Is it possible to apply a pre-agreed set of criteria to any Transformers toy in order to decide if it is worthy of being called great? Is it possible to apply a very aggressive agenda to such a question and twist the words of your contributors in such a way as to make a toy of your choosing qualify as great under those conditions? The answer to both of those questions, this week, is yes! Obviously this will not be an exhaustive analysis of what qualifies a Transformers toy to be heralded as great, but it does allow us to split the topic into a few categories where our contributors tell us what it is about specific aspects of a figure that makes a Transformer stand out to them.
Our first category is that of appearance and deco. Looks are almost always the first thing we notice about a toy, so how do visuals affect a figure’s rating compared to the greats? Over to Jon Strong of Drinking With Robots: “For me, a good deco can save a bad toy, and make a great toy exceptional. I think a decent example of the latter is MP-12G. A good, solid Transformer regardless of which variant you go for, the G2 Sideswipe deco takes the Lamborghini mold to the next level. That ridiculously sexy black paint job coupled with a blood red translucent windshield means this car just screams danger, and I genuinely don’t think it’s ever looked better.
“Slam him into robot mode and the colour scheme excels again with red and white taking a dominant stand against all that shiny black paint, plus there’s that Derek Yaniger styled snarling noggin of his throwing character and life into the mix. It’s just glorious. That a decal sheet is included so that you have the option to make his appearance G2 toy accurate or simply keep it slick and simple is a lovely touch. I enjoyed Masterpiece Sideswipe and Red Alert, but have long since moved them on. Murderswipe actually has a shelf of his own, and that’s pretty telling.
“Takara get it too. Look at their Legends Blurr compared to the Hasbro TR release, raising a fine figure several bars higher via a colour layout and paint job that amplifies everything good about the mold. Or getting back on the Lambo train, take the controversial MP-14+, decked out in the finest of animation duds, right down to a stylised cartoon accurate Autobot insignia. The tooling hasn’t changed, the sculpt is the same, but Red Alert’s new deco ties in so well with Takara’s sudden lurch into for better or worse animation accuracy that using the original MP-14 to partner their forthcoming Inferno might just seem more than a little off to a lot of people (although the phrase ‘cash grab’ isn’t far from rolling off the tongue either…)”.
Jon’s comments also touch on the subject of accuracy to certain inspiration or media, an aspect of some Transformers releases that matters hugely to certain collectors. Certainly Masterpiece Transformers have gotten a great deal of mileage out of paying close attention to source material from the various Transformers cartoons for a majority of the post MP-10 toys. 3rd Party companies have found similar success by mimicking the style and working on cartoon accurate figures at that scale.
Moving onto the subject of playability, something that can distinguish a display piece from a fiddleformer, Ben Parfitt (Benparfitt.com) has the following to say: “Perhaps the most fascinating thing about playability is that for some collectors it will be the single most important aspect of a figure, while for others it has no bearing whatsoever. For MISB people, playability is completely meaningless. And that’s fine – there’s no right or wrong way to collect. If your enjoyment revolves around keeping something pristine, to be only observed or perhaps even stored out of sight, then the experience of handling the figure is moot.
“That’s not the case for me, and many others. The idea of packing my bots away makes me anxious! For me, the central enjoyment of a figure is handling it and experiencing it. Yes, we want it to look good on the shelf and evoke the essence of the character, but we also need that tactile dimension of ownership. To handle it, to manipulate it, to transform it – to play with it. After all, these are ‘toys’. To my mind, there’s no such thing as a five star toy that isn’t fun to play with. For me this is why while I remain predominantly a Masterpiece collector, there will always remain a place in my collection for at least a few shelves of CHUG. I may adore the engineering and presence of Ironwill and Cupola, but the playability of their Titans Return incarnations is perhaps of equal merit”.
I very recently asked my Twitter following if they felt Titans Return and Transformers Legends had outshone Masterpiece as the best segment of official Transformers product this year, and the early indication is that over half of the respondents believe the answer to be yes. Cross-release functionality, inter-connectivity, mini-figures, semi-modular base modes, fan-mode creativity and a gloriously endless game of musical chairs with the vast array of 5mm peg accessories has helped bring playability to the fore once more, and undoubtedly this is a large part of TR/LG’s success thus far.
Transformation is vital to any criteria upon which a Transformers toy is based, obviously, so here’s Sixo (Sixo’s Transformers Photo Library) to tell us why that is such an important quality with which to judge a toy as being great or otherwise: “It might sound obvious that transformation is a big part of the enjoyment of any Transformers toy. However, it turns out that this particular facet is more complicated than it may first appear – more than meets the eye, if you will – and also surprisingly subjective. Firstly, there’s the revelation that not everyone actually likes to transform their figures. That might sound surprising to some, but there’s a healthy dose of the fandom who would happily tell you about the figures in their collection that have never been converted between modes, and likely never will be. Of course, most of these same people will tell you that it’s still important to them to know that the figure at least has the ability to transform, even if they never plan to use it.
