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HEXdidn't...: A Brief Autobiography in Terms of TransFormers Toys

(updated 25/2/2017)
I first started collecting TransFormers toys when they first appeared on UK shelves back in 1984 - they were something new and very exciting, considering I'd grown up with Dinky/Matchbox/Tonka cars, Lego, Action Man, Star Wars and Masters of the Universe. Before TransFormers, most of my toy purchases were quite random and didn't really constitute 'collecting' (OK, I had a fair few MotU figures, and even the Castle Greyskull playset, but the largest collection - Star Wars - wasn't exactly extensive and, in any case, my mother now considers all those toys to be hers!). I used to dip into toylines but get bored fairly quickly. Nothing captured my attention or imagination the way TransFormers did. I was one of the lucky few to get Optimus Prime for Christmas in 1985, when he was released in the UK in pitifully small numbers, causing (I'm told) the kind of nasty scenes in toy shops you hear about all too frequently with 'fad' toys these days. I almost didn't as, a couple of weeks before Christmas, I told my mother I wanted Grimlock instead (because, at the time, Grimlock was cooler than Optimus Prime in the Marvel comics) and she was understandably rather upset at my caprice. Looking back, it seems weird that I genuinely wanted Grimlock because, these days, I think the Dinobots were ridiculous (and still are, thanks to Age of Extinction).

When the TransFormers animated movie happened, I wasn't exactly blown away... The TV series had been good, but the characters looked nothing like the toys - I have always favoured the more toy-accurate UK comics from 1985 - and, while I found the movie exciting for the time (I watched it at least twice in the cinema), I was pretty nonplussed when it killed off Optimus Prime and set up Rodimus Prime as the new leader - TransFormers, as a brand, is all about change, after all.

I collected TransFormers toys - and read the Marvel comic - for about four or five years and then stopped, more or less, because I'd got to high school and felt it was time to "put away childish things". I felt that the toys that came out of the animated movie and those that came after were becoming steadily more disappointing, so I didn't think I was missing much. Conveniently, it meant I missed what I, personally, now consider to be the low point of what is now called 'Generation 1': Micromasters and Action Masters.

The toyline faded from my consciousness entirely for more than ten years until, one fateful day (in the run-up to Christmas, if I remember correctly) I was out shopping with my best friend in a Harrow department store, and I discovered Beast Wars in the toys section. After I'd stopped laughing at the idea of robots transforming into animals, I picked up Optimus Primal and Megatron, just for old time's sake. I honestly thought that would be the last of it...

Some years later, though, I saw the three 'Car Brothers' from Car Robots/Robots in Disguise in the window of Computer Exchange, basically opposite that same department store. I didn't think much of them at the time, but a trip to Forbidden Planet (in its old, murky, crowded location on New Oxford Street) introduced me to some of the larger toys in the line. I left clutching Ultra Magnus, Megatron and - against the good advice of my best friend - also Galvatron, soon after picking up Optimus Prime in Woolworths.

It wasn't until the 20th Anniversary of the toyline, in 2004, that I started properly collecting again. My job left me with a fair bit of disposable income and a web search provoked solely by curiosity turned up news of the impending release of MP01 Convoy. After that, I found BT01 Smokescreen in Forbidden Planet (by this time in its swanky new digs on Shaftesbury Avenue) and was thoroughly bitten by the bug all over again. I started buying Takara's TransFormers Collection reissues, the Toys'R'Us exclusive Commemorative Series, old Armada toys, Energon toys (and some imported Superlink), then imported Galaxy Force toys as well. After re-discovering the Beast Wars TV series online, I saw the toys in a whole new light and started searching for them, grabbing not only the original TV series characters, but some of the more esoteric toys from the Japan-only extensions to the line. By the time Classics arrived in 2006, I was well and truly hooked again, and updated versions of G1 characters with superior articulation were just what I wanted.

