Saturday, 9 September 2017

Remembering Transformers Energon

A while back, I wrote an article about Transformers: Armada. That is to say my memories of the toys, its reception at the time, and its legacy. Ilike Armada a lot. It followed that I had to write about its sequel series, Energon. As you can see from the date tags, this took a while. Part of that is is the thing that biases me, I sell toys oneBay professionally these days, part of its the nature of Energon itself. Transformers Energon, known as Superlink in Japan, was following a legitimate success, granting it a big budget and a host of new fans awaiting for new toys. As it was also the 20th Anniversary series, long term fans also saw tributes and homages. It was a fine position to start. Energon would however suffer from two problems, one stemming from the other. The first was that its play pattern wasn't as financially successful as Armada's, while the supporting media was notably bad. Or to paraphrase a mate of mine: the cartoon was pants, and half the Autobots turned into pants. Did the series deserve such a burn? Read on to find out.






The Energon Cartoon
Putting aside that Japanese exclusive series that cannot be mentioned in polite conversation, few things united the fandom in hatred like the English language version of the Energon cartoon. Every conceivable flaw was present that could be in a show broadcast on Cartoon Network. Make no mistake, the Japanese original was not good, with some major conceptual problems and wasted opportunities, but the localisation pushed it over the edge. Characters were computer animated, but had only 2 frames of facial animation. Character development was ignored. The interesting set-up Armada had provided, such as it was, was quickly dumped. Spelling errors in the titles cards, it goes on, I do recommend you watch it while drunk. The comic? Well, Dreamwave went bankrupt. The net result of this all was that the G1 collector crowd got G1 tributes, but handled badly so they weren't happy, while actual new ideas it did have suffered too.


Sourced from the wiki, the many moods of Ironhide 


Now, I'm not gonna bang on about production values, as that is self-evident. Nor will I mock Kicker Jones, his name does that for me. I will however summarise the good start Energon wasted. Armada, not a good series to be fair, ended with an Autobot/Decepticon alliance. Megatron was dead, but had left orders affirming that alliance, and none of the surviving named Decepticons were of the power hungry type, so it stuck. If you are wondering why Starscream wasn't all over that, well he'd died in a heroic manner, forcing that very alliance. The reason for this union was Unicron, whom was defeated at great cost, but a decade of peace followed. Then one of Unicron's minions, Aphla Quintesson, started taking actions to repair his master and generally started shit-stirring. He resurrected Starscream with amnesia, while Megatron basically rebuilt himself through sheer will. This resulted in conflicted loyalties all round, with some Autobot infighting too, and the potential for interesting character development.

None of this goes anywhere after the first 20 episodes. The series just devolves into repeated ploys to resurrect Unicron or find new Energon supplies. Star Trek: Voyager made a better use of its set up.



The Toyline in General
When writing about Energon toys, I realise that A) they are a minority in my collection, B) I tend towards the negative, and C) those might be connected. A big part of that's the fiction, but its also a matter of the design philosophy, and the first toys we saw. Energon shifted more towards actual articulation and the aforementioned fan-pleasing homage, which was good. It also had a lot in the way of Visible Head Syndrome, bulky electronics, and articulation was inconsistent, which was bad. It did have new ideas, which is good. Executing them? Eeeh, I don't want to say it was bad, but here's some pics of Optimus Prime.






Yeah.....So his altmode doesn't convince, he had a faceplate in early runs, and he's fatter than me on boxing day. These flaws largely arise from his pay pattern, and this sort of set the tone for early releases. Energon had a lot of scifi vehicles with exposed robot heads or other problems arising from gimmickry.

What gimmick was this? Well, it was not just one. Getting right down it, Armada had only really one gimmick, the Mini-Con. How each toy used that play pattern of course varied, and some toys suffered, but it was straightforward, and worked. Energon retained some of the Mini-Con functions, but added 5 gimmicks more, depending on how ya count, split between factions and size classes. This did mean play value was high, if a messy affair. A smaller, but perhaps more successful part of the line were the Energon Chips and Weapons, as carried by the scout-sized Omnibot and Terrorcon subgroups. These were modular translucent parts, usually offering a mix of choppy and shooty weapons which bigger toys could borrow. Said bigger toys had their own versions of this, but did something rather different as their selling point. Most Autobots got the Powerlinx gimmick where they combined as pairs, something to this day I'm not overly fond of. Combination of various forms was the biggest thing in Energon, but as Combiner Wars was a decade in the future, the execution here wasn't brilliant. The binary style was limited to the Autobots, with the combinations being under-articulated and not attractive, while leaving the Decepticons with faintly unconvincing “Hyper Modes”. This brings us back to the failings of the cartoon; it never made the 2 robot combinations look good, and it certainly didn't sell the Decepticon thing or anything else. And when you can't sell the toys, you've missed the point of the exercise.




Sourced from TFU.info, Energon Ironhide and Clifjumper combined.

Sorry, got on the cartoon again.

