Friday, March 28, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Legends/Pretender Starscream

If you go to any Target store right now, and go to the Transformers section, look at the smaller figures. More likely than not, you'll see a number of figures with an "Only at Target" sticker placed on them. If you're extremely lucky, you can go to Wal-Mart and see a similarly-store-specific sticker on a few deluxe sized figures there (most of the current set seem to have sold out, though). Store "exclusives" are an accepted part of the Transformers line these days, and have been for many years now.

But back in 1989, when K-Mart released the inner-robots from the Pretender Classics toys without their outer shells, calling these stripped-down toys "Legends," it was the first time ever that a Transformers toy was sold only at single retail chain in the US (and, of course, even that's only in regard to the stripped-down variants, since the Pretender versions were widely available). Since these toys weren't sold with the Pretender shells, they were considerably cheaper than the fully-loaded Pretender versions, and so this was the version of Starscream I picked up.

Like Starscream's original form (which I did not possess at the time), this toy changes from robot to a fighter jet, but if you look closely at the pictures of the original Starscream's robot mode, you can see that they changed around a few of the colors a bit, especially in the arms and legs (which are now blue instead of gray). Strangely enough, this color scheme was retained when Starscream became an Action Master the following year (arguably another reason so many fans dislike that toy, although prejudice against Action Masters is already widespread among fans, as I've mentioned before).

Although I have, up until now, reviewed only toys I actually purchased when they were originally available in stores, the fact that Legends Starscream is the same toy as the inner robot of the Pretender version creates a unique situation. I picked up the outer shell of Starscream when I attended my first BotCon in 1998 (Anaheim). I then picked up the helmet and large weapon at BotCon 2004 (mere blocks from where I work in Pasadena!). So I actually possess a now-complete Pretender Starscream. It seems kind of stupid to relegate the Pretender toy to a separate review in the future (after I've finished detailing the toys I had "way back when") when I'd only have a tiny bit more to say about the completed form. In fact, I've pretty much covered it with this paragraph and this additional picture, and can consider this review done!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Pretender Bumblebee

In 1989, the Transformers toyline was entering its sixth year of existence. The cartoon was long gone by now, and the comic was starting to decline. Hasbro had become so reliant on gimmicks that all Transformers available fell into one of two categories: 1) Micromasters, as seen during the past two weeks, and 2) Pretenders. (Actually, there was a lone exception: Powermaster Optimus Prime, but that was released the previous year, anyway)

Pretenders were Transformers that could fit inside of a "shell" of some kind. Basically, you had a large, limited-articulation action figure, which could split open to reveal a small Transformer. For the most part, Pretenders are among the most reviled gimmicks of the entire line. However, I do have a couple in my collection that I'm glad enough to have that I've held onto them all this time. These are known as "Pretender Classics."

These Pretenders are Classics for the simple reason that these toys represented characters from the early years of the Transformers line. I spent some time discussing the character of Bumblebee in one of my first attempts to do Transformers reviews on this blog. Bumblebee was one of the single most popular characters in Transformers history at the time. It's worth emphasizing (as I did then) that Bumblebee is the only character to have been available in one toy form or another for the entire seven years of the original Transformers line. Pretender Bumblebee was Bumblebee's third toy, after the original Bumblebee and Goldbug, who was the same character with a different name.

As with all Pretenders, Bumblebee's "action figure" splits open to reveal the robot inside. But Bumblebee is unique, even among "Classic" Pretenders, in that the robot inside is actually larger than Bumblebee's original toy. Whereas most Pretender robot toys are considered inferior robots who don't even transform into anything identifiable as a vehicle mode (seriously, most just look like "the same robot folded in half"), Bumblebee has gotten a clear upgrade.

Like both of Bumblebee's previous forms, the inner robot turns into a Volkswagen Beetle. It's truly an iconic form. Sadly, no new version of Bumblebee released nowadays is ever likely to turn into a Beetle again, since licensing issues with car companies are considered a much more serious issue for toy companies to be aware of now, and Volkswagen has made it clear that they want nothing to do with a "warlike" toyline such as Transformers. I suppose it's pretty hard to argue with them with that giant gun on top of the Beetle!

