Friday, 8 February 2019

CollectionDX and the Illusion of Permanence

- mantis nine nines

A Transformers fan in 2019 has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to reference. The TF Wiki alone is as comprehensive an info source as you will find, and the numerous dedicated websites and message boards fill in every gap imaginable. Once you add in social media accounts there's not much you can't find with a quick Google search or Twitter post.

Like most spoiled kids we take for granted how good we have it. What made me realize this for myself is the recent news that CollectionDX is in dire financial straits and will shut down if its GoFundMe fails. Operating for almost 20 years, the site is a gold mine of information, pictures, and reviews of robot and robo-adjacent toys.

Many of you may have never visited the site, if so I encourage you to check it out ASAP. (Here's a link) It's like wandering through the warehouse in Indiana Jones, except every crate is full of toy robots.

As a collector of rare and obscure robots, CollectionDX has been invaluable to me. The photos, the reviews, sometimes they are the only information available I can use to see if an item is complete, or how it transforms. Not to mention the world of knockoffs and bootlegs it takes detective work to identify.

The thought of this site disappearing is painful to me personally, and devastating to the robot collecting community.
So I humbly ask you check out the site, and donate if you can. And also that you take inventory of the sites you have enjoyed and rely upon. For those that don't ask for money directly, use their links, support their advertisers, take a few extra seconds.
As much as we love our plastic, I think we can all recognize that we enjoy the immaterial part of the hobby just as much.

The endless creativity I see on social media, the YouTube videos, blogs (*waves hello), and every other corner of the internet, we understand these are fleeting. This CDX situation reminds us that even the institutions we take as permanent are only as enduring as a servers pay cycle. Don't get me wrong, the fickle nature of the cloud is worth the lack of durability, but I am still glad to have the old bricks of paper sitting on my shelf. Buyers guides, Almanacs, the Marvel Handbooks, solid as a rock.

Let's do what we can to keep our beloved hobby sites just as permanent.

Thanks for keeping it #refined!

And if you find yourself wanting to explore some unique robots, check out the Super Toy Archive the very comprehensive Figure Realm or the Robo Synergy blog.

Follow dan on Twitter @mantisninenines

Saturday, 26 January 2019

2019 Under Siege

- Ben Watson

As our first piece of 2019, we at Refined Robot Co. would like to wish you a very happy new year. But what will the next twelve months bring in terms of Transformers? The stand out line looks like it will be the start of the new War For Cybertron Trilogy: Siege. So let's digest what we've got from the first taste of a line that promises to be a heartier meal than we've had in years... 

Returning to the gritty flame-lit days of the Transformers' war before they set foot on Earth, Siege offers a much different beast to its predecessor Power of The Primes. The whole design of the line is a clean break from the brighter Prime Wars Trilogy, from the packaging and instructions, to the use of scale and detail. But somehow, even with wacky space vehicle modes, the line already appears to lean harder into the G1-But-New aesthetic than anything prior. For many this is either a huge selling point or a massive turn-off; but whatever your mileage may be, there's no denying Siege is offering a new pinnacle of Generations quality.

Starting at the bottom, the smallest pricepoint in Generations originally introduced with the Titanmasters and expanded with the Primemasters, now encompasses the Battlemasters. Legion-esque sized weapon partners including classical Targetmaster gun-to-man fellows along with animalistic Action Master partners. Ostensibly another "G1 thing we've not updated yet" for Hasbro to cross off their list, these figures fill (hand)holes left in your collection from Titans Return but also push the central play pattern for Siege: Guns. Calling this a "gimmick" feels like a bit of a reach when 5mm and 3mm compatible weaponry has been the only other playable feature alongside transformation for the entirety of Transformers' history. It's more accurate to say Siege drops the line-wide thematic gimmickry of the Prime Wars Trilogy and just delivers you each figure on a case-by-case basis, albeit absolutely riddled with ports to let you tool them up to your satisfaction. The only real new thing offered by the whole line comes in at the Battlemasters size class however: effect parts. Long a mainstay in many a high-end Japanese collectible, now you can stick see-through explosions and blaster fire on your Transformers and their guns and to a toy photographer like me, this is quite simply a godsend. Even with only the single yellow SPOOM! I got from Blowpipe. 

Next up the hierarchy are more small robos mined from the rich seam of Toys We Left In The 80's, Micromasters! Replacing the Legends size-class from previous lines, for your (roughly) £10 you now get two tiny Mini-con sized guys instead of one anemic Scout Class figure. To an Armada fan such as myself, the idea of only getting two mini men for your ten English pounds is quite frankly hurtful - especially when there's room in the box for one more - but putting that aside you can instantly see where that money goes. While appearing to just regurgitate half of a Micromaster Patrol of your choice with knees this time, the Siege Micros offer so much more. Upon opening the pair in my possession (Flak and Topshot), I was instantly hit by how high quality they feel. Positively covered in paint with crisply applied detail and tiny (white-bordered, that's important!) Autobot badges they certainly look the part. Add to that ball-jointed shoulders and hips and working knees along with a little head movement, and you've got a pair of barely 2 inch tall figures offering more articulation than all of the toys on supermarket shelves four times their size. But wait, there's more! Remember Guns? These guys can do that too! Able to combine into a - well ok yeah it's kind of crap - gun mode, the Micromasters also get in on the whole 5mm party. And with a little imagination and ingenuity can even fill that Mini-con shaped hole in your heart thanks to their own little posts to jam in Megatron's shoulder or wherever... 

