Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Generations Skullgrin

Generation 1's Pretenders were an interesting idea, executed poorly because (a) it hadn't been especially well thought out in terms of how it would fit in with the rest of the line (particularly in terms of scale) and (b) both the robots and shells had to be very simplistic to make the Pretender gimmick work. I ended up getting only two - the Autobot asteroid miner Landmine and the vampiric Decepticon predator Bomb-Burst. It was a system that worked great in the comics, but I was never sure if they were supposed to be giants, like the other Cybertronians, or human-sized, as some of the Pretender shells seemed to imply (possibly making them the immediate ancestors of the smaller, more energon-efficient Maximals and Predacons?). The concept died out mercifully fast, but suddenly popped back into the collective fan consciousness when an apparently human character in Revenge of the Fallen turned out to be - somewhat incongruously - a human-sized Pretender.

Even so, when the Revenge of the Fallen offshoot toyline, N.E.S.T. Global Alliance, released its interpretation of Bludgeon, I doubt that many suspected any other G1 Pretenders would be reimagined within the contemporary toyline. Another was soon revealed, bizarrely, on the instruction sheet for Generations Darkmount/Straxus, which somehow showed Skullgrin's head instead.

Vehicle Mode:
As with Darkmount/Straxus, this is a reasonable interpretation of a half-track, albeit with some scale issues. Recoloured mostly in a very pale grey, it's just as sparsely painted but could just about get away with being described as semi-realistic for an urban/arctic environment, making it a huge improvement on Darkmount/Straxus' daft blue shell, yet it's still not made in truly realistic colours. A good deal of the paint layout is the same, albeit in different colours but, rather than the occasional pseudo-military marking, Skullgrin has panels painted in gold on the turret and the front section of the vehicle. It breaks up the plain grey quite nicely, but I'm not sure gold was quite the right colour given the nature of the vehicle. Just like the original, only Skullgrin's treads are painted - the wheels and workings within look rather plain, but at least the sculpted detail is pronounced enough that it's not lost due to the pale colour of the plastic.

Skullgrin comes with exactly the same three c-clip weapons as Darkmount/Straxus, which is a huge shame given the 'mix and match' nature of the system. At least it's possible to mount them in different places, thanks to the multitude of bars on the turret and track sections of the vehicle.
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Robot Mode:
While vehicle mode is a bit dull, robot mode looks excellent - this mold's bulky torso perfectly suits the idea of reinventing the frankly quite portly Pretender shells... And that's the biggest surprise: this is a robotisation of Skullgrin's monstrous shell rather than a new representation of the nondescript robot within. Robot mode reveals more dark, slightly shimmery grey and burgundy parts, making him vastly more visually appealing than he was in vehicle mode. The triangular details on the chest are outlined in a gunmetal colour, which seems like an odd choice to me, but doesn't look bad. He also has a couple of touches of silver on his thighs to highlight the armour over the joint, and the silver patches on his burgundy 'toes' make for a decent reference to the hooves of the G1 original, though it would have worked better to paint most of the foot in the dark gunmetal colour, and only the triangular detail in burgundy.

Not only does he have the same c-clip weapons as the original, his pickaxe is identical as well. Given that the original Skullgrin came with a sword and a couple of blasters, it's a pity the weapon wasn't at least slightly remolded to better suit the character, but I guess turning it into a sword would have necessitated too many other changes elsewhere on the mold. Plus, a hulking robot with such an evil-looking head isn't exactly unsuited to wielding a large pickaxe. With a missile pod, machine gun and grenade launcher to be positioned on his legs or backpack, adding any kind of handgun would seem a little redundant.

Skullgrin's head sculpt has a very similar aesthetic to the N-GA Bludgeon, which is to say it's not truly suited to either the movie lines or the extended Classics line - it's almost begging for a subline of it's own, of horrific, not-quite-beast robots. It has elements of the ram's skull look of the original Skullgrin, but there's nothing organic about this new look and the angular simplicity of the sculpt makes it look more like a mask than the robot's actual head. It's chillingly good... but seems far too small given the bulk of his torso. It's also surprisingly well painted given its simplicity, with a burgundy patch on the crown, where a pair of stubby horns point backward, seeming to suggest and exposed scalp, the eyes are painted with a vibrant red (light piping might have been preferable, but the three parts making up Skullgrin's head are all molded from the same creamy-white plastic), and the suggestions of teeth in his upper jaw are picked out in silver. All it really needed - other than being slightly larger - was a wash of black or grey, to bring out some of the detailing.
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Skullgrin's rear tread sections are just as likely to pop off their ball joints as those of Darkmount/Straxus, and the legs are just as difficult to transform from one mode to the other thanks to the overall fiddly construction and the conflicting parts. On the upside, certain aspects can be customised slightly to further differentiate him from the original usage of the mold. In particular, I've found Skullgrin looks equally good with the vehicle front sections raised over his shoulders, somewhat like the horns in the G1 shell's shoulder armour, or left entirely untransformed over his chest, to reference the original's sagging, leather-like jerkin.

Just like Darkmount/Straxus, some of the joints are a tad floppy, but this one generally feels a bit more solid and robust. All of the excellent articulation is there, just slightly more stable... though the same may not be true for everyone. The biggest disappointment is that the head is no more mobile than the original, and the ability to look up a touch more could have allowed for some very sinister, hunched-over poses.

What's perhaps most curious about this version of Skullgrin is how differently the character is portrayed. The original was described as "a brutal, uncontrollable engine of destruction", expressing himself largely in "a series of snorts and snarls", with absolutely nothing to explain his intelligence rating of 9 out of 10. This new version - according to the extended bio not present on the European release - almost comes across as a sympathetic character, a mechanical Doctor Jekyll, genuinely fearful of his Mr. Hyde... making him a very unusual Decepticon in many ways. Generations Darkmount/Straxus managed to impress me, despite being a weird toy of a Marvel Comics character about whom I'd always been quite ambivalent. Skullgrin beats him hands-down, with stronger homage in his colourscheme and a truly startling head sculpt. While I don't think re-examining the Pretender concept would be a good move for the toyline now, I certainly wouldn't be averse to more reimaginings, as long as they're more like this and Bludgeon than the BotCon 2012 Octopunch repaint of Generations Seaspray.

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