With Playmates’ announcement of a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle line based on the 1980s cartoon, the circle of nostalgia for the toy industry is just about complete. The TMNT, Snake Eyes, He-Man, and Luke and Leia have come and gone a few times since the ’80s, but one property has always had a spot on the shelf: the Transformers. Kids love cars, robots and the idea of getting two toys for the price of one. (On the other hand, there are the Go-Bots…)
I certainly loved my original Transformers toys, but even back then I could tell something was amiss. The robots who waged war on my carpet in the afternoon didn’t look exactly like the ones battling over the fate of the planet on TV. The designers had taken quite a bit of creative license in order to get the Autobots and Decepticons into streamlined character models that would be easy to animate.
It was a necessary evil, particularly in the first wave of toys, which were almost entirely appropriated from Japanese toy line named Diaclone. These bots had very limited articulation and were often out of scale with one another.
Hasbro must have seen potential in the discrepancy between the toys and their cartoon counterparts, as they later offered 1.5” rubber “Decoy” figures which more closely resembled the character models of the robots. And as the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, Hasbro released Action Master versions of popular characters which resembled the cartoon models and had improved articulation; but they didn’t transform, which is kind of a problem for a toy line called “Transformers.”
The franchise moved through several iterations and the figures, now designed in-house by Hasbro, continued to improve. Particularly good was Beast Wars, a 1996 CGI animated series for which the toys were digitally scanned by the animators.* Despite a few exceptions (I’m looking at you, Rhinox and Black Arachnia) these were the most spot-on character models to date.
At this point, I’m sure you realize where I rank in transfandom. I’m a generation 1 guy (aka G1) through and through. Like many my age, I sold my toys at a garage sale and ever since I’ve been trying to regain my collection through Ebay and reissues. However, the limits of my old toys are even more glaring now which leaves me with a desire for my original characters designed with modern quality.
Hasbro anticipated this market with the production of Transformers: Classics. These were the bots of yore, now designed with the cartoon and comics in mind and featuring modern design technology such as ball joints. Starscream finally looked like Starscream and Rachet and Ironhide finally had a head!
There were still many imperfections however. Megatron as a nerf gun? Optimus Prime’s lack of a trailer? For G1 fans, Cliffjumper and Ultra Magnus have moved on beyond simple repaints. They’ve been fleshed out into individual characters and now we want the toys to reflect that. Once Revenge of the Fallen was imminent, Classics got put on hold, only to return sporadically sprinkled into different labeled lines. This left G1 fans without key characters such as Soundwave, Springer, the Insecticons, Reflector and just about any fully designed combiner.
Enter the third party market. If Hasbro wasn’t going to give us the toys we desired, then we’d make them ourselves.
The first one I was aware of was an upgrade to Cliffjumper Classics entitled Classic Cliff Conversion Kit. This gave Cliffjumper a new noggin’ based of the original cartoon and weapons as a nod to his introduction in the series. This sold out quite fast and was soon going for hundreds on eBay. This alone should prove how devoted TF fans can be and the potential market Hasbro refuses to capitalize on.
The first upgrade I purchased was Fansproject City Commander Kit. I was blown away with the hyper detail of the model and how seamlessly it turned into a trailer for Ultra Magnus. More importantly, the toy was of a quality I thought unattainable by non-professionals. This too, sold out very quickly and went back to a second production run.
So, the big question is: how does this get by the legal team at Hasbro?
As you can see from the pics in this article, third party designers do not use the toys’ trademarked names, nor do they contain the Autobot or Decepticon insignia. A case could certainly be made they are still trading upon the likeness of Hasbro characters, but it’s possible this likeness has changed so much over the years that a direct connection can’t be made.
More likely, though, Hasbro chooses not to pursue lawsuits (though their Japanese partner Takara Tomy may be a different story). Hasbro is still making money on the sub-par figures we choose to upgrade, so why anger the 25- to 35-year-olds who will be raising the next generation of TF fans?
However, Hasbro has recently shown some signs of their displeasure with third party manufacturers. In August, ’11, the TF Collector’s Club Twitter account referred to third party items as “utter trash.” Hasbro banned dealers from selling third party items at this year’s Botcon, and may be eyeing sales on eBay as well. And at a panel at that same BotCon, Hasbro officially stated they do not condone third-party products, though they made no threat of legal action.
