- Dorian MacQuarrie
It could be said, that in the world of Third Party toys, Masterpiece reigns supreme. With multiple companies making versions of fan favourite characters designed to populate your MP shelf, an awful lot of resources are poured into cashing in on the popularity of Masterpiece Transformers. Just how much money there is in an MP Springer analogue when there are half a dozen on the market is up for debate but as a whole, Masterpiece is the cash cow of the day.
Yet cast your mind back to the earliest days of Third Party toys, from the lowliest resin garage kit to the game-changing City Commander from Fansproject, every Third Party release revolved around Classics, Henkei, Universe 2.0 and Generations toys. Due to the accessibility of mainline toys versus the scant few Masterpiece offerings at the time there was no other choice for burgeoning Third Party companies but to cater to the CHUG collectors but this also allowed for a vast array of products. Whether it was an improved head sculpt and G1 accurate gun or of course an armour kit to turn a white Optimus Prime into a true Ultra Magnus, the scene eventually moved onto fully fledged figures intended to fill out your CHUG shelves, representing characters which, at the time, Hasbro and Takara were never going to release. At its peak, CHUG focused toys so utterly dominated the scene that it was seen as the final destination for Third Party toys.
Even with the vast amount of releases from a myriad of companies show that 3PMP (a phrase I often use on forums and social media) is well and truly leading the charge I would say we are actually experiencing a renaissance in Third Party CHUG toys, with one major caveat....it's paving the way for a level of self-determination for Third Party companies we have never seen before.
As it currently stands, the major non-Masterpiece lines on offer from Third Party companies are MMC's Reformatted, Maketoys Cross Dimension (and formerly their Manga Mech and Combiner lines), Planet X's Fall of Cybertron offerings and of course the numerous different legends scale releases from DX9, Iron Factory, Mech Planet etc. This isn't an exhaustive list but it's what I would consider the big hitters at the moment.
Each have a very clear focus, zooming in on a particular aesthetic and sometimes a particular set of characters, allowing collectors to place their bets with a company and have a higher chance of seeing Fall of Cybertron Megatron released or maybe the full Decepticon Justice Division. Or perhaps in the case of Maketoys' Cross Dimension line, we just wait and see what wonders they drop on us and squee in anticipation.
There is plenty on offer for the discerning CHUG enthusiast who seeks to step into the world of Third Party toys but I would say at this point, CHUG is an incorrect and misleading term. They are often deemed CHUG as they are non-Masterpiece toys, being defined by what they are not rather than what they are. The question is then, what are they? Were you to take a number of toys from the various ranges mentioned previously, you would find they share very little in aesthetics. They are no longer CHUG-focused toys and if you are able to fit them in to a CHUG shelf, it's not with the same level of aesthetic integration as with the early days of Third Party toys. So again, what are they?
As MMC release more and more IDW styled toys they will begin to stand alone as a display of comic accurate releases, not to mention the extra height and bulk most MMC toys carry over those from other companies which often puts them in their own scale. Were you to take Takara's LG Skids, heavily based on the IDW design, it would look drastically out of place alongside MMC's releases. Maketoys' Cross Dimension could be considered Neo-Classics, Hyper Anime Classics, the mainline style turned up to 11 and packed full of articulation but when actually put alongside mainline toys from the past ten years, they clearly do not share a similar enough aesthetic. Sure the same could be said for the mainline toys that make up the many releases which fall under the CHUG banner but nothing so much as putting Striker Manus alongside Universe 2.0 Sunstreaker, or even placing Rioter Despotron in the centre of your CHUG Decepticon shelf and realising that he's packing far more detail and design work than half of the Decepticon toys Rioter stands alongside. Even on my own shelves I ensure Striker Manus stands near other, very particular Third Party toys which then in turn stand next to Hasbro and Takara releases, almost acting as an aesthetic buffer between the super-robo styling of Striker Manus and the clunky design of Henkei Prowl.
Similar to MMC and their current IDW styled toys, as Maketoys release more and more Cross Dimension (and combiners, maybe? Please? #MaketoysLiokaiserPLZ) they will start to stand apart from any CHUG toys they might share shelf space with and little by little, they become an entity unto their own, CHUG toys only in that they are not Masterpiece and not because of any shared aesthetic or intention to fill in the gaps missing on your CHUG shelf. While yes, these companies will always fall back to Transformers characters and designs for inspiration,the toys themselves won't need a Hasbro or Takara toy line to fit into in order to justify a purchase or give the toy a purpose, they will be simply added to an already established line, be it Reformatted or Cross Dimension or whatever new lines appear in the next few years. That is quite a remarkable shift away from the gap fillers of yesteryear and actually, even the current 3PMP offerings.
Personally I think there is a stigma around paying top dollar for a toy people see as intended to stand alongside mainline figures, which are often seen as lesser in terms of design, build and of course, price point. Third Party toys are an adult-collector focused product and when held hand in hand with Hasbro mainline toys, there is a gulf of intent and purpose some collectors struggle to bridge. Masterpiece toys on the other hand are of course adult-collector focused so 3PMP toys can be more easily reconciled with the 'serious business' line of Masterpiece.
Time and again I have seen negative comments about paying £50 - £80 for what amounts to only a CHUG toy but paying the same for a 3PMP toy is more acceptable as the price is more equatable with Takara MPs and of course, the intent of the toy, to be an adult collectable, in some ways justifies the price. Rarely is there more or better engineering put into one than the other beyond the capabilities of the company making the toy. Fanstoys Tesla does not stand head and shoulders above Perfect Effect's Warden just because it is Masterpiece focused and should be seen to have a higher quality of paint, build, design and engineering as dictated by the label 'Masterpiece' but unfortunately I do think some people see it this way. For the record, Perfect Effect's Warden is a very literal masterpiece of a toy.
The introduction and subsequent rise of 3PMP, has brought a legion of new collectors who before wouldn't have shown much interest in Third Party toys. I like to imagine these same collectors watching jealously, as early adopters of Third Party toys enjoyed the fruits of labour from Fansproject, TFC and Maketoys, biding their time, waiting for a product which appealed to their collecting sensibilities. This influx of new collectors means new customers so of course there is a lot of money to be had if a company can nail the Masterpiece aesthetic and have the right characters at the right time. It's only natural for the Third Party scene to turn away from its CHUG roots and devote more time and money into releasing toys that appeal to these particular collectors.
To echo my earlier words, we may be experiencing a renaissance in CHUG focused Third Party toys, with the best releases from the best companies, with levels of design, engineering and character choice which are stunning to behold. But! And this is a very big But, with a capital B, it is not going to last. Once MMC have filled out their ranks of IDW styled toys you won't have a CHUG shelf, you will have an IDW shelf. Eventually you will have a Cross Dimension shelf and maybe one day you'll even have a Lost Exo Realm shelf at which point these toys should no longer be labelled CHUG as really, the only trait they'll share with actual CHUG toys is that they are not 'Masterpiece' toys. Maybe the hard work of the marketing teams at MMC or Maketoys will score a victory and we will indeed call them Reformatted toys and Cross Dimension toys and those labels will carry with them the traits of those lines, be it comic accurate and super sturdy or super-robo with anime flair. At that point calling them CHUG toys will be a massive disservice to the designers behind releases such as MMC's Carnifex or Maketoys' Thunder Erebus as they are truly, in their own right, masterpiece toys.
As always, keep it #Refined.