Meanwhile, there was a bit of a repaint thing going on. Yes kiddies, repaints in Transformers is not a new phenomenon, although with one very notable exception, Energon did simple reskins. Following a trend set by Armada, Energon was in the habit of redoing toys in different colour schemes, often intended to be new characters by Hasbro, but largely treated by Takara as upgrades. This fictional disagreement would come to a head later on, but this didn't do the perception of the line much good either, if only for the fact Armada toys were thrown in, and the showstopping Supreme class was 2/3s repaint. This probably played a big part in Energon's other big problem, shelfwarming. Stores just brought too many after Armada, so unpopular toys tended to stick around Eventually, the five bot “Maximus” combiner teams appeared, thus answering many fanboy prayers, but they suffered from the repaint thing too. Coming out at the tail end of the line, there were 3 teams, but only 9 distinct moulds, and no real hands/feet for the combined mode. These toys were sufficiently well-received that they were getting re-releases circa 2009, but some of the first unofficial add-on kits I ever saw were for these toys, addressing these issues. And yes, the cartoon was so incompetent as to ignore that these were combined teams.



The Highlights
So what did Energon do well? Actually quite a lot, its just Middle Child Syndrome given what Armada and Cybertron managed to do. The style of binary combination basically makes the Autobots exponentially fun if you can get over the look. Dozens of combinations were possible. Maybe hundreds, I can't be arsed to do the sums. Optimus even got Wingsaber to balance him out, in a notable example of 2 wrongs making a right. Deceptions were varied, and still hold up for the most part. The smaller toys of both factions featured some great pocket money transformers. So, lets pick out some interesting ones.



Energon Startscream


For the Combat class, what we would recognise as today as deluxes, an early front runner was Starscream, and probably my favourite iteration of the character. In terms of engineering, he bears a striking resemblance to G2 Smokescreen, so much so people creied retool. No, its a new mould, and while it copies a lot, its copying from a damn good source. He's also got this lovely undead/wraith/ghost/ethereal motif going on, and the option to combine his weapons into a sword as big as he. On the Autobot side there is Tow-Line, a mishmash of Autobot vanformers, whom does something unusual with the binary combination thing. He can, in a gift to adolescent sniggering, powerlinx with himself, or two other Autobots at the same time. A pretty solid toy overall, good for customising. Other noteworthy Combats include: Snowcat, a tubby robot with skis whom copied his altmode from G.I. Joe, and Roadblock, a fairly involved retool of Inferno.



 Tow-Line

The tiny wee toys of the Energon probably are the ones that hold up to the test of time. There's some duffers of course, but the partnership of balljoints and good accessories ages well, many ended up being reissued/repainted at length. The first ACTUAL GODDAMN ARCEE figure came from this price bracket, as did most of the combiner teams, and provided you don't pick one with compromised articulation like Insecticon, you are probably in for a good time. Battle Ravage and Strongarm are two of my favourites here, good allrounders.


 Battle Ravage


On the larger side of things, there's Landmine, one of the rare completely new characters. Transforming into an armoured snowplough, he is notable for his "brute mode", which, well, LOOK AT IT!





An awesome toy I which I regret not having any more. On the decepticon side, well, we got a second boatformer, Mirage. And Megatron carries a weapon seemingly made from his own corpse, which is almost as awesome as Landmine.


 Mega-Dinobot

Because Hasbro was flush with money, we got some unusual side merch. Alpha Quintession got a toy, Kicker got 2 toys, couple of roleplay toys, and we got a Dinobot combiner featuring Grimlock and Swoop. Not hugely good by reputation, that set is notable for being designed by Takara employees, which might explain things.




And finally, the toy that prompted this article, Omega Supreme. The big dude suffered in that he was following Unicron, and is quite uncomplicated,  while giving prioity to an unconvincing optimus combination. That however is not the same as saying he is boring, not by a long, long way. Omega Supreme is assemetrical, splitting into an alledged train and an awesome battleship.  Omega was also a titanmaster before it was cool, and features a tiny reserve head as an adorible back up. He is a bit more Armada than Energon, and has an immense presence. 




Wrapping Things Up
In many respects, Energon can be viewed as a reaction to criticism of Armada from the collectors side of the fanbase. This is evident from the generally improved articulation of these toys, although not quite pre-armada levels, and the sheer number of G1 homages evident. As it was the 20th Anniversary series, some pandering was inevitable, but legitimately new characters are in the minority, and the vast majority of the returning ones were retrofitted into tributes. It wasn't entirely that way of course; the new form of combination had promise, and perhaps should have found more success with kids. The reason it didn't? I dunno, the cartoon was bad, but there's been plenty of successful Transformers toylines with objectively terrible media, i.e. most of them. But, the cartoon never really made the gimmick look cool, I suppose. And, lets be honest here, if you do a direct sequel to something and largely dump everything that made the original special, it doesn't end well. Just ask Beast Wars fans.

The toys though? Those were good, and that's what matters.


Images are largely sourced from the wiki, and remain the property of their respective holders. Let me know if you want them removed.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

An Orky Look at Warhammer 40,000 8th Edition




There's a new edition of Warhammer 40K coming out, and, god help me, its actually looking like it might be good. Between daily news updates and not so much leaks as floods of info out of Warhammer Fest, we've now got a fairly good idea how the game will play. Its far, far, FAR too early to make judgements on the metagame, as its looking to be the most substantial rules refit since 3rd edition, so all of my comments here are provisional. Two comments I can safely make however are that the game is going to be very bloody, and that several big paradigms have shifted. So, here are my early opinions of some of this, in an orky way.


