Thursday, 30 November 2017

Further Transformation of Masterpiece Transformers

 - Dorian MacQuarrie

Recently Ben wrote about his thoughts on the Masterpiece line, largely revolving around just how special MP toys feel when you have whole shelves of them and some months ago I also wrote about the direction of the Masterpiece line and the focus on cartoon accuracy. It seems the line is going through yet another transition as Takara once again move the goal posts to keep the MP line fresh, taking it from the realms of a premium Transformers product, grounded in the expectations of that particular brand, to something much more akin with 'adult collectable' lines such as Soul of Chogokin, SH Figuarts and the like. 

From it's relaunch with MP-10, Masterpiece toys were fairly priced, above mainline pricing sure, but still a reasonable purchase for your average collector. With the Hasui cars floating around the same price as a Leader class toy it was probably more a question of bang for your perceived buck than if one could afford an MP toy or not. I say perceived as even now collectors tend to assess price based on size first and other factors such as engineering and accessories later. What amounted to a more complex Voyager toy for around $60 can seem like a poor deal for some people. Regardless of the perception of cost vs content, most MP toys felt quite affordable and even MP 10 could still be achieved with a little saving and forethought. Today, that is definitely no longer the case. What MP Shockwave and Inferno started, Megatron, the upcoming Sunstreaker and the recently revealed Dinobot have continued. Price is going up and up, well beyond what the size of the toys would indicate, a poor measure to judge a toy as just mentioned but still an initial reaction for most collectors. When compared to their Third Party counterparts, Takara are now the more expensive option, an interesting flip on the previous narrative of 3P vs Official.

The increase in price does not come without a boon though, we have seen a dramatic increase in accessories, parts count, paint and quality of transformation. MP Prowl came with his gun and maybe missile launchers if you ordered from certain retailers and that's it. MP Inferno on the other hand has alternate heads, faces, alt mode parts, episode specific accessories and more. Whether you think these are worth your time or not doesn't change the fact that the higher price does get you more. While Takara are still yet to achieve the perfect paint job which can survive the transformation process, the finish these recent MP toys have is absolutely gorgeous. I never knew I wanted paint on my toys beyond a few details until I opened up MP Inferno and realised just how much difference a well done, vibrant and glossy finish makes. By comparison the early MP releases feel and look far more toy like, expensive toys sure but still toys - a coat of paint with an attractive finish elevates these releases to a much more 'adult collectable' niche. With the ever rising amounts of 3PMP which are themselves often seen as 'adult collectables', it seems that Takara are taking the Masterpiece line in a new direction no Third Party company has yet to successfully compete on: high levels of paint, parts and truly jaw dropping transformations, complete with that 'Masterpiece Moment'.

What exactly makes something an 'adult collectable' is up for debate, and it's not one I'll be taking part in today but what we can do is look at other toy lines, purely aimed at adult collectors with the extra spending power often associated. From the more run of the mill SH Figuarts and Figma toys to the top tier Soul of Chogokin and frankly ludicrous Macross releases from Yamato, there is plenty on offer for the discerning collector who wants the best. The best build, the best paint, the best accessories, the best toys. Until recently Masterpiece Transformers were not considered to be in this bracket. They were high end toys but only relative to the mainlines produced by Hasbro and Takara and certainly not 'adult collectables' the likes of which I previously mentioned. The most high flying MP collector, Third Party or otherwise could be considered chump change to those who would have a set of Yamato Valkyries. Takara are taking the MP line into new territory, to a place where $200+ is a common price point and not necessarily because it's a 12" transforming robot full of die-cast but rather because it's an 8", full plastic toy with an advanced transformation, requiring far more parts than what we have seen before and of course, covered in luscious paint applications. I have seen enough gnashing of teeth across the internet to know this is uncomfortable for a lot of collectors and it certainly has me putting more thought into future purchases but I do not see this as a bad decision.

To echo Ben's thoughts from his previous article, the MP line was at risk of being normalised, of becoming a mainline-plus of sorts for those who had the money to drop on what would amount to a $60 Voyager but with this new direction from Takara it has once again been elevated to the pinnacle of modern Transformers collecting and each purchase feels like a big deal, like it's something special. When I finally get my hands on MP Sunstreaker it won't just be another Autobot car, it will be a wondrous experience with what I hope is an inventive transformation and a lush presentation and that the higher price of nearly double that of his brother Sideswipe comes with all the advances and innovations Takara have developed since the release of the red Lambo.

