to find ways of enjoying this game today. I definitely enjoy the nostalgia trip. Bring on the dancing penguins!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Target Exclusive Universe Bonecrusher and Scavenger

Generally speaking, I try to feature Transformers according to how they were sold. If a toy came with another toy, I'll review both (or all, as appropriate) at once. If it was sold by itself, I'll just review the single toy. So far, I'm aware of only one instance where I have consciously broken this rule, but I'm sure that there will be others. Combiner teams can be especially difficult to deal with. I can deal with all the individual robots and the combined form all at once, as I did with the Seacon set, but that makes for a rather long article that doesn't give very much attention to the individual robots. On the other hand, if I chose to feature each individual robot separately (even if I can argue that they were sold that way), I not only spread the team out over several weeks and risk being monotonous (there's not always a lot to say about one member of a team that I didn't say about another), I would still have to deal with the combined form. These Target exclusive Universe figures offer a bit of a compromise. They were sold in two sets of 2 figures each. Once you have all four figures, you can combine them into the larger robot. I'll deal with just one of the 2-packs this week, and give a bit of the history behind the molds. Next week, I'll take care of the other 2-pack and the combined form, but focus more on the figures as they exist in this release.

These molds were first created for the Japanese-exclusive Car Robots line in 2000. This line was, in many ways, a return to basics: a line of vehicle-form Transformers (although there were still some "beasts") fighting on modern-day Earth. When a group of combiner characters in construction vehicle forms were revealed to be a part of this line, people naturally made comparisons to the classic Constructicons: the original Transformer combiner team from the original line. Of course, the comparisons weren't exact. In Car Robots, this was a team of Autobots, and they sported a rather vibrant and varied color scheme instead of the classic Constructicon green-and-purple (as seen in the Universe versions here, although Scavenger--on the left--did end up more purple than green). Still, it really came as no surprise when these molds were repainted and released in the "Constructicon" color scheme in 2006. The only real wonder was that it took so long (In fact, the Universe release is actually the third time these molds were made into toys in America. There was a Wal-Mart exclusive release in mostly-yellow before the powers-that-be went with the obvious Constructicon homage, but those toys were still the same Autobot characters as the original version. By the time Hasbro got around to producing these versions, several other Universe figures in the previous year or so had sold so poorly that Hasbro decided to cancel the line, causing all remaining Universe figures already planned to be delayed and released only as store exclusives).

The Car Robots line was not created with the intention of selling these toys in America, and as a result, these toys have a few notable peculiarities in terms of design and marketing. In America, for example, toys are sold according to fairly well-defined "price points," and Hasbro makes efforts to conform all toys to those prices. This is not the case in Japan. When Car Robots was carried over (with some additions) to America as the Robots in Disguise line, the four construction-type combiner toys were each sold individually at the (approximately) $10 price-point. But, as you can see with the Universe repaints pictured here, the figures weren't all the same size. Wedge (which used the same mold as Bonecrusher, here on the right) was a lot smaller than Grimlock (who has been repainted into Scavenger, as seen here). Packaging the two figures together and selling them for roughly twice that amount doesn't really hide that discrepancy all that much (FYI, I got these off of eBay for about $10 per 2-pack a few years ago, so I figure I did pretty well).

So, that gets these figures from Car Robots toys to Constructicon-themed Universe releases. I'll have more to say about these guys next week.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New Video: Go to BotCon!

The same guy who was behind the other BotCon-related CGI video is responsible for this one. I'm really impressed! While it's obvious enough (to those of us who follow Transformers, anyway) that the voices aren't done by the original 1980's voice actors (one of whom's been dead for years!), they're very good approximations.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Special "Transformers" Feature: Fry Force

Back when I reviewed the 1996 McDonald's Happy Meal "Beetle" toy, I took some effort to say that this was the first time that McDonald's had done a Transformers-themed Happy Meal toy that actually transformed. Unfortunately, the words I chose to convey that fact were somewhat confusing, leading to a very appropriate comment that there had been, in fact, transforming Happy Meal toys previously: the Changeables. These weren't made by Hasbro, and thus aren't actually "Transformers," but they clearly represent an effort to capitalize on the transforming robot fad of the era. Although I have since rewritten the "Beetle" article to (hopefully) more accurately convey my original intention, the Changeables deserve a mention. Unfortunately, I had long ago lost, sold, or given away the Changeables I'd gotten during the '80s, and wouldn't have been able to provide photos without stealing them from another site somewhere (something I try to avoid when possible, although I won't claim that I have always kept to this ideal).

