Friday, May 30, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: The Millennium Falcon

Although Transformers are certainly among the most profitable of Hasbro's properties, the position of "Number One" has been held by the Star Wars line for many years now. Over the course of most of the past 30 years, Hasbro has somehow managed to continually produce new Star Wars product. Of course, after having produced figures for practically every character to get so much as a fraction of a second of screen time in one of the movies or other media dedicated to the franchise, it perhaps makes sense that Hasbro would want to explore new and different options for selling Star Wars product. So why not combine two of their most successful toylines? Hence, "Star Wars Transformers" became a reality.

Although each of the toys in this line has a short bio or story piece on the back of the package, it's probably not worth thinking too deeply about. Few fans of either franchise imagine that, somehow between scenes, popular Star Wars vehicles have actually transformed to robots to continue fighting the battle between the heroic Rebellion and the evil Empire. It's pretty much just a way to sell toys. As that motive goes, the line's apparently done well enough to continue running for a few years now, although I have to confess that most Transformers fans find the majority of the line to be a bit lackluster. I find the Millennium Falcon to be one of the pleasant exceptions to this rule, but even still, I didn't take the plunge of picking one up until after the toy went on clearance for barely more than a third of its original retail price of $35.

Each Star Wars Transformer vehicle transforms into a robot resembling some Star Wars character commonly associated with it. The Millennium Falcon is unique in that it actually splits up to transform into two robots: one resembling Han Solo, and the other resembling Chewbacca. Each robot has appropriate weapons (Chewbacca's even bears a passing resemblance to his signature bowcaster) and buttons that, when pressed, create lights and sounds using sound effects and voice clips from the actual movies. Unfortunately, the electronics in this toy were not created to tie the sounds to whatever mode the toy happens to be in, so you occasionally hear Chewbacca's groan while in vehicle mode, or the Falcon's engines in robot mode. However, the vocal sounds are specifically tied to the appropriate robot, so you won't hear Han Solo trying to imitate Chewbacca!

It should be further noted that the toy designers do not intend for these robotic forms to actually be the characters they resemble. In fact, each Star Wars Transformer comes with tiny figures that can fit inside the vehicle. These figures are less than an inch-and-a-half tall, and are probably still too large to be properly in scale with the vehicles as they show up in the movies! But they do fit in the cockpit just fine, and each robot has a place to fit them, as well, so one can imagine that the "real" Han and/or Chewie are controlling the robotic mecha that resembles them. Let the Empire beware!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Mockery of Life

Here's another one from the pre-blog files. I had the privilege of getting a copy of this custom as a prize for winning a contest done by another Transformers fan (who went by the screen name of "Crazy Steve") on his own website (which is no longer accessible). Basically, I was asked to write a poem about Scrounge, the obscure Autobot who was introduced, and promptly killed off, within a single issue of the old Marvel Transformers comic (you can see more about Scrounge here).

Here's the poem I came up with:
When you're needing a spy
You depend on a guy
Who tends to blend into a crowd
Who just does his job
Vital data to rob
And isn't too flashy or loud

There's a robotic wheel
Who's the authentic deal
With the Autobot code-name of Scrounge
He's just yellow and red
(even that's just his head)
So he stays well-concealed in the lounge

To avoid being scanned
Scrounge can shoot out his hand
to travel where he couldn't go
With its camera and mike
Sounds and pictures alike
Are recorded for others to know

But Scrounge was discovered
Smelted, won't be recovered.
Anyway, that little bit of nuttiness won the "grand prize" of Steve's contest, a custom-made model of the Ratchet-Megatron fusion featured in a couple of issues of the old comic. This creature had been an important part of the background for a post-comic bit of fiction I'd written shortly after high school, the first part of which can be found here (I actually did three entries, covering the rest of what I'd done), and so was pretty pleased to have a three-dimensional representation of this character: something that almost certainly will never be granted us from any official Hasbro release.

Anyway, Steve had apparently asked me to write up a review of the toy. Here's that review, rescued from the mists of time!

The "Mockery of Life" is one of several names given to describe the fused Ratchet-Megatron monster that appeared in issues #69 and #70 of the original Marvel G1 comic. This custom has been created by making a new mold from parts of the Ratchet and Megatron PVCs currently (at the time) on the market. Steve was able to mold a few necessary extra bits out of Sculpey to create some of the details, such as the exposed electrical wiring and the facial expressions, that did not exist in either of the original figures, but which were required because of the nature of this character.