Of course, all these advances, add ons and developments come at that extra price which has divided many collectors and when MP Dinobot will cost the same as Fanstoys Jetfire, you have to wonder if maybe someone at the pricing department made a mistake. From preview pictures we can already determine just how complex Dinobot is going to be to achieve that incredible bot mode and again, the toy will be covered in paint for the purpose of screen accuracy. This all costs money and you don't get better toys for the same price as their predecessors, be it due to time spent in further development or just more resources (tooling, build time, paint applications) put into the construction process. I imagine some people would rather pay less and get less overall, that extra faces and odd accessories which drive up the cost could happily be cast aside if it meant a reduction in price. Honestly, I'm one of them and I'd rather MP Inferno was a little cheaper and not come with all those damned accessories, you know "from that one time in that one episode". But it must be said that the developments we have seen in transformation, finish and presentation speak for themselves and have successfully drawn me right back into the Masterpiece line when in fact I felt my interest was waning due to the shift in aesthetic.

I do not think this change in the Masterpiece line is due to Third Party releases, rather I think it's just the natural evolution of a toyline that's pushing nearly a decade in it's current incarnation. I cannot say how much of a problem Hasbro and Takara view theThird Party scene but it does seem that rather than continue to produce a product which will invariably be aped by a range of companies, they are changing the scene altogether. They themselves will set the standard, they will decide what constitutes as a 'Masterpiece Transformer' and leave the Third Party scene to follow suit. This could invalidate some previous purchases as your earlier Autobot Cars look out of place next to the upcoming Sunstreaker but I doubt Hasbro and Takara would lose any sleep over the matter. It probably just means we'll be seeing a new, even more toon focused MP Prime in a few years to better match Megatron.

And on that note, keep it #Refined.

Follow Dorian on Twitter @Vigadeath 

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Masterpiece Minimalism

- Ben Watson

For most of my collecting life, the Masterpiece line has been above my pay grade. Occupying a legendary higher plane of top quality and an associated dimension of  exclusivity. But is this still true today? Many collectors take Masterpieces as their bread and butter and fill their boots in the way the rest of us CHUG-scrubs would with regular figures. Since the rebirth of the line ushered in by MP-10 and the first Autobot cars, releases have been frequent, bringing down some prices and opening up the line to many more collectors, but has some sheen rubbed off the Masterpiece name along the way?

After consecutive years of multiple MP releases now pushing the total number of figures in the line towards the half-century mark it's now perfectly possible to have a sizeable collection composed of just those figures. Masterpiece now occupies a space reserved not only for a handful of iconic characters in their own incongruous scale as it once did, but strives to be a premium assortment of updates in a similar format to Generations. As a (for the most part) spectator to it, I can't help but feel this proliferation of goodness has watered-down the top drawer punch of the MP line. 

Of course, don't get me wrong, the quality of the figures themselves seems to have gone from strength to strength with each new mold being a new masterclass in plastic wizardry. To those with the resources to keep up with every release this must be an unending conveyance of delights. But to those people I ask, "Is it still special?" The obtainment of a new Masterpiece should be an event, an infrequent joyous occasion, like Christmas or TFN. I still remember how huge it felt to get my hands on my first MP figure even if it was the less-than-iconic Year of the Horse Optimus Prime. I'd never thrown that amount of pennies at a toy. I'd never had such an experience of high-end design and construction. I'd never had a figure prove itself to be a masterpiece to me. Can this level of awe be sustained for so many sequential pieces?

We're now entering a phase of the line where costs seem to be beginning to rise to a point that cuts people off from the figures on offer again. To those biting their fists as they hit the pre-order button for MP Dinobot, a much larger commitment is made and hopefully will lead to a much larger payoff. You can't deny any £200~ figure is an event purchase. But are the £40~ Hasui cars or their litany of obscure repaints? Takara have certainly realised how they can maximise their gains from the MP line but you can't tell me Tigertrack was the highlight of anyone's collection so far... (Shoutout to you if it was)

In light of this saturation I've chosen to be particularly selective with my Masterpiece purchases now that I'm in a position to afford more of them. I still want each one to be a Big Deal and a memorable piece in my ever-expanding hoard for more than just inherent physical qualities. Just over half of my MP figures were picked up at conventions as a kind of core of that particular haul. My first was to mark my 21st birthday and my own way of marking Transformers' 30th. Each one is a significant and special part of my collection and I feel like if I let myself go and snap up many more, that very subtle and particular feeling would be lost and I'd receive them in the same semi-numb state as I do when bringing home mass retail figures from Tesco. 

