Friday, September 28, 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation Celebrates Its 25th Anniversary

If you follow the Star Trek franchise, you may already be aware that today marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Encounter at Farpoint." The odds are, Paramount will be making an even bigger fuss about the 50th anniversary of the entire Star Trek franchise in just four more years, but in the meantime, there are plenty of interviews and retrospectives to be found. Just head on over to StarTrek.com for a sampling.

When The Next Generation first came on the air, it was accompanied by a fairly major push of publicity from Paramount studios, no doubt taking advantage of the success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (arguably the most popular original cast film of the franchise with the general public, with apologies to fans of Star Trek II, which has an undeniably strong base within the Trek fandom) the previous year. The Next Generation actually represents at least the third attempt to bring Star Trek back to television screens after the original series ended, and the second to successfully do so (the first attempt was the Animated series of the 1970s, and the unsuccessful attempt was directly responsible for the existence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, at the end of that same decade). Paramount Studios, the owner of the franchise after buying out Desilu Productions mid-way through the original series' run, clearly had high hopes for the show.

After what would probably be fair to say was a rocky first season, The Next Generation grew to be insanely popular. It was not only more successful during it's original run than the original series ever was during its own original airing, but the other Trek spin-offs to air in the years since (even the prequel, Star Trek: Enterprise) are really much more Next Generation spin-offs than spin-offs of the original series. While the original series may be the spark that ignited the flame, the Next Generation was the torchbearer, setting the standard that Trek fans since the 1980s have come to expect.

It's actually hard for me to comprehend, even today, that when The Next Generation first aired, even the original series was only about 21 years old, younger than The Next Generation is now. This naturally means that kids of today cannot help but look back at The Next Generation as the kind of hazy "historical relic" that I considered the original series to be. With the series now coming out on Blu-ray, I hope that fans can look back and say that The Next Generation holds up as well as fans of the original series in the 1980s would have said the original series did.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Transformers Custom - Astrostar

Quite a few years ago, I tried my hand at a number of Transformers-related customs. I've shared a few of these before, but I somehow never seem to have gotten around to sharing "Astrostar," my silvery custom made from an extra Cosmos.

Since Cosmos was a spaceship, I thought about what color a spaceship should be. If I may be so bold, I think that the silver color-scheme I decided upon is far more realistic than the green of the original toy, if "realistic" is even an appropriate word to use for a science-fiction creation such as a flying saucer!

In an attempt to keep the toy fully transformable without scraping the paint applications away, I left Cosmos' yellow parts unchanged, although close examination of the pictures does reveal that the green where the arms meet the torso still shows through. The gold (mostly) replacing the red of Astrostar's head seemed an appropriate counter-point to the silver on the rest of her body.

Yes, "her." Although I am on record as saying that, as robots, Transformers shouldn't have "male" nor "female" sexes, the fact that they do in most of the fiction is an accomplished fact of life. Having established that female Transformers exist, however, the powers-that-be have managed to incorporate a disappointingly small number of them into the actual roster of established characters. When I wrote up Tech Specs for this fan creation, I decided to do my small part toward equality (you'll have to click the thumbnail to actually read the bio, of course).

I didn't stop at the Tech Specs, either. This was one of the customs for which I created an actual box, designed to resemble the Generation One boxes (not precisely, but most average folks wouldn't know the difference).

Sadly, I no longer have this toy in my collection, having sold it on eBay to a fan some years ago. However, I remain quite proud of this particular effort. You can see some more pictures (including the box from other angles) at this link.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Pitfall!

While the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man was the highest selling game in that system's history, Pitfall!, the holder of the #2 position, has a perhaps more interesting and unique story. To tell it properly, however, it isn't enough to go back 30 years to the game's introduction in 1982. I need to go back a few years more....

The standard for all home video game systems of the early video gaming era was that each company would make all of the games for its own system. Thus, the first batch of Atari 2600 games were all made by Atari. But by 1979, a group of Atari's best programmers, perhaps most notably David Crane, get fed up with Atari's policies which failed to reward programmers for successful games. They left Atari to form their own company: Activision, the first third-party manufacturer of games for any home video game console. Unlike Atari, Activision would advertise the programmers who created the games as well as the games themselves, and programmers would be entitled to royalties on game sales. Thus, if a game did well, the people who created them would benefit.

