Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Transformers Feature: SDCC 2011 "First Edition" Optimus Prime

The longer the Transformers franchise stays alive, the more toys with the same name are created. The single most egregious example is, of course, Optimus Prime. The TFWiki page for Generation One Optimus Prime toys lists dozens upon dozens of items. While G1 is certainly the largest offender, when you add all the other continuity families that Transformers has embraced over the years, it's easy to see how trying to come up with a concise way of naming each specific Optimus Prime toy can become a challenge. This problem was not helped when the name of the most recent iteration was announced: Transformers: Prime. If I really wanted to be glib, I could call this toy Transformers: Prime Optimus Prime, or perhaps worse yet "Prime Prime" (although these admittedly would work equally well for several other toys, not just this San Diego Comic-Con exclusive).

This SDCC exclusive was the very first toy released for the Transformers: Prime series. An entire series of "First Edition" toys was intended to follow at mass retail shortly thereafter, but were ultimately relegated to becoming Toys R Us exclusives more than half a year later (and many toys created for the "First Edition" line ended up not being available in the States until much later... if at all). Like Animated before it, the entire first season of the Prime cartoon had already completed its initial run before the line made it to stores. This is probably at least somewhat intentional, to drum up enthusiasm for the toys by getting kids familiar with the characters, but I think that someone needs to rethink their planning process, because it seems to me that the result has been that far too many toys are getting designed for intended American retail release that our stores end up never getting.

Because SDCC is much, much larger than BotCon, there are a lot more of these toys made than your average BotCon exclusive. I don't know precisely how many, but this tends to be reflected in the selling price. Whereas BotCon toys often cost somewhere between three and four times as much as a toy using the same mold would cost at retail, SDCC exclusives are usually a bit cheaper. Not a lot cheaper, mind you. This toy cost about $20, which was still about twice as much as a toy of this size would normally cost (although even then, the retail price of this size was creeping above $10, where it had been for many years previously. Indeed, deluxe-sized toys coming out right now are being priced at $15 at Target and Toys R Us!), but most people expect to pay somewhat inflated prices for convention exclusives.

For the past couple of years, Hasbro seems to have been putting a lot of effort into their SDCC exclusive packaging. As seen at the top, this toy comes in a large box depicting Optimus Prime's chest. This box opens down the middle (held shut by a magnet) to reveal a large plastic container for the toy. This container is shaped like the Autobot Matrix of Leadership (although, oddly, the Matrix as it appeared in most Generation One versions, and not the Prime version, which is shaped rather differently), and has a velcro strap around it, demonstrating that the buyer is intended to wear it around his neck. Personally, I would have preferred more of the cost of making this figure to have been used on the toy itself (its rather lacking in paint applications, in my opinion), rather than on the packaging. It's not like I'm ever actually going to wear this plastic monstrosity! Packaging is meant to protect the product before the buyer gets it, and then to be thrown away! It's hard enough finding space for a large and growing collection without having to make room for large packages, too! Sadly, if the recent 2012 SDCC exclusives are any indication, I don't see this trend going away anytime soon.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Trekkies, Trekkers, Evangelicals, and Labels

If you follow almost any science fiction genre at all, you're probably aware of a long-standing debate on what to call fans of Star Trek. Pretty much everyone knows about "Trekkies," but every now and again, someone will pipe up and comment that this term is incorrect, informing the misguided individual that the proper word to refer to fans of Star Trek is, in fact, "Trekkers."

The exact history behind the names is not entirely clear, but the debate clearly goes back almost to the beginning of the franchise. The name "Trekkie" goes back to at least 1967 (The original Star Trek itself premiered in 1966), and the "Trekker" alternative has been used since at least 1970 (less than a year after NBC cancelled the show, and it quickly found new life in rerun syndication). There are differing accounts of the precise meaning of each term, but the general consensus among Trek fans seems to prefer "Trekker" on the basis that "Trekkie" is derogatory and refers to "those crazy fans of the show" while "Trekker" indicates "sane fans who understand that Star Trek is just a TV show."