Pretender Bumblebee has one rather odd distinction, though. In designing Bumblebee's head, they went with the shape of often confused fellow Minibot Cliffjumper, rather than the shape of Bumblebee's original toy (you can see an even better side-by-side comparison of heads on Bumblebee's Transformers wiki toy page. Just scroll down a bit).

I mentioned having more than one Pretender Classic, but since these were available separately, I'll deal with the other next week. There's a more complicated story behind how I got that one, anyway....

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Continuity Chains and Confusion

While preparing this coming Friday's entry in the "Counting the Collection" series, I had occasion to start thinking about certain trends that have arisen in the various Transformers lines over the years. One major trend these days is for the line to essentially "reset" itself every few years. This is in stark contrast to the original run of the Transformers line, which ran for seven years as simply "Transformers" before hitting a hiatus where no Transformers were produced at all. Now, most lines tend to either have a subtitle (Transformers: Armada, Transformers: Robots in Disguise, for example) or have a clear (if not explicitly named on the packaging) theme running just for that line (this year's movie-related products, last year's "Classics" line).

Sometimes, one line is intended to be in direct continuity with a preceding line ("Armada" led to "Energon," which in turn led to "Cybertron"). Other times, the new line is intended to be a "fresh start" ("Armada" was a clean break from all preceding lines. The movie line is a totally new continuity, as well). This a trend followed by other toy lines that have related fiction, notably "Power Rangers," which after maintaining a line of continuity for a few years, now gets a franchise "reset" every couple of years much as "Transformers" does.

Of course, long-time fans may wish to point out that even the seven years of the original line (often called "Generation One" or "G1") had different continuities in various forms of "G1" media, such as the comic and the cartoon, each being distinct "universes" from each other. However, there is still a sense in which each line has an identifiably unified history running through it, distinct from other lines, which is either explicitly maintained or explicitly rejected when a new line comes along (although there are definitely ambiguous exceptions to this. For example, the Japanese version of "Robots in Disguise" was originally its own distinct entity, but now they retroactively consider it "G1." No, I don't understand how they make this work, either. The American "Robots in Disguise" line still stands alone).

It's certainly easier on new authors and designers to not have to be aware of so many years worth of previous continuity. Still, the toy-makers know that long time fans like to have our references to the way things used to be. This is why each new line seems to find a way to use names like "Optimus Prime," "Starscream," "Megatron," and "Prowl." Generally speaking, the folks at Hasbro no longer intend for, say, the Optimus Prime from the movie line to be the same Optimus Prime that kids in the 80's watched on TV. Rather, they homage the original character by reusing the name, probably using some design elements in common with the original toy (windows on his chest, in Prime's case), and maybe going so far as to cast the same voice actor to play the part in the new medium (Peter Cullen, in Prime's case). This can obviously cause considerable confusion. Although most people "in the know" don't think of "Movie" Prime as the same being as "G1 Prime," the more casual fan who remembers Optimus Prime from his or her childhood will understandably hear the voice of Prime in the movie, see those homaged elements, and believe that the Prime in the movie is simply G1 Prime in a new form. This can then lead to questions like "Why does movie Prime act differently than he did back in the old cartoon?" Such a question doesn't even make sense if you go into the movie understanding that the two Primes are different characters entirely, but if you don't know this already, the question not only makes sense, but can become difficult to answer due to the explanations required to make a person understand why the two Primes are distinct entities.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I don't think he was saying that maintaining continuity, per se, is a bad thing, but rather that slavishly making sure that all the pieces of new fiction "fit" with all the pieces of older work can be a detriment to the writing as a whole. I think that the folks who create the Transformers toyline (and who therefore hold the rights to the fiction that spins out of it) finally came to understand this after a long stretch with the original toyline, and attempting to "maintain" continuity when they came up with "Generation Two" after the hiatus. Transformers sales did not pick up as they had hoped, and so they went in a new direction with "Beast Wars" (Actually, Beast Wars also tried to maintain continuity at first, but this was dropped when the cartoon first came out, with links to previous continuity being added in later). They'd certainly decided that "full reboot" was the best option by the time "Robots in Disguise" and later "Armada" came out. This does make keeping track of all the histories and characters rather confusing, but I think the quality of the stories that have come out a result (at least, the ones in more recent years, such as the movie and the new animated series) has been far better for it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Airwave

Last week, I wrote about a set of Micromasters: tiny toys that Hasbro designed to compete with the then-popular "Micro Machines" cars found in toy stores of the time. Since each Micromaster was only about two inches tall, Hasbro either had to sell several in a package (as with the Race Car Patrol), or find other things to include with them in order to give enough substance to the set to be worth the usual prices they wanted to charge for the toys. This led to the creation of several bases and playsets being sold with Micromasters. These playsets could themselves transform in some way or another, adding play value to the set.