Masterpiece Transformers deserve reverence and a space upon some metaphorical plinth in your collection. With the current subtle trend towards making the line more like other high-end collector toys on offer in Japan with the incorporation of alternate faces and effect parts, the line lowers itself down just slightly from the lofty realm it once sat above in. I don't object to this paradigm shift, in fact I embrace it but it is changing what the words "Masterpiece Transformers" mean to many.

For the moment I'll continue to keep Masterpieces in my house at a minimum. The collection I do have is eclectic and not really representative of my tastes in Transformers at all but I recognise each one as their own self-contained hit of true excellence. Of course, if we were living in a time of Unicron Trilogy Masterpieces, I would be singing a completely different tune. While I see the MP line for the crowning achievement it is, it's only just starting to dabble in the character designs that really matter to me. It's very possible this is what allows me to show restraint when presented with the smorgasbord of delicacies on offer from the MP menu, but buddy if MP Armada happened tomorrow, I'd still want to take it steady and savour every dish. 

Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23

Friday, 17 November 2017

Borrowed Bots

- Leigh Gregurke

The Masterpiece line is getting too expensive.

I am running out of space.

I cannot keep up with these releases. 

Selling things on the internet is a huge hassle. 

I don't interact enough with other people in the community.

Once I play with something a few times I lose interest. 

There might be a solution to these problems. It's going to raise a few eyebrows, its just a little bit socialist almost and it might also not work at all...

Borrowed Bots.

Let me set the scene. 
New toys, toys from shops, toys in boxes, toys that were still mostly in one piece were always a little alien to me as a child. I grew up in a rough situation and a lot of what I had (I had a good amount still but) it came from markets, it came from garage sales, it came from school yard trades. Perhaps that was a formative experience that forged an acceptance of sticker wear, missing accessories and chewing gum wedged into joints; all those experiences led me to not be fussy about having something that was previously owned, and often curious of the chain of people who did own it.

I like a good trade, an exchange of times. As a kid to get around a lack of money I had to do a lot of the old "you can take this home for a few days, bring it back at the end of the week and you lend me something okay?" I never learned a lesson sometimes on clientele and way too may G.I.Joes came back with broken O-rings but it was an experience, a shared moment of play between friends and a show of generosity.

Can that still work in the era of hundred dollar fancy collector pieces? I think... it might?

I really wanted MP Artfire. I don't spend much still but this was an instant pre-order.

Here is the thing though, this one isn't mine, I'm borrowing it and it's just as fun and amazing and great of an experience as owning one. The one I ordered sadly was never delivered amongst a number of other orders as a highly dubious retailer burned me. The whole experience really soured me on collecting and especially forking out big bucks. One day though, a friend who is a very casual Transformer collector but observer of the field and hobby bought one and gave it to me to play with, to photograph, to experience. 

Nostalgia isn't just about the plastic, the box art and the characters; The experience is part of that nostalgia and all those "hey, I know you don't have one of these, take it home and play with it" good feelings came flooding back.

It left me thinking if there was something more sustainable in this model. In a way we see the 'early release 3P' scene sharing a few test shots amongst reviewers. The situation there though is one wherein the creator is covering the cost of the item and sending it on, is there a way a group of friends could share something?

Immediately I thought of the barriers of course.

We like to keep things, we collect.
We like to finish lines, groups, toylines.
We don't always like second hand things, we like to be first to things.
How do we deal with the financial element?
Shipping costs... boo 

Big barriers. Huge.
But... breaking those barriers is powerful and one of the potential windfalls of a new approach. What if... A group of friends formalizes an agreement that they offer up something they choose on a period basis to share? Maybe after a meet-up at a pub or a cheapish parcel away?

Perhaps it gets a little more formalized. A group of friends make a contribution to a larger pot and that is used for purchases? Between them they can put together a sensible discussion on where things end up.  
Specifics will be very location and personality centered but I feel that discussion is part of the experience of friends coming together.

As adults I feel we struggle with asking or offering "do you want to take this home and have a play" because it sounds a little weird, however it's something so absolutely intrinsic to our hobby. I think it could really alleviate space, money, storage, rotation and regret issues. I'm not sure we really want to live in houses where every flat space is an assembled group of huddled robots (I know some do though), I am not sure we actually get much value out of something after a period of time when it becomes a static object. I want my belongings to be used and I want you to know just how much fun and amazing pieces of design they are.

