Wednesday, 21 March 2012

On Size & Quality

Now that TransFormers: Prime toys are available in the UK (even turning up - slightly overpriced - at the toyshop just down the road from my home), I have a slightly better idea of their size. Haven't bought any yet (certainly not at £2 above average price on each one!), but seeing them in package, in person gives me some idea of what all the fuss is about.

Size-wise, it's really rather odd. Back in the days of early G1, you had your 'Mini Autobots' (which are roughly analogous to today's Scouts or Cyberverse figures), the Diaclone-derived Autobot cars (which would be Deluxe in the contemporary parlance) and Decepticon planes, along with the Microman-derived figures like Megatron and Soundwave (which would be closest to Voyagers).

Whereas the Diaclone-derived cars were boxed, modern 'Deluxes' are carded, and so tend to look smaller by association with that packaging method. Some of the later G1 reissues were carded but, by that time, slightly larger standard figures - Headmasters, Targetmasters, Powermasters, etc - were being boxed.

So, by and large, the only difference between a G1/Diaclone toy and a contemporary Deluxe is that the former features rather more metal (the die-cast construction being something of a selling point - they were like 'proper' toy cars, except that changed into robots!), and the latter tends to be far more complicated and far more poseable.

Trouble is, each price-point has been growing steadily smaller over the years. As recently as the Unicron Trilogy, Scout-, Deluxe- and Voyager-class toys seemed that much more substantial (if simpler, and burdened by some terrible gimmicks). One need only look at the difference in size between the Deluxe range from Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and that of Dark of the Moon (2011) to see the telltale signs of cutbacks. The new Voyager Ironhide is barely larger than a Deluxe in either mode and, other than a slight remold to RotF Leader-class Optimus Prime, there was only one new Leader that made any sense - Sentinel Prime. The 'upgraded' Leader-class Bumblebee was a disproportionate mess with an ill-fitting backpack of battery-powered weapons, and Leader-class Ironhide actually turned out more simplistic than the Deluxe from 2 years previously. While his weapons were at least stored internally, they weren't especially well executed, and reduced the toy's overall effectiveness.

In favour of the contemporary toys, larger size classes more frequently brings greater complexity. Many of the larger G1 toys were as basic as the Mini Autobots, some barely transformed (Metroplex and just about every Headmaster/Targetmaster/Powermaster, I'm looking at you). Sure, we still get oddities, like all the Megatron toys from the first two live-action movies, but there are far more refreshing and original designs (Highbrow from the 2010 post-RotF, yellow-boxed toyline being one of my personal favourites) which more than balance it out.

What's upsetting the balance, though, is the quality.

As the complexity improved, the quality - in terms of durability - of the plastic has become worse. I have a good few toys from the Dark of the Moon line that broke within a few minutes, just during transformation. Take the Jolt remake, for example. It's not a bad figure, overall, and mostly a huge improvement on the weird 'interpretation' he got off the back of his 2 minutes on screen in Revenge of the Fallen. But the joint that rotates the car bonnet into position as part of the robot's foot is very stiff, and has broken on one leg. Likewise the tiny joints that hold Crankcase's dreadlocks in place. Those rubbery tendrils barely move during transformation, and yet the socket into which they're plugged has broken, leaving one side prone to falling out. Worse than those (depending on your perspective, I suppose) is the tiny hood ornament on Voyager Megatron's bonnet. One wrong move rotating the bullbars round, and that hood ornament was no more. Sure, it's tiny... but the plastic just seems so soft, if it breaks that easily. Worse still, if ever there was a Megatron toy that cried out for Leader-class scale, it was Dark of the Moon's Voyager.

Quality control has been a burning issue in the fan forums since the TF: Animated line, but it always tended to be build/assembly quality, or the accuracy/evenness/extent of the paintwork. Now, increasingly, it feels as if the quality of the plastic has been dramatically reduced. Colours aren't as vibrant, and some parts appear almost translucent, despite being ostensibly 'solid'.

All these factors, coupled with Hasbro's logistical glitches over the latter half of last year, and pretty much all of this year so far, are obviously contributing to their shrinking profits. I've no idea what the logistical problems were, specifically, or if they could have been avoided... but it does strike me that reducing the quality of the product while keeping the price the same (or increasing it!) is a recipe for losing customers in the long run. By and large, all of my G1 toys are still in good condition, almost 30 years after I bought them... If I can't say the same for toys I  bought only last year, then the quality issue surely needs to be addressed.

Personally, I'd sacrifice all the silly gimmicks - the electronic lights and sounds, the transforming weapons and most especially the Mini-Cons - if it meant better quality plastics, and more interesting and intricately detailed/painted transforming robot toys.

After all, when the series began, the fact that they were transforming robot toys (with reasonably accurate real-world 'disguises') was the only gimmick.

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