Now we begin to get to the meat and potatoes of the line. The Deluxe class offers the first tangible yet admittedly hard to define step up in quality for a retail Transformers line in years. Seeming to adopt a design ethos from the concurrent Studio Series, each figure in the line stands at a height appropriate for their character, with some (like Hound) substituting height for mass or extra points of articulation. I'm just gonna come out and say it, these are basically Masterpiece figures in a main line. Engineering is painfully elegant. Detailing is perfect. Articulation is solid. Paint is abundant. The overall finish is that of something far superior to your regular deluxe. This first wave offers a strong selection including a pair of '84 Car A-listers, The Duocon You Really Wanted and the first of a new subset of figures: the Weaponizers. Cog may historically be a complete nobody that only completists will worry about standing at the feet of their Fort Max, but now, now he's Cool. The largest figure in the wave, he can form two smaller vehicles or one long tank thing but his real selling point is how he makes a load of guns. Able to thoroughly dismember himself into an arsenal of 5mm compatible weaponry, there seems no end to the combinations you can make with other figures. And he's only the first, with Brunt and Sixgun following in future waves to suddenly make you need all these cityformer companion nonentities more than actual characters like Prowl. At least that's how I'm feeling. 

Continuing the onslaught of indisputable quality, the Voyagers hold nothing back to give you the most definitive feeling Optimus and Megatron since Classics. Optimus in particular is where the Masterpiece vibes continue. Takara's hand in the design is no more clearly felt than with this figure. Intricate, complex, taking a huge number of steps to give you all the beats of the classic Optimus character model, this figure is the real wake-up call for this line. I never expected to feel so good about having a (for the most part) toon accurate Optimus Prime, but here we are. Perfectly detailed and much more proportionate and posable than MP-10. The figure is a triumph. Even with the half-baked space truck mode, there's nothing about it that doesn't scream Optimus Prime at his best. To think I picked this up off an actual store shelf is crazy. A (semi)regular retail figure would never be this good. 

But Megatron is no slouch either! It's no overstatement to say that no other main line figure captures a proper Megatron likeness as good as this one. The Titans Return one was adequate? In which universe? In terms of my collection, I feel like I finally have a capital "M" Megatron. No other attempt has really done him justice until now. Apart from the lack of light piping and wrist swivels, this is a perfect G1 Megatron figure - and it isn't just a G1 Megatron figure... You can find details that call back to G2, War Within, IDW's Cybertronian form and most prominently in the formation of his vehicle mode, Armada. After the reveal of a Cybertron Optimus themed reworking of Ultra Magnus, this alt mode has my teeth itching with how close it is to being my Megatron; ditch the panel in the front and the antlers on his head would even poke out where they're supposed to. While it's not as strong a show of engineering wizardry as Optimus, Siege Megatron is simply the best update of the character we've ever had. Throw in the sword and there's just no backing down from the fact they've finally got Megatron right. 

Now we reach the final stretch for the Siege line, with the top of the totem (until Titan Omega Supreme is officially shown off), the Leader class. This is where the largest shift in what you get for your arbitrary amount of cash per figure comes into play. To put it simply, the figures are smaller. But where towering size is lost, an abundance of quality is gained. So Magnus only stands a head taller than Prime, but he's still huge. Playing with scale in this way will inevitably annoy some people, but honestly I find it refreshing. Rather than keeping to a set average size for each size-class, you get the characters being as big as they need to be in respect to each other within a collection; with room for cool extras. Shockwave is essentially a Voyager figure with some bits to stick on. Where's that other ~£25 come from? I don't know but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt it's one of the best figures of this year. Yeah it's only January. "Quality over quantity" could become the mantra for Generations going forward, and why would that be a bad thing? These figures are basically perfect. How long have you waited for a new Magnus with a white Optimus inside? How long have you waited for a full size Classics Shockwave? If the answer is "a long time", pal you are not gonna be disappointed. I started the new year very, very close to dropping almost 3X the price of Leader Shockwave on the MP29+ figure. I must have been mad because to my eye, Siege Shockwave is better in every way. He's got the dark purple, he's got the badges on his arms, he's got the hose, he's got the most unstoppable light piping but he's also got a set of armour to give him four arms. And as for Magnus, I am one of the people who care about the white Prime mode so to see it realised without being an Optimus repaint, while also working in a RID truck homage? I was always gonna put that cash down. 

Siege then, has got off to a blistering start. Each figure from Deluxe to Leader feels like a complete 10/10 - even with the I've Been In A Scuffle paint. Anything smaller is a nice bonus for the 5mm system and a rare focus on the tiny guys of G1. All in all, it's an unbelievably stellar line and I am vibrating with anticipation over what's to come from it next. When it's already given me unbeatable figures of some of the most iconic designs in Transformers, it's hard to believe it can get better than this, but all grey prototype or pixelated box shot signs point exactly to that future. Better get ready because 2019 looks like the year Hasbro will well and truly have your wallet under siege. 

Follow Ben @Waspshot23

Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Most Important Year Ever?

- mantis nine nines
Here we are, 2018 dwindling with each passing day, and I find myself thinking of the future. Next year to be specific. I believe 2019 might be the most important year our beloved Robots In Disguise have ever had.

While we all have our own favorites due to nostalgia (84, 86, 96, 07, etc) it's hard to think of a year where more has been on the line. Transformers has survived many ups and downs, always finding a way to maintain relevance and connect with a new generation of kids. But it's never faced as much risk as it does now.

Hasbro is on shakey ground, as is much of the toy industry. The only plastic that still hits the shelves is either a legacy property or based on media, with original toylines few and far between. Transformers is lucky in that its heart and soul is a gimmick that never goes out of style. Each toy a puzzle of varying complexity that gives maximum satisfaction only in tangible, physical form. Fans are drawn to, and kept interested by, the great characters and supporting media, but anyone reading this is here because That One Bot reached your hands and you were hooked. But how can we ensure this continues in 2019 and beyond?