This Artfire is going home soon I imagine but we had good times together. A short time I made the most of.

As always keep it #refined


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Collector as Curator: Placement Context and Grouping Relationships

 - Leigh Gregurke

Somewhere in the motion to not take collecting too seriously I think we distilled how we display items down to three identifiable states.  

1. The shelf or display case bot
2. The desk bot 
3. The storage box bot

Inside those display options we further break the contents of the display into a similar trio of categories. Line, character and faction alignment.

What if however, by establishing these limiting categories we are restricting our own ability to see, enjoy and experience the items we collect? I wonder if that by limiting our options and engagement of how we present we are limiting our creativity and removing a portion of play and appreciation from the the process?

I don't want this article to tell you how to display your own collection - however I want to tell you how to see and think about the choices you make. This is a heavy piece of writing and it will challenge you, but I hope that you will go away thinking very differently about the way you view toys on a shelf.

1.  Display context, a space's effect on the object.

Where we place an item has a profound effect on how we see and value that object. Place it in a display case and suddenly it feels precious and worthy of attention. Drop a figure on your desk and suddenly it's a 'desk bot' a fun little play piece. Store something under your bed in a plastic tub and it's out of rotation, not loathed enough to sell but not worth valuable visible-space resources.

The amazing thing about that power is the way in which we can curate those spaces. Your nicely lit Ikea Detolf doesn't need to be filled with your MP line and your desk isn't bound to stuff that fits in your hand. Your storage box needn't feel like a hidden cache of movie toy regrets and older items that you grew tired of... 
In the basement of every museum and gallery is a treasure trove of incredible artifacts just waiting to be shown when the time is right. That is what your storage boxes should be, a little resting place, a bench awaiting rotation of your ongoing exhibition.

A high quality centerpiece figure with a shelf to itself further pushes its prestige.

Your Masterpiece Autobot cars look great regardless of where they are, having them hog a display shelf full time is robbing someone else of the limelight. Take a risk and explore the opportunity of that space that makes everything look great. You know that tired joke of someone thinking a bin or a light switch in a gallery is part of the exhibition? It's a rubbish joke and it grinds every artist/curator like myself no end but there is an underlying connection to something important there. Put something in a gallery space and suddenly we re-consider its status, its meaning and value. Tired jokes aside a lot of contemporary art acknowledges that contextual power and plays with it - your nicely lit shelf isn't far removed. Place that three step changer you bought on whim on a pedestal and suddenly it is a new object, similarly shift your shiny new  Masterpiece figure to your desk and it seems a whole lot less precious and ready to be fiddled with.

Animated Cliffjumper as small as he is when placed alone in an iconic central position suddenly demands attention and little details and qualities start to emerge.

2. Object relationships, groupings and elements of form

Equally important to where we put things is to what groupings of objects we put together.  While there are definitely times when singular figures are displayed more often than not we group objects. I think the most common categories in which we group things share what I will call 'applied cultural traits' i.e. terms of identification we have applied that are more informed by status in media or fiction rather than based on their formal (physical) information.

I see three common groupings with a little variation occasionally.

1. Line. Year of release, G1, G2, CHUG, "MP", Animated, Prime and Alternators etc. The list of sub-themes goes on and on and you know what I mean. There is a sense in grouping in this fashion, it stems from their original intent. When collecting and display commonly intertwine and displays use this grouping it becomes a method of visually cataloging.

2. Character. We all know someone who has a Prime shelf, or a Starscream shelf or... You know the type. In a hobby so dominated by larger than life characters that flow over films, comics and toy lines it's only natural to want to assemble and collect iterations of your favourite character. Often this extends to not just one character but capturing a group of characters who appear in fiction or media. A Wreckers or a MTMTE shelf for example.

3. Faction. Autobots and Decepticons. I see so many collection photos and its always rare they intermingle, something very tribal and cultural encourages us to keep them apart and grouped together. What if by conforming to this arbitrary segregation we are denying ourselves so much display opportunity?

Size aside there are very little in the way of design elements that link this trio, most of the connection is through our knowledge of the characters and the line. To an outsider it is a trio of disparate robots sharing similar scale.

