Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Not-Transformers Feature: Spray from iGear

My experience with third-party "not-quite Transformers" (that is, toys not made by either Hasbro nor Takara — nor by anyone licensed by them — which nonetheless clearly attempt to represent actual characters from the Transformers franchise*) is admittedly fairly limited. I have some toys created by Justitoys (including the "WST Dinorobots" and a miniature version of Shockwave), and I've taken advantage of the occasional product to add to an official product (such as the Renderform "Gold Scout" kit for the Classics Bumblebee mold), but that's nearly the extent of it. Indeed, this "Spray" figure from iGear may be currently unique in my collection as being a fully-transforming toy that uses an all-new design (as opposed to merely tweaked and/or scaled down, as with the Dinorobots) to evoke a classic Transformers character (in case you can't tell, here's the link to when I featured the original Seaspray).

The timing of this toy is quite interesting, as it comes only a short time after Hasbro did their own official update of Seaspray (which I haven't featured yet, but probably should at some point in the not-so-distant future). That toy, however, is a huge toy, whereas the original was a "Mini-Vehicle," and thus struck many fans as a bit of a disconnect. "Spray" from iGear is much closer to the original Mini-Vehicle's size (a touch larger), but incorporates modern articulation that was pretty much unheard of on a toy of Seaspray's size in 1985 (including separate feet!).

Transformation is very reminiscent of the original Seaspray's transformation, as well, although way that the legs fold up in hovercraft mode doesn't really lock into place as I'd prefer. Instead, there's a bit of play between the white "torso," the yellow "legs," and the blue "feet" that one simply has to live with in this toy. The price of robot-mode articulation? I'm not sure. It just is what it is.

As I'm sure I've mentioned in the past, there is a long-standing debate about both the legality and the ethics of these figures. There is little question that the companies involved are both attempting to make money off of Transformers concepts, and are doing so without explicit permission from the companies that own the Transformers rights. If either Hasbro or Takaratomy wanted to make an issue of it (and spent lots of money to do so), toys like Spray could be forced into non-existence. As it is, the companies that produce (most of) these toys do make an effort to avoid any glaring violations (such as, for example, any actual Autobot faction symbols. The symbols you see in the pictures here are not part of the toy as it is sold, but were rather added via Reprolabels). Hence the close-but-not-quite name of "Spray" for this Seaspray wannabe. This is a legal gray area, rather than a gross violation, and it really is in everyone's best interests not to blatantly do something that forces Hasbro/Takaratomy's hands. Hasbro doesn't want to waste time and money tracking down every potential violator out there. They want to keep making Transformers toys. But to do this, they do have to protect their rights when it's clear that third-parties have gone too far.

*Further muddying the waters is the fact that I'm specifically not talking about knock-off toys, which attempt to replicate toys previously sold by either Hasbro or Takaratomy (either by creating a new mold from the existing toy, or by using original molds that are somehow no longer in the possession of the original companies).

Monday, August 27, 2012

Transformers Feature: Drift

In the past decade or so, the original era of Transformers (retroactively called "Generation One") has seen something of a renaissance. While no era has ever gone by without some kind of homage to characters such as Optimus Prime or Megatron, more recent years have been noteworthy for new comic stories written for, and new toys devoted to, more obscure characters from that era. If you were to ask a fan in the late 1990s, for example, if Hasbro would ever actually produce a new figure of the 1985 Tracks character, I doubt you'd have found many who would answer "yes," and those few who would, would probably suggest that it might be an homage along the lines of, say, Animated Shockwave (possessing clear references to the original, but not really the same character). Yet, such a new Generation One Tracks figure was made, as have many other such Generation One figures in recent years. It is into this "Generation One renaissance" that Drift came to exist in 2008, and almost from his conception, Drift has been the subject of controversy.

It is tempting to suggest that part of the reason for the reaction against Drift is that Drift is not an actual character from the original era of the Transformers franchise, despite his being placed in the nominally Generation One (referred to as "G1" hereafter) stories produced by IDW comics. But Drift is hardly the first "neo-G1" character. The Japanese retailer e-HOBBY had created several such additions to the G1 franchise in the years previous, perhaps most notably Sunstorm, and few, if any, of these have generated the fan-antipathy that Drift has. While it is certainly true that most of the e-HOBBY additions were just repaints of existing G1 molds, I hardly think that Drift's distinctiveness in having been designed more or less from scratch is the source of fan hatred.

