Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Updated 2011 BotCon Pasadena Survival Guide

I'm really pretty fortunate.  Most Transformers fans have to travel far and wide to get to BotCon, yet I've had the privilege of having it take place just a few blocks away from where I work three times now!  I can certainly understand why some folks feel like it's "always" here (despite the fact that, with one other exception--in another nearby city in California--these three times are the only times BotCon has been west of Texas!).  So, I try to do my bit to "give back."  The "Survival Guide" I did in 2009 was pretty well received, so it's worth doing that again, updating as necessary and providing new information as I can. 

As I said last time, I can't predict every need. But I do know the Pasadena area pretty well now (having lived in and around it for about 13 years now), and hope that this list will be helpful. Of course, the greater Los Angeles area has lots of stuff to see. For the most part, I'm only listing places that I've actually been to and would recommend. You can find other attractions just by using your Google-Fu, of course!

Travel and Hotels:
  • The Sheraton, Hilton, and Courtyard by Marriott are, of course, the official hotels, and the Sheraton's actually connected to the Convention Center. But even with the BotCon room rate, those are really nice hotels with price tags to match.  I'm told that the Sheraton has in-room refrigerators, which may help you with food planning (perhaps the other hotels do, too.  It's not uncommon for hotels to supply that kind of thing).  But perhaps want to stay at a cheaper hotel. For this, I suggest that you consult the Pasadena Convention Center Hotel Guide, and I would definitely recommend signing up for a Big Crumbs account before booking for either hotels or air travel.  They link to all sorts of services like Expedia, Orbitz, and Hotwire in their "Travel" section (If you don't see the link, look under the "Shop" tab and click "Online Retailers"--after signing up, of course!) and if you visit those sites through Big Crumbs, you can earn a percentage of your purchases back!  Look for deals, as you might even be able to get a lower overall price by booking the room at the same time as your flight and/or rental car.  (Complete aside: I'd love to know how these negotiations work.  The Westin isn't one of the official hotels, but is a lot closer to the convention center than the Courtyard!)
Airports:
  • I won't weigh in on which airlines you should use, but I do have some comments on which airports you might use to get here.  There are several airports in the Pasadena area.  Los Angeles International, commonly called "LAX," is generally the cheapest, but it's a zoo, and if you don't mind spending a little bit more to connect elsewhere, I really do recommend it.  Burbank (BUR) is the closest to Pasadena, and is generally a very pleasant experience.  A bit further away is the Ontario airport (ONT, and yes, I'm talking about California and not Canada!), but that's also a nice airport, as is John Wayne airport (SNA, in Santa Ana), which might work especially well if you plan on working a trip to either Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm (see below) into your arrival or departure plans.
Transportation:
  • This list is written mostly with the assumption that people will either walk wherever they want to go, or will rent a car. There are buses and trains in the Pasadena/Los Angeles area, though. You can map out trips to and from wherever you'd want to go using this link. That said, if you use this option very much, I'd recommend either getting a weekly pass, or reconsider the car rental (which, again, can be done through the Big Crumbs Travel section!).
  • If you just need to get to/from an LA-area airport, the folks behind BotCon have provided a code to get you a discount on SuperShuttle service.  Just enter code "RB3FY" when you make your reservation.
  • If you're coming from LAX, there's a newer alternative option called "Shuttle2LAX" which offers a flat rate of $20 (plus $11 per additional person) regardless of destination.  A little less guesswork, perhaps, but I always suggest checking your options.
Food:
  • Directly across the street from the Convention Center is an open-air mall called the Paseo Colorado. This will be the most obvious place to look for food. You can search through all the Paseo merchants here. Most of the restaurants there have their own links, so you can get an idea of costs. Personally, I'd go to Rubio's for some comparatively cheap food. If you don't mind spending a little more, Islands is good for hamburgers, and P.F. Chang's is great for Chinese food.
  • If you're willing to walk a few blocks east (turn right if you're exiting the convention center on Green, facing the Paseo), Lake Avenue is also a major shopping district with lots of restaurants, both upscale and less expensive. Again, if just going inexpensive is your goal, I'd suggest Del Taco, which is a bit cheaper than Rubio's. For the healthier mind-set, Souplantation is quite good.
  • If Italian's your thing, try Buca Di Beppo, which is excellent food, close to the convention, but kind of pricey.
  • McCormick & Schmicks is the only local bar that I (being a teetotaler) have any real familiarity with. I recommend going during Happy Hour (around 5-6 pm), when you can get really cheap food if you buy a beverage (doesn't even have to be alcoholic, or at least didn't when I lived about a block away a few years ago). If you want some excellent seafood, you can go to the main restaurant portion, but be warned that the prices are fairly high.
  • If you've got a friend to dine with, love Mexican food, and don't mind the roughly 1/2-hour drive to go about 8 miles east during rush hour, I also highly recommend Los G├╝eros in Monrovia (now with two locations!  The original, on Huntington, and now one on Myrtle in Old Town Monrovia). If you're bringing a group, I really recommend you get a coupon from Restaurant.com (which works with the above-mentioned Big Crumbs account.  You really should get one!) or through Entertainment.com if you have one of their coupon books (and remember, you really need to order the fresh guacamole!).
