Friday, August 28, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: "Shattered Glass Huffer"

This week's feature is about a toy that technically doesn't exist.

It's not a knock-off, and it's not a custom toy except in the loosest of terms. It's an officially sanctioned character, and this entry is about the physical manifestation of that character. But this character has never been available for sale anywhere.

Who is this character of mystery, you ask? I'm talking about "Shattered Glass Huffer."

Technically, this toy is really the 2007 movie version of Armorhide, which is a repaint of the Armorhide toy created for the Cybertron line. To fill out the movie line with some exclusives, Target commissioned a series of "Scout-class" (the roughly $7 size) repaints from the Cybertron and Energon lines. Some of these were given the same names as their earlier counterparts, as was the case with Armorhide, while others were given new identities. Although these were nominally "movie" characters, none of these toys were given any representation within the movie itself, and frankly don't fit the movie "shrapnelbot" aesthetic anyway.

So, after BotCon 2008 introduced the idea of a "Shattered Glass" universe, where Autobots were evil and Decepticons were good, Greg Sepelak and Trent Troop, the writers behind most of the current official Transformers club prose fiction, took it upon themselves to expand the ranks of the "Shattered Glass" universe by "repurposing" several toys. The BotCon 2008 comic itself created precedent for this, using "Music Label" Soundwave to represent "Shattered Glass Soundwave," for example. When the prelude for "Dungeons and Dinobots" was published in the club magazine, the description of "Shattered Glass Huffer" (henceforth referred to "SG Huffer") made it clear that Sepelak and Troop intended for the movie Armorhide toy to represent this alternate version of the Generation One character, despite no images ever having been created to demonstrate this fact.

This, itself, wasn't a huge stretch. After all, an earlier repaint of this very mold had already been created for BotCon 2007 as "Classics" Huffer. Still, it wasn't enough just to take movie Armorhide and say "this is SG Huffer." The symbols on Armorhide as he was sold were all wrong. You see, many of the movie Scouts were given faction symbols to suggest that they were part of an experiment by the human initiated "Sector Seven" of the movie, given life by the Allspark while it was under Sector Seven's control. It seems that this idea didn't go as far as the actual bios written for the toy packaging itself, as had been done with the "Real Gear Robots," but the Sector Seven symbols still couldn't very well pass as the "evil Autobot" symbols SG Huffer required.

Louisville-based web store Captured Prey came to the rescue through an arrangement with Reprolabels to sell "Shattered Glass" faction symbols. A few well-placed applications later, and the "Sector Seven" symbols are now completely hidden by the "evil" purple Autobot symbols, making this toy Armorhide no longer, but truly Shattered Glass Huffer!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Useless Knowledge?

I'm currently enjoying a book written by Ken Jennings (who has won more matches on Jeopardy! than any other human being, several times over) called Brainiac. Besides being something of a memoir of Jennings' experience of auditioning for—and later playing—Jeopardy!, Brainiac is a discussion of the fascination many people have with trivia.

Among other things, "trivia" is often described as "useless knowledge." One aspect of "trivia" that seems to hold true in this vein, that Jennings discusses, is that one can be absolutely brilliant, yet not be able to use that knowledge in a way that earns a decent living. Indeed, it seems that the ability of anyone to do so is a fairly recent phenomenon:
You might think that trivia would have existed since the dawn of time... You certainly wouldn't be surprised to hear that renaissance men like Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin enjoyed general-knowledge question-and-answer games with friends as they sat around their studio or laboratory....

But they didn't. Trivia as we know it today is a purely twentieth-century invention....

Robert L. Ripley [Ripley's Believe It or Not!] was the world's first true trivia celebrity. (pp. 55-59)
Having professed my love of game shows on this blog before, I'm sure it's no surprise to say that I'm a fan of trivia. And I'm sure that anyone who reads my Friday Transformer features (especially if they aren't actually Transformers fans) would probably agree that quite a bit of that trivia is "useless knowledge." Sure, some people can make a living off of their love of Transformers, but it's not the kind of thing that most of us can get a sustainable job at. For most of us, myself included, it's a hobby.