One problem (Steve encouraged me to be brutally honest in my review) with the figure was that it arrived in the mail with two of its connecting pegs broken. These were the left shoulder(s?) and right leg(s) pegs. In order to get the figure together, I borrowed an idea I got from M Sipher's "Homebaked PVC" site, to drill a hole where the old peg was, place a new rod in its place before supergluing the joint together. In the case of the leg(s), I got the rod by clipping a small part off of the plastic frame that remains after removing the missiles of reissue G1 Smokescreen from the packaging. For the shoulder, I cut a staple into pieces and used one of the pieces to provide the connecting rod (though it's too small of a sliver to be called a "rod"). Once re-rodded and superglued together, it holds together much better, but I did knock the leg loose again while moving to a new apartment, forcing me to have to reglue the leg together again. In any event, I don't expect to be able to re-position those joints in the casual way you usually can with PVCs. In addition, it should be noted that the connecting rod to Megatron's deformed fusion cannon is also very loose fitting, and comes off easily. However, since it does remain in place if untouched, I did not choose to make any modifications there.

The "Mockery of Life" is amazingly detailed, especially when one considers that many details had to be constructed completely from scratch. Anyone familiar with the Transformers comic issues this character appeared in will instantly recognize it, as the figure does an amazing job of translating the 2-dimensional character to a 3-dimensional reality. I might have handled the paint job a little differently, as the paint job comes of as "messy" to me. In some ways, this is entirely appropriate for this character, who is indeed a messed-up conglomeration of two robots, barely functioning with exposed parts and leaking all over the place. However, this paint job is messy in places that probably should not have been. I hasten to point out that Steve himself recognizes this, and anyone who reads his own reviews of his work at Scrambled City will know that he does not come off as self-aggrandizing (please note that this link is an old one, archived through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine). Nor do I believe that I would have done a "perfect" job. Anyone who has seen the customs on my page knows the extent to which I myself am not always able to make perfect lines. However, I am not a huge fan of glossy paints, preferring to use flat enamels in most cases. They look, in my opinion, cleaner in the finished product. Also, I don't think I would have painted the black joint lines that Steve did. Again, this is largely just a matter of taste and interpretation, but is offered in the spirit of collaboration.

All in all, this is an amazing figure, and a welcome addition to my collection. Any quibbles I have are minor ones.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Reverse Convoy

Last week, I talked about what can be done merely by reusing a mold and changing only the colors. This time, the subject is a significant remold, where changes were made to the mold of a previously released toy in order to make the new toy different in ways that go beyond just what colors it has.

In 2004, perhaps spurred on by the success of the American Universe sub-line, which consisted (at least originally) solely of repaints and remolds of existing toys, Takara released the Robot Masters line in Japan. Unlike Universe, Robot Masters was not exclusively a line of repaints, but repaints did indeed make up the bulk of the line.

One notable offering in the Robot Masters line is Reverse Convoy. A remold of the Generation Two "Hero" Megatron toy, Reverse Convoy was given a redesigned cannon (able to fire it's missile without the use of a bellows) and a head resembling Optimus Prime (Prime-type robots tend to be called "Convoy," or some variation thereof, in Japan). However, it should be noted that the Robot Masters storyline already had another Optimus Prime (Well, Convoy, anyway). This toy's Prime-like head was merely intended as an indication of Reverse Convoy's Autobot allegiance (as if the big Autobot symbol on the toy wasn't indication enough).

Rebirth Megatron HeadFor many remolds (especially ones coming out of BotCon), a new head is enough. But Reverse Convoy has another trick up his sleeve. Reverse Convoy is, in fact, possessed by the spirit of Megatron! The designers of this toy found an ingenious way of redesigning the cannon so that it can not only fire missiles on it's own, but can hide another head behind it, able to be tucked away until it is needed. But when Megatron wants to show his true colors, the Optimus Prime head flips over, the new head swings out, and you have the leader of the evil Decepticons ready to take advantage of having infiltrated the Autobot ranks as "Rebirth Megatron"!

Reverse Convoy/Rebirth Megatron transforms into a tank. The toy's hand weapon (another feature the original version did not possess) folds in the middle, and stows just behind the tank's cannon, nicely concealing any remaining traces of the Megatron head. This toy is truly a remarkable achievement demonstrating just how different a remolded toy can be from the original version!

Monday, May 19, 2008


When digging through some old computer files this weekend, I uncovered this little bit of Transformers fiction I wrote a couple of years ago. This piece takes its inspiration from a series of short fiction pieces Dave Van Domelen does on his web site called "Tales of the Intermezzo." Usually, these are little character pieces that take place in some area of Transformers continuity that that hasn't been adequately covered, and otherwise deals with characters or situations inspired by toys that Hasbro has made, but for which no one has written fiction before.