  • Obviously, if you're willing to drive, much more can be found than I can list conveniently. However, the Pasadena Convention and Visitors Bureau has a very helpful website that can fill in the blanks (this link goes directly to the dining section).
  • Because a few folks have mentioned it, and because it really is pretty good food, I've done a special write-up for In-N-Out Burger in Alhambra (there is one in Pasadena, but you can't sit down there, and so I've never bothered with it myself. It's too far to walk, and if you have to drive, you want to be able to sit down to eat, right?).  There's also a very nice In-N-Out at the Glendale Galleria, where you can get some extra shopping in if you get tired of Transformers.
  • If you're thinking more on the order of groceries (who cooks for themselves at BotCon?), Gelson's is just across the street from the convention center, but is a bit overpriced. If you don't mind walking a few blocks east, I recommend Ralph's instead.
Mail and Shipping:
  • If you need to send a package, I'm sure that BotCon will provide certain shipping services, but you should be aware that the main Pasadena Post Office is just across the street from the Paseo (which, as I said, is itself just across the street from the Convention Center). You might find this to be a viable option for your shipping needs. There is also a FedEx Office (the establishment formerly known as Kinko's) on Los Robles a bit to the Northeast at the Westin (which may as well be one of the "other" official hotels, given its location and comparatively high price). Finally, there is a UPS Store a short distance to the Southwest, but it's rather far for walking (indeed, this one's an exception to my "don't post if I haven't used it" rule. I've used both of the others.).
Local Attractions:
  • The Pasadena Playhouse is a historic theater that has given more than a few big-name celebrities their start. It's just a few blocks east of the Convention Center. Easy walking distance. I can't yet tell what play will be playing there during the BotCon season, but this is usually top-notch entertainment with well-known celebrities. Tickets can be fairly expensive, but they do have a few options (especially for those who are students) that are less expensive if you're willing to take your chances on a seat.
  • Huntington Library and the Huntington Gardens are at the estate of Henry E. Huntington: railroad magnate (and nephew of "Big Four" member C. P. Huntington), business leader, and all-around-rich-guy. The Library has a wonderful collection of art, including both year-round and rotating displays. It also has a collection including original writings of Abraham Lincoln, a Gutenberg Bible, and other bits of Americana and European fare. If the Library doesn't appeal, just go for the Gardens, which are both expansive and exotic. You can easily spend an afternoon just walking along the beautiful paths alone. There is a nominal fee to enter, but especially if you're bringing kids, I definitely recommend spending some time there.
  • I've never actually been inside the Gamble House, but have driven by it often enough that I need to include it. If you have a car, I recommend doing at least that much, just so you can say you've driven by Doc Brown's place! (Of course, this house has been used in lots of other films, too.)
  • The Pacific Asia Museum is even closer to where I work than the Convention Center is, and is thus an easy walk for those who manage to avoid renting a car. Admission is quite reasonable.
  • And, while you're there, you may as well head next door (Even closer to the seminary! Right across the street!) and visit the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Admission is essentially the same price as the Pacific Asia Museum.
  • And, at the risk of sounding anti-climactic, there's a movie theater at the Paseo Colorado.
Outside of Pasadena Itself:
  • By the way, if you do want to go to Hollywood, do not do so at nighttime unless you've got a fairly large group with you. It's really pretty run-down outside of the immediate attractions.
  • That said, if you want to take a break from BotCon stuff, or otherwise stay an extra day, there are lots of show tapings that you might enjoy. Most of these will take several hours to complete, so plan accordingly. There are tons of sites that offer tickets. Here's just a sample. (Some shows may not be taping in June, of course.)
  • If you're into astronomy, you might want to check out the Griffith Observatory, recently reopened after an extensive renovation. (And, hey, Transformers fans will be interested in the fact that parts of the first live-action movie were filmed here.)
  • The Museum of Tolerance is not a place I'd recommend for young children, but is definitely worth going to for those mature enough to handle it. The main topic of the museum is the World War II Holocaust, educating people about those atrocities in hopes that nothing like that ever happens again. There are other historical periods featured, as well.
  • And, of course, there are always amusement parks. I'm sure you knew about Disneyland without my mentioning it, but Knott's Berry Farm is a cheaper amusement park in the same area (Buena Park, very near Anaheim, actually), and there's also the Universal Studios park in the LA area, and Magic Mountain if you don't mind about an hour's drive north and really enjoy roller coasters.
If there's some other dimension of your BotCon experience you think I should address on this list, but feel that I've missed, just leave a comment, and I'll update as necessary. Even so, you should read the comments left by others here, as they offer some ideas that are worth investigating, even if I don't have direct experience with them myself.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Transformers Then and Now: Overkill

