Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014 Transformers Advent Calendar - Day 24: BotCon 2014 Primal Prime

Today's the last day! Most non-religious advent calendars I've seen fit an image of Santa Claus in the last window. I don't know who the most appropriate "Santa-like" Transformer would be, but the thought of Primal Prime delivering Christmas toys on that hoverboard was too funny to pass up.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 1, 2014

2014 Transformers Advent Calendar - Day 1: Robot Replicas Ratchet

I'm going to try something different this year. A month (almost) of just picture-entries. Few, if any, words. Just a different Transformer image every day. This will help me to showcase parts of my collection that I really don't have so much to say about.

Today's entry, Robot Replicas Ratchet from 2009. The Robot Replicas line consisted of non-transforming figures, which means a lot of folks consider them updated Action Masters. I've lately come to the opinion that Action Masters are more than just "non-transforming" figures. Action Masters have their own aesthetic, are fairly posable, and came with transforming partners. Robot Replicas are somewhat posable, but one could never mistake one for an Action Master.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Game Show Board Games: Family Feud

With Thanksgiving around the corner, it seems appropriate to pull out a game that has been something of a family tradition for quite some time. In fact, this is arguably the start of my game show board game collection right here.

I've mentioned before about how my grandma was a five-time undefeated champion on a game show called Split Second back in the 1970s. The fact is, that whole side of my family enjoys games, and with quite a few Aunts and Uncles (to say nothing of cousins!), there are usually plenty of willing players to be found. Anyway, some time ago (I no longer remember exactly when) Grandma found a board game version of Family Feud at a yard sale and thought of me. She had it ready for one of my then-annual trips up to Placerville for Thanksgiving, and we played several games over the weekend before I brought the game home. Since then, most times when I head up north, I try to bring a game along. While Family Feud is by no means the only game I'll bring, it remains a favorite, perhaps demonstrated by the multiple versions of the board game I now have in my possession (most of which were also provided by my grandma, although I note that all of them, including that electronic version I only use these days as a buzzer, predate the current 15 years-and-running version of the show).

For those unfamiliar with the game (and if that's you, thank you for bearing with me on a post that you must have no interest in whatsoever, since anyone who follows game shows probably knows Family Feud pretty well!), the object is to guess the most popular answers to survey questions posed to 100 people. For example, in the example in this picture (go ahead and click for a larger version... and zoom in if you need to), the question was "Name something that a dog wears." Points are scored according to how many of the 100 people surveyed gave a particular answer (with the highest-ranked answers showing up at the upper-left of the survey, and working downward through the four answers — in this instance — that got more than a single response).

Allowing for the lack of electronic precision provided by the buzzers and timers of the actual show (although these may, of course, be provided by other means with the proper resources... like that otherwise terrible electronic version of the game from 1998), the board games duplicate the play of the show almost perfectly, and Family Feud is arguably my favorite board game to "host" at a party. My only real difficulty these days is a side effect of the fact that these editions all came out 20 years or more ago. Imagine asking someone today to "Name a famous person named 'Bill'," when all of the answers on the survey were originally given in the 1980s! Bill Clinton's not going to be there, even though it might well have been a contender for the number one slot today.

Rather than disadvantage my cousins (some of whom weren't even born yet when these editions came out!), I usually end up throwing such questions out. It's a regrettable limitation, but an unavoidable one. This is still one of my favorite games to play with family and friends.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Transformers Feature - BotCon 2013 Electro(ns) and Gold Plastic Syndrome

From practically the moment that Hoist, one of the exclusives from the BotCon 2013 box set, was revealed, fans guessed that one of the at-convention souvenirs would be Electro, a character previously used only once, as one of the "Laser Rod" figures from Generation Two. The newly created head advertised for Hoist had a couple of features that weren't really native to the Machine Wars version of Hoist the toy was claiming to represent, but were perfect for Electro, and since new head molds are known to be expensive, we've come to expect them to be used more than once. Far from being a source of complaint, however, this was especially welcome news for many fans, as most anyone who once owned an Electro figure does so no longer, and this represented a second chance.