Thankfully, I found this member of the "Fry Force" (yes, Fry Force is the actual name this toy was given, although I can't actually tell if it's intended to reference a group of identical Fry-bots or if it's supposed to be the name of a singular entity. I'm just going with what makes the most sense to me) during a yard sale run recently, and it's a fairly decent representative of the Changeables line as a whole. Basically, what McDonald's did was release a set of transformable toys that changed from common food items (Large Fries, in this case) into robots.

So far as I can tell, this toy came from the second series of Changeables, out in 1989, and is a repaint (see? McDonald's does them too!) of a toy from the original 1987 series. A third series, out in 1990, had food items that turned into dinosaurs. All of these toys have very simple transformations, and are fairly sturdy: very appropriate for toys for young children. I'm still deciding whether I should just leave the paint chipping on this one as it is, or if I should retouch it and make it look "new" again.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Universe Soundwave and Space Case

When I discussed Universe Skywarp, I mentioned that the original Universe line consisted entirely of repaints of previously released toys. In some cases, these toys went back as far as the late Generation One era. Because standards for what size of toy is sold at what price point have changed a bit from era to era, Hasbro occasionally bundled multiple Universe toys together to increase the perceived value and (hopefully!) generate more sales. This was the case with Soundwave and Space Case.

I'll start with Space Case, which is a repaint of the Generation Two Cyberjet of the same name. Like fellow Cyberjet Skyjack, Space Case comes with pressure-fired missiles and features decent articulation. The fact that Cyberjet articulation technology was so cutting-edge when the toys first came out helps disguise the fact that this mold was actually almost a decade old by the time Universe Space Case was released in 2004. Unlike Skyjack, Space Case actually has two hands (the missile launcher being attached to the right arm, rather than taking the place of the arm itself).

The tampographed faction symbol on Space Case's jet mode is a definite improvement over the Generation Two era, which was still in a transition between using stickers and deciding not to put faction symbols on toys at all (a lot of early G2 toys had outlines of symbols, often with the name of the faction alongside them, on hidden parts of the toy's surface, but these weren't present on Cyberjets). Some fans don't care much about the symbols, arguing that it detracts from the "Robots in Disguise" element. I'd much rather have them. The transformation aspect of Transformers has always been more about function and utility than "disguise" for me. But, I do have to admit, I'd rather have the symbol on the robot mode than on the vehicle mode, if only one symbol is used. So Space Case "fails" on that level....

Universe Soundwave's mold is even older, dating back to a 1993 toy named Stalker that was released in Europe, but never in America. The mold did see an American release in 1997 as part of the Machine Wars line. The original version's hand weapon and missiles were removed in order to satisfy American safety regulations, and it was at this time that the mold was first released as Soundwave. Although the mold wasn't created to be the Generation One character, it's a surprisingly good fit. The head retains the essential look of Soundwave's head with its face plate, and Stalker's function was "communications expert," rather similar to Soundwave's own function (this perhaps explains the small radar dish that is part of the mold).

The Universe version of this toy still has all of the neutering of the Machine Wars release, and as a pre-Generation Two mold, it really doesn't have very good articulation. Basically, you can transform it from robot to vehicle and back, but don't expect to be able to pose it much in robot mode. Universe Soundwave also has a single tampographed faction symbol, which (like Space Case) the earlier American release seemed to lack (I don't actually own Machine Wars Soundwave). Unlike Space Case, this one shows up better in robot mode than in vehicle mode.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Hard Life of Professor Martin Stein: Part Three

As I said last time, after the evolution of the "elemental" version of Firestorm, the still-amnesiac Martin Stein was truly separate from the composite superhero for the first time.

Almost.

A kind of mental link remained. At first, this manifested itself simply as a series of dreams that Stein would have, "of somehow being Firestorm," although he did not understand the significance of these dreams. Stein also intuitively knew that this new Firestorm was somehow "wrong."

What was wrong was that Stein was intended to become Firestorm (as revealed by Maya, an Earth goddess who appeared to the elemental Firestorm), although this intention was thwarted from the very beginning by the inclusion of Ron Raymond and subsequent events.

As the 80's-era Firestorm comic book ended its run with issue #100, this error was rectified, and Stein became the elemental Firestorm all on his own. Stein also got all of his memories back. This should have been a good thing, but in an act of saving the world, Stein's Firestorm was sucked through a black hole to end up in distant region of space with no apparent way back home.

And that was the state of things for the next several years. Although Stein was able to return to Earth once at the cost of switching places with the now-powerless Raymond, he spent most of his time out in the distant reaches of nowhere. By the time Stein returned to Earth more properly (as Raymond developed the ability to become a more traditional Firestorm on his own), he had lost a great deal of his perspective on the human race, and had an unfortunate habit of setting fire to large areas without realizing it. Raymond had to snap Stein back to reality on at least two separate occasions, and both times, Stein chose to return to his spacebound wanderings.