“For most of us though, transformation is often key in terms of how we rate a figure. After all, we might enjoy the various modes that it has to offer, but if it’s no fun to convert then it will likely stay relegated to a shelf in robot mode forevermore. I’d wager that transformation is somewhere up there with build quality & articulation in terms of how we physically respond to a particular figure and our enjoyment of it. Then there’s the question of complexity. I commonly read criticisms of some figures being too complex when it comes to transformation, meaning that the process can become a veritable chore. For some collectors, these figures lose their ‘pick up & play’ value, and someone will inevitably throw around the criticism that they’re not ‘intuitive’. Equally though, a figure not being complex enough to prove even a mild challenge could also be considered a problem to some. For me, perhaps the best transformations are the ones that are seemingly simple but still feature an element of surprise or the unexpected. I distinctly remember transforming Masterpiece MP-1 Convoy for the first time; despite being so familiar with the concept of how an Optimus Prime figure transforms, the manner in which the chest section unfolds and a second grill appears completely blew my mind at the time. Despite the years having brought familiarity, that transformation remains no less exciting to me to this day, and stands up as a great example of what the best figures have to offer”.
One does not want to imply that only Transformers toys that can be picked up and fiddled with could possibly be considered great, and that no other defining factor comes into play. ROTF leader class Optimus Prime could not be considered a fiddle-former, but is often cited as one of the best Optimus Prime figures – certainly movie Prime figures – we’ve had. So there must be more to it than looks and pick-up-and-play.
So how about character? Sid Beckett (Kapow Toys Blog) tells us what it means to him: “Well many factors make a good toy; engineering, playability, appearance etc… but to make a GREAT toy you need all of these and the extra ingredient of character. There are few toylines where is this more apparent than with the Transformers line, where many of the toys already existed in other toylines across various territories with only lukewarm success. Then along came Transformers, banding together all of these amazing toys as one coherent entity with a story-line clearly laying out the conflict and consequences of the battle, and who was on what side. Together with the cartoon and the comic-book series this made a phenomenal impact.
“‘Well hang on then…’ you might be saying, ‘surely that argues that the story and the cartoon are the important factor?’ To some extent; yes, but transforming toys was not a Unique Selling Point, with Go-Bots beating Transformers to the toy shelves by a clear year, and neither was the cartoon a USP with a Go-Bot animated series airing NINE DAYS BEFORE the first episode of Transformers (September 17th) on the 8th September 1984.
“So what was the secret ingredient? Character. And that’s character spelled; MARVEL. Following the success of Larry Hama’s GI Joe comics and profiles, Hasbro and Marvel again teamed up for The Transformers, with Marvel allegedly coming up with the factions, back-story, character names and – all importantly – the profiles for the characters (which might explain why so many of the TFs in season one had special powers). Sure, there are more recognisable icons in the world; Mickey Mouse, Mario, Superman and Batman spring to mind, but in my opinion Marvel create enduring characters – not icons – who stand the test of time as much because of their flaws as their strengths.
“Character provides a weird je nais se quoi as, after all; toys on the shelf are toys on the shelf regardless of character and back story, and with the case of Steel Core from FansProject, it shows that character isn’t everything. Yet, would anyone be as interested in Carnifex or the Decepticon Justice Division analogues from MMC if it wasn’t for the astonishing work from James Roberts? How have Swerve and Tailgate evolved to out-grow their more popular mold pre-paints (Gears and Windcharger) 30 years down the line? Character. Character is the reason why a collection of red and yellow Lamborghinis are recognisable to a huge chunk of 80s kids as robotic transforming brothers, and why to the majority of the world population two distinct types of red truck will always be recognisable as Optimus Prime; an enduring character who grew into an icon”.
Finally, if a figure looks the part and invites us to interact with it, or if it oozes character that can’t be ignored, what importance should we give to the element of quality? Liam Davey of Toyboxsoapbox says “Quality is a term I think often gets misused as a list of tick boxes for features. A toy can have all the paint, wrist swivels and die cast in the world, but if the transformation is so complex and fragile you don’t want to touch the figure – what’s the point? A toy doesn’t have to have all the bells and whistles to be a quality figure and we sometimes get hung up on the small stuff like articulated hands. An important art, often lost in the mad rush to get everything as show accurate as possible, is that tactile feeling of being able to confidently manipulate and transform the figure. It can make (Masterpiece) or break a figure (Ollie), elevate others (Titans Return) and unlock something nostalgic deep inside. To me that is the most fundamental quality of what makes a Transformer toy great.