My dad would no doubt be shocked to hear me say this, but I think that a lot of my love of trivia comes from him. Now, Dad is not a fan of game shows (or of Transformers), and considers himself less-than-academically inclined. But he knows more about steam locomotives, especially from the Virginia and Truckee railroad or from the logging railroads of the Northern California mountains, than most of the people that work in those information-providing tour guide positions at museums dedicated to the purpose. I know, because I've been there when Dad's mentioned some bit of information the tour guide didn't know on quite a number of occasions. Dad's also quite the expert on Model A Fords.

Now, although I certainly know a bit about trains and antique cars just from having grown up around them, I didn't quite inherit those particular interests. I like game shows and Transformers, and am interested in matters of Christian faith and theology. And although I've been around enough people in pretty much all those fields to know that there are those who know quite a bit more about each of those areas than I do, I don't think it's unfair to say that I know more on those topics than the average person.

The question then becomes, how to put that knowledge to profitable use? I've heard it said that a great vocation is where one's passion and the world's need meets. Well, who really needs to know about Transformers? Or about game shows? Those of us with faith could certainly make an argument for the world's "need" for sound Christian teaching, but I don't think that even most believers would try to argue that there's much money in it. Likewise, with my dad, I'd be willing to bet that he'd drop everything and move to Northern California to volunteer with the El Dorado Western Railway Foundation (for which he cast that replica #4 number plate so prominently displayed in their sidebar) if he didn't actually need to... well... earn a living.

So, we make do as best we can. Dad's doing fairly well as a piping designer and model maker, and I'm still working at Fuller Theological Seminary, helping others who are looking for ways of using their Christian passion to connect with the world outside. I'm certainly not getting rich off of it, especially these days, but I do find that I'm able to do this job specifically because of some of my sometimes "trivial" knowledge, so at least it's hardly "useless." Perhaps that's enough.

Monday, August 24, 2009

At the Signing of The Allspark Almanac

I've been following the Disciples of Boltax blog, managed by Jim Sorenson, for some time now. Like me, Jim is a fan of the original Marvel comic, and does reviews of each of the issues of the series, in order, about once a week or so, interspersed with toy reviews and reviews of UK comics done by other contributors. Through his blog, Jim let the Transformers fan community know that he would be at a comic shop in Burbank this past Saturday to sign copies of the recently-released Allspark Almanac (with co-author Bill Forster and Transformers: Animated designer Derrick J. Wyatt). Having already been impressed with Jim and Bill's work in collecting Generation One art for The Ark, of which I got the first volume shortly after it came out a couple of years ago, I decided to trek over to Burbank and take advantage of the opportunity.

Having survived the lines at BotCon, having to wait behind a couple of people (even one who must have been having books signed for a dozen or so of her closest friends) wasn't really a chore at all, and Jim and company are all very decent folks (in fact, Jim sounded a bit chagrined at the fact that he and Bill had gone ahead and made the original volume obsolete by putting out The Complete Ark, which not only combines the first two Generation One-themed volumes, but adds a little bit more besides. They had a few pre-release copies of that available, too, but I'm perfectly happy with the one I've got--especially having gotten it signed, too!). I'm always glad to support fellow fans who manage to do something official for the Transformers fandom. After all, if enough folks buy these books, the powers-that-be will see that the market exists to make more!

I'm not really equipped to give a proper review, but suffice it to say, this is a nice book. Whereas the art for the Generation One books was all black-and-white line art, this stuff is in full-fledged color! It also has a fair bit of text, usually written from the perspective of some character or another in the Animated universe. Having an "in continuity" perspective is still fairly uncommon in this kind of official Transformers guidebook, but it works quite well here. Also, for the truly hard-core Transformers fan, there are TONS of in-jokes and references here (try translating the Cybertronix that pops up on a good number of the pages!). Yet it's all done in a way that won't detract from the more casual fan's enjoyment. That's harder to do than most people think, and I really want to give the writers credit for such an excellent job.