The above three groupings all share that mentioned applied cultural trait. There is very little about the form - the object itself that is shared with other items in the same display. This however isn't always the case as characters have identifying colours and shape patterns that remain somewhat consistent but even then we find ways of linking characters with very few shared visual elements. The other challenge inherent with the above groupings is that it seems to promote a "more is best" approach. I understand that as collectors we often want to show as much as possible and space is limited but objects really do look better when they have space to breathe. The nature of action figures as forms is that they have to inhabit three dimensional space; to crowd and obscure them is to deny so many facets of their form. I am aware they are different entities but a gallery space knows that a number of works crammed together, one peering over the shoulder of another does no favors to anyone. Become a curator of your own space and avoid the miasma of the five deep mob of intermingled figures where nothing stands out.

Lets examine a number of different approaches to groupings that break away from the traditional cultural identifiers and aim to give space to your figures to be appreciated.

3.  Alternative display groupings.

The Duo. I am going to skip solo display as I covered it lightly when talking about the choice of context. The duo is similar in that it places a small amount of information at the forefront and allows the eye to focus and find details akin to the solo display but with the added element of comparison and contrast. While there is an element of cultural identifier information with the above image both being Autobot leaders they exist from completely different lines (one being unofficial even). Any two objects together removed from other visual information encourage you to think about the negative space between the two, how they interact and contrast. Negative space ( the space existing between and around objects) is completely lost when you cram a bookshelf full of robots. 

Immediately in this relationship I started to think about the similar design elements, the flat angular panels and sharp design cues. The duo also enables the chance to explore difference between two forms, replace one of the above figures with something more organic and new relationships emerge.

The Trio. There just always seems something intriguing about trios, the options, the directions, it never feels flat or uninteresting.  I like the trio as it seems to always end up enabling three dimensional and directional movement. More often that not one figure gravitates to the front and one drops further back giving genuine depth to your display.

Playing with size and scale. When you have toy-lines with a plethora of varying scales and size classes it feels a little boring to keep everything similar. Scale often works best when there are points of reference, Kaiju films work best when they have cities to smash and tiny people swarming like ants to extenuate their grandiosity and immense size. Your figures are no different, a citybot is an abstract set of blocky shapes and ramps until you populate it with tiny inhabitants. You can also explore absurdity and contrast with a small and large representation of the same character together.

Shape Harmony.  This can be a tricky one but often I find myself just noticing little re-occurrences of shapes amongst things in my collection and I want to put them together. The above crew shared a lot of rounded and elliptical forms and while displays like this are not always immediately successful it gives you, the curator, a more intimate knowledge of your collection, a chance to experiment and see patterns where perhaps you had not before.

Colour Harmony.  Identifying comparable colours on a shelf is not out of the ordinary when we focus on character but to put character aside and curate a space that draws focus to an enjoyment of that colour is something you have not considered. When pulled together the arrangement starts to take a new form, you notice little differences in hue that you might have previously overlooked and you attain an appreciation of the reoccurring visual colour principles that occur across differing releases.

Colour Gradients and Contrast.  Starting to get a little more experimental now... Occasionally when I pick a group of items and arrange them by colour I find myself pulling items that might not fit exactly. To remedy that I try and build the spaces in between and then notice a gradient that spreads across a group building one hue to another. It can draw attention to little changes in hue and you begin to appreciate the varied state of a colour.  Using contrast allows a powerful visual effect ( not pictured ) wherein you might have a similarly coloured group contrasted by a sole figure of a contrasting colour drawing the eye.

Complimentary Colours.  Colours that appear on opposite sides of the colour wheel look great together, you might remember making a colour wheel way back in school? Seemed a trivial task then but as I have gotten older I have really learned to appreciate its value. Pulling together items from opposite sides of the colour wheel can create visually engaging and interesting displays and more often than not you start to realize how many figures in their own palettes utilize complimentary colour schemes.The above shot really needs a Dai-Atlas just to nail that point.

Texture/Colour/tone/Shape/combination elements. Often the best display choices are ones that utilize an awareness of a number of the above elements. This display considers a communal colour hue and tonal facet, a re-occurring shape motif of pointed jagged edges and adds a textural component as there are very few open flat plains and the often organic forms are high in surface detail. 

With this creative display intent I feel you engage both play and imagination. No cultural identifiers were thought of when assembling the group however immediately it encourages them, it wants you to tell stories about them. The common shapes, colours and textures give a sense of belonging and uniformity that drives creative associations between the forms and limits and sometimes erases any disparate design style between lines.

