Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Prime Wars - Looking Back at the Generations Trilogy

 - Ben Watson

With Hasbro having just announced the winner of the next Generations fan vote at the time of writing this, a slim window has been opened up to provide us a view of what's next from Generations as we near the end of its current phase: the Prime Wars Trilogy. Looking back at the offerings of the last four years, can we make a good guess at what's over the horizon? Or does the one truism from the whole line stand as better prophecy - expect the unexpected...

Beginning in what already feels like the mists of antiquity, the winter of 2014, Prime Wars made its start with Combiner Wars. After the previous Generations line hit its stride, Combiner Wars did at first feel like a very different animal. Parts counts on each figure seemed to be reduced, yet materials and paint apps were superior. A very small overlap with Thrilling 30 existed stylistically as repaints of some of that line's figures which were pretty well telegraphed moves filled out the peripheral pricepoints of Combiner Wars. This at least provided a sense of continuity, while ostensibly the line was very much a new start, from packaging style to the inclusion of collector cards and even a change in the way stock product images were handled. Eventually the line brought in a roster of new elements as sizeable as the eponymous gestalts themselves. 

Combining technology was now of an ubiquitous standard. Something which had not been true for any line for at least a decade, certainly not at this scale. Suddenly we were met with an unstoppable tide of combiners all (but one) formed from the general retail pricepoints already in use. Overnight the concept of buying a whole wave of Deluxes went from lunacy to sheer necessity. But not just the Deluxes, oh no, you need the Voyagers too and probably the Legends if you want an added bit of fun. Hasbro were all at once marketing whole waves of product, presumably raking in the cash from collectors like me who ate it up, as well as providing a solid play pattern for the first time in Generations' history. The staid and stoic vanilla line of wannabe high-end repute gave up its delusions of grandeur and became the most fun TF iteration on shelves at the time. 

This combination (hurr hurr) of collector must-have status and Kids Would Actually Love These quality made Combiner Wars a huge success, pushing it far and beyond its originally planned shorter retail cycle. Hasbro appeared to be aware of what fans wanted even without running another vote - which they did anyway to lead to the creation of Victorion. Exclusives bulked up the tail end of the line, providing G2 thirst quenching boxsets and even surrogate G1 accurate limbs if you were boring and didn't like Offroad. Combiner Wars was a smorgasbord of long awaited updates and fresh new Feels-Like-He-Was-In-G1 faces. Build quality was of a standard to sate even the long famine of Unicron Trilogy heft, decos were more toy accurate than ever before (firmly sealing Hasbro's position on toy vs toon) and reuse of parts and engineering was as sharp and cutting edge as the standard of sculpted detail. 

So how much of that bled into the more ambitious sequel: Titans Return? Apart from the main gimmick, pretty much all of it. While Titans Return didn't bulk its ranks with all new characters, the extent to which the line was full of them is up for debate... With almost all of the new Titanmaster minifigures included with each bot that wasn't part of the comparatively small cast of original Headmasters being brand new names, it could be argued the line contained more fresh content than any in years. However, backing up this miniature tidal wave of the frighteningly unknown was an assortment of the most evocative G1 characters, the likes of which had never been revisited. Gnaw? Misfire? Broadside? Six Shot? Titans Return served up a platter of the most faithful and unexpected updates; building and expanding upon Combiner Wars' unprecedented roster all while continuing its sense of fun through placing all the characters within it under the same play pattern.

It's not an understatement to my mind to say that Titans Return was a triumph. Pushing its core gimmick into every pricepoint on offer throughout the line and adding an extra one compared to Combiner Wars - all while keeping a firm hand on the wheel of G1 accuracy. It was a true crowd-pleaser. Continuing prepaint and reshell dynamics made things interesting and helped inject hype for new releases. And this time you didn't need to buy all of each wave! Though to be fair, it was pretty easy to still want to. Even without the impetus to complete combiner teams, I still accrued just as many (if not more in terms of the larger pricepoints) figures from the line as I did the year before. Titans Return was an unmitigated success, or was it? 

While Titans Return was certainly the Empire Strikes Back to Combiner Wars' A New Hope, there are signs that tell of the line's lesser success. Receiving nowhere near the kind of second half push as its predecessor, Titans Return was graced with only two exclusive boxsets out of a planned four, with selected cuts from these unmade sets seeing very limited release as odd deluxe-plus mini boxsets. And then there's the stickers. The largest point of contention for collectors currently has its roots in Titans Return and it's not the fact that everyone is a Headmaster now. With the third wave suddenly eschewing conventional tampograph paint applications for apparently cheaper foil stickers, the application of which has certainly left a lot to be desired, Titans Return didn't have as much of a strong third act as it probably could have done with greater paint budget. A knock-on effect of Combiner Wars' stellar deco treatments? Who can say. 

Now we catch up to the present with the end of the saga, Power of The Primes. Much like its predecessor, it carries through standards we're now very used to but with an uncharacteristic lack of flair. On paper the line introduces the Primemaster gimmick as its new play pattern but for all intents and purposes, nothing new is to be found here. The new minifigures  - now only included in their own smallest pricepoint assortment  - are the same as Titans Reurn's Titanmasters with the exception they now turn into not heads, but like, blocks? And these blocks can slot into points on the line's larger figures to achieve absolutely nothing beyond a minute cosmetic change. Oh, and did I mention combiners are back? Yes, Power of The Primes is certainly proving itself to be the weak end to the trilogy so far. (Editors Note: Just like Return of the Jedi) Plus the stickers are back, and in greater numbers. 

All is not lost however as once again new concepts and characters are smuggled in under the cover of night to place themselves sleeper-agent style into positions of power in your G1-But-New collection. Admittedly, this also contains at least two brand new gimmicks so far thanks to the left-field brilliance of the Legends Class Duocons and their unique combination and the Leader Class' Evolution enprimening deal. It could be said that rather than continuing the crescendo of Prime Wars and ending on an ultimate high note with another strong line of brand new dynamics, Power of The Primes is instead choosing to celebrate the trilogy it closes out by incorporating elements from each of its previous instalments. Rounding out the entirety of Prime Wars as one huge ecosystem filled with varying expressions of what is essentially the same thing, it could prove to be a good bookend to the series. Time will tell. 

Sadly if plans for the sequel War for Cybertron trilogy pan out, that won't be very much time. Power of The Primes could be the shortest segment of the trilogy, possibly being cut even shorter than initially planned, having to come to and end for January 2019 to usher in the next phase in time for the brand's 35th anniversary. Looking at the line now - from somewhere approaching its midpoint - it's easy to say it's underwhelming. Padded out with random Combiner Wars retools and already featuring a lot of tooling reuse in only its second wave, Power of The Primes could certainly be the anticlimactic end to Prime Wars. 

That feels like an injustice of sorts. Combiner Wars and Titans Return have provided - at least to me - the greatest number of truly home-run pitching Transformers figures in years. To not see out the game with a heavy hitter is just poor coaching. But maybe the first War for Cybertron part will reclaim the title for next season? I don't know, I'm at a stretch with this sports analogy, man. But what can we infer about the future of Generations? If Prime Wars is anything to go by, a strong line-up of faithfully rendered characters incorporating a fun play pattern across multiple pricepoints awaits. Or, something completely different. Because if this last four years has shown anything, it's that Hasbro are always ready to pitch us a curveball. Let's hope it's not three strikes and out. 

Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23

Read an older article here

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