Unfortunately I don't have the answer. I think Hasbro is doing what it can, and on paper their strategy seems sound. The Bayverse took the brand to it's greatest heights of relevance, but has crashed and burned. To move forward they are going for a more family-friendly and simpler reboot. If the Bumblebee movie is profitable and has legs, we may see retailers return some of the shelf space that has been shrinking steadily the last few years. If not... it could be tough for Hasbro to keep even the space it has now. And with no Toys R Us the path to profitability becomes even harder.

IDW comics may be far less relevant to the culture at large, but the last 10 years have been enormous for adult and young adult fans. Somehow Transformers became a place that stories could be told that captured the zeitgeist as well as or better than any other. Great artists, fresh writers, and new characters unlike any we had seen before. Uniting people who had never read any comics before with veterans, and all under the banner of a KIDS TOY! Not since the Hama GI Joe run had a toy property produced such quality graphic fiction.

But in many ways that's all over now. A new era is about to begin. And while I hope we see something new and just as good, the odds are... it won't happen. I've seen too many eras end at other comic companies, it's probably going to be a long time before the next great run of TF comics. And without IDW what becomes the playground for adult fans? Likely we'll know the answer by 2020.

Video games? Nothing on the horizon there. The card game is cool but won't attract the outsiders needed to grow the fan base.

TV hasn't worked for TFs in a loooong time, and the internet shows have been... less than galvanizing. I'm more positive about the Machinima series than most but my kids could care less about them, and they are too short to provide what the brand needs.

So pretty grim right?

Yes, but we've been here before. When the 86 movie bombed and the toyline folded shortly after, there was no reason to think Transformers would ever return. Especially after G2 took it's best shot and failed. It was a time when old toylines disappeared and new ones took their place like clockwork. And yet The Brand was able to find enough reasons for Kenner to give it a shot. For Mainframe to use it as the next step for their pioneering CGI efforts. Now that Transformers is global, and has even found a way to prosper outside of official channels, it seems inevitable that they'll return to prominence. No matter how long they slumber underneath a volcano, they will have another chance to reconfigure and recharge. 

So don't let whatever happens in 2019 get you down. The fandom has been here before, and we will find new ways to enjoy our common love. And if a few fairweather fans drop off, let them. We'll keep doing like we were before they arrived. And with that in mind, I have some new Siege bots to check out...

Have a safe and Happy New Year, and thanks for keeping it #Refined in 2018!

Follow dan on Twitter @mantisninenines

Monday, 19 November 2018

Bumblebee and the Economy of Play

- Ben Watson

With Transformers very soon set to receive the motion picture treatment fans have been waiting for since Revenge of The Fallen tipped Michael Bay's hand, Travis Knight's Bumblebee looks set to be redemptive. But what of its associated toyline? While I eagerly await the film itself, I can at least offer up some concrete truths about the figures for it right here, right now. 

Collector grade figures for the film are showing up through the Studio Series but Hasbro's Bumblebee branded sub-line "Energon Igniters" is a typical main-line gimmick assortment aimed at younger kids. Sorry to disappoint. I've probably just lost your continued readership of this article but hear me out - that's not a bad thing. Bumblebee  - judging by the newly released runtime of 1 hour and 54 minutes and PG-13 rating making no mention of innuendo, bad language or drug references - is set to be a family film. Exactly what Transformers on the big screen should be. Suitable. For. Kids. So it's only right that the forthcoming march of merchandise is too. 

Since 2014's Age of Extinction, Transformers lines at mass general retail have been simpler affairs than years prior. Aiming at the 5 to 8 year old demographic as the average age kids stop playing with toys and move to digital devices ever shrinks, what you're most likely to find on store shelves, well - it looks bad to adult eyes. Overly plasticky, static and ridden with holes and voids, the mark of a gimmick toy is easily seen. As a "grown" man with a lifelong experience of the brand I can't help but wonder what kids see in these three-dimensional exercises in cost-cutting. Then came the Bumblebee line. And I... Liked what I saw? 

Yeah the flaws are right there, Optimus has no knees, Bee himself has no elbows, none of the Decepticons are actually Triple Changers as they appear on screen but upon casting my eyes over the first images we were given of the toys, my first impression was "Rad." The whole line works to an established theme (1980's vehicle styling) and incorporates a play pattern into all of its pricepoints. That's never happened for a simple gimmick line like this before and somehow it shows. I could see these toys were fun. I wanted to seek them out the first chance I got. And the trailer based hype wave swept me along to exactly where I needed to be to commit to that. 

For the first time in ages I actively set out to hunt for new figures, not Generations or Studio Series or whatever is in vogue within the TF twittersphere this week but crappy kiddie toys that'll be on every store shelf like ugly on an ape by the time we get to Christmas. What was going on? Was this... Actually just being excited for new toys? Whatever the case, I eagerly plunged my hands into the shelves of my local Smyths to root around for a toy I wanted, came up with "Power Series" Dropkick, smiled and felt a bit of the Olde Magick return. The thrill of the hunt isn't something I've engaged in for what feels like years. With the ubiquity of online retail and the unreliability of brick and mortar stocking the things I'm actually after when they come out, physically picking up a toy off a shelf is an activity I rarely engage in anymore. Bumblebee gave me an excuse to change that. 