4. Collector as curator

When my state gallery started mixing contemporary, modern and historical works I initially was not sure of its success. I quickly however dealt with any doubts and I began to find genuine enjoyment in the relationships between objects new and old, created years apart in different contexts and climates. Toys and collectable items are not entirely different and we have the power as curator to maximize our own space.

By segregating objects to the values prescribed to where they are stored, by only thinking of the values we attribute to toys and by cramming a billy bookshelf like a peak hour tram we lose a lot what we love about the objects. Nothing beats that personal inspection of a new toy in hand, we don't try and juggle ten at once and neither should your display.

Your collection is all about your decisions, make the best ones you can. Curate.

As always. Keep it #refined.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

RRCO Zine #1

The weight, texture and smell of the paper, the act of turning a page and the reveal of the next image are aspects of the printed physical text that makes the experience meaningful to me and gives it elements the digital format lacks.

We were very aware that digital content of course was the most practical medium in which to publish the ongoing work of the Refined Robot Co across an international audience but I think we shared a common desire to see the work in a physical form at least in some capacity.

Coinciding with TFNation in 2017 we decided to launch our first printed release. Initially intended to take the form of a DIY photocopied Zine it slowly however evolved, moving to printed full colour and a more controlled design style that fit with the aesthetic of the photographers and writers involved. The decision to launch it at a con at which two RRCo members attended enabled us the ability to hand them out personally and add a face to the articles. Limited to 100 sixteen page, a5 and in full colour, it served as both a launch and a test to measure if this would become a feasible option in the future.

As much as we adore the physical product, we wanted to make it available digitally for all those supporters unable to attend and acknowledge our genuinely international approach while still keeping the special the limited nature of the printed work. I hope you enjoy issue #1 of RRC0 presented below.

Thank you and
as always, keep it #Refined.



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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Power of the Obscure

Or "The G1 You Forget"
Or "Toy Only Charisma"

 - Ben Watson

The strength of the characterisation in Transformers is one of the reasons the franchise has lasted so long and generated so many successful new forms for itself. Yet behind every grand accomplishment is a nameless workforce, shrouded in mystery. Everyone loves the A-list posterboys but I'm here today to extol the virtues of the unknown - or at the very least those guys you have to wiki to remind yourself about... 

Combiner Wars Killbison

What first comes to mind when delving into the depths of obscurity in Transformers is the segment of G1 often left off people's cursory mental summation of the series. I caught myself the other day thinking that Action Masters and Micromasters were the end of the G1 road and all that's left for Generations to mine in coming years, but not so! The host of Euro and Japanese exclusive figures holds a veritable smorgasbord of way better design than the flailing death throes of American G1. It seems the team responsible for choosing what gets to grace the gilded plinth of Generations has realised this too, with releases like Black Shadow, Overlord and Liokaiser all precluding the sorry likes of Snarler, Over Run or Erector. Maintaining a focus on what crowded US store shelves in the tail end of the 80's isn't the best way to go about making cool robots for today's audience despite most collectors being very unfamiliar with the characters on offer from overseas. 

Titans Return Black Shadow

This veil of mystery that distance and rarity cast over these characters is almost palpable and a huge part of their appeal (at least to me). They take the place of the playground legend, that weird toy your friend's friend brought back from holiday with odd writing on the box... "Yeah there's no such thing as a black Thunderwing, Jake stop lying!" you can almost hear. The language barrier itself providing a sense of mystique as character bios and cartoon appearances held their secrets 'til the day of translation. It all adds up to give these toys and subsequently their newer versions since, a real legendary status. Optimus Prime may be an icon to the world but among TF circles other names are spoken in awed tones. 

Titans Return Overlord

I find myself really able to sink my teeth into this kind of vogue. Many of the figures I covet or cherish are those that I really had to journey deep into the fandom to learn about. Like hacking away at the jungle that fills your senses at first glance to find the ancient ruin within, the process of going from "I didn't know that existed" to "I know everything there is to know about it" is hugely satisfying and confers a sense of possession of forbidden knowledge not privy to the masses. In this way these super obscure characters are lent a kind of power. A variety of mental sway that the likes of Megatron and Soundwave can never hold. 

