Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Mastermind Creations Cyber Engine Knight Morpher KM-05 Screecher

IDW's Hearts of Steel is on the list of comics series that I'm vaguely interested in investigating. Its central conceit is that the Cybertronians who crash landed on Earth were awoken not in the 1980s or 2000s, but instead at the time of the American Industrial Revolution. Designed by the implausibly talented Guido Guidi, the giant alien robots took on a unique and original appearance. The Autobots appear to have been largely locomotives, but the Decepticons were, as usual, rather more varied - Shockwave became an ironclad paddle-steamer battleship, for example.

When I first saw images of a model based on Hearts of Steel Optimus Prime, it was an independent fan project... but after a while, it seems Mastermind Creations picked it up and turned it into the first of their 'Cyber Engine Knight Morpher' series, following up with an interpretation of Shockwave and, eventually, the anachronistic HoS Seekers.

There's not a great deal to say about the box - it's a fairly simple affair with excellent CGI images of Screecher on the front and back, one of which includes his vehicle mode, while the other has a snazzy, swooshy background. The sides show X-ray style images of the robot, its weapons and the vehicle mode, along with more CGI and the usual warnings these third party figures come with. It's a nice, sturdy box with no window through to the toy, but it serves its purpose. Mastermind Creations' boxes have become a bit more interesting with their more recent releases.

Inside the box, there's a double-sided poster featuring four important cautions - the sharp bits, the thin/fragile bits, the Automorph feature and the geared features. This is quite apart from the instruction manual which, frankly, glosses over such issues, though it's otherwise quite comprehensive. On the reverse of the manual is a 10-page comic, titled Cyclops' Plan, explaining the setting (America, 1869) in which Screecher is asserting his authority and menacing President Andrew Johnson until Cyclops intervenes, introducing the Crow Brigade (black and red clones of Screecher with strangely TF Prime Vehicon-style heads) led by Annihilator (aka Nemesis Prime), and then reveals his plan to use what are essentially Pretenders disguised as the likes of Stalin, Lenin, and Hitler to create terror and "socialunrest". There are also indications of further models in the Knight Morpher line - a missile launcher and a tank, as well as art of a Hound analogue. Seems like a shame the line didn't continue, but it did lead to even more awesome things...

The set also comes with a bunch of plugs for the screw and rivet holes on the model though, frankly, I find their impact minimal, and the plugs look a bit too fiddly to bother with. They're also all blue, where many of the holes they're intended to plug are in the white plastic...

Vehicle Mode:
I have mixed feelings about Steampunk. I think it was the author Charles Stross, speaking at PicoCon 31, who expressed the main problems of the movement more succinctly than I could ever manage, saying that it basically glorifies a time when women were little more than furniture or domestic servants (for those who couldn't afford to employ servants), and when Britain in particular was at its most aggressively imperialistic. But, hey, on the upside, the aesthetic is awesome, right? Adding clock gears to anything makes it so much cooler.

And steampunk is the order of the day for Guido Guidi's take on the seekers. God only knows what's supposed to power this thing, but it's a propeller-driven triplane from the realm of early-industrial nightmares. Not even Starscream's traditional red, (off) white and blue colourscheme softens the impact of the bat-like wings and heavy armour panels. There are parts that look like they might come from a steam locomotive (not least the undercarriage, which fits onto sets of track that were packaged with MC's Knight Morpher Skywarp and Thundercracker analogues) but the requirements of steam power tend to be too heavy for a comparatively small aircraft. Looked at from another angle, there's also an element of the sleek sci-fi aesthetic of the 1930s/40s Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers cinema serials, particularly in the teardrop-shaped propeller casings, with their red crests and metallic blue 'chimneys', as well as all the curves and their sharp edges. Sadly, from other angles, it looks like a robot in the Lotus position with lots of sharp, sweeping, bat-like wings attached. You can't win 'em all, I guess.