I expect that, when I put this one together, I was looking at a piece of my Generation Two collection, and was wondering "how did this character get to this form from what he used to look like? How might he have felt about that change?"

Read on to see how I answered those questions. Transformers fans might enjoy seeing what continuity references I threw in (and figuring out which references I made up wholesale, but for which no official story has ever been told!).


The worst part of it all was having to be conscious all of the time.

There were advantages, to be sure. He was certainly faster than he used to be. He now had an alternate mode that served an active purpose. And he no longer had to worry about his latest mission immediately after being brought out of storage before he’d even gotten a chance to figure out just where he was and what was going on.

But the fact of the matter was, he missed being able to just "turn off" after a job well done. To be able to transform into his storage mode and wait within Soundwave until called upon for his next mission.

Of course, even if he could get his old cassette mode back, it would do him little good unless Soundwave was also reconfigured back into his old form. And Soundwave seemed perfectly content to drive down the highways at will in his new form, obviously glad to be free of the burdens that came with carrying a group of underlings within him.

And there really wasn’t much need for it these days, anyway. Laserbeak and Buzzsaw had both disappeared a long time ago. There were rumors that they’d volunteered for experiments in bio-engineering, but no one had ever found out for sure. Ravage had disappeared under mysterious circumstances, as well. But since Ravage preferred to work alone, anyway, everyone just assumed that he was out enjoying himself for the longest time. It was only during that incident with the Logotrions that anyone realized that there was a real problem. Ravage was aloof, but he was also loyal to a fault. There was simply no way he would have missed coming to the Decepticons' aid in such a time of dire need. Ratbat had been destroyed in that encounter with Scorponok, and nobody really seemed to care about reviving him. And then there was Rumble, who had been killed years ago, ironically caught in that rock slide he created to destroy the Autobots’ Nebulan partners. His sacrifice had worked, the weaponless Autobots fell easily to the Decepticon forces that soon overtook them. But still....

There were a few other cassette-form Decepticons out there, but he didn’t know them all that well. So when the Decepticon scientists started talking about upgrades into new forms, there didn’t seem to be any reason not to. Soundwave was all for it, and the old ways were dying anyway... so Frenzy volunteered.

The experiment was certainly a success. Resembling a fleshling vehicle called a "porch" (or something like that. Frenzy didn’t bother wondering why they’d name a car after the front of one of their homes), Frenzy was finally able to operate on his own for a change. Using his new-found speed, combined with his retained power to disrupt enemy circuits, Frenzy could do damage to Autobot forces in a way he could never imagine while merely a cassette lackey of Soundwave. His Decepticon friends certainly appreciated Frenzy’s increased contributions to the cause.

But what should he do when not in battle? Frenzy quickly grew bored. How did the other Decepticons manage to find ways to fill all that time? All these new powers and independence might have appealed to some, but the fact remained that he would trade it all back gladly, just for the ability to shut himself off and let someone call him out when he was needed.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Robots in Disguise Scourge

I've mentioned repaints before. Put most simply, a repaint is a toy that uses the same mold as another toy, but has been given different colors. Since the physical toy itself is essentially the same, a lot of fans don't think very highly of repaints, but if the right colors and/or characterization is applied to a repaint, it can actually be quite successful.

Case in point: Scourge from the "Robots in Disguise" line. Scourge is a repaint of one of the more popular Optimus Prime figures from the Generation Two era. Scourge's similarity to the "Robots in Disguise" version of Optimus Prime (who used a different mold) was explained in the corresponding cartoon by the simultaneous scanning of RiD Optimus Prime and a nearby tanker as Scourge was bring brought online. I'm not sure why they decided to name the character "Scourge," which had previously been used for a rather different character, but who am I to judge? Although Scourge was a major character in the cartoon, Hasbro had some considerable difficulty finding a way to bring this toy to American shelves. Basically, the toy was too large for them to be comfortable selling as a mass release, and they weren't confident that it would sell well enough to be profitable. Eventually, a deal was struck with Toys R Us to release the toy as an exclusive.

As I've already suggested in mentioning Scourge's cartoon origin, the toy transforms into a long-nose truck with a tanker. As is true with most (but by no means all) truck-type Prime toys, the truck is the part that transforms into the robot, and the trailer is a separate piece. This is definitely a toy that I wish I had a proper plexiglass case with which to display the toy in. The chrome is really nice, but the black collects dust like a magnet. I do have some cases that I get from Big Lots with some regularity for about $6 (you can see some of them in the picture in this post), but they're too small for this toy, and such cases as I've found that are large enough to do this toy justice are prohibitively expensive.

