It’s been quite the week for new toy reveals.
This last few days have seen the Transformers online fandom hit unprecedented levels of excitement over the two-day Pulsecon event, whereby Hasbro dropped any number of intriguing first-looks at their upcoming War for Cybertron: Kingdom line, including some gorgeous and glossy promotional photography for a range of new toys including both classic Generation 1 and fan-favourite Beast Wars characters.
Needless to say, it was quite the event, and on a personal level it was fantastic to see so much outright positivity online in regards the new toys (and especially in how Beast Wars designs were being incorporated into the ongoing Generations line).
However what was also interesting to note is that a few of these designs had previously been seen online. Unless you’ve been seriously keeping yourself in the dark this last month or so, then you can’t help but have seen some of the various leaked photos or video reviews of toy samples doing the rounds. It’s been an extraordinary and, at least for some, rather uncomfortable time watching the sheer volume of unannounced product making its way online, and has raised any number of questions, not least of which is how they came to be leaked to begin with?
Really though, one of my most striking thoughts this last weekend was how much more exciting it can often be to see these things revealed through the proper channels. Without wishing to get into the moral complexities of the leaks themselves, the fact remains that those first-looks have at times been rather underwhelming versus how Hasbro (and TakaraTomy) can bring the goods when they really want to. Of course it all depends who’s hands these things end up in, I suppose, but there’s little doubt in my mind that a blurry or hard-to-distinguish leak will never match the thrill of seeing something like Kingdom Megatron being unveiled in full photoshoot glory.
Not that everyone cares, mind, and to be fair it’s not as if the companies themselves get it right every time. I can think of numerous official reveals over the years that have been a bit duff, to say the least, and in some cases ones that have badly hurt the reputation of the toys themselves. In fact, it’s interesting to see how much the manner in which a toy is revealed to us can shape our thoughts. Minds are often made up on first glance, and the Internet can be a harsh mistress in judging the comparative merits of any particular figure as soon as its unveiled. If a toy, even a decent one, doesn’t come off well right out of the gate, it can mean it lingers with a less than desirable impression despite whatever glamour shots may follow.
Probably the best example I can think of here is Masterpiece MP-28 Hot Rod, which remains a polarising figure at best. I’ve little doubt that whatever I say will convince everyone on the merits of the toy in question, but I’m also convinced that it could have earned itself a better reception in the eyes of many people had the initial reveal been more considered. First seen as a very awkward-looking silhouette, many fans were complaining about the toy’s proportions (particularly what looked to be some large, gorilla-esque arms) before a look at the figure itself was even unveiled.
By the time we’d seen more, the damage was done, and a lot of people had already made up their minds that this figure was going to be a fail. It didn’t help that the silhouette was taken from some equally-awkward product photography that I maintain didn’t manage to show the toy off to its best, despite whatever legitimate nitpicks people may have with it besides that. First impressions matter, after all.
That’s not to say that silhouettes are always a bad thing, mind. True, there was a time when they were very much the running joke in terms of cheesy toy reveals, and at their worst they’ve been used by some third party companies as part of that most disagreeable of practices – the land-grab (whereby they stake a claim to producing a particular character long before having any actual plans to unveil the design for it, presumably in part to ward off potential competitors from giving it a go; it’s very much the territorial urination of the toy world!).
Yet as much as they’re not always popular, there’s part of me that has actually come to think back fondly on the silhouette teasers that were more prevalent until not so long ago. There were numerous examples from the Hasui-era of the Masterpiece line that never failed to get the pulse racing for a potential look at a newly-announced prototype, such as the teaser for the Datsun mould back in 2013. It’s mad to say as it was only seven years ago, but in many ways it was a simpler time!
I never ever thought I’d say this but you know what I miss? Toy reveal silhouettes. pic.twitter.com/CWkVJmBDWG
— Sixo (@SixoTF) September 20, 2020
Silhouettes may not be the fashion any more, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still get the odd one here or there, of course. In fact the since-unveiled new version of Masterpiece Starscream was first glimpsed in such a fashion just recently.
