Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Under-engineering and Imagination

- Ben Watson

We live in a blessed time. Full articulation is now basically standard for all Transformers figures. Masterpiece and Generations updates allow you to handle the character designs you love and pose them as you might have always wished. But this was not always the way. In times past (and in certain corners of the present) Transformers were simply toys that changed shape, not slick robot action figures. Perhaps it could be said there was once a time when TFs were treated as a toy of their alt mode first and robot second. Nowadays robot is everything and there is an undeniable feel of a switch to them being treated as action figure first, especially as 90% of toys are now packaged in robot mode. Of course this is quite the opposite of a bad thing, but it gives me cause to explore the design mentality that once existed of toy over figure. These are two very different words and what I'm about to talk about are objectively bad action figures, but positively wonderful toys. Join me now as we extend the overhead rainbow of imagination and find treasure where others would see junk.

Toy Vs. Figure?
(We're doing subheadings now?) Let me first explain my above statement so you know the sense of the words as I'll be using them as we carry on. To toy collectors everywhere 'toy' and 'figure' (here shorthand for Action Figure) are perfectly interchangeable nouns to refer to the same things. But can you really call a robot that can only move its elbows an 'action figure'? You sure as hell can't pose it for artistic reference purposes. Likewise, is a slick super-posable vaguely fragile robot worthy of nothing less than pride-of-place display and aesthetic appreciation a 'toy'? On both counts, to me the answer is no. Clearly there's a vast blurred middle ground and I'm just using extremes to prove my point but I'll be sticking to this sentiment because what we're going to examine today are most certainly capital T toys and bring with them all the childlike magic that word entails. We're not skirting around the fact these things are made for kids by using a grown-up word like 'figure' here, no sir. 

In Times Long Past
Clearly the first such examples to fit this description are the Transformers of Generation 1. Nothing was made to be anything more than just a child's plaything. Good articulation came as a by-product and for the most part wasn't even attempted. You were buying a die-cast car that happened to have robot bits in. Yet the toys of this vintage still command interest and a huge amount of love from everyone who had their earlier years graced by them. Despite my equivalent being Beast Wars, the first line to give articulation and action figure status its due, I can still say I was met with stunted yet lovable toys thanks to Armada. I knew what good posability felt like and when I wasn't mildly irked by the lack of it in some of my favourite new toys, I loved them for all of their other qualities. Quick satisfying transformations, fun action features, strong silhouettes and bold design all combined to mean these bricks were rarely out of my hands. It seems when the aesthetic cannot be fully expressed this is made up for by the tactile. Toys are made to be played with, and play with them I did. Many a chunky solid bot from the years between 2002 to 2004 is now quite knackered, but back in those halcyon days they served their purpose - to fire my imagination. 

Redeeming Quality
Herein lies the rub, when toys are robbed of a physicality you wished was there, be it knees or firing cannons, (it's always knees with me) as a kid you made up for it with imagination. I may have been annoyed with toys that didn't do everything I wanted but it still didn't stop me from loving them and getting the most out of them. This even applies to toys outside of the TF remit - my first figure of Venom (not the Deluxe Insecticon) was painfully under-articulated but god do I love that thing. Each absent joint or even in some cases weapon were gaps to be filled through fantasy and drawing the thing in a state you wished it existed in. And it was good. This kind of engaging and enriching absence of abstraction is not to be found in many toys today. In a world where knees are standard, we have it made, yet somehow that spark to the tinder of the imagination, that ephemeral quality that puts the thing in your hands and in your thoughts far more often than on a shelf is almost entirely gone.

The State of Play Today
I may mourn the loss of that childhood value apportioned to every toy I was privileged to own and while I may be implying kids today can't feel it either, thankfully bad figures do still exist. But do believe me when I say I know 'bad' from 'bad'. The equivalent solid simple stuff to my beloved Armada today is sadly rather flimsy and dumb. Having lost my mind for about eight months and deciding to buy the One Step Changers from Age of Extinction, I thought I was subjecting myself to that pleasant funk of a toy that could be light years better but it just didn't add up. Sure there were some clever tricks on offer but they didn't feel complete. They weren't enough of anything. I'm not intending to ever touch the subsequent Robots In Disguise offerings like oversized Hyperchange Heroes or Crash Combiners (ok maybe my arm could be twisted for one of those) as straight off the bat you can see they're bad for no other reason than cost. The bad figures of my day were bad because they sacrificed in order to allow inventive gimmickry. The toys of today are exercises in cutting costs, using less plastic, less parts, even less packaging. 'Cos kids won't know better right? But perhaps all hope is not lost for the toy that knows it's good to be bad...

The Cyber Battalion
Here is where we reach the seed of the idea for this article. Good bad toys that are new and let me feel that old feeling. In 2015 Hasbro suddenly unveiled a new subset of figures under the Generations brand without the customary toy fair or convention appearances and left a lot of people very intrigued and slightly confused. The Cyber Series would offer A-list characters in 'definitive' G1-esque guises to the younguns by virtue of being big and simple and cheap. The Battalion lot would turn out to be roughly voyager sized while the Commander class would be filled with massive Leader-plus sized versions of - what a surprise - Prime and Bee. Perhaps it was the lack of concrete info or satisfying in-hand pics or the fact you literally couldn't get them that lodged the idea of Cyber Battalions in my mind. Whatever the case I had to track them down and despite only being available in Asia and South America, I managed to get my hands on a few and simply fell in love. 

Only two out of the four I have are possessed of knees. Only two have any accessories. Yet they are all supremely solid (no awful 2012 era plastic here), decently painted, fun to transform and imbued with bold character. If you want a feel for them in your own head, imagine the build quality of the Combiner Wars Constructicons. Some joints are missing. Some complexity is missing. Plastic is smooth and inherently metallic (on Prime and Megatron) and you simply can't put them down despite all their flaws. Here are toys very clearly made to be played with. Generations offerings that are certainly not made to appeal to the pseudo-high-end collect and display market. Here are G1 updates for actual children to enjoy. Here is a Jetfire that isn't rickety and you don't have to shell out fifty bucks for. Here is a Prowl that looks like a police car you might have in your country. Here is an Optimus that does a better job of looking like a definitive G1 Prime than anything else in Generations. Here is a Megatron that, er... has painted wheels? Megatron is an odd one. But they all incite the urge to handle them, to convert them back and forth, to pit them against each other in plastic fisticuffs and even to leisurely pose the assortment of joints they have. Once again my imagination is fired and I want to sit and draw Jetfire in a pose he can't adopt and imagine how the working of his knees might look. In short, they're clearly bad action figures - certainly leagues below anything you might expect from the Generations pedigree - but because of that they're good toys. Not damn good without any gimmickry but pure; an expression of Transformers that hasn't existed in a long time, where the conversion of the thing isn't treated like a gimmick but it's the only one present. 

Attention Span
It's probably becoming more apparent to everyone but me that I like bad figures and I hope this is another step on the way to realising I have a problem. But if you're like me and see the value in static hulks of sturdy build, by all means please share with us your favourite objectively woeful action figures. Keep the flame of imagination alight with what these stunted robos can do in your head rather than in the real world. But mostly just stop fooling yourself that you're not a grown adult buying toys for kids. Shed the ego and dive in to unabashed love of that dumb thing made for eight-year-olds. You'll be more #Refined for it. Love and peace.

Follow Ben on Twitter @Waspshot23

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