Wagonz and Kanz

Between dice modifiers, random damage, multiple ways to play the game, and the return of the Movement stat, its a completely new game. But the thing that's drawing the most attention is the way all units have the same profile format, meaning that, yes vehicles have wounds now. This addresses probably the biggest rules quirk in previous editions, where vehicles were less durable than their infantry equivalents, which ended up with entire classes of models left on the shelf. Vehicles are now something you wear down rather than kill with one shot, or rip apart with no effort in CC. These often have wound counts in the teens, 30+ for super heavies, and while weapons cause more damage, its not a quick job. Vehicles, and comparably massive monsters, do however suffer from a decline in function with damage, this being unique to each. We've gone from vehicles shattering like glass, and monsters being 100% functional until death, to both slowly breaking down. In addition, changes to the wound chart mean that your typical sidearm can harm vehicles, Dawn of War style, which all may in result in decline of popularity for melta weapons. Mind you, just because its technically possible for lasguns to eventually take out a land raider, it doesn't mean its sensible to try. It would be like watching your own finger nails grow. Or Cricket.

The orky perspective of this is one of having been on the wrong end of the old regime, and any change is good. Orkz, and obviously myself, had a thing for the “robotic walker” unit type and this just became impractical under previous editions. Especially after the Kustom Forcefield got downgraded. Not to mention, Orky Trukks having the durability of a wet paperbag in November, and Battlewagons got more expensive and less crushy. Leaks thus far have indicated its at least worth considering these units again. Killa Kanz, Deff Dreadz, and Gork/morkanauts can theoretically duel with the big beasts of similar cost, while still being credible challenges for infantry. Trukkz look like they might survive the attention of more than one shooting phase, although it would appear you want high value units in Battlewagons instead, due to how transports die. Transports can now also be used to absorb overwatch fire, and oh happy day, the deathrolla does the business again.


Da boyz

While I've maintained an interest since, what ruined 40k for me was the most recent Ork codex. Much anticipated after many years of codex creep, this was a huge anti-climax that worked against its key themes. In an attempt to more closely match their Fantasy Battle version, Orkz now had a nasty habit of infighting when they failed morale tests, inflicting a random number of wounds on random models. As ork units were easily 20 strong, this was impractical to apply via D6, and easily happened multiple times in a single phase to the same unit. Trukk mobz tended to vanish. What is the point of an Ork army where you are discouraged from taking boyz? Plus, all the stuff mentioned above. Fortunately, GW acknowledged much of this out of the gate, with their focus article, and leaked statlines do seem to back them up. Morale tests are less frequent, if invariably fatal if you fail, but Orkz get a suitable barrier to this. Mob Rule now treats leadership as equal to the number of models of that unit, or a nearby one. Given that Boyz still come in mobs of 30, and now get a bonus attack for being that big, pairs of large mobs aren't running without suffering ridiculous losses. This is further reinforced by the Warboss and Nobz, whom also affect morale, plus a selection of support characters.


Aside from being an awful lot less annoying to field, boyz do get a couple of benefits in this new edition. Their statline switches them back into being assault troops first, gaining a long overdue strength of 4, a flat 3+ to hit in close combat, and the aforementioned bonus attack for being many. The assault phase has of course been reworked and renamed, so temper your expectations here, but the charger always strikes first, and pistols seem to have more of a reason to exist now. This does present the possibility of entirely wiping out a unit before it strikes back, assuming you can manoeuvre such a mob into position. Ranged combat meanwhile is less attractive due to these changes, but I do not wish to discount Shootaboyz at this very early stage. Its still gonna be preferable for boyz in a defensive roll or footslogging to have an option other than running straight at the nearest target.

As fun as usually that is....

Mind you, something that's probably going to help all orkz, regardless of what weapon fixation they currently have, is the death of templates and blast markers. Such things now do random numbers of hits, and I wouldn't call them trivial in the slightest, but you don't have to worry about some git with a flamer turning half the squad into fried mushrooms if they have to bunch up.


Concerns
While what we have seen seems to suggest a deliberate attempt to correct past mistakes, one thing that does concern me is this “3 ways to play” business. The traditional points systems has been placed in the appendix, in favour of a more vague “power” rating and other stuff. While its nice to see GW avoid repeating the toxic revaluation that was Age Of Sigmar's absence of balancing, but one wonders if this truly their priority. The complete reworking of all armies at the same time does mean if they FAQ regularly, abuse should be minimised. But as there are other ways to play, one being AOS laissez faire, it would be easy for them to let it slide. Also, while I do think a unified statblock is the way to go, the fact that vehicles don't have armour facings anymore, or fire arcs, means some nuance is lost.


Primaris Marines

I must confess I've been eyerolling at all this. Loyalist beakies are simply the best equipped and catered for faction in the game. Yes, yes, chapter variants are a thing, but you know what I mean. The only things they don't have, horde infantry and titans, would go against their key themes. As marines are long past ubiquitous, this is a problem for GW as there simply isn't an obvious cool thing to for the next codex. This is why Centurions exist, and why they were viewed as a solution in search of a problem. Primaris Marines look to be in the same category, being essentially marines, but more so. Unless the eventual aim is to have them replace regular beakies, thus bringing the faction more in line with fictional depictions, I'm not really seeing the point. Its not that compelling a sales gimmick to me, but then I play Orkz. That said, the statlines and equipment thry have isn't easily dismissed, each inviting comparisons with multi-wound units like Nobz or Tyranid Warriors and noted cheesemongers the Grey Knights. Traditional ork tactics for killing Marines should apply here, but changes to the damage rules means they can survive the occasional power klaw blow. And speaking of which...