But I digress. As I said, the tanker is a separate piece from the robot/truck. The tanker opens up to form a base, following the pattern of Prime-type robots since the original. This base features a missile in the center that can be launched by pressing down on a bellows hooked up just behind with a hose. There is also a battery of small missiles on the right that can be launched with a series of buttons (I find these things are very sensitive, and in fact am unable to store this unit with the missiles in place without at least two of them firing all on their own!), and another battery on the left that can shoot a series of disks by turning a knob. The Autobots have their work cut out for them if they want to attack this unit!

Eagle-eyed readers may have already noticed that Scourge is the same robot as was seen in this post in the very last picture. That toy is the small version, created specifically as Scourge by Hasbro when they still weren't sure if they were going to find way to sell this larger toy.

Although a repaint, Scourge was a popular enough concept to start something of a trend. Ever since the release of this toy, it has become increasingly common to repaint Optimus Prime toys into some "evil" version. At first, the name "Scourge" was reused, but the more common name for a "evil Prime repaint" in recent years has been "Nemesis Prime," a name which certainly does parody "Optimus Prime" much more closely.

I do have a confession to make, though. I've called Scourge a repaint, using the toy as an example of what can be done simply by changing the colors on an existing mold, assuming no other changes. Although it's true that the Japanese version of this toy (which had been released about a year before the line even started in the US) was indeed a true repaint, this US version did make one small mold change. The disks I mentioned at the end of the last paragraph had originally been molded with the Generation Two Autobot logo on them. In the Japanese cartoon, the prominent use of this faction symbol on those disks was explained by making "Scourge's" faction (he wasn't called "Scourge" there) use an upside-down version of that logo as their own. If you just hold the disk upside down, who'll know the difference? When Hasbro brought the line to America in 2001, they decided to make all of the vehicle-type bad guys "Decepticons," reviving the enemy faction from Generation One, which at that point hadn't been used for a number of years. Since they used the classic Decepticon logo, the Generation Two Autobot logos would have been out of place, so the American version of Scourge removed the logos altogether, making the disks simple circles. Still, that's a very minor change that makes little difference to the enjoyment of this toy. Next week, I'll demonstrate how a remold can significantly change a toy and make it distinctly special when compared to the original version!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Armada Unicron

Armada UnicronThe story of this toy actually goes all the way back to 1986. The original animated Transformers movie (long since forgotten by all but the long-term fans, and already overshadowed by last year's summer theatrical blockbuster) was released in theaters (coincidentally with a release date of August 8th: my birthday! Yes, I was there on the first day...). Although there was plenty of "traditional" Autobot vs. Decepticon action in the movie, the real bad guy of the movie was a large planet-sized Transformer named Unicron (voiced by legendary actor Orson Welles, in his final role), who threatened other planets by actually eating them! And if that wasn't enough, Unicron turned into a humongous robot who could rip planets apart with his bare hands.

Although Unicron was defeated by the end of the movie (was there any doubt?), the character would resurface time and time again throughout the years. Aware of Unicron's popularity, Hasbro made several attempts to create a transforming Unicron toy, but nothing ever made it past the prototype stage. It wasn't until 2003 that a proper Unicron toy finally made to toy shelves. By this time, of course, Generation One was a thing of the distant past, and so this Unicron is in some ways more of an homage than a representation of the Unicron that appeared in the 1986 movie (although the official line is that there is but one Unicron who exists throughout all Transformers continuities, that causes some headaches among fans who try to keep everything straight. It's enough to acknowledge that the toy was created with the then-current Armada line in mind). Standing a little over a foot tall, Unicron is by no means the tallest Transformer ever made, but he's still pretty large.

Although the toy does make a fair attempt to turn from a robot into a planet, it actually cheats in a couple of significant ways. For one, it's not really a proper sphere, but more of a semi-sphere which sits on a flat bottom surface. Also, a good portion of the sphere is just "shell" that needs to be moved out of the way (and, in fact, can be removed altogether with practically no effort). In the years that have followed, Hasbro has made two other toys that turn into planet-like alternate modes, and both are more convincing spheres than this Unicron toy. I'll get to those in due time. For now, the focus is on Armada Unicron.

The gimmick for the Armada line was the introduction of the "Mini-Con." Mini-Cons were tiny Transformers (roughly Micromaster sized) which could plug into larger Transformers to activate special features. Since this toy was created with the Armada line in mind, it also had to include a Mini-Con and special Mini-Con-activated features. The Mini-Con that came with Unicron was called Dead End. Since Unicron turns into a planet, it perhaps is only natural that Dead End turns into a moon.

