COLLECTING THOUGHTS: Rise of the Machine Wars (part 2)

Welcome to the second part of our tour through the weird world of one of the most forgotten-about lines in all of Transformers history. Yep, it can only be 1997’s Machine Wars!

Last time, we explored how this fascinating range of toys came to be, from its debut during the height of Beast Wars’ popularity to how it made some baffling decisions on its way to retail. We also looked at the Autobot roster by going through each toy in detail, which naturally means today it’s time to turn our attention to the bad guys!

Like their do-gooder counterparts, the Decepticon line-up comprises six toys, including two larger examples which hail from the European-exclusive era of G1 back in the early 1990s. That’s rounded off with four more miniature figures, conceived during Generation 2 but never released at the time. In classic ‘Con form, most of them are, of course, jets!

More than that, this lot goes way further than the Autobots in replicating the identities of iconic Transformers villains from the classic era. Yes, there’s a Megatron to stand (or fall) against your Optimus Prime, but he’s also flanked by franchise heavyweights such as Soundwave, Starscream, Thundercracker and Skywarp. Oh and, er, Megaplex. Mustn’t forget him.

Yet if this all makes sense so far, don’t let that lull you into a false sense of familiarity. The Decepticon roster has just as many quirks as their Machine Wars opposition, including some bizarre creative decisions. Let’s put aside the obvious stuff, like the comparative size difference between the various toys, especially as that was also somewhat evident in the European G1 Predator line-up, and get into the detail of it all.

We kick off with the smaller toys, which share the flipchanger gimmick seen on the Autobot cars. These moulds are likely to be most familiar to fans from any of their subsequent uses, having since cropped up in Takara’s Beast Wars II line, Hasbro’s 2001 Robots in Disguise roster, and Robotmasters too.

Like the Autobots, we have two core designs, both of which are used twice. It’s a simple matter of folding down the nosecone in each case, which activates the rest of the transformation and immediately flips them into their robot forms. It’s a simple premise, and I would argue it works even better on these examples than on the automotive equivalent in the Autobot ranks, at least in theory.

I say that mainly because, in practice, the first mould doesn’t clip together as it should in robot form, with the resulting chest piece sticking forward too much and not entirely collapsing all the way down. It’s a real shame as it does take the sheen of what is otherwise a very fun little design, especially with a fair bit of comparative effort having gone into the camouflage pattern on Thundercracker here.

True, I’m sure some might question the turgid green and brown colour scheme, especially given how the more visually exciting bits of the paint scheme end up on his back in robot mode. Still, I like this lad’s look in both forms, with that head sculpt being immediately evocative, for one thing. It has a very G2 vibe, not feeling dissimilar to the Cyberjets in appearance, which further hints toward these toys’ supposed design heritage.

Speaking of which, his mouldmate, Skywarp, is proudly wearing the only evidence of a G2 Decepticon logo on any of the toys in this line, which might be all the evidence we need to firmly conclude their origins. It’s peculiar to see it alongside the more familiar G1 equivalent on the larger toys, despite it also appearing on some (but not all) of the corresponding packaging and marketing material. Again, strange choices all round.

Of the two, I think Skywarp edges it for being my favourite (and consequently, the four smaller toys overall), if only on account of that striking yellow noggin. The white and black body may be reasonably non-descript, but there’s little arguing with small touches, such as the dash of red paint on the head crest. All four of these toys also have an excellent weapons storage feature, just like the Autobots, with two halves of their guns stashing away in the rear of their legs.

Turning our attention to the second design, we have none other than the Decepticon leader, Megatron! Yes, this toy is notable for being the first ever jet mode Megatron, if only because the proposed G2 ATB version of the character never actually made it to proper release. In a strange twist, he’s been given a very bright baby blue colour scheme, which hardly seems fitting for the character at all, yet you’ll not doubt who it’s meant to be when you clap eyes on that head design.

It strikes me that this toy was always intended to be Megatron from its conception, meaning that if it does hail from G2, it would have been one of several renditions of the character. Sadly, this colour scheme is hardly the franchise’s most promising outing for the maniacal tyrant, especially as it somehow looks drab and unfinished in robot form. The lack of paint applications makes it feel more like a prototype effort than anything.