But other good stuff
When it comes to things which are nice, if perhaps unexpected, its looking like nobz have actual choices to make with weapons and gear. As there are dice modifiers in play, its no longer mandatory to take a power klaw, as a big choppa causes comparable damage without suffering the same downsides. Klaw don't strike at I1 anymore, on the charge they'll even strike first like all melee types, but suffer a -1 to hit and causes more random damage than the BC. There's a legit choice to be made. Meganobs meanwhile seem to have become even bigger bastards. They have 3 wounds now, and with modifiers and random damage in play, they should be able to absorb anti-tank fire without immediately dying. Kombi-weapons also get a dramatic new lease on life as both sections can be used without limitation.


Outlook
Optimistic.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Peak G1: What next after Titans Return?

Before I begin, let me state this upfront: I SELL TOYS. Toy seller. Capitalist scumbag. OK? That's my bias, please keep it in mind.

I have a concern. Its been bugging me for a while. Not a problem, but a potential one......

Its probably a self-evident truth that we are in something of a golden age for Transformers collectors, or to be more precise, Generation 1 kids. The people from the 80's. Yes, fans argue about paint applications, parts count, or IDW's latest crossover, but we've been in a privileged place since about 2013. While collectors lines have historically been infrequent filler or fragmented, sandwiched between movies and cartoons, we've had a largely uninterrupted run since the Thrilling Thirty line. Combiner Wars was, all things considered, a complete success, and Titans Return looks to be matching it for the most part. We've had characters and concepts return we never thought we'd see again, to the point where the Third Party option has almost become obsolete. Combiners work so well they probably can't be bettered at retail with Titanmasters, nee Headmasters, much the same. And its all so G1 its almost unbelievable. I mean, Japanese exclusive character Black Shadow is on his second Hasbro toy now. Sextuple-changer toy Six Shot is basically the G1 toy with articulation. And because Hasbro has been keen to use every big name lately, its easier to list a character whose head isn't a little dude that one that isn't. Or similarly wasn't part of some bigger dude last year. At this point however, we must now face an unfortunate fact. We are now scraping the bottom of the barrel.


We have hit peak G1.



Peak as in scalp, perhaps.



Now, what do I mean by that? And what is G1, if you are unfamiliar with the term? Well, "Generation 1" is the fan term used to refer to the original Transformers toys circa 1984 until the sequel Generation 2 in 1993. Like most fan concepts, there's some debate as to precise definition, but a lot of people default to the most recognisable media, the 1980's cartoon, especially the bits before the movie. You know, the Ark, the 80's lots of cars, jets, oil, and then suddenly Dinobots and Combiners, and so on. How correct this is depends a lot on where you stand and what you encountered first, but suffice to say, there's a lot more to the brand than two series of cartoons. The fundamental difference between Hasbro and TakaraTomy, the two companies which partner on Transformers, also involves this term. Hasbro takes a relaxed attitude to continuity, is quite happy to switch between toys, cartoons, comics or just make stuff up, but they do tend towards the cheapest option. Takara meanwhile will do absolutely all it can to make something match the 1980's cartoon, which has earned them some serious brownie points lately, if not without the periodic oddity. Takara usually defaults to a direct sequel to those cartoons, and the high-end Masterpiece line is their baby. By comparison, Hasbro has been far more eager to embrace new media, as evidenced by the numbers of IDW inspired toys that now exist. Hasbro is about toys on shelves, not necessarily collectors, but that aspect is there, while Takara is more the other way around. Yes, my point is still some distance away, but this is context we need to establish.


Right now, we have Titans Return out, which has endeared itself to more or less everybody, essentially being the headmaster concept modernised, with a better name. And how its been treated by each company reflects the above. Hasbro has taken a very relaxed approach, having both toy bios and somewhat truncated IDW comic event. TakaraTomy tied things back to the G1 cartoon, reshuffled the solo Titanmaster to other sets, thus being more G1 although more on that shortly. But regardless, there's a very strong 80's nostalgia thing going on. This is possibly the last big “Hey, I remember that in Woolworths” option they can take however. After the Headmasters, the cartoon ended, the toys went places a lot of fans want to dismiss, before the brand largely died. As far as mass market nostalgia goes, G1 might as well have ended circa 1987, only to resurface for Beast Wars in the 90's. And the next toy line, Prime Wars, is being teased. What's it gonna be about?


Pause for effect.


