Thursday, 5 November 2015

Too Much Of A Good Thing: My Opinions Of Transformers Combiner Wars So Far

Occasionally, I feel that merely reviewing Transformers is insufficient. I think I do a good job with the little picture, focusing on individual toys, but the wider context can get lost. Today, I talk about Combiner Wars, the current line of collector-oriented, but still mass-market, Transformers toys. Combiner Wars was the best thing since sliced bread. It is now exactly as exciting as sliced bread for most fans, namely that supermarket own brand you buy every week. Allow me to ramble for a while about the toyline and the reasons why it got a bit dull.

Why Combiner Wars is rather good
Before I go any further, lets take a moment acknowledge how damn great these toys are, and how they are exactly what the fans have been demanding since forever. They are the Scramble City style combiners, only with modern articulation and engineering. Yes, third party toys are better, but you are looking at three times the price. Each one is a simply but extremely efficiently engineered toy, and they work so well, they've made any preceding Hasbro combiner, and most third party equivalents, obsolete. The hand/foot guns? Genius. The Aerialbots? Regardless of variant, and some wave one kinks, these are going to be the best combining jets in the mass market for a decade. The Stunticons? The combined mode isn't as good, and its probably easier for us Brits to buy the Japanese version, AS WAVE 2 DID NOT COME HERE(1), but are very nice as individuals. The Protectobots? The best team overall, benefiting from lessons learned, having only gained a member, and coming in a single wave. There's also been a willingness from Hasbro to mix things up, adding completely new characters, or re-purposing old ones into new teams. The size of a team was in effect increased to 6+, each having a legend scale toy associated. If actually playing with toys is your thing, Combiner Wars is a godsend, because there is so much mix & match potential. And, perhaps most surprising of all, Combiner Wars has yet to produce an honestly bad toy. Even the filler was cherry-picked from earlier years and given a new shine. This is not to say there hasn't been obvious room for improvement in the areas of joints and plastic tolerance, but you'll forgive me if I gesture to the subheading above, and swiftly move on from that. So why are we in the situation where pretty much everyone wants Combiner Wars to go away in favour of Titans Return? Not to in any way diminish the obvious appeal of Titans Return, but there's more going on here than merely the new and tasty.

Its the same reason why you don't eat your bestest, most favourite, and beloved food every day. Eventually, you just don't want it any more.

Presenting Superion, whom is awesome, if samey and loose in the limbs.

Remoulds and the controversy that was Alpha Bravo
We got our first hints of this with the reveals of waves 1 and 2, although this was greatly obscured by a more superficial complaint. Hasbro had opted to release the Aerialbots and Stunticons in an odd 3/1 ratio, but the characters of Slingshot and Wildrider were conspicuous by their absence. Alpha Bravo was the first of the "replacements' out, the lone helicopter in a team of jets, and became the lightning rod for all complaints. The fact he was the probably best Autobot deluxe in wave 1, and that some variety was welcome in a team that was otherwise homogeneous, didn't come into it. The Stunticon new guy Offroad got a similar amount of stick, and then it came to light Takara was bringing the old guys back, and then so was Hasbro via an ill-defined online exclusive. While all this wailing and gnashing of teeth was going on, people overlooked the presence of remoulds, and "premoulds", toys intended to be reworked into other more popular characters later on. That's what Alpha Bravo actually was, he was planned from the start to be Blades and Vortex, Hasbro just put the unpopular repaint out first. Similar can be said about Optimus Prime and Motormaster, although I'd imagine Prime sells better to kids than collectors think. Offoad is the reason foot notes are a thing(2).

Presenting Menasor, whom is awesome, if rough around the edges.

It seems at some point, Hasbro and TakaraTomy decided they were going to have a lot of remoulds in the Combiner Wars line. No team would be completely original, with even the Aerialbots sharing parts. This is not an inherently bad thing, nor a new thing, but generally, people want actually new things. I point you to Coneheads, for an old school example, or most of Generations and Beast Hunters. If they are recycling a design which is good, and they add a new head to it, no problem. If we get a Springer/Sandstorm level reworking BRILLIANT. And, I can see a marketing executive pointing this out, the original scramble city toys were pretty similar in design in order to keep the limbs the same length, for the first few anyway. Hasbro seemed to want to downplay this fact, which is a partial explanation for the distribution, but we find ourselves in a situation where its typical for a toy to be used at least three times, with the actually epic mould Dead End mould being sent to factory seven times and counting. Meanwhile TakaraTomy has sidestepped the issue by releasing/announcing a smaller number of moulds at a slower rate, having gone for crowd-pleasing line ups of classically G1 teams. It has however meant that your average G1 purist has doubled up on moulds at a faster rate, because the “missing members” were retooled versions of the members that were mass-market releases, or would become mass-market releases, so they burned out faster. This is half the reason why the collectors fandom is loosing interest.

The other is high expectations, and some disappointments.

Presenting Defensor, whom is awesome, UNLESS you really want a motorbike for a limb.