But why should such a second chance be so universally necessary? Generation Two Electro is perhaps one of the most notorious known examples of what has been called "Gold Plastic Syndrome," a phenomenon that afflicts toys with... well, you guessed it, gold plastic. Such toys tend to become extremely fragile with age, and thus a figure that hasn't been broken yet... well, it's really only a matter of time before your figure looks like these examples shown on the TFWiki.

Photo taken in 2006, before
I knew that doing so risked its
very existence.
I've been fortunate up to this point not to have any of my toys yet fall victim to this malady, although I do have two toys now known to be plagued by GPS (as Gold Plastic Syndrome is usually shorthanded): the Millennium Falcon Crossovers toy, and Micromaster Superion. I wasn't aware that either toy would be GPS-sufferers at the time that I got them. Indeed, fans had been assured at that point that Hasbro had fixed the problem, and that new toys with gold plastic would no longer suffer from the situation. This is now known not to be the case, at least for those toys (each about 8 years old at this point). Thus, I haven't really done anything with them for years, and they now sit on my shelf in fear of the day when they, too, will become a bunch of irreparable shards.

But, back to BotCon Electro (technically, it's "Autobot Electrons" for trademark purposes, but everyone knows who it's supposed to be). Is this toy, being also made out of gold-colored plastic, also doomed? I cannot definitively rule that possibility out, but the plastic does not appear to be quite the same type as Electro's doomed predecessor. For the time being, at least, I haven't heard of any specimens to demonstrate GPS.

That's not to say the toy came to BotCon 2013 without problems. Both Electro and Hoist suffered an assembly problem that meant that the chest would not fold down properly, requiring minor disassembly to reorient a part that had been put in wrong at the factory. Although the thought of taking one's expensive convention exclusive toys apart scares some fans to death, it really is a pretty simple fix. Here are instructions (via TFW2005). Thankfully, Electro didn't have the shoulder misassembly that Hoist had. That problem is much harder to fix!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Transformers Feature - Hero Mashers Heatwave

Long-time readers will already know that I try to avoid unnecessary modifiers to character names whenever I can. If I do a feature on Mirage, for example, without pointing out that it's, say, Machine Wars Mirage, you can be fairly confident that I'm referencing the most iconic version of a character (which usually means the original version from the 1980s, now sometimes referred to as "Generation One"). However, because several names have been reused over the 30-year history of the franchise, modifiers are often necessary. In some cases, such as Heatwave, the lack of a truly "iconic" version creates a somewhat awkward situation.

First, let's talk a bit about the Hero Mashers line (because I doubt I'm likely to do so again anytime soon). This is a line of action figures (non-transforming, like the Action Masters of the early '90s) created with universal pegs and sockets to enable swapping out legs, arms, heads, weapons, etc. The idea is that you can "Mash up" your favorite characters into something new, if perhaps a bit whimsical or ridiculous, like this mash-up of Heatwave, Soundwave, and Starscream seen here.

Now, about Heatwave. Although the homage is no doubt lost on the majority of the children likely to pick up this toy, it is immediately recognizable as the same character as the Heatwave toy that came out five years ago as one of the membership incentive figures to the Transformers Collectors' Club (seen here on the left, alongside the Hero Mashers figure as it comes out of the box... minus its weapon, which I'll get to in just a bit).

Well, the recognizability implies it's the same character, but that's where the awkwardness starts to come in. The name on this toy is technically "Autobot Heatwave," (no doubt because the compound name is far easier to trademark than simply "Heatwave" would be), whereas the club figure was actually a Decepticon, albeit a good-guy Decepticon from the Shattered Glass universe. So either this guy has switched sides (and universes!) or he's a different (if similar) Heatwave altogether.