Now, of course G1 didn't end then, but there was a period there when the brand went from "pop culture staple" to "hey, they still make those?". And actually memorable or popular concepts from that period seem thin on the ground. After Headmasters comes Pretenders, whose play pattern was completely ignored until very recently. Here, some simplistic robots could be inserted into hollow figurines with typically 2 points of articulation. These could be very visually varied, and the shells could eventually transform too, but the concept was dropped, and has yet to be revisited by the brand proper. A third party company and Fun Publications have experimented with shells. Bludgeon is a legacy character too. But its nothing people have been clamouring for, and nor have gold rushing third parties been filling that gap like they did with combiners. And after the Pretenders, we just find variations on older themes, and stuff we definitely have modern versions of. Micromasters? Well, there's all kinds of legions, cyberverse and minicons. Obscure combiners? We've gorged ourselves sick on those. Actionmasters? Um, Mighty Mashers and those really expensive statues? Targetmasters?Well, Takara seems to want to revisit the concept with their releases of Hot Rod and Kup, but a vast majority of those characters are now Titanmasters. Plus, approximately all of the solo Titanmasters and a sizeable proportion of minicons do that gimmick already. Nostalgia gets another blow due to the fact that East and West also diverged sharply at this time. The Japanese cartoons continued on their own after 1987, and the fictional differences are immense. The Japanese versions of Titans Returns toys are not "G1 accurate", in the sense that they are closer to the cartoon you remember, although they are lovely. They are accurate to a Japanese anime you probably didn't know existed until you got the internet. Western collectors will of course enjoy these, but the general public? Less so. Why do you think the “Breast Force” got a limited edition Combiner Wars boxset rather than a full release?

Other than the name, of course.


Sorry, went on a bit of a tangent there. Anyway, with all that dismissed, only two nostalgia tugging options remain for the Prime Wars toyline to exploit. The first is to beastformers, like say the original Predacons, and ideally moving onto the Beast Wars continuity. There seems to be some hint of that with both Hasbro and Takara, with recent fan polls and Masterpiece releases, not to mention Third Parties. The trouble is, actual organic beast modes have not been a thing since about 2008, while mechanical beasts have been hovering around Prime and the bayverse for some time. It may be that the toy factories think this niche is being filled, or don't want to risk confusing John Q. Public, whom probably thinks all Transformers turn into machines. Which leads us to option 2, just keep on recycling G1 concepts forever.


Which, as you may have noticed, is already happening.


While the nostalgia driven, and popular, Combiner Wars gave us 5 classic teams, a big chunk of it was legacy characters remade into combiners despite there being perfectly good versions already. We had two waves of that, plus a general dusting. Titans Return has evidence of this right out of the gate too, with a lot of 1986 movie characters, tapeformers, triple changers and what not. Its also devoured most of the Target' and Powermaster characters, so depending on how you want to count, its hit 6 major gimmicks in one line. There are arguably no new characters either, the closest thing being Sentinel Prime, and some heads which now have an independent existence.



And don't forget, we've had neo-G1 in some way since since 2007ish. Maybe its time to homage something else.  Just rest it for a bit. Maybe more of this?




Oh, don't look at me like that. Just saying.

Images Copyright Hasbro etc.

Monday, 27 March 2017

A Review of Saban's Power Rangers (2017), Without Spoilers

Against all rational expectation, this film does not suck. I don't wish to oversell it. There's legitimate reasons to dislike the movie, like product placement, and it hovers around competency rather than greatness, but it does not suck. We certainly had every reason to think it would suck in the run up to its release. It seemed to be aping the Michael Bay Transformers films, which suck. It seemed to be a dark and gritty reboot of children's TV show, which tend to suck. Its another movie that assumes a sequel, which is cheeky and usually sucks. It was was gonna be an origin story, which don't automatically suck, are so over done as a concept it often results in suck anyway. And its source material, while I would not say it sucks, its not exactly starting from a position of high art. The Power Rangers brand, long-story-short, is a toy advert cobbled together from Japanese stock footage, which equates to suck in most formal review styles. There was no reason to assume that the result would be tolerable, and despite the content of this blog, I have no nostalgia goggles to apply. However, the film ends up working, to the point where I was honestly surprised at the amount of fun I was having with it.


I say again, Power Rangers, somehow, does not suck.





It has a shaky start. There's some obnoxious camera-work, and a red flag in the form of a“bull milking” joke. Fortunately this is brief, as the film moves into teen drama territory. It does not rush into morphing time, and a majority of the movie is characterisation first. This bears unexpected yet admirable fruit in that one ranger is autistic and another of the LGBT persuasion, facts which are treated as just part of life with little fanfare. Its not the earth-shattering leap forward that some have made this out to be, but diversity matters, so have a brownie point. The tone is initially serious, but lightens into a sense of wonder and fun by the films end when the rangers armour up and start promoting toys. While the design aesthetic is butt ugly, seeing the Zords in action is an undeniable high point, with a sprinkling of fan service and being easy to follow. Even the alien designs for Zordon and Alpha 5 grow on you, something undoubtedly help by a subplot involving Zordon's actual existence, and Bill Hader's vocal performance. The plot has its contrivances, and its influences are worn on its sleeve, but Power Rangers earns its high points and doesn't make any overt mistakes. That's faint praise I know, but the film does seem to have been made by people whom took pride in their work and weren't embarrassed by what they were adapting. As long as Batman V Superman exists, and Michael Bay keeps doing Transformers films(1), that's something.


Perhaps the nicest thing about the film however is Elisabeth Bank's depiction of Rita Replusa. While another visual departure from the TV series in that she looks like something Elven out of Warcraft, Rita matches the changing tone of this film. After being made a definite threat by killing people personally, not being at full power and scrabbling for resources, she becomes increasingly flamboyant as the story progresses in her favour. The result is an actress wallowing in the ham a role provides her, going full panto by the end of it, chewing the scenery like she hasn't ate in days. Whatever you feel about the film, you will remember this performance. Especially, if you have a phobia about teeth.