When I say the wings are sharp, I'm not kidding - without any of the safety concerns that drive Hasbro's toymaking, Screecher's wings and propellers are very thin and very pointy. The propellers in particular also look very fragile, so I tend to be cautious around them. The wings - particularly the main wings - are a little bit more substantial, but just as sharp. Handle with care, as much because it can be painful if you're caught unawares by one of its sharp edges as because some parts could prove breakable.

The plane itself is an interesting design. Ignoring the fact that it's almost certainly entirely impractical for an aircraft to be built like this, its diminutive cockpit sits directly over the main engine. The top section down to the medium-size wings, looks like it might be able to fly if that's all there was to the plane, but the lower section seems like a hopelessly oversized and over-engineered addition. At the front, a pair of winged spikes protrude from the wheel section, with a hitch between then for attaching him to one of the Knight Morpher locomotives (MC released two versions of Optimus Prime along with their Nemesis Prime analogue, Annihilator). At the back, what looks like a small cow-catcher sticks out between the barely disguised robot legs. All over the body are the wide ventilation slots one would tend to associate with steam engines, and just about every surface is littered with tiny molded rivet-bobbles. It's truly beautiful, but truly insane.

The distribution of colour is heavily weighted towards robot mode, giving him mostly white extremities (albeit with red striping on the main wings and a blue tailfin) with a red central core, but there's plenty of added detail and colour with gold paint, dark grey and metallic-shimmery red and blue plastics. The plane hasn't been made to look ornate - it's very clearly a bizarre form of functional - but it's certainly nicely decorated, with as much paintwork on the back of the plane as there is on the front - pipework picked out in grey, and the 'chimneys' (according to Guidi's artwork) painted metallic blue with silver rings around their bases. All over this model, the attention to detail is nothing short of amazing.

Naturally, Screecher is armed, and the designer of this model deviated slightly from Guidi's ideas, giving him two eight-barrelled Gatling-style guns (actually from one of the alternate HoS Starscream designs proposed by Guidi). There's no paintwork on the guns, but the barrel section does rotate, albeit a little reluctantly.

Robot Mode:
Guido Guidi's design for the Hearts of Steel Seekers is stylish, imaginative and ideally suited to the era being explored. While the live action movies dealt with the idea of propeller-driven TransFormers in the form of a single photo in the files of former Sector 7 agent Simmons, seen on screen only briefly and yet still, unaccountably, turned into a toy, Hearts of Steel, from what little I've seen of it, more thoroughly explored the possibilities of Cybertronian disguised as early industrial tech. While the vehicle mode is barely recognisable beyond its traditional character colourscheme, the robot mode is instantly recognisable as a Seeker analogue, and a Starscream analogue specifically. It's not just the colours used or the distribution of those colours - despite the details being very different, much of the build and the overall look is surprisingly close to the more traditional Seekers. Even a flippin' great propeller in the middle of his chest doesn't detract from the look. I'm quite impressed by the way the wing tips swing back to give Screecher and even more bat-like appearance (and, coincidentally, allow him to occupy marginally less space on a shelf)

Since transformation doesn't involve much by way of 'folding away', there's not a great deal of new colour or molded detail revealed in robot mode. What little paintwork there is remains in the odd few applications to highlight some of the subtler details and add a bit of definition here and there. What does become available is a curious bit of 'Mech Alive'-style gimmickry in his legs - the outsides of his lower legs feature a set of three interlocking barrels which rotate as his knee is bent. It's a completely unnecessary, but very clever and welcome addition, which does a better job of bringing the robot to life than most of Hasbro/Takara Tomy's meagre efforts... though it does mean you have to be very careful where you're holding him when posing the legs.

While it seems, at first glance, that Screecher is armed only with his twin arm-mounted not-quite-Gatlings, his wing/skirts can be slid off their hip mountings to become swords. These can also be combined into a single bat-wing-esque boomerang/bat'leth type of thing. It probably looks better in this form, as the grips are rather too high up on the backs of the blades for them to be particularly convincing swords. Either way, they feel as if they're lacking paintwork, as the leading edge would look so much better coated with either silver or gunmetal. The fun doesn't end there, though, as his wings can be detached from his back (by rotating the grey gearwheels, which lock them in place) and connected up to his swords to make an insanely large, propeller-driven ninja star. The weapon dwarfs its wielder, but he can hold it up easily enough, thanks to decent grip in the hands and good, strong arm joints. By comparison to all of this, his arm-mounted weapons start to look a bit feeble, but they're also vaguely adaptable - both can be connected to one arm, should you so desire.