So, my excitement over the assortment aside, what are you actually getting under the hood? Starting with my first pick, Dropkick; a sub-deluxe, scout-plus sized figure that you'd probably mistake for a One Step Changer. However every figure in the line so far requires a multi-step manual conversion. A big tick in the "More Regular Fun Transformers Experience" column. This allows for an optional vehicle attack (or maybe boost?) mode where the back end splits to reveal new detail (jet engines or cannons, I can't decide what they're going for) and a large gap intended to house one of the Energon Cores included with the two more expensive size classes, "Power Plus Series" and "Nitro Series" respectively. "Power Plus" because they're "Power Series" figures plus an Energon Core, get it? I've no idea what relevance "Nitro" or "Speed" (the new name for Legion Class) have though and sincerely doubt we'll remember these identifiers in twelve months time. 

But, I can hear you ask, what is an Energon Core? This is the uh, core of the line. A motor wound by pushing the button on top that drives a single wheel underneath. When slotted in, grease monkey garage style to the vacant back end of one of the line's vehicles it lets them shoot along your coffee table or kitchen floor. I love it. In nigh-on thirty-five years, how have we never had zoom along motorised car modes get a push like this? And what's better is that this works with every figure in the line, even the diminutive Speed née-Legion fellas who get pushed along thanks to a 5mm connection with the engine. It's worth noting that including this pricepoint in the gimmick of a wider main line has never happened (unless you wanna be the guy to count rubsigns as a gimmick). And then there's the final thing to mention about these blue boxes - which so far seem to each have unique sculpting - and that's a 5mm port which spins as the drive unwinds? Why? None of the figures seem to make use of this feature that I know of as none of them include weapons. A big tick in the "boo this sucks" column I know but damn it's a hoot when you've got twenty odd years of compatible accessories lying around. 

So that's the gimmick revving at the heart of this toyline. Optional, standardised, relatively unobtrusive and above all actually fun. Especially when juxtaposed with the line these figures are already getting confused with by supermarket staff: Cyberverse. I've yet to touch any of the latest 'toon's toys as they all seem far too cut back on everything from parts to paint to joints for no good reason. Not the fitting successor to RID 2015 I'd hoped for. The Energon Igniters however seem to hit a balance between cheap and nicely styled, simple and entertaining. Yes articulation is lacking. Use of a few ball joints could have exponentially improved this as most joints only move in a single axis. Yes paint is lacking. But when you're going to be shooting these things along your lino into chair legs and bins, you really don't want a premium deco treatment. The one thing that isn't lacking is: character. 

I didn't go after Dropkick because of his conversion, articulation or particular employment of gimmickry. I went after him because he seemed like the coolest one. A slick low riding glossy muscle car rendered in punchy blue with a silver engine jutting out the front. A Decepticon-and-crossbones badge graces his flank. His robot mode drips with sculpted detail and goon based malice. He's Dropkick. In a film. That blue truck guy I always wanted from the 2007 line. They picked him to be a villain in the new movie. But after having the figure for a few weeks, the best thing I like about him is  - how can I convey this - his shape. As a car he's the perfect size and flatness to be able to still stick in your pocket. Basically, G1 Autobot car dimensions. Combined with his realistic (but sadly unlicensed, screen inaccurate) alt mode styling, simple conversion and limited range of motion, Dropkick feels retro. If the Bumblebee film is going back to the 80's to give you a flavour of Transformers' roots, the toyline is also managing a pinch of that in a way you may not expect. 

I wasn't blown away with Dropkick, far from it, but I was happy enough with him  that I was sure I wanted to pick up more from this line. That freshness was apparent and I've hardly been able to put the thing down. Power Plus Bumblebee was my next stop as I had to have the star of the show and an adversary for Dropkick. The fact this is the first VW Bumblebee in shops for thirty years is incredibly surreal. To seasoned fans like me, Bee has been this Beetle in my head forever but the only toys of him like it are G1 or Masterpiece? That can't be right surely. But it is. Having a deluxe-ish version of this car mode is super weird but also like, about time right? 

It's at this point I realise I'm ready to be hooked on this line, but find a lack of product to support that drive. The first wave really is just Bee and Optimus and Barricade and Hot Rod in various forms, leaving little room for avoiding character duplication. I chose to go for the Power Plus Optimus next and felt my first real pang of disappointment. Like the rest, Prime's vehicle styling is on point if a little flat, giving you a downsized rendition of the G1 cab. But his robot mode is the most static and insubstantial I've encountered so far. Optimus really shouldn't be the smallest, lightest, most limited robot. Oh well, at least his detailing is nice even if he doesn't appear in the film in this body and I must confess there's a certain charm to the figure, despite its vapid nature. It's worth noting here that a lot of the negatives of this toy could have been circumvented if I'd dished out the cash for the larger Nitro version. But one of the things I'm finally getting my head round is how it's nice to be able to pick up any of the characters at the same size and price. I scoff at the fact there's a Prime in every size class these days and he's no longer the big ticket item of each line but surely it's better this way? Kids or their parents don't have to afford 40 notes to get the hero robot and in this line, the biggest one doesn't even cost that. There's an economy to Bumblebee that can't be denied, even if individual figures might seem overpriced to you. 

This brings us to the present moment and Speed Series Barricade convincing me I do feel a way about this line and I should probably put some words down about it. Borrowing the body scheme of the very first Barricade figure I got, the 2007 Legends legend, there's undeniably some odd nostalgia at play here. In a lot of ways, I just bought the same toy again but this time he turns into a squared off 80's cop cruiser I'd expect to see Jim Hopper step out of. Eleven years of improvements in sculpting minute detail are also clear as this Barry is basically more movie accurate than the '07 Deluxe, despite his 30 year aesthetic rewind. The best thing about this figure however is how it's made me care about this size class again. You may remember an article I wrote about my love for the Legion and how recent years have left it barren of anything to enjoy; The Last Knight did nothing to really fix this and now Cyberverse isn't even giving us this pricepoint. So to pick up a new pocket bot, for less than in 2017 and find it works to the 2007 standards I miss while still giving me 2018 detailing and the ability to use the wider line's gimmick - well I couldn't really ask for more. 