All-in-all, Saban's Power Rangers is not a film that will stand out in the crowd, but one that as a pleasant surprise. Low expectations probably play a big part with this, but its nice to be wrong about something. Its not great, but it doesn't mess things up either. It is what it is. If you end up watching this with your kids, you won't have a bad time.


As mentioned, it does not suck.

Foot notes
1) The creators seem to have been of a similar mind, there's a joke/FU in this film worth the price of entry.

Image Copyright Saban, used under fair use provisions.




Sunday, 19 March 2017

A Review of Logan (2017), With Many Spoilers

Logan represents the latest instalment in Fox's long running X-Men franchise. Using Marvel characters, while not actually being part of the MCU, this franchise can be best described as patchy. Most are OK, some have aged poorly, several are dire, but with the notable exception of Deadpool, they've yet to completely nail it. One thing they did however get right first time was Logan A.K.A Wolverine A.K.A James Howlett, A.K.A Mutant McStabbyhands, the antisocial berserker of an ensemble cast. Logan the character is probably only just below Batman in terms of recognisability, but most of the films about him are meh at best. Logan the film, what we are talking about today, exists mainly because actor Hugh Jackman wishes to retire from the role after sixteen odd years. And fortunately, it isn't meh. In fact, its probably gonna be on a lot of people's shortlists for best Superhero film, 2017.



The main reason is its conceit. This film has an unusually bleak premise with subtle themes of dystopia, which honestly put me in mind of one of those non-canon/elseworlds/what-if stories. Its NOT directly based on the Old Man Logan comic series, with the only real similarity being Logan happening to be an old man in a crappy world. Mutants are dying out, not at the hands of killer robots, but due to the mysterious lack of mutant births. The X-Men are gone, with seemingly the only survivors being Wolverine, and Professor X A.K.A Charles. Neither is ageing well, with Charles having a brain disease and Wolverine working as chauffeur to support both of them, now needing glasses to read. Into this comes Laura A.K.A X-23 a new mutant of about 10, and a team of cyborg mercenaries chasing her. With extreme reluctance, and the promise of money, Wolverine drives her to safety. Unfortunately for him, and those he must protect, Wolverine is dying, his mutant healing factor all but spent. He does not survive the trip, and at one point discusses suicide.


As I say, bleak. Wolverine, the embodiment of male bloodlust and endurance, hobbles around covered in scars, drinking his regrets, and finding even his claws are failing him. But more than that is the sense of regret. The X-Men failed. Mutants look to be going out not with a bang, but with a whimper. Professor X is not only in mad grampa territory, but did something Wolverine won't discuss. And Wolverine himself has killed more men than cancer, and has nothing to show for it than guilt and a broken body held together with painkillers and booze. The world they live in is not overtly hostile, but one of faded glory, run-down tourist traps, and corporations. With the film having scenes in Mexico, its easy to draw comparisons with Trump's America, but that's not the point. The point is legacy, as evidenced by the X-Men comics Laura adores, but Wolverine decries as false. And blood. Lots of blood, and how it marks a person. Logan invokes the classic Western Shane, both featuring scenes and dialogue from it to hammer home this point. And the result is a powerful drama that owes more to the Western genre than superheroes, with some unapologetically brutal fight scenes. And make no mistake, this isn't the “GRIMDARK” or “edgy neon” favoured by the DC stable so far. This bleakness is earned, not an affectation.  


That said, Logan's flaws manifest in the third act, where some time-honoured superhero cliches, and Fox's general incompetence, come home to roost. One of the monsters chasing Laura which Wolverine must defeat, proves to be an evil clone of himself in black, something so chronically unimaginative as to ruin my first viewing. While not without symbolic meaning, its symbolism wielded like a cosh, and feels much dumber than everything before it. A better way? Make it someone more intimately involved with Wolverine, such as his male offspring Daken, or Sabretooth. You add lots more drama that way, this just feels like a cost saving. On a similar note, the fate of mutant kind and the machinations of Xander Rice feel as trite as any previous X-Men film that tried similar. Perhaps these plot elements should have been left unexplained. Then there's the matter of basic continuity, which is broken in ways both big and small. This is best evidenced by the casting of Stephen Merchant as Caliban, but this character was also played by Tómas Lemarquis last year in Apocalypse, and while not to diminish either actor, the performances are also incompatible with each-other. It seems nobody at Fox realised the character was in both films, which is face-to-palm stupid. The film does not match up with Days of Future Past either, with neither timeline fitting this narrative.Given that this movie is sold on Jackman's retirement following an unusually long tenure, that lack of continuity is shameful. While these errors are easily ignored in the experience of watching, this contracts sharply with the care taken with characterisation and direction. Paradoxically, its best viewed as a separate entity from the previous films, while being reliant on the broad strokes for most of its impact.