Finally, some 16 years (real time) after Stein first found himself in the far reaches of space, he met current Firestorm Jason Rusch, who had assumed Raymond's powers upon Raymond's death, and Rusch convinced Stein to return to his human life and assume the kind of advisory position Stein had with Raymond back in the beginning.

No sooner had Stein given up his godlike powers (in real time. In comics time, we're told that a year had passed) than we learn that he'd been kidnapped by an insane scientist. Rusch is eventually able to rescue him, but not before Stein had been tortured and actually killed (Rusch was able to revive Stein using Firestorm's powers). Then, a few months later, as that run of Firestorm was reaching its last issue, Stein was forcibly removed from the Firestorm composite by DC supervillain Darkseid. By the time we see Stein again, he has again been held hostage and tortured for quite some time.

In fact, this is where things get really confusing. Stein's fate is left ambiguous after the villain torturing Stein is defeated as part of the DC Countdown event. We don't really see him properly again. A confusing speech bubble implies that Stein is usurped by an OMAC. It is unclear if Stein is a part of the group of DC heroes that survive the OMAC invasion, and when we see Firestorm again, it is still the composite of Jason Rusch and another character. Stein may well be dead, but this was never explicitly spelled out, nor is where he is now if he did, in fact, survive.

But if Stein did survive, he could hardly be faulted if he chose not to reenter the world of Firestorm again. It's definitely caused him a lot of pain and anguish.

UPDATE: Stein does finally show up again as of July 15, 2009. We'll see how long that lasts....

Friday, April 10, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Premium Movie Ratchet

Over the past couple of years, a question I get a lot when people first discover that I like Transformers is "did you see the movie?" I then have to explain that, yes, I did see the movie... eventually. Since these folks are asking me now as opposed to, say, 5 years or more ago, I know they're asking me about the 2007 live-action Transformers rather than the 1986 animated movie, which I proudly went to see on the day that it opened (which happened to be my birthday, August 8th). For the live-action movie, I really didn't care all that much. I'd kept up on all the news, as I do for all things Transformers, but really hate the aesthetics of the robots they used. I usually call them "shrapnel-bots," which perhaps gives you an idea of what it is about the designs I dislike.

I fully intended to watch the movie... eventually, and did once it came out on DVD. I did purchase the DVD, but to this day, I've actually only watched it through once. The movie was okay, and I think it did what it was supposed to do: give moviegoers some mindless entertainment with an action- and explosion-filled summer flick. It also sold lots of toys, though not very many to me. Indeed, I fully intended to save some money and not buy any toys explicitly created for the movie. As this review attests, I didn't quite make it. The fact is, I'm a sucker for exclusives. This version of Ratchet (or "Autobot Ratchet," as Hasbro has to do for any toys named Ratchet these days to protect their trademark) was one of the first of what were called "Premium" releases, and was exclusive to Best Buy (the only time I can recall Best Buy doing such exclusives). Basically, what they did is re-release toys that had already been in stores for months, but in bright, shiny colors with a few more paint details than the original version.

One feature of most movie toys that sets them apart from most other Transformers lines of recent years (with the obvious exception of the Alternators) is that they actually turn into vehicle forms licensed from real car companies, notably General Motors, which it seems is a company that movie director Michael Bay has a strong relationship with. Ratchet turns into a Hummer H2, modified for emergency response. Look closely, folks, because this is the only Hummer I'll ever own! ;)

Ratchet has a couple of built-in gimmicks, such as the claws made from the roof rack seen above and the axe that can replace his right hand as seen here, but they're really not anything special. This is a toy that I actually tend to keep out of display and in a box (with the two or three other movie toys I ended up buying). If the toys coming out for this year's movie are essentially the same, I'll end up saving quite a bit of money this year, hopefully having learned from the mistake of going against my own original intention in regard to toys like this one.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Hard Life of Professor Martin Stein: Part Two

At the end of last week's account, I mentioned how Professor Martin Stein's prognosis of less than a year to live, due to a brain tumor, was actually just the beginning of his troubles. I've already pointed out that Stein was always the passive part of the Firestorm persona, the active part being teenager Ronnie Raymond. This has always been a source of difficulty for Stein, as he was liable to be called into the Firestorm fusion without warning at any time (to some extent, Raymond had this potential difficulty, too, but Raymond initiated the fusion far more often than Stein did). Raymond's insistence on forming Firestorm against Stein's wishes, especially in an incident shortly after Stein learned of his medical situation, caused a serious rift between the two, as Stein experienced deep trauma at being used against his own will in this way. Although Raymond eventually apologized and agreed to allow Stein the freedom to reject becoming Firestorm if he so desired, it still took some time for Stein to be able to trust Raymond again, and at this point, Stein had not yet shared with Raymond the knowledge that he was dying.