Another of Crane's disagreements with Atari's game-making policy was their trend — easily demonstrated via the Pac-Man game already mentioned — of creating games that were home versions of games created for other forums (specifically, the self-contained video arcade unit). Crane argued that this resulted in games for the 2600 that were sub-standard copies, and that it would be better to create games that specifically took advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of the technology available for the system the game was being created for. Pitfall!, almost certainly Crane's best-known creation,* is an excellent example of the result.

The concept of the game is simple enough. The player controls "Pitfall Harry" as he runs through an ever-changing jungle, avoiding obstacles that will either slow him down (and steal from Harry's score) or take one of his three lives, in an effort to reach as many of up to 32 treasures before a 20-minute time limit (or Harry's supply of lives) runs out.

While Pac-Man was limited to a single game screen and flicker-strobed sprites to attempt to give the game the required number of characters, Pitfall! achieved a wide variety of game situations and characters, all in solid, non-flickering sprites, simply by using an interchangeable series of elements. On one screen, you might have a lake and a vine you could use to swing over it. On another, you might have a lake and a group of crocodiles that you can jump on only when their mouths are closed. On yet another, the lake might open and close so you can run across if you time it just right (There are plenty of boards without lakes, of course!). This enabled the programmers to create a game with 256 screens, all basically similar to each other, but each with a unique arrangement of the available sprites.

By modern standards, the game's pretty monotonous (as the series of such similar screenshots can't help but demonstrate), but Pitfall! was undeniably a significant technological achievement for its time, and the game was popular enough not only to earn that #2 all-time spot, but to spawn several sequels over the past three decades (including one for the iPhone and similar devices, which came out just last month). Pitfall! even inspired a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon as part of the Saturday Supercade series that gave Mario his first animated appearance anywhere. And it all happened because a group of programmers decided to take the risk of leaving the company that gave them their start so they could strike it out on their own.

*I am not counting, of course, games that Crane worked on that involved concepts created by others. However, even most of those aren't especially well-known today. Especially worth mentioning on this blog, however, is an obscure game created for the Commodore 64 computer: Transformers: The Battle to Save the Earth.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

New Super Mario Bros. Wii Boxed Sticker Capsule Toys

My current living situation is such that I need to go out of my way to get quarters from time to time. As I've discussed in the past, this is not something one can do as quickly and easily these days as perhaps one once could, but there are still a couple of reliable outlets near where I live. One such outlet is a pizza place that still has a change machine near a selection of video games they have on hand. Because getting quarters is a service that I am glad they provide, I generally use at least one of the quarters I get on one of the video games, but this past weekend, I was informed that the video games were out of order. I therefore spent some quarters on something I think I've only done twice in the past decade: a capsule toy machine. In this case, I spent a dollar on one of the sticker boxes from the new "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" game.

As I've mentioned in my current "30th Anniversary" video game series, Mario is the most famous video game character of all time. One of the benefits of this fact for me is that, although the stickers are being sold to promote a new game on a system that I don't own (the most recent video game system I've had in my home is the Super Nintendo, so one can safely assume that I'm a bit behind the times in this area), I had a good chance of ending up with a set that contained characters and/or icons with which I was familiar. There was still a bit of a risk. Besides the $1.00 price (which I did think was a bit high, but I obviously wasn't so put off by it that I didn't pay it), I'm not terribly familiar with the "Glow Block" I might have received, and even the "Super Guide Block" is a bit later than the Mario games I grew up with. Still, that left me a 3-out-of-5 chance of getting a block I would feel some nostalgia for, and we haven't even gotten to talking about the stickers themselves!

As luck with have it, the capsule opened to reveal a "Question Block," arguably the most iconic of all the block types in the Super Mario Bros. franchise. Of course, the block is nothing more than a folded up piece of printed card stock, but it's actually reasonably close to being in scale with the not-really-LEGO versions of Mario and Yoshi I own, so it should fit in with them just fine. It also came with the advertisement that I scanned for the top of this entry, just in case I was interested in trying for the other sticker sets, no doubt.

