We all expected 3rd party Transformers manufacturers to evolve their processes, improving their quality and designs to the point where they were on par, if not occasionally exceeding official product. I don’t think that we could say with confidence this time last year that they had matched and surpassed official Masterpiece or Generations product in all aspects, and it may still not be true this year, but there is no doubt that there has been some refinement of their art. Not just aesthetics, but also transformation mechanics, play value and overall quality. New 3P companies tend to be a bit more credible – think MAAS Toys, Fans Hobby, Open And Play – and established players like MMC, MakeToys and FansToys are producing amazing products.
The most obvious thing for me is how well newer product from Masterpiece-scaled companies fits the official aesthetic. With FansToys Grinder, while one could legitimately argue that the heavy lifting in the engineering department was done by Takara, it’s a better figure than the official MP-8. MakeToys have done an exceptional job with their Re:Master line in this area too. Fans Hobby’s offerings can only be called Masterpiece, even though their Monsters are so much more bulky than the official stuff, so it’s more stylised but you can see they’re able to go the official-mimicking route should they wish to. In my opinion, Ocular Max peaked with Sphinx and Jaguar which they launched the brand with, then dipped with Backdraft and Terraegis, but hit a home run with Artifex once more so the ability is there. MMC’s ability to nail comic-based representations on their toys is phenomenal, and even when the figure isn’t 100% accurate, the character is all there. Most of the above have been bossing headsculpts, an area where the official toys had an enormous head start on them.
It’s not just those well-known companies either. Outfits like Spark Toys, Iron Factory, MasterMade and newcomers Open And Play are releasing figures that collectors are generally thrilled with. Don’t get me wrong, there are still shockers out there, and not just from new companies. Every now and then something 3P comes along to remind you that the rise in quality is not all across the board. I’ve handled a few MakeToys, MMC and FansToys products this year that felt so good in terms of plastic quality, joint strength and general polish on the toy. At times, especially with FT Terminus Giganticus, I have felt like the manipulation of moving parts reminded me of vintage Transformers goodness when it came to strength and feel.
Looks and feel are great, but another department in which a number of 3P companies are improving is playability. That feeling where a toy does not just need to be posed on a shelf and left. MMC figures have had this quality for a long time, and it was nice to see MAAS come along and infuse their Skiff with oodles of pick-up-and-play value. I love my FansToys Phoenix, but it’s not a figure I take off the shelf regularly for a pose or a play, albeit his size may have something to do with that. Skiff was constant fiddle fodder, and being able to achieve that with their products is a very wise avenue for 3P companies to explore. I feel FT Terminus did this too by providing little ramps and compartments for smaller toys to store in when the figure was in base mode. The fact that the tank rolls around the track helps too. Remembering that adult collectors like to have fun with their figures will lead to greater success, I believe.
This leads me onto a core area that I feel a number of 3P companies have worked on to bring us better toys: transformation. MakeToys Thunder Erebus and Contactshot, FansToys Grinder, MMC Turben, Titanika, Kultur and Oberon, MAAS Skiff as well as Fans Hobby Megatooth all contained transformations that I feel represented a move towards simplicity and enjoyment over intricacy. Challenge is never a bad thing, and a puzzleformer can be every bit as satisfying as your Titans Return deluxes, but longevity comes from enjoyment, not frustration. I mentioned Thunder Erebus above because it is one of the very first 3P figures from these well-established companies – and certainly the first MakeToys product for me – that I have felt capable of transforming without instructions and with no fear of causing damage because I missed some info on an extra vital slip of paper included at the last minute (I’m looking at you Wrestle, Turben, Pandinus…).
Previously I had credited Masterpiece Transformers, and later Titans Return, for bestowing superb toys upon characters that I did not care about. These toys would then make me re-assess what I felt about the characters, often realising that a significant amount of my indifference was influenced by the toys those characters had endured during G1. Ironhide is a good example, and although I appreciated the toy as a Diaclone Car Robot, it never made me care about the Ironhide character, but MP-27 certainly did. FansToys accomplished this for me first with Tesla, making me realise how much I cared to have a great Perceptor in my collection. MMC Oberon here has made me care about a Beast Machines character, simply based on the brilliance of this figure – which I already admired thanks to his mould mate, Turben – and the spectacular presence of it. There’s something so nuts about those giant translucent red rotors and the beautiful palette of colours employed.
Refining the art of making transforming toys is not purely the domain of the 3rd party manufacturers, though. We can celebrate their achievements and the improvement of the toys in our collection all day long, but they started from a place where we had to compromise and forgive a lot of issues. We’ve spent a lot of money with them in order for them to have raised their game to this point. I want to also say a word about the amazing leaps that Transformers Masterpiece and Generations have taken in terms of playability, transformation and appeal to me. Titans Return is probably my favourite mainline offering since Generation 1. Official and unofficial transforming toy makers incrementally improving their output has been wonderful for our collections, painful for our wallets and fascinating to witness.
All the best