After more than 25 years of the Transformers franchise, it's really no surprise that many Transformers released today are homages to Transformers of earlier years.  Even granting this fact, some homages are more surprising than others.  It sometimes seems like the official channels don't know that the original Transformers line kept putting out new characters after 1984 and 1985.  The original Overkill was released in 1987, appeared for all of two seconds in the original cartoon, and faded into obscurity for the next 20 years.

The original Overkill (seen here on the right, sadly without the missile batteries he originally came with) was paired with fellow dinosaur Decepticon Slugfest, who had just as much (?) screen time as Overkill.  Although Slugfest's original toy was reissued before Overkill (in 2009.  Actually, Overkill's original toy has still never been reissued), only Overkill has been homaged with a new toy (seen here on the left), a repaint of Classics Grimlock.

Although both Overkills are most notable for their Tyrannosaurus rex modes, their alternate modes couldn't be more different.  The original Overkill transforms into a cassette, whereas the new Overkill transforms into a robot.  The idea to use such an utterly dissimilar toy as Grimlock to be Overkill may seem a bit odd, but this is actually an idea that fans came up with before Hasbro.  At BotCon 2007, customizer Shawn Tessmann, who runs the annual customizing class, chose to use Classics Grimlock as the basis for a new version of Overkill.  The idea was very popular, and Hasbro did a similar (but official!) version of the same concept just a year later.  Unfortunately for most US fans, Hasbro's Overkill was not originally released in stores, but was a "Special Edition" exclusive to Hasbro's online webstore.  The branch of Hasbro in Asia and Australia apparently commissioned the toy (along with new versions of Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Drag Strip), and HasbroToyShop.com took advantage of the production.  After a few months, a few fans reported seeing some of these "Special Edition" figures at discount department stores like Marshall's, and for considerably cheaper than HTS's $15 asking price.  Unfortunately, these sightings were rather scarce, and so not a reliable source for most fans.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Game Show Board Games: The $25,000 Pyramid

On the comparatively rare occasions when I am with a group of friends playing board games at their house, it seems that Taboo is almost always requested.  I usually am pretty happy to join in, because I know the truth: Taboo is pretty much the same game as one of my favorite game shows, which in the 1980's I knew as The $25,000 Pyramid!