Some fans will tell you though that they prefer to skip the teaser aspect altogether and just get a good, old-fashioned glimpse of the toy in question, although perhaps one of the most unique ways this can take place is when that toy is still just a prototype. Many collectors profess that there’s something about a grey resin prototype that somehow makes any toy look almost more impressive than the final result, and perhaps its this reason that a lot of the more memorable toy reveals from the last few decades seem to be those that have first appeared in such a fashion. To my mind, one of the most special examples is the first-look at MP-1 Convoy from a Takara retailer exhibition back in 2003. Seventeen years later, it’s perhaps hard to convey the sheer magnitude of this signal image appropriately, especially as G1 Optimus Prime designs are ten-a-penny nowadays. However, back then this was a toy the likes of which we’d never seen before, and it looked quite unbelievably stunning in its monochrome state. The excitement surrounding it nearly broke the Transformers Internet as it was back then; if we’d had Twitter and whatever else then I can only imagine how it would have been.
None of that is to say that prototype reveals have become any less exciting. In fact you only have to look at the more recent Generations Armada Optimus Prime design that was teased to see how these sorts of things can still reach fever pitch! Then to follow there are all the weeks or months of speculation about the colour scheme, gimmicks and all the rest, not to mention so many endless digibashes from every corner of the fandom. You gotta love it.
Of course it’s even been shown that there doesn’t actually need to be anything on display to create a sense of wonder. Surprising as it may sound, some successful reveals of late haven’t even featured the toys themselves, such as the recent announcement of a new Masterpiece Raiden. No finished prototype to show? No problem! Just slap up a suitably-vague billboard and showcase some of the vintage toys instead. It still gets the fans talking online!
Joking aside toy fairs are also a great place to first see images of the finished toys unveiled too, with many recent Generations lines having been showcased en masse via some incredibly creative and imagination-inducing set-ups out on display. Stuff like Power of the Primes and Earthrise both caused a veritable flutter of exhilaration online, mostly down to the sheer volume of fresh looks at previously-unseen toys all happening at once, and in such a memorable fashion. This proved to be even more successful once the final renders or promo photos of the toys were then shared through official channels, quickly cementing the initial elation as something that would carry through to retail. It also does a fine job at making each individual toy seem like a necessary part of the wider line. You want your display to look as cool as this? Gotta catch ’em all!
I think in many ways this approach reminds me greatly of the vintage Transformers catalogues that accompanied the Generation 1 toys, particularly in how they would often use dioramas to create the feeling of the toys existing within their own universe. Whilst in-package paperwork like this has been used many times in the franchise over the years, there was something so mind-bogglingly all-consuming about those original examples that just meant they never failed to capture your desire during childhood, particularly as back in the 1980s this was often the way we discovered that these toys even existed! I’ve little doubt that there’s a healthy dollop of rose-tinted nostalgia talking there, but suffice it to say that many a long afternoon could be wiled away staring at all the riches on display in an in-package pamphlet such as this one.
In fact I can distinctly remember carrying more than one such example round in my pocket, ready to be whipped out during a slightly dull moment for a bit of wonder. Oh, and I know I’m not the only one who has equally heartfelt memories of receiving the latest edition of the Argos catalogue back in the day! As soon as the hefty volume hit the doormat I would immediately be thumbing through endless pages of vacuum cleaners and other household goods to get to the real prize – what Transformers they had for me to gawp at. It’s bizarre to say but even now, some of those pages evoke incredibly potent memories for me as an adult collector, transformation errors and all.
I suppose in many ways it’s only natural to follow this trip down the nostalgic rabbit hole and remember those occasions when the first time you’d learn of a new toy was actually seeing it on retail shelves, shortly after that seemingly epic moment when you would turn the corner in the local toy shop to be confronted by a sea of familiar red and purple packaging. If only I had a time machine to go back and relive it all!
Photo credit: 20thcenturytoycollector.com
Not that discovering new toys at retail is unheard of these days, mind, but in a time when social media is so much a part of our daily lives, it’s harder than ever to preserve such awe-inspiring surprises. Perhaps that’s why I feel as I do about so many of the recent leaked examples, in that they don’t capture that same sense of wonder, somehow, and certainly not in the way the recent official Kingdom promotional activity has managed to reclaim
I guess as much as the world has evolved since the 1980s, it’s comforting to know that toy companies can still bring the magic when they really need to.