Then the first live-action movie happened and, while I think it was terrible, it brought a wonderful new aesthetic and increased levels of complexity to the toys, for which I was - and remain - thankful. A friend enabled my rekindled addiction by buying me my first year's subscription to the TransFormers Collectors' Club as a Christmas present around that same year, and I renewed every year till they shut down at the end of 2016, despite the loss of their forums early on in my membership and some of their extremely weird choices in terms of their exclusives. Their 'Figure Subscription Service', which operates independently of their annual exclusives, started out well, but year 2 was of barely any interest, year 3 was of none at all, and, while year 4 seemed to be a no-brainer because it build a combiner, the final year featured only one figure I wanted.

I liked TransFormers Animated a lot more than I expected to, but preferred the darker, more grounded TransFormers Prime, and my favourite series is still the much-maligned Beast Machines, largely thanks to the powerhouse performances of Garry Chalk ('my' Optimus Prime/Primal) and David Kaye. I mostly dislike the new cel-shaded CGI series 'Robots in Disguise' due to its weird mutant Decepticons though that hasn't stopped me picking up a few of the toys here and there... so it's basically business as usual for me, as that's what happened Armada, Energon, TF Animated, and Titans Return...

...Speaking of, as a TransFormers fan who pretty much hated the HeadMaster gimmick back in the 80s - admittedly more because of the hopelessly oversimplified, Mini Autobot-level transformations - I've found the Titan Master gimmick far more agreeable, and look forward to whatever comes next. But do I regret buying the Platinum re-release of G1 Trypticon, when the Titans Return version looks so good? I honestly don't, because the G1 version has a battery-operated walking function which is cooler even than the ability to swallow Titan Masters and a fully-articulated Titan Master Full Tilt.

I've attended a couple of AutoAssemblies, but never managed to drag myself across the pond for its big brother, BotCon (though I came close in 2015, visiting Chicago a month or two later). Generally, I get my fix of plastic crack from shows like the MCM London Comic Con, buying online or, thanks to the ridiculous exclusivity agreement Hasbro Europe made over certain size-classes, at Toys'R'Us. Someday, I hope to visit Japan (but I'll probably need a bigger suitcase for the return journey).

Now, after more than 30 years, TransFormers toys are back on my Christmas list... I have a mild-ish form of Seeker OCD and, apparently, a fixation on motorbike Femme-Bots (21 and counting). I have great respect for the third party manufacturers of transforming robot models, proudly display their products alongside 'official' TransFormers toys, and it seems that Hasbro have started taking notes (particularly looking at Titans Return).

When I say that I firmly believe that transforming robots are enough of a gimmick in and of themselves, I mean that the idea of a cool-looking robot that can turn into a convincing plane (and by 'convincing', I don't necessarily mean 'realistic', just something better than a plane with a folded up robot as its undercarriage), car, truck, tank, spacecraft... even animal... is enough. All I want/need out of TransFormers is a robot that looks like a robot that disguises itself as something else... and for that something else to not look like a folded-up robot.

Don't get me wrong, though. Some of the gimmicks have been cool. Lights and sounds have their place (and, preferably, the full package rather than the frequently crippled speech effects we get in Europe). Separate weapons, rather than the integrated kind, can be a nice bonus (but work best when they can be stowed in the alternate mode). Gestalts and HeadMasters can be awesome (when they don't look like they were made by Fisher Price).

Ultimately, as someone who was introduced to the line by the likes of G1 Cliffjumper, I don't even require horribly convoluted transformations... I just want them to live up to the taglines: Robots In Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye.

...And if there are going to be glorified toy commercials in the form of TV series or movies, it wouldn't hurt for them to represent the toys well, to have decent stories, to be at least internally consistent... and to make some sense.

