Friday, August 26, 2011

GoBots Feature: Scooter

Once upon a time, there was a company named Tonka. By the mid-1980's, they were known mostly for making sturdy, metal, toy trucks, which they had done quite successfully for several decades already by that point. But like many other companies, Tonka sought to expand, and had placed their footprint in a number of other sectors of the toy market. This included a line of transforming robot toys that came to be known as the most serious competitor to Hasbro's Transformers line: the GoBots.

GoBots toys, in general, were standardized to a far greater degree than the Transformers toys were at the time. While Transformers toys came in a wide variety of sizes, the vast majority of GoBots were roughly 3 ½" tall (and most of the exceptions fell within a standard "Super GoBots" size of around 5 to 6 inches). While the earliest Transformers were taken from the previously-existing Japanese "Microchange" and "Diaclone" lines, most GoBots used previously-existing molds created for the "Machine Robo" line in Japan.

Scooter is an excellent standard example of a GoBot. The character got a lot of visibility due to the character's central role in the Challenge of the GoBots cartoon that was created to help advertise the line (voiced by the legendary Frank Welker, who I had occasion to write about last month), and he demonstrates at least the standard articulation of most GoBots toys (i.e., the arms move, but that's about as much as you can do to pose the toy).*

Transformation to alternate mode is fairly simple, but I think it could be fairly argued that GoBots were generally more complex than similar-sized Transformers of this era. For this reason, there has been a long-standing debate as to which line was inherently superior, and the GoBots line certainly has fans to this day.

Unfortunately for GoBots fans, it is unlikely that toys such as this one will ever get the benefit of being reissued as many 1980's-era Transformers toys have been. In 1991, the Tonka company was purchased by Hasbro, giving Hasbro the US rights to all of the GoBots characters and storylines. However, the molds for the toys themselves are retained by Bandai (the owners of Popy, which released the original Machine Robo toys), a competitor to TakaraTomy, the Japanese company connected to Transformers. Even if the original GoBot molds exist (and I really don't have much information on that question), Bandai is unlikely to want to help out their own competition by allowing TakaraTomy or Hasbro access to them, and Bandai (which, unlike Hasbro, operates in both the US and in Japan) remains unable to use the molds themselves because of Hasbro's US ownership of the GoBots concepts (at least, they couldn't be used as any actual GoBots reissue. I suppose Bandai could use 1980's Machine Robo molds for a totally new line in the US, but I can't imagine why they'd want to if they couldn't take advantage of the nostalgia factor connected to actually being GoBots).

*By the way, I know that I have the arms mistransformed (at least, according to the official instructions). I've always thought the official version, with the handlebars of the vehicle mode sticking out in front of Scooter's hands, looked absolutely ridiculous.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Transformers Feature: Rodimus Prime

The climactic scene of Transformers: The Movie features Hot Rod unlocking the power of the Matrix to become a larger, more mature-looking robot: Rodimus Prime, the new leader of the Autobots. The original toy of Rodimus Prime came out in 1986, at about the same time as (perhaps slightly later than) Hot Rod, and is arguably the first Transformers toy ever made that is the same character as a another toy. I say "arguably," not simply because Galvatron (an upgraded form of Megatron) is more or less in the same category, but the fact is that pretty much no one other than me "argues" for anything different. To most fans, it's obvious that Rodimus Prime is, and always has been, a mature version of Hot Rod. There's absolutely no denying the similarity between the toys, nor even the intention that the toys be related.  Such similarity simply doesn't happen by chance.

The wiggle room that I'm quick to point out is that neither Rodimus Prime nor Galvatron are explicitly named as being new forms for the differently-named characters they represent on the packages themselves (as the later Goldbug toy would be, as an updated form for Bumblebee). This presumably was done to protect the secret of how the movie would end, but it has the effect of making it appear—at least in the "micro-continuity" of the Tech Specs—that Rodimus Prime is a distinct entity from Hot Rod (and Galvatron from Megatron). Sure, even the Tech Specs for Rodimus Prime drop some hints. "Maturity" is mentioned a few times, as is a tendency to be "hot-headed at times," but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

As with Hot Rod, I did not get the original Rodimus Prime toy, but rather a reissue. My Rodimus Prime toy is actually the 2004 Hasbro version, purchased at a point when Generation One toys were finally being clearanced, and frankly still not selling very well. I often say that, by that time, the toys "had the stench of shelfwarmer" about them, and I do think that's at least partly true. If a toy is visibly not being sought after, people start to feel that there's a reason, whether or not there really is one. But the fact is, even by 1986 standards, Rodimus Prime is a pretty pathetic toy. He has even less useful articulation than Hot Rod (which is saying something). As a display piece, I just keep it in vehicle mode (often referred to as the "Winnebago of Doom") most of the time.