But, of course, the stickers are the main attraction here. Kids love stickers! I'm a little beyond this kind of thing, myself (however much I obviously have retained many of my childhood interests. I can't very well write a blog like this one and not admit that), but I'm sure I'll find some ways to use these or some kids to give them to. This particular set focuses on useful items from the game, rather than characters (which are found in other sets). While the mushrooms with propellers on top are admittedly new to me, the regular mushrooms and turtle shell stickers could just as easily have been made for a Super Mario game of my own era. Heck, for all I know, perhaps they were. It's not as if these designs aren't used and reused ad nauseum in promotional campaigns.

But, at the end of the day, I got the quarters I needed to do my laundry, supported the business that enabled me to get them, and got a nice little piece of nostalgia in the bargain. Not bad at all....

Monday, September 17, 2012

28th Anniversary of the Transformers Cartoon

OK. I admit it. When I was detailing all sorts of important Transformers anniversaries back in 2009, the 25th anniversary of the franchise, I gave the cartoon short-shrift, mentioning the 25th anniversary of the first appearance of the Dinobots, but ignoring the first airing of the cartoon altogether in favor of the release date of the first issue of the comic book. I even honored the 25th anniversary of the 1986 release of The Transformers: The Movie to movie theaters when the appropriate time came up in 2011. While it's well-known that I'm biased in favor of the comic book interpretation of what we now call "Generation One" as specifically opposed to the cartoon, this is simply unfair. So, although the "28th anniversary" is nowhere near as cool-sounding as "25th," I'm going to try to do something about it now, on the anniversary of the first episode of "More than Meets the Eye", the three-part story that kicked off the cartoon version of The Transformers.*

As innovative and intriguing as the toys themselves were (and are!), and as much as I do prefer the comic book, I don't think it's unfair to suggest that the concept of the Transformers would never have reached the heights of popularity that it has if it weren't for the cartoon that was created to promote it. While such a practice is by no means uncommon today, it was fairly controversial at the time of the mid-1980s to create a children's cartoon around a toy franchise. Concerned parents (and others who sought to promote the welfare of children) complained about the proliferation of half-hour "commercials," which arguably became even more widespread in that era than even today. I'm not entirely sure that such advocates were wrong, but that hardly diminished my enjoyment of the cartoon at all, and I'm not especially interested in discussing the merits of that debate here.

My preference for the comic notwithstanding, make no mistake, I did enjoy the Transformers cartoon. Most of the mistakes and continuity errors that the TFWiki takes such care to document were entirely lost on me at the time (and I'm sure I'd still miss more than a few of them even today, although I do have much more discerning eyes than my pre-teen self ever did). I just enjoyed the iconic struggle between good and evil, caught up in the science-fiction trappings of a group of alien robots who could change their forms for the purposes of disguise or utility. With all due respect to NBC's Thursday night block, this was "must see TV."

Say what one will about the cartoon, this is the version of the Transformers concept that most people will remember if you mention "Transformers" to them. How could it be otherwise? The cartoon was broadcast, for free, to televisions all around the world. The comic book (just to use my favorite example) was limited to the physical copies produced (in the mere tens of thousands, or the very low hundreds of thousands at the absolute most) and cost hard-earned allowance money to buy. This is, it probably goes without saying, one of the main reasons why current homage toys to long-standing Transformers characters often more closely resemble the cartoon animation models than the toys they homage, and why in cases of conflict between cartoon and other media, certain toys (such as the upcoming Rumble homage) are now beginning to default to the cartoon colors, despite a long-standing reality that only the cartoon followed the "FIRRIB" side of the debate until quite recently.

The cartoon has more than proven its influence over a generation, and as such, I'm happy to finally give it its due recognition.

*Yeah, I suppose I could wait a couple of years when the 30th anniversary comes around, but who knows what I'll be doing then? Besides, if "justice delayed is justice deferred," as modern civil rights leader Wade Henderson is reported to have said, I really shouldn't wait on this.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Beast Wars II Galvatron (Korean Version)

By default, most Transformers toys can safely be considered as falling into one of two groups: 1) those that are available in America through Hasbro, 2) those that (not also being available in America) are available in Japan through Takara (now TakaraTomy). There are, of course, Transformers that fall outside of these two groups. Some, such as the South American Mini Vehicles (here are some examples, alongside similar oddities) are the stuff of legend, and I'm not likely to ever have one in my collection. Others, such as the original Action Master Thundercracker, were available only in Europe and Australia. But such exceptions notwithstanding, most Transformers could be purchased through one of the two main countries.