Bumblebee then is a hearty and wholesome mix of the old and the new. Qualities meant to appeal to the die-hard fan are woven into its DNA but by the virtue of its status as a supermarket shelfspace sinkhole, most won't even give it a cursory glance. I can imagine a Hasbro team member scratching their head and going "we made Bumblebee a Volkswagen again, what more can we do for you?" but the truth of this line is that it isn't for you. Sure, it's full of what amount to laser-guided marketing missiles aimed at kids of the 80's but its made for the kids of the 10's. To let them (finally) experience some of that purer distillation of what Transformers is. To let them find their favourite robots they will have seen on the big screen in roughly six weeks from now. For the first time in the lives of so many kids around today, they will have every right to go and see and love a Transformers film made for them. And for us. I dearly hope Bumblebee is well received because it represents the formula the franchise should have worked to from the first day a Hasbro exec said "Let's make a movie..." Going back to basics can be pretty good every now and then. 

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Robot RoBeginnings - Phase 1 1997 - 2002

- Ben Watson

Marching out from the mists of prehistory come the very first pieces in my collection. I recently decided to revisit the origins of my plastic robot habit and felt there was quite a bit I could unpack. So please indulge me as I (re)explore the first five years of my life with Transformers. 

My collecting life began with Beast Wars and for what felt like a long time, that line formed the major backbone to my robot love. But now, twenty-plus years later, laying out all the figures I gained from those years feels slightly underwhelming. I'd pictured myself with loads of Beast Wars figures for years but really, between those formative five years, I'd only amassed about as many Transformers as I might bring home from a single weekend at TFNation now. To me however, this speaks volumes to how much more I would enjoy and value each singular piece at that age. So let's see exactly which golden memories shine out of those halcyon days before I passed the event horizon of Armada and would forevermore fall through the folding space of Transformers collecting towards some unknowable singular point...

Wave 1 - Christmas 1997
I'm not 100% certain my Transformers life begins on this year, but tracking back from more solid data leads me to believe the Christmas I received Beast Wars Waspinator was that of '97. Some sources say this was the first year of the line in the UK and that '96 represents its starting point in the US. For a time I'd been convinced '96 was when this happened but at that age I didn't understand that next year would be this year with 1 added to it because I couldn't count to 1997 so, I'll defer judgement here. Whatever the case, the initial push on this lifetime rollercoaster ride was a big green plastic wasp with bulging blue eyes that I would ask my dad to turn into that silly robot I'd seen on the telly. My most venerable copy of the figure still has super tight hips but both the clear missiles are long broken (half of one dangles from the shelf above my desk right now in a piece of tape. I don't really know why I've kept it). He's not the most bold or interesting or posable or even the best painted version of this mould but he is the one I ran buzzing around my nan's house, scaring my aunts and uncles with on that Christmas morning. 

Wave 2 - 5th birthday 1998
The toy that really set the cart rolling from its starting line was Tarantulas who was the first thing I can remember asking for as a birthday present. Less than a month after Christmas I got another oversized creepy crawly, only this one freaked people out even more because it was the rough size and shape of an actual tarantula. On the day I got it, I brought it with me to the odd cabin shaped eatery I'd elected me and my dad would visit for lunch and the waitress at least pretended to be spooked by it. Excellent. Time to take it home and hang it from somewhere where it would make my mum jump. As far as looking after a figure goes I learned the hard way with Tarantulas after having to keep track of his four detachable legs/missiles. I'm pretty proud they're all present and correct but with the stress marks on the stalks they connect to, they'll never again be pulled off and used as ammunition for what is now strictly a grapple gun. I'm rather pleased the length of yellowing string emanating from his backside is all in one piece too as that web line feature was the one part of the figure I enjoyed most. And who doesn't like a good pair of those quintessential Beast Wars claw feet?

I'll mention Razorclaw here too as quite honestly, I can't remember anything about how I got him but he must have come along at some point during '98. At that time I'd often visit a friend who was quite frankly spoiled rotten by his mum and so had loads more Beast Wars than me. Razorclaw was one of his I was particularly smitten by and so simply had to find my own. A see-through blue craggy crab man with massive spikes hidden in one claw and a laser gun in the other. The absolute height of chitinous cool. 

Wave 3 - Summer 1998
Now the wheels were rolling, I was fully prepared to make the most of '98's wealth of new Beast Wars offerings - in the sense of finding a couple more than usual to ask my dad for. One such newcomer was my first of the Fuzor subline, Airhammer. Spied in one of those metal baskets in Argos one fortuitous day, he came home with me and for only the briefest moment perplexed my young mind with his hammerhead shark/eagle hybrid stylings as I was more frustrated by how his arms transformed. My first Maximal, he'd be sorely outnumbered by all my previous Predacons but in actual fact, I don't think I ever made them fight like that. These days, his arms are loose and floppy and he might be getting a tinge yellowed but he's a cornerstone of heroism among my robot ranks. 

His Fuzor nemesis in Quickstrike provides a similar scenario to Razorclaw. I knew I had him in '98 but I couldn't tell you how or when. I probably saw him at that same Argos. At this point my taste in insectoid exoskeletons must become clear as Quickstrike's scorpion body is supremely well realised. Couple this with the truly inspired move of making the tail the whole first half of a cobra and doing the whole thing up in a particularly Central American colour scheme, he screams "desert bandito". At the time I felt his characterisation in the show to be weirdly off but now I realise it couldn't have been more spot on. 