So whether you're interested in just the art itself, or in seeing the Animated universe continue a bit beyond the end of the recently-completed cartoon series, I definitely recommend picking this book up. Especially if you're in the latter category, actually, since Jim indicated on the Allspark that if this book sells well, it may encourage IDW to do a "Season 4" comic series, which Animated story editor Marty Isenberg would apparently like to do. So go out there (or click the link) and buy your copy!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Spy Shot 6

Back in the first few years of the Generation One line, toys that changed into mechanical devices rather than vehicles (that is to say, cassettes, hand-held weapons, and cameras, as opposed to cars and planes and so on) were reasonably common. But as the Transformers line evolved over the years, such non-vehicular forms became less common. The "Real Gear Robots" sub-set of the 2007 movie toyline marked a return to such mechanical devices after a long absence (roughly 20 years, as close as I can tell, at least in regard to all-new molds).

Spy Shot 6 is, like Reflector, a camera, albeit a modern digital camera rather than a 20-year-old style film variety. Like Reflector, you can press the button on the top of the camera with a satisfying "click" to imagine you're taking a picture. Unlike Reflector, Spy Shot 6 transforms into a single robot.

I'm mildly surprised, and maybe just a little disappointed, that the toymakers didn't take advantage of the opportunity to fully homage the Reflector toy (or at least the character) by at least using Reflector's name, given the clear connection. But since most of the other "Real Gear Robots" have names that themselves sound more like models of Earthen mechanical devices than character names (others include "Farsight T-20," "Speed Dial 800," and "Zoom Out 25X"), I guess it makes sense.

Although the packaging ties the "Real Gear Robots" toys to the movie line's sub-plot involving the Allspark, which grants life to such mechanical items, these toys were apparently not designed with the movie in mind, but rather were developed near the tail-end of the Cybertron line, and then held back for unknown reasons. A vestige of the Spy Shot 6's origins may be seen on the back of the camera, where a picture of Cybertron character Ransack is visible. A later use of this mold within the "Real Gear Robots" sub-line (called Photon T-34) uses an image of movie Frenzy instead, and the TakaraTomy version of this very toy uses an image of movie Optimus Prime. One wonders just whether Hasbro didn't have enough time after the decision to move these toys to the movie line to change the Ransack image, or if they simply decided that it didn't matter all that much.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Reflector

OK, I admit it. I'm cheating a bit this week. Most of this post was originally written a few years ago, and posted here before I was doing weekly Transformers features. I just decided that Reflector needed to be brought into the series more properly, and took the opportunity to clean up the text, correct some information that I'd gotten wrong, provide some additional links that I didn't have before, and fix a few broken ones.

Most fans who remember watching the original Transformers cartoon back in the 1980's remember a character named Reflector. Reflector was a camera that split apart into three identical (or nearly so) robots. Yet this fondly remembered character never appeared in toy stores due to what was apparently a late decision by Hasbro not to offer the 3-robots-in-1-camera toy (which they had licensed from the Japanese company Takara, and which had been part of their “Microman” line) for regular distribution. The TF cartoon bible (excerpts of which can be found here) lists Reflector as one of the original Decepticons, but also notes that the toy was discontinued, with instructions not to use the character in future episodes. This no doubt explains why most of Reflector’s cartoon appearances were in very early episodes.

Having already secured the rights to the Reflector mold from Takara, Hasbro needed to find a way to distribute it, and so in 1986 (ironically well after the cartoon had stopped depicting the character) they made Reflector available as a mail-order exclusive, much as had been previously done for the Powerdashers and Omnibots. Reflector was notable for being the only Decepticon to be made available only through mail-order in over 20 years of Transformers history, a distinction held until club exclusive Landquake appeared back in 2006.

While the toy version of Reflector consists of three robots that combine into one camera (as in the cartoon), the three toy robots are not identical (as the cartoon Reflector robots were—notwithstanding the camera lens on one robot of the trio). Hasbro also took the step of giving each of the individual robots names: Spectro (the red robot), Viewfinder (the middle robot), and Spyglass (the blue robot on the right). One imagines that if Hasbro had colored Spectro blue like the other two robots, the illusion of three nearly identical robots would have been more closely maintained, but Hasbro colored their version of Reflector pretty much the same as the Takara Microman version, which was created without the need for such considerations.