Once Raymond learned of Stein's condition, the two of them together decided to take the last few months of Stein's life and do something that Stein thought would be of lasting impact. Using Firestorm's powers to nullify a couple of nuclear missiles—one in the US and one aboard a Soviet submarine (remember, this was still the 1980's)—he/they demanded that all nations with such missiles disarm. Naturally, neither superpower took this ultimatum well, and both governments sought in their own way to destroy Firestorm. The Soviets sent a Russian nuclear superhuman to attack Firestorm, and when that didn't seem to work, the Americans tried to annihilate both of them by shooting a nuclear missile at them. When the missile went off, Firestorm survived, but was changed. Firestorm was now a fusion of Raymond and the Russian (a man named Mikhail Arkadin), but neither was in control. Now Firestorm seemed to have a mind of his own. Martin Stein was nowhere to be found, and was presumed dead.

About a year later (in real time, although it was apparently months later in comics time, as well), we learned that Stein was not killed in the nuclear explosion, and that it had in fact eliminated the tumor with its massive radiation, ironically saving his life. Unfortunately, the incident also left Stein with amnesia, and he no longer had any memory of his previous life. It was discovered at this time that it was Stein's mind that formed the template of the new Firestorm entity, but neither Firestorm nor Stein himself seemed to be aware of this, and when Firestorm was formed, Stein's body remained separate, going into a coma for the duration. This was not good for Stein's well-being; doctors mentioned that Stein's bodily functions deteriorated when these comas lasted for too long.

Less than a year later (again, in real time), Firestorm changed yet again, as Raymond and Arkadin gave up their individual identities entirely, and Firestorm evolved into a "Fire Elemental." Stein's mind was returned to his body when this evolution took place, and thus Stein was completely separate from Firestorm for the first time since Firestorm's creation....

Well, not quite. But I'll get to the troubles still awaiting Professor Martin Stein in next week's (final) installment.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Skyjack

Some of the last all-new molds created for Generation Two were the Cyberjets. The Cyberjets were small, highly posable jet-form robots that came in one of three molds. Each mold was used twice during the Generation Two era. The first batch was a group of Decepticons, and the second batch were Autobots given Generation One names. Even though Generation Two Transformers weren't always given faction symbols on the toys themselves, it's easy to tell the Decepticon Cyberjets from the Autobots. The Decepticons all have red thighs and shoulders, while these same parts on the Autobots are blue.

Skyjack turns into a stealth bomber. When I reviewed Dreadwing over a year ago, I commented that stealth bombers were apparently popular at the time. In that vein, it's worth noting that Skyjack's Tech Specs bio says that Dreadwing is his mentor, and that they apparently enjoy shooting at Earthen cars for target practice together. Since Skyjack, like most new-to-G2 characters, didn't get any American fiction written to feature them, it's nice to see even that small bit of personality offered in the character's bio.

Skyjack's robot mode is one of those that only has one "real" hand, the other arm being devoted to holding and/or launching one of the two missiles that come with the toy (more on that in a bit). In this particular case, I don't mind the one-fist thing as much as I normally would. Perhaps it's because, when the missile isn't in place, the end looks "claw-like" enough to still serve as a potentially useful appendage. Before the Cyberjets, a Transformer that could move both arms, both legs, both elbows, both knees, and the head in a wide range of motion would be considered the exception. Nowadays, if a Transformer isn't at least a posable as a Cyberjet, fans complain (especially if the perception is that some gimmick or another was the cause this liability).

Besides featuring unusually high posability for the era, the Cyberjets all had missiles which could fit into a launcher. Unlike most Transformer missiles, which used spring-loaded launchers, these relied on nothing more than the plastic's own flexibility to work. Apply pressure to the end, and when enough force is applied to push the missile out of the small slot in which it's held in place, the missile will fly out! It's deceptively low-tech, but works rather well. And the design of the Cyberjets is such that these missiles are accessible and can be launched from both jet and robot modes.

Since Skyjack is a Generation Two toy, sharp-eyed readers may already be wondering why I haven't designated this as "Generation Two" Skyjack in the title, as I do for most non-Generation One toys. Even more observant readers may have already figured out the reason: this is the only Transformer ever called "Skyjack" in the entire history of the franchise. Although it is an appropriately "evil-sounding" name for a Decepticon to have, one assumes that after the ways in which the world has changed after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, a name like "Skyjack" just isn't one that Hasbro wants to mess with any more. I certainly don't blame them.
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