While all of the above disqualifies from true greatness, Logan is undoubtedly the best of the "serious" X-Men films. Part of this undoubtedly is a matter of timing and context. We've finally got Wolverine in a film with an age rating that fits, at a time there's a market for darker Superhero films. So, yes, if you wanted to see Wolverine in a production where the studio allowed for buckets of blood, it does that. What makes the film worth watching is the characterisation work, admittedly benefiting from Jackman's career choices, but let's not diminish the talent on display. Jackman, Stewart and Dafne Keen all own their roles. The narrative, despite nitpicks, works fabulously.


Its a good film. Fox might finally be getting their act together.


Image Copyright Fox, used under fair use provisions.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

So, I started modelling again.....Part 5: Ships and forum

Well, things continue onwards. I signed up for dakkadakka, and ended up posting there, rather than here.  Basically, I've painted 20 ramships, started painting a terror ship, and some onslaughts.





I ended up stripping down the wings off the terror ship, as it was too big.





Also started on a hammer class. Please excuse the glare. Gonna put a big jaw on it.




I did however find this extremely interesting item at a charity shop though.






The story behind this is too fecking long to explain within the context of this post. I may write about it. I will be building it here.


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Remembering Transformers: The Power Core Combiners

It was the year 2010, and still no hover cars. I'd begun collecting Transformers again by this point. Not to a great extent, but Transformers Animated had brought me back into the fold by being such a good show, so I could say I was a Transformers fan again without a qualifier. It was a good time for the brand. The movies, as overtly terrible as they were, brought a lot of money into the brand and prompted a lot of toys. Transformers were very easily found, at all prices and sizes. And what's more, after a couple of years of sharp changes, the original Transformers style was coming back, and they weren't relying on the movie cast. While the Revenge of the Fallen line is infamous for its complexity, but it did a lot of fan pleasing things in later waves. This evolved into the TF2010 toyline between movies, a wider celebration of the brand, which ran concurrently with the collector-focused Generations line and Reveal the Shield sublines. Fans were basically getting all they wanted, and then Hasbro threw in another line to fill in the gaps, Power Core Combiners. These looked to be both inexpensive, and really fun to mess with. The basic idea was to have a small transformer, a commander, combine with 4 drone vehicles, whom would automatically transform into a limb. This “Power Up Mode”, would have shades of the old scramble city gimmick in that you could swap limbs, although a drone could only be an arm or a leg, not both. If not sold with drones, the commander would have a 4 mode Mini-Con partner instead, whom functioned as a multi-purpose accessory. Visually, these toys would lean towards classical transformer designs, rather than the movie aesthetic, although the combined forms tend towards bayverse with a lack of actual hands. In terms of fiction, things were a bit vague, but also leaned towards the bayverse.


These looked to be everything I wanted as a collector at that time.


I'd developed a mild fixation on the scout class, so I was on board, and this would see the return of another favourite of mine, Mini-Cons. The scout class had hit a level of quality that it honestly rivalled the deluxe price point around ROTF, and there had been a renaissance of toy-first, more conventionally designed characters. Plus, combination is always fun.. Play value should have been great. And yet the Power Core Combiners hit discount like a straight-to-video sequel. Starring a less famous Baldwin brother.


Bombshock & Combaticons, a first wave highlight


The PCC toys versus Objectivity and Subjectivity: a discussion
Back when I was writing reviews proper, I would always aim for objectivity. What do I mean by this? Well, my opinion, your opinion, everyone's opinion, is dictated by personal taste and context, its entirely subjective. It is not the same as the truth, and striving for objectivity is the acknowledgement of this. The fandom does not view Transformers like actual children do, and the fandom itself does not have a unified view on most things, including what makes a good toy. The best you can do is try to acknowledge your own biases, and accept that a commonly held opinion can just easily be wrong as right. Power Core Combiners got hit very hard with subjective complaints. That is to say, it wasn't designed in a way that immediately pleased collectors. But, as this worked so well for Armada, why didn't this line take off? Well, because there's some objectively bad things about them.



Crankcase and the Destrons, a sucessful repaint


On the more subjective end of the complaint spectrum, there is the entire gimmick, and the engineering decisions that resulted. Some fans took against the fact these toys didn't have a traditional five member combination, the spring-loaded conversion also hampering articulation. The fact that a toy is easily transformed and doesn't prioritise articulation isn't automatically the same thing as being a bad toy, see Armada again, but for many it is. Part of this is undoubtedly the somewhat curious choice to cast the power core connectors in blue. If they'd been black, people probably wouldn't have minded as much, but would that really have made the toys better? The connectors themselves seem to a result of the sheer challenge in doing a three mode transformer at this size, a compromise, but Hasbro deliberately didn't hide them. 





They put them in the fricking logo.


I kinda respect that. On that theme, many also took issue with the combined forms, in that they often weren't fully humanoid, routinely lacking hands and having odd proportions. This is a complaint which I'm not gonna dismiss out of hand, as Transformers are people, but we are talking about a mode that is purely about blowing stuff up, so.....OK? I also find myself wondering if the old “its not G1, so I don't like it” mindset may be at play here. A lot of these toys invoke classical characters, but stop just short of actually being them. Would it have made a difference to the public perception of these toys, if, say, Bombshock was named Onslaught? Well, people would have been far more forgiving if the PCCs if they were named legacy characters, at least at first.



