Thursday, 23 July 2015

Collecting, Then and Now

I may be a little bit evil, but I'm trying to get my niece into TransFormers*. I started her out on easy ones, giving her Optimus Prime (aka "Truck Man", when she forgets his proper name) and Grimlock from the Age of Extinction range of one-step changers for Christmas. Since she turned six this year, I got her Strongarm (yay, Femme-Bots!) and Jazz from the new Robots in Disguise line (for ages six and up, says the packaging). Not unexpectedly, she needed a little help, and will be hanging on to the instructions for a while... but I'm hoping that transforming them will become second nature after a while, and that her dexterity improves generally.

A lot of it - whether she chooses to become actively interested in the toyline, how quickly she learns to transform the toys, etc. - will depend on how her attention span develops. I was always very focussed... but then I grew up in a household where the TV came on only for certain shows, and when the only computers around were our 48K ZX Spectrums (nothing builds patience like spending 10 minutes loading a game that takes only five to complete). Their TV tends to be on just for background noise, and almost every flat surface carries a gadget of some kind, capable of distracting a wayward six-year-old.

Some of it, also, will depend on the pocket money situation. Granted, I was about ten years old when TransFormers arrived in the UK, and so I had a decent weekly allowance for things like toys. Enough to pick up some cool stuff, but not necessarily enough to - for example - get all the members of the G1 combiner teams I wanted before they disappeared from shelves (I struggle to remember how it all worked, but I remember TransFormers being a far more impressive presence, even in the likes of Tesco, than they are today... stacks of the larger, part die-cast Autobot cars seemed to be easily available, but not always what I wanted when I had the spare cash... I have recurring dreams about toyshops full of 'holy grail' TransFormers for a reason!). I have no idea how my sister and brother-in-law play the money angle, but I know they'll take their daughter round Toys'R'Us in the run-up to her birthdays and Christmas, making a list of anything her wandering eye alights upon (usually a bizarre and eclectic mix of styles and genres). I went through a lot of toylines as a nipper, but not all at the same time. While collecting TransFormers, I might occasionally pick up Robo Machines/Go Bots... but everything that wasn't a shape-shifting robot had been utterly eclipsed by that point.

Unless my niece does any collecting on her own, it's likely to become quite difficult to get her properly engaged in TransFormers as a brand (though, as I said at the start, I may be a little bit evil for trying in the first place!) as Hasbro seem intent on changing things around fairly quickly. Robots In Disguise is barely off the ground, and they're already repainting everything for something called 'Clash of the TransFormers' (surely the most ridiculous subtitle of any TransFormers line because, duh, obviously).

Back when I was a child, there was a better range of products in a single, focussed toyline. Now - quite sensibly, in some respects - Hasbro have broken things down into age ranges. Reduced complexity (1-Step, etc) for the very young kids, RID2015 for slightly older kids, Generations (currently Combiner Wars) for older kids and collectors. But this greater range rather waters down the brand, and means effort (and money) that could be spent on one cohesive toyline suitable to all ages (smaller, simpler toys, like the G1 Mini Autobots, for the younger kids, with toys becoming larger and more complex for older kids or child prodigies) is actually frittered away, shoehorning TransFormers into, for example, Hero Mashers - a contemporary equivalent of the non-transforming Action Masters - which covers several other brands, including Marvel's superheroes.

But most of the time, Hasbro seem to struggle to get the products onto the shelves in any significant way. We're always several months behind the US (sometimes an advantage, if there are running changes in certain toys) and each 'wave' can take months to materialise where, in the States, it seems like a matter of weeks. Granted, there are distribution problems even over there... but Europe lost out on an entire wave of toys due to lack of interest from the shops.

On the upside, that does mean (hopefully) more time to collect the very few toys that are released in each wave... On the downside, it means seeing the same things over and over again, and never knowing when the new stuff might appear, so running the risk of missing those toys that turn out to be unexpectedly popular.

The other problem is that so few Decepticons are being released these days, I'm starting to wonder if Hasbro shouldn't just ditch the idea of an Autobot/Decepticon civil war being waged on Cybertron and/or Earth, and just take one of the ideas posited by Galaxy Force a little further: a scouting party of Cybertronians visiting different planets of technically factionless 'bots built for different purposes, and all their adventures on those planets... Perhaps a quest to reunite the lost tribes of Cybertron, where the only conflict arises where some 'bots don't want to rejoin the family?

Supposedly, the lack of Decepticons is due to lack of interest in 'collecting the bad guys'... which, in my opinion, is more down to lack of characterisation. They tend to be cut-and-paste baddies who pose no real threat. If they were more interesting, complex characters with more believable goals, characters the kids could actually identify with, perhaps they'd be more popular toys. But then, the Autobots essentially tend to fit the Power Rangers stereotypes... and when we get better stories and better characterisations, we get ridiculously small numbers of characters (see TransFormers Prime). Maybe I'm missing something important, but why is a return to the G1 toyline model such a difficult thing to achieve, and why would it be a bad thing?

I'd love to get my niece some Decepticon toys, but the RID2015 Decepticons all look daft so far, seeming almost like cast-offs from Power Rangers rather than something suited to the TransFormers concept of 'Robots In Disguise'. Why has it become so difficult to create halfway decent Decepticons, even in the tired old 'war story' framework? And why do they so often end up with substandard toys? Sadly, I find myself perpetuating Hasbro's myth simply because Hasbro hasn't created many Decepticons I'd actually want to own... and I'm damned if I'll buy my niece a toy I'm not even vaguely interested in for myself.

* Yes, you read that right: I am attempting to entice a mere girl-child into enjoying TransFormers toys. I am very annoyed by the ridiculous division between "Boys' Toys" and "Girls' Toys", and outright offended by some specific examples - such as Nerf's Rebelle line of smaller, pink Nerf guns (I wholeheartedly endorse the supply of the biggest frickin' Nerf guns available to any girl who feels like shooting it). I have been equally offended when other TransFormers collectors say thing like "if I ever have a son, I'd like to pass my collection on to him" because, let's face it, what's to stop a daughter deriving equal enjoyment from them other than gender stereotypes and stone-age parenting?

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