Although tiny, Mini-Cons are Transformers in their own right, and indeed a major plot point of the Armada series (especially in the comic written for the series) centers around the fact that Mini-Cons are a third faction of Transformers that aren't always thrilled at being sought out by the larger Transformers for their special powers. However, Dead End never really showed up in the comic, and his only appearances in the cartoon were as mindless drones that Unicron creates dozens and dozens of, all of which were easily defeated. Having gone to the trouble of adding Dead End to the Unicron toy, it seems that none of the fiction writers could really figure out what to do with the character....

The easiest Mini-Con-activated gimmick of Unicron's to demonstrate in a still photo is Unicron's giant chest missile. Basically, if you plug a Mini-Con in a port in Unicron's back, the whole chest cavity opens up, a missile is revealed, and it fires across the room with an accompanying sound effect. Let smaller Transformers beware!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Going Digital

As you've probably heard by now, the United States is abandoning the analog television wavelengths, effective February 17th, 2009. If you don't already happen to have a digital television, and you don't have cable or satellite service hooked up to your analog television, you won't be able to see anything but static on your set after the middle of February next year.

While I understand a bit of why the government wants to force a switchover to digital, I'm not entirely thrilled with the decision to switch being made for me. Sure, they're providing coupons to defray the cost of getting a converter so that analog televisions can read digital signals, but the switch still disproportionately affects the poor. After all, most who can afford cable or satellite service (to say nothing of a true digital television) will already get (or have already gotten) them on their own. Even using the coupons, most folks will have to pay some $20 or so apiece for their boxes, and that's money that they'd probably spend on something else if they weren't forced to make a choice between paying the cost and forfeiting television access altogether.

But I don't expect to get anywhere fighting that battle. What's done is done. My own coupons came in yesterday, and there's a Radio Shack just down the street from where I live, so I've already picked up my converter boxes, and have installed the first one on the small TV next to my computer. It's an easy enough installation, and now I'm ready for February... or at least I will be once I've installed the other one later today.

As with most such devices, the converter came with instructions, and as with most such instructions, they began with a list of standard safety precautions. Most of these aren't really anything new to anyone who's worked with electronic devices before, but they really can be pretty stupid. Here's a list of the first four:
  1. Read these instructions.
  2. Keep these instructions.
  3. Heed all warnings.
  4. Follow all instructions.
If they're trying to communicate that it's important to read the instructions, they've actually failed pretty miserably, having only demonstrated that the instructions are redundant and useless (at least to this point). Wake me when the instructions get to something important or useful!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Beast Wars 2 Dirge

Beast Wars Second DirgeNow that I'm no longer doing reviews in chronological order, the temptation is to only review the "big" or "special" toys. While I certainly have a few of these to review (such as last week's entry), there are some pretty cool Transformers that would get missed if I wasn't intentional about reviewing them. Dirge is one example.

At first glance, Dirge really isn't anything too special. The toy itself is a simple repaint of the Machine Wars Thundercracker/Skywarp mold. It's been used at least a half-dozen times by now over a span of about a decade. Dirge wasn't available in the United States, of course, but was released as part of Japan's "Beast Wars 2" line (sometimes called "Beast Wars Second"). Basically, while we were getting the original Beast Wars cartoon here in the United States in CGI (which was such a slow and expensive process that only 13 episodes were made for each of the 2nd and 3rd seasons), Takara commissioned a new traditionally-animated series, and filled the corresponding toy line with toys that were almost (but not quite) entirely repaints of toys from previous lines.

But rather than use exclusively "beast-type" toys, Takara felt free to borrow a few molds from the "Generation Two" and "Machine Wars" eras. Unlike the later "Robots in Disguise" line (called "Car Robots" in the original Japanese version), the "vehicle-type" characters weren't put in a different faction than the "beast-type" characters, so characters like Dirge proudly display the Predacon symbol despite being a fighter jet. This phenomenon did not occur in toys released here in the states until the BotCon 2006 exclusives.

As BotCon 2006 canonized the idea that the American Beast Wars characters had vehicular modes before landing on prehistoric Earth, a few fans were putting together a homemade CGI video that detailed a pivotal pre-series plot point. While they had to rework a few character models when the BotCon 2006 exclusives were revealed, this project was a natural opportunity to take the vehicular Beast Wars 2 Dirge character out of obscurity once again, and he has since become more popular among American Transformers fans. Perhaps it's natural that "pre-Beast" Waspinator (pictured here with Dirge) would share Dirge's body type. In the original Beast Wars 2 cartoon, Dirge "evolved" midway through the series to become "Dirgegun," whose toy was remolded from Waspinator's original toy.

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