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.


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.

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.

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.

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