To expect a consistent level of product from the many 3rd party manufacturers of transforming toys is unrealistic. Different designers, factories, manufacturers and concepts ensure that no two groups will do anything in exactly the same way. What we can have is an idea of different companies’ modus operandi, we can expect certain design compromises or eccentricities, focus on looks or playability etc. All of that aside, I would have expected things to be at the stage now with many companies where the quality has increased due to the competition and experience, but that’s not always been the case.
A company like MakeToys has gotten to the point where almost every figure is of the highest possible quality, and the focus shifts to aesthetics, character choice, era or something not immediately related to durability, price (relatively) or execution. They’ve got a wonderful thing going with their Cross Dimension and Re:Master lines, no matter what they tackle. They’ve proved they can ape (and better?) official Masterpiece product with Downbeat and Meteor, and their figure reveals whip up a similar amount of excitement these days to actual TakaraTomy product in the circles I exist in. Of course I understand that official-only collectors would not agree. Also, I should add, however good their toys are, I think we could all have done without the ridiculous drama of Galaxy Meteor and the cancelled – not cancelled episode.
Brand new companies surprise me these days. Open And Play have produced two figures with wildly different approaches – Big Spring a clear Masterpiece-a-like and Big Cannon an over-sized retool of a Titans Return toy. Yet, they have produced toys that are great fun to play with and pose, and are durable to the point where more established manufacturers with years’ worth of product behind them still fail to match regularly. They’re not as polished as the MakeToys stuff, but they’re damn good and I recommend both figures highly, which surprises me no end. MAAS Toys have also done great with their first toy Skiff (and his repaints), proving that with the right attention to priorities, companies can hit the ground running. See also Fans Hobby and their excellent offerings this year.
Ocular Max figures are from the same stable as the regularly excellent Mastermind Creations Reformatted toys, yet their hit rate is far poorer. Sphinx, Jaguar, Volture and Artifex are toys I adore and will keep around indefinitely, but then they’ve also been responsible for Girder, Backdraft and Terraegis, all of which had alignment issues and frustration concerns. I didn’t enjoy those figures. Then came Omne, who I fell in love with instantly. Was this a major turning point and a triumphant return to form? Well, yes it was, right up until the waist snapped in half mere hours after opening. Simply not good enough, or expected. They hit great heights again with the lovely recent Volture/Buzzard set, and Omne has great potential – if only he didn’t break – because I had no complaints about the looks and lovely transformation.
FansToys have been on a storming run of form too, recently. This has been an excellent year for many a fan’s favourite 3P Masterpiece outfit. They are good with sending out review samples and their figures sell out more quickly than pretty much any other company. Yet, they did not send out any samples for Koot. After handling him and watching the reviews, I can understand what may have led them to that decision. It’s an infuriating transformation with the possibility for damage to the toy to occur. But, it looks and feels divine in both modes. Such a dilemma for me, especially as it is scaled to the more recent MP Hot Rod than my preferred old MP-9. However, after a few attempts I started to understand the conversion better and I know owners are generally happy. The thing is, it also showed me that they were aware they could potentially have cost themselves sales if first impressions from early sample reviews had focused on the painful conversion and potential for damage. Apparently they aren’t sending out Apache samples either. Interesting.
For the first time, I have returned a 3rd Party review sample without reviewing it. Upon opening Bold Forms Gladius, I moved a few panels and handled a couple of joints, took a look at the figure and decided that it was not worth the many hours, days and potentially weeks I would spending writing about it, reviewing and assessing it or photographing and photo-editing. Reviews take a lot out of me as I have a standard that must be met, especially now as I receive stuff after most other reviewers and have to find ways of staying interesting and relevant. Gladius had tremendously questionable-feeling parts and a look that did not inspire me at all. I couldn’t do it, if I don’t respect my own time as a reviewer then nobody else will. I returned it without review.
Looking slightly further back in time, ACE Tumbler was aimed at being a major Masterpiece stand-in, taking many cues from the excellent official Masterpiece Bumblebee. However, the figure was plagued by overbearing diecast content, terrible face sculpts (3 attempts, all bad) and a degree of alignment issues with some visually odd proportions thrown in for good measure. This was a highly irritating episode as the company behind it were very pushy about having a good review and instructing me how to photograph it. I ignored all of that and reviewed it as honestly – but diplomatically – as I could. The result was a very disappointed email to me from the manufacturer contact, no further samples from ACE or other projects/companies that any personnel involved were associated with.
Finally, something refreshing and new. Sort of. Mayhem Mekanics are creating an original transforming product called Unrustable Bastards, designed by the same genius who brought us Feral Rex and many a Reformatted masterpiece. C Z Hazard is head writer and co-creator for the products and the toys are being produced through MAAS Toys who have a great deal of experience in 3rd party distribution and access to good manufacturing facilities. They have taken their collective experience and the result is something special. The toys are highly playable, gorgeous to look at and even the production samples were of excellent quality. The originality is a breath of fresh air, as is their attitude in dealing with me as a reviewer and someone who will photograph their product.
There are many more 3P companies who I respect and support, and others I won’t go near any more because of my experiences with them as a reviewer and a collector. There’s just so much diversity and differing priorities in this scene for them ever to be on the same page, so there will always be differing levels of product. I continue to hope that all the manufacturers are actually striving more to produce better toys which justify their prices and the attention the fandom gives them, and less about more effective ways of making collectors part with their money for products that cost them less to make. The reality will almost always be somewhere in between those two extremes.
All the best