“In recent years we’ve seen the rise of the ‘Masterpiece Moment’, which is now a defining factor for many people when anticipating a new figure. It’s a term used when a Masterpiece transformation does something with elegance and simplicity, but the real reason we all go mad for it is because it captures our imagination and puts us firmly back into our childhood when we were discovering Transformers for the first time. Quality can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me personally it’s capturing that sense of fun and discovery I get from actually playing with the figure that drew me in 30 something years ago and not just trying to fill a gap on people’s shelves”.
This is where my twisting agenda comes in. You might have noticed the photographs of TakaraTomy Transformers Legends Broadcast/Twincast (Japanese release of Titans return Leader Blaster and his Headmaster to you and I) peppered in amongst the quotes. This is no accident, as I believe this toy to be a great. I was already impressed with the Hasbro release, maybe initially because of how much better its proportions and aesthetics worked in hand than in promotional photography, but upon handling, interacting, playing and displaying the figure, many new strands of appreciation for this figure began to sprout. I’ve already harped on about Blaster in recent weeks. But the TakaraTomy release just took it to even further levels of awesome, not to overshadow the Hasbro release, but almost in a synchronised fashion.
Broadcast has a lovely colour scheme, and while some do prefer the sparkly beige of Hasbro Blaster’s legs, I am completely in love with the metallic silver of TakaraTomy’s interpretation. The added blue and white highlights bring a lot to Broadcast as well. Having the Headmaster be coloured up as Twincast just tickles me in ways I didn’t know I wanted to be tickled. I have long since abandoned the baggage of caring whose head became a master and the identity of said nugget, so the quality of the paint job on Broadcast and Twincast worked a charm on me, although the face paint on Twincast does leave a bit to be desired on my specimen.
The transformation is very simple but has three very elegant moments that I look forward to every time, and coupled with the quality feel of those sections of plastic, always bring me back to Broadcast as a fiddleformer – and that’s not always the case with the pricier, painted up Takara versions. Folding the speaker panels around to make the legs, extending the legs via the clip/un-clip mechanism of the thighs and the helmet storage are the steps I am referring to. In fact, the way the helmet comes out and still allows the head to rotate makes a mockery of what happened to TR/LG Galvatron. I’ve seen spots of stressed plastic on my Hasbro Blaster where the TakaraTomy version fills me with more confidence, specifically the leg panels, ramps and other grey/silver plastic lower body regions. I also have considerably more difficulty getting the leg panels and arms to tab in securely in alternate mode on Hasbro Blaster compared to Broadcast.
Playability is off the scale with Broadcast, and that is despite limited articulation due to the bulkiness of the leg panels. Arms are well-enough articulated and there’s a fair knee bend, as well as ample ankle tilt, but he’s no MMC Azalea. The playability comes from three completely believable and beautifully executed modes, two of which absolutely resonate with Blaster’s character and how I’ve perceived (or been brainwashed into seeing) him since childhood. Blaster had a much more developed personality in Marvel Comics than the cartoon Blaster I grew up with, so for some I imagine there is a decent amount of character there. Then there’s base mode. The totally ludicrous Blaster base mode, something that may originally have evoked a facepalm from me. And yet here I am, bewitched by it and how perfectly it works with the Legends Class figures, Titan Masters and of course, Powermaster Optimus Prime and Fortress Maximus. And Soundwave! What are faction symbols in the face of this level of playability?
On the opposite end of the scale you have Titans Return Stripes. An offensively gaudy figure with very little established character in Transformers history, although I admit the idea of he and Tigertrack together interests me. Stripes is a toy that feels flimsy with bootleg levels of malleability, hideous modes and besides the Titan master pegs, quite close to being considered pointless. He interacts with Blaster/Broadcast as a spy tablet that fits in his chest, but really that’s it. However, if you engage your imagination and see him as a tiger-print Transformers ironing board, he’s immediately awesome and essential.
But not great. That is reserved in this instance for the delightful TakaraTomy Transformers Legends LG-27 Broadcast. Funny, he is actually called “Blaster” on the box, but old Takara naming habits die hard here. Anyway, he meets all of the prescribed criteria above for achieving greatness, and I am happy to see him that way. Interestingly, this toy is not my favourite of the year, it’s not even my favourite Titans Return/Transformers Legends figure. That says as much about the quality of official product we have had in 2016, as the reliability of judging a toy by a set criteria or series of tick boxes. Having said that, though, the toys that currently hold places 1 to 3 in my best of 2016 list so far all shine in the categories our contributors have discussed in this article. Maybe there’s something to it after all?
Many kind thanks to Sixo, Ben Parfitt, Jon Strong, Liam Davey and Sid Beckett for excellent contributions and to Mike Kingcaid for photoshop wizardry.
All the best