I think it's safest to say that the animosity toward Drift arose out of the way Drift was originally promoted and presented to fans. Perhaps the note on Drift's TFWiki page says it best:
...Basically, he's frequently viewed as a stereotypical badass fan-created character with Japanese samurai/ninja stereotypes added in for maximum awesomeness. The main reason given by fans for their criticism, however, is the initial hype the character was given by its creator and IDW, which fans believe created a massive hype backlash.... Many fans think that while Drift's actual fictional appearances aren't nearly as bad as the most vocal critics make him out to be, he certainly fails to live up to the hype. In fact, a lot of former critics feel that the later interpretation of the character by author James Roberts is actually quite decent, redeeming the once stereotypical character somewhat.
I'll be honest, I wasn't thrilled with Drift's introduction into the franchise, myself. Basically, I saw him as taking time away from characters I cared more about, while doing little of note to justify why he was used rather than one of these other characters. I was even less enthusiastic about the fact that Drift's existence was to be further rewarded by having an actual toy — called "Autobot Drift" for trademark reasons — made in 2010 (again, why not do a real G1 character that hasn't yet been remade?), and so I didn't pick it up for a long, long time. In fact, I only did get him when he was available at Marshall's for roughly half his original price, and even then I might have passed it up, except that I trusted the online reviews from fans who said that, yes, whatever one feels about the character, the toy is actually pretty nice. It boasts a fairly innovative take on the car-to-robot transformation that has been done so many times in the past 28 years, and the way that the shorter swords sheath into pockets on either of Drift's sides (which nicely resemble scabbards) in robot mode is quite brilliant. Also, the toy has better-than-average articulation (even for a modern-era toy), enabling him to grasp the long sword by both hands at the same time! If you manage to see this toy on the shelf (especially at discount prices!), I recommend looking past any fan disdain you may hold for the character's origins and introductions, and go ahead and pick it up. I really don't think you'll regret it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Video Game 30th Anniversary of the Month - Pac-Man Plus

There is little question that the early 80s was my era when it comes to video games. I really haven't kept track of updates to the genre in the past couple of decades. But I do remember the games of my childhood fondly. Pac-Man Plus, the fourth game in the Pac-Man franchise, holds a special honor, being the only game for which I have a framed marquee hanging on my wall!

Pac-Man Plus may seem, at first glance, to be a step backwards from its immediate predecessor: Super Pac-Man. In fact, as the game opens, there are only two visible differences between this game and the original Pac-Man. The most of obvious of these is the green color of the maze (the original game has a blue maze). The second is far more subtle: at the lower right-hand side of the board, where you would have seen cherries before, the icon is now a soda can. A third change is apparent once you've eaten an energizer: the ghosts still turn blue, but they become squat and have a green flag growing out of their head (I've also seen this referred to as an apple stem and/or a leaf. I don't know what the official designation is).

It would be a mistake to assume that the only differences between this game and the original are purely cosmetic. This game is quite a bit harder than the original. The ghosts are noticeably faster and harder to avoid, and the energizers don't last as long. Not only that, but whereas it used to be the case that eating an energizer at least guaranteed that your nearby nemesis would be vulnerable for a fraction of a second* (encouraging players to wait to gobble the energizer until a ghost was almost on top of you), the energizers in Pac-Man Plus sometimes only cause three of the four ghosts to turn blue with fright, and usually the ghost that remains deadly is the one that's still right next to you!

One change to Pac-Man Plus actually helps the player, in that eating a bonus item in the center of the maze renders all of the ghosts vulnerable in much the same way as an energizer. However, all of the ghosts turn invisible, which makes catching them rather difficult (if you manage to succeed, however, they're worth twice as much as with a normal energizer). The ghosts are still vulnerable for a brief moment after they become visible again before becoming deadly to Pac-Man's touch once more.

Ghosts aren't the only things that become invisible from time to time in this game. If you manage to make it at least to the third board, eating an energizer will occasionally cause the entire board to become invisible, leaving only Pac-Man, the ghosts, and perhaps the center-board bonus able to be seen by the player. Even the dots are invisible while you try to get the currently-vulnerable ghosts. Good luck navigating around all those walls. They're still there, you just can't see them! I can't vouch for this myself, but the invisible maze is said to become permanent later in the game, as opposed to simply being energizer-focused.

Some purists may dispute the designation of Pac-Man Plus as the fourth game of the franchise. The game was, after all, basically just a Pac-Man machine with a single modifier chip added in to change up some of the graphics and gameplay. Also, like Ms. Pac-Man before it, Pac-Man Plus was produced by Bally Midway without authorization from Namco (although Namco has since embraced both games into the Pac-Man family). Even so, it remains a fun, if admittedly difficult, game to play.

*If you were really, really, good, you might find yourself at an advanced board that wouldn't give you any energizer powers at all, but that only happened well into the game. I'm not talking about that.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Game Show Board Games: Password

Dating back to 1961, Password is probably the game show with the deepest roots to have a version aired within the past decade. The first board game version came out in 1962, followed by many, many editions over the years to come. I won't swear that my version is a "first" edition, although it does have the 1962 copyright and does not indicate a later edition as many later editions did.