In many ways, I think some of the Third Party companies have a better idea of how to make good TransFormers toys than either of the companies who created the brand, and they're not as constrained by budgets or toy safety guidelines as Hasbro or Takara Tomy because they're making adult collectables, frequently based on popular, yet previously underrepresented characters. FansProject seemed to take an early lead with their City Commander accessory set, Warbot, Function-X and, of course, Causality... but they seem to have lost momentum and have since been overtaken by the myriad other companies which have sprung up. While there are obvious downsides to the Third Parties (expense, random scaling and their baffling habit of releasing their own versions of exactly the same characters) they have clearly influenced Hasbro and Takara Tomy and encouraged them to up their game (witness the difference between a G1 gestalt, a Superlink/Energon gestalt, the hideous Power Core Combiners and the generally pretty spiffy Combiner Wars, as well as the curious choice Hasbro/Takara Tomy has made to release Titans Return versions of all the HeadMasters characters thusfar produced by several Third Parties). And even when Hasbro/Takara Tomy get it right, it seems some of the Third Parties are still willing to hit them with some one-upmanship.

On the issue of toy representation, I'm beginning to suspect that part of the problem is in the way Hasbro wants to perceive itself - as "an intellectual properties company that also makes toys". TransFormers, first and foremost, is a toy brand... and yet Hasbro's focus has been on movies and TV series, to the detriment of the toys, since before the first live-action movie. The best thing Hasbro could do for the toy range is develop toys first, and the associated fiction afterward (as it was with G1) yet, increasingly, the big profits (such as the $1bn made by the execrable Age of Extinction) come from the associated fiction... And Hasbro's shareholders only care about the profits.

On a semi-related note, one thing I really miss, since the days of Generation 1, is the proper character bios (including explanations of their weapons) packaged with the toys. In the States, toys are sometimes packaged with something like that level of character detail printed on the box/card, but it always seems neutered - the good guys are always nice, the bad guys are always... pretty bland. Back in G1, the character bio would often influence my decision to buy a toy... and there were Autobots who weren't very nice and Decepticons who didn't really believe in their cause. In Europe these days, we're lucky to get a single sentence of character information along with a single sentence of generic blurb. The Collectors' Club include bio cards with all their figures, but many of them are a whole lot of text with next to no information (such as Elita-1)

One of my biggest bugbears in life, generally, is that so few business people understand that money needs to be funneled into the business so that it can generate money, so their products/services inevitably suffer in the long-term. This seems to have been quite true of Hasbro and the TransFormers brand for quite a while. I was pleased to see that the first waves of both Combiner Wars and Titans Return were improved upon by the later waves because it's clearly building to something amazing... even if it is just a re-do of toys they made over thirty years ago (and yet, where's the TV show? Are they relying 100% on IDW for toy commercials masquerading as fiction?). I'm very definitely not averse to changing my mind about a toyline that starts out looking a bit crap... Hell, I did it with Armada and Energon...

Another problem with the brand is that, increasingly, we have multiple continuities occupying shelf space simultaneously, and I suspect that a greater focus on one product line - making it more diverse and extensive - would serve Hasbro better than its current scattershot approach of lots of series with comparatively few characters.

But, hey, I'm a fan, not a business analyst...

FAQ-type stuff:

Favourite TransFormers toys: G1 Megatron, RotF Leader class Optimus Prime/Starscream, MP03 Starscream, Generations Springer, AoE/Gen Evasion Mode Optimus Prime, NYCC 2011 First Edition Arcee, TFCC Timelines Airazor, G1 Trypticon

Favourite TransFormers character: Beast Wars Silverbolt, TF Prime Arcee

Favourite Third Party models: FansProject Causality Intimidator (and components), Mastermind Creations Reformatted Azalea (and repaints), MC Knight Morpher Screecher, Stormer & Warper (AKA the Airborne Squad), iGear Con Air Raptor Squadron Star-Burst Thunder-Wrath & Sky-Wind, WeiJiang Deformation Era OP Commander/M01 Commander.

Favourite TransFormers continuities: for story, Beast Machines or Prime. For toys, Classics/Generations or Revenge of the Fallen/Hunt for the Decepticons

Least favourite TransFormers toys: Movie Leader class Megatron, G1 Pretenders, Action Masters (and, in fact, any non-transforming TransFormers items)

Least favourite TransFormers character: live action movie Optimus Prime

Least favourite Third Party models: toss up between iGear's Bushwacker and Perfect Effect's Leonidas

G1 Rumble/Frenzy Colour Preference: I'm with the toys all the way - the TV series got it wrong, and I'm pretty sure they admitted as much - so RIRFIB.