In most instances of two competing names for the same group of people, I usually advocate for using the alternative the people themselves prefer to use. The problem in this case, of course, is that this generally understood reason for preferring "Trekker" to "Trekkie" both exaggerates the number of "crazy" fans out there and understates the devotion of those who adopt the "Trekker" name. Trust me, if someone cares enough about what Trek fans are called to correct you for using "Trekkie" instead of "Trekker," they care about the Trek franchise a fair bit.*

I think we see something similar in our debates about what to call certain types of Christians. Some of us (sometimes including myself) want to avoid the "Evangelical" label because of the increasing association of that term with a particular brand of right-wing Christianity. Others (again, sometimes including myself) would like to salvage the term if at all possible. Even the name "Christianity" itself sometimes has these negative associations, leading a sizable number of believers to attempt to eschew "labels" altogether.

No label can fully describe the full nuance of any particular person. Human beings have an amazing capacity to defy such categorization. That said, we need labels. If we can't somehow shorthand groups of people with broadly similar characteristics, we lose our ability to describe each other at all. While I imagine that some people would be okay with this result (if it were even possible), I don't think it is a desirable outcome, because it would force us to look at each other as faceless, anonymous, and ultimately forgettable. If we are to truly grant each human being the worth that they are due as God's creations, we must be able to give description to the diverse characteristics we represent. Surely, even if the label of an "Evangelical Trekkie" is not entirely accurate for a given person such as myself (and, indeed, my immediate reaction to that phrase is an image of a Trek fan who tries to convert people to the "gospel" of Star Trek, which would hardly reflect the actual intention!), it is at least a memorable one!

*I have no intention of suggesting that I'm somehow a dispassionate observer to all of this. Even if the times I've referenced the Trek franchise on this blog in the past seven years weren't already a signal, I'm happy to acknowledge that I am a fan. That said, I really don't have much of a preference whether someone calls me a "Trekkie" or a "Trekker." Either one signals to non-Trek fans that I'm probably a bit odd! ;)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Popeye

When Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario (and many of Nintendo's most popular games) was working on Donkey Kong, he wasn't originally looking to build a game around a giant ape and a carpenter with a propensity for jumping (only later did Mario become a plumber). Hoping to develop a game to combat the seemingly-insurmountable popularity of Pac-Man, Miyamoto had originally intended to license existing popular characters that would provide an immediate draw to game-playing audiences. Those plans fell through at the time, and Donkey Kong became the history-making game we know today. However, in 1982, Miyamoto was finally able to acquire the license he had been seeking, and thus Popeye and his friends became video game icons, in addition to comic and cartoon favorites.

Although Popeye isn't as ubiquitous these days as he has been in previous decades (I'll have something to say about the possible reasons for this at the end), if you know anything about Popeye, you can expect at least four elements to almost any Popeye story: the "sailor man" himself, his girlfriend Olive Oyl, his rival Brutus,and a nearby can of spinach. All of these elements are present in Nintendo's game, as can be seen in this image of the game's opening moments.

The object of the game is to move Popeye around the board collecting various tokens of Olive's affection (hearts in the first round) as they fall toward the water below. Objects at higher levels are worth more points, and if a fallen object stays in the water for too long, it sinks and Popeye loses a turn (it's not good to anger Olive!). Of course, Popeye must do this while avoiding contact with Brutus. Brutus will pummel Popeye into the icy waters if he makes contact, which he will attempt to do not just by chasing him, but also by jumping up to tackle Popeye if the sailor is above him, and by reaching below should Popeye be underneath. If that isn't enough, Brutus can send a volley of bottles flying towards Popeye to knock him out. Popeye can avoid this fate by punching the bottle at just the right moment.

Once per board, Popeye has the option of eating a can of spinach, which generally can be found on the side of the board. To grab a can of spinach, Popeye "punches" it, and he immediately turns red and the famous "Popeye the Sailor Man" song starts to play. The song will play through exactly twice, to indicate how much time Popeye has to use his spinach-powered super-strength to knock Brutus flying into the waters for a temporary cool-down. During this time, Olive's hearts will hover at the height at which they were when the spinach was eaten, and are worth twice as many points as normal.

Another way of stunning Brutus for a few moments is to punch the barrel at the top of the board (only in round one). If you time it just right, it will fall over Brutus' head, and he will be unable to move until it is removed. In theory, Popeye can touch Brutus without harm while Brutus is thus incapacitated, but I don't recommend it. The effect really doesn't last all that long, and it's a pretty senseless risk with absolutely no payoff.