The head sculpt is pretty fantastic, given its size, and the inclusion of the fold-out side crests means he can either look as Guidi intended, or appear like the more traditional, boxy-headed Seeker. The face, painted in dark gunmetal, is sculpted simply but sharply, with a very wide-mouthed interpretation of Starscream's trademark smirk and small but effective light-piped eyes.

By and large, transformation is quite a simple and intuitive process - it is essentially sitting Screecher down as if he's meditating, rotating the waist 180°, folding up the arms, then flipping the wings back into place over his shoulders. The troubles occur largely because of the sharp/delicate parts all over him, the occasional clearance issue (particularly with the ball jointed toes collapsing into the ankles) and, most of all, the decision to include a geared Automorph function connecting his wings to the head reveal, which requires that both wings must be moved simultaneously - separate parts joined only by the internal gearing. Some of the clips and tabs are a little tricky to line up, and the secondary wings/swords/skirts have a tendency to slide out of place while being connected to the forearms in vehicle mode... Slipping them back into position is difficult, if not impossible, because they're sandwiched between the forearms and the legs, with very little finger manoeuvring room.

The base figure is highly poseable, with all the joints we've come to expect from contemporary third party figures, and a few more besides. One of my favourite aspects is the two part feet, with ball joints on the toes and dual hinges on the heels, allowing for a very steady footprint in just about any position. The only drawback is the enormous wing sticking up out of his foot, which can easily clash with his knee if you're not careful. The knee and hip joints aren't remotely stiff, but are strong enough to hold the upper body in position despite the back-heaviness introduced by the wings. I occasionally have trouble getting him to stand perfectly straight - either he has a tendency to sag to the right, or I'm doing something wrong - but it's not difficult to make him look dynamic. The arms have an excellent range of motion despite the weird, seemingly floppy arrangement of his shoulder armour, and the hands are actually on ball joints, not just swivels, giving them better range than I'd expected. With excellent waist articulation - a full 360° for transformation - one could be forgiven for expecting the head to end up somehow limited by the fold out wings and the G1-referencing things sticking up out of his shoulders, but it's on a ball joint with excellent range... This is one seriously well-thought-out figure... with the possibly exception of the sword/skirts, which have their own individual waist joints that seem to conspire to put them in the most awkward place possible when attempting to pose the figure.

It took me absolutely ages to track down the Knight Morpher Seeker analogues at a reasonable price and, just for once, it didn't take too long to get all three (granted, there's a fourth, plain grey version to complete the set, but I'm not interested in that). Part of the reason it took so long is that I'd heard bad things about the KM Commander figure and its variants, and didn't want to buy any of these only to find I'd been blinded by the aesthetic. Thankfully, Screecher is an excellent figure - well designed and almost perfectly executed - and I rather wish the Knight Morpher line could have produced a couple more models before Reformatted took over. The use of shimmery plastics mostly makes up for a comparative lack of paintwork, and the model feels fairly robust apart from the wing tips and propeller blades.

These figures tend to sell for anywhere between £40 and £80 on the secondary market, and I ended up paying near the top end of that scale for two (Screecher and Stormer) but the bottom end for the third (Warper). Given the odd scale of the figures, it's difficult say what they're really worth - they're not much bigger than a Deluxe in robot mode, but the wing span skews it more towards being a Voyager equivalent. The complexity of the model is, as usual, far greater than anything but the Revenge of the Fallen toyline even though its transformation is comparatively simple. In the end, since I paid an average of about £60 per model, I think I got a pretty good deal, and I'm chuffed to have such a unique take on the Seekers on my shelves in plastic form.

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