Wave 4 - Christmas 1998
While I have very distinct memories of a Christmas full of then current Lost in Space merch - a wealth of which I'd be hard pressed to believe could have been mine on the same day as the following figures - all signs (and old photos) point to December 25th 1998 being all about Rampage. The biggest Beast Wars figure I would ever gain and the kind of prezzie to stand among the likes of my TIE fighter as simply too incredible to properly process at that age. I never could manage the tank mode, but having an even bigger crab provided quite enough excitement. Today I look at the figure as being particularly unwieldy, with nowhere to effectively stow any of the crab mode's eight appendages- and did he really need that little shotgun when he's already packing a functioning minigun? Either way, the shining, hulking, missile spewing Predacon would go down as one of those special things in my collection.

Testament to how Rampage overshadowed anything else at the time, it takes a feat of mental effort to remember he wasn't the only Transformer I got that Christmas. Well, I'm assuming that's the case - two separate photos exist of me unwrapping Spittor and Rampage in different rooms but I think those are the same Postman Pat pajamas I'm wearing in each... It ain't easy being a fashion icon. Spittor and Terrorsaur added to my growing horde of Basic figures, but compared to the living swiss army knife of Razorclaw they held less interest. So much so, that for roughly twenty years I'd forgotten Terrorsaur even had his piddly shooter til I found it and immediately put it in the box with all my other TF guns so it wouldn't disappear between the fibers of the carpet or some similarly microscopic crack in space. Spittor was always fun just for being a frog, but his amphibian prime is now behind him after the clear tab that secures his beast mode head snapped off. I think I've kept that in a bit of tape on this shelf too...

Wave 5 - 6th Birthday 1999
OK I'm totally spitballing here because I have no idea how the grinning driller killer Scavenger came into my possession, only that he was one of the last figures of the line I got and for reasons unknown, didn't see nearly as much play time as the rest. Thus I'll take a wild stab in the dark and say I got him for my 6th birthday? 1999 was pretty much a non-stop Phantom Menace based high for me so anything that wasn't Star Wars just doesn't seem to have been entered into my long term memory. As for Scavenger himself, I don't think I own a figure that exudes more of an aura of unhinged evil. His face is frozen in an almost beatific crazed smile. Huge curved horns adorn his head that have nothing to do with his ant alternate mode. The legs of which protrude from his arms to give him the silhouette of a gnarled dead tree. And he has blood red drills instead of hands. Add to all this the excellent proportions and articulation of his robot mode, the visible bones of his thighs through that candy red carapace, the veined underside of his big chrome abdomen shell and that metallic teal chest - and Scavenger is a sumptuous symphony of sin. Why they didn't give the spider transformer this Carnage-esque serial killer air, I have no idea but I'll happily take a giant ant that turns into a drill tank. 

Wave 6 - Christmas 1999
Again, this occasion was mostly focused on all things Episode I but between my Obi Wan's lightsaber and set of droid starfighters, the now Christmas staple of Transformers weren't to be forgotten. Admittedly, after the previous year's Rampage (et al) I was a little disappointed by only a pair of Basic figures but I did enjoy the fact that for the first time I received a Maximal and a Predacon to face off against each other. Sonar and Scarem represent my only Transmetal 2 figures, despite how many times I might have dropped hints concerning Dinobot... My main memory attached to these two is playing with them while the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers Movie played in the background and conjured up almost similarly metallic creatures on my TV screen. Scarem plays by the rulebook and provides another bug-based Predacon killing machine with scythes for hands and exquisite blue chrome while Sonar always played second fiddle to him due to her virtually impossible transformation. I still can't manage it without popping her legs off first. She was of course only my second Maximal but first female figure. Although I'm aware I've affected use of that gender in years since reading her wiki page, I don't recall ever attaching male pronouns to the figure in the past. She's just one of those designs that simply works as a girl - even if she doesn't really work as a bat. These two represent the end of my contemporaneous love for Beast Wars and with their awkward conversions, lack of articulation or accessories/play features and spare legs that could get lost for roughly a decade - I'd kind of already felt the prime of the line had passed. At least their chrome and spark crystals were cool. 

Wave 7 - Christmas 2000/ 8th Birthday 2001
Parting ways with Beast Wars was somewhat embittering for 7-year-old me. My favourite toys were gone and replaced with a successor line that just didn't seem as good. To this day, these are all the Beast Machines figures I've accrued. No Vehicons. Nothing above Basic size. Without the show to propel any interest I might have been able to foster for the new line as it wasn't broadcast terrestrially, I was quite happy to not be a fan of Beast Machines. This didn't of course stop me from wanting some of the toys though. However this didn't really play out in the same way as in years previous. 

I'd asked for the electronic Jetstorm I'd seen so many adverts about but... Dillo was the sterling effort which greeted me on Christmas morning of 2000. If I was even slightly disappointed with Sonar and Scarem the year before, I was almost distraught at the idea of this, this - lump being my Christmas present. Sure I had other presents, including my first means of self propelled transport in one of those fold-up scooters that were all the rage, but I still needed good toys! Dillo wasn't good. He didn't have a robot mode or even five points of articulation. Just a hidden missile launcher.

Luckily, my birthday bore better fruit with one of the figures I'd asked for for Christmas, Buzzsaw and the actually rather good oddity, Night Viper. The Waspinator parallels with Buzzsaw were clear but the figure didn't hit quite the same chord. For a start he's a Maximal? Admittedly, a much more realistic wasp, despite its futuristic techno-organic stylings, the robot mode was a little odd. I'll still stand by it as one of the best integrations of insect wings into a robot mode, but what is his right arm? It's just ...some legs... His left arm fares better being a wiggly spring stinger with a spark crystal inside but it's just sort of always dangling there. Gotta love those multiple red visor eyes though. 

