Saturday, 4 June 2016

Armada Laserbeak

Obviously this is going back a few years in my collection but, unless I'm very much mistaken, Laserbeak was one of the first TransFormers: Armada figures I ever picked up... and so is quite possibly responsible for getting me back into collecting the mainstream toy releases.

While Laserbeak is traditionally a Decepticon, the Armada version was an Autobot. In the TV show, he was little more than a drone - somewhat similar to TF Prime Soundwave's minion - so, on the surface, he seems like a strange choice for a standalone toy, particularly since he could easily have been made as a Mini-Con.

Camcorder Mode:
Part of the reason I picked Laserbeak up is that he's a fairly outstanding toy in the Armada line. Being aimed at small-ish kids, I'd guess it's essentially at a 1:1 scale and doesn't have a single Mini-Con port. This puts it very firmly and unashamedly in the 'Role-Play Toys' category, along with the Star Sabre toys that came out around the same time.

And, lurid colourscheme aside, it's actually pretty convincing as a camcorder. Of course, there were never any real camcorders that had such protruding barrels on their lenses, nor any that I can think of - other than the newer 3D kind - that would have had two lenses, but let's not forget that this is a toy, so a certain amount of artistic license is permissible. It is a little gappy from the front, but that's forgivable given how solid he seems elsewhere. The extensive use of orange plastic apparently came about as a result of 'safety concerns', given the toy's other 'utility mode' but, even in the originally proposed, G1-homaging colourscheme, I can't see anyone mistaking this for a real camcorder, let alone a real gun. The orange is broken up by blocks of black paint, touches of silver for the buttons and the fake speaker/mic grille on top. The 'LCD' viewfinder is a grey plastic chunk on the lefthand side which opens up to reveal a small portrait of Armada Optimus Prime and a whole bank of sculpted, but unpainted buttons. Given the attention to detail elsewhere, the lack of paintwork on this panel is hugely disappointing, but this is just a kids' toy. Another disappointing omission is any paintwork inside the lens barrels - their inner structure, being bare orange plastic, is very clearly visible through the clear plastic lenses. Even a coating of black paint on the rear of the lenses would have made him look better, but some molded detail back there wouldn't have gone amiss.

To complete the picture of a 'genuine' camcorder, Laserbeak comes with a nylon strap that loops through a slot running across the very back of the unit. It's certainly long enough to go around just about any wrist, but lacks the tightening loop that a real camcorder's strap would have, so it can't be secured to a wrist. All the strap has in its place is a blue plastic clip, and I can't for the life of me figure out why... unless it was introduced to ensure no kids managed to throttle themselves with the strap.

The rear grey panel - featuring a prominent Autobot insignia - covers over the real speaker which plays all of Laserbeak's sound effects. Considering the LR44/GPA76 batteries in some of my more recent purchases have depleted themselves and/or leaked, I was more than a little surprised that Laserbeak's were still perfectly functional, fourteen years after purchase. Having now removed them, I found they were in perfect condition, with not even the early signs of leakage. The effects themselves are nothing special - controlled by two grey plastic buttons on the top of the camcorder (roughly in the right place for a small-ish child grasping the camcorder in their right hand), the front one elicits either a camera snapshot sound or a very brief and strangely mechanical 'camera rolling'/recording sound. The rear button alternates between a bird-like shriek and a laser firing sound. All the sound effects are surprisingly loud, not least considering how old the toy is, and the fact that I hadn't changed the batteries. The only shame is that they aren't context sensitive, with the bird-shriek only activating when Laserbeak is in robot mode.

Weapon Mode:
With one quick step, Laserbeak's camcorder mode becomes some kind of stun gun... and I really don't see why anyone was concerned about this being mistaken for a real gun: it looks like a camcorder with a handle. In this form, Laserbeak has a third grey button, on the front of the handle. Quite why it is just a small, circular button rather than anything that looks like a trigger, I'm not sure - perhaps, again, it was 'safety concerns'. The button generates a unique firing sound - longer than the other, and possibly intended to suggest both lenses firing, or multiple shots.