Airwave itself was a repaint of Nightflight, a member of the Air Strike Patrol, a set of four Micromaster Decepticon planes. Although repaints have existed in the Transformers line since the very beginning, they'd taken on a diminished role in the couple of years prior to the release of the Micromasters. But with only a few rare exceptions, Micromasters that were sold as part of a base or a playset often were repaints of figures sold as one of the lower-priced four-packs. This type of thing enables Hasbro to make the most out of the costs involved in creating a mold, and is why the practice of using repaints remains so common today.

Since Airwave turns into an airplane, it perhaps makes sense that he would be paired with a small airport as part of his playset. This airport consists of little more than a runway with a hangar and a small control tower, but it conveys the idea fairly well. This specimen features another example of my childhood fascination with adding glow-in-the-dark paint to my toys, although here the effect is thankfully limited to just the control tower, where it at least makes a bit of sense. That ramp on the side is included so that you could connect this playset to one of several of the other Micromaster playsets available at the time. The idea was that you could create a "city" by doing so.

As I mentioned earlier, these Micromaster playsets themselves could be transformed. In the case of Airwave's airport, it could change into a small missile bunker, from which Airwave could (theoretically) launch attacks against the enemy. Since both the airport and the bunker are stationary objects, I'm curious as to how the Decepticons would have moved the base from place to place so that it could be deployed effectively, but since Airwave never showed up in any of the fiction (if he even showed up in Japanese fiction, I remain unaware of it), I have no canonical answer to that question.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: The Micromaster Race Car Patrol

Going through my oldest Transformers toys, I have chosen to review them in individual sale units. That is to say, if toys were packaged together, so you had to buy both at once, as was the case with Grand Slam and Raindance, then I'd review them together. But other toys that may have similar characteristics, but were sold separately, I'll review separately (you'll see the first of a pair of such examples in two weeks). When Hasbro first introduced the concept of the Micromasters, they were available in sets of four, so the Race Car Patrol gets reviewed all at once.

The members of the Race Car Patrol are (from left to right in the image to the right) Tailspin, Roadhandler, Free Wheeler and Swindler (not to be confused with Swindle). Hasbro designed these tiny toys to be in direct competition with the line of "Micro Machines" toys that was incredibly popular at the time (ironically, Galoob, the company that produced Micro Machines, is now a part of Hasbro. It's tempting to point to this as evidence that Hasbro won the battle, but actually, Transformers reached their hiatus in production before Micro Machines did).

Although Micromasters, in some form or another, would continue to be produced throughout the remainder of the original run of the Transformers toy line, this team was one of few to get any serious characterization in the Marvel comic (the cartoon had already ceased to exist in America by this point). The Race Car Patrol actually got two issues more or less devoted to them alone (incidentally, the final two issues written by long-time writer Bob Budiansky). The depiction of the team in these issues highlights some of the issues of scale that have always plagued the fictional depictions of Transformers: although the robots were shown as being only slightly taller than humans (even able to enter human buildings with little-to-no difficulty), they were still perfectly capable of holding humans within their vehicle modes, just like any car. That such an impossible phenomenon would even need an explanation is never considered or touched upon.

A couple of weeks ago, I'd commented that Hasbro began to rely increasingly on gimmicks (besides the concept of transformation itself) to sell the Transformers. This is where I see that situation start to become a real problem. Within months of the introduction of the Micromasters, every Transformers toy being released fit into one of either of two gimmicks: Micromasters such as these, or Pretenders. We'll talk about Pretenders in a couple of weeks. I have another Micromaster to talk about first....

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