Night Viper would then come to stand out as my best Beast Machines figure. A snake mode would have always seemed to be some blend of impossible or boring when applied to a transforming toy, but Night Viper's cobra mode pulls it off. The fully jointed tail slides the full length of one of his legs through his pelvis to form his lower body. Insane. The snake head itself has a spring loaded snarling feature and the particular mix of metallic red and silver on the rounded and segmented surfaces of his body really makes for a futuristic look, even in the space year 2018. The robot mode's excellent articulation, lithe proportions and hidden blade make for a very unique figure -  the likes of which I'd have been happy to receive more of but alas, this was it for Beast Machines for me. This was it for beasts in general...

Wave 8 - Christmas 2001/Spring 2002
With the silent departure of Beast Machines came the biggest change to my life with transforming robots - they now turned into cars! Initially I wasn't for these "Transformers" (you can read more of my thoughts on RID here) but Robots In Disguise still found its way into my life. The Spychanger duo of Ironhide and Mirage graced my "stocking" (actually more of a small sack) that Christmas and kept my collecting cart rolling along. I liked them, they were efficiently simple, but also the smallest figures. Such a lack of articulation was a bit of a blow after the abundance of ball-joints in the Beast Era but I figured, if they're cars they'd be clunkier robots than those made of animals anyway. 

The year turned and while I was vaguely more aware of Transformers through the start of 2002, I didn't get my hands on any more until that seminal duo of Rollbar and Movor began to tip the scales. Found purely by chance at a now long defunct toy liquidation store, they opened my eyes to what transforming robots could be. Of course by all accounts a step backward from prior years' figures, (recycling G1 must have been odd for long time fans) without that knowledge of the past, to me they were incredibly fresh. They struck my imagination in a way that toys hadn't for quite some time and while they were almost painfully basic, did much to ready me for what 2002 was really going to be about... But that's a story for another time... 

Wave EX - 199?
To say that RID provided me with my first ever vehicular expressions of Transformers would be a lie. At some point, possibly as early as '98, I visited my first local Collectormania fair. There in one huge plastic tub languished the ancient transforming robots of the distant shrouded past. I pulled out a small red helicopter and took a shine to it and was told by the vendor that it was "very old" and that I should look after it and be careful with it. It was alien to me but I did. I had no idea as to its age but it certainly seemed older than me. "It must have come from the 80's" I would think. It had all these red face badges stuck on it that seemed to mean something and its construction compared to my Beast Wars stuff was positively primitive. Why did its head fold down like that? Were these stickers supposed to be on it? What even was its name? I had no idea but the sense of a common ancestor to my new toys was clear. I handled it infrequently and gave it a pride of place in my room because it wasn't for playing with like all my other stuff, it was for looking after. 

Fast-forward to 2003 and an issue of Dreamwave's More Than Meets The Eye Guidebooks I'd picked up with my latest issue of Armada features my very own mythical helicopter man on the very first page! It informs me his name is Blades and the other small red and white robot I'd picked up at a later Collectormania is his teammate First Aid. The strange joints in their torsos must be because they should combine with others to form this Defensor... The veil was parted but for what felt like the longest time I lived in total ignorance of the true nature of these two and somehow, that was its own kind of experience. It allowed me to apportion much greater value to these knackered old Protectobots than any collector might have done at the time. In the grand scheme of things it didn't really take me long to find out they were from 1986 but it's very likely they were only 1990 Classics reissues. Not exactly ancient. Add to this their yellowed plastic and faded stickers and I would start to view them in a different light. But to me, they represent so much about my very first discovery of capital T "Transformers" and the expansion of the nascent universe I was just starting to explore. So while you might only give me three quid for each of them if I was a stall at TFN, they're worth an immeasurable amount to me, infinitely more than any similarly beaten up junker I've ever foolishly parted with cash for. 

In the end, each and every one of these figures is worth a king's ransom to me for being the ones that fill a particular little space in my life. A time when the prospect of even the most basic figure was the ultimate thrill, when the compunction to get more wasn't a monkey on my back. These twenty toys aren't my only childhood Transformers but they're the ones that occupied the pedestal before I knew to give it a good sweep and bolt a nameplate to it. They were just my toys that I loved because they were mine. Fruit of a simpler time. I haven't always given them their due, after all they're the figures I've had the longest to grow bored of if I'm going to grow bored of anything. But that doesn't change how they glimmer with a certain psychic light in my eyes only. I count myself lucky that I've still got them all - chances are you, dear reader, have long since parted ways with your first childhood Transformers but if not, just remember to dust them off every now and then and remind them they still mean something. 6-year-old you is still in there somewhere...

Follow Ben @Waspshot23

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Sunday, 30 September 2018

Powermaster Optimus Prime: The Stickering

 - Dorian MacQuarrie

Several years ago I received a Generation 1 Powermaster Prime, boxed and sealed. It was a wonderful surprise at the time (it was a birthday present from my father) and ever since then has remained one of my more prized possessions. I have since opened the toy, had a bit of a play on occasion but largely, kept it tucked away, cosy in its polystyrene and cardboard home, unblemished and unaltered from the day it left the factory, paperwork and all. 

Recently however, I decided to abandon this previously held mindset and took the step to sticker-up my Powermaster Prime. It wasn't a decision taken lightly and with this article I will take you through my step by step process of making this once sealed, Powermaster Optimus Prime, irrevocably, mine. 