That's not to say that you couldn't get Transformers from other countries, of course. In the case of toys like Action Master Thundercracker, the toys were even sold by Hasbro (via one of Hasbro's international branches). Takara, on the other hand, tended (before their merger with Tomy in 2006) to utilize other companies to distribute their toys to market outside of Japan. Thus, Beast Wars II Galvatron was distributed to South Korea via a company called Sonokong, and this is the version I currently have (I actually first bought BW2 Galvatron years ago, back when Hasbro had a "Hasbro Collectors" website that made Takara-exclusive toys available to North American customers. That site shut down several years before the current "Hasbro Toy Shop" went online, and somewhere along the line I sold my BW2 Galvatron for reasons I no longer remember).

Although this Galvatron was packaged and purchased through Sonokong, it is for all intents and purposes a Takara toy. The same colors, the same quality plastic, etc. It was simply a later production run of the same toy, shipped to a different audience by a third-party company that had made an agreement with Takara to do so. (I have read a few reports that Sonokong's quality control may not have been as high as Takara, but I've honestly seen no hard evidence to suggest that even this is truly the case.) This is in marked contrast to the South American toys mentioned earlier, which are quite distinctive and easily recognizable.

I mentioned back when I wrote about Beast Wars II Dirge in 2008 that most Beast Wars II toys were redecos. There were only three completely new molds created for that line, and Galvatron is one of them (the only such Predacon, in fact). Like Magmatron (who came later, in Beast Wars Neo), Galvatron is described as the "Emperor of Destruction," and no doubt the folks at Takara thought that that the "big bad guy" deserved such special attention the only a new mold could bestow upon it, and it's clear that some effort was indeed put into making this a worthy toy for a fearsome leader. The gold-and-purple colors seem to be a clear homage to the original Galvatron, and the fact that he's a triple-changer implies power beyond what a normal Transformer would possess. But I've gotta say, the dragon mode (admittedly, dragons are also strongly associated with being extremely powerful) looks a little too much like an awkward chicken to be especially terror-inducing, at least to me.

Not too many people are aware of Sonokong, even among Transformers fans. People often mistake these toys (and their admittedly sometimes lower-quality packaging, which belie the fact that the toys inside are essentially the same as those purchased directly from Takara) for knock-offs. Adding to this misconception is the fact that they can often be found quite inexpensively in places where one might expect to find knock-offs. I certainly recommend being informed before making any purchase, but if you're aware that these toys are out there, you can actually snag a pretty good deal on some otherwise hard-to-get toys. Good luck!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Transformers Kreon Micro-Changers - Public Service Announcement

I was able to grab all six of the "Preview Series" of Kreon Micro-changers at Toys R Us today. Since Kreons are the most interesting part (in my opinion) of the whole KRE-O line (which, for those who don't know, is Hasbro's answer to LEGO), it was an easy decision, and one made easier by finding out online that the "blind-packed" pouches really aren't all that blind-packed at all. However, this fact isn't readily obvious from the packaging, so consider this post a Public Service Announcement to help you avoid getting duplicate Kreons you may not want.

At the bottom of every pouch, look for a number. You can safely ignore the first five digits. The important part here is that last number ("8" in the example to the right). So long as you can avoid buying pouches with the same last number, you can safely avoid getting duplicates.

But that's not all! With the help of this handy chart (which came packaged inside the pouch), the information is widely accessible to know exactly which character you'll be getting inside that pouch! As with most pictures on this blog, you can click the thumbnail to see a larger version, which you may especially want to do in this case. The numbers associated with the characters on this list follow a somewhat different format than the ones on the pouch. I'm not sure why. But the last digits do line up precisely, so in the case of the pouch with the "8" on it seen above, this chart tells you that the Kreon you'll find inside is none other than Galvatron! So even if you don't want to buy all six Kreons at once (although, at a mere $3 each, you very well might), as long as you have this chart, you can easily ensure that you're buying the character you really want.

Happy Kreon hunting!
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