Yes, Taboo adds the wrinkle of not being able to say certain obvious words, rendering it a bit more difficult, but Pyramid was popularizing the idea of trying to get your teammate to say the correct word or phrase based on definitions you give them for a good decade-and-a-half by the time Taboo (and the later, similar game, Catch Phrase) had begun to be marketed to the public.

Pyramid captures the gameplay of the game show quite nicely (although it's rather difficult to have teammates trade off in the middle of a round, given the fact that all clues for that round are visible on the side of board available to the players giving them), if perhaps it doesn't capture the snazzy feel of the set with the rotating trilons anything near as well.  Instead of a digital timer, you are given an hourglass with bright pink sand in it (a fairly common element in board games with a timed element).  The hourglass is remarkably well-calibrated to the expected 30-second time limit required for the regular game.  Unfortunately, only one hourglass is provided, requiring someone to flip it over in the middle of the 60-second "Winner's Circle," which is more than a little unfortunate.  As anyone who's watched the show can attest, this round can be quite intense, and one really can't expect the players to be paying attention to the clock when they're trying to win the round!

The producers of the game were wise enough to realize that gameplay for the daytime $25,000 Pyramid and the nighttime $100,000 Pyramid is more or less identical, and thus advertise that you can play either version you want on the sides of the box and in the rules.  Unfortunately, they also decided to cram both numbers at the top of the paper pyramid board provided, which further detracts from the visual feel of the game, with the top prize proudly (and singularly!) on display at the top.

Still, these are minor quibbles.  The game plays like a Pyramid game should, and that's what really matters.  If you're able to pick up a version of this game, I highly recommend it, and would especially suggest pulling it out for your next party (perhaps using a stopwatch rather than that hourglass, though)!

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Special Transformers Feature: Micromaster Overload

The 1989 Micromaster Transports aren't especially well-remembered today.  Like other, larger, Micromaster sets such as Airwave, the Transports came with a small figure that turned from a robot into an alternate mode, as well as a transforming accessory.   The Transports were sold at a lower price-point than Airwave and those like him.  Airwave came in a small box, while the Transports came on cards.

I don't know if anyone else ever thought this way (I wrote this while the TFWiki was down.  It seems that I'm not), but I always saw Overload as a kind of "Micromaster Optimus Prime."  This is admittedly for no reason greater than the cab and trailer alternate mode and very loosely Prime-like colors (Overload is blue where Prime would be red, and vice-versa)....

 ...well, the fact that Overload has a similar "truck windows on chest" torso (kind of an Optimus Prime trademark) also helps.  But even if the colors were reversed to Prime-proper, the proportions and lack of face plate would be a dead giveaway.  At least, it would have been in 1989, before Primes were released having mouths!  (Of course, those linked Primes were just recolors of molds that were created to represent non-Prime characters, so maybe that doesn't really mean anything...)

Overload's trailer transforms into a kind of fighter jet.  "Kind of" a jet, that is, if you ignore the laws of aerodynamics, and "kind of" a fighter if one imagines that the ends of the wings are supposed to be weapon-tips.  This is one of those instances where you can tell that the package art took some liberties and added details that the toy does not possess (of course, the art may reflect design elements that the toy was intended to possess at one point in time, but I don't know this for certain).

One element of the design of Overload's trailer that I don't think gets enough attention is that the back of the trailer opens up to allow for other Micromaster vehicles to ride inside.  This part doesn't need to move for transformation.  It pretty much only serves the play factor of the toy's trailer mode.  I always appreciate it when toys have these extra elements, especially in the original Generation One era.
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