The original Password was a very simple game, and thus easily emulated in a board game. Four players compete in teams of two. Although one can designate an additional person to serve as "host" to distribute the cards, the board game doesn't require this. Basically, each team has an "A" player and a "B" player, and having decided which of the twelve sets of pre-assigned word cards to use, the "A" players of competing teams are given the "A" card for that number, while the "B" players get the "B" card for that same number.  The cards are placed into the sleeves so that the first word appears through the red-filter at the top of the sleeve (red filters really were fairly common in game show board games once upon a time).

After determining which player "A" is to give clues first (a coin toss would be fine), that person attempts to get his partner to say the word which appears in the window by giving a one-word clue. If that person's partner is able to guess the word based on that single clue, he or she gets 10 points (this is what the dial is for in the picture above). If not, the potential score is reduced by a point and the opposing player "A" gets a chance to give a clue. Hyphenated words or multiple word phrases are illegal (as, obviously, are forms of the target word), and if given, a turn is forfeited and the opposing team gets a chance to take the points (reduced by one as if the previous clue was a regular incorrect guess). After the first word is successfully guessed and points are awarded, the "B" players give clues to the first word on their card (starting with the team that didn't give the first clue on the previous word). Clues alternate back-and-forth until all of the words on the cards have been exhausted, and the team with the highest score wins.

There are a few basic differences between game-play as on the original 1960s show and the board game. On the show, the first team to reach 25 points would be the winner (no matter how many or how few words that took) and would then play a "lightning round" to try to guess five words in less than a minute. The "lightning round" (one of the very first bonus rounds in game show history) is entirely absent from this game (at least, as the official rules lay things out), presumably because the makers of the game felt like they would have to include an hourglass or similar timer in the game to make that work. However, both of these differences can be easily re-incorporated into home play should the players so choose.

There were two runs of Password (one from 1961-1967, and another from 1971-1975), but the show has come back several times over the years in other variations. I'll deal with the next incarnation: Password Plus (and, more specifically, the home board game version of it) in a future post.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Transformers Feature: Club G2 Ramjet

When I first learned that the official Transformers Collectors' Club would be offering Generation 2 Ramjet as one of their 2011 exclusive figures, I wasn't especially happy about it.

For those who don't remember, a bit of context is in order. The BotCon 2010 exclusives were all based around the Generation 2: Redux concept, and it was revealed during a Q&A session at the convention that the original intention was to include both G2-colored Ramjet and Action Master-colored Thundercracker (and, in fact, AMTC was the original idea around which everything else that year came to exist), but Hasbro told them that the molds were not available at the time needed to use them as convention exclusives. However, G2-colored Ramjet would be a 2011 club exclusive. At the time, it seemed as though AMTC was being passed over in favor of the Ramjet character, never to actually be produced. We now know that AMTC was made as a BotCon 2011 exclusive (as "Shattered Glass" Thundercracker), but that knowledge was still nearly a year away, and I was upset that AMTC wasn't the one chosen for the club.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I'm sorry I was so hard on the club. Don't get me wrong, I'm very glad AMTC was made, and I still prefer that character to this one, but that's less anything against Ramjet, and more that AMTC was such a brilliantly gauche idea. I'm glad to have Ramjet, too.

Using the mold designed for "Seeker" jets in the 2006 "Classics" line, Ramjet now sports a Generation 2-emulating purple and teal color scheme. Like most club and convention exclusives, Fun Publications was able to use a greater number of paint applications than would normally be used on a product intended for retail, but Ramjet is unusual in that the silver highlights to the sides of Ramjet's head and on Ramjet's feet use specially-made stickers that emulate the similar stickers on the original Generation 2 toy.

If Punch/Counterpunch angered club members by selling out within three days of the start of the pre-order period, Ramjet added even more fuel to the fire. Ramjet was declared "sold out" within less than a full day of being presented for pre-order. While the question of whether or not Ramjet was a better choice for club exclusive than AMTC is happily moot, there's no denying that it was indeed one of the most popular club exclusives to date. I would even go so far as to say that Ramjet's runaway success was one of the factors leading Fun Publications to announce the upcoming "Figure Subscription Service" that is expected to guarantee club members each of six toys that are expected to be available in the upcoming year. I hope that the system proves to be a success for all concerned.

For those with especially sharp eyes, yes, my specimen appears to be misassembled. He apparently came with two right fists, and the one on the left hand is simply installed upside-down! Ahhh, well. I actually didn't notice it myself until just minutes before this post was scheduled to go live. I doubt I'd get much traction trying to get the problem fixed now, and since it took me so long to notice in the first place, I guess I'm not really suffering....

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