Robot Mode:
There aren't that many TransFormers toys - since Generation 1, that is - where the robot mode is also the beast mode. That seems to be becoming the vogue again with the current Robots In Disguise Decepticons but, aside from Ravage (a G1 reference) and Hatchet in the live action movie series, we've been inundated with largely bipedal, broadly humanoid robots until the likes of Combiner Wars Sky Lynx. Among the beast-robot TransFormers, I think Armada Laserbeak is probably one of the most convincing, though perhaps that's because he reminds me of a Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion robot bird in terms of the toy's size relative to me. In spite of his simplicity and comparative lack of sculpted detail, there's something of Bubo from the original Clash of the Titans in him.

And Laserbeak's body really doesn't feature a great deal of sculpted detail - a few panel lines here and there - and the undersides of his wings are similarly simple. Given that he's a pretty small robot - assuming the toy is either 'actual size' or smaller - I wouldn't expect huge amounts of detail, even if he wasn't an Armada toy.

While his alternate modes carried only hints of blue, Laserbeak in robot mode displays quite a bit - the neck, legs and wingtips are blue plastic, while the bulkier chunks of wing have been painted blue on the underside. The only other paintwork unique to robot mode is the silver on front, grille-like details on the under-wing raised sections. The gun form's grip does provide additional variety in colour but, knowing it flips down to become the gun's grip, I can never quite see it as part of the bird's chest.

He doesn't come with any accessories - no weapons to mount, no fake tapes or memory cards (not that there's anywhere to put them anyway), and he doesn't even have any Mini-Con ports - I guess because he is something of a Mini-Con himself - so there's not really much else to write about on this little guy... He doesn't even gain any robot mode-specific sound effects following transformation.

Laserbeak's transformation is little more than a couple of spring-loaded automorphs: push the blue button on top of the camcorder and his head will spring forward. Roll the grey gearwheel on the lefthand side of the rear and the wings unfurl... Then you just need to swing the legs down and position the feet. It's quick, it's simple... and, strangely, for someone who likes the more complication transformations, I find Laserbeak endlessly enjoyable due to the speed and simplicity with which he can switch back and forth between modes. The 'transformation' into his weapon mode is even quicker - the grip simply folds out from the underside of the camera. While it looks less like a gun and more like a camcorder with a fancy grip - and not even a particularly ergonomic or comfortably grip, at that - it's at least easier to use him left- or right-handed in this mode. Awkwardly, deploying the grip in robot mode makes Laserbeak look unfortunately like a slightly less stocky bird with a large robo-wang.

TransFormers birds tend not to have masses of articulation - as a general rule, the wings tend to be fixed, as they aren't really functional parts of their robot modes, leaving the articulation limited to the legs and, sometimes, the head. Laserbeak's wings do move, but they're spring-loaded to deploy automatically and stay extended. Pushing down on them does create quite a cool flapping motion as they immediately spring back up. The neck, too, is spring-loaded at the base, then has a kind of ratchet where it connects to the head, giving it a range of motion slightly less than 90°. Because of the way it's jointed, it can't turn at either end, leaving him permanently looking forward. The legs are jointed at the hips and ankles, but both only for tilt - about 180° for the former, just over 90° for the latter. It's a shame there's no articulation at his knees or on his feet, as he could have then perched in a few more positions or on surfaces that aren't perfectly flat, but he's not bad for what he is.

Like a random handful of Armada figures, Laserbeak came with a sticker featuring his character art. These days, it would tend to be a collectors' card (or, more likely, nothing) and, while it's a neat inclusion, mine has started to peel in one corner. I'm not sure if there was some kind of sticker book that these were meant to go into... Can't really see the point of it otherwise...

While, broadly speaking, I'm not entirely keen on animal-styled robot modes in TransFormers toys (Soundwave's minions aside), Armada Laserbeak is one of those figures where the idea just works, damnit. He rises above is eyewatering colourscheme and miserly paint job to look pretty good in either of his main two modes, and the way the wings were dealt with is surprisingly effective. The only way he could have been better is if he had been released in his originally intended, G1-referential colourscheme, and if he'd been made for slightly larger hands... Though, that said, camcorders can be smaller than this toy these days. As he is, I reckon he'd be good fun for most kids (not sure I'll risk him with my niece anytime soon) but that he's more of a curiosity than a 'must have' for collectors. In hand, I find him curiously compelling and will happily spend time just fiddling about, enjoying the feedback of the spring-loaded parts and switching him between modes. He'd probably make an excellent cosplay accessory, too!

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