Repaints and retools have been part of the Transformers toy landscape for as long as the brand has existed, but the concept of pre-tools is a more recent development. What got me interested in the subject was how Hasbro, TakaraTomy and occasionally 3rd party companies would release a toy or character in a mould that was clearly designed to later accommodate a better known or more popular character. It’s the more extreme cases that got my attention, where the first release is significantly less associated with a particular look in the Transformers universe than the eventual repaint or retool. Looking into it, and some of the most recent examples, I found that as with most things there was more to it than that.
Combiner Wars as a toy line is well known for its use of repaints and retools to fill out the range and the combiners themselves. What Hasbro did specifically with CW that was interesting was use new characters like Alpha Bravo and previously-used but not well known characters like Rook to introduce toys where the moulds would later be re-purposed as better known figures, specifically, members of combiner teams.
The above Combaticon Vortex and the Protectobot Blades would have been the most obvious choice for a combining helicopter, but Alpha Bravo was its first use, released in the very first CW wave to be used as part of Superion. The comics were also pointed in the same direction, showing Alpha Bravo as part of the Aerialbot team instead of Slingshot. Combiner Wars was popular with collectors, and not only are new moulds swallowed up fast by the fandom, but add in the fact that you want to complete a combiner team as soon as possible, and Alpha Bravo became irresistible to most.
Speaking of Slingshot, he was of course eventually released, leaving many an Alpha Bravo uncombined. The Protectobots were issued the same way, exchanging a deluxe Groove for Rook, but a deluxe Groove eventually followed. Rook was later retooled into Combaticon Swindle and Hound, although looking at Rook, the eventual retools are not as obvious as they were with Alpha Bravo. As much as the pre-tool phenomenon is a marketing strategy, the repaint of one character as another is too.
Look at the above Blast Off, clearly just Slingshot repainted into Combaticon colours, except now he’s a plane and not a shuttle. A G1 lifer like me was happy to accept this on account of that spectacularly beautiful headsculpt in Blast Off colours. TakaraTomy didn’t follow the same path as Hasbro here, their Superion and Defensor came with the correct Slingshot and Groove straight off the bat, respectively.
Philip Ayres supports that: “The first pretool I really noticed was Alpha Bravo. Even just seeing it as the substitute Slingshot in the Aerialbots it was obvious it was going to be Blades and Vortex. Offroad was a bit more clever, as he got a major retool to become First Aid, but after that Ironhide & Trailbreaker were easy to predict. There is no way in a million years I’d have guessed Rook would be used as Swindle & Hound. That’s retool madness.”
And here’s Dan Ghile and his opinion when asked what he thought of the pre-tool phenomenon: “Pre-tools were often planning a new head, or at their most extreme a Generations Springer/Sandstorm-like situation. Stuff happening now is mad. Engineering shared across unrelated transformation schemes (Blurr and Chromedome) to the extreme of Alpha Trion and Broadside. Those toys are barely related, but the few shared parts put them in the pre-tool camp. I think a new term is needed for these extreme cases”.
Titans Return has definitely taken the pre-tool to heart and run with it. The above wave 2 voyager Alpha Trion, to some, signalled Lio Convoy and TakaraTomy have duly obliged with their recent reveal for the Transformers Legends range. There’s even a voyager Broadside coming with shared parts. The Sentinel Prime to Astrotrain situation is another clear example of pre-tooling being employed to sell one figure (comic-supported of course) but having another’s name clearly written on it.
Santiago Jones says “Mould reuses and repaints have been around since day one. From the Datsuns/Jazz and Seeker/coneheads of G1. So it would be a little late to be too disappointed in the same practice occurring now. That said, HasTak have been rather clever/devious (delete as applicable) regarding the reuse and re-purposing of figures from CW. The endless repaints of poor Dead End, Rook and Fireflight will attest to that. Titans Returns is where it gets interesting though. Pre-tools are now a thing. For example, that triple changing Megatron would make a splendid Blitzwing, the Skyshadow could be an incredible Overlord… so why aren’t we getting the ‘right’ guy first?
“Maybe it’s because we’re an insatiable and impatient bunch? New toy on the shelf, it’s not the exact one I’m after but I’m keen to see how the transformation works. It’s a pricey preview. And besides if they did release ‘HIM’ first… would I even bother with the other guy? (Insert chin scratching emoji here). I think I’m most excited to see how far Alpha Trion can be retooled into a convincing jet (well as convincing as Broadside’s other alt mode ever was). Fair play to them. It seems savvy, and if what can be done with Blurr and Brainstorm is any indication, I’m all for it. The only quibble would be are the economies of scale, reusing parts etc, reflected back into thee price at the moment? Possibly not, but larger and more sinister forces at play there”.
With Titans Return wave 3 voyagers, the pre-tools are actually more prominent characters than the obvious and subsequent future reuses of the moulds. Optimus Prime and Megatron always sell, so even though their triple-changing nature screams Octane and Blitzwing respectively, there’s no guarantee that the first releases won’t be more popular than the more fitting and historically-accurate/traditional later releases for those moulds.
Over again to Philip Ayres: “What Titans Return Megatron shows is that a pre-tool works best if it’s giving you something that feels right for the character. You look at that and think ‘yes that feels right’. People might have moaned about having CW Optimus out before Motormaster but you can argue that both feel right as a truck. The CW deluxe pre-tools, Alpha Bravo, Offroad & Rook were all substitutes for another established character (Slingshot, Wildrider & Groove) and all felt ‘wrong’ to the older fan (and I’m saying that as someone who thinks Rook was the best deluxe CW did!). TR Sentinel Prime is like Alpha Bravo, another toy where it’s obvious who the toy mould should be. Blaster/Soundwave and the tapes have history of being repaints of one another, you expect that just like you expect Thundercracker & Skywarp when a new Starscream turns up.
“Now I like my repaints. They need to be either suitable, or have a track record of having been done before, or be interesting & clever. I’m not really fussed about what order they’re released in. Having the lesser known one first is actually quite nice because it’s almost like their dropping hints as to what’s coming later”.
And that is really the crux of it for me as well. If the pre-tool looks good and makes sense in terms of working as a toy, I’m happy to ditch tradition and pre-conceived ideas of who should be what in favour of a fun and beautiful figure. The entire Titans Return supporting cast of Headmasters is proof enough of that.
Many kind and gracious thanks to Dan Ghile, Santiago Jones and Philip Ayres for their contributions this week.
All the best