Collecting Method (MISB/MOSC vs Open): Open and in cabinets all the way... Packaging of virtually all mainstream releases is even thrown away. Exceptions are Japanese packaging (Galaxy Force, Binaltech, Superlink, eHobby, 30th Anniversary/Legends, etc.), Third Party packaging, Exclusive packaging (though not always), Masterpiece packaging and anything sufficiently interesting. Personally, I just don't get the MISB/MOSC (and especially the AFA graded-and-sealed) mindset because those collectors aren't really enjoying their collection, they're enjoying the idea of it. Some of my stuff has to go back in the box as I currently have limited display space, but that tends to be things like BotCon sets and boxed TFCC exclusives... but I have now also put my Binaltech collection away to make some space for Combiner Wars.

Collecting habits: Protesting repeatedly that I'm not going to buy something until, all of a sudden, and usually on a whim, I buy it. Seeker OCD. Black repaint junkie. Femme-bot fanatic. Part-time exclusive hunter. Occasional, underachieving customiser.

Strangest TransFormers collecting experience: bought a G1 Doubledealer on eBay because I needed the two PowerMasters and the blue mounting plate for a custom Alternator Soundwave (and didn't want to mess up my own), and it arrived with a 'certificate of authenticity' for having been part of the seller's collection. Is that really a thing?

Most expensive collecting fail: a toss-up between the time I bought Binaltech BT-17 Black Convoy, even though I already had Alternators Nemesis Prime, only to find it had a glue spillage inside, which prevents proper transformation of the bonnet (and for which I did get a partial refund) and the time, many years ago, that I thought I was ordering an actual G1 Reflector on eBay, and ended up with a terrible knock-off... which taught me that all-important lesson of buying on eBay, "caveat emptor.". I'll also throw in Perfect Effect's Leonidas, which was a massive disappointment.


Other interests: Cooking, sketching, writing, reading, watching anime, playing (mostly retro) videogames, astronomy (sort of)

Favourite writers: Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Terry Pratchett (RIP, the man who got me interested in reading), Natsume Soseki, Stephen Donaldson, Neil Gaiman, Anne Bishop, Maurice LeBlanc (even if his version of Sherlock Holmes was a bit of a dick, and his Watson probably the one who likes jam), Christopher Priest, Michael Talbot

Favourite bands/music: Nine Inch Nails, How to Destroy Angels, Queens of the Stone Age, Jane's Addiction, Fields of the Nephilim, Mediaeval Baebes, Queen Adreena

Favourite (non-TransFormers) TV shows: Doctor Who (apart from the David Tennant era), Being Human (UK - series 1-3 only, 5 at a push), The Fades, Twin Peaks, Chuck, The X-Files, Agents of SHIELD, Castle, Sleepy Hollow, Penny Dreadful, The Flash, Supergirl, Arrow, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Better Call Saul, Fringe, Ash vs. The Evil Dead, First Dates (in all its schadenfreude-tastic variations)

Favourite (non-TransFormers) movies: Alien series, Star Wars series (except the prequels), Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Just about everything Marvel have done recently, Cabin in the Woods, Dog Soldiers, Dredd, The Fall, Grosse Pointe Blank, Out Of Sight, Sunset Boulevard, The Usual Suspects, Kiki's Delivery Service, Lady in the Water, Sucker Punch, Unbreakable, Paprika, The Thing (1982), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Favourite anime series: Ergo Proxy, Eden of the East, Panty & Stocking, Chevalier D'Eon, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Paranoia Agent

Favourite videogames: Policenauts, Muramasa, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Xenoblade Chronicles, Elite/Oolite, Akumajo Dracula X ~Gekka no Yasoukyoku~ (Sega Saturn version)

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