 Presenting the infamous Doubleclutch and Rallybots


As for objective flaws, they were there, and I can't pretend otherwise. They honestly mucked things up with startling regularity, varying from tolerance issues, to mis-assembly and flat-out bad design. Doing a triple changer at this size is a very considerable challenge. Double Clutch is pretty notorious for having 4 corrective retools, Bombshock has his legs mixed up, and Mudslinger has fragile thighs, to name three big offenders. Surprisingly, the Mini-Cons themselves don't come up often in the same conversation. Sure, they are made from translucent plastic, which tends to cause breakages a few years down the line, but the only mould called on it by the wiki for it is Beacon, whom isn't translucent. What did however come up during my research was an oversight in the design of the line. You see, the moulds intended to be sold with Mini-Cons had a port on the chest for armour mode, but the moulds for the five packs largely didn't. The toys weren't as interactive and interchangeable as they looked, with some lacking proper fist holes. Wave three did a mix and match, and produced sets that just didn't work as well as the originals, including a Protectobot team with three military drones in it, and a Decepticon whom can't hold his axe(1).All this certainly contributed to the bad reception of the line, which resulted in later waves not getting a full release, which had of course featured new moulds without those issues. I had largely avoided these problems, the worst I encountered being a stress mark and an enthusiastic spring. Then this happened.




NOOOOOOOOOOOO!


Ahem, thanks to @copplex for selling me a replacement, as Sledge is that nice of a toy.




What the PCC line did well
Right, we've spent a few paragraphs acknowledging the weaknesses of the line. Why should you pay any attention to it? And why do I even remember them?

They did a Dinobot Combiner. There you go, case closed. Checkmate. Humanity fulfils its destiny. Toyline completely justified.





Oh, you want a serious answer?


Remember how I mentioned that the Power Core Combiners came from a good period in the brand? When toy budgets were high, oil prices were a bit lower, and they got creative? When they made notably good scouts, with many joints, and frequent accessories? Yeah, PCCs do still benefit from that trend. These were toys that were over-ambitious and quirky, not ones where corners were cut, and I've got a lot of time for stuff like that. More specifically, the PCCs tended towards notably good head sculpts, uncommon altmodes, and tended to have play value coming out of their ears. No hover cars, unfortunately, when it worked, it proper worked. And when it didn't? Well, these toys were and are inexpensive. Here's list of toys that are either curious or superior examples of the line.

Huffer & Caliburst: A good all-rounder paired with another good all-rounder.

Smoulder & Chopster: An evil fire truck with a flaming axe.

Sledge & Throttler: A nicely articulated robot, whose altmode and mini-con has the functions of at least 3 Constructicons.

Icepick & Chainclaw: An evil snowplough, whom can look like Jack Frost.

Undertow & Waterlog: An evil speedboat. Speedboats in general are pretty rare. Like once a leap year rare.

Heavytread & Groundspike: A rare Autobot tank that isn't Warpath(2), Heavytread has arguably the best torso mode in the line.

Bombshock & the Combaticons: Lotsa guns.

Grimstone & the Dinobots: See above.

Steamhammer & the Constructicons: 4 unique altmodes, pleasing combined form, and knives.


 Steamhammer, from my personal collection.


Legacy
A financial failure, the Power Core Combiners quickly dropped into obscurity. The line would would in effect be replaced by the Human Alliance basic figures in Dark Of The Moon, which enjoyed much greater success. Combination would return in the Fall of Cybertron line, but would also prove to be something of a failure in execution, a much worse one due to budget cuts. A little later, there would be a Japanese release of these toys under the United Ex banner, where they were tied into the G1 continuity as pre-existing characters, and given nicer paint jobs. Such is the way of things, although information on the actual toys is a bit thin on the ground. The fandom largely ignored these repaints after the PCCs had finished, so its not clear if any of the faults were replicated there. The PCCs did however get a level of support from two different third party companies, an oddity given that these weren't a G1 property. Maketoys made a set of modular weapons that could partsform into limbs, and a completely new commander mould to make their version of The Fallen. TFC Toys meanwhile would go a different route, creating 4 transforming robots closely based on WW2 vehicles and their crew. I don't normally go in for such things, but those Iron Army sets remain in my glass case. A completely successful combiner would not appear until Combiner Wars. At no point would hover cars appear, real or otherwise, although you could make the case for some of the Fall Cybertron stuff.



The Maketoys Missile Launcher, jungle colours variant. Note Heavytread is featured prominently.




The TFC Toys Iron Army set combined. Again, note Heavytread being used as example.




Conclusion
The Power Core Combiners was an exceptionally ambitious line, that didn't fulfil that ambition. It definitely wasn't for the want of trying, as the toys were very creative, but it just didn't quite work out well, and writing this article took the shine off the nostalgia for me. Having a toy break was probably what did it, but I can't deny the line had some nasty problems around wave 3 or so. That said, if you want to call the line a failure, you must acknowledge that it was an interesting one, and there were some legitimately good toys in there. The PCCs had a lot of unusual concepts, rare altmodes, and a basically good play pattern once the bugs were worked out. So check 'em out.

In the meantime, its 2017, where's my damn hover car?


Foot notes
  1. Oh, and there was the famous “Spastic” incident, later on.
  2. Or Guzzle.

Images not by myself are variously copyright of Hasbro, Make Toys and TFC Toys, used under fair use provisions.