As the new Autobot leader, Rodimus Prime does attempt to retain at least one feature that the previous leader, Optimus Prime, had (besides the similar name): a trailer that can transform into a kind of base. There's not much to do with the base, however. In fact, you can barely fit Rodimus Prime's robot form on top of it, and the only adjustable part is the weapon itself (and most of that is needed for transformation). I won't say that I paid too much for this toy at clearance, but it most definitely wasn't ever worth what Toys R Us was charging for it originally. Perhaps some of the reason for the higher cost was the die cast metal. I'm honestly not sure. If so, just add that to the list of reasons I'm glad not to see die cast metal in modern Transformers very often.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Transformers Feature: Hot Rod

When writing about the original animated Transformers movie the other day, I mentioned that I actually don't have very many of the original toys that came out of the new characters the movie introduced (although readers of my Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? parody will note that I do have Wheelie). Much of this can be easily explained by the fact that my childhood dollars were limited. Perhaps it's a bit more surprising that I haven't gone back and picked these toys up in my adulthood, although I do of course have updated versions of many of these characters (Titanium Scourge is just one example). As to the original molds, Hasbro and Takara have reissued some of these toys in more recent years, and I do have a couple of these, so I'll take advantage of the anniversary of the movie to feature them today and on Friday, starting with the 2000 Japanese reissue of Hot Rod.

Like Transformers: The Movie itself, the original Hot Rod toy came out in 1986. Up until this point of the Transformers toyline, Hasbro had been using molds that were originally created for other toylines in Japan. As of the 1986 line, Hasbro had more or less run through the molds to which they had access, and needed to start creating new designs. Most of the characters designed for Transformers: The Movie were especially unusual in that the robot mode designs were actually created first, rather than the vehicle modes, as has been the case for the vast majority of Transformers toys. Deciding on a vehicle design from which to work generally allowed for reasonably realistic alternate modes, but starting from the robot mode was another thing altogether. I've never heard it argued that this is why the movie was set in the then-future year of 2005, but a future setting clearly gave the designers freedom to come up with alternate modes free from the restriction of having to look like existing real-world forms. Any such vehicle could be plausibly explained as either "futuristic" or "Cybertronian."

Hot Rod is arguably the main character of Transformers: The Movie. His character is that of a stereotypical brash young hero who must endure a coming of age to eventually become the new leader of the Autobots after Optimus Prime's death.  This is specifically juxtaposed with the character of Kup, who is a stereotypical "old guy."  Having character archetypes so clearly age-based may seem a little odd when one considers that we're talking about a race of robots who apparently can live for millions of years without apparent signs of age, but it is what it is.

More on Friday!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Celebrating The 25th Anniversary of Transformers: The Movie

25 years ago today, I became 12 years old, and to celebrate, my family went to see an opening day presentation of Transformers: The Movie*. For modern-day Transformers fans, it probably comes as a bit of a surprise that the franchise had a theatrical movie many years before the Michael Bay live-action movies started setting box office records. But this was the Transformers movie for my generation of Transformers fans.

Premiering during the summer between Seasons 2 and 3 of the original 1980's Transformers cartoon, Transformers: The Movie represented a significant shift: changing the setting from then-modern day Earth to the then-future year 2005 and a broader interplanetary context.  Along with this change came a series of new characters (most of which I actually don't have the original toy versions of) including Hot Rod, Kup, Galvatron, Cyclonus, Ultra Magnus, and others.

Besides just the characters, the movie introduced some concepts that have become deeply embedded in the franchise in the years since.  It's now almost impossible to imagine the Transformers without the Matrix of Leadership, and the planet-devouring Unicron, introduced and destroyed within the course of this movie without any hint of a backstory, has since been elevated to a Satan-like universal-level threat, eternally able to resurface despite all manner of apparent annihilation.

Of course, the thing that Transformers: The Movie is most remembered for (among those that remember it, in any event) is what was later considered to be Hasbro's greatest mistake in the history of the franchise: the death of Optimus Prime.  The idea, of course, was that they needed to move characters for toys that were no longer available at stores out of the way in favor of characters for the new toys that kids could buy.  No one had imagined how traumatized many children would become at seeing one of their heroes--even an animated cartoon character--die.  Like most television cartoons of the era (and, indeed, even most today), death was practically unknown.  Characters would shoot lasers (never bullets!) at point-blank range and still miss!  A theatrical movie afforded the creators the freedom to do things that would never be allowed on television, and having characters actually die was only one of the freedoms that were taken.  Optimus Prime was by no means the only casualty of the movie, but his passing was certainly the most acutely felt.

Although the movie is now regarded as a classic among Transformers fans, it was almost universally reviled by critics.  That's perhaps not terribly surprising, as critics have much the same impression of the current live-action movies.  Unlike the current movies, however, Transformers: The Movie didn't perform terribly well at the box office.  No matter.  I'll still enjoy watching the movie again this evening in honor of the anniversary.

*Yes, I know that the title of the movie technically has another definite article: "The Transformers: The Movie." But not only is that not the way I generally see/hear the movie referred to, but including that definite article all the time makes composing coherent sentences a real pain, so I'm just not going to bother. You have my permission to accept that the fact that I'm referencing this fact down here as sufficient testimony to my obsessive nature, and we'll all move on....

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