There’s also the matter of the size of the toy to consider, especially given how diminutive Megatron is versus his own troops (one in particular) and his nemesis, Optimus Prime. Even ignoring how big a real-world jet would be versus the Autobot’s truck mode (which is never a good road to start exploring in Transformers, let’s be honest), there’s the simple fact that having the bad guy as the more minor prospect just feels wrong, somehow. We’ve seen it done the other way, and it’s worked well, but this just can’t help but make Machine Wars’ almost piecemeal origins seem all the more obvious. You find yourself feeling that if these toys were designed from the ground up, there’s no way this is what we’d be seeing.

Still, those grumbles aside, there is a lot to like about the design of this toy all the same, and I’d argue that the Megaplex colour scheme is more favourable. For starters, it has some stripey detailing on the wings that at least contributes a bit of visual interest to the proceedings.

Once you convert Megaplex into robot mode, things get even more interesting. Though this character is billed as being a clone of Megatron in his bio (with the name later used for the e-HOBBY release of the G1 toy with blue inner legs), it’s immediately obvious that the silver colour scheme would be an entirely better fit for the main man himself. Well, it’s no coincidence as all the marketing material and the toys’ own packaging art have their names the other way round, suggesting that they were simply swapped as the result of a sizeable production mistake. Still, that’s how they were released.

Falcon artwork credit: Botch the Crab

Speaking of which, I mentioned in part 1 how kids who grew up with Machine Wars had been eternally disappointed because the Optimus Prime packaging recycled the art from the G2 Laser version of the character, thus drastically misrepresenting his facial features. Well, this odd practice is very evident in the rest of the line, too, just perhaps not quite as egregious. In Megatron and Megaplex’s case, the art was stolen from the G1 Predator known as Falcon, although I think it just about gets away with it because of the relative similarities in the toys’ designs. Let’s say that it works better than G2 Jolt subbing in for Machine Wars Prowl and Mirage!

What’s particularly ironic in the case of G1 Predator art being used is that you could easily argue those four jet designs would have been an entirely better fit alongside the larger toys in this assortment. True, the jets here look suitable next to their more sizeable comrades, but there’s some notable cross-functionality lost in the mix, leaving some elements of the two remaining toys a bit pointless, as we’ll see.

Before we get to that, I should mention that these two designs are some of my favourites from the Euro G1 era, with the original Skyquake and Stalker being examples that I very fondly remember from my youth. As previously mentioned, I had the pleasure at the recent TFNation of meeting Andy Couzens, who oversaw their design and production at the time. It was amazing hearing him refer in detail to various elements of how they were made.

True, they both look very different in this case, with sultry new colour schemes a world away from the bright neon hues seen on their original uses. I’m not sure Andy would necessarily approve, but I can’t help but feel they both still look great in their way, showing that fabulous designs such as these will continue to shine, no matter what you do with them. That’s not to say they aren’t without their quirks, however.

Firstly, there’s Soundwave, which may be one of the outright best and most successful instances of a classic character name being re-used on a new toy in all of Transformers. Despite transforming into a tank-styled missile launcher of sorts, everything about this design feels instantly right in terms of portraying the traditional Decepticon tape deck, in a way. I say that even without a blue paint job in sight!

Instead, we have one of the more unusual colour schemes of the entire Machine Wars roster, as Soundwave’s grey-green and burnt red mash-up is not an obvious choice for any toy, truth be told. Yet I can’t help but feel that the mould wears it surprisingly well, especially with the subtle hints towards a camouflage pattern helping to provide a bit of interest.

What’s very strange here is some of that missing functionality. Firstly, the toy has no gun in robot mode, which also means no missiles. Stalker was equipped with five neon green examples, all of which could be pegged onto the sides of the vehicle form for a spot of weapons storage. Soundwave can’t help but feel slightly naked without them, but in a weird twist, he retains the pegs on the sides of the tread sections which would have been used to house them.

On top of that, Stalker had a gimmick whereby you could plug one of the smaller Predator jets into his missile and activate a scope image which was viewable by looking down the end of it. In Stalker’s case, the picture you presented was a schematic of Rotorstorm’s vehicle mode. It was a very memorable feature and is undoubtedly missed here, mainly as Soundwave’s missile still features the opening compartment to activate it. Without a corresponding Predator jet, you’re left to wonder what it’s all about. It reminds me of the first time I discovered the Diaclone Dia-Naut cockpits on G1 Grimlock, as I was bemused about it for years.