G1 Stalker

In such a vast fandom orbiting around such a long lived franchise it feels like a sense of metafandom comes along with new releases that tap into this source. When Titans Return Sawback (Lione) was revealed I genuinely had no idea who I was looking at while others instantly clapped their hands to their mouths and proclaimed "Hell naw, Lione?!" It's like a reference was made to something you know and love and you punch the air cos someone else GETS the thing you're into - all while being inside a sphere of nothing but very specific fan references. 

Combiner Wars Hellbat

All in all, it adds up to make me value something like my Liokaiser way way more than like, Bruticus. It's that added stratum of nerdliness that makes no hardcore collection complete without a sprinkling of it. It may not hold the same kind of awe inspiring I-dare-not-even-touch-it status as the original, but just a portion comes down from its lineage to grace the Combiner Wars figure with a special something - even if it is just a box of repaints I was extremely hesitant to spend on... 

Combiner Wars Liokaiser

No one should ever drop the words "True Fan" but the appreciation of these kinds of pieces really does show you've done your homework but fear not if the dog ate yours because most of the fun is finding out about them in the first place. There's not many corners of the TF universe I've not peered into, so finding something undiscovered is always a boon. Great untapped veins of character and design potential lie waiting in the toys that never got time on your telly box. And it's not just from the periphery of G1 - G2, Machine Wars, RID 2001 exclusives, Universe 2003, the history of Transformers is peppered with gems lost to time. There's so much more out there than your cartoon, comic or movie cast, all you have to do is look for it. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Third Party and the CHUG Renaissance

 - Dorian MacQuarrie

It could be said, that in the world of Third Party toys, Masterpiece reigns supreme. With multiple companies making versions of fan favourite characters designed to populate your MP shelf, an awful lot of resources are poured into cashing in on the popularity of Masterpiece Transformers. Just how much money there is in an MP Springer analogue when there are half a dozen on the market is up for debate but as a whole, Masterpiece is the cash cow of the day. 

Yet cast your mind back to the earliest days of Third Party toys, from the lowliest resin garage kit to the game-changing City Commander from Fansproject, every Third Party release revolved around Classics, Henkei, Universe 2.0 and Generations toys. Due to the accessibility of mainline toys versus the scant few Masterpiece offerings at the time there was no other choice for burgeoning Third Party companies but to cater to the CHUG collectors but this also allowed for a vast array of products. Whether it was an improved head sculpt and G1 accurate gun or of course an armour kit to turn a white Optimus Prime into a true Ultra Magnus, the scene eventually moved onto fully fledged figures intended to fill out your CHUG shelves, representing characters which, at the time, Hasbro and Takara were never going to release. At its peak, CHUG focused toys so utterly dominated the scene that it was seen as the final destination for Third Party toys. 

Even with the vast amount of releases from a myriad of companies show that 3PMP (a phrase I often use on forums and social media) is well and truly leading the charge I would say we are actually experiencing a renaissance in Third Party CHUG toys, with one major's paving the way for a level of self-determination for Third Party companies we have never seen before. 

As it currently stands, the major non-Masterpiece lines on offer from Third Party companies are MMC's Reformatted, Maketoys Cross Dimension (and formerly their Manga Mech and Combiner lines), Planet X's Fall of Cybertron offerings and of course the numerous different legends scale releases from DX9, Iron Factory, Mech Planet etc. This isn't an exhaustive list but it's what I would consider the big hitters at the moment. 

Each have a very clear focus, zooming in on a particular aesthetic and sometimes a particular set of characters, allowing collectors to place their bets with a company and have a higher chance of seeing Fall of Cybertron Megatron released or maybe the full Decepticon Justice Division. Or perhaps in the case of Maketoys' Cross Dimension line, we just wait and see what wonders they drop on us and squee in anticipation.

There is plenty on offer for the discerning CHUG enthusiast who seeks to step into the world of Third Party toys but I would say at this point, CHUG is an incorrect and misleading term. They are often deemed CHUG as they are non-Masterpiece toys, being defined by what they are not rather than what they are. The question is then, what are they? Were you to take a number of toys from the various ranges mentioned previously, you would find they share very little in aesthetics. They are no longer CHUG-focused toys and if you are able to fit them in to a CHUG shelf, it's not with the same level of aesthetic integration as with the early days of Third Party toys. So again, what are they?