That's not really so bad. Transformers fans already accept that there are multiple characters with any given name. Live-action movie Optimus Prime is not the same guy as Generation One Optimus Prime, even if they have certain similarities, and could be rightly said to arise out of the same archetype. Even same-named characters that don't resemble each other, say Generation One Scourge and Robots in Disguise Scourge, tend to cause only minimal confusion. The awkwardness here arises from using elements of two archetypically-distinct versions of Heatwave in this Hero Mashers toy, which has been given a weapon virtually identical to one that comes with a Heatwave toy in the Rescue Bots line (someday, I'll actually buy one of the toys from this line so I can discuss it further, but as it is a line predominately geared towards pre-schoolers, I've been slow to do so). Other than the name itself, Rescue Bots Heatwave has little in common with the Shattered Glass version of Heatwave that otherwise seems to be referenced here. I suppose that the idea of "mashing up" characters goes even deeper than originally suspected!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Transformers Feature - Wal-Mart Exclusive Bumblebee and Strafe

For several years now, I've tried to include packaging art with features of Transformers toys. In the case of Generation One toys, this hits a certain "nostalgia factor" for me, while in the case of later generations of Transformers, this is intended to help supply a source of such artwork where no archive has been known to have been created. While I certainly do not have the resources to create such an archive, myself, I hope that I'm making the job that much easier for someone else. That said, Transformers packaging artwork doesn't always match the toy that it's created to help promote especially well. This set is a particularly egregious example.

With the release of the most recent live-action Transformers movie, Age of Extinction, several of the main retailers have exclusive product on the shelves, and Walmart is certainly no exception. This Bumblebee and Strafe two-pack (for those who don't know, Strafe is on the left, and Bumblebee is on the right) is just one of several Walmart exclusive sets that were recently made available, and like most of these sets, it uses old molds that have been repainted to (more or less) resemble characters from the movie. The artwork in this case, however, doesn't even bother trying to emulate these particular molds. The picture at the top of this entry, which spans the top of the package, simply represents characters from the movie, but although the robot on the left is indeed a Bumblebee (if not quite this Bumblebee) the other robot depicted is a red robot, which isn't in keeping with any version of the Strafe character I've seen thus far. As it happens, this isn't even Strafe at all, but rather is a character named Stinger instead. The intent was apparently to do a generic "battle" image, and this image does indeed show up on most (if not all) of the current batch of Walmart multi-pack exclusive sets. But given the inclusion of a Bumblebee, I think it's definitely a bit misleading.

Of course, this isn't the only artwork on this package. The right-hand side of the box has this bit of artwork (the version on the box is partially obscured by an explosion with the Age of Extinction logo. This version is a clean variant), which does indeed represent Strafe as seen in the movie, but again, it's not remotely relevant to the toy actually in the package, which turns into a single-headed pteranodon, as opposed to this two-headed, two-tailed monstrosity from the film.

As I indicated earlier, this two-pack features old molds. Molds that were originally created to represent other characters entirely. This really isn't a big deal in the case of Bumblebee, as the character looks more or less the same despite a number of cosmetic changes. While the art doesn't really depict this Bumblebee very accurately, he's more or less identifiable, so I've chosen not to spend much time talking about him. The mold used for Strafe, on the other hand, was created for Beast Wars Terrorsaur, which was originally available in 1996, nearly two decades ago! (Indeed, this may be the oldest mold to be used for something other than an actual reissue, if one accepts oddities like "Diaclone colors Ultra Magnus" or "Shining Magnus" in that category, and even that mold wasn't as old at the time of those toys' release as the Terrorsaur mold!) While the blue color is certainly in keeping with Strafe's other toy portrayals (if, again, not as he appears in the movie or in that artwork), there's no getting around the fact that this one-headed, more or less organic-looking, beast simply isn't the same guy as the shrapnel-monster from the movie.

That's okay. I wouldn't have picked the toy up if it was. I wanted a blue Terrorsaur, not a hideous movie-beast.

Still, I'd have wished to have packaging art that was actually relevant.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Game Show Board Games: Card Sharks

Card Sharks is one of those shows that's due for a proper revival. It's now been 13 years since the most recent version was on the air (which, itself, is about how long it had been between the most recent version and the one that came before it). This version of the board game is dubbed the 25th anniversary version, despite coming out just a touch early (in 2002. The show premiered in 1978). It's actually a bit unusual among game show board games in my collection, in that it was sold without any version of the show currently on the air.

By the time this home version made it to store shelves, the most recent version, which lasted for one season in 2001, was already gone. Oddly enough, although this board game does indeed incorporate the logo and basic sense of style (or lack thereof?) from that version, the way the game is played bears pretty much no resemblance to the 2001 show, but instead incorporates elements from the previous (and much more successful) incarnations. This is classic Card Sharks.