Still, if some of the functionality has been compromised, this mould remains in fine form, which is capably demonstrated by one of my favourite G1 transformations. I mentioned last time how Andy Couzens had talked about wanting to prioritise the click-like precision of the conversions from this era, and it’s every bit as evident here as it was with Stalker.

It’s a simple and efficient design, yet wholly elegant, and includes some extra flair, such as the panels that fold down to cover the back of the legs. This is something I distinctly remember being impressed with at the time of this design’s first release. It’s a motion of twists and turns that I could repeat endlessly on any version of this toy to the end of my days and still be delighted by, given how timeless it continues to feel.

That the robot mode it leaves you with might be a little drab in terms of colours is not entirely to its detriment, as it still looks like a showstopper despite its muted tones. Dare I say, the evidence for this being a fitting robot form to take on the name Soundwave becomes immediately evident here, if only because of that perfect head design. I recall feeling the Predator release echoes of the character anyway, so this release always felt appropriate to me.

It’s bolstered quite significantly from what remains some of the best light piping on any Transformers toy ever, even three decades on. Given this toy was one of the first designs to introduce the concept, that’s even more impressive. Here, the bright green has been replaced with a cool blue, but the effect is just as epic.

The missile launcher might look a wee bit oversized in this mode, but it makes for an imposing silhouette if nothing else and is completed by a radar dish that feels appropriate for this mould’s new identity, even if it is somewhat redundant otherwise. Ultimately it will always be a shame that this release lacks the gun and missiles of its predecessor, but still, Soundwave manages to impress despite that.

He also makes for sufficient opposition when faced with Sandstorm, the two classic Euro designs having found new life in this most unlikely of places. I fully appreciate these colour schemes often being thought of as the less favourable variety versus the original outings. Still, I maintain they boast a charm of their own, and I’m delighted the Machine Wars versions exist.

This brings us to the last Machine Wars figure, not to mention the largest! Yes, it can only be air commander Starscream, looking distinctly more formidable than you typically see him. Many will know this design by its original name, the Predator leader known as Skyquake. As much as Machine Wars Optimus is often renowned for allowing collectors to experience the G1 Thunderclash mould without worrying about the original’s gold plastic syndrome woes, so does Starscream bring the same fear-free experience versus his forebear.

Except it’s not just the gold that’s been eschewed here. Gone too is the purple, green, and just about every other vibrant shade in favour of a distinctly more uniform black colour scheme, albeit with a few popping highlights for good measure. That’s not to say this release doesn’t look good, though – quite the opposite. It’s just more sultry than Skyquake but every bit as seductive.

Starscream also retains the original stickers, meaning the distinctive face design on the jet’s front section is intact. I love this addition and am thrilled to see it brought back here, although it seems to be a feature that not everyone is aware of. When I recently shared this toy’s pictures online, I had more than a few comments expressing surprise about its presence.

It’s not the only element of stylistic flair going on here, as the jet mode also features a prominent painted Decepticon symbol towards the rear. It would be an incredible choice if not for how poorly it’s executed. For some inexplicable reason, it’s rendered in dark black paint atop the already black finish, making it incredibly hard to perceive even at close quarters. You could honestly be forgiven for not even being aware of its existence despite owning the toy; it’s that level of imperceptible. A shame as had it been vibrant purple, it would have looked amazing.

Equally disappointing is the now-absent scope gimmick. Similar to the Stalker design, Skyquake could combine with the smaller Predator jets to reveal a hidden image inside an eye-piece at the rear of the jet, but with those toys missing from the line-up, it leaves that whole section on Starscream somewhat redundant. No matter, there are other elements to keep you entertained, such as the opening vents on the top of the jet or the fully-functional bomb-dropping ports on the wings.

These ports can hold up to four missiles at a time, with a further four stored on small tabs on the wings. Bizarrely, Starscream only comes with ten missiles (two short of Skyquake), meaning you’re left a little short. However, the gimmick is fun to see, and perhaps it’s a small wonder that it was included at all, given how the missile-launching features on the other Euro-inherited toys were stripped out. Good thing, too, as this mode would have felt quite incomplete without them, but as it is, it’s hard not to love it.

The same is true once you get him converted to robot mode, especially as more evidence of the popping colour highlights comes into play. Despite this figure’s size, the transformation is effortless, though it remains as satisfying as ever thanks to that precision click. And hey, who can argue with a Starscream toy that looks as stunning as this?