As MMC release more and more IDW styled toys they will begin to stand alone as a display of comic accurate releases, not to mention the extra height and bulk most MMC toys carry over those from other companies which often puts them in their own scale. Were you to take Takara's LG Skids, heavily based on the IDW design, it would look drastically out of place alongside MMC's releases. Maketoys' Cross Dimension could be considered Neo-Classics, Hyper Anime Classics, the mainline style turned up to 11 and packed full of articulation but when actually put alongside mainline toys from the past ten years, they clearly do not share a similar enough aesthetic. Sure the same could be said for the mainline toys that make up the many releases which fall under the CHUG banner but nothing so much as putting Striker Manus alongside Universe 2.0 Sunstreaker, or even placing Rioter Despotron in the centre of your CHUG Decepticon shelf and realising that he's packing far more detail and design work than half of the Decepticon toys Rioter stands alongside. Even on my own shelves I ensure Striker Manus stands near other, very particular Third Party toys which then in turn stand next to Hasbro and Takara releases, almost acting as an aesthetic buffer between the super-robo styling of Striker Manus and the clunky design of Henkei Prowl.  

Similar to MMC and their current IDW styled toys, as Maketoys release more and more Cross Dimension (and combiners, maybe? Please? #MaketoysLiokaiserPLZ) they will start to stand apart from any CHUG toys they might share shelf space with and little by little, they become an entity unto their own, CHUG toys only in that they are not Masterpiece and not because of any shared aesthetic or intention to fill in the gaps missing on your CHUG shelf. While yes, these companies will always fall back to Transformers characters and designs for inspiration,the toys themselves won't need a Hasbro or Takara toy line to fit into in order to justify a purchase or give the toy a purpose, they will be simply added to an already established line, be it Reformatted or Cross Dimension or whatever new lines appear in the next few years. That is quite a remarkable shift away from the gap fillers of yesteryear and actually, even the current 3PMP offerings. 

Personally I think there is a stigma around paying top dollar for a toy people see as intended to stand alongside mainline figures, which are often seen as lesser in terms of design, build and of course, price point. Third Party toys are an adult-collector focused product and when held hand in hand with Hasbro mainline toys, there is a gulf of intent and purpose some collectors struggle to bridge. Masterpiece toys on the other hand are of course adult-collector focused so 3PMP toys can be more easily reconciled with the 'serious business' line of Masterpiece. 

Time and again I have seen negative comments about paying £50 - £80 for what amounts to only a CHUG toy but paying the same for a 3PMP toy is more acceptable as the price is more equatable with Takara MPs and of course, the intent of the toy, to be an adult collectable, in some ways justifies the price. Rarely is there more or better engineering put into one than the other beyond the capabilities of the company making the toy. Fanstoys Tesla does not stand head and shoulders above Perfect Effect's Warden just because it is Masterpiece focused and should be seen to have a higher quality of paint, build, design and engineering as dictated by the label 'Masterpiece' but unfortunately I do think some people see it this way. For the record, Perfect Effect's Warden is a very literal masterpiece of a toy. 

The introduction and subsequent rise of 3PMP, has brought a legion of new collectors who before wouldn't have shown much interest in Third Party toys. I like to imagine these same collectors watching jealously, as early adopters of Third Party toys enjoyed the fruits of labour from Fansproject, TFC and Maketoys, biding their time, waiting for a product which appealed to their collecting sensibilities. This influx of new collectors means new customers so of course there is a lot of money to be had if a company can nail the Masterpiece aesthetic and have the right characters at the right time. It's only natural for the Third Party scene to turn away from its CHUG roots and devote more time and money into releasing toys that appeal to these particular collectors. 

To echo my earlier words, we may be experiencing a renaissance in CHUG focused Third Party toys, with the best releases from the best companies, with levels of design, engineering and character choice which are stunning to behold. But! And this is a very big But, with a capital B, it is not going to last. Once MMC have filled out their ranks of IDW styled toys you won't have a CHUG shelf, you will have an IDW shelf. Eventually you will have a Cross Dimension shelf and maybe one day you'll even have a Lost Exo Realm shelf at which point these toys should no longer be labelled CHUG as really, the only trait they'll share with actual CHUG toys is that they are not 'Masterpiece' toys. Maybe the hard work of the marketing teams at MMC or Maketoys will score a victory and we will indeed call them Reformatted toys and Cross Dimension toys and those labels will carry with them the traits of those lines, be it comic accurate and super sturdy or super-robo with anime flair. At that point calling them CHUG toys will be a massive disservice to the designers behind releases such as MMC's Carnifex or Maketoys' Thunder Erebus as they are truly, in their own right, masterpiece toys. 

As always, keep it #Refined.