Each player uses a separate deck of cards. Red for one player, and blue for the other. Control of the board is determined through a series of questions that ask how many of 100 people responded in a particular way to a survey. Quite frequently, these questions turn on moral decisions. For example, "We asked one hundred single women, 'Would you accept an engagement ring from the man you loved if you knew it once belonged to his ex-wife?' How many single women said they would accept the engagement ring anyway?"a Up to four of these questions are used in a round. For the first question, the player with the red deck must come up with a numerical answer to the question, while the blue deck player responds by answering that they think the true number will be higher or lower than that guess. If the blue player guesses correctly, he/she wins control of the board, but if the blue player guesses wrong (or the red player's number was exactly right), red player wins control of the board. The next question played will require the blue player to guess the number, with red responding "higher" or "lower." Questions alternate between players throughout the game.

The player in control now tries to complete their colored row of five cards by guessing whether the next card in a sequence is higher or lower than the card before it. Aces are high, and deuces (twos) are low. An error forces the player to go back to where he or she was at the beginning of that turn. If a card looks too hard to call, the player may "freeze," protecting his or her progress, but the player then needs to win control again to continue further. The round is won when a player correctly calls the last card in the five-card sequence, or upon the success or failure to complete a row on the last of four control questions (called "sudden death"). Winning two out of a possible three rounds wins the game.

The winning player now gets to play the "Money Cards" bonus round, using the reverse side of the game board. The player starts with $200, and bids any or all of that amount on whether the next card is higher or lower, and continues in sequence for each card that comes afterward with whatever money is won or left over (adding $400 after the end of the first row, as that card moves to the next level). Finally, for the last card of the round, the player must make a "Big Bet" of at least half of their Money Card winnings.b

Like I said at the beginning, this is a game that I think could stand a fresh run on TV. The questions test how well a player understands human nature (I've often said that those of us studying to be, or working with, church leaders would do well to play this game), and the game has just enough of a mixture of strategy and luck to keep things interesting. Even players who've never seen the show before should be able to understand and enjoy it.

aOnly 14 women said that they would accept the ring anyway.
bAs with most game show board games, play money is provided. Each round is worth $500, and getting a survey question exactly right is also worth $500. Good luck spending that money, of course! The fact that the money is fake also makes the "Money Cards" purely academic. I'm sure a player on the actual show would think twice about risking, say, $5000, on whether the next card after an "8" was higher or lower, but in a board game, the only thing a player has to lose is her or her pride. Obviously, this reality changes the way people play, but there's really nothing that can be done about that unless you want to start giving your players money out of your own pocket as prizes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Essence of the Character

One of the privileges of my current working situation is that I have an office all to myself, with shelves that I'm allowed to place personal items on. Thus, I have an array of Transformers (and other items, but lots of Transformers) sitting behind me as I work that often catches the eye of those who pass through.

Often, when someone sees the toys behind me, they make a reference to the toys of their own childhood, and can recognize some of the characters behind me readily. It is not unusual for someone to comment saying something like "I had that toy when I was a kid!" This always makes me smile, not simply because it's nice to have one's collection appreciated, but because I know that, with very few exceptions, none of the toys on my work shelves are actually toys from the 1980s, but are rather from much more recent times.

I consider this to be a testament to Hasbro's ability to capture the essence of a character when they do an update. For example, Starscream was specifically called out by name in a recent conversation. The Starscream I have on my shelf (seen toward the left on the image at the top of this blog entry) is from the "Classics" line of 2006. Since the person in my office was quite certainly already an adult by that time, I doubt this is what he had when he references his own childhood, but there really isn't any disputing that this toy is Starscream.

Hasbro has done their job well....

Monday, August 25, 2014

Not-Transformers Feature: Bluster and Trench from Mech Ideas

Transformers: Animated, which ran from December 2007 to mid-2009, was undeniably a visual departure from all of the various iterations of the Transformers franchise that have come before it and since. "Stylized" is perhaps the best way to explain the aesthetic. If you know about Transformers at all, and have any familiarity with Animated, then you will no doubt be able to identify any piece of the Animated cartoon, or its attendant merchandise, at a glance. These two guys are particularly unusual, however, in that they are not, strictly speaking, Animated toys. They're not even made by Hasbro (or any of the companies that do official Transformers in other countries). They are however, not only intended to emulate the distinctive Animated design aesthetic, but in fact are expressly using designs created by Animated lead character designer Derrick J. Wyatt. While Mech Ideas, the company that made them, is skating the edge of legality on several levels, they do at least try to avoid an obvious trademarking violation by calling their toys "Bluster" and "Trench."