This isn’t to say that Hasbro didn’t bother creating anything new to make their version distinct from previous versions. In addition to creating a new sticker set with “Reflector” (instead of “Microx”) along the top and adding Decepticon faction symbols, Hasbro created a full bio and tech specs to be included with Reflector’s instruction booklet. This is especially notable since Hasbro did not create tech specs for the previous mail-order exclusives. However, only tech specs for Reflector as a unit were created, as opposed to separate bios for Spectro, Viewfinder, and Spyglass. In fact, the tech specs for Reflector make absolutely no mention of the fact that the camera can split into three separate robots!

Each of the robots is roughly the same height, just under 4 inches tall. This makes them just barely taller than the average Action Master. Spectro and Spyglass both have die-cast metal chests, while Viewfinder has a die-cast metal core to which plastic features are attached on both front and back. All three robots have arm articulation at the shoulders, and both Spectro and Viewfinder have normal knee articulation (Spyglass has reverse-knee articulation, necessary for transformation.). All three robots have some form of hip articulation, as well (Viewfinder and Spyglass’s legs can bend either forward or backward, but Spectro’s legs only bend backward). In addition, all of the robots have chromed thighs, although most of this has flaked away in my specimen after more than 20 years of wear and tear. Finally, it is worth noting that all three robots have distinct legs that can move independently of each other, a feature not to be taken for granted in Transformers of this era.

Transformation to camera mode is fairly simple. Each robot folds in half (Spectro and Viewfinder’s legs fold up behind the torso, while Spyglass’s legs fold up in front), and the Spectro and Spyglass are attached to either side of Viewfinder by aligning several pegs. Separate attachments for the lens and flashcube are then attached to the camera.

The resulting camera is about 2 1/4 inches tall (2 1/2” if measured to the top of the flashcube), too small to be considered a “life-sized” camera. The flashcube is chromed but, as with the robot thighs, this has mostly been worn away on my specimen. Camera features include a lens-and-mirror assembly inside Viewfinder that allows you to look through the back of the camera and see objects on the other side (though not very clearly), and a shutter at the top of Spectro’s head that allows you to push down with a reassuring “click” and “take a picture.” It should also be noted that the flashcube has a hole in the middle to insert a missile to be launched (theoretically, as Hasbro took the spring out) by pushing down at the top of the flashcube. The flashcube may also be used in Spyglass’ robot mode.

Reflector makes a wonderful display item, both for its rarity and for its place in Transformers history as a seldom-seen cartoon character.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Aesthetics Wins Over Functionality

This won't matter to some of you (especially the non-TF fans out there), but this is a big deal for some of us. Pictures of the upcoming Perceptor reissue have recently been released. The person who posted these has noted that the Hasbro reissue will not have springs in the missile launcher, as the Takara version has done. This is due to differences in safety regulations (perhaps as much meaning cultural realities as legal ones) between the United States and Japan. While some fans will no doubt decry this as another way in which "Takara is better than Hasbro," I actually see particular decision by Hasbro as a very good thing.

It's not so much that I'm glad that Hasbro cares more about safety than Takara (I am glad Hasbro cares about safety, of course) as the fact that I remember the reissues of other Generation One era Transformers not that long ago (Thundercracker, for example) which were released in America with gargantuan oversized missiles in order to meet safety regulations. As I understand it, if a toy launches missiles, the missiles have to be either above or below a certain size so as not to be a choking hazard. If the missile doesn't launch, it's apparently not held to the same standard. So, back in 2003, when faced with the choice between keeping the missile launching feature of Thundercracker (and changing the missiles) or losing it (but keeping the missiles the same size), Hasbro chose to deform the missiles to retain the launcher's functionality. Presumably they did this because they wanted the toy to retain a (comparatively?) high play value for young children.

With the upcoming Perceptor reissue, Hasbro has chosen the other option. Visually, this toy should be nigh-indistinguishable from the original version (and the more recent Japanese reissue). The missiles won't launch, but I for one couldn't care less about launching missiles. Working missile launchers just make for more easily lost parts, as far as I'm concerned.