Over the last five years the third party market has expanded exponentially, with no less than thirty companies listed on Big Bad Toy Store. We’re now at the point where fully-formed figures such as Warbot Defender (aka Springer) are being designed, muddying the legal waters even further. The designers have even moved back into the G1 market, providing upgrades to your original toys to make them more posable and closer to the cartoon models.
The current apex of the phenomenon is two rival companies making modern iterations of the first transformer combiner, Devastator. Where will it stop? Us G1 fans have enough requests to last another five to ten years, if not more. What will the future hold? Will Hasbro continue to ignore the third party companies? Will the company declare a cease and desist on third party products and sue them out of existence? Or will Hasbro – just maybe – start listening to the Transformer fans who have enough disposable income to pay through the nose to get the toys they always wanted as a kid. Hasbro, the ball is in your court.
Know Your 3rd Party Transformer Manufacturers
Fansproject was the first major third party manfacturer I became aware of. They have a well-designed web page in English (which isn’t always the case), but you cannot purchase directly from them. I own a half-dozen of their products and have been at least satisfied, if not very impressed, with the quality of their molds.
Igear was is also one of the elder statesman in the 3rd party game. I first learned of them when I saw an amazing play set representing the autobot ark. Transformers have never had play sets, so this was quite an invention. Igear allows you to buy directly from their site and often offers free shipping. I just picked up MW-01 (not-Seaspray) and MW-02 (Not-Huffer) which are amazing representations of 2 Minibots featured heavily in the old cartoon, but never given the Classics treatment. The Minibots always had poor engineering and limited articulation due to their size, so these two were a great advancement. This year, they’ll be releasing a not-Cosmos and not-Brawn which look equally amazing. Plus at $20 they’re the best bang for your buck. Igear is also known as one of two outfits who finally, FINALLY made an Arcee action figure based on her 1986 design.
Perfect Effect does not have their own site, so fans must rely on TF blogs or e-tailers to know what’s going with the company. Their designs are more about modernization rather than nostalgia, which is why I only own the Scouting Force X Camera Set. This was my first real disappointment in the genre, as the Camera set (aka not-Reflector) was small and out of scale in my Classics lineup, and the colors didn’t match the cartoons pale shades of purple and grey. They have a great looking Rumble and Frenzy (PE-01FR Shadow Warrior Two-Pack), but they don’t turn into cassette tapes. PE-DX-01 RC is an Arcee with the alt mode of the movies (a motorbike) and the color cheme from ’86, but it’s not the lady-bot with the Princess Leia-shaped head from Transformers: The Movie.
Known for: Upgrading your Bigbots!
That’s right, CrazyDevy specializes in giant weapons, articulated appendages, and illuminated optics all designed to make your gestalts (little bots that combine into 1 bigbot) look even more intimidating. Ever wished your Omega Supreme towered over your Decepticons? Or your Predaking had giant anime wings to spice up his silhouette? Well CrazyDevy is the company for you. At times, they’re out of stock on items but they’ve been good about going back into production to meet demand.
TFC Toys vs. MakeToys
Known for: causing many a debate about who deserves your hard earned $ for the not-Devastator of your dreams!
These two companies were all the talk last year and continue to make waves in the TF community. Both took on the unnerving task of making a modern representation of Devastator, the 1st and arguably the best combiner transformer from generation 1. The prototypes looked amazing and the merits of each were hotly debated. Not only because us TF fans are a picky bunch, but because all six not-constructicons would be the largest investment that a 3rd party has asked of us yet. TFC Toys Hercules has been completely released and if you have him, you’re out at least $600. MakeToys’ Giant is still in the pre-order stage for $360 and is in a yellow scheme with the cartoon green scheme to follow. As for where I stand, I’m holding out for the aforementioned green edition of Make Toys Giant partly because of limited funds, but there were a few tiny details about the Giant that won me over. Check out Big Bad Toy Store (a Poe Ghostal sponsor) if you’re willing to take the plunge!
* As stated on the Beast Wars Complete Season Box Set documentary Maximize! Creating A New Breed of Transformer: “The real challenge of those days was how you take a complex model and render it for a CGI show… that was the most complex thing they did, take those models and scan them at the time, which was in its infancy.” –Aaron Archer - Hasbro VP/Creative Director, Brand Design and IP development