Wave 4 and beyond
With the Protectobots of wave 3 being a compelling argument in favour of remoulds, hopes were high in the run up to major convention events. People started speculating as to which teams where next, and how the toys would be executed. Rumours started flying of the holy grail of combiners, Devastator, and him being massive. Characters like Onslaught, Prowl and Scattorshot started turning up in stock listings. And images were leaked. Excitement coming into events like the San Diego Comic Con and Botcon 2015 was tangible. The trouble was, once wave 3 started appearing in mailboxes and we got an idea what was coming, it began to look like the Protectobots were the peak. Devastator was revealed, but the individual Constructicons had patchy articulation and dodgy proportions. This personally made me conflicted on the set for a long time, and while I did take the plunge and warm to it, my review should indicate the curiosities and flaws of those toys. Wave 4 proved to be essentially the Stunticons retooled as 1984 Autobots, something which collectors weren't necessarily keen on, due to a lack of precedent and they having the arguably/probably superior toys of previous years. The Combaticon centric wave 5, still unreleased at time of writing, so I resist pre-judging, didn't exactly endear itself on reveal. Not only was Brawl the single new mould deluxe, Blast Off was an inexplicable Quickslinger/Slingshot repaint, and Vortex was the long predicted, but unchanged, Alpha Bravo. Shockwave would be the associated legend toy, which made a degree of sense given that one scene from the cartoon, but this wasn't on anyone's wishlist. Suffice to say, people were hoping for a bit more than that, and weren't happy when Scattorshot turned up as a disappointing Silverbolt retool, minus his Technobots. Wave 6 proved to be previously non-combining Autobots again, happily featuring Sky Lynx of all people as new mould voyager, but a bunch of recycled limbs. Also on the plus side, a fan poll gave a team of combining female Autobots, all new characters, if an exclusive. Exclusive G2 coloured versions of Stunticons and Aerialbots are also pending.

Hasbro would subsequently confirm that the Technobots and any beast combiners were not happening. The big announcement of Titans Return would follow at New York Comic Con.

Presenting Devastator, whom is awesome, so long as he stays combined.

Unite Warriors: The other-other reason why people are tired of Combiner Wars
I have attempted to write about the CW line and the Japanese take on it several times, but I always dumped the draft as I felt I was getting a bit “console fanboy” about it. As mentioned, TakaraTomy went full G1 cartoon with the toys, and to their credit, they didn't cheap out. They created a totally new, if technically unnecessary, deluxe Grove, added such luxuries as elbows to Devastator, and give every indication of doing a space shuttle version of Blast Off. Lovely boxes too, and a lot of it limited exclusives, making them even more desirable. However, I still find the G1 first attitude a bit self-defeating, because the cartoon is thirty years old now, and was made pretty badly in the first place. A lot of collectors do however love it, so more-or-less everything old TT has done has reflected poorly on Combiner Wars in their eyes. However, let's not kid around, CW toys weren't made to be G1 accurate in the first place, so the Japanese paintjobs tend to ignore detail, like Defensor's chest or adds things that aren't there, like Devastator's left foot becoming a truck cab, and Drag Strip's extra “wheels”. And they are lagging months behind Hasbro in releases, so they have lost the advantage of novelty, and probably a few sales. Its not clear if they will release past wave 4, although I wouldn't rule it out. They are releasing Optimus Prime combiner team, a concept deeply in contradiction to the G1 Cartoon, presumably because Optimus sells. Cyclonus is also teased. However, I can't honestly begrudge them doing what so much of the fanbase so clearly wants.

Presenting Rook, whom is awesome, UNLESS you really want a motorbike for a limb.

All that said, TakaraTomy did do something which is harder to defend, and that's to ignore the Legend scale toys, as well as the new characters. In what seems to be an attempt to flesh out their equivalent of Robots In Disguise, Transformers Adventure, toys like Powerglide and Blackjack were shifted into that line, their combining functions ignored. If this truly is part of their stated mandate to make Unite Warriors as G1 as possible, it means they have ignored play features for fear of introducing something actually new to the mix. I don't mean to be undiplomatic here, TT, but ya doing it wrong.

Presenting Sea Clamp, whom may be awesome, it depends what his combiner head looks like

Fun Publications: the other-other-other reason
Also coming out of Botcon 2015 was news that Funpub already had access to CW toys, giving us the Mayhem Attack Squad as combiners and therefore going some way to correcting the Combiner Wars Autobot bias. This was unexpectedly quick, given that one of the toys featured was still months away from a mass-market release, but I doubt this is necessarily a good thing for Funpub. Their business method is to take last year's toys, slap new heads on them, and then charge three times the price. They are in the damned do/don't paradox; if they do something forgettable, people complain about their prices, if they do something actually popular, people complain about the exclusivity making it both expensive AND really hard to find. To make the matter worse, Hasbro has been taking last month's toys, slapping new heads on them, and then charging the retail price. Hasbro are doing the same thing, for less. The Botcon 2016 set, “Dawn of the Predacus” however seems more appealing, as its a Beast Wars themed set. We've only seen mock-ups so far, and nothing of the combined mode, but I'm not pessimistic.

Wrapping Things Up
To put things into scale, the Generation 1 combiners that prompted all this, were released over three years. From Devastator to Scattorshot there was three years of product, but Combiner Wars is to run for eighteen months or so. And on the the collectors side of things, its all encompassing. G1 wasn't solid combiners, 1986 was close, but even then, we the movie characters and triple changers. Its unsurprising that we got tired of the gimmick. The most consist source of non-combining transformers has been the leader class, and that's also remould city. And I don't think I'm necessarily alone in being indifferent to RID and the Masterpiece releases. So, like more than a few people, I don't see myself buying anything past the Combaticons other than Sky Lynx. Which is a real shame, because, they are nice toys, and exactly what we asked for. This is, as the meme says, a First World Problem.

I hope Titans Return doesn't prompt the same level of fatigue, but given there's at least three gimmicks going on there, I'm optimistic.

Presenting Titans Return Blaster, whom might be awesome, we just don't know.

Foot Notes
  1. With the wave composition being what it was, this left the British Isles with an incomplete Superion, and Drag Strip as the singular Stunticon. Whomsoever is responsible, shame on you.
  2. While a new character, and therefore subject to the same comments as Alpha Bravo, Offroad was attended to be Ruckas, the G1 Triggercon. Hasbro changed their minds, but Fun Publications is indeed bringing that character back with this mould.

    Photos are by myself, CG renders and promotional art copyright of Hasbro. Sea Clamp image copyright of Fun Publications.

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