OK, first things first – no, it doesn’t look like the character as we traditionally know him. In fact, it’s entirely apparent that this was a no-nonsense name slap affair where the powers-that-be looked at the big jet in the line and knew they needed to make it the most recognisable character they could. Hence, it’s Starscream. I’d wager they might have considered making it Megatron if it weren’t for the smaller G2 design already bearing his head sculpt.

As it stands, it leaves this interpretation of the famously treacherous Decepticon as being quite comically large versus both his leader and his fellow Seekers, as Thundercracker and Skywarp now barely reach their comrade’s knees. It makes the Decepticon line-up look a little strange when posed in robot mode (not to mention Starscream a tricky prospect to incorporate on a Machine Wars shelf), but it is what it is.

Besides, there’s plenty to admire here, with the inherent design already being quite the looker but somehow boasting an entirely new feel with this incredible new colour scheme. I’d argue that Starscream is the ultimate rebuttal for whenever people say Machine Wars is universally drab because between the red, yellow, neon green and eye-piercing blue, it’s all going on here, and I love every bit of it.

True, some versions of this figure reportedly feature grey missiles more in keeping with the rest of the colour scheme, which would mute the palette on offer quite considerably. As it is, I’m delighted to have one with the green missiles, as I can’t help but feel they add a considerable amount of visual appeal here, especially for how they peek out of the ports on the underside of the wings. You will hear them rattling around when moving the toy about, but the same was true on Skyquake.

As with Soundwave, the translucent blue proves especially delightful here, though, with the light-piping once again working overtime to make that fantastic head design look as impressive as possible. My copy has a few rough edges around the white paint on the face, but otherwise, it all looks marvellous, allowing Starscream to be a real treat for the eyes.

True, he may not be the most articulated toy ever (OK, OK – he’s a total brick), with a bit of shoulder movement being the only poseability on offer. And yes, it’s a crying shame that, like Soundwave, he’s missing his predecessor’s gun (and corresponding missile-firing gimmick). Still, he more than makes up for it in inherent charm.

I would say he’s also an excellent accompaniment to Skyquake, showcasing how effective repaints of classic designs can be when they’re done well. It gives the mould an entirely new feel, utterly separate from when we first saw it, and I love it for that. In case you haven’t guessed, this is one of my favourite releases in the Machine Wars line.

True, this line-up may be a little odd as an ensemble (and I still cannot help but wonder why the Predator jets weren’t used instead), but somehow it all comes together to make for fitting adversaries to the Autobot troupe. There are certain things you’ll just have to get on board with, such as tiny Megatron, but by and large, it all works well enough to make me think that Machine Wars doesn’t deserve its often middling reputation.

There’s honestly enough good stuff here that I think it’s worth investigating even today, especially with the aftermarket prices remaining on the relatively low side, at least for now. As I mentioned in part 1, I’ve seen enough evidence of the values of the larger toys starting to creep up, but this is a vintage era of Transformers that shouldn’t have you breaking the bank if you’re looking to get into it.

On a more personal note, it also has the distinction of being one of the first lines in the franchise that I ever completed, which may not sound all that impressive considering it’s only twelve toys in total, but still, it’s something. For those who may be daunted by the sprawling waves of Generation 1 or Beast Wars, there’s a lot to be said for a manageable and easy-to-assemble roster of toys, especially when they can be obtained as easily as this.

If anything, it yet again leaves me wishing that Machine Wars had been far more successful than it was back in the day, as perhaps we would have seen further releases of classic moulds in new colours and even some new designs along the way too. Sadly, it’s an inescapable feeling that the line was hampered by poor creative and marketing decisions from the beginning, leading to a somewhat inevitable lacklustre landing, but who’s to say where it might have led to had things been different in 1997, eh?

I suppose had Machine Wars been more successful, it may have meant a very different latter half of Beast Wars, and potentially would have removed the need for the franchise’s big return to its vehicular roots just three years later with Car Robots. It may be a mere footnote in history as far as the big picture of Transformers is concerned, but arguably Machine Wars could have made a much more significant impact had things been just a little different.

Never mind, as no matter how it all went down, there will always be those of us willing to appreciate these wonderful toys even after all these years.

TTFN

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About Sixo

Transformers collector from the UK, collecting vintage G1/G2, CR/RID, UT & Masterpiece/3P. Find me at twitter.com/SixoTF or on YouTube at youtube.com/SixoTF

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