Here's what I think happened. Back when Thundercracker was released as part of a fairly significant number of Generation One reissues in the early 2000's, a lot of them didn't sell very well at all. I assume that Hasbro had hoped that young children would buy these toys, since they generally make for a much larger portion of the Transformers market than collectors do. By changing the size of the missiles, they actively angered collectors (who tend to be more concerned with a toy's aesthetics, especially when talking about reissues of toys from 20 years ago), yet still failed to attract those kids (who might presumably have appreciated the retained functionality of launching missiles) who Hasbro usually depends on to buy the lion's share of the toys sold. I'm assuming that Hasbro learned their lesson. If they're going to do reissues at all (which will almost certainly be few and far between), they're not going to get a significantly greater number of kids to buy the toy by changing the toy's aesthetics, so they might as well not anger the fans. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I'm pretty happy the aesthetics won out over functionality this time.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Sixliner (reissue)

In 1991, the original American Transformers line was on its last legs, with the Action Master toys already released and even starting to be clearanced, and with no new Transformers toys to be made by Hasbro for another couple of years. The Japanese line run by Takara was still plugging along, and was increasingly moving in an independent direction, releasing quite a few toys that either never saw release in America, or didn't do so for another decade or so. One concept that Takara used quite a bit was that of Micromaster combiners with six members (although, to be precise, the Japanese didn't call them "Micromasters" at the time, but rather "Micro Transformers"). Sixliner was the first of these to be released.

Sixliner Vehicle ModesSixliner was a team of six small locomotive engines of various types. Although most Americans seem to think of trains as something firmly in our country's past, the Japanese use trains much more readily today, and are certainly leagues ahead of us in the use of high-speed bullet trains. I actually wish that the United States would step up and advance bullet train technology more aggressively, and not just because it would mean we'd get more Transformers like this released here!

Sixliner Robot ModesFor the most part, the members of the Sixliner team transform in the standard (if simple) Micromaster fashion. Flip down the feet, maybe flip up the head (just on Spark, actually), and pose the arms, and that's pretty much it. By the way, in both the picture above and this one, we're looking at D-Go, Alan, and Joe on the top row (from left to right), and on the second row we have Leaf, Night, and Spark. I'm not entirely sure what to say about the names, other than that the inclusion of two clearly "human" names is definitely unusual, and indeed I don't think it has ever happened in the American line (unless the Transformer represented a non-Cybertronian human character, such as Spike). And what's up with "Leaf"? (An old translation had that name as "Leif," which would have kept the "human name" thing going on, but I trust that the TF Wiki folks know what they're talking about.)

SixlinerIn order to make the combined form, one has to use various attachment pieces. This wasn't uncommon in the Generation One era, but the Micromaster six-combiners are unusual in that there is actually no point at which one team member connects directly with another member! This combined form is entirely dependent on the attachments! And one member of the team (D-Go) doesn't seem to be necessary to the combined form at all! He's just stuck there in back, so you can't even see him in this picture here, and if I were to remove him, you'd never notice, as the rest of the robot would still look perfectly functional. I find all this to be more than a little like cheating, but it is what it is. I tend not to call these combined forms "giant robots" as I sometimes would for, say, the Seacons (although I note that I didn't use the phrase in that entry), because the form only stands about seven inches tall, shorter than a considerable number of "regular" Transformers toys.

Sixliner Attack ModesIn most Generation One-era combiners, there really isn't anything you can do with the fists, feet, and the head when the team isn't in combined robot form. Here, the designers cobbled together a few weapon modes using those parts so that they can be carried behind the team members in locomotive mode, using a hitch designed on the back of each one. Three of the members have "male" connectors, while the other three have "female" connectors, so there is some limitation on which weapon mode can be used by which team member. These connectors are also useful for pairing up team members two-by-two, as demonstrated by Leaf and Spark in the picture here (D-Go is just here to get all six in the shot).

In the original 1991 release, Sixliner was only sold as a complete set, but when the toys were reissued in 2002 as part of the Micromaster Collection line (yes, the Japanese are calling them "Micromasters" now), they were sold individually. The toys I have are the reissue versions, which are easily discernible by the lack of stickers, which have been replaced with tampographs and painted details. I'm really not a fan of stickers, and wish that all reissues were done this way!

A number of years ago, I created these Tech Specs for the Sixliner team members (and for the combined form) using translations provided by Doug Dlin. Here they are as an extra bonus.

Transformers Wiki