Let's get naming conventions out of the way, first. Bluster is the name of the orange robot, intended to represent Animated Huffer, while Trench is the blue robot, intended to represent Animated Pipes. The designs first appeared on an April Fool's edition of Wyatt's blog, A Delightful Tedium. Rather than a straight-out prank, Wyatt decided to do something in the way of a teaser. Some of the characters shown in the April Fool's Day image (here's a closer look) were set to appear in the then-forthcoming third (and, as it turned out, final) season of the cartoon. By the time it was all said and done, Animated Huffer did, in fact, appear in the background of a crowd scene or two. Pipes did not. However, Pipes did eventually gain "official" status by appearing in other official materials, including scenes produced by Fun Publications for the BotCon 2011 comic.

Even the alternate modes designed for these guys have an official basis, appearing in the second volume of Jim Sorenson and Bill Forster's Transformers: Animated: The AllSpark Almanac. The basic concept, itself, was seen in other Cybertronian modes used in the series, such as those of Ratchet and Ironhide, and later adopted by BotCon 2011 for Fisitron (aka Ironfist) and the Autotroopers. That said, I find this mode kind of difficult to maintain. Nothing really pegs in securely, so I don't anticipate I'll actually transform them much.

Although these toys are completely unofficial, and thus did not come with Autobot faction symbols, the folks at Mech Ideas put little indentations on the robot's bellies at just the right place where such symbols would have gone (compare this image with the April Fool's image by Derrick J. Wyatt again), so thanks to Reprolabels, I've gone ahead and completed the look.

Animated Huffer and Pipes were, of course, patterned after the Generation One toys of the same names, but these aren't the only characters the Animated versions were designed to pay homage to. Huffer and Pipes were designed by Wyatt to resemble iconic video game characters Mario and Luigi, respectively. Naturally, I couldn't resist pulling out a few Mario-themed toys to pose with these guys. After all, toys are for having fun with!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Transformers Feature - Duocon Flywheels

For all of the nostalgia inherent in discussing Transformers toys from the original line of the 1980s, there are certain criticisms that come up fairly frequently, especially when these old toys are compared to their modern counterparts. One of the most common of these criticisms is a lack of articulation. An inability to pose the robot mode into multiple stances is seen as a serious failing these days, and it is not uncommon to hear certain toys referred to as "bricks." Even in the 1980s, some toys were guilty of this flaw more than others. The Duocons, represented here by Flywheels, are perhaps the worst offenders.

That weapon could go on either vehicle,
I just thought it worked best on the jet.
The basic gimmick of the Duocons, introduced in 1987, is that they are robots who split into two distinct vehicles, neither of which is a separate robot on its own. Later fiction would try to explain the concept as Shockwave's failed early experiments to create robots with more than one vehicle form, but it's worth noting that the Triple Changers existed before the Duocons in terms of actual toys.

The Duocons are transformed by fitting the air vehicle on top of the ground vehicle by lining up slots and tabs, pressing the two together should then cause the toy to pop up into its combined robot mode. The result is a robot without discernible feet (not unlike the "Minibots" of a couple of years previously) and arms that cannot even be raised to point the included weapon forward. Flywheels actually fares slightly better here than fellow Duocon Battletrap. You can raise Flywheels' arms slightly to the sides. Battletrap's arms have no mobility whatsoever.

While it's never been proven, it's probable that the names of Battletrap and Flywheels were actually swapped at some point during the production process. Flywheels actually has no wheels on either of its vehicle components, and the tank is a far more "battle"-ready vehicle than Battletrap's camper-truck ground component (while I might say the same about Flywheel's jet versus Battletrap's helicopter, that's far less of a slam dunk, as the Apache has been used by the military for many, many years). It would hardly be the first time such a swap has been shown to have happened with two generally-similar Transformers toys.
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