As Popeye collects one of Olive's tokens, it appears at the top of the board. Once Popeye has collected enough of them, he completes the round and moves on to the next one. There are three boards in the game, which repeat in cycle after you have completed them, getting harder to pass each time (and they aren't exactly easy to begin with!).

Other famous Popeye characters make appearances in the game, as well. The Sea Hag appears on the sides of the board (Often two of her at once! Apparently she creates a clone) to throw bottles much as Brutus does, and Wimpy and Swee'Pea appear on the second board, although neither play an active role.

The character of Popeye first appeared in 1929 (just months after Mickey Mouse), and was an enduring favorite for many decades, as the existence of this game attests. He hasn't been quite as popular in years since, possibly at least in part due to changing attitudes about the value of telling children that they can solve their problems by punching out bad guys. I'm certainly sympathetic to concerns that children should not be taught to use violence, but Popeye's had some very positive effects on children, as well. Spinach consumption was reported to have gone up by 33% in a five-year period coinciding with Popeye's animated introduction in the 1930s, and it seems that even as recently as 2010, a study showed that children ate more vegetables after watching old Popeye cartoons (I'd link to the study, but it's apparently one of those things accesible only on an academic database). Surely this a character worth keeping around! Perhaps the recent comic series from IDW (the same company that produces Transformers comics) or the upcoming movie to be directed by Genndy Tartakovsky might help restore Popeye's popularity.

*I'm having trouble finding a definitive source to say that this name, rather than the character's original name of "Bluto," was the one used on the Nintendo video game, but that seems to be the general consensus. For those who don't know, the name "Brutus" was created back in the late '50s when King Features (wrongly) thought that they didn't own the rights to use the "Bluto" name. The character has swapped back-and-forth between names ever since, although some more recent interpretations have suggested that the names refer to twin brothers.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Transformers Feature: Dark of the Moon Rav

When I was a kid, I would always get a thrill out of walking through the aisles of a toy store and discovering a Transformer on the shelves that I had never seen before. In this information age, whereby the Internet usually informs fans of upcoming releases months before they arrive in stores, this experience is much less common than it was 25+ years ago, but it still happens once in a while. I mentioned one such experience a couple of months ago with the Speed Stars Leadfoot toy. It happened again a few weeks ago with Rav.

I found Rav on the shelves at a Tuesday Morning store, and according to the TFWiki, this toy was only distributed to what are sometimes called "market six" chains. This name is actually a bit of a misnomer today, as it is intended to mean any chain other than the "top five," but of the "top five" that led to the term, one (KB) is no longer in business, and another (K-Mart) is no longer a major force in selling toys. The other three: Wal-Mart, Target, and Toys R Us, are still the main ways that most Transformers toys are sold in America (in roughly that order). "Market six" toys can be notoriously hard to find because of this sometimes random-appearing distribution model.

Rav is a contender for the smallest Transformer I have ever bought individually at retail, competing for that distinction with "World's Smallest" Thrust, and I'm not sure that Thrust may not in fact be larger than Rav. Rav certainly comes with the smallest set of instructions I've ever seen, at least when folded down to fit in the package (I think Rav's instructions may unfold to slightly more surface area than Thrust's, but I've not compared the two directly).

Rav is a repaint of the Mini-Con version of Swoop created during the Classics line, and in fact is colored to resemble Generation One Swoop's animation model. Like most Mini-Cons, the robot mode is somewhat questionable. In fact, the folks who took the pictures for the package themselves clearly had no idea what they were doing, as this image from the back of the package clearly attests.

The original Classics Swoop toy, like most Mini-Cons sold in the United States, was sold packaged together with other Transformers. This is usually done to make the resulting package worth charging one of Hasbro's pre-designed price-points (say, three Mini-Cons together being charged the same price as a "Scout" or a "Basic," back when such designations existed). This Mini-Con was sold on it's own for about $3, which is definitely proportionately higher than I would have paid for three of them, even years ago, but may well be as low as I've ever paid for a retail Transformer that wasn't on a massive clearance* (and I'm having trouble even thinking of examples of those that fall below the $3 threshold). As such, it makes for an inexpensive addition to one's collection... if you can find it.

*Careful examination of the price tag in the picture at the top demonstrates that Tuesday Morning considers this toy's retail price to be higher than $3. This may be true at other "market six" retailers such as drug stores — where prices are almost always ridiculously high — but I don't really count those prices as "normal," and $3 really does sound about right for this thing.
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