For the years in which I have owned this toy, I always liked how box-fresh it was. Stickers still on their sheet, all paperwork accounted for and of course, absolutely mint condition. As bland as it seemed without the factory applied stickers, it had a certain purity, completely untouched but for my hands. I had always considered applying the stickers, recreating the experience children would have gone through back in the day with their newly released G1 toys but it always felt very final. Once they're applied, that's it, I can't really go back and restore this toy to its pre-stickered state plus, the sticker sheet itself would no longer have its freshly printed finish, instead being nothing more than a yellow sheet of paper with but a few scant reminders of the glorious lustre it once possessed. 

Through all this, I felt a slight nagging at the back of my mind, a question of why I was so loathe to sticker up this amazing toy. It all revolved around keeping a certain snap-shot in time preserved and perfect, a faithful example of "how it was back in the day" as it were. The counter to this was a feeling that I lacked real ownership, that I was just looking after this specimen until one day, in some far flung future it was passed on to the next owner. The feelings of being the first to open a MISB toy ran counter to the later feelings of wanting to preserve its sealed-condition. 

With all of this in mind, I grabbed a pair of tweezers (for precision stickering of course) and set about completing the journey I began when I first cut open the tape on this sealed vintage toy. Of course I could have fired ahead and just rushed the process like many a child would have years ago but I wanted to savour every single peel, every placement, every moment of confusion as the guide failed to clearly show where a sticker went leaving me to consult the box's images which in turn caused more confusion as they weren't consistent with the instructions........

The sheet itself. It is, well was, glorious. Packed with mechanical detail, directional arrows (for the all important ramps) and metallic finishes, it was a wonder to behold and was largely the main driver in my earlier decisions to not apply these stickers. To spoil such a sheet seemed to be out of the question. Seeing all the various stickers together on one sheet, from the smallest and most simplistic to the largest and most detailed, it was clear a lot of love and effort had gone into the design of this sheet. But still, I pressed on, intent on seeing this through to the end. 

My Powermaster Prime, sans stickers, naked as the day he was first forged. Before this, I hadn't really noticed how bland and poorly detailed the toy was. Besides a very early childhood memory, the bulk of my experience in handling this toy was with this particular copy so its seas of plain blue, red and grey plastic felt perfectly natural to me. Thinking back I can barely remember my childhood copy having the blue window stickers and maybe the Autobot insignia but certainly nothing close to what was to come. 

I started at what I felt was the most logical place, the truck cab itself. The difference a few stickers made was remarkable, particularly the blue chest and silver leg stickers. Immediately it brought the figure to life, further enhanced with the wrist, crotch and knee details. While evocative of the original Generation 1 Prime, these first rumblings of change implied a different beast altogether. Also, as you can see, this barely made a dent in the sticker sheet itself. 

Next came the trailer's stickers. While not as stark a difference as the smaller robot, they still added, in hindsight, a much needed finish to the alt mode. The rear door stickers are filled with great details but sadly, due to their smaller size, lose a lot of the effect they aim to create. As for the forward-most blue stripe stickers on the trailer, a lack of definite moulding to accommodate them made it difficult to get a best fit. In the end I tried to focus on lining up the silver stripe and hoped the rest would follow. As it is I'm not very happy with their placement but luckily they're mostly covered up in all modes. 

Knowing the bulk of the stickers were intended for the base mode, I pressed ahead with those for the super-mode. I had considered saving this, ensuring the main-event for last but at the time it felt more natural to continue in this way. Again, the stickers are both Optimus Prime focused details such as truck windows and Autobot insignias but also a wonderful array of technical details, evocative of those seen on the original Optimus Prime's interior trailer details. 

And so we come to the base mode, truly where the sticker sheet puts in the bulk of its work, turning a bland and unconvincing tertiary mode into a rather legitimate command post. It was here more than anywhere else that I noticed a lack of consistency in the instructions as compared to the box's images. The particular stickers were correct (well they have to be, there's no room for that sort of error) but their orientation seemed to be mixed up. Nothing serious and I'm sure the source of many cases of various sticker alignments in copies of this toy across the years. Maybe it was a printing error on the instructions or possibly the photo-sample used for the box was stickered incorrectly. Far be it from Hasbro to not faithfully represent their product in their official photography...

The difference is utterly remarkable. Beyond the plethora of brilliant technical detailing, the stickers draw the dark blue of the rear section/super-robot legs down into the grey flaps, bringing a much greater feeling of cohesion and intent that yes, this is a legitimate command base and not just a giant robot doing the splits. I honestly can't remember if my childhood copy of this toy had the base-mode stickers in place (the perils of a car-boot purchase) but even if it did, it couldn't have been even half as glorious as this freshly stickered up piece. 

And there we have it, one stickered up, Generation 1, Powermaster Prime, in all his glory. The experience, from breaking the precious seal on that first sticker, to seeing the final product was nothing but pure joy. I was intent on not using any online resources as a reference when I wasn't sure of a sticker's correct placement or orientation and instead relied only on the instruction manual and the box photography which, as mentioned earlier, created its own issues. I wanted to fully recreate the childhood experience as best I could and I can safely say I succeeded in this particular endeavour. 

Beyond this, I also learned a valuable lesson which I would urge others to take on board. Don't be so precious about your toys. Sure, look after them, maintain and even repair them if need be but play with them. Pose them, transform them, apply the factory issued stickers! Yes as time goes on many Transformers toys hold their own as collector items but in years to come, I doubt many of us would look back and think 'oh boy, I sure enjoyed looking at that boxed toy for all those years' (well, some of us might). I was sort of like that with this particular toy. I valued it's pristine, untouched condition above my own personal enjoyment of handling and playing with the toy and eventually, that didn't sit too well with me. 

Until next time